If you’re expecting a Julian Fellowes-type history of the Titanic, then you might end up a tad disappointed by Jimmy McAleavey’s new play Titans which has more to do with horror films and video games and Dante’s Inferno than with Downtown Abbey. Personally, I can’t wait to see it.
The hour-long drama will perambulate around the new landmark Titanic building, an approach which posed a number of problems for the Belfast playwright.
“It’s a great discipline,” he says euphemistically, “a really interesting way of doing things but it is difficult.
“The first difficulty was the route. Secondly, the play is an hour long but we have to have four audiences coming in at 25-minute intervals and then it had to be obviously about the Titanic and about the building, I had to respond to the building in some way.”
And if you think that is complicated, you should see the plot.
Titans is about a slightly deranged man of the cloth who enlists the audience’s help in order to enter a kind of underworld in the building which will allow him to board the Titanic after the centenary.
The play is full of occult learning to do with ships and Jimmy says it deals with Biblical myth and Irish myth and Belfast myths.
“I think it’s part Hammer House of Horror, part Doctor Who for Adults” he says. “It features a kind of quest so bits of the play might remind you of Dan Brown.
It’s really McAleveyan, then, quite bonkers, I suggest but the supernatural aspect of the play has, of course, its roots in the reality, in the way the Titanic story has been interpreted.
“Indeed,” agrees Jimmy. “I see it as a passage into Hell and through Hell and through Purgatory and they reach a kind of heaven in it.”
“To some, it was God punishing Man for his hubris, for his arrogance in building a ship that was too big, which some people called “unsinkable”.
“The play responds to that, it celebrates the Godly part of Man, the struggle of man against God, it celebrates that.
“Another thing was, after I had written the first draft, I remembered years ago my uncle telling me the story of the serial number on the side of the ship, which, it was said, if you put a mirror to it, said “No Pope Here”.
“It wasn’t the sectarianism that struck me at the time but the idea that occult practices were going on in Harland and Wolff!
“So in my play, I have a clergyman who is a member of the Ancient Hermetic Order of Shipwrights, a secret brotherhood within Harland and Wolff who practiced a kind of occult religion and one of their gods was Vulcan who fashioned souls from fire, the Great Smith.
“Another of their Gods was Noah who saved mankind for God who had grown tired of his creation and another was Adam, the great rebel who eats of the tree of knowledge so, again, it is about this kind of over-reaching the Titanic was criticised for.
Needless to say, the group of “super-masons” didn’t actually exist, but it did occur to Jim that it was the type of club Belfast men got involved in!
Having said that, McAleavey is aware that the Titanic building audience might not be a typical theatre audience, the type who would have gone to the OMAC, and that is why he has created “a genre plot” which he hopes will scare people a little.
“The plot is recognisable, I think, from things like Dante’s Divine Comedy or the Aeneid or the story of Orpheus but all that stuff has been naturalised in video games, with different levels and obstacles and weapons and symbols so the play should be familiar to a lot of people, from those who have played Dungeons and Dragons to those who have read Dante’s Inferno, you know,” says Jimmy.
So if you want history, read a book or watch a documentary. What Jimmy McAleavey has done is to create a play by using his skill and considerable imagination.
As he says himself, you couldn’t rival the exhibition that’s in the new Titanic building nor could you rival some of the images from the movies that have been made about the ill-fated ship, but while Titans is most definitely a work of fiction, McAleavey has a personal, factual interest in the Titanic story, through his mother-in-law.
“One of the characters in my play is my mother-in-law’s grandfather who was on Titanic and this really is his story.
“I can’t tell you too much about the story because I don’t want to give too much away, but he was a trades unionist who was a close friend of both Jim Larkin and James Connolly and his name was John Quinn.
“John had been blacklisted after the 1907 Dock Strike but he eventually managed to get a job on Titanic suing false papers. In the play, John Quinn is in Heaven!
So there you have it folks, a typical McAleveyan take on the Titanic, played out by a wonderful cast list of Maggie Cronin, James Doran, Vincent Higgins, Paul Kennedy, Ian McElhinney, Carol Moore and Antoinette Morelli, skillfully put together by Paula McFetridge for Kabosh, which can be seen at Titanic Belfast on these dates:
Sunday 8th April – Wednesday 15th 2012 (excluding Tuesday 14th)
Times: 7.25pm, 8.00pm, 8.40pm and 9.15pm
Duration: 1 hour
Tickets £13 available from the Belfast Welcome Centre on 028 9024 6609 or visit www.gotobelfast.com to book online.