Beyond Belief – The Life and Mission of John Hume, discussed
7th April 2023
Kieran Griffiths, the artistic director of the Playhouse, Derry, talks here about Beyond Belief – The Life and Mission of John Hume, a play with music by Damian Gorman and Brian O’Doherty. It coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and is broadcast live on the anniversary itself – April 7th – with the production available to stream for seven days afterwards. I wrote in detail about last year’s The White Handkerchief, commemorating Bloody Sunday – both in preview and review, so I was delighted to be able to catch up with Griffiths again, on the phone, to discuss the second part of the Playhouse’s peacebuilding trilogy.
Dominic Cavendish: This looks like being the most important theatre production to mark the anniversary this year – would that be right?
Kieran Griffiths: I would say so. It’s part of a trilogy, based on a series of anniversaries. There are three words that sit above the trilogy – ‘dignity’, which refers to how people have behaved in their search for justice, the second one is ‘love’, the third is ‘hope’, for the future. The first marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and we launched the Hume project on Good Friday last year, to tell people that it was coming this year. It was interesting that for a little 150-seater theatre on the periphery of the UK theatre scene – though this project is on location [at the Guildhall] – the opening and closing nights sold out in 24 hours. That’s a sign of the love and ownership the community have for John and Pat Hume, and there was clearly respect for how we tackled Bloody Sunday. I found myself walking the streets of Derry with my son some weeks after and one of the members of the Bloody Sunday families came up to me, took me by the wrist and the only words he said were “I never got to say thanks Kieran”.
DC: The word ‘healing’ can sound quite hackneyed but is the mission here to create a ritual space to achieve that sort of emotional change?
Kieran Griffiths: Yes. When we grieve, our gaze goes downwards. The point of The White Handkerchief was to have everyone looking up. To talk in other terms, I studied music theatre. My Masters cost me £21k, which involved me going to London for training. Here, you’ve got people watching theatre about themselves being performed by young people from their city. They’re learning about their city through performance practice. And we are bringing in conservatoire-level educators and training them for free. The city is listed in the top 10 areas of deprivation of the UK, the Bogside in particular. For me, it’s a circular thing. I want these artists to be trained but I also want them to stay and work with us.
DC: Is the idea that Beyond Belief will recap Hume’s achievement, and how the Good Friday Agreement was made possible?
Kieran Griffiths: Yes. The week after The White Handkerchief ended, I approached the Hume Foundation. We brought them to the Playhouse for a meeting and they told me that many artists had approached them wanting to create a response to John’s life. They had said no, but they had confidence that we would do it justice. It’s a tough nut to crack. We are going through 60 years in two hours. If you go back to 1973, Hume was fighting so hard for a power-sharing government. That fell apart. If you then think about the number of atrocities over the next 30 years. what we’ve been asking ourselves on the back of the research is “What if he had achieved his goals earlier on, would there have been fewer atrocities afterwards?” It goes right up to the realisation of the peace agreement and it also deals with his dementia – we don’t shy away from that but we treat it with absolute grace.
DC: Is there any feeling that some potential audience members will think there might be a partisan perspective?
Kieran Griffiths: That was the question we had last year. It’s an issue when culture meets politics. The first question that was asked when we started research on this was “What can we not leave out?”. And the answer from many people was the fact that he was not there on Bloody Sunday. The week before he attended an anti-internment march at Magilligan strand. There were women battered that day. William McKinney, who was killed on Bloody Sunday, was standing next to John and a policeman said “We will see you in Derry next week”. They were hungry for it. John went to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and pleaded with them to cancel the march. We take about seven and a half minutes to follow the devastation that ensued – from Magilligan strand into Bloody Sunday, into the 48 hours afterwards. Before Bloody Sunday there were 35 members of the IRA in Derry, 48 hours after, there was over 400. So in the production you have Hume’s anti-violence ideologies challenged by the likes of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams who say “What do you mean, you want to talk?” The production focuses very much on Hume. We do let the audience hear other political viewpoints, so they can see what he was dealing with. The overarching idea is “Here is a life… think about it…”. I was asked early on “How can a drama about an anti-violent man be exciting?” My answer was – ‘Because he blamed himself for not achieving power-sharing or peace earlier, to protect the people’. We deal with six major atrocities in all, throughout the Troubles.
DC: Has there been a concern about security?
Kieran Griffiths: Last year with Bloody Sunday we had conversations about security. John Hume retired from his political career and walked the streets of Derry for many years, he was among us. That was a man who had achieved his peace and enjoyed the winter of his years, so I don’t feel so worried about security with this project.
DC: Is there any sense that sometimes a writer needs to leave their community to write about it best?
Kieran Griffiths: I’ll answer that this way. From a director’s perspective, would I make different choices if this was being played elsewhere? Yes I would. In the context of the city it’s in and these events happening only a moment ago for many people, my instinct is to treat the work with utter sensitivity. I’m not saying communities outside don’t need that sensitivity because everyone is triggered by grief but the audience here have lived it, they were there, so there’s a duty of care there. Does a writer have more freedom, and not feel so bound by neighbourhood opinions, parochial thinking? Maybe they are a bit more artistically free in that regard.
DC: Recently in London we’ve seen Under the Black Rock at the Arcola by Tim Edge – a thriller set during the Troubles. Is there something in the air, a sense of coming full circle and re-examining that period?
Kieran Griffiths: There have been many plays about the Troubles in the last 20 years. There was a moment in 2018 when a politician and a member of the Bloody Sunday families were on the radio, and the radio host brought up the fact that the 50th anniversary was approaching in 2022. And the politician said “This is nearly 50 years ago, why are we still talking about it?” The woman said: “For you it was 50 years ago, for me it was just a moment ago.” When we talk about the artistic community reacting to what is current, this work is still going on and audiences are coming to see it because it speaks to who they are and what they lived through. Last autumn we programmed The 39 Steps, a very funny West End comedy. The audiences we had were cackling with laughter but we had low numbers. Yet the Hume project sold out a year ahead – this is the work that speaks to who we are and what we’re about. Interestingly, the third part of the trilogy looks post agreement. For the next generation, the peace process for them is different, they’re talking about gender, and race too. There’s a shift into personal identity. There may not be paramilitary organisations but there are all kinds of questions about bullying, power and how to handle atrocity.