Sitting in Taxi Trax, the West Belfast taxi depot, waiting for the performance of The West Awakes to begin, my eyes are drawn to an impressive mural splattered on the back wall of the building. It’s an image of the city, or rather the west side of the city, encompassing the Shankhill and Falls roads and moving into Andersonstown. There are men with skinheads in vests, women with prams, and an old woman in a headscarf flogging ‘Irish tomatoes’. Drivers talk between cabs, people read the ‘Ska News’, and Divis flats, the ultimate flashpoint area during the Troubles, looms crookedly in the distance, the leaning tower of Belfast. This is where we’re going.
The West Awakes, a collaboration between Kabosh theatre company and Fáilte Feirste Thair, was first performed in April, and was revived this month for Féile an Phobail. There are two versions of the piece: one tour is led by Taxi Trax, (also known as the people’s taxis), a west Belfast community transport system created in 1969 when other modes of getting around had come to an inconvenient halt. Coiste, a Republican ex-prisoner organization that regularly operates political tours in the area, leads the other. Both tours are conducted by men who associate themselves strongly with the Republican agenda. Many of Taxi Trax’s drivers were involved in the IRA, they tell us, and eight were killed during the years of conflict. Each of our tour guides has a unique attachment to West Belfast and the events that took place there, and a story to tell.
As our guides lead us to the locations of five short dramas, they pause along the way to give their perspective on certain community landmarks, such as plaques to Republican martyrs and local murals. They express suspicions of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the British government and offer up alternatives to traditional versions of events. Pádraig Whyte, who reviewed the production for ITM in April, found their accounts somewhat selective and lacking in any sense of self- reflexivity: “it may be argued”, he writes, “that the tour is an opportunity to offer a perspective of history from a community that was often marginalised or ignored by media and governments, but such tours also insulate and isolate the community and may perhaps even reinforce sectarianism.”
As a member of a Unionist community in Northern Ireland, I had a strong response to the piece. Contrary to Whyte’s suggestion, however, this reaction had a positive effect. Of course, single identity work will always be divisive, but this production walks the fine line between engagement and alienation with great grace and delicacy. Kabosh is unashamed in its employment of Republican voices and balances these un-edited, grass-roots perspectives with more finely drawn portraits of history in the form of short dramas. Though the commentary from the guides may sometimes jar with our own opinions, it opens up the possibility for conversation and understanding, and thus a way out of sectarianism.
The dramas, performed with flair by Antoinette Morelli and Gerard Jordan (pictured, right), offer up certain instances by which oppositional community members may access the piece on their own terms. Standing in the lobby of Cultúrlann McAdam O’Fiach, an old Presbyterian Church and now an Irish language venue, the performers present us with some possible contradictions in Irish history. The church, for instance, was previously home to the Loyal Orange Lodge no. 824, and a number of today’s patrons still remember Orange marches coming and going from the present Cultúrlann building. The name McAdam recalls the enormous contribution to the revival of the language made by Robert Shipboy McAdam, a Presbyterian businessman from the nineteenth century.
Shivering in Milltown cemetery at the end of the tour, we are confronted with the grave of former trade unionist, Irish independence activist and Sinn Fein candidate Winnifred Carney. As the performers walk the long promenade between grave sites, they debate the ideals of James Connolly and discuss Carney’s relationship with George McBride, a Protestant Unionist and member of the Ulster Volunteers. Her difference in opinion with McBride need not necessarily have led to mutual loathing, Morelli declares. Their marriage proved that.
Paula McFetridge, artistic director of Kabosh, wanted specifically to work with playwrights from West Belfast. “These people have a commitment to teasing out artistically the stories of West Belfast”, she says.
As for the guides, she thinks that their subjectivity brings an authenticity and life to the piece. “Of course, there was a question about whether we wanted to neutralize, water down or tamper with what it was that they do, but there’s no point in doing that.” It’s about artistic independence, she asserts, and learning to accept what we’re all bringing to the table. “When you do single identity work, that brings with it a certain baggage, a certain confrontation and controversy that you have to be prepared to accept.”
The most encouraging element of the piece for me was that the action never stopped. Moving from location to location, audience members took on the role of tour guide. Packed into a car with three Catholic women from the West and two Protestant women from outside the city, the conversation continued. “I remember the old public baths on that corner,” says one woman who used to wash there with her siblings on a Saturday morning. “Was it really as bad as they say”, asks the Protestant visitor. “Worse”, the women respond. “Should we bring down the peace walls?” “Not for a while”.
This play is one in a series of Kabosh productions that flirt with the idea of cultural tourism and the re-exploration of Belfast’s bricks and mortar. The majority of audience members are citizens of Belfast and a work such as this recognizes their identity as tourists in their own city. By effectively distancing their spectators from their city by using the form of a guided tour, Kabosh begins to remind them of what makes this place unique, what made it Belfast before the Troubles. The one-track perspective from the taxi drivers provokes a response from their audience, forcing conversation and ultimately a greater understanding of our own collaborative identity.
Kathy Clarke is an arts journalist based in Belfast.