Arts

Resurrection man: Belfast playwright Jimmy McAleavey is a Virgin once more

Jimmy McAleavey's Biblically-inspired play The Virgin Father has been reborn seven years after its original run. David Roy spoke to the Belfast playwright about revisiting an auspicious debut

Belfast playwright Jimmy McAleavey Picture by Mal McCann

IT MAY only have been seven years ago that playwright Jimmy McAleavey's debut The Virgin Father began its short run at Belfast's Old Museum Arts Centre, but much has changed since.

The 'OMAC' is long-gone, replaced by The MAC's multi-million-pound facility in the newfangled 'Cathedral Quarter', while Andersonstown-born McAleavey (47) has gone from strength to strength with a string of acclaimed works including Titans, The Sign of The Whale, Unhome and last year's Abbey Theatre production, Monsters, Dinosaurs and Ghosts.

These days, the Loughbrickland-based dramatist spends his mornings working from the comfort of a specially adapted 'writing bed', a creative nest recently feathered with a £15,000 Major Individual Artist award from The Arts Council NI.

The money is helping this lecturer in creative writing at Queen's University Belfast's Seamus Heaney Centre develops two new works, O'Neill's Airs and Americky.

However, this month McAleavey has had the chance to revisit the Tinderbox production that first introduced him to Belfast audiences.

Taking the Book of Matthew as its inspiration, The Virgin Father focuses on the extraordinary pressures brought to bear on St Joseph in the wake of the immaculate conception.

In the one-hander directed by Michael Duke, audiences will be privy to the monologued thoughts of 'Joe' (Stewart Ennis), who is wrestling with the disappearance of his possibly crazy wife and the execution of the stepson whom he was unable to prevent from joining a cult.

"It's nice for me – I've never had a revival of a production before," McAleavey says of Tinderbox's decision to resurrect the play with the help of its original creative team.

Having not looked at The Virgin Father since it was originally produced, the new run afforded the perfect opportunity for a spot of rewriting: tweaks included the introduction of an unseen Matthew, "so now Joseph actually has someone to be talking to", chuckles the playwright.

"There were a couple of very high-profile fundamentalist scientists around in 2008 who were very keen on rubbishing Christianity," recalls McAleavey of his original inspiration.

"But, at that time, I had been very closely involved in the making of a documentary about the Clonard Novena. I attended five masses a day for nine days, which was a very profound experience.

"It was definitely tempting me back to Christianity and Catholicism."

However, The Virgin Father is far from a straightforward defence of religious faith. As with much of McAleavey's work, it offers audiences a much more challenging, thought-provoking watch.

"I don't know if a lot of people would experience it like that," he admits, before elaborating on Joseph's struggle in the play:

"Matthew tells Joseph that, if he can remember the story of what happened correctly and believe in it, he'll be saved.

"Joseph finds it very difficult to do that, constitutionally speaking. He's just a man living through events rather than someone who believes he's part of a divine plan.

"Essentially, for Joseph this is a love story – about how he loved this woman, Mary, and failed her. And how he grew to love this boy and failed him too."

Last weekend, the revived Virgin Father went out on tour, opening at the unlikely venue of Cushendall Golf Club before moving on to Down Arts Centre and The Playhouse in Derry.

"We just wanted as many people to see it as we could, particularly in venues outside Belfast," enthuses McAleavey, who admits that the play might be 'a hard sell' for some.

"It's very difficult to get audiences for anything other than entertainment these days," he tells me.

"People seem to want to go to the theatre to forget. Our whole culture seems to be about denying things just so that we can get through another awful day at work."

However, Jimmy McAleavey fans should keep faith that an old favourite is back and better than ever.

:: The Virgin Father, March 29 to April 2, the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Visit Lyrictheatre.co.uk for tickets.

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