17th Aug 2007

Protestantism, football and shame – theatre critic post

Just been to the Grand Opera House in Belfast with me ma to see a play, A Night in November by Marie Jones, starring Patrick Kielty. Like just about every play produced in Northern Ireland since God was a lad, it’s a comedy about sectarianism with a single set doing multiple duties as a variety of locations – a football terrace, a living room, an office, a golf course, New York, etc – with a tiny cast – tinier than usual in fact: just Kielty. He plays Kenneth Norman McAllister, a mildly bigoted Belfast protestant who is shocked by the extreme bigotry hurled by Northern Ireland football fans at visiting Republic of Ireland fans during a match at Windsor Park in the qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, learns to love “the other side” and eventually goes to New York to support the Republic in the World Cup.

Now, it’s very funny, and Kielty performs it very well, playing not only Kenneth but all the other characters in asides. But its subject matter is political, and politically, it’s crap. Its message is, prods are uptight, snobby and conventional, not to mention sectarian, while fenians are happy, free-spirited and spontaneous, and not a sectarian thought would ever cross their minds. When prods support their football team and hurl abuse at their opponents, it’s out of hatred, but when fenians do it it’s in a spirit of fun and togetherness. Prods are horrible, and can only redeem themselves by realising how horrible they are, rejecting everything about themselves and switching sides.

I don’t know much about Marie Jones, but I understand she’s a Belfast protestant herself. So am I. I went through an adolescent phase when, after learning about the crimes “my side” had committed, my sympathy for the “other side” became idealisation – a lot of us do, in adolescence. But it didn’t take long to realise how unrealistic that was. Yes, terrible things have been done by and on behalf of the protestant community in Northern Ireland, but it helps no-one to be ashamed of who you are. It’s possible to reject sectarian hatred and tribal loyalty without rejecting your own identity. In fact, it’s better if you don’t – how can you speak to your own community if you’ve rejected them and effectively joined another, or at least become a wannabe?

There are no positive images of protestants in this play, and no negative images of catholics. Although Kenneth checks under his car for IRA bombs, this is part of the comedy, the lowly clerk imagining he’s important enough to be a target; meanwhile, the play is bookended by a pair of horrific loyalist atrocities, which contribute to Kenneth’s change of character. Who is this supposed to speak to? I can’t imagine Catholics appreciating the patronising, “magic negro” portrayal of their community, and for a protestant, this play is an extended terrace chant of “you’re shit, and you know you are.” That’s hardly helpful to anybody.

Edited to add: Here’s a link to a review of another production of the play from the Montreal Mirror, that expresses what I was trying to say a bit more articulately and succinctly. Scroll down to the bit entitled “November Unmemorable”.

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