Stage

Bloody Sunday drama brought to life in Guildhall on 50th anniversary

As The Playhouse prepares to stage a new play dramatising the events of Bloody Sunday 50 years on in Derry's Guildhall, Jenny Lee chats to its director Kieran Griffiths about how he approached such a sensitive subject and the emotional challenges in getting it to stage

Actors Orla Mullan as Peggy Deery and Jonny Everett as Para 1 in the moving Bloody Sunday elegy, The White Handkerchief

EXACTLY 50 years on from the darkest day in Derry's history, the city's Guildhall will be host to a new drama inspired by the enduring image of Fr Edward Daly waving a blood-soaked handkerchief as he led a group of people carrying one of Bloody Sunday's victims - 17-year-old Jackie Duddy -from the scene of the shooting.

Featuring an entirely local Derry cast, The White Handkerchief tells the life stories of the victims of Bloody Sunday through drama and music.

Described as a "landmark piece of theatre" by writer Liam Campbell, who sadly passed away just weeks ago on December 20, it will premiere on the 50th anniversary of the day on which 14 unarmed civilians were killed by British soldiers during a protest march against internment without trial.

"This piece is a sensitive honouring of the lives of those lost, a commemoration that does not diminish the horror of that day," says director and producer Kieran Griffiths.

"It will be an elegy - a piece that marries dramatic narrative with a reverent musical score to give space for previously unexplored moments in history."

Such was his commitment to the play, Liam continued to work on The White Handkerchief right up to days before his death, phoning Kieran from his hospital bed to "discuss some of the scenes".

"Writing wasn't what he did for a living - it was who he was as a man and who he was as an artist. He was a real champion for injustice," adds Kieran.

As if the play's subject wasn't sensitive enough, his passing has given the entire cast and production crew the increased emphasis to do their best to "honour" him, as well as the victims of Bloody Sunday.

Ballymena movie star Liam Neeson lent his voice to the project by reading a specially written sonnet to help launch The White Handkerchief online.

"A sonnet is 14 lines long and as 14 people lost their lives that day, it seemed fitting. And following his passing that sonnet was placed into Liam's coffin and went down with him," adds Kieran.

He first approached Liam with the idea for The White Handkerchief two-and-a-half-years ago. "I walked across the room to him, told him we are going to make a production based on Daly's waving off the white handkerchief and we're going to turn it to song. He turned to me and said, 'How the hell are we going to do that?'"

Through dedication they succeeded, assisted by music director Brian O'Doherty, whose sensitive score and meaningful silences adds to the atmosphere and drama.

"The music is unbearably beautiful in some places," notes Kieran, who from the onset was determined to use an ensemble of local actors in the cast.

Funding secured an accompanying education programme, which included the establishment of the Playhouse Musical Theatre Academy, training 12 young people to conservatoire level.

And he is delighted that the four main roles are played by members Warren McCook, Orla Mullan, Sharon Duffy and Jonny Everett.

Aware of the delicacy of such a production, Kieran approached the Bloody Sunday Trust and invited representatives from the families of those killed and injured on Bloody Sunday to a preview performance last autumn.

"We presented seven excerpts from the piece, making the courageous decision to show the moment in the piece where we are dealing with how they are murdered."

Not wanting to punish families by seeing representations of their loved ones falling and lying dead, the production team were compassionate in how they portrayed the shooting scenes.

"After the impact of the moment of the bullet, we elevate the bodies as a representative of a sacrifice of civil rights," explains Kieran, who like all present on that occasion was overcome with emotion.

"The nature of that performance was one of the most powerful moments in my life as a theatre director. The exchange that happened in the room between the families and the young people, who are enjoying the banquet of equality and freedom that the justice campaign fought for, was quite a moving experience.

"At that moment I also witnessed a group of young actors finding the real meaning behind making art."

During that preview, Kieran presented each family a gift of a white handkerchief, hand embroidered with the name of their lost loved one.

"We presented Jackie Duddy's sister Kay with her gift first. She was moved to tears immediately when she opened the handkerchief, but she didn't notice Jackie's name. When I pointed it out to her, it was such a special moment. I felt complete as an artist."

Speaking at that event, Liam said writing The White Handkerchief had been "the greatest privilege" of his life. He described the work as "an observance to tragedy, bravery and innocence, whilst offering a message of love and hope to the city of Derry".

The lens through which the events unfold is William McKinney, the 26-year-old compositor who was killed in Glenfada Park.

"The play opens up with William McKinney walking onto the stage and looking around at the people of Derry and telling them why he is there this evening. He tells them he is not there to force the shadow of grief upon them.

"He adds that whilst he's not going to sidestep the pain, or the hurt of all the lies, he does promise to bring light," explains Kieran.

"We then have an intimate argument between him and his fiancée in their kitchen which is a microcosm of what happened on that day. She questions why he is going to the march, after he and John Hume got beat up in Magilligan the week before."

Celebrating the wit of the people of Derry, the play has an upbeat start as audiences see William and his friends enjoy a jovial atmosphere as they gather for the march.

What then follows is a dramatisation of the events of the day and the impact of Bloody Sunday.

"Liam takes us into little moments of intimacy between people," says Kieran.

"As he said himself, every single story, every death, every person injured and every person traumatised is a play in and of itself."

:: The White Handkerchief will run from January 30 to February 5 at Derry's Guildhall Square. The premiere will be broadcast live via Derry Playhouse website and available to stream for seven days afterwards. Tickets from Derryplayhouse.co.uk.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access