The Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ have prompted countless theatrical responses over the decades, from community-based performances to full-scale conventional plays, but We Carried Your Secrets, which is currently being performed in a variety of venues across the region, is unlike any other I have seen. What sets it apart is the direct agency of its protagonists. Many theatre-makers in the past have sought to access the authentic experience of those involved, but this has usually been mediated by others – writers, directors and actors. The ‘performers’ in a Theatre of Witness production are the very people whose stories are being told.
That this is a far from unproblematic approach was evident in the performance that took place at Queen’s University’s Brian Friel Theatre on Friday 4th December 2009. I emphasise the date, because I sensed that to an even greater extent that is inevitable with all live theatre, no two performances of this piece can be compared. In this case, one of the defining factors was that, unbeknown to most of those present, specific close relatives of some of the ‘witnesses’ were in the audience for the first time. That’s not to say that none of the participants’ relatives had previously seen the show. But the presence of these specific individuals had an extraordinary impact on what transpired.
The form of a Theatre of Witness production might seem unusual, even naïve, to some observers. Narrative is complemented with simple stage images that would be recognisable to anyone familiar with the image theatre techniques of Augusto Boal. What gives them their power is that they are presented by other performers, creating an impressive sense of mutual support in the courageous process of speaking openly about their experiences. The seven witnesses are drawn from both the ‘Troubles’ generation and a younger group, whose lives are still dominated by the legacy of the past. All their stories are told simply to memorable effect. But such is the immediacy and sense of genuine communion created in the auditorium that it feels inappropriate to try to synopsise their stories here. No glib summary could do the power of sharing in them justice. This is a form that demands to be experienced live.
The director, Teya Sepunick, has spent decades perfecting her approach in a wide variety of challenging contexts. Her skill is evident in what seems to be the lightest of directorial touches, but which results in a production of exquisite delicacy. Her work is underpinned by Brian Irvine’s music and John McIlduff’s film work which sometimes counterpoints and at other times illustrates the stories being told. The Playhouse in Derry is to be thanked for its bold decision to bring the whole team together in the face of the inevitable anxiety at the high level of risk required by the project. Too often have well-meaning outsiders sought to engage the arts in the cause of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland only to seem voyeuristic, disingenuous or exploitative. But any lingering cynicism must surely have been dispelled by the post-show discussion in which witness after witness spoke with candour and conviction about the positive impact the production had had on them.
"...such is the immediacy and sense of genuine communion created in the auditorium that it feels inappropriate to try to synopsise their stories here. No glib summary could do the power of sharing in them justice. This is a form that demands to be experienced live."
One witness had seemed quite distressed throughout the performance and this gave rise to questions from the audience expressing legitimate concern about the ethics of his involvement. His response, that his brother with whom he had never discussed his feelings about the assassination of their father was in the audience for the first time, explained his demeanour. Although this in no way lessened the mutual discomfort of his exposure, it confronted us with the plain truth that understanding requires disclosure.
Another witness felt unable to appear live for security reasons. The hint of melodrama suggested by this decision dissolved when the last contributor from audience spoke. Her thanks to the performers and her appreciation of the event at first seemed unremarkable, until she identified herself as the mother of the performer that appeared on film, who, she revealed, had never told her of his profound personal pain.
Flying in the face of the conventional concern for distance and objectivity, We Carried Your Secrets was in the purest sense a shared experience. In its refusal to recognise a hierarchy of suffering, it allowed everyone in the audience who lived through the ‘Troubles’ to acknowledge the lingering impact on our lives.
David Grant is Head of Drama at Queen’s University, Belfast.