(Clare Brennan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/25.)
The annual celebration of the work of Brian Friel carries powerful reminders of the work of building community
“Politics are so obtrusive here.” The great Irish playwright Brian Friel (1929-2015) was being interviewed in the Guildhall in Derry in 1980. Gesturing to the Ebrington barracks beyond the window, on the other side of the River Foyle, he continued: “For people like ourselves… definitions of identity have to be developed and analysed much more frequently [than in England]. We’ve got to keep questioning until we find… some kind of generosity that can embrace the whole island.”
The cross-border FrielFest, now in its fourth year, invites audiences to participate in both the questioning and the embrace. In doing so, it reflects Friel’s own strength – making works particular to time and place that express our universal experiences. The quest for answers to shifting questions is reflected in the peripatetic form of the festival, with dramatic readings of Friel’s works presented in and around Derry and Donegal – and audiences, on occasion, visiting multiple venues in the course of one performance.
First produced in 1973, The Freedom of the City is set in Derry’s Guildhall, where, poignantly, this production is staged. A few hundred yards away, people are gathering around a makeshift music stage to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bogside. On the night I attend, the audience meets outside the Museum of Free Derry (on other evenings, the rendezvous point is the Ebrington barracks). We are sung to the Guildhall by Nigerian-born, Liverpool-based performer and playwright Tayo Aluko, and walk in the wake of his resonant spirituals. Where some of us see city streets, others see invisible barriers crumbled (“I would never have crossed this road when I was young,” says one). The play is partially based on events around 1972’s Bloody Sunday. Its action unfurls in double-time. The fictional experiences of three civil rights demonstrators, who stumble into the Guildhall, fleeing a tear gas onslaught, are interspersed with the official inquiry into their subsequent deaths (shot leaving the building by the army, which maintains they were armed terrorists).