Paisley & Me

Steve Blount and Dan Gordon in 'Paisley & Me' by Ron Hutchinson. Photo: Aidan Monaghan

Steve Blount and Dan Gordon in 'Paisley & Me' by Ron Hutchinson. Photo: Aidan Monaghan

Stella McCusker & Dan Gordon in 'Paisley and Me' by Ron Hutchinson. Photo: Aidan Monaghan

Stella McCusker & Dan Gordon in 'Paisley and Me' by Ron Hutchinson. Photo: Aidan Monaghan

The second play in the Ulster Trilogy, Green Shoot’s audit of the current state of play in Northern Ireland, heads deep into the heart of the Protestant community – or, at least, into the heart of one of its constituencies, for the very name of Ian Paisley is as divisive a force within that community as it is on the other side of the once-unbridgeable cultural divide. Yet, against all odds, it was the same Paisley who took a giant step for mankind when he joinied hands with his former nemesis Martin McGuinness to form one of the most unlikely power-sharing partnerships in modern day political history.

Green Shoot's Trilogy is intended as a means not only of making theatre accessible and relevant to as wide an audience as possible but also of initiating dialogue and frank exchange within the safe environment of the theatre. The first play, Sam Miller’s Brothers in Arms, produced earlier this year, may not have been the greatest piece of writing but its very existence challenged attitudes and motivations within dissident republicanism, sparking fractious debate between senior political figures and grass-roots volunteers, many of them coming together in a public forum for the very first time.

The company has achieved something of a coup in persuading former Royal Shakespeare Company writer-in-residence Ron Hutchinson to take time out from his highly successful day job as a Los Angeles screenwriter and revisit the roots he thought he had long ago left behind. The result is a classic case of the old saying that you can take a man out of Ulster but there is no way on God’s green earth that you can take Ulster out of the man.

Photo: Aidan MonaghanPaisley & Me has received widespread media coverage in the North, much of it based on the misplaced premise that it is a play about the iconic firebrand preacher, who became a born-again Christian at the age of six and has since gone on to live a long, colourful life, crammed with incident, controversy, public protest and political chicanery - a subject crying out for dramatisation. But contrary to the publicity images, this is not a play about Ian Paisley. It is a play about Ron Hutchinson. And while many may have chosen to ignore that small detail, Hutchinson himself has made no bones about it, not least by underlining the fact in his plain, unequivocal title.

Hutchinson is a fine, astute writer, whose hallmark style features a dry wit and a tangential view of the world. Within Ciaran Bagnall’s semi-realistic set, his alter ego Me (Stephen Blount) has returned to the ruins of the family homestead, which stands squat on the County Antrim peatlands, watched over by silent, rolling hills. This is the stern landscape which shaped his early boyhood and left an indelible mark on the adult he was to become. The script reveals the biographical facts of his story – his peripatetic father, the religious fervour of his mother, the family uprooting to England, the abandoning of religious beliefs and new beginnings in the glossy showbiz environment of California. Time and distance have long separated him, yet still he calls himself an Ulster Protestant – for reasons he can neither articulate nor understand.

He comes seeking answers to these nagging questions and to probe his connection to Paisley and the fundamentalism devoutly espoused by his much loved mother. In putting his own identity on trial, he calls as witnesses the ghosts of his parents and the touchstone figure who was the sole cause for argument throughout their 60-year marriage. And in the process, he demands that Paisley himself justify the Damascene conversion, which reconciled faith with politics and shook so many of his followers to the very core of their being.

It is a tantalising concept, enhanced by the central casting of the experienced, versatile Dan Gordon. Gordon does a sterling job of injecting Paisley’s famous vocal intonation into his fire and brimstone outpourings, but not even he can quite rise above the weight of the dense dialogue to capture the true spirit of the man.

Photo: Aidan MonaghanVisually, director Matt Torney’s casting backfires. Blount cuts a stolid giant of a figure, towering over the stocky Gordon and thereby diminishing the famously domineering physical presence of Big Ian. His struggle with the north Antrim accent seems to inhibit a performance, which registers as ill-at-ease and one-note. And there is textual imbalance in the roles of the parents, played by Lalor Roddy and Stella McCusker, whose efforts are largely confined to digging a hole and tossing away amusing, sardonic one-liners (Roddy) and singing hymns and waving flags (McCusker). As each of the two protagonists takes turn at successive swathes of soul searching, the other is left stranded both by the direction and the sheer weight of the dialogue - Blount stiff and expressionless, Gordon silently glowering with singularly un-Paisleylike restraint.

At the interval, there is no avoiding the conclusion that endless speechifying does not a play make. But the second act takes a welcome turn into the light as stories and long-hidden experiences of exile and absence, faith and denial, love and devotion raise their heads and allow the drama to seep out. There is a case to be made for some restructuring of the script, for in its present form the lid is kept on the storyline for far too long, thereby draining the attention of the audience from Hutchinson’s complex internal struggle. The writing is thoughtful and the argument compelling, but new energy and life need to be injected into script, characterisation and direction so as to arrive earlier at the nub of the issue and understand the dilemma of a writer, whose craft is rarely exposed in the place he still calls home.

Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based freelance arts journalist and critic, who also contributes to The Irish Times, The Stage, Culture Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Paisley & Me by Ron Hutchinson

30 Oct - 10 Nov 2012 (on tour)

Produced by Green Shoot Productions
In Grand Opera House, Belfast

Directed by Matt Torney

Set & Lighting Design: Ciaran Bagnall

Costume Design: Elle Kent

With: Stephen Blount, Dan Gordon, Stella McCusker and Lalor Roddy


Presented as part of Belfast Festival at Queen's 2012.