Tales of the City launches with a Mixed Marriage at the Lyric
Over a century after it was first penned by playwright St John Greer Ervine, the play Mixed Marriage arrives on the Lyric Stage. Part of the Lyric Theatre’s Tales of the City series, a celebration of the fourth centenary of Belfast receiving its town charter, Mixed Marriage is directed by Jimmy Fay and stars Marty Maguire, Katie Tumelty, Darren Franklin and rising star Gerard Jordan.
With its themes of sectarian intolerance and violence Mixed Message is particularly relevant in the wake of recent flag-related events in Northern Ireland. Fay, however, explains that the play was already in motion long before the flag debate started.
‘It’s something that is always with us,’ he says. ‘People resent anything strange, or different. As a society we aren’t growing out of it. It’s sad.’
Nor is the play just about sectarianism. Fay points out that there are also strong themes of classism in the play, exploring how workers are exploited using these divisions. Fresh from a viewing of Les Miserables at the cinema, he jokes that Mixed Marriage is Belfast version of the classic musical. ‘It has flags, revolutions and star-crossed lovers,’ he points out. ‘All we need to add are a few songs.’
Yet, it’s actually a play – and author – that Fay was unfamiliar with until recently. ‘I didn’t know the writer at all,’ he remembers. ‘It’s almost like he’s been written out of literary history.’
Possibly, he speculates, due to Ervine’s ideological about-turn after he became manager of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. ‘He’d been a nationalist socialist writer,’ Fay explains. ‘After he joined the Abbey he became a hardened unionist.’
It’s possible Mixed Marriage might have been a very different play, if it had come later in the writer’s personal canon. As it is, the only villains in the play are the off-stage rich and wealthy business owners who sow dissension for their own ends. ‘It is about the poetry of revolution and the prose of government,’ Fay says. ‘People start out idealistic, but become conservative.’
The closest thing to a villain of the piece would be the working class patriarch Rainey, whose rigid adherence to his idea of ‘what’s right’ brings the play – and his world – undone around him.
‘Rainey is a good orator, a staunch working class man and an Orange-man, but he’s very for uniting the Protestants and the Catholics at the docklands. Within his own household, however, he’s very against Catholics and Protestants marrying,’ Maguire explains his character. ‘He’s all for going to unite them in the workplace, but within his home the thought that his son is going out with a Catholic starts to cause problems with his heart, his belief and his faith. He’s a good, decent man, but there is that one thing that doesn’t sit well with him.’
However, Maguire admits that on his first reading of the script he was unsure of how it would translate to stage. Like its theatrical contemporary The Playboy of the Western World the language used in Mixed Marriage can seem unusual – even opaque – on the page. With actors, and under Fay’s direction, however, they play takes on raw vibrancy that Fay consciously preserves.
‘It’s meta-theatrical, almost Brechtian,’ Fay says. ‘I haven’t updated any of the language, the only changes I’ve made were taking out instances of repetition that the play didn’t need.’
Fay’s direction also depends on the actors feeling free to contribute their ideas and to explore the characters they are playing.
‘A rehearsal room is somewhere you should feel comfortable, you can express yourself and feel free to just kick off your shoes and become your character,’ Tumelty (who plays Ma Rainey) says. ‘Fay is all for that. He is absolutely up for us coming up with ideas and lets us run with them, although sometimes he does put on the breaks.’
Maguire jokes that ‘I’ve never cared for the man’, before agreeing with Tumelty that Fay is a brilliant director, who is ‘happy to let actors act. He’s a fantastic director for actors to work with’.