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'The point of the play is to show people that talking is the key. Silence will kill you'

Two new plays from a Northern Irish theatre company are touring the island of Ireland – and want to shed light on men and mental health.

I think that mental health is probably the epidemic of the international world at the moment … male suicide in the north of Ireland has unfortunately risen exponentially since the Good Friday Agreement. More people have died by suicide since the agreement than died during the conflict.

COMING OUT OF the Troubles, people living in Northern Ireland are able to assess the impact the three decades had on them. In 2019, writers are reflecting on what the violence meant for today’s North, and what emotional toll it took on people.

This month, two plays will tour across Ireland which tell two different men’s stories in an attempt to explore what it’s like to be a man in Ireland today. East Belfast Boy and Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful tell the stories of two different men, of two different backgrounds, who are both experiencing major emotional crises. They’re being brought across the country by the critically acclaimed theatre group Prime Cut Productions.

Artistic director of Prime Cut Productions, Emma Jordan, underlined the importance of what they’re doing, pointing out that “more people have died by suicide since the Good Friday Agreement than died during the conflict.”

“It’s a really, really shocking fact and questions around gender are so prominent in all of our minds over this past number of years,” she tells TheJournal.ie. “Feminists have really been making an impact on how we operate in the world. But I suppose within all those discussions I wanted to find some space to address some of the male mental health issues.” 

She says grief, deprivation and despair are not gender specific. “But I think there is a difference in that for the most part that women are able to access an emotional language to express how they feel and they have more access to that emotional language than a lot of men do,” she says. “And perhaps [these plays] in some way will open out the conversation beyond that.”

‘They’re not asked about themselves’

Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful Photo Credit Carrie Davenport_

In East Belfast Boy, the writer Fintan Brady brings us the story of a young man from a unionist background, who’s living in an impoverished area and feeling like he doesn’t always have options. 

The story of Davy, played by Ryan McParland, came out of work that Brady did with Partisan Productions. 

He spent time with a group of young men in a unionist socially deprived area, Ballymacarrett, as they prepared bonfires for the twelfth of July event. “Those fellas were very happy to talk because most of the time they are not asked about themselves or what matters to them,” says Brady. 

He wrote the piece “about what it’s like to grow up a young man in a particular area in a particular set of circumstances”, and says he did so without cliché or assumption. He hopes audiences will also not assume.

“I know people when they see something that says ‘East Belfast Boy’ they are gonna think ‘fuck, this is going to be some gritty drama’,” says Brady. “That’s their idea, and the truth of it is that even those lads, their lives are as complicated and as interesting as anybody’s life so that was the sense I was interested in.”

Though the play is dark, it has humour in it too – and Brady says it’s very touching in places. It’s set to a pumping DJ soundtrack, making it quite the visceral experience.

Brady is from a working class background, but grew up in the country. He’s different to the East Belfast boys he met, but wants to show that people’s stories deserve to be told. 

The show address masculinity looking at the young men’s “fragility, their need for approval, the chaos, the difficulty they have”.

Brady is often asked how will an East Belfast boy’s story translate elsewhere. To that, he says:

The sense of what young men go through in order to even try to be decent is the same in any tough area. Somewhere like Cork, Limerick, Maynooth, there’s the same sort of pressures, the same discouragement to actually achieve the same difficulties and making sense of stuff you get very, very little encouragement.

He says that in some areas, young men look for people who are doing well. “And in a lot of cases these are guys who are criminally connected, or connected to paramilitaries, or their sources of income are undisclosed. What kind of encouragement is that?” he says. “The idea of masculinity is complex. This character has a complex understanding of himself as a man. And he’s not even sure he counts as one.”

When the play was put on for the local men who inspired it, “they loved it”, says Brady. “These are lads who don’t do theatre. They are not closed to the idea, it is just not on their radar.” Brady says they “identified very closely and carefully with the character – they loved him”.

He is looking for audience approval which is what these lads want – they want approval.

East Belfast Boy Marketing Image Photo Credit Carrie Davenport_

He’s particularly interested in reactions around the country to the play, and says he hopes that people can have honest conversations about Brexit and the north. “I’m interested in whether people in Dublin or wherever have any interest in what we’re about up here,” he says. “So that’s where I see the value of not only this piece but anything of the north going back up and the South coming up to us.”

‘All this stuff came wallowing up’

In John Patrick Higgins’ writer of Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful, the character Malachy is very different to Davy, but he faces his own issues. The one-man play fed out of a “particularly horrible period in my life”, says Higgins, though it is fictional. 

“All this stuff came wallowing up. In a very useful and helpful sense it was a catharsis, an exorcism. It was joyous to write actually because it was exactly what I’m saying,” he says.

“It was brilliant to sit down and just howl through my fingertips into a laptop.”

Malachy has been diagnosed with a disease, and has lost his ex partner to suicide. Now he too is “in a very bad place”.

Like East Belfast Boy, it mixes pathos with humour. “I don’t want to sit down and be sandblasted in the face for an hour,” says Higgins. “It needs to be leavened with humour, and also it’s a real human experience even when you’re very depressed. Part of the arsenal you have to deflect how you are feeling about is humour – you need to use it, it has to be there as well.”

He speaks of the “constantly escalating number of male suicides” of men across the age groups. “Loneliness and inability to communicate, constantly not being able to talk,” he says. “In many ways my play is about someone who is trying to talk themselves down from a ledge.”

Higgins speaks of the “paradigm of masculinity”, and how “it doesn’t fit everybody – you feel like a failure if you can’t man up and deal with stuff”.

“In many ways point of the play is to show people that talking is the key. Silence will kill you. It’s about trying to get that message across,” says Higgins. 

Though there has been a push towards helping men communicate more, Higgins feels not that much has changed.

You can punch someone in the arm, you can’t say ‘I feel really sad, I miss my dad’. It would never happen unless you’re really drunk and you get someone in a headlock.

With his play, he wanted to go “to places where I think people need to have that conversation”. 

“I wanted to write something that was true and had meaning and would be useful,” says Higgins. “And I actually think it’s a useful thing, a useful piece. It does have a point, have a purpose – as well as being hopefully entertaining … it has a function.”

East Belfast Boy and Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful will play at the following venues: 5 – 7 February The Everyman, Cork; 11 February The Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar; 12 February An Grianán Theatre, Letterkenny; 15 February Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick; 16 February The Market Place Theatre & Arts Centre, Armagh; 18-20 February Project Arts Centre, Dublin.

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