The Stage: Charting 50 dramatic years in Northern Irish theatre history

The Stage looks back on 50 years of the Lyric on Ridgeway Street!

In a turbulent half-century, Belfast’s Lyric Theatre has survived bombings, irate resignations and a costly rebuild. Michael Quinn looks at how the venue has flourished despite the setbacks and forged strong community ties.

Three days after Belfast’s Lyric Theatre opened on October 26, 1968, its founder and artistic director Mary O’Malley resigned in protest at demands for the British national anthem to be played after every performance. A harbinger of difficult times ahead as the fledgling venue struggled to find its feet, it was not an auspicious start, despite O’Malley’s swift return as ‘artistic adviser’, retaining the position until her retirement in 1976.

Worse was to follow. The bloody sectarian conflict that came to be known, with typical Ulster diffidence, as “the Troubles” erupted the same year and blighted Northern Ireland for the next three decades, its violent aftershocks still being felt. Situated in leafy, South Belfast by the River Lagan, the Lyric was not immune to the events unfolding on its doorstep.

In 1975, on the first night of Patrick Galvin’s We Do It for Love, a musical about the Troubles, a 200lb bomb exploded under O’Malley’s car, taking a chunk out of the theatre’s exterior. “Everyone’s a critic,” one wag allegedly said at the time. Undaunted, the run continued and gave the Lyric a big early success with a UK tour bookended by performances at the Royal Court and Young Vic in London.

The company’s response to the explosion – as much, perhaps, as Galvin’s title – became the abiding metaphor for Northern Ireland’s only building-based theatre company as it grappled with realising O’Malley’s vision of “a poet’s theatre”, weathered perennial funding problems and survived a turnover of artistic directors that might have caused other companies to buckle and fold. With characteristically headstrong Belfast fortitude, it survived and this weekend celebrates its 50th anniversary.

The Lyric’s origins date back to 1951 when the Cork-born, Belfast-domiciled Labour councillor O’Malley and her doctor husband, Pearse, formed the Lyric Players Theatre in the front room of their home. Demand led to the building of a bespoke performing space, triggering the ambition for a permanent home.

Echoing issues with its recent rebuild in 2011, the company’s 300-seat home was scheduled to open in 1967 but was delayed by what The Stage reported as “financial problems that necessitated a change in the architectural plans”.
When it finally opened the following year, at a cost of £70,000, it announced itself with a week of WB Yeats’ Cuchulainn cycle, the theatre’s original constitution obliging the company to produce one of his plays every season. Legend has it that the Lyric is the only company in the world to have staged all of the writer’s plays.

Yeats was followed by John Whiting’s Penny for a Song, Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun and then a month-long closure to allow for a “management reorganisation” that ushered in O’Malley’s return alongside Christopher Fitz-Simon as director of productions. It closed again in late 1969 following allegations of “political overtones” – dangerous words in Northern Ireland at the time – in a period that witnessed the shortest tenure for the Lyric’s long list of directors of production: Peter Jackson departed after just three weeks.

But the Lyric bounced back and under Jackson’s successor, Tomas Mac Anna (acclaimed by Joe Dowling as “one of the great heroes of Irish theatre”), began to forge a reputation for itself. His 1972 staging of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui prompted The Stage to remark: “With a producer like him, the company could become one of the most important in the United Kingdom.” Mac Anna’s departure for the US soon after curtailed that ambition.

The next two decades were marked by a dizzying succession of directors at the helm – Michael Poynor, Tony Dinner (later head of the BBC’s now long-gone script department), Leon Rubin, Roland Jaquarello, Richard Digby Day and Robin Midgley among them. As artistic director for five years from 2001, Belfast-born Paula McFetridge remains the only woman apart from O’Malley to have held the Lyric’s reins.

That constant churn had some positive consequences, the theatre’s sense of point and purpose constantly refreshed as it wrestled with the creative conundrum that remains the same now as it was half a century ago: how do you make theatre for a divided society?

Its response has been a mix of classic plays, modern standards and new work and the emergence of successive generations of actors and writers giving questioning voice to a region locked in perpetual dispute with itself.
Actors such as Stella McCusker, John Hewitt, Mark Mulholland, Louis Rolston and Dan Gordon created a new standard for performance in the region with then newcomers Liam Neeson, Simon Callow and Gerard Murphy all finding their feet on the Lyric stage.
Writers given a platform included Stewart Parker, John Boyd, Christina Reid, Robin Glendinning and Graham Reid. These have been joined more recently by Gary Mitchell, Owen McCafferty, Jimmy Murphy, David Ireland and Abbie Spallen.

Its biggest success to date has been the second iteration of Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pockets (the first was produced by DubbelJoint) in 1999, which earned the playwright an Olivier award and introduced actor Conleth Hill to the West End. Jones’ latest, Dear Arabella, has just opened at the Lyric.

Plans for a new home on its original site were mooted in 1993 when the price tag was £4 million. Just over a decade later, the cost had tripled. By the time its handsome new building opened in 2011, the final bill was £18.1 million.
Although ghosts of the past stubbornly haunt the Lyric, the boost provided by its new, twin-space home has seen it reassert its status as Northern Ireland’s flagship theatre company. Under the stewardship of executive producer Jimmy Fay since 2014, it has broadened its reach with co-productions, touring, an active outreach and education department and a commitment to training actors and technical staff.

Though it no longer stages an annual Yeats production, the Lyric remains rooted in its community. Mary O’Malley, who died in 2006, would have approved.

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