We’ll Walk Hand in Hand : Play Review

We’ll Walk Hand in Hand Lyric Theatre 21 March to 31 March 2018

We’ll Walk Hand In Hand is a new play by Martin Lynch marking the 50th anniversary of the Northern Ireland civil rights struggle.

Theatre Synopsis.

Vincent and Lesley meet at University in 1967. Two working class kids from Belfast, they find themselves at the centre of the explosive student reaction to the Civil Rights movement.

Their involvement in the movement leads to confrontations with their disapproving families and ultimately to conflict with each other. Vincent and Lesley are confronted with decisions that will mark their lives forever.

When the story leaps forward to 2018, their granddaughter, Michaela presents the older Vincent and Lesley with a different kind of civil rights challenge, the play then explodes in an entirely different direction. We’ll Walk Hand In Hand explores what civil rights meant in 1968 and what it might mean in 2018.

A co-production by Green Shoot Productions and Queen’s University, We’ll Walk Hand In Hand will have an exciting combination of professional actors and community participants.

Please note this play will contain strong language, potentially controversial scenes of protest and violence.

1968 to 2018

The scene is set by a wide landscape of deep reds blocks, powder blue sky’s, sunset orange and level blocks of layered platforms forming a road of many directions. The cast are all onstage giving a strong sense of community. Rainbow colours flicker and embody the cast’s vitality in the clothes fashion of the first era we enter into. The late sixties. The set is expansive and inviting many interpretations. In the second half notions of a big fish and the Titanic building give approximate identity. Belfast is the setting and a couple who are the centre of this play some fifty years earlier overlook and remark on this nostalgic view. The older pair are played by Lesley Gilmartin (Susie Kelly) and Vincent Maguire (Noel McGee) in this first half. They see their young selves develop and innocence shows in their grimacing or shock at their youthful exuberance and sometimes naivety. This trick by Martin Lynch is to play out the expectations and also look back with hindsight at wrong moves or right ones and the road taken. On another circuit of the story it might be found other relationships are reconciled with a faint nod to the ma’s & da’s finding love outside the ranks.

The play takes care to circumnavigate, death, victims, political unrest, post Good Friday killings and bombings and other issues such as corruption, racism, immigration intolerance and economic division and failing public services. But that’s OK as the nature of the beast is our own struggles to even understand what has come about.

Long view

50 years separate the half of this plays noble celebration of people confronting their lives in places still gripped in fierce prejudice and animosity. Now on the edge of right wing resurgence over Europe and in countries where no democracy exists we look down the road of the future and see intolerance looking back. Almost 50% of the world lives without a proper democracy and daily wars are fought in proxy villages and towns by despots of capitalism and fascism. Crown princes reign over the suppressed.

The narrator of this play is the group of many actors in multiple roles. The past of 1968 is illuminated by the roll call through Ireland’s back history in a short adjusted viewpoint. Anthems are the chosen messenger. Music is to flood the play with its more biographical shorthand. Songs of future past. The group are in the beginning introduced by their allegiances and a picture emerges of two families. The Catholic family and the Protestant family. Martin Lynch has put in place a structure which brings these two families into conflict through the aegis of their offspring. Lesley (Emer McDaid) is a Protestant girl, no siblings, who is set to go to The Queens University in Belfast. Her father is a tradesman working in a timber merchants. Conor Grimes takes the role of both fathers. Maria Connolly also gets cast as both mothers. Grimes also takes the role of a sage old pensioner whose outward glance at the whole shambles is a gravitas amidst the lighthearted skullduggery played for overkill and wicked humour in the absurdity of the circumstances each is entangled in.

Working class stereotypes

We visit the Catholic family and are met by the headscarf wearing, almost never without it, Joan who runs a house with only one in it working. Or most of the time. Conor Grimes playing the father Is a Dock worker. His time is spent in the house getting orders from Joan and she carries the burden of his narrowed choices with the humour he lacks, or the oddments such as an iron he walks out the Dock gates with along with sundry other items. None of particular use only occasionally. The discrimination spelt out in the opening sequences are stark and a political edge enters. The youngest in the family is Vincent (John Travers) who in putting up a case for going to The Queens University is mocked by his father whose choices never reached those heights.

Vincent is convinced he can act. Both lead actors are very expressive and do not fail to project their characters written trajectory. Emer McDaid has a greater task as she is in a women’s place already oppressed and without a voice. Her skills of speech and voice control give layers and gravitas to some otherwise dead lines. She lifts the whole on numerous occasions by the focus she brings in her highly animated choreographed and pure gestural effective acting skills. Nuance is present while that depth is lacking in other places. The ‘edge’ is taken to excess on too many occasions. In a city where there are weekly sectarian clashes among uneducated youths. Where punishment beatings and internecine neighbourhood criminality is rampant. Where the rich are immune to the poor state of the communities health and compromise is to go private door your health. Absence makes the heart go wonder. There are numerous breaches of historical strengths accepted by both sides now sold to the highest bidder.

Trends

‘Sold his soul for a soggy roll and a streak of hairy bacon.’ Flann O’Brien. Over the Bridge and tribalism still accounting for territorial rights and rituals to save the two poles of ‘state’ are uncontested in narratives here. A timid disclosure in the play that we are on the brink of equality is both a misconception and an unfounded optimism. The fate of those new to our shores and in need of refuge are neglected and treated abysmally as being without anything other than a presence. The play is short on this issue despite the later wedding scenario. Organisation and Institutions feed of their uncertainty while coining it for their own reasons. Some good some complacent and unchallenging to any degree. The outreach happening is treated as almost ‘state’ intervention yet it amounts outside to minimal assistance portrayed as proof of intent. Endemic camouflage in news control is massaged by those with their hands on power.

Learning across the void

One of the objects of the University is to stimulate his political knowledge and grand theatrics is a mode of entry. As a young Catholic wanting no part in his fathers battles with himself. His fathers lack of opportunity and a cause in national identity to atone for he is frustrated and is intent on avoiding the warring past. Like his father and family Vincent is aware of the Unionist vice like grip, vice being the operative word along with the Catholic Church, brothers in harm. Unions and workers rights are not mentioned yet these were among the Labour Party and Nationalist Party (pre Sinn Fein and SDLP for those not paying attention) united grievances also present in the People’s Democracy collective. Solidarity. No mention of G. Fitt MP shoring up a Labour Prime Minister or the use of a Governor to accommodate Unionists in a quasi colonial controlling role. No Shipyard baggage or ballot papers alongside the bombs, burnouts and bullets are roped in. Industry which was the technocrat Wilson’s suit and saving Labour Party vision brought no prosperity to Ireland.

Brickbats

Instead of political name checks, Terence, Michael, Bernadette, we get the Vincent Maguire’s elder brother known as Chip Shop and his orbit is to be a man on a mission to fight for his rights but his weaponry is not his wits alongside his beleaguered and rightly upset old da. The sulphuric on the matchstick.

A University may do the following for a young student. It might first inspire by the liberal humanism of professorial teaching, the contemplation of beauty and the cultivation of personal relations as a spiritual antidote to the rootless, mechanistic ethos of this age. Fruitful or fruitless. Both Vincent and Lesley are given hope and learning by the education few of their age or orbit attain or aspire to. Ideals were not just the pursuit of the radical activists in America and elsewhere. The notion of a set of standards to benchmark progress was initially their aim and unity was a key. The salutary words of those in the Civil Rights Movement were much sharper in terms of the deficit than Lesley and Vincent seem to confront or as envisaged by Martin Lynch to remain ‘le innocents’ for the stories feel good arc not upset anyone.

It actually denies their intellect and they get betrayed by the writers hand by being dressed up as ‘hippies’ on the first march they are to join. Another odd placement was the request of ‘actors’ to use some ‘international students’ flat for rehearsals in the first half when they were as rare as hens teeth except for the transient (Kevin Myers + journos + rads + escapists) who came out of curiosity and found themselves an education albeit a Unionist/Conservative institutional one. Heaney and Longley were a lifeline as the arts were at that time essential to the truth outside the University. Practicing status quo students got along just fine and made sure of securing their boundaries and pulled up the ladder securing divided education.

Unclaimed brutality

Politics was a dirty word except it was a proxy for their fortune come voting time. The awkward questions are avoided and the familial is, and it’s no harm in itself, made the drama, Few casualties are found in the debris though. Read on.

The American Samuel Adams’s saying that “It does not take a majority to prevail… but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men” is presenting the prospect of a minority view gaining power. Trump’s deficit of 3 mill. points to that, therefore unified clarity of purpose and solidarity is how meaningful progress can take hold and we are wiser and better equipped down the ages, or are we? To see the past for its lessons.

Sholom Aleichem said: “Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.” Ironically those Jewish words are so directional they are not heeded in the world of Israel’s politics in pursuit of greater weaponry to destroy the back of a Muslim faith and push Christianity into further divisions.

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First Act Actions

In Belfast there is simmering interest in peoples rights with the far of city of Derry having put down a marker on the sectarian divisions and corruption of power which gerrymandering made housing allocation a major discriminatory practice for Catholics. The International Hotel was the first location of the stirrings of an encounter with the phenomenon of Civil Rights crossing the globe and enfranchising parts of the local body politic. This is the cause Vincent believes he needs to be a part of and join. His family have other ideas not least his father who is driven to set up a cabal of IRA volunteers, his son Chip Shop under his command. The OC is not for pacifist politics. For him and the rest of the core their time has come.

When the two worlds collide the tribes are divided.  Youth has in ‘68 the best ideas. They need change and the television is igniting the flame. For Vincent it is Martin Luther King being assassinated, for Lesley women’s rights to equality are an eye opener with her getting into University and politics is also opening channels where she is free to associate with the other tribe. Hippy ideals and civil rights are seen as the same thing in this view. The television beams out a world of information and vision of nations. The oppressed are kept off the screens and a diet of American pulp television invades Belfast and Irish homes. The stridency of The Peoples Democracy is seen obliquely as an odd doomed to failure mission with Protestant power foremost and initially the progression to marching is filling the stage with unfolding unity across divisions. Lead by student activists and rooted in minority voices now talking loudly of institutional discrimination the province is collectively at a place where it must decide to act or retreat to old divisions. O’Neill (Terence) gets mentioned several times. Michael (Farrell) leads the marches. Devlin (Bernadette) is chivied at the speeches in a minor role. The male prerogative is alluded to.

Incident anticipated

For authenticity the contestable origins are blurred and a general picture is shown without stridency or complexity. Strobe lighting cinematicallly conveys the B Special brutal confrontation with the peaceful marchers. The lights go out on the story. Michael is portrayed as having warned the marchers what to expect. It is from advice passed on by the police. The Free Presbyterian led onslaught of rabble with Police standing by and in the final concluding destruction at Burntollet Bridge top and tail the brutal attack on a mix of juveniles and passivist unarmed marchers. The destination Derry was not to be reached.

Worlds apart together

The American experience is running parallel in the intervening years.

King and the Kennedys are gone, Vietnam never ends, Nixon has been elected to roll Civil Rights back. Committed first and last to the classic rad-lib notion that rigorous thinking and precision journalism can seize the times and talk things better, Small Talk foregrounds the first two stages of Agitate, Educate and Organise.

The issues the second half highlight are transient and not knuckled down in the thesis. No Nama. No Money Laundering. No Drugs. No Poverty. No exploitation of Youth. No Back office Nation. No Holiday illusion. Just the very edges of the immigration story. Without the Larne Camps, Without the Home Office conditions, Interviews, and Living in Limbo, No Higher Level Education Rights. No rights to work in their field of training. No GFA Human Rights, Brexit and EU dawning and no word of a compromise. Homes not being built. Pig in a poke agricultural policy owned by big companies. Land grabs. Even Parliament being shut doesn’t make it to the stage. Marches abound. Women’s right to choose is shown to be a Marie Stopes confrontation – an overlooked and overplayed re-enactment – and the conflict of conscious is between airport announcements and a happy clapping form of worship. Out of many avenues these chosen roads are taken. They are not conclusive nor are they intended to be. Nevertheless they are not sufficiently robust enough to place other meanings on familiar issues as plays ought to obtain. In a minor scene or two – when the bickering and liveliness has died down only occasionally – that is there sufficient time for reflection and with the removed entertaining bawdy and adult humour device which is ratcheted up to often. There is also a misstep in having a Somalian woman swear in delivering what would be even a contested viewpoint that she would otherwise not deliver. Maybe it was hearsay or maybe a lesser being uttered it but I found it very regrettable that it even was included. It serves no purpose and misrepresented the tone as I know it, many others know it.

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Where the second half survives without a backstory that is presumed factual, the test comes to create a pathway for the characters. Archetypal cliched types aside there are a moment or two that hit expectation too closely. A reveal by Michaela is so evidently oncoming it is loudly received in its audacious stupidity. Therein it does a disservice to the actual characters solid craft of pacing out the troubled complexities of the abortion on her mind. Would she have been so gullible to fall into the trap and be so unwise? Later voices from her are contrarily astute giving her part a mixed mission. Emer McDaid deals with it extraordinarily well such is her flexible range and it is for women to assess if she is believable in this situation. I thought it was weakened by the ‘trip’ and later sympathy was hard to deliver.

October was cited as a point of no return or as the play had it where the change happened. There are straight lines and paths lead away from other choices. Peace versus War. Terrorising was an instrument for sectarian division to replace passive consensus and resolution. Noises off were the order of the day. Attendance to deals and trades were overlapping degrees of atrocities and the British state sought containment without regard to their overarching conservative colonial hegemony. Making itself important as a world leading force was of more importance than evenhanded delivery of rights. It still is.

The Revolution will not be televised

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The Global Scene for Civil Rights unfinished.

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Beruit and beyond

For an American take on Civil Rights you don’t go to the normal messages. The people sang about it in words rhyming and music embalming their wishes and worries. Gil Scott Heron one such writer whose words and music were vital and spiritual food.

These extracts from The Wire 108 (February 1993). Continuing racial tensions are apparent in the USA.

It’s Your World (Arista 1976)

Within an evolving, conscious, self-determining continuum – Afrocentric, politically cognisant, historically correct, forthright and indignant – GSH is the disciple of many traditions: of Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez making, in Larry Neal’s phrase, “juju with the word on the world”; of the flaming oratory of Malcolm X and H Rap Brown; of Coltrane and Ayler speaking in tongues ancient and cosmic; and of the fundamental Blues of James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. In the crucible of It’s Your World, these particles of Blackness explode. This is the hour of chaos (or rather, one of many) – Civil Rights is sidelined as America spirals towards the political and economic shut down of a world recession. GSH and BJ respond by steeling their people with sustaining words (“It’s Your World”), by summoning inspirational spirits departed (“Trane”), by reinforcing the power of communal celebrations (“17th Street”), and with bitter socio-political satire (“Bicentennial Blues”). Reworked versions of “The Bottle” and “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” preach abstention from alcohol and drugs on political rather than moral grounds – like, if you’re out of your head on malt liquor and crack, how you gonna fight the white man when he’s down on your back?” (NW)

They created song for their voice to be heard just as now rap and hip hop dominate music shouting out about injustice and disharmony when we are avoiding the obvious and relying on lies.

On a road never taken

From South Africa To South Carolina (Arista 1975)

“Whatever happened to the protest and the rage/and whatever happened to the voices of the sane/and whatever happened to the talks that gave a damn?/Did that justify dying in the jungles of Vietnam?” In the early 70s, even the most popular Black American music shifted into political gear (pop acts like The Chi-Lites, The O’Jays, The Undisputed Truth, War); shattered by defeats and retreats, the general mode by the mid-70s was frankly escapist.

Shakedown

Space Shuttle (Castle 12″ 1989)

Amnesia Express (Castle 1990)

For GSH, the 1980s were a personal wasteland, a long, dark night of the soul that matched pace with the deepening collective anxieties of African Americans as they watched the Reagan administration slap down Civil Rights and liberties. Throughout the 70s, he had chanted of the day-to-day suffering and spiritual degradation of a people trapped in a racist culture. Now he fell silent.

…….. he suffered the consequences of neglect and indifference. He developed a spiralling drug dependancy (which reached an apotheosis of sorts when he was deported during a 1989 UK tour for possession of cocaine). His occasional European appearances – one is documented on the two hour live set Amnesia Express – revealed a withered spirit.

……… on the song “Must Be Something”: “Tell you something, tell you something you can do/Keep on moving, keep on moving for what’s true.”

In Print

GSH began his engagement with creativity as a novelist and poet rather than as a musician; as a teenager in Jackson, Tennessee (he was born in Chicago) he was writing pulp detective stories. His literary direction shifted with his move to Spanish Harlem in the Bronx in the mid-60s, where he began factoring in a vivid socio-political dimension. He followed poet Langston Hughes onto the campus of Lincoln University (where he met Jackson), then took a degree in creative writing at Baltimore before moving on to the University of Columbia (eventually dropping out to pursue less academic callings). To date, his words have appeared across four volumes. The Vulture (World Publishing 1970) and The Nigger Factory (Dial Press 1972) are both novels. Small Talk At 725th & Lenox (World Publishing 1970) is a collection of poetry that provided much of the material for the album of the same name. So Far So Good(Third World Press 1990) reproduces the poems that originally appeared in a booklet that accompanied the 1979 LP The Mind Of Gil Scott-Heron.

When you read these words in conjunction with the play’s trajectory of this Islands history it is apparent there is still a world wide need for Civil Rights to be established representing the original Civil Rights needs and working to ensure battles won are reinforced and made available were they still remain absent. Attitude’s are changeable however the knowledge of this Information Age being much greater than the catalyst of Television broadcasting previously incrementally challenging those visions of National difference and harm has in these digital years, completely altered the framing of the issues. This itself is not generally accepted as a global societal tool outside of government but it is irresponsible not to engage in wider communications based on passive terms towards equality and sustaining our earth’s resource.

Conclusion ###3

For the arc of the play to cover fifty years in History made and being made it is a large task to contain the multi layered conflicted narratives of the past and narrowing on the present predicament of the absence of Civil Rights still apparent.

Reference is made to the outside world and some aspects of struggle s elsewhere are cited.  I have compared the diminishing local reporting of the period as far as the play is concerned but put in several wider elements to illustrate the huge importance of this movement of Civil Rights.  I believe it is the authors aim to show output past in the local sense but it is not challenging enough and never strays into too much contested territory.  The players on all levels do outstanding work lifting the moods of the play and acting roles which at times are stereo typical without the hard edge sacrifice of a dead body or two to mourn over.  It is an extremely difficult subject to handle and hopefully this will encourage other treatments.  The legacy is with us and will never leave.

About the actual work. Martin Lynch has chosen a structure which avoids the them and us polarised viewpoint but restricts it to a formula belonging to a certain sectarian riddled ‘everyman’ dialogue. Incidents fed the first half as hindsight fills the second. The central protagonists of Lesley and Vincent are pegs on a play board in a narrow working class range of experience. The wider community of the Lower Falls and Woodvale are locations where even the pigeons live shortened lives. Unlike the Woodvale Pigeon Club pigeons there are peacewalls and discriminating state institutions to navigate. The road taken is filled with choices. Location is predetermined division and the extremes are in 1968 unreconciled and badly lead by church and political powers. It was Ulsterman Thomas Hutchinson who was instrumental in fashioning ‘The Enlightenment’ in Scotland and the philosopher became a powerhouse with a hand in writing the American Declaration of Independence which happened to be the removal of colonialism from the North American continent. It came at a cost and is a settlement still contested. Black and Negroe rights were the Firestone of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the transgressions of the USA in other countries enabled by the ceding of voting rights to gain recruits to the mainly white armies, was a cause young Americans took to their knowledge driven Political ambitions. Television brought home the disgrace along with the actual witness of fighters and reporting which challenged the Presidential hegemony. The Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland had leadership and ideals which were quickly overan by violent republicanism which was met by a state which never ceded land without a battle and seldom relinquished power as it saw its place in the world, and still does as a force for good. Large built on the locality and condensed management of land, resources and scientific breakthroughs it built upon the assets stripped from around the world. Northern Ireland was and is a service star run from a distant attachment going back into the Street names.

John Graham

27 March 2018

Belfast

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