New play explores family and politics in Northern Ireland

NEW PRODUCTION: Barry Calvert as Sean and Richard Galloway as Cathal in Buglight Theatres Marching on Embers.
NEW PRODUCTION: Barry Calvert as Sean and Richard Galloway as Cathal in Buglight Theatres Marching on Embers.
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Whichever way you look at it we are currently living through pretty turbulent and divisive times politically.

Making sense of this new reality can be difficult but art – and theatre in particular – is a powerful tool for exploration and can often bring about a new understanding.

That is very much the aim of Leeds-based theatre company Buglight’s latest play Marching on Embers. It explores radicalisation and the allure of violence set against the backdrop of modern-day post-Brexit Northern Ireland following two generations of one family and looking at how the actions of the past affect the present and haunt the future. Buglight was founded in 2014 by actors Keeley Lane and Richard Galloway to make work that connects with today’s social and political issues. With the ongoing debate around the Irish border, thrown up by Brexit, stirring up old memories and potentially reopening old wounds, Marching on Embers couldn’t be more timely.

Galloway grew up in Ballymena in Northern Ireland and had been thinking for some time about creating a piece of work that explored his Irish heritage. “I wanted to do something about home but I didn’t want to tread over old ground and do another Troubles play,” he says. “It all came out of a conversation I had on a bus with a guy from Northern Ireland who wasn’t allowed to go to his own grandmother’s funeral because of religious differences. And I wanted to look at the question of radicalisation – it is not just an issue within the Muslim community it has been going on in Ireland for years. And Brexit has brought it all back up to the surface again.”

Galloway knew he needed to work with a writer who would be sensitive to the issues and approached Leeds-based Chris O’Connor. “Chris grew up in London in an Irish family and spends a lot of time in the South of Ireland. The story we have come up with is a family story but it is quite provocative in its subject matter.”

It follows Florie Connolly, the head of a prominent Republican family, and her children Sean and Sinead as they reunite at home with family friend Cathal. A fragile peace hangs over their community, but history threatens to repeat itself when one family member re-joins the struggle against the age old enemy of the Irish people. “One of the areas I wanted to explore was the role of women in armed struggle,” says Galloway. “The idea of the matriarch is so prominent in the community and we wanted to draw comparisons between domestic life and the big issues within the IRA and look at why someone might be vulnerable to being radicalised.”

Buglight’s work is created as a collaboration using research, devising, improvisation and experimentation. As part of that process, the company visited Galloway’s old school in Ballymena to work with the students there, running workshops around the experiences of conflict in Northern Ireland and exploring the themes of radicalisation, community and divided communities. The response from the students offered some hope. “We discovered that a lot of kids in Northern Ireland today are forward thinking and looking at ways of bringing communities together,” says Galloway. “It was not like that when I was growing up there in the early 1990s. It is an integrated school so it is progressive but a lot of those kids come from a mixed background and live in really strong Republican or Loyalist areas, so to see them making drama together was great.”

Galloway will be appearing in the play as Cathal and his fellow cast members are all from Northern Ireland. “It was important that everyone involved was sensitive to the issues we are dealing with,” he says. “There is a real fear that Brexit will shift all sorts of situations in the UK and Ireland. It has triggered something in Republicanism again and the worry is that we might fall back into dark times. There is so much uncertainty which creates fear, and fear divides people. The real point of the play is that family, community and coming together is the only way to move forward and to progress. We hope audiences will take something away from this. It will definitely get them talking; if that’s just a small drop in the ocean in the pursuit of a happy outcome, then that can only be a good thing.”

At Cast, Doncaster September 20, Seven Arts, Leeds September 23, Harrogate Theatre, September 28 & 29 and other Yorkshire venues in October. Details and tickets buglight-theatre.com

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