Directed by Lisa May and Martin Lynch
Everyman Theatre (27th April - 1st May 2010)
What do you get if you cross prison life during the civil war euphemistically known as the 'Troubles' with dancey 1960s soul hits? Well, you get Chronicles of Long Kesh, for better and worse.
Northern Ireland playwright Martin Lynch interviewed former prisoners, prison workers, and family members whilst researching this play, presumably in an attempt to make it as believable as possible. On a barely there set, five men and one woman act out a series of sketches, narrated by nervous and reluctant screw Freddie Gillespie (Billy Clark).
Lynch's emphasis is very much on humanising Catholic and Protestant fighter alike, to make them more than the pariahs they were to some and the heroes they were to others. The result is that all the characters are likeable in their own way, but none of them feel real. This is largely because - with the exception of Freddie who flipped a coin on the Hobson's choice of prison officer or cop when his wife got pregnant - we don't see or hear about any of their dramatic life choices.
Lynch is very mindful of how significant his subject matter is. As he told Culture Northern Ireland:
"A prison like Long Kesh...when you look at it in the wider context in terms of its impact on this community, over 20,000 prisoners saw the inside of it, from both backgrounds, Catholic and Protestant. Then you had something like 5,000 warders who worked in the prison, and when you add up all the numbers of family members who visited the prison, you're probably talking upwards of 80,000 people who have all been inside the confines of Long Kesh. So it's a huge political, sociological dimension to our society, and it's a story that I've wanted to tackle for some time."Unfortunately, Lynch's treatment of the subject is rather limited. At a key moment he paraphrases John Lennon's "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans". While that may be a mildly amusing quip, it's not an adequate explanation of why someone would try to kill people, overthrow a government, or go on hunger strike.
This is the essential problem with the production. Martin Lynch has taken an intense political struggle, and turned it into something not even apolitical, but anti-political, as if problematic situations just 'happen' to people, and they can't - or shouldn't be - analysed any further. This doesn't just make for bad philosophy, it also inevitably leads to the weakest artistic moments. We are presented with characters who are at least suspected of involvement in shootings and bombings, and we are expected to chuckle along as they tackle yet another Motown hit.
There are good performances to witness and laughs to be had, so Chronicles of Long Kesh is quite enjoyable, but beyond that, it is of little value. Perhaps Lynch set himself an impossible task - to reflect the life of a vast community over a thirty year period in just over two hours. But perhaps he found it too hard to properly get to grips with such divisive events, especially at a time of recession, when sectarian fighting is raising its ugly head once more.