Check out the Sunday Times Feature on Marie Jones, ahead of her new play Dear Arabella:
Dear Marie Jones, doyenne of Northern Ireland drama
The playwright’s Dear Arabella shows the real 1950s, when domestic violence victims were given a cup of tea and sent home.
At the Lyric Theatre on Belfast’s Ridgeway Street, it’s all hands on deck. Marie Jones’s latest play, Dear Arabella, is in rehearsal and a huge promotional poster is being hung over the concrete stairway leading to a bustling cafe on the first floor. “Hold on to your hats,” yells producer Jimmy Fay as young finance, marketing and production staff lend a hand. Hearts are in mouths. It’s a fittingly dramatic affair.
Jones observes the operation from below, urging restraint with matriarchal concern. When the poster frame finally clicks into place, she whoops and claps in recognition of a job well done. “Jimmy told me that they’d need the full team to hang it and I thought, ‘Catch yourself on. Sure, it’s only a poster,’” she laughs, leading the way to a quiet space once the kerfuffle has died down. “But it’s bigger than I imagined. Although no less than I deserve.”
Don’t mistake that statement for arrogance. Jones is merely “telling it like it is” and being as funny and ferociously forthright as ever. Now 67, she is unquestionably the doyenne of Northern Irish theatre. Her plays always put bums on seats in the Lyric, as they have on Broadway and in the West End. She’ll accept the occasional pat on the back for her efforts. The Lyric staff greet her like a playful aunt — Fay no doubt fully expected the ribbing he received for not paying to have the poster professionally installed.
It’s always been important to Jones that women’s voices be heard. Dear Arabella, which developed out of a 20-minute monologue commissioned by London’s Old Vic, is set in Belfast and the surrounding area during the 1960s. It features three women — played by Laura Hughes, Lucia McAnespie and Katie Tumelty — telling tales of love, regret and loss. Directed by Lindsay Posner, the theme of Dear Arabella is close to Jones’s heart.
“If women today feel trapped or oppressed, there are outlets where they can vent their spleen,” she explains. “There’s the #MeToo movement, which is fantastic. There are social media, support groups, multiple opportunities to share experiences and have your voice heard. But it wasn’t the same for the stoical, working-class east Belfast women I grew up around, women who lived with husbands who didn’t talk about their feelings — who lived with the shipyards, with redundancy, with abuse.
“In those days, in the Fifties and Sixties, a man could be arrested for kicking a horse or a dog but not [for kicking] his wife. Women who reported violent men to the police were given a cup of tea and told to go home and not agitate. They had to find ways of coping. That could be a chance meeting on a train or a chat with a stranger on a beach. The door to change can open on very small hinges. That’s what my three characters — Arabella, Jean and Elsie — do for each other without even knowing it.”
Jones found her creative voice treading the boards as an actress and founder of Charabanc Theatre Company, a female-led collective that produced vital new work during the dark days of the Troubles in the 1980s and early 1990s. It first staged the Martin Lynch play Lay Up Your Ends, about a group of female linen workers who went on strike in 1911. A huge success, it encouraged Jones to press on.
Her work is political with a small p; she cites Arthur Miller as a key influence. “I explore universal themes,” she says. “I’m not interested in the flimsy satirical stuff popular in Northern Ireland at the minute. It’s too parochial; it’ll never travel. With Charabanc, I wanted to explore how the politics of the world, not necessarily the politics of Northern Ireland, affects families, and I’m still interested in that subject.”
Women on the Verge of HRT, about two women on a pilgrimage to Daniel O’Donnell’s home town, expertly balanced pathos with bathos and found a wide audience. “The characters feel that they’re disappearing. They’re mourning their youth, living with the menopause, bombarded with images of beautiful young women and obsessed with Daniel O’Donnell. We performed it in London and I worried that the Japanese tourists wouldn’t get the gist, so I asked them what it meant to them and one lady said, ‘Men are bastards everywhere.’ It’s not exactly what I was going for, but each to their own.”
Jones’s agent is kept busy with requests from theatre companies in Canada, Japan and Germany to license her work. The royalties are stacking up. “I’m big with the Scandies too,” Jones laughs, having just returned from Reykjavík, where she directed a new production of her 2012 play Fly Me to the Moon. Another work was recently staged in Helsinki. They get the humour there. It’s a geg [laugh], but I love it. It was just like being at home,” she quips, “surrounded by geezers.”
Jones grew up in Protestant east Belfast and still lives there. “You know how Van Morrison sang about the bright side of the road? I grew up on the other side. Come four o’clock, we’d be in shadow while the neighbours on the other side of the street would be sunning themselves. You’d be standing for ages waiting for them to invite you over.” Today, she lives in affluent Ravenhill Park, with her husband, and fellow actor, Ian McElhinney. All but one of their three sons, the aforementioned geezers, have flown the coop.
“It’s a quiet house these days,” Jones agrees. “Even Ian and I are like ships in the night. He’s so busy filming so many things these days — Krypton, Silent Witness — that we hardly ever see each other. When we do, we don’t talk about work at home, but he directs my plays a lot. He understands and respects the material, so we love working together. It’s never a challenge.
“And he’s cheap. I make him do it for nothing. What’s he going to say, no?”
As we speak, McElhinney is in rehearsals for the second series of Channel 4’s Derry Girls, playing the foul-mouthed Granda Joe. “Derry Girls hi! It’s been phenomenal,” she laughs. “Ian’s naturally quite conservative so it was a bit odd to watch him play someone so brash. But after the first episode it really started to grow on us, and when it was over, Jesus Christ, we couldn’t go anywhere. I remember we went to Portrush for the day and he was mobbed in the car park. Of all the things he’s done, suddenly Granda Joe is the biggest.”
Jones is grateful that she hasn’t had to earn a second income teaching on the side — “Even Seamus [Heaney] had to work at Harvard” — and can, as a result, focus solely on her plays. Next up is a revamped version of Archy and Mehitabel, a stage adaptation of short stories written by Don Marquis, a columnist for The Evening Sun newspaper in New York City in the 1920s. “It’s about a worker who transmigrates into a cockroach during the Great Depression,” says Jones. “We put it on in the Baby Grand [an auditorium in the Grand Opera House] and I just loved it. Our plan is to take it up a notch for larger venues. I’m looking forward to flexing my muscles.”
Dear Arabella is at the Lyric, Belfast, until November 10
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