When news broke of the collapse of the current round of political attempts to bring devolved government back to Northern Ireland, as it is found in Edinburgh and Cardiff, government centres in other parts of the United Kingdom, hundreds of us went to the theatre, specifically to The Playhouse in Derry, to see Liam Campbell's terrific new play, The Bog Couple.
The show is a sell-out, which is great for theatres, but not for political parties, who cannot show a side on which the phrase ‘sell-out’ can be scrawled. The play opens with a cabal of poker players bantering and hectoring themselves into a lather of worry that one of their members, Felix, has gone missing and may be severely depressed as he has been rudely uncoupled.
Just as seems to have happened with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin (SF) at Stormont, except that they’re both out of the house now. Along with all the other parties, who, when you tot up their mandates, represent a sizeable chunk of the voting population.
Thankfully, Felix turns up and, in early scenes of uproarious slapstick, expertly directed by Kieran Griffiths, involving keeping Felix away from open windows, kitchen utensils and pills, all returns to calm. Oscar, Felix’s friend, says he can stay until he gets himself sorted out. Felix is astounded and delighted and, in the play's most deliciously sentimental irony, Oscar admits that he is lonely.
Many of us aahed from the comfort of the bleachers.
No one wants to be lonely. Except perhaps Masters of the Universe-types who think they rule the world from corporate, governmental and banking high-rises. Or, in our own little world, from a colonial heap in Stormont.
The poker game in the play is a cabal. The talks in Stormont are a cabal. And, as one member of the DUP is reported to have said, ‘no preparation was made for the climb-down”. Silly that, for all political talks, like relationships, proceed in compromises and climb-downs, u-turns and revised promises.
The differences between the play and the politics are that the play is a rip-roaring laugh and that we trust the work before us and the artists who bring it to us, to not let us down. They meet all our desires not to be lonely. As a serial gag-fest, the play puts a strain on our ability to keep up, at times. Just like the politicians do. The play doesn't leave its audience behind, however. The politicians do.
Of course, they may have their eyes on other venues and settings. The DUP on Westminster. Sinn Féin on Dublin. There are reports of tension within the DUP between MPs, who wish to play power games with Teresa May’s Tories and locally-based Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), who have to go to small towns and rural parishes and explain to people that “yes, there will be some kind of deal and an official recognition of Irish, just as there is in Wales for Welsh and Scotland for Gaelic, because we are as British as those places, but don’t worry, you won't have to put the name to your Orange Hall in Irish above the front door”.
The play’s strongest section is still funny, but more dramatically so. It occurs in the second act, at the point where cultural and national identity differences, partition (the border in the flat is drawn with sugar, a form of sweet rather than hard Brexit, perhaps) and the movement of people in the face of violence, including sectarianism, are jousted between Oscar and Felix. They acknowledge each other's sacrifices and efforts. They hold to friendship. They acknowledge hurt. But even they cannot hold together and Felix leaves/is thrown out, depending on your interpretation.
As an aside, the research commissioned by the Pat Finucane Centre into Protestant migration from the West Bank of Derry-Londonderry, 1968-1980, by Dr Ulf Hansson and Dr Helen McLaughlin, will be published in early March.
So here we are with regard to the failed talks. Sinn Féin, and many others, say a deal was close to hand, a classic fudge of language and legislation, over the weekend past, sufficient to get the Taoiseach from Dublin and the Prime Minister from London to put on their flak jackets and venture into the cabal-infested hotspots of Stormont. Usually such personages only land in the sticks when they can throw laurel wreaths around and rub noses with natives in joyous celebrations. This time the two leaders of the nations who guarantee the legal standing of our wee country left with their garlands in tatters and the sleety gusts of failure as their tailwinds.
Not so Felix and Oscar. Change, but never failure. It’s a comedy, after all. Or maybe they embrace failure as all there ever is. The words of Samuel Beckett ring in our ears. We should go on and learn to fail better.
We went home smiling, after a fine night at the theatre. Just like John McGrath (A Good Night Out) said we could.
You go into a space, and some other people use certain devices to tell you a story. Because they have power over you, in a real sense, while you are there, they make a choice, with political implications, as to which story to tell – and how to tell it.
We woke up to snow, recriminations and disagreements over what exactly did happen. What we do know is that bumbling, austere and thoughtless Tories will soon set budgets and take decisions on our hospitals, schools, roads, rail and social services. It will be neither a gag-fest nor dramatically funny.
Unlike The Bog Couple by Liam Campbell, in a fine Playhouse production, directed by Kieran Griffiths, well-served by a fine cast, notably Pat Lynch and Gerry Doherty, as the principals, which is both a riotous gag-fest and dramatically funny.
We need to get the people off the bleachers and into the game, the democratic game, where the cabal is shut down and the chips and the cards go about fairly.
As Neil Simon said
Take care of him/her. And make him/her feel important. And if you can do that, you'll have a happy and wonderful marriage. Like two out of every ten couples.