In the final weeks of June the cast of the First World War play Medal in the Drawer, written by Drama Lecturer Brenda Winter-Palmer, assembled once more to move on to the next stage of the project, now renamed the Medals all Around Community Drama Initiative . Since its first performances in the Brian Friel Theatre in May 2014 the cast of the play have been engaged in travelling all over Northern Ireland to perform scenes from the play in community and civic venues, schools, libraries, and museums. So far the play and its accompanying workshop, in which the characters are 'hot-seated' in role by the audience, has played to 1250 people. Response to this outreach programme has been overwhelmingly positive and has further convinced us that there is a real role for the play, and drama methods in general, in stimulating community groups to research, create and stage their own stories.
Touring the original full length drama, with its realistic reconstruction of a trench was always out of the question. It would have been far too expensive and would not have fitted into to the kind of community venues which we wanted to reach. Accordingly the mission was on to formulate a 35 minute long, pared down production which could play in all kinds of venues. It was surprisingly easy to transform the 90 minutes of the original script into a portable 'pop-up' performance which conveyed the personal journeys of 4 young Belfast Men who went to fight in 1915. But both writer and cast were unsure if it would maintain the emotional impact of the original promenade production. We were fortunate to have two prestigious invitations to perform at the end of June which would let us see how well the concept worked both in a community and theatre settings.
Our first outing was in helping to launch a new First World War Mural in the Tiger's Bay area of North Belfast as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council Connected Communities Festival. The rapt attention of the audience and the lively debate provoked in the after-show discussion indicated that the potted version of the performance had its own strength in providing a more intense and intimate experience for the audience. The passion of the engagement between actors and audience in the hot-seating exercise confirmed two things: firstly, that in areas designated as predominantly Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist in Northern Ireland the heritage of the First World War is current, vital and deeply-revered, and that secondly, this audience was totally prepared to suspend disbelief and question the actors in role as if they were real Belfast Tommies re-embodied in the room.
Two days later Medal headed south for its first foray over the border. The invitation to perform at the prestigious Hay Literary Festival in Kells County Meath meant that we would be sharing a platform with luminaries such as the poet Paul Durcan, musician and writer Paul Eno, television dramatist, Lynda La Plante, historian Diarmuid Ferriter and Booker Prize Winner Ben Okri. No pressure there then! We were also a bit worried about whether the very Northern Irish focus of the play would resonate with a predominantly Southern audience.
There was no need to worry! The play was received very warmly and the post-show discussion revealed amongst the audience an enduring consciousness of the service of relatives who fought in the First World War, despite over ninety years of the Republic's state-condoned erasure of such histories. Audience members spoke movingly of grand-fathers and great-uncles whose service, up until recent years, could only be mentioned in whispers for fear of the censure of neighbours horrified by any military association with the departed British colonial power. The willingness of those present to finally name and own these histories was palpable. By the end of the event it was clear that the emotional attachment to the memory of these men and women was as deeply felt in rural, Meath as it was in the PUL heartlands of Belfast's Tiger's Bay.
These two events in their different, yet interrelated ways, suggest that on the island of Ireland there is the interest and will within local and community groups to reclaim and tell their own stories of the First World War. It is hoped that Medal in the Drawer and can help to spear- head and support such initiatives through the medium of drama during the remainder of the Centenary and beyond.
Myles Dungan, of the Hay Festival Kells Committee writes:
Medal in the Drawer was invited to the 2015 Hay/Kells Festival as an element of our 'Reconciliation Strand' which was part- funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs Reconciliation Fund. So the play became an integral part of four events which also included a debate involving Jeffrey Donaldson MP and Mitchel McLaughlin MLA, and talks by East Belfast Irish language teacher Linda Ervine and Glencree Reconciliation Director Eamon Rafter.
The play was a reminder of the historical and commemorative context of the strand and played to an enthusiastic and engaged audience. The script and performances were of the highest calibre and the reaction to the play itself was extremely positive. The question and answer session that followed the show demonstrated the level of engagement of the audience and their clear enjoyment of the poignant drama they had just witnessed. In this context Medal in the Drawer is a hugely valuable addition to the Decade of Commemoration and a reminder to Southern Irish nationalists of one of the many bases of the culture of Northern unionism, just as it undoubtedly serves as a reminder to Northern Unionists that their nationalist compatriots played a vital part in the tragedy that was the Great War.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION ON MEDAL IN THE DRAWER SEE www.medalinthedrawer.com