Martin Lynch and Richard O'Rawe take Guildford Four man Gerry Conlon's story to the stage
In the Name of the Son is a new play chronicling the life of Guildford Four accused Gerry Conlon, and the impact 14-years of wrongful imprisonment had upon his life. Jenny Lee chats to its writers Martin Lynch and Richard O'Rawe
THE "dramatic story" of the life of Guildford Four accused Gerry Conlon, chronicling the extreme highs and lows of his life following his release from prison in October 1989, is being brought to the stage this spring.
Playwright Martin Lynch has joined forces with West Belfast author Richard O'Rawe to pen In The Name Of The Son – The Gerry Conlon Story, adapted from Richard O'Rawe's 2017 book of the same time.
"I bought Richard's book at the time it came out and as soon as I put it down I knew it would make a great stage play. It had everything: terrible despair, high jinks, appalling drug addiction, the horrendous guilt Gerry carried around for the death of his father in prison, locations like London, LA, New York, the west of Ireland and it also had brilliantly humorous incidents such as the time Gerry and his mate spending two hours in the toilets of the Oscars in Hollywood, where they met and bantered every major star who came into the toilets," says Lynch, about spotting the potential for the dramatisation of Conlon's story.
After some discussion, the pair agreed to pool their resources and write it together. For O'Rawe, who grew up in the same street as Conlon and remained a lifelong friend, he says it was "an honour" to work with Lynch and keep "the issue of the Guildford Four alive, especially in the light of news the British government have revealed files linked to the case are to remain sealed until the end of this century.
"Gerry's life was very convoluted and very colourful. It's a true story, but it's a dramatic story," says O'Rawe, who promised Conlon he would write about his life during a visit to Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, days before Conlon died of lung cancer in June 2014.
"I was reluctant to do it because Jim Sheridan had already made the film. But Gerry actually said to me 'You've got to. My f**king story didn't start until I got out of jail'."
The play starts with a fist-pumping Conlon storming up to a bank of microphones outside The Old Bailey, proclaiming to the world, “I am a totally innocent man”, after being falsely imprisoned for causing the Guildford pub bombings in 1974, in which the IRA killed five people and injured dozens more.
This injustice was the subject for the Oscar-nominated 1993 movie In the Name Of The Father, in which Conlon was portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis.
Conlon spent the evening of the Oscars ensconced in the gents toilets where he bantered with every major star who came in the door and finished it by singing a duet with Bruce Springsteen.
But behind the glamorous headlines, he had severe problems adjusting to life outside of prison, suffering two nervous breakdowns, attempting suicide, and becoming addicted to crack cocaine.
"The bottom line was this guy was thrown out and handed over £1 million in compensation and told 'go and do whatever the f**k you want with it', and he did. He drank, went with the women, smoked blow, went on coke and then developed a bad crack addiction," says O'Rawe.
A group of Conlon's relatives, collectively known as the Maguire Seven, were convicted of being part of the bombing campaign and also spent decades in prison. Among them was Conlon's father, Giuseppe, who had travelled to London from Belfast to help his son mount a legal defence, and who died in prison in 1980. In 1991 the Maguire Seven were also exonerated.
O'Rawe believes the cause of Conlon's addiction and downward spiral was guilt over his father's imprisonment.
"The bane of Gerry's life after he got out of prison was the fact that his father didn't get out with him. Guiseppe came out in a box and no amount of reasoning, persuasion, or logic, would amend his views that he personally was responsible for his father's death."
But In The Name of The Son is a story of hope and of one man's triumph over extreme adversity.
"Gerry leaves London in 1999 and goes to Plymouth and becomes a recluse, hardly leaving his flat in about six years. Then he meets a lovely psychiatrist nurse who draws the pus and anger out of him and puts him on the road to recovery," explains O'Rawe.
"Gerry's is story of redemption. It's a story of how people who are in the grips of drug addiction, or whatever, can be overcome."
After returning to Belfast, what emerges from the darkness is Conlon’s resilience. He went on to become a worldwide human rights campaigner against miscarriages of justice, including persuading The United States Congress to hold an inquiry into the case of The Birmingham Six.
For Lynch, the biggest challenge of adapting this story for stage was "getting everything in".
"From the time he got out of jail to the day he died Gerry Conlon lived 10 lives. He was making up for the lost years in prison and packed a hell of a lot in. The richness of his story knew no end. So sometimes it came down to leaving out one mad incident to include a really mad incident."
Downpatrick actor Shaun Blaney will play Gerry Conlon and over 30 other characters in the one-man play. These include Tony Blair, Daniel Day Lewis, Liam Neeson, Robert de Niro and Johnny Depp, who Conlon took on an infamous drink-fuelled trip around Ireland to see the Dingle dolphin.
"Shaun Blaney really is one of our most talented upcoming young actors. He is the most obvious choice for this role at this time. I cast him in a recent comedy Three's A Shroud, by Stephen Large, and his range of characters and capacity for accents and dialogue was amazing," says Lynch.
So was Johnny Depp not available for the role?
"Johnny has been invited to the premiere. That particular week he's working in Portugal, but he replied 'don't be surprised if I turn up'," says O'Rawe.
And how does he think Gerry Conlon himself would feel about his story being on stage?
"Gerry loved the attention; he would have been sitting there as proud as punch."
:: In The Name Of The Son – The Gerry Conlon Story is a Green Shoots Production. It starts its run at Armagh's Market Place Theatre on March 3, before coming to Belfast's Lyric Theatre from March 17-29 (lyrictheatre.co.uk). It will also be performed in Newry, Derry, Cookstown, Enniskillen, Coleraine, Downpatrick and Cushendall. Suitable for ages 16+