THEATRE REVIEW: Mixed Marriage @ Lyric Theatre, Belfast
ST JOHN Ervine’s 1911 play about sectarian tensions in Belfast is an odd choice to open a new season at the city’s historic theatre. A brittle tragedy, its vision is overwhelmingly dispiriting, focusing on the myopic intransigence of Orangeman Rainey (Marty Maguire) when he discovers that his son (Brian Markey) hopes to marry Nora (Karen Hassan), a Catholic.
Belfast-born Ervine (1883-1971) remains a minor Northern Irish playwright and Mixed Marriage is not a particularly inspiring work. Indeed, it is hard to understand why anyone would wish to revive it. For all the threat of violence and loss, it crucially lacks the vibration of dramatic tension. Ervine’s script falls flat, lags, seems stilted where it should ring true. Worse, it struggles under the burden of the playwright’s ideological bias. On too many occasions Ervine seems to betray personal sympathies rather than retaining the necessary artistic distance and ambiguity. Joyce imagined the artist’s relationship to his work as one that keeps personal gripes outside the flow of pure creative expression. As he describes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the artist “like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails”. Ervine doesn’t manage this melting away of ego; Mixed Marriage feels loaded with pro-Union bias; anti-Catholic, anti-nationalist sentiments are repeated, in this reviewer’s opinion, with loaded, excessive emphasis. At times this felt less like dramatic art than clumsy unionist propaganda, the deriding of the ‘Papish’ altogether unpalatable and adding nothing to the characterisation of Mr Rainey after the umpteenth repetition.
Director Jimmy Fay does his best to find ways to give the play new life and deserves credit for his efforts, imaginatively choosing to incorporate a figure representing the spectre of Home Rule in this pre-partition Ireland, and using a trippy rewind sequence that points to Mr Rainey’s fears about Catholic dominion - a veiled Nora symbolising Mariolatry, moves hauntingly across a darkened stage.
But no amount of directorial inventiveness can give this staid script legs.
Katie Tumelty’s no-nonsense house wife, spirited, warmly realised, a voice of reason and a champion of Protestant-Catholic unity at hearth and dinner table, is this production’s triumph.
But, alas, her wisdom is drowned out by sectarian invective and violence. Most reprehensibly, the denouement offers no solution to or redemption from the ancient hatreds that continue to trouble and polarise Ulster. Do we gain anything by staging plays like this or have we begun to fetishise sectarian conflict, allowing it to become the dominant theme of our culture and our discourse?
::Mixed Marriage, Lyric Theatre, Belfast until February 23. Visit www.lyrictheatre.co.uk or call the box office on 02890 381081.