- Theatres of the Troubles: Theatre, Resistance and Liberation in Ireland
In 1993, a production of Vincent Wood's play At the Black Pig's Dyke by the Galway theatre company Druid was interrupted by masked performers. They came to the stage and read aloud an alternative ending to the play, in protest of its depiction of nationalist violence. The Druid show, which drew on the masked Irish folk performance practice of "mumming," was countered by a series of competing masks—the union jacks and balaclavas worn by the protestors—and a competing historical narrative that implicated British rule in the use of violence by Republican terrorists. The protesters, it turned out, were actors from the Derry Frontline Theatre company, who intervened in the show using Augusto Boal's Forum Theatre techniques. Nonetheless, the threat implied by these menacing masks caused some of the show's Druid performers to flee the theatre, convinced that their lives were in danger.
Bill McDonnell's excellent book Theatres of the Troubles locates itself at this sort of intersection between political theory and theatrical intervention. A community-based English artist, whose work took him to Belfast during the "Troubles," McDonnell offers a remarkable account of the rich and varied theatrical practices that emerged during the violent struggle in Northern Ireland during the 1980s and '90s. Examining community-based performance, McDonnell offers a thorough and personally implicated account of the theatrical processes of companies [End Page 205] such as the People's Theatre, Belfast Community Theatre, DubbelJoint, the performance work by prisoners in the infamous H-Blocks, and of course, Derry Frontline Theatre. McDonnell situates this work within its political and social contexts in Northern Ireland and in the broader landscape of liberationist political philosophy, examining in particular how Brazilian and African theatre practices and political theories influenced the work of these Northern Irish companies.
In doing so, McDonnell offers an extremely useful resource for scholars, drawing from previously unused archival sources. Furthermore, McDonnell's account of his own role in some of this work, establishing and safe-guarding an easily lost and very important record of theatre that took place under remarkable conditions, sheds light on his productive engagement with materials including letters, unpublished play scripts, and eyewitness accounts. How many theatre productions, for example, are based on play scripts written by prisoners in fragments on cigarette papers smuggled out of prison, and performed by the prisoners' family and community? It is by offering careful and detailed accounts of such extraordinary theatre practices that McDonnell provides a sense of the role that theatre played in crystallizing community allegiances, concerns, and anxieties during this period.
In this, McDonnell demonstrates his commitment to the transformative and therapeutic powers of theatre in times of conflict. He also provides an invaluable sense of the aesthetic and formal influences on this work by European radical theatre makers and Augusto Boal, opening up a fascinating terrain for future scholars. McDonnell's analysis, true to his own applied-theatre roots, focuses largely on the politics of the theatrical process, but we are given a less clear sense of what it meant to be a spectator at this work. This will be a fruitful avenue for further research.
McDonnell's personal relationship to the theatre described here forms the book's great strength but, as he acknowledges, it also leads to a largely nationalist and republican focus to the scholarship, due to the relative absence of a theatrical culture in loyalist and unionist communities. This also means that the contradictions and conflict that took place during the making of some of the theatre work, which were revealed in problematic attitudes toward sexuality and race and in a conservative approach to theatrical form, are acknowledged but not elaborated in detail. However, these tensions and contradictions constitute some of the most interesting aspects of this history. The ways in which political radicalism and left-wing theatre can intersect with homophobia or racism, and equally...