Amanda Doherty's innovative one-woman play explores generational baggage on Derry~Londonderry's walls
Derry-Londonderry’s walls were built in 1613. In 1689, the gates of the city were locked and barred against King James’ army and not opened again until what became known as the Siege of Derry was lifted. Ireland, Britain and Europe were shaped by the action. The mindsets of generations were shaped also. But what if you were born in 1988?
That would make you 24 or 25 now. You don’t really remember the Troubles, and yet you have those memories still, just like you have your name and your school and your upbringing, like a shadow striding behind you. If the Troubles weren’t yours, should you still carry them? Should one generation not take greater care with what it hands over to the next?
Amanda Doherty is 25. She was born in Derry~Londonderry in 1988. She kept a postcard found in her grandmother’s handbag – sent to her grandfather long ago, and signed off 'love, Wife' – had it laminated to protect it. It is a secret she chose to inherit. Her play, Inheritance, deals with secrets that are common to all who live in Northern Ireland.
Inheritance is a one-woman play written and performed by Doherty especially for the 2013 CultureTECH festival. It takes place outdoors on the City Walls, Doherty leading the audience around a segment of the medieval structure from the Guildhall to Roaring Meg, the cannon overlooking the Bogside.
CultureTECH being 'a festival of digital technology, media and music', each member of the audience listens to a podcast of a commentary to accompany the silent performance. Doherty is an actor of tremendous depth, subtlety and animal physicality – frail, determined, intelligent, haunted. Brave too, prepared to act without a safety net and expose her fear and darkness.
Inheritance is a mystery play and a passion play. It begins with a news bulletin. The body of a young woman has been found twisted and dead at the foot of the City Walls, opposite the Guildhall. Her identity is unknown; witnesses are sought. A soundtrack – sinister, insistent, pulsing like blood – gives way to the voice of a young woman: victim, perpetrator, witness, accomplice.
She boldly declares 'You don’t know me' in what transpires to be a futile declaration of identity and individuality. She has found a box, left by the dead woman before her plunge. She examines the photographs that it contains. She has stolen the possessions and memories that it holds, but as she looks more carefully, she sees that she had them already. The photographs are familiar, the gestures and expressions resonate.
As panic sets in as the character moves around the walls. She stops and starts – at one point she stands as if crucified against the city, her hands clawing at the stone. The narration switches into poetry, rhyme and metre enforcing the violence of the language. Identities blur, making it impossible to distinguish between the dead woman in the news bulletin, the woman narrating, the audience listening and the passers-by on the walls, oblivious to the play taking place in their midst.
The woman’s assertions move from defiant to desperate to an acknowledgement of the inevitable. Born into echoes of violence, hurt and history that never diminish, she declares: 'I will not be my parents. I already am.' From the side of Roaring Meg she can see her 'birth-given area'. There too is her 'birth-given religion... birth-chosen education... birth-given politics' and the cemetery, her 'birth-given destination'.
By chance, an actor in historical costume is demonstrating how to load and fire a musket. Nearby, a craft stall is selling handmade signs proclaiming 'Home, Sweet Home'. The narration in Inheritance tells a different story from those signs, and yet strangely enough, the same one, too. 'This is Derry. This is me. This is her. This is you... Our war is over. Some wars never end. The seeds of hate are buried underground.'
The narrator leaps from the wall, like Tosca, to her death below. A news bulletin tells of the body of a young woman, found twisted and dead. Her identity is not known; witnesses are sought...
The award-winning novelist DBC Pierre said that the seeds of a book’s ending should be found in its opening paragraph. Inheritance begins and ends at the same stop, confronting lives lived on the circle line.
It is a modern piece of theatre with clear echoes of the past, not only in its content, but in its manner and setting.
Just like the Mystery Plays of medieval England, it is performed outdoors, the physical context becoming the set – but is a thoroughly modern production incorporating a well-produced audio commentary. Each member of the audience is locked into a soundworld. The audio is common to all, so there is an intimacy to the experience, but also an isolation and disconnection, too.
This is an important play, written and performed by a woman who, if she isn’t already, should become an important voice in contemporary Northern Ireland theatre.