Never in My Lifetime is an ambitious beginning for a new theatre company. It's easy to see why 3 Isles Productions, named for the 3 islands of Ireland, Scotland, and Manhattan, would find this play to be an attractive inauguration. Some of the play's action takes place in England, the rest in Northern Ireland in the time of the understatedly named "Troubles." The characters in Never In My Lifetime are English in England, Irish in Ireland, and English in Ireland – boundaries are blurred and then, painfully, re-established.
Love, war, and national identity are universal themes and make for great theatre, but in the singular case of Never in My Lifetime, the question needs discussing – is this a relevant play?
Just this week, the press announced the destruction of Northern Ireland's last weapons stockpile after 15 years of negotiation. It has been twelve years since the Good Friday peace agreement. The biggest news coming out of Northern Ireland right now, thank God, is not a street bomb, but a Mrs. Robinson-type affair between a young man and the wife of a prominent politician. Her name is, you guessed it, Mrs. Robinson.
Back to the question at hand – a play about the tensions of living with an occupying military force in the neighborhood should be timeless. It happens in war all over the world, all over time, but Never In My Lifetime ends up continually reminding us of the good news – hopefully this part of Northern Ireland's history is over. The play has a time capsule veneer and distances itself from its audience. The 70s-style, Madonna-inspired clothes, worn by the two young Irish women, are factually accurate but only heighten the "that was then" atmosphere.
Relevance could be argued in parallels drawn to American and British occupying forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Never In My Lifetime, the youth and hubris of the British soldiers doom them to fatal mistakes in strange land. A large part of the story here is the inexperience of the British soldiers at waging this sort of war, an urban war. They had been trained to fight in the fields. Belfast proved to be an unfamiliar terrain, a constrained, guerrilla war with the enemy looking just like them. Charlie, a young British soldier always with a half-smile on his face, asks: "What is the point if we can't shoot them?," remarking how the natives will "smile in the pub and then kill you around the corner."
Urban warfare may have been new to the British in 1970s Belfast, but contemporary audiences are accustomed to these situations. After nine years of watching embedded journalists roll with army units into the towns of Iraq, it is hard to appreciate just how strange and frightening urban warfare would have been to the soldiers of Shirley Gee's play.
David Beck (left) and Danny Yoerges – British soldiers
When Never in My Lifetime first appeared, it was a radio play. This heritage is evident in much of the play's static tableaux stance. Characters, three British usually stand on one side of the stage; their three Irish counterparts stand on the other. All address the air above the audience's head.
There are moments of action – the lovers meet, the married couple spars. In a particularly poignant moment, a young Irish girl (Catriona Rubenis-Stevens), involved with the IRA, dresses her friend for a meeting that is something like a marriage, something like a funeral.
Director Tim Ruddy, winner of the Best Director award at the 1st Irish 2009 Theatre Festival, rushes the emotions here. Words jam up against each other, perhaps in portrayal of the violence in the streets, but what comes out of the chaos most effectively are the Irish mother's (Fiana Toibin, below) quiet pronouncements – mediations on the despair around her: "It was a grand street." Ms. Toibin's quiet anguish is the most striking pose in the production.
Other notable performances are Nicola Murphy as Tessie, the "soldier lover," David Beck as the soldier she loves, and Danny Yoerges (Charlie) as his friend in the barracks. Charlie leaves behind a beautiful wife and child and doesn't quite appreciate what he is leaving. But who does?
One of the most sorrowful moments in Never In My Lifetime occurs when the two mothers turn to face each other. It is the first time that the Irish mother directly addresses anyone in the play. The young British wife (Tammy McNeill) struggles with her grief. The Irish mother has been grieving all along for her family and her Belfast – a city that was "known for its friendliness" and is now "rancid with disappointment." The metaphor? The women in the play cover their faces while the soldiers raise their batons. It is a moment that wouldn't be out of place in a classical Greek tragedy. Hopefully these moments for Belfast, while not forgotten, will be as distant in the past as ancient Greece.
Never In My Lifetime runs through February 21 at the Access Theatre.
Photos: Lelo Lourenzo