Venue: Trinity Lodge, Belfast (formerly the Martin Forsythe Social Club)
In 1982, homosexual conduct between men aged 21 and over was decriminalised in Northern Ireland, fifteen years after similar laws had been passed in the rest of the United Kingdom. Strident opposition erupted, not least from the unholy alliance of the Democratic Unionist Party and the Catholic Church, who respectively branded same sex relationships abominable and sinful.
Ground breaking though the reform was, however, its narrow legal confines left many individuals vulnerable, ostracised and exposed to the risk of prosecution.
A few months later, in solidarity with its Belfast counterparts, the organising committee of the annual National Union of Students Lesbian and Gay Conference resolved to cross the Irish Sea for the first time. Their Irish welcome took the form of an aggressive Save Ulster from Sodomy demonstration at the gates of Queen’s University. The students’ witty riposte was an inverted slogan – Save Sodomy from Ulster.
In Dominic Montague’s heartfelt, well-researched new play, three of those at risk – confident, confrontational Michael (Christopher Grant), shy, confused Brendi (Simon Sweeney) and ballsy campaigner Margo (Paula Carson) – offer their apprehensive English visitors a glimpse into what it means to be young and gay in a community riven by sectarianism, violence and bigotry.
Under Paula McFetridge’s watchful direction, Kabosh – a long established company specialising in site-specific theatre – has premiered the play in the very place where a landmark event unfolded during that turbulent weekend. The script is replete with details of the social and political history of the time. Its starting point lies in the title itself, incorporating the venue’s original name in memory of a 19 year-old IRA man, shot dead in Belfast city centre by RUC detectives in 1971 as he attempted to plant a bomb.
Back in those troubled times, Belfast was shared by all manner of social outcasts: gays, lesbians, political activists, civil rights protestors, punks, rockers, anarchists. Against a rousing contemporary soundtrack, Conleth White’s retro tinted imagery evokes the spirit of the outside world, while the central characters represent a vivid composite of the conference delegates.
Affable Mancunian George (Brendan Quinn) is spooked by terrifying encounters with soldiers and gay bashers, only then to be warmly embraced by punters at the social club in republican west Belfast, whose management had invited the beleaguered students to the Saturday night céili.
At this point the writing swiftly switches from lengthy exposition to snappy repartee between locals and newcomers. In a revealing exchange, Margo comes under close scrutiny from a middle-aged reveller, not because she is a lesbian but because she lives in London, the disreputable city to which his teenage daughter intends to move. The tonal change works a treat, winning hearts and prompting emotional first-hand memories of a small but significant moment in the city’s LGBTQ+ history.
The play encourages us not only to look back but also to consider the present and the future. Progress has been made but there is still far to go. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Northern Ireland remain the most limited in the United Kingdom and lag behind those in the Republic of Ireland.
Produced as part of the programme of Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics www.imaginebelfast.com
This review was first published in the Irish Times on 28 March 2019.