Thursday 27 July 2017

The playwright they tried to bomb off the stage. . .

'I've spent my life being jealous of Catholics." It's not something you expect to hear from a working-class, loyalist, Ulster protestant. But then, Gary Mitchell is no ordinary working-class Protestant.

"I used to think that if I walked down the Falls Road, I'd get shot.

"But the last time I walked down the Falls Road, a fellow came up to me and said, 'Gary, I heard your play on RTÉ -- it was brilliant!'"

This makes for a harsh paradox for Mitchell (pictured below). He is feted in places that are foreign to him -- Dublin, London, nationalist Belfast -- but afraid to set foot in the place his plays are about: the bleak estates of Rathcoole in Belfast, where he grew up.

Republicans, he says, "celebrate everything about themselves. They even have a f***ing arts festival!" But loyalism is under siege, and has no tradition of arts or literature.

Mitchell had success in the late 1990s, at the Abbey in Dublin, and at the Royal Court in London, with a series of taut, timely thrillers set amidst loyalist paramilitarism. The Guardian called him "arguably Northern Ireland's greatest playwright".

He wasn't afraid to expose the violence, the thuggery, the corruption and the collusion seamed throughout his community; yet the overriding sense from these plays is of love for his place and its people.

But as his plays brought him to prominence, he started to attract the attentions of the UDA, which effectively policed Rathcoole.

They decided they didn't like what he was doing. Not because of anything he was saying, per se, but simply because if "the Taigs in Dublin" liked it, he must have been doing something wrong.

The BBC filmed one of his plays, As the Beast Sleeps, but only thanks to the willingness of nationalist representatives to have their areas stand in for the loyalist ones. Then there was a series of ugly incidents -- a punch in the chest, taunts, a bullet through his window. At the time, he thought they were isolated, part and parcel of living in Rathcoole.

"This is a place where, growing up, somebody tells you they're 'going to f***ing shoot you' every day."

Until one night in 2005, when his car was firebombed, parked outside his house. He fled with his family to a "safe" area of Northern Ireland, where nobody would know him.

The bleak reality of Mitchell's story is he has no work forthcoming.

"Before the firebombing of my car I had 16 stage plays professionally produced in Belfast, Dublin, London and Londonderry, and some abroad. I had 18 radio plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and Radio 3, three television plays, and won nine awards.

"Since the firebombing, I've done four radio plays (all for RTÉ) and one stage play."

Tonight's programme in the RTÉ Radio 1 series, From Stage to Street, features an extended interview with Mitchell, which I did last week. "I don't see art winning. I don't see the pen being mightier than the sword."

He is still furiously wielding that pen, and has scripts "out there", with various theatre and film companies, including a commission from the Abbey -- but no sign of productions.

This is something of a mystery; I can't fathom it. His plays bristle with anger, energy and insight. It may be that, to theatre producers in London, for example, the Northern story is no longer "sexy", or that his story is no longer new, and they've grown bored.

It's a disgrace, as is the lack of attention his predicament has received in recent years.

"I don't know if I will still be a writer next year," he says, "but I'm trying my best."

Despite the cuts, there is a booming theatre scene in Dublin at the moment. One of these young Turks -- or their older peers -- should give Mitchell a call. We need to hear his voice.

colinmurphy@independent.ie

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