True North

Post-Troubles triptych of three plays in one day

With these spiky little plays from Tinderbox Theatre Company the implication is that in spite of the post-conflict ‘normality’ we’re all enjoying here in the north, if you scratch even a little below the surface all the tar, bile and vitriol will pour forth as freely as before. It hasn’t gone away you know – the stain’s just lying behind some particularly florid wallpaper.

In John McCann’s The Cleanroom for instance, a love affair as sterile as the titular surrounds its antagonists find themselves working in plays second fiddle to fears of unemployment, and revelations of horrific deeds forgotten. The locust-like nature of free-market progress has laid waste to the characters’ futures and the small succour that employment for the company in Buildings 1, 2, 3 and even 4 offer is now under threat.

Having glutted on the credulity of the local workforce, the company, which promised jobs for all is upping to more economically verdant pastures overseas. In a knowing moment cleanroom worker Joe (played by Patrick Buchanan) ruminates on a farming ancestor who was once like 'Craigavon aristocracy', but when the developers came all it took to remove him was 'a bulldozer, a couple of peelers and the BBC'.

All the plays have something endemically ugly behind the glare of false optimism. In God’s Country by Colin Bell, a homophobic unionist female politician (any bells?) is forced into a moral quandary with the return of her son and the aftermath of the murder of a local gay youth to contend with. Needless to say that MLA, Patricia Williamson (played with appallingly convincing moral rectitude by Laura Hughes) can’t shake her conditioning, even for the sake of electoral percentages.

Finally, Everything Between Us, by David Ireland, finds a Truth and Reconciliation commission being established in Northern Ireland and two sisters reunited after years apart. Sensible, respectable Sandra and wayward, combative Teeni (Tara Lynne O’Neill and Claire Lamont) face off in a bleakly funny, powerful and emotionally violent interplay, when both prove willing to confront but unable to resolve their shared past.

If there’s a theme threading through all three plays, it’s surely the recognition that the 'huggy-huggy joy-joy' façade’s starting to peel away already, and behind it all the un-resolutions we’d rather just forget.

The plays, directed by Mick Duke, Des Kennedy and Kathleen Akerly respectively, may have been written and even produced separately, but any commonality these works possess can only have been enhanced by the laudably communal approach to True North.

With the ensemble of six actors each taking turns to perform in two of the three plays, as well as helping out in PR, marketing, outreach and even costume design, there is a shared urgency and vision to the panels in this post-Troubles triptych.

The clinical austerity of The Cleanroom poorly disguises the decay of a relationship and an entire community. The bigoted politician in God’s Country is given a PR makeover but the graft, of course, doesn’t quite take. Finally in Everything Between Us, truth and reconciliation proves incapable of engendering forgiveness. These are all characters out of time and out of chime with the prevailing winds, and they’re people we all know or at least recognise.

It doesn’t take a huge feat of Columbo-like deduction to recognise the acutely contemporary parallels to be drawn between what is on stage and what’s happening off it. Or the uncomfortable hypocrisies that pass for a moral compass in this most conservative corner of the British Isles.

All the while on stage, there are synchronistic touches. The occasional near subsonic rumble one hears at the quietest, often tensest moments throughout could be mistaken for some textural soundscape intrinsic to the plays. It soon becomes apparent, however, that it’s the sound of nearby trains passing outside the Crescent Arts Centre – the ominous ambience of the 'now'. An uncanny, if accidental soundtrack to the drama within.

The box-y angularity of the sets and the cold, white lighting leaves nowhere for these characters, so full of secrets, to hide. The accumulative effect to the audience member could probably be rather... challenging, and one senses it’s probably best to view True North over three days than the three-in-one marathon recently showcased at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

There’s much to recognise in these three snapshots of early 21st century Northern Ireland, and while there may be flashes of razor-wire wit in True North, little of the truth it has to reveal is particularly edifying.