Derry Journal Review: The White Handkerchief - A searing, soaring tour de force focussing on Bloody Sunday

A young girl of around six clutches a rag doll as she sings of her missing mammy and about being afraid. A young priest, reeling from the horror he has just witnessed, tries to comfort her. That was the moment I shed a tear, although in truth, for much of the late Liam Campbell’s haunting, brilliant and seminal The White Handkerchief, tears were never far from the surface. Because this is a true story. This really happened.

Warren McCook and Sharon Duffy as Willie McKinney and Elizabeth.
Warren McCook and Sharon Duffy as Willie McKinney and Elizabeth.

The girl was one of widow Peggy Deery’s 14 children. Peggy was shot and wounded on Bloody Sunday in Derry on January 30, 1972 and her story is one of those writ large in this astounding production currently running at the Guildhall, with stand out, powerhouse performances by Orla Mullan as Peggy and the young actress who plays her daughter, as well as the supremely talented Conor O’Kane as the outraged young Pennyburn priest Fr Tom O’Gara, who tended to the dying and wounded in Derry’s Bogside on January 30, 1972.

The dramatisation of what happened to Peggy Deery alone could have filled the two hours plus of this production, but this is a play epic in both scale and ambition, setting out as it does to encapsulate the horror visited on so many on Bloody Sunday. On that day 13 unarmed men and boys were shot dead by soldiers from the British Army Parachute Regiment and 18 others, including Peggy Deery, were seriously wounded while attending a peaceful march against internment without trial in Derry, a city still traumatised by the violence visited upon citizens demonstrating for civil rights. The play also sets out to capture the humanity of the people whose lives were cut short or forever changed that day. By the time the binlids and the bullets fell silent and the audience got to its feet for a standing ovation, it was clear the ambitions of those behind this production had been achieved.

A few months back people across Derry may have raised an eyebrow on hearing that this brand new play focusing on the tragic events that changed not only this city but the course of Irish history would include songs and live music. ‘How would that work?’ I asked myself at the time. Having witnessed it first hand however, I can say without fear of contradiction that the strength of the song-writing and the vocal performances coupled with the often understated live musical accompaniment by composer Brian O’Doherty with the superb orchestrations of Benjamin Levy adds so much to the poignancy of The White Handkerchief.

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Ciaran Bagnall and Conan McIvor’s sparse, white-lit raised platform stage with projections overhead in the centre of the Guildhall’s Main Hall is also an inspired choice. There are few props. This is all about the people and in the capable hands of Kieran Griffiths as producer and director it stays that way. But that’s not to say this is a linear narrative or a straight forward production. It is anything but. And this is where The Playhouse excels. If any theatre could do this, bring Liam Campbell’s vision into being and to do it justice, it would be Derry’s Artillery Street theatre. Those behind the White Handkerchief have had the courage to take risks and to present scenes that defy categorisation but include touches of the European avante-garde, musical theatre, ancient Greek tragedy and synchronised dance numbers and it all works seamlessly into the production with the by turns narrator-led, heartwarming, comic dialogue and heartbreakingly dramatic scenes to evoke a real sense of what unfolded that day, from the camaraderie of those who linked arms on a united stance against internment only to be met with brutality and lethal force.

Father Edward Daly’s life-changing experiences that day forms another central narrative of the play and Barry Keenan somehow manages to capture the late Derry Bishop’s mannerisms, power and dignified presence to mesmeric effect, particularly in his interactions with the soldiers and their superiors, especially young actor Callum Payne.

Warren McCook and Sharon Duffy as Willie McKinney and his bride-to-be Elizabeth deliver similarly outstanding performances as they narrate and act out in dialogue and rousing song much of what unfolded in Derry that day. The two actors perfectly evoke how these were just young people, real people with real dreams and hopes and ambitions and plans for the future. It felt particularly affecting for me as Willie McKinney worked at the printers in the Derry Journal at the time. He helped set the Tuesday Journal in which his death was recorded along with that of the other men and boys. McCook has a lot on his shoulders as much of The White Handkerchief drama and flow depends on his delivery and the casting here, as elsewhere, has been spot on.

McCook and Duffys’ ability to evoke that humanity, to portray ordinary people uniting with other ordinary people to take on the might of the State, is in itself one of the most extraordinary aspects of the White Handkerchief. The talent of the ensemble cast is truly staggering.

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Conor O'Kane as Fr Tom O'Gara with child actors Seánann Ward and Arianna McLaughlin.

Which brings me to another series of stand out performances by Rachel Harley as Alana Burke, another woman who was wounded on Bloody Sunday, and Francis Harkin, Aodhan Kehoe and Jonny Everett as three of the young men who were shot dead, Michael Kelly, Jackie Duddy and William Nash. Harley’s portrayal was breathtaking and poignant, and Harkin, Kehoe and Everett deliver performances that are flawless. They provided the comic element; the banter, the jokes and the craic so central to Derry, and brought vividly to life here as they ‘slag’ each other mercilessly and look forward to checking out the talent on the march. They are so full of life, full of craic and full of beans, and that makes knowing what will happen to them all the more like a gut punch.

There are so many others among the cast and crew worthy of mention including Dylan Reid as Michael McDaid, Sean Donegan as Barney McGuigan, Cáilum Carragher as Paddy Doherty and Andy Doherty as an IRA member - all of them superb. The dancers and the chorus helped convey Derry’s vibrancy and the chaos that day, and props to choreographer an movement director Nadine Hegarty. Enough can’t be said about the excellent attention to detail by costume designer Amy Carroll and stage manager Chloe Harkin in evoking the sense of Derry in 1972.

It is immensely sad that Liam Campbell never got to see his masterpiece brought to stage at the Guildhall, but the cast and crew of The White Handkerchief have done him and Derry proud.

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And it has not been lost on anyone the symbolism of its staging here - The Guildhall was the symbol of power over the people in Derry back in 1972 and those on the march on Bloody Sunday were prevented from reaching the square outside - the original rallying point - by an army barricade. The people of Derry wanted civil rights, a fair chance at a home and a job, an end to gerrymandering, a fair voting system and an end to internment. How far we’ve come and how fitting it is that many of those who marched that terrible day in Derry for a better future will be inside that building this week witnessing this globally significant play tell their story too.

Francis Harkin as Michael Kelly in The White Handkerchief.

The play has sold out and it is to be lamented that The White Handkerchief is not running in Derry for a month rather than a week. Everyone should get the chance to see it.

The talent involved and the attention to detail, deserves to have a wider audience. This is a play based on real events. And it could hold its own against the biggest shows on the biggest stages anywhere in the world.

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This is theatre as it was meant to be, searing, soaring. Many of those who’ve seen it will know what I mean when I say that, and they will also know what I mean when I say it stays with you long after the final poignant and rousing scenes bring it to a close.

5/5

Orla Mullan as Peggy Deery in a scene from The White Handkerchief.