The Exodus

Blue Eagle Productions present 'The Exodus' by Jonathan Burgess.

Blue Eagle Productions present 'The Exodus' by Jonathan Burgess.

The Exodus is fairly representative of a strand of practice within Northern Irish theatre where the default aesthetic is a kind of dreary naturalism. Jonathan Burgess’s new play concerns the events surrounding the displacement of Protestant families in the late 1960s and early 1970s from the west bank of the River Foyle in Derry (now a largely Catholic area on the City side) to the relative safety of New Buildings and other areas on the predominantly Protestant Waterside area of the city. Burgess is right when he says in a programme note that “With the award of UK City of Culture [to Derry for 2013] and the genuine movement towards a shared future, this is an aspect of the heritage of the city which should be acknowledged if that aspiration towards a shared future is going to be realised in any real way.” Watching The Exodus, however, is a paradoxical experience: the effect of hearing and seeing important things said and enacted in awkward and theatrically outmoded ways.

Burgess’s script explicitly draws heavy parallels with the story of the historical Siege of Derry, suggesting this more contemporary series of events resulting from the Troubles - though mostly ignored or glossed over locally - has been a deeply painful experience for the Protestant people of the Foyle. Burgess is both writer and director on this production, choosing the naturalist form to explore the socio-historical events by examining their psychological impact on a single family. The events of the play, then, unfold in the Hamilton household. Trevor Hamilton, a staunch and respectable clothier, refuses to acknowledge his city is shrinking around him. After the recent death of his wife, we learn he had been forced to negotiate with the IRA to bury his wife in a City side graveyard. As keyholder for his work premises in the city centre, his job increasingly draws him into potentially life threatening situations as he is required to check it for incendiary devices during bomb alerts. Other families have already left the City side. Emma, Trevor’s daughter, worries for their safety if they remain. When a young man she has started seeing, Alec Lyttle (a part-time UDR man), is shot dead outside her house, Emma finally convinces her father it’s time to surrender and leave.

Blue Eagle Productions present 'The Exodus' by Jonathan Burgess.Helen Quigley’s set for this production attempts to function as a typical magic box naturalist container, but is cluttered with unnecessary furniture that often impedes actors and severely limits the ways in which Burgess can encourage them to occupy the space. On the opening night Andrew Orr’s lighting design still had issues to iron out in terms of cuing, while Paul Rooney’s sound design required a lighter touch in sections using News Reports for dramatic effect. Burgess’s script is at times similarly inelegant. He struggles to explore these widespread events through the concentrated circumstances of a single family home, with the result that he gives his characters too much to say and pushes them to theatrical cliché: proud and respectable victims trying to survive the ‘senseless violence’ surrounding them. This is compounded by a text that too often offers characters the chance to hold the stage with unnecessary speeches that are in effect little more than extended moments of exposition.

Burgess’s direction doesn’t relieve the situation. Limited acting space aside, he facilitates a series of flatly conceived gestures from his actors: double-shoulder grabs and middle distance stares are frequently used to underscore moments of dramatic tension. Too often the stage business is inexplicably drawn out and scenes allowed far past the point where they are fulfilling any dramatic or symbolic function. Burgess’s text would benefit from trimming and some judicious directorial intervention.

However, Burgess’s sincerity for the subject matter is always evident in this production and he effectively establishes the play’s tone and mood. He also has a keen sense for the characters; the fictional world he creates is unapologetically local and specific, and he encourages his actors to dramatically work this specificity. This is very much a Derry play. Jim Lecky’s portrayal of Trevor is heartfelt but technically flawed. As a local Derry man himself, Lecky clearly understands Trevor and wants to communicate this with the audience, but as an actor his range is limited and the choices he makes too often clichéd. Sorcha Shanahan is stronger as Emma, her energy more focused – although she too struggles with some of the longer speeches Burgess’s script asks of her.

Derry’s a strange place these days. Army helicopters still routinely circle the airspace above the Bogside and Creggan, droning nostalgically into the night, while beneath them hardliner republicans insist on their right to bomb and kill in peculiarly retro-styled demos. Under the din of it all, though, arts practitioners and community activists are trying to use the City’s cultural capital status to enact meaningful introspection. Indigenous practitioners like Burgess must be funded to continue this work. But, equally, they must also be asked to seek dramatic forms vital enough to carry that work.

Paul Devlin is a Lecturer in Drama in the University of Ulster’s School of Creative Arts, Magee Campus, Derry.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Exodus by Jonathan Burgess

13 April – 26 September, 2011

Produced by Blue Eagle Productions
In Waterside Theatre (on tour)

Directed by Jonathan Burgess

Set & Costume Design: Helen Quigley

Lighting Design: Andrew Orr

Sound Design: Paul Rooney

With: James Lecky, Sorcha Shanahan, Arthur Oliver-Brown

Tour dates: 12 May - Alley Theatre, Strabane; 18 May - Strule Arts Centre, Omagh; 21 May - The Braid Arts Centre, Ballymena; 10 September - Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen; 14 September - Theatre At The Mill, Newtownabbey; 16 September - Marketplace Theatre, Armagh; 22 September - Riverside Theatre, Coleraine; 26 September - Millennium Forum, Londonderry.

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘Your Heritage’ Programme, Derry City Council and Community Relations Council.