I was at David Ireland’s uproarious play Can’t Forget About You at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast on Thursday night and it was even better the second time around.
The audience, which included comedienne Victoria Wood, were rolling in the aisles in a story where Stevie (Declan Rodgers), a 25-year-old Belfast boy falls in love with a Glaswegian widow twice his age, Martha, played by Karen Dunbar)
If that wasn’t problematic enough, Stevie is from a staunchly Protestant family. His mother Dorothy (Carol Moore) is a devout church-goer who lost her RUC husband to the IRA during the troubles and his sister is a died-in-the-wool Ulster Scots spouting loyalist, Rebecca (Abigail McGibbon) who is divorced from her husband and is left with a son, Paisley.
But this is no Hole in the Wall Gang show. The displays of naked sectarianism are side-splittingly funny – until you start thinking that what is being said is really nasty – the lazy hatred of themuns, the darkness behind the piety of ordinary people with an extraordinary distrust of their neighbours.
David Ireland draws these contrary aspects of life here to our attention in one subversively hilarious scene after another and he is well served by a perfect cast but you sometimes feel guilty about your laughter because there is so much grief and loss in the play on top of issues of cultural identity and sectarianism that unforgiveably get in the way of us establishing positive, decent human interaction and relationships.
But people here are like people everywhere. The human condition has made its way to Belfast. We fall in love, we marry, we shop, we divorce like elsewhere. We even have sex. Who’da thunk it?
Karen Dunbar is particularly good as the Scottish widow Martha, vulnearable, strong when needs be and a flawless mirror to the dysfunctional society we live in here.
Can’t Forget About You is also a great piece of writing and Ireland has used comedy to show the absurdity of life here before.
In the last play of his I saw, Yes So I Said Yes, Ulster Protestants were speaking Irish, Taigs were getting pregnant, there was rape and murder as well as Snuffy, an unemployed loyalist gunman who has no idea wheat is real and what is unreal in the “new Northern Ireland” – and Stephen Nolan. Undurorisingly, people were strongly divided on its merits.
This week, I asked David where his ideas come from.
“I’ve no idea,” was the honest reply.
“In the case of I Said Yes, I was commissioned. I was asked to write a play about a loyalist adjusting to life after the peace process but I think there’s a certain resistance to that because it’s such a weighty subject matter, you know, it’d be really easy to write a serious drama and also possibly quite a clichéd drama, whereas I felt if you tackled it comedically, you could, go down a much different road, But, yeah it was quite a strong that reaction that play, which came as quite a surprise to me.” he laughs.
When I spoke to David he was in Edinburgh for an audition himself because as well as a playwright he is also a gifted actor. So has he left the actor’s life behind just to write plays?
Well funny enough, no. The reason I’m in Edinburgh is because I was auditioning for ‘Outlander’, this TV series, American sort of sci-fi time-travelling thing. So, no I still am, it’s a weird thing because I sort of was acting for a while and then I stopped getting any work as an actor and then I started Whiting in order to give myself something to do, and then the writing sort of took off, but once the writing took off, I started getting auditions again as well, so now I sort of have a healthy career as a writer and an actor,” he explains.
I’ve always been interested in why people become playwrights (or songwriters or novelists) so I ask David why he writes plays? Is it because he can? Is it because you can make loads of money? Does he have a message that he wants to put across?
“Well I don’t feel like I have a message I want to get across,” he explains. “To make lots of money would be great, but that doesn’t really happen so much, although in my experience you make more money as a playwright than as an actor.
“But I don’t know, I think it’s just because I think it was always in there. I always enjoyed writing. I think I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to be an actor. At school I did a lot of writing, but I became an actor and then acting became a sort of an addiction so I went down that path, but now I feel very comfortable being a writer. It feels like that’s my real job.
“I became an actor in order to sort of avoid having a proper job, but even being an actor was too much work, it was too much, having to turn up for things and be on time, whereas as a writer you can sort of take your own hours and do whatever you want!”
The creative spark can strike anywhere and the process that led to Can’t Forget About You began on a walk through Belfast.
“Well, it started when I went for the job for the interview as playwright in residence at the Lyric,” says David.
“I really wanted the job and I asked a friend of mine, a very experienced Scottish playwright called Douglas Maxwell, for advice. He was saying to me ‘have an idea for a play in your back pocket in case they ask you if you’ve any ideas’, and I couldn’t think of an idea but as I was walking to the theatre I was listening to some music on my iPod, and this song, ‘Cant Forget About You’ by Nas came on and it seemed, that song just seemed to say everything that I felt about Belfast and everything that I felt about my life at that point, as I was about to leave Belfast.
“I was about to get married and moving to Glasgow, so I sort of felt that if I got this job at the Lyric, this would be my last year in Belfast and I wanted to write a play that said a lot of positive things although like other plays I’ve written there’s a lot of anger in it and there’s a lot of rage in it. So the title of the play is ‘Can’t Forget About You’ because I knew I was going, so I didn’t want to forget Belfast.”
I suggest to David that there is something in our nature that every play we see is about The Troubles. No matter what the play is whether it’s by Shakespeare or Sophocles, it has to have some resonance about Belfast today, we see everything through the prism of the Troubles. Belfast people can’t forget the past.
“Well that’s the thing, we’re always trying to escape it, yeah, totally,” agrees David. “Because everybody, every character in the play has lost someone and is dealing with loss, and I think that as a society we’re all dealing with loss, so there is that element in it, but I didn’t want to get too heavy with it again. So yeah, I think it is true that a lot of theatre sometimes tries to escape from the shadow of the Troubles, but you can’t actually, I just don’t think we’re ready for that. I think it’s part of what’s shaped us as a society today, so it has to be there even if it’s just in the background.”
So we are all in a sort of very, very slow-working catharsis, I suggest.
“Yeah, I mean it’s funny because the play I’m writing at the minute has nothing to do with Belfast, nothing to do with The Troubles, and I’m writing them for Northern Stage in Newcastle, and I gave the draft to director the other day, and he said, “you do realise this whole play is a whole metaphor for Northern Ireland, even though there’s no mention of Northern Ireland and there’s no characters from Northern Ireland?'”
You can take the man out of Belfast, David …
“I know, I know!”
Can’t Forget About You runs at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast until 5 July.