‘Watch yourself Derry’

A significant milestone in the local arts scene occurred in recent days with the opening of Frank McGuinness’ Carthaginians at the Millennium Forum.

by Laurence McClenaghan

It’s produced by Millennium Forum Productions and directed by well-known director and actor Adrian Dunbar.

The production company certainly haven’t shied away from a challenge as this script provokes as much as it entertains.

The show is set in a local graveyard in a post Bloody Sunday, pre-Saville Derry. As the title suggests, its roots go back much further, and its concerns are much wider than those of just this city. However, an audience which included a big contingent from the Bloody Sunday families, and many others effected by that calamitous event in the city, meant this play struck very close to home.

The whispers of ‘That’s you’ from the audience watching their most traumatic experience relived on stage helped bring home the importance of place in this play.

The cast were superb and Dunbar has found actors who seemed to have spent a lifetime in the hills of Derry. In fact only one locally- born actor made the cut, and on the basis of this performance as Paul, Brian Hutton has a healthy career ahead of him.

The name of the play is taken from the ancient city of Carthage, destroyed by the Roman Empire only to rebuild and return stronger than before.

The work has been described as an elegy for Bloody Sunday. It deals with the healing, or the lack of it, in the advent of acts of violence, whether to the person or the community. The violence associated with the blackest day in the city’s history occurs offstage, but is replayed over and over again in the minds of these characters, each fighting their own war, not sure if they even want a truce, never mind how to get there.

These characters struggle to live life while moving among the dead, and the remedies on offer from McGuinness are those of truth, friendship and love.

These cemetery-dwelling Carthaginians, though forgotten by Derry, are not forgotten by Dido, an openly gay man who furnishes them with supplies, albeit at a healthy interest rate. Named after the queen of Carthage, the unforgettable Dido, played by Chris Robinson, leads ‘her’ court through a hilarious play within a play. ‘The Burning Balaclava’ is the comedic highlight of the show and is indeed a tour de force in this production.

If the arts community is examining the state of our city ahead of City of Culture, then this production offers as much food for thought today as it did before the Saville Report was commissioned.

Do we dwell on our misfortunes, wallow in melancholy? Do we concentrate on our divisions rather than uniting features? And are all Derry mammys a great shot with a water pistol?

The show comes at the time of both the fortieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the tenth anniversary of The Forum. And hopefully ‘Carthaginians’ is just the first in a long line of in-house touring productions from The Millennium Forum. The theatre’s progress in ten years under chief executive David McLaughlin, from staging first-class shows to commissioning its own touring productions, should be celebrated.

The atmosphere after the ‘press night’ on Thursday night was one of quiet celebration.

Both playwright Frank McGuinness and those caught up in the events of that fateful day that was Bloody Sunday seemed upbeat about the experience that is this powerful production.

In terms of the future for this company, to draw from the final scene, it’s a case of ‘Watch yourself Derry.’