Stage

Director Emma Jordan on timely new Belfast Festival drama The Border Game

David Roy chats to director Emma Jordan about bringing Oisin Kearney and Michael Patrick's new play The Border Game to the stage at the Lyric as part of the Belfast International Festival...

Emma Jordan at the Lyric during rehearsals for The Border Game. Picture by Hugh Russell.

"IT'S just been wonderful to see Rough Girls up and running," enthuses Emma Jordan of how live theatre has now begun to to return to the Lyric in Belfast.

"The buzz about the building is starting to come back again."

Jordan will shortly be adding to this renewed buzz with a new production of her own: the artistic director of Belfast's Prime Cut productions and acclaimed freelance theatre director is currently in rehearsals with The Border Game, a new play from Prime Cut writing prodigies Oisín Kearney and Michael Patrick (My Left Nut, The Alternative) which will be the opening event of this year's Belfast International Arts Festival on Saturday October 2.

She continues: "I kind of feel lucky because I directed A Good Turn for The Abbey in Dublin at the start of the summer which was the first live theatre in Ireland [post-lockdown], so I've kind of got a bit of a taste for it.

"At the Abbey we were only allowed about 50 people in what is a massive 360 seater auditorium, but I think at the Lyric here we're kind of working to 150 – which doesn't feel like an empty theatre for the audience."

Kearney and Patrick were commissioned to write The Border Game by Prime Cut as a piece of new original theatre to mark Northern Ireland's centenary in 2021. The result is a comic drama starring Patrick McBrearty and Liz McGibbon as an estranged couple from opposite sides of the Fermanagh-Leitrim border. They get to discussing their past while literally attempting to mend a fence in a borderland field next to an old customs hut.

"Sinead [McGibbon] and Henry [McBrearty] are a couple in their early 30s who had a relationship for seven years but have now broken up," reveals Jordan of The Border Game's storyline.

"One is a northern Protestant, the other is a southern Catholic, and they have a memory of the conflict but are still part of the 'peace agreement babies', so to speak. The story of their relationship kind of mirrors some of the politics around the border and they're also playing games where they kind of re-enact scenarios relating to the history of the border and the experiences of people who lived on the border."

The Border Game stars Liz McGibbon and Patrick McBrearty with writers Oisín Kearney and Michael Patrick

Indeed, a key element of The Border Game is that its storyline is actually drawn directly from real-life field research carried out by its writers right across 300 miles of Ireland's borderlands.

"The piece is based on a hundred interviews that Mick and Oisín conducted with people living on the Irish border all through lockdown," explains Jordan, whose other recent directorial credits include A Street Car Named Desire at the Lyric and East Belfast Boy at The MAC, which she also adapted and directed in film form for the online programme at this year's Edinburgh Fringe.

"They went up and down the length of the border interviewing young and old, all 'sides', all professions, which became the basis of the storytelling. It was really important that the story actually radiated from the lived experience of people on the border, both south and north. That's the heart of the play.

Jordan adds: "It's a lot of fun, but of course you can't talk about the border without touching on some of the contentious issues.

"Certainly, from my point of view, in terms of the centenary I felt it was really important that we took this moment to pause and start to have a more sophisticated conversation about the border, the future and the questions which need to be addressed about its function – how it divides people and yet how it can possibly bring people together also."

The play sounds like an ambitious blend of truth and fiction, and its director has nothing but praise for writers Kearney and Patrick, whose blossoming theatre careers were given a big boost last year when they participated in Prime Cut's new talent programme Reveal.

"I also mentored Oisín whenever he was directing My Left Nut," explains Jordan, who first joined the Belfast theatre company in 2000 and will help it celebrate 30 years of thought-provoking productions next year.

"So I've had an ongoing working relationship with the boys for four or five years now – which is great because they've just kind of went from success to success. It's brilliant to see a younger generation of artists doing so well."

Emma Jordan (left) with actors Patrick McBrearty and Liz McGibbon during rehearsals for The Border Game. Picture by Hugh Russell

While actors live for the unique thrill that live performance brings, theatre directors are in their element during the rehearsal process in the run up to opening night, as Jordan explains.

"Rehearsal is the heart and soul of my job," she tells me.

"It's my favourite aspect of the work, and it's especially satisfying when it's a piece of new writing. We've had Oisín and Michael in with us for the first two weeks with a draft rehearsal script. The boys went away and re-wrote act one and two and then were in the room with us to kind of change things as we explored what worked and what didn't work.

"It's a really creative process and really collaborative, which is what I love about theatre – a lot of heads in a room finding solutions to problems."

As for whether The Border Game can contribute to how we deal with the border's troubled legacy and increasingly contentious future, Jordan is hopeful that her new play will at least get people talking.

"I think it's an invitation to the audience to open conversations," she tells me.

"Theatre is a very safe space to posit very difficult questions and I think theatre's role in society is to provoke a conversation outside of party political scenarios.

"A lot of these conversations become divisive because of the forum in which they're discussed, whereas because theatre really is about an extension of empathy in terms of an understanding of where people position themselves or where they're coming from, it's a means by which to get past headlines and think about lived experience as opposed to party politics."

She adds: "That feedback and that discussion, that's what sets theatre apart. Live theatre is my 'happy place' and I'm so glad to be back at it."

:: The Border Game runs from October 2 to 23 at the Lyric, Belfast, as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival. Tickets and show times at lyrictheatre.co.uk. Full festival programme available at belfastinternationalartsfestival.com

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