Contemporary adjustments detract from an otherwise superbly acted and directed revival at the Lyric Theatre
2013 sees the 400th anniversary of the founding of the fair-ish city of Belfast. Blood, linen and not an inconsiderable amount of boats have been produced there since 1613, with the coastal metropolis famed across the world for its industry and division.
Pitching into the discussion of what Belfast is and was, the Lyric Theatre have boldly created a season of four plays, gathered together under the title Tales of the City. These four plays, which incidently includes a new Billy play by Graham Reid, profess to demonstrate differing views of Belfast. It will be interesting to see if the season moves beyond the usual narrative, the usual geographies.
The series begins with St John Greer Ervine’s Mixed Marriage. There has been a buzz about the play due to a recent surprise hit revival at Finborough Theatre in London in 2012, with The Guardian’s Michael Billington praising the play for displaying passion, and remarking favourably on Ervine's observations that sectarianism would ultimately divide the working classes in Northern Ireland.
Mixed Marriage was first produced in 1911 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and up until the 1940s it was one of the Abbey’s most performed plays. It was, however, produced professionally only once in the city in which it is set, in 1929. Belfast at the time much preferred the surreal comedies of Rutherford Mayne and Gerald MacNamara to Ervine’s straightforward dramatic style. But what of today?
Mixed Marriage is a tragic melodrama, characterised by heightened emotions and declaimed opinions. The action concerns the Rainey family from working class Belfast, honest Protestant men and women the lot of them. The Rainey men, who all work in the same industry (presumably shipbuilding) are embroiled in the beginnings of a strike.
The father, John, is a self styled socialist fully in favour of the proscribed action, as are his two sons, Tom and Hugh. The issue of religion vexes John though, who’s socialist beliefs do not extend to any mixing between Protestant and Catholic.
In his defense, he does see the expedience of the two religions coming together to stand firm against the 'masters', even if he affirms this policy with that look we all now recognise when we see the Northern Ireland First and Deputy First Ministers standing together outside Stormont or rubbing shoulders in the White House. Raised eyebrow, anyone?
All goes well, with John promising to help the Catholic strike leader Michael O’Hara by calming the fears of the Orangemen of Belfast. Alas, love rears up its ugly head and things get complicated when young Hugh decides to marry Nora Murray, a member of the ‘opposite religion’.
To John this is a sign that his open-hearted ecumenism has led him down the wrong path, presumably one laid for him by Satan. His actions after this point lead to the play’s tragic ending, and the cast in the Lyric production attack the meaty issues with gusto.
Melodrama doesn’t call for subtlety, but Marty Maguire and Katie Tumelty as Mr and Mrs Rainey lend the patriarch and matriarch of the Rainey clan a feisty realism, while Gerard Jordan gives a convincing portrayal of a strike leader concerned with the victory of his cause above all else.
Played straight, Mixed Marriage would be an interesting historical curio, with the echoes of modern Belfast showing in the portrayal of division and the blood-and-thunder reactions to almost any perceived political or religious slight. At the point of John’s sectarian epiphany, however, director Jimmy Fay introduces to the original text a set of dream sequences that seem to confuse the final act and indeed the actors.
There is another fundamental change in the final act that can’t be revealed here without spoiling the plot, but it seems a decision based on a modern day morality of guilt and punishment, rather than Ervine’s original more fatalistic ending. These directorial entries into the play seem a little contrived, and upset the pace of the play as it moves towards it's grievous denoument.
As a beginning to Tales of the City, Mixed Marriage is an odd choice. The relevance that the play has to the modern age is obvious, especially given the melodrama that stands for political discourse in Northern Ireland at present. Is mixing a sure way to lessen your own identity? Is giving something up a strength or a weakness?
All these questions are there throughout the play. The problem is that Mixed Marriage, for all Fay’s efforts at introducing a degree of modern psychology, is a dated method of theatrical communication. A newly strung play might have said more about our division than such an historical document.
Mixed Marriage runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until February 23.