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November 07, 2013

Convictions

Writing about web page http://www.tinderbox.org.uk/productions/past-productions/convictions/

I had a great time last week. It was half term so I spent a few days on Dartmoor with my wife Angela, 10 year old Toby and our blind and daft Jack Russell, Sherwood. We had all the weather, often several times in a day, but we were blessed with sunshine when out walking on the high moors or in the woodlands. The Dart was in spate and impressive after the October storm. I particularly enjoyed a steep climb from the river through the ancient woodland at Hembury near Buckfast Abbey, the trees changing from birch, to beech, to oak. At the top the reward was a Iron Age hillfort with fine views across the Dartmoor National Park. When we got there, we found a family with three young boys practising archery inside the inner ring, the ditch served to protect passers by from stray arrows, though one or two did fly over the top… There were many very weird and wonderful mushrooms and fungi in evidence.

Exciting and enjoyable as it was, this family break didn’t progress my research. Friday, however, was much more like it. I had the good fortune to attend one of Prof Nadine Holdsworth’s lectures in her series on Theatre and National Identity. It was special for me as I had worked on the production in question, Convictions, seven short plays by different playwrights presented by Tinderbox Theatre Company as a site-specific promenade performance in the former Crumlin Road Courthouse in North Belfast. I was production manager and one of two lighting designers and I was heavily involved with it in the autumn of 2000. I remember it with great affection as one of those highlights that come along every now and then, when you know you’re working on something unique and important. It wasn’t that any of the plays were outstanding, though there was fine, varied writing from them all; Nicola McCartney, Daragh Carville, Owen McCafferty, Gary Mitchell, Damian Gorman and the godparents of modern Northern Irish drama Marie Jones and Martin Lynch; but everything came together to be much more than the sum of its parts.

All the pieces were written in response to the building, the centre of hundreds of trials during the Troubles including the notorious Supergrass trials. There were also installations created by artist Amanda Montgomery responding to areas and stories collected from former staff and visitors; cutlery and crockery embedded in the floor of the canteen where fights had often broken out; a room full of letters and toys as might have been sent by children to fathers who were about to be sent down off through the tunnel beneath Crumlin Road to the adjacent prison. Some of the plays considered the future for the building, Jones proposing a heritage centre, Carville a tourist or possibly ‘terrorist’ information centre, Gorman a Northern Irish opera cycle conceived as an aid to reconciliation. Others considered the inmate, the staff and for McCartney the juror. The most chilling, for me, was McCafferty’s victim, possibly dead, possibly not, of an unconvicted crime, condemned to a Beckettian limbo.

The promenade nature of the production split the audience, of maximum eighty, into groups of twenty each accompanied by a pair of marshals. The audience watched the first, fourth and seventh plays together and the other plays in their small groups. All parts of the building were used including two of the court rooms, the gents loos, a judge’s room, a jury room and the damp and unsurprisingly claustrophobic holding cells below. This meant yours truly was engaged in an entertaining game of air traffic control, directing the lead marshals by radio to each new space or placing them in a holding pattern to ensure the pieces started at the right time.

So it was a real pleasure to sit in on Nadine’s lecture and be available to answer questions about the production, if not the process. It was strange to see the show examined in this academic manner where text carries greater weight than performance; it has to. Watching a video of Carville’s play for the gents toilets was instructive, but not as satisfying as the real thing. Perhaps it was good for us all to share interpretation of the production. The students offered me the chance to look deeply at the content and the context; I brought a sense of the experience, the cold, the damp, what it felt like to walk down the dark, crumbling, deserted corridors. Convictions could never be repeated, the building has been burnt out by vandals and it would mean little if it were re-staged today. It was a state-of-the-nation piece rooted in its time, relevant and incisive in 2000, but meaningless today.

And the benefit to my own research? Well, my subject is professional theatre space in Northern Ireland so I am duly reminded that such space may be formal, informal, indoor, outdoor, found and of course site-specific.

JR


You can see production shots on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com//photos/tinderboxtheatre/sets/72157622471571592/show/


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