Philip Orr play Halfway House revisits 1916 from 1966

Belfast author and playwright Philip Orr's new play brings together two northern women from opposing traditions, as they reflect back on 1916 in a snowed-in pub in 1966. Orr talks to Brian Campbell

Belfast writer Philip Orr, who has written the play Halfway House, set in 1966 but concerning 1916

YOU could say that Philip Orr’s new play is quintessentially Irish in that it’s set in a pub, features a lot of heated conversation and debate and then – by the end – nothing is resolved.

Yet Halfway House, a one-hour play featuring two female actors, is an important piece in that it shines a light on 1916 – both the Easter Rising in the south and the Battle of the Somme in the First World War – by placing us in 1966.

“I was interested in setting it in February 1966, 50 years after 1916, to see how people handled the anniversaries then; and there may be some echoes about how we’ll handle them this year,” says Orr, whose great uncle died in the First World War.

“We’re not commemorating anything in a solemn sense in this play, we’re looking at how individual human beings handled things at the time.”

The play features Louise Parker as Bronagh and Antoinette Morelli as Valerie. The two characters – aged in their 40s – find themselves holed up in a snowbound pub in the Sperrins for the night.

“It turns out that they actually come from the same part of the north but had never met, although they kind of know each other’s families,” says Orr.

“Bronagh’s father was in the Easter Rising in 1916 and he’s just died, so she is still grieving. Valerie is very proud of her father, who was in the Battle of the Somme and is still alive. So it’s a way of bringing together these two stories that matter to us this year.”

The two women get talking in the first place after Bronagh is reading place names out loud on a map and says 'Londonderry’, thus making Valerie jump to conclusions about which 'tradition’ she is. What follows is what Orr calls an “uncomfortable conversation”.

“In order to create a more stable society, we have to be able to talk to one another about our past no matter how difficult it is; and drama is a good way to do that,” he says.

“I thought that looking at 1966 seemed to be a perfect way of looking back but also getting people to think about now. On one level it’s a ruse, because we bring two people together who wouldn’t normally meet. They’re in this little room and they’re stuck for the night and they get a conversation going.

“It introduces some dramatic irony because we know, as an audience, what the two women don’t know – that the Troubles are going to start three years down the line.”

As an author, playwright and war historian, Belfast-based Orr was happy to throw himself into researching the 1916 commemorations of 1966. The poster for the play features a cut-out of an Irish News front page from Easter Monday in 1966.

“Going into the newspaper archives was important, just to see how things were handled. There was a big commemorative event in July 1966 for the Battle of the Somme; there were a lot of veterans from the war still around and Queen Elizabeth came over, so it was a big event.

“A few months earlier there was a commemoration of the Easter Rising. In the south it was an official event, but in the north the only official event was the one to commemorate the Somme.

“The Northern Ireland government was being pushed by militant unionist forces to ban any kind of Easter Rising events, but some did go ahead in the Falls Road and in some villages around the north.

“It’s a controversial subject, but a lot of people feel that some of the factors in the commemoration of the Somme and the Easter Rising in 1966 may have played a role in awakening a lot of political tensions.

“So as you watch the play you’re aware that there’s a lot of stuff coming down the road in a few years’ time – riots, civil rights marches, troops on the streets.”

The two women refer to the music playing on the jukebox – hits by 60s staples such as The Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel. Orr says the 'Halfway House’ pub is fictional, although admits that most people assume he based it on the real-life Ponderosa on the Glenshane Pass.

The play’s title refers to the pub itself, the events being staged halfway between 1916 and 2016, and the question “Is the peace process a halfway house?”

He says it was a deliberate move to write about two female characters.

“Absolutely. There’s a danger that you look back on this period of history and over-emphasise the men’s stories,” he says, also noting that the RTE Easter Rising TV series Rebellion has prominent female roles.

Halfway House is being staged in Belfast, Enniskillen and Omagh (after already taking in Larne, Newry and Lurgan) and Orr is hoping to bring it to Dublin too – just like his Ulster Covenant/Home Rule play 1912: A Hundred Years On, which was performed in the National Museum of Ireland.

The new play is presented by Contemporary Christianity, with the organisation noting that “both the Ulster Covenant in 1912 and the Proclamation of Easter 1916 invoked the blessing of God”.

Orr admits that at the end of the piece, “things aren’t resolved... but then things still aren’t resolved in many ways now”.

“At the end of it, I hope that audiences empathise with both these women. You think about the empathy that they have for each other by the fireside in this pub; and will that be able to survive considering what lies ahead?”

He stresses that the role of the arts in Northern Ireland is “vital in opening up imaginations”.

And while he was brought up in the unionist tradition, he says he is “more than happy to have a debate and discussion about the Easter Rising”.

“It’s an event of world significance, so I should be interested in it and inform myself about it.”

:: Halfway House plays at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast on Thursday, Enniskillen Library on Friday and Omagh Library on Saturday (all at 7.30pm), and at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast on Tuesday (1pm and 6.15pm). A companion piece, Stormont House Rules, will be staged at the Duncairn Centre for Culture & Arts in Belfast on Thursday February 4 at 7.30pm, as part of the 4 Corners Festival.

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