Sunday, July 25, 2021

Previewing Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play, Billy Boy, as part of the 2021 EastSide Arts Festival

Northern Ireland theatre never stopped. The industry found novel ways of continuing to perform. Online. Outside. On television. In audio. But despite many other sectors and related practices being able to take mitigating action to minimise the airborne spread of the corona virus, theatres didn’t manage to return even in the gaps between previous lockdowns.

Without wanting to spook the horses, the NI Executive may yet confirm that theatres can reopen later today. And that could mean that in a fortnight’s time, Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Billy Boy can have a live run at Strand Arts Centre as part of EastSide Arts Festival.

The premise is that it’s the 11th July. The sun is splitting the trees. The tarmac is melting on the ground and Aaron and his mates are protecting the biggest bonfire in east Belfast. It’s a complicated situation. Everyone has an opinion, but as everyone knows ‘Compromise Equals Sell-Out’.

“… flames flying, near roasts your eyeballs off, the heated last you to Christmas. We can’t stop staring at it, pulls us into it’s glow, it’s mesmerising, it’s primal, black pallets falling into the bright orange. And the rave’s back on …”

That’s a quote from Billy Boy and it summons up my own sensory memories of Eleventh Night visits to photograph and report on bonfires. I asked Rosemary if she’s been a regular visitor to the bonfires in East Belfast?

I used to visit the Annadale bonfire which inspired my first play, The Bonefire. In the East, I go to the huge Ravenhill bonfire, though I also checked out the contentious Avoniel bonfire two years ago which helped formulate the idea for Billy Boy. I’ve always loved bonfires as fire appeals to our primeval instincts. It’s hard to explain to people who have never been, but, to me, Belfast bonfires combine the atmosphere of a Glastonbury rave with something sacred like the ceremonial burning of a Viking longship.

It’s often said that loyalist culture isn’t as frequently portrayed or marked in the arts as republican culture and history. As a writer and playwright, were you surprised to find yourself returning to the subject of bonfires after a fifteen-year gap?

I’m not surprised, as the political landscape has changed – just look at the recent furore over the Tiger’s Bay bonfire. There may be anti-social issues around certain bonfires, but it’s interesting how bonfire builders often view themselves as on the front line of a cultural war. Back in 2006, tyres were burnt to make bonfires last longer, but thankfully environmental concerns are now more to the fore.

It’s true that loyalist culture isn’t as frequently portrayed in literature and that’s because it doesn’t fit conveniently into an Irish or British box. Republican culture fits into an all-Ireland and Irish-American narrative and has been embraced by both writers and the middle-classes. Writers have to paint a more balanced picture when it comes to identity, and I plan to bring bonfires to wider international attention.

Bonfire culture is much talked about, much criticised, much stereotyped. In some of your plays, you’re quite obviously taking a position against big banks and the finance system, or highlighting inadequacies in the asylum system. Having read the script, this time, it feels like you’re less judgemental and perhaps letting the bonfire speak for itself. As a playwright, did you start out with a sense of how you’d tackle the subject?

Plays are often fuelled by a playwright’s own moral outrage, but I decided to let my voice take a backseat, though I came up with the narrative myself with a nudge from Maurice Kinkead of the EastSide Partnership who suggested the Amsterdam angle. [A visitor from the Netherlands brings the gaze of an outsider to the finale.]

It’s all too easy for a writer to rage about the Irish tricolour being burnt on a bonfire, so instead I let the bonfire builders explain why they do it in their own words. In The Bonefire my target was paramilitaries, but in Billy Boy my target is those who completely condemn bonfires without recognizing the history, the sheer architectural talent, and the community spirit behind them. It’s great to look at a cultural phenomenon from different perspectives and with Billy Boy I made the decision not to look at it from the outside but from the inside.

Creatively, has the pandemic been tough for writing plays, knowing that other than filming them, there was no chance of an audience? Are you looking forward to seeing and hearing live audience reaction to Billy Boy at the EastSide Arts Festival? And do you hope some of the bonfire collectors and builders attend?

Tough? It’s been hell. I’ve written very few plays during the pandemic as filmed plays don’t garner the same attention as live performance. It’s also unbelievable that the Executive haven’t reopened theatres yet. Even Shakespeare at the time of the plague didn’t have to wait as long as this!

Our director Matt Faris has made an excellent film of the play, but it can’t compare to the thrill of live performance. I can’t wait to hear laughs and gasps and am especially excited about the standing ovation (thought I’d plant a seed there!) One thing’s for sure - John Travers is going to put in a scorching performance. EastSide Arts are inviting the bonfire builders I interviewed, and I’ll be dying to get their response.

What’s next? More plays? More short stories? A novel?

I’ve been writing historical partition plays for Kabosh and National Museums Northern Ireland which will be performed live at Omagh/Cultra in September – it’s been a pleasure to write politically on that theme. I have a new collection of short stories, Marching Season, coming out with Arlen House in the autumn, so fingers-crossed for a live launch. I’ve other projects on the go, but, unless they’re a cert, I don’t talk about them in public in case I tempt fate! Nothing is real until it happens.

You can catch Billy Boy in the Strand Arts Centre as part of EastSide Arts Festival at 3pm and 8pm on Saturday 7 and Sunday 8 August. Tickets £15. Performed by John Travers, written by Rosemary Jenkinson, and directed by Matt Farris.

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