Over the Bridge Again...


Over the weekend I got my Christmas present from my wife... No, it's not that the post is particularly bad here... it's because my Christmas present was a ticket to see Martin Lynch's adaptation of "Over the Bridge" by Sam Thompson, at the Waterfront Studio. This was a romantic gesture on her part, in that it was after the opening night of a production of the same play which I directed as a student in Edinburgh back in 1987, that she and I started going out together. I believe my opening gambit with her was "Do you fancy dandering down to the Scotsman with me?" as I was going down to pick up the reviews from the local paper... The reviews were middling, which sent me into a slough of despond, but she sought to pick me up, and so began a long and happy relationship...

So this play is important to me... but not just for personal, sentimental reasons. Also because I think it is one of the most important pieces of theatre ever to be written and staged in Northern Ireland. Not necessarily the best, but certainly one of the most important, because it both draws on the industrial history of 20th century East Belfast in a way that no other play ever has, and, more importantly because it addresses the cancer of sectarianism in a way that no play prior to it and few since have ever done. The history of the play itself is also important in that its subject matter put its writer and director (the incomparable Jimmy Ellis) in conflict with the then board of the Group Theatre, bastions of "right-thinking respectability", forcing Ellis and Thompson to produce it independently, first at the old Empire variety Theatre, then further afield, to great acclaim.
So because of the importance of this play both to myself and to Northern Irish theatre and society in general I've taken a few days to try to disentangle my thoughts about the production and the substance of this play...
First, the production... and before I say anything else, I would want to say that, on the whole the actors, both the professional actors playing the named parts, and the amateur ensemble, did a good job. None were out of their depth, although a few were ill served by the direction, (but more if that anon) and at least one needed to sort out his diction and projection. The latter problem was slightly exacerbated by the studio layout which had the two halves of the audience facing each other across the stage. However the clever set design and the general performance was so good that this member of the audience largely forgot his fellow play-goers across the room.However, the director failed to use either the set or cast to their best. Internal conventions concerning the use of space and the presence of invisible walls were routinely ignored, and while this may seem pedantic, it meant that focus and power was lost in key scenes. For example in both the scene before the lynching, and the wake, the emotional intensity which should have been enhanced by the confined surroundings of the office and terrace-house parlour respectively, was dissipated by actors being scattered liberally all over the stage. Indeed this director seems to have problems dealing with emotionally explosive scenes. Alan McKee as the mob leader didn't have enough menace, largely because he was being directly confrontational, rather than, as Sam Thompson's original stage directions suggest, avoiding eye contact with Catholic worker, Peter O'Boyle. Likewise in the closing scene Marion's distress might have been much more powerful without the histrionics. As for the episodes where the tension actually exploded into violence, between Davy and Peter, Peter and the mob leader, and the ultimate lynching, none of these were remotely convincing... part of the responsibility for that lies with the actors and fight director, but at the end of the day the buck stops with the director, and with such a clearly talented cast and a good script, this director could and should have done better.The short interlude where the chorus off stage, acting as the lynch mob, sang the Billy boys stoked the tension nicely, but what then transpired on stage was an anti-climax.
Which brings me to the script. Brian Garrett, Sam Thompson's literary executor claims that 92% of the lines were from Thompson's original, which is probably true - and the bits that Lynch added were largely keeping with the original (I'll come back to what I would argue is an exception in due course). However, my main questions were not about what was added but what was left out. Whilst this is one of my favourite plays, the original does have significant short-comings... It is a little wordy... didactic, if not downright preachy in places, and there was a fair amount of that material removed relatively painlessly, or broken up with short linking scenes that were only alluded to in the original, including Archie's encounter with the mob leader. However, whether the decision to transform the lynching from a 3rd person narration in the original to an on stage event was made by Lynch or the director, the result was clumsy to say the least. The original narration is awkward, but that doesn't mean that it is better actually acted out... Sometimes the mind's eye is the best stage to use, and a better device might have been used to bring this whole episode to its dreadful climax... Indeed less being said, or done on stage, might have made the beginning of the next scene all the more moving...
The scenes involving women in Thompson's original were also more than a little awkward... the speeches didn't always ring true and the women themselves were almost stereotypical ciphers... Lynch avoids this by dropping 2 out of 3 of the female characters... If as literary executor Brian Garrett claimed on Sunday sequence, this reduction in the cast was out of necessity to trim costs, then I'm not convinced it was the best way to save money, because losing the voice of the women on the "home front" removed an important dimension of working class East Belfast society, both the solid working class wifey's like Martha, and the social climbers like Nellie. In the original Nellie in particular could become a comic turn (indeed having her played by Jimmy Young wouldn't have been out of place) which, given the wordiness and worthiness of the original was welcome relief. In the slimline Lynch version this leavening was produced by the brief musical interludes of Ephraim the apprentice (which frankly weren't great) but the loss of that type of voice from the overall picture of 1950s Belfast was significant. If the issue was not the number of cast members but the artificial nature of the dialogue, then I am sure that it could have been rewritten with someone with a real ear for Belfast women's patois (Lynch's former collaborator Marie Jones comes to mind).
But the other area that I found difficulty with in Martin Lynch's version of the play was his treatment of religion. Now some would say that I would say that, wouldn't I, given my current profession... But my problem was not that religion gets a bad press in Lynch's version... it actually gets a bad if not worse press in the original... It's more to do with the unnecessary changes... The doubling up of bigot Archie and Bible thumping Billy, for example... was that another cost cutting exercise or a cheap comment about sectarianism and religion being 2 sides of the one coin?
The cartoon-like portrayal of recent convert Billy Morgan (complete with extra, unconvincing sermon in the middle), didn't help either, especially as it was accompanied with another extra scene suggesting that Billy is not a member of any mainstream protestant grouping, but is a member of a "oneness Pentecostal sect." "Phew," religious members of the audience can say... "He may be a lunatic, but he's one of those lunatics... not one of us..."
The piece of music that originally sat in the position now occupied by Billy Morgan's sermon "It is no secret what God can do" was moved to the end of the play. Is this another pointer to Lynch suggesting that sectarianism is all a function of this "God-stuff"? I'll maybe look at that tomorrow when I'm reflecting on the substance of the play, rather than the production. If it is, then the finger is firmly pointing not at religion in general, but at protestantism in particular... because another change, is that Lynch has removed all references to Catholic action groups referred to in Thompson's original... Again, is Martin Lynch making a point here? If so is it valid, and why did Thompson, a committed trade unionist, make reference to such groups in the original? Was he simply trying to make sure that he didn’t totally alienate more than half of his potential audience?
OK… I’ve gone on for long enough, and I will come back to some of those latter points when I discuss the key issues of the play itself, tomorrow. I’d love the chance to chat with Martin Lynch about some of the points I’ve raised above, and I may well seek him out in the John Hewitt some day to do so…
But whilst I have been inordinately critical of this production, don’t get me wrong, I still think it is worthwhile going to see (if only to tell me afterwards that I’m wrong in everything I’ve said before)… Its actually only on in Belfast for a few more days, but get a ticket if you possibly can.

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