Election drama

Playwrights stay up past bedtime to produce instant political theatre.

The play's the thing: as politicians stayed up way past bedtime on 6 May, a group of playwrights were also pulling an all-nighter to script five brand new dramas. Whilst politicos struggled with squaring the circles of government by Venn diagram, the "first five plays of the new parliament" were cast, rehearsed and produced by the Supporting Wall theatre company in just 24 hours. The resulting show was Election Drama, a one-night-only, rapid response to the election, which was staged at the New Players Theatre barely 48 hours after polls closed. Truly a breathtaking feat of theatrical chutzpah.

There was a palpable party mood amongst the youngish, probably leftish spectators, even if the party had overtones of the ship's band on the deck of the Titanic. Election metaphors flew everywhere: when someone was given a seat number in a non-existent row B, it was suggested by the man next to me that she "enter into negotiations with Rows A and C".

Staged just round the corner from where the "Take Back Parliament" protest had begun only hours before, this was a rare opening for dramatists to engage directly with unfolding events -- and to take the piss out of Ukip. Would they seize the opportunity to hang a tale on a hung parliament, or would they bottle it?

In truth, aside from some last minute on-trend references, carbon dating the moment of performance, as it were, the playlets could have been written at any time over the past year. But there was no doubting the authentic rawness of the performances as the actors struggled, scripts in hand, to deliver these newly-hatched dramas. At times, it was like watching a rehearsed reading; at others, the performers managed to deliver substantially more.

Our compères for the evening were the producers Ben Monks and Will Young, and in the spirit of making it up as you go along, they were standing in for an unknown celeb who couldn't make it (praise be). In fact, they were in danger of upstaging the actors in the likeability stakes, and their "back-room boy pushed to front of stage" personae worked like a charm.

The plays themselves were a varied bunch. Most eschewed actual politicians, perhaps confirming their irrelevance in everyday affairs. As might be expected, given the exigencies of rehearsal time and brevity, the most successful were those with sensibly curtailed aims, and the sort of broad-brush strokes that an audience can grasp quickly. That said, there was at times a real flexing of ambition.

Understandably, two of the playwrights scavenged off existing texts: Rex Obano's The Wrong Party reworked The Birthday Party and reproduced the surreal Pinteresque menace pretty well. A dishevelled and stringy Brown -- looking absolutely nothing like Brown -- is browbeaten by thuggish apparatchiks, the reincarnations of Pinter's Goldberg and McCann, who wring the requisite ambiguity and threat from the word "Party". The second overt hommage was Phil Wilmott's Act IV, which was a resetting of Uncle Vanya. And although there simply wasn't time to get it in full colour, the Chekhovian mood of disconsolate lassitude was spot on. The Russian gentry are transformed into a political dynasty on its uppers, sitting amidst the remains of the night's takeaway feast.

Just as in politics, women tended to be sidelined in these plays, with the notable exception of Megan Ford's Human Interest, which took this very marginalisation as its theme. A light gloss on the political WAGs, with cursory name changes (Brown to White; Sam Cam to Shabo), it was also the vehicle for the performance of the night. Sian Robins-Grace pulled off an inspired turn as a self-seeking TV presenter, and brought the house down as she leered, simpered and winked at the camera, all pertness and no pertinence.

The other short that I thought worked well was Anders Lustgarten's Bang Up, which dealt with the definitively disenfranchised -- prisoners -- on election night. A black crack-dealer's perception of himself as a true Tory (pays no tax, is self-reliant) was first class mischief. However, the final moments, when the Afghan prisoner is deported, slightly over-stretched this neat, diagrammatic piece. The final show, Che Walker's Two Thousand and Twelve, seemed to be pulled in many directions, from Greek mythology to post-Afghanistan stress, via a bleak dystopian near-future. Despite its eye wateringly brutal language of "single slut mums" and "cage fighter daddies", it never really rose off the page.

So a patchy but passionate evening, during whiche not every word counted. Just like the election, then.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution