WITH rioting on the streets, you might feel that the last thing we need is another play that presses its dramatic optic to the thorny terrain of sectarian intransigence between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland. But the Lyric Theatre have chosen to pick up the theme, perhaps seeing this as a fertile moment for sharp debate and engagement with prejudices that so recurrently produce impasse and tragedy here: St John Ervine’s Mixed Marriage will open at the Belfast theatre on January 30.
Belfast born playwright and critic Ervine (1883-1971) moved to London in his teens and would become drama critic for the Observer as well as authoring three plays: Mixed Marriage (1911), Anthony and Anna (1926) and The First Mrs Fraser (1929); he also penned a 1956 biography of George Bernard Shaw, which was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial prize. Mixed Marriage debuted at Dublin’s Abbey in the year of its composition and, accordingly, there is a nice resonance in Jimmy Fay - associate director at the Abbey - here taking the helm of this revival. A tragedy, Mixed Marriage focuses on the Protestant Rainey family. The father, John, militantly supports a strike against the city’s factory owners; he supports the efforts of the workers in their campaign to earn an extra penny an hour - certainly a scenario that resonates with the contemporary climate of cuts and austerity. The strike unites Catholic and Protestant workers in a common cause, class solidarity momentarily triumphing over religio-cultural division. But then Rainey discovers that his eldest son is in love with a Catholic; this he cannot tolerate. He removes support from the strikes. Catholic and Protestant turn from unity to rioting. The consequences of societal fragmentation and bigotry are devastating.
Like Romeo and Juliet, the Protestant Hugh Rainey and Catholic Nora Murray are star-crossed lovers torn apart by ancient hatreds, a hoary, stubbornly enduring feud. Their attempts to cross the barricades seem doomed.
“This is a play with particular significance for Belfast, in particular with what is happening on the streets at the moment,” says director Jimmy Fay. “It’s about sectarian tension and written from a Protestant point of view. The father is an Orangeman, the mother struggles to keep the whole family together, the sons work with Catholics.
“It’s based on a workers’ strike which took place in 1907 and which instigates a binding of tradition. The powers that be then use sectarianism to break apart this unity.”
But, somewhat disappointingly (if we can’t find rapproachment on the streets can’t we have some wish fulfilment on the stage?) Ervine doesn’t offer us a redemptive conclusion, a joyful defeat of bigotry and closed minds.
“Mixed Marriage doesn’t offer an easy solution to the problem of sectarianism, rather it takes an unabashed look at it,” adds Fay. “You have two different forms of belief coming up against each other and what you get then is a kind of chessmate.”
The play was performed at London’s Finborough Theatre in October 2011 in a revival, directed by Sam Yates, that particularly impressed the Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington. He described it as offering an “urgent, powerful and still-topical account of the destructive impact of religious sectarianism on family life”. Billington found this virtually forgotten piece full of “raw, visceral power” even if it “lurches towards melodrama” in places. Perhaps most interestingly, he finds the character of Mrs Rainey a precursor to O’Casey’s Juno and a model for the practical good sense of Irish womanhood, forever urging reason, caution and pragmatism as the country is torn apart by headstrong men.
Fay, now in the thick of rehearsals with a cast including Marty Maguire, Katie Tumelty, Darren Franklin, Brian Markey, Karen Hassan and Gerard Jordan, finds Ervine a great, albeit neglected, playwright.
“I think he is blunt, poetic in places, his language rings true and sounds phonetically rich and textured. It’s not fluffy or flamboyant by any means - he says what he means quite plainly most of the time. There isn’t a lot of dressing on his sentences but they are no less effective and powerful.
“This play has an incredibly contemporary feel even though it was written over 100 years ago. I think it’s one of the great lost plays of the Irish literary tradition.”
Mixed Marriage runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, January 30 until February 23. Call the box office on 02890 381081 or visit www.lyrictheatre.co.uk.