Two Roads West

Playwright Laurence McKeown on steering a course through his latest work

Laurence McKeown, from Randalstown, County Antrim, is a playwright, author, screenwriter and former volunteer in the Provisional IRA. In 1977 he was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Maze/Long Kesh prison, and was released in 1992. He has written several plays, The Laughter of Our Children and Cold House with Brian Campbell and The Official Version, and two books on the history of Long Kesh. His latest play, Two Roads West, is a Kabosh Theatre Company production for the 10th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

I suppose my writing has always been tied in to politics or conflict. I spent 16 years in Long Kesh, was involved in the protests for political status and was on the 1981 Hunger Strike, so my politics and my writing - academic as well as creative - came out of my time in the jail.

I was very involved in the educational program there. We started creative writing and poetry workshops, and published our own magazine. After my release from prison I completed a doctorate at Queen’s University and published two books on the history of the jail.

Two Roads West ultimately arose out my involvement with a group called Healing Through Remembering (HTR), a diverse group formed of ex-prisoners, academics, former members of the security forces and community workers. I organised a conference for HTR in 2008 in the Grand Opera House called Whatever You Say, Say Something. As part of it I advocated the use of theatre as a way to raise difficult and sensitive issues that we wanted to tackle.

What we did was a bit of guerrilla theatre. I came out onto the stage in the morning to a very broad audience. Paula McFetridge [director of Two Roads West] and a number of other actors were in the theatre, and when I introduced the morning they started interrupting me, asking questions about who had organised the conference and why, and who decided on who would be invited. It looked like there was a row starting. So the audience was immediately divided as to which side they would take.

It was scripted, and it worked brilliantly. It was a piece of drama, but it showed how quickly we can adopt positions, and the lessons learnt from it set the tone for the rest of the day. We also used drama in the workshops that followed, short pieces to further our themes that I had written and Kabosh performed.

Through that working relationship with Kabosh we came up with the idea for Two Roads West. Paula McFetridge, who I’ve known for a number of years, had ideas about the west of Belfast and black taxis. She asked if I would be interested in writing about the different taxi setups in the Shankill and Falls Road areas. I chose to use just one route, one taxi rather than two, to show people how close the two roads actually are.

It’s a short piece, a quirky setup: five passengers make up the audience, with our two characters, Rosie in the back, and Bill in the front. When I first heard about the concept, a play set in a taxi, I wondered whether I should really take it on. It could have turned out to be a major headache. But the more I got into it, the more credible it became, something new and curious.

I suppose the big dilemma for me at the start as a writer was whether or not to involve the other people in the taxi, the audience. The more I thought of it, in terms of writing, the more difficulties it threw up. Would Rosie turn to somebody and ask, ‘What do you reckon about that yourself?’ That would engage people who maybe didn’t want to engage at all, or worse, it could lead to somebody taking off on a rant.

In the end I decided to write it as a dialogue between Rosie and Bill, so that the other passengers, even though they’re sitting in the midst of this play, close to the action, should feel comfortable.

Rosie is a woman originally from the Falls Road. She left for London in 1968, prior to the conflict breaking out, because her father was looking for work. She was 18 at the time and was going out with this lad who she thought was from the Falls Road.

Rosie is at a point in her life where she’s going to be a grandmother, and she’s not so sure what she thinks about that. Her journey on the taxi tour is about her remembering her own history and coming to terms with it. Her story will perhaps raise the question of how differently our lives might have been if we had taken a different path.

For Bill, he’s from the Shankill. His father was a shop steward in the ship yards and was raised with a socialist politics, but growing up Bill had different views from his father. He had a more unionist outlook until he headed off to Thatcher’s England in the early 1980s and was confronted as a Paddy. All of his beliefs were challenged. After the ceasefires he came back to Belfast and ended up doing taxi tours because he had an interest in history.

I suppose the big theme in the play is change: that things change, and maybe not how you want them to. If you can’t stop it, do you actively participate in change, or do you fight against it?

Myself and Paula decided to start the tour off in the West Belfast Taxi Association depot. It’s not a long journey from the depot, along the Shankill, across Northumberland Street and down the Falls. I was amazed going back over the journey myself at how short the route is.

In the finished piece there are four stops, because I think if they’re driving constantly the audience could be distracted. Some dialogue takes place whilst they’re driving, and then they stop and ponder the landmarks that Rosie remembers but which have changed so much in the meantime.

When it came to researching the piece I spoke to people like John Gray, formerly of the Linen Hall Library, who is a great source of information; Mina Wardell, who runs the Shankill Road Stress Centre and knows the area intimately; and Sinn Fein Councillor Fra McCann, who again is a great font of information with regards to street names and how things have changed.

I stayed away from talking to taxi drivers themselves. You could talk to them about how they interact with people in their taxis, but that’s not what the play is about. I thought it was better to write my own script without being influenced.

We had a script meeting this morning, which was brilliant because then you see the drama taking on a life of its own. We’ll redraft a bit and then plan to go around the route with the actors to make sure that the script fits with the pace of the journey.

It’s about finding out how Rosy takes the tour with the other passengers without making it feel unnatural. But there are other factors to consider, like what if we run into a funeral or something? There are other logistics to take into account. But I suppose a writer shouldn’t take on that responsibility, that’s down to the producer and the director. We could always compensate for anything out of the ordinary.

In a sense the play is trying to flag up the fact that there are numerous versions of history. Where you come from, where you’ve been, what stories you’ve heard and from whom - all of these factors influence our own personal histories.

In the play Belfast means one thing to the passengers, with its murals and images of conflict. It means something different to Bill and something else entirely to Rosie, and that’s OK. We don’t have to buy into the notion that we all share the same history. Our experiences are so diverse that they make our lives all the richer for it.

Interview by Lee Henry

Two Roads West runs from May 7-10 as part of the 10th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

Two Roads West is funded by Belfast City Council as part of the Community In The City programme. For more information about Community In The City contact Eleanor Wheeler, Belfast City Council artist in residence, at culture@befastcity.gov.uk