With Northern Ireland's Health Minister, Edwin Poots, recently failing in his legal attempts to prevent the donation of blood by gay men and to ban adoption by civil partners, any play tackling the homophobia inspired by Christian fundamentalism is clearly addressing a vital topic in Northern Irish society. Yet while the issue is significant and contemporary, everything about Tinderbox’s production of David Ireland’s new play Summertime is old-fashioned. It's not just that it uses a wobbly box-set with scene changes in blackouts to indicate time passing. Nor is it even that the dramaturgy of Ireland's script feels like a formulaic response to a playwriting exercise. (Stability is disrupted by the arrival of a mysterious stranger, causing a rift between friends, a situation made worse by the scheming of a female figure. Resolution comes through an inevitable trauma and the outcome is the realisation by the central characters of what was blindingly obvious from the start.) No, the thing that is so regressive about this production is its assumption that if the issue is big enough it can transcend the need for stagecraft.
The setting is the presbytery of an East Belfast Church of Ireland parish where the trendy young minister, Jonathan (Richard Clements) is struggling against the conservatism of his parishioners, personified in the elderly widower, Joe (Ivan Little) with whom he passes the time playing cards. Their game is interrupted by the arrival of Isaac (Ryan McParland), a young man who believes he is possessed, but who is beset by mental health issues that stem from his childhood. Jonathan tries to support Isaac by providing counselling; but falls prey to the gossip-mongering of Isaac's born-again sister, Judith (Victoria Armstrong), who mounts a hate campaign against him because of his support for equality for gay men. Jonathan's religion is inclusive and he is articulate and thoughtful; his antagonists are stupid and unable to nuance anything but the most literal of meanings. Nonetheless, Jonathan's honest doubt about the tenets of his Christian faith - he's not sure if there is a hell - are no match for Judith's fundamentalist certainties, nor Isaac's unstable mental state. At the same time, he manages to alienate Joe, increasing his isolation further.
The narrative is then a riff on Yeats’ poem, 'The Second Coming' where he declares that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate certainty”. Yet the logic of the structure is that it is precisely the lack of certainty that causes the trauma to arise. The fate that befalls Jonathan can be directly attributed to his lack of conviction and specifically to his failure to convince Isaac that the absence of hell doesn't equate to moral relativism. Moreover, the outcome of the events has been predicted by Judith, whose command of biblical text and unshakeable belief in the transparency of its truth is prophetically accurate. Surely neither Ireland nor company dramaturg, Hanna Slattne, seriously want the audience to see Judith's position as acceptable? She is, after all, given only one short scene in which to articulate it and is given neither depth nor subtlety in her engagement with Jonathan.
The problematic logic of the dramaturgy extends to an unmotivated resolution, and a number of unexplained leaps in the script, and one of the most elongated and clunky death scenes since Othello first took two attempts to smother Desdemona. Issues of consistency appear too in the production and performances. Alyson Cummins’ dun-coloured set is a replica of a single mish-mash of a room, laid out flatly across the width of the stage of the Upstairs Theatre. Director Michael Duke must take responsibility for the blocking, which verged on the nonsensical: Jonathan sets out three chairs for a one-to-one meeting with Isaac. He makes Judith a cup of coffee but leaves her standing in the doorway, rather than offering her a seat. Later confronted by Isaac wielding a knife, Jonathan sits down with his back to him. For much of the rest of the time the actors were left marooned around two or three chairs downstage centre, leaving most of the space unanimated. Verisimilitude was taken only so far, however: the entrance door opened to reveal only black drapes and Simon Bird's lighting design showed no indication of the presence, direction of or changes in natural lighting.
Good politics will never excuse nor salvage bad drama or careless production values. The virulence of the homophobia erupting through the surface of Northern Irish society with such vehemence recently requires a more sophisticated and acute response than this flaccid production provides. The fact that many of the audience took to their feet to applaud this unworthy intervention demonstrates how hungry they were to find such a response in the theatre.
Tom Maguire is a Senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies at the University of Ulster.