The Politics of Potatoes in Planet Belfast

Actor Abigail McGibbon talks about starring in a political play that’s not about the ‘orange and the green – well, not that sort of green’

What’s Planet Belfast, the new Tinderbox play by playwright Rosemary Jenkinson, about? Well, according to the tagline: ‘Sex, potatoes and politics’. 41 year old actor Abigail McGibbon, who plays main character and Green Party MLA Alice, laughing insists there’s more to the play than just that.

‘But, if you were going to boil it down, yeah,’ she says. ‘That’s pretty much it.’

For McGibbon, the character of Alice is ‘rich pickings’ for an actor. She’s an environmentalist and heavy drinker, trying to start a family with her husband and deal with some faces from her past.

I like her. I really enjoy the character,’ McGibbon says. ‘Other people might find her a bit more difficult.’

In the play Alice is working to block the introduction of genetically modified potatoes into Northern Ireland. Her argument is that the company is ‘dishonest about their science’ and that introducing the GM crop could ‘wreak the land’.

‘The interesting thing, though, is that the script doesn’t tell us if she’s right or wrong,’ McGibbon says. ‘Alice doesn’t have any other different options. What should you do, take your changes with GM food or eventually starve?’

Despite all the problems associated with GM crops, there are some environmental activists (such as David Lynas) who’ve reversed their stance against genetic modification. ‘They say it’s inhumanitarian to be against GM crops,’ McGibbon says. ‘I’m still not sure where I stand.’

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So far rehearsals have been going well, with Tinderbox incorporating Ciaran Bagnall set design and Conan McIvor’s videorgraphy in to the rehearsal room as much as possible. ‘Which is brilliant for feeling the style of the play,’ McGibbon says. The cast have also had a chance to see the full ‘big ideas’ backdrop on stage – complete with fishing wire panels – at the MAC.

‘It looked great,’ McGibbon says admiring. And according to Jenkinson, it looks even better with the cast on stage with it.

It is unusual in Northern Ireland to have a play about politics that isn’t about the Troubles in one way or another. ‘It’s refreshing,’ says McGibbon. ‘It’s not about the orange and the green – well, not that sort of green.’

It’s also nothing less than what McGibbon would expect from playwright Jenkinson. Planet Belfast is the third of Jenkinson’s script that McGibbon has acted in and she says the writer is just getting ‘better and better’.

‘When Mick (Tinderbox director Michael Duke) called to offer me the role, I said yes right away,’ McGibbon, who is also a veteran Tinderbox actor, having appeared in their productions Damaged, Convictions and Revenge, says. ‘I love Rosemary’s writing, of course, but I also really enjoy working on new plays.’

Which is good news, since her next play is the Lyric Theatre commissioned Can’t Forget About You by David Ireland, chronicling the family-crossed love affair between 25 year old East Belfast Stevie and 49 year old Glaswegian widow Martha. Can’t Forget About You is another Tinderbox production.

‘I do it all for the craic,’ McGibbon says with a laugh. ‘It’s a joyful profession, and I just enjoy it.’

Planet Belfast is at the MAC from February 19 to March 2