Come to Where I'm From
Joe Nawaz undertakes some gratuitous religious profiling
Take five local writers. Get them each to write a monologue about the places they grew up. Then get the slippery buggers on stage to read it themselves before what’s technically known as a live studio audience.
That’s Come to Where I'm From, a UK-wide project by roving English theatre company Paines Plough. It’s a deceptively undemanding premise, which has taken in several significant hamlets across the water over the past months. Throughout their travels, Paines Plough have acted as curator to recollections mundane and dramatic, resuscitated forgotten intimacies, and even eked out a little humour and pathos from those that write and the places they write about.
The sixth and most recent 'significant hamlet' that Paines Plough alight at is Lisburn, the venue the Island Arts Centre, and in a 'co-pro' (that’s co-production, darlings) with our own Ransom Theatre Company, they’ve assembled a disparate bunch of east Belfast prods, a middle-aged 'fenian' from the docks and a local Lisburn lad (who it transpires is also a protestant).
Why the gratuitous religious profiling you may ask, possibly even aghast?
Well, it’s because all persona testimonies, histories and legends in our 'wee province' and our 'wee town' begin and end with tribal identity. We’re either struggling to attain it, terrified it’s being taken from us, running hell for leather from it, or just simply bemused that we have one at all.
All the performers tonight acknowledge this in their work, as do the audience. Trust me, as a 'catholic muslim', I know about these things.
Each of these monologues from, in order, Rosemary Jenkinson, Martin Lynch, David Ireland, Stacey Gregg and Richard Dormer, deal often poignantly on belonging and the ‘I’ word, personal history intermingling inevitably with big ‘h’, History.
And each writer/performer of course brings their own recognisable literary idiosyncrasies to bear on their tale. Rosemary Jenkinson’s Belfast is 'so epic it’s twinned with itself' and she reflects on the love-hate relationship most Belfastians/Belfastards/people from Belfast have with the city.
Her spiritual home of east Belfast is being effectively 'ethnically cleansed', not by burnings, beatings or violence, but by protestant schools, driving despairing youngsters away in their droves for the hope of something better abroad. In Jenkinson’s affectionate ribbing, they, like her, always come back. The invisible umbilical cord always tugging.
It’s a common thread (pun intended) throughout the evening. Martin Lynch is a man who always laces his sentiment with a dash of polemic, and his sweet, nostalgic recollection of his old neighbourhood and neighbours, is interspersed with earthy descriptions of some of our leading citizens (Paisley and Adams stand up), evocation of folk heroes (Buck Alec), and lamentations for those artists that got away, and those that sneered at 'the swamp' from afar.
The swamp is Belfast of course and Lynch is pointedly aggrieved at the likes of the 'drunken MacNeice, the public schoolboy … well away from the mill girls and soldiers with guns'. No prizes from the Arts Council for guessing which 'public school MacNeice' he’s referring to.
For Lynch, the 'swamp' will be drained one day. And you aren’t sure whether that’s meant to be a good thing or not. His reading is a carefully crafted soliloquy where rhythmic repetition maybe mirrors the prayers and anxieties of a 50s childhood amongst the oldest streets of Belfast.
David Ireland’s very funny and frank monologue takes him from his beloved east Belfast to the World Cup (he supported Honduras against Chile because on Wikipedia they appear to have a bourgeoning protestant minority), to the Saville Report and a searingly honest rumination on the true meaning of reconciliation.
When he grapples with the concept of empathy for the grief of nationalist families, he balances it against the uncomfortable thought that outcomes such as Saville’s render Protestants culpable, or worse, invisible in the narrative.
Ireland (David) struggles with this and his own prejudices in a disarmingly honest way and comes to the conclusion that the city he loves is a place for all and for all a place.
Stacey Gregg, also from east Belfast (seriously granny, what’s all this nonsense about the 'protestant community' being culturally sated by the simple bang of a Lambeg drum?) writes an unscented epistle, another love-hate letter to Belfast, her 'ex', aka the 'cheating shite'.
She misses it but it’s been seeing other people. Meanwhile she’s grown up, moved on, met new loves, forged new lives for herself. But like all first loves, there’ll always be something between them.
The idea of the 'ex' is a charming analogy for the (again) ambivalent, wayward but always affecting relationship one has with home, and how it can both shape and repel.
She finds her curious loyalty manifested in the most curious moments, such as when she bridles against being told by a BBC knob in London that James Nesbitt is the only good thing to come out of Northern Ireland. That’s a matter in itself for a whole other article – and not a happy one.
Gregg’s own wry and perhaps ironic description of the northern protestant condition as being 'Irish but anti-intellectual' is clearly belied by her standing on the stage telling us such a thing, but it’s an interesting self-analysis, on the simplest level, of a community benighted with doubt from within and perceived hostility from without.
Richard Dormer, finally, stands a man alone. Actually from Lisburn, he recounts an idyllic childhood of sorts, with pets and trees for friends, the first flowering of self-awareness and his first catholic girlfriend. In the first of his many tussles with sectarian convention he thinks 'fuck ‘em'.
The evening concludes with a heart-stopping account of his biggest 'fuck ‘em' involving Dormer, his best friend John (a catholic) and a face-off with 50 angry, armed protestant lads from Lisburn Tech. The setting – as with so many dramatic teenage encounters–is the local railway bridge. In the end, a pregnant teenage girl shames, disarms and disperses the sectarian mob.
It’s an epically fitting end to the evening, putting a firm, symbolic full stop on the mining of the past, allowing for perhaps a glint of optimism looking forward.
All recollections are by definition subjective, and in the hands/ mouths of playwrights, they’re downright debatable. But they aren’t catharsis, disclosure or confession – they’re stories and reflections from which, as fellow urban northerners, we can glean something approaching a shared folk memory.
The result is rather like a layering of common experience, one on top of each other, like so many coats at a party. It is a pile of memories that we too can add to, take from and simply recognise. And, like the best folk memories, they change and evolve all the time, depending on who’s telling them. Well done Paines Plough and Ransom for bringing this to our doorstep and coming to where we’re from.