Rehearsals have begun for the first in a season of Belfast plays at the Lyric Theatre to celebrate 400 years since the city received its charter as a town.
Mixed Marriage by St John Ervine kicks off the Tales of the City season and although it is set over 100 years ago in sectarian-torn Belfast, the drama remains as relevant today.
Despite the great strides of the peace process, recent civil unrest in Belfast over the flying of the Union Jack flag exposed the fact that sectarian tensions are still raw across Northern Ireland.
While the play is set on the eve of the Ulster Covenant, it provides a still-topical account of the destructive impact of religious sectarianism and intolerance generally on family life.
As the city's factories come out on strike, John Rainey, the respected head of a Protestant family, acts to calm the sectarian tension being stirred up by politicians for their own ends. On the streets, Rainey successfully unites Catholic and Protestant against the machinations of the factory owners, the nationalists and the Orangemen. But at home, it is a different matter altogether when Rainey discovers that his son wants to marry the beautiful, innocent Nora, who happens to be a Catholic.
Mixed Marriage was first performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in 1911 and was a ground-breaking success at the time, establishing Ervine as a great Irish writer who would later pen another Ulster classic, Boyd’s Shop.
Acclaimed director Jimmy Fay, who is a stalwart of the Abbey, has breathed new life into this production to create a powerful piece of theatre with a stellar cast from Northern Ireland.
Marty Maguire (Dockers) plays strike leader, Rainey and Katie Tumelty (Fly Me to the Moon, The Miser) his long-suffering wife who struggles to deal with her husband’s stubborn sectarianism. Their two sons are played by Darren Franklin (Macbeth) and Brian Markey whose character Hugh Rainey falls for Nora Murray, played by Karen Hassan (Hollyoaks, Fifty Dead Men Walking). Rising star Gerard Jordan (The Fall) also plays a key role as nationalist Michael O’Hara who tries to prevent religious differences being exploited.
“I'm always fascinated by how the past haunts the present,” said director, Jimmy Fay. “A hundred years ago a lot happened to this island and we are still trying to come to terms with it. Mixed Marriage is like a play from a dream. It was written a century ago by a Unionist for a Nationalist theatre, the Abbey, with a Protestant family at its core – radical for the Dublin stage.”
He added: “It pleads for tolerance and an end to bigotry. But it dramatises the harsh sensuality of illicit love, a troubled marriage, religious intolerance, revolutionary ideology and a flaming riot all with the vibrant juggling verve of a brilliant young playwright. I think it's one of the great lost plays of the Irish literary tradition.”
Gilly Campbell, Drama and Dance Officer, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, commented:
“The Lyric has provided an outstanding cultural programme over the past 60 years and has continued to generate some of the most ground-breaking and innovative theatre in its new state-of-the-art home. The Arts Council enjoys a strong partnership with the Lyric Theatre and we look forward to another exciting year ahead.”
Mixed Marriage runs on the Danske Bank Stage from 30 January to 23 February (previews 27 & 29 January). Tickets from £15 - £24.