The words of a 19th century French novelist may seem a world away from working-class Belfast but the oft-quoted epigram of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, ‘the more things change the more they stay the same,’ could easily be applied to the latest stage production by northern Ireland’s Lyric Theatre.
Written by Rosemary Jenkinson as part of the theatre’s new writing program and directed by Jimmy Fay, the work is in some ways a testament to Karr’s sentiments insofar as racism and discrimination are concerned, with a hefty degree of mordant, black humor and mild hilarity in the mix.
Divided into two halves, separated by both time and characters, ‘Here Comes The Night,’ opens with a bare brick-wall façade of a house with a single window in its center. A black and white onscreen amateurish video shows former Irish President Éamon de Valera now in his 80s honoring the leaders of the 1916 revolution in Dublin during its 50-year anniversary.
Then the video fades leaving the audience staring at a man standing in the middle of the house parlor gazing intently out the window, in a 1960s setting with period furnishings including a record player and a typewriter, as well as an open hearth, its flames fed by nuggets of coal.
Vincent Gallagher is a struggling Catholic writer in east Belfast whose Irish Republican sentiments are deeply etched in his work, to the point where his pregnant, long-suffering wife Mary, concerned for their safety in a tension-filled, mixed religion neighborhood, calls in a priest to talk sense to him. Complicating matters is the fact that Vincent’s sister-in-law is dating his close friend, a Protestant postman, in a city where conflict between people of both religions has run deep for generations. Bomb and bullet follows but it would be a spoiler here to say what the effects are.
Skip 50 years. Now it’s the present day, the same apartment but with different owners, a sleek Apple personal computer having symbolically replaced the manual typewriter. A place where craft beer has replaced whisky as the drink of choice and fine-sounding phrases like ‘cultural restitution,’ ‘empowerment,’ and ‘inclusiveness’ come tripping off the tongue of a culture minister. For this is not the parochial Belfast of the earlier period. This is now a multinational, modern city, as illustrated by a Polish community worker and her Irish husband living in the same house, which symbolically they are renovating, as she prepares to welcome a group of Syrian refugees.
But have things really changed that much? Tension, fear and conflict still permeate the air but, as the play shows, this time it’s not just a simple Protestant-Catholic duality. As one character points out sourly, “Around here as always, the past comes back to bite you on the arse.”
Five actors ably play double roles, with Niall Cusack particularly impressive as a patronizing Catholic priest in the first half, then as a finicky representative of the Ulster Historical Society in the second; Susan Davey, as a mini-skirted flirt then as the Polish emigrant; and the versatile Kerri Quinn as the concerned wife, then as Donna, the haughty minister of culture. Unsurprisingly, Belfast-born Van Morrison’s hit ‘Here Comes The Night’ is the theme song.
The play runs at the Lyric until May 14. Interestingly, this weekend the theatre celebrates the fifth anniversary of the opening of its modern building.