The Lantern Man ready to light up the stage at Duncairn Arts Centre

Playwright Jane Coyle tells Gail Bell how a letter and box of dusty old photographic slides from the First World War set the scene for her latest production

The Lantern cast members Shane Whisker, Hannah Coyle, Julie Kinsella and Noel McGee in rehearsal Picture: Kealan McCambridge/MAC Visual Media

HOLYWOOD-based arts journalist and playwright Jane Coyle can't seem to stop stumbling across things which make her write plays.

A suitcase belonging to a Holocaust survivor she glimpsed in a Jewish museum in Vienna inspired The Suitcase (premiered at the Belfast International Arts Festival last year) and her latest offering also owes its genesis to a historic discovery.

Although The Lantern Man is her first play, it is the third to be professionally produced after being originally commissioned as a radio drama for RTE which, for production reasons, never aired.

Inspired by a box of First World War lantern slides unearthed in the organ loft of Alexandra Presbyterian Church in north Belfast in 2013, The Lantern Man opens in Belfast on September 9, for the first performance in a nine-date tour.

Set in one of the most turbulent periods in Irish history – the months leading up to the Easter Rising – the play tells the story of Johnny McGrath (played by Dublin-based actor Shane Whisker), a young man "damaged in body and spirit", who returns to Dublin after active service on the Western Front.

Learning he has inherited hundreds of glass lantern slides showing images of the troops at war, he decides to put them on show to tell an increasingly critical public the 'real story' of what their men are enduring in the bloody conflict.

But despite its tensions and divided loyalties, the Welsh-born writer – who also penned Beckett-inspired monologue, Me Here, Me – insists she has no empathy for either side, with the focus simply on "telling a story" and portraying the human condition.

"I'm not a historian and I'm not a politician. I'm not even from here," she says. "I don't take sides, but I hope the play opens up discussion about the effects on individuals and their families.

"Most young Irishmen who went off to war just needed a job and they were told it would all be over before Christmas."

Coyle, who makes use of authentic slide projections of soldiers in the play, was also struck on a personal level after finding a letter from her great uncle whose regiment was stationed in Palace Barracks, Holywood, during the war years.

"The letter to his parents and brother – my grandfather – was full of youthful optimism and good humour," she recalls. "It referred to the 'funny' way people talked here and how he had just had his hair cut. A week later he caught pneumonia and died, aged just 21 and just a short walk from the house where I have lived for the past 30 years.

"He was completely unaware that he would not live to see his family again and, in a small way, the play pays tribute to those millions of similar young men who died in wars far from home."

The Lantern Man, which first came before an audience at the Belfast Pick 'n' Mix Festival – an edifying experience after which Coyle, herself a drama critic, vowed "never to give a bad review again" – has another family dimension.

Her daughter Hannah Coyle part is part of a cast which, along with Whisker, also includes Cathy Brennan-Bradley, Noel McGee, Libby Smyth and Belfast-based actors, James Doran and Julie Kinsella.

"She auditioned like everyone else," Coyle is quick to point out. "We operate independently and I wouldn't dare give her any tips. "She is studying acting in Paris and came home for the play. I think she is proud of the fact her mother wrote it, but we don't go around patting each other on the back."

Coyle adds: "When people call me a 'playwright', I have to think, 'Is that me?' Journalism is still my job, but I am becoming more familiar with the title – now I see plays round every corner."

:: The Lantern Man, directed by Stephen Beggs, will be performed at Duncairn Arts and Cultural Centre, Belfast, September 9-10, then touring.


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