In this Easter week of 2023, global attention is focused on an event in Northern Ireland which took place 25 years ago and has since been held up to the world as an example of peace building, of reaching a resolution to a seemingly intractable political conflict.
The Good Friday Agreement set its compass on an escape route out of decades of paramilitary and military violence, sectarian killings, collusion, treachery and deep-rooted distrust – a dirty war, known euphemistically as the Troubles.
For days and nights, in an anonymous room inside Parliament Buildings at Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a group of political leaders and advisors butted heads and manoeuvred their way towards a mutually acceptable accommodation. US senator George Mitchell acted as referee and honest broker, while his boss President Bill Clinton kept watch from the other side of the Atlantic. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern were also locked in the heat of debate.
The only female in the room – and the voice of reason and good sense throughout – was NI Secretary of State Mo Mowlem. Conspicuously absent were the members of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, who were barred from proceedings. It was they who tirelessly patrolled the Stormont corridors and stairways, carrying messages and notes between the men in suits, while contributing their own vital interventions on equity, human rights and inclusion.
As in so many aspects of Northern Ireland life at the time, women were often relegated to a supporting role. Yet, while their men were absent from family life – imprisoned, on political duty or dead – it was women who kept households going, in the face of street violence, personal peril, financial adversity and social deprivation.
History of the Present, an experimental feminist film-opera about class and conflict, is to be premiered at QFT in Belfast on 19 April. It is one of a series of events, organised by British Council Northern Ireland and the Belfast International Arts Festival, to mark the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
It is the result of a creative collaboration between writer Maria Fusco and American-British filmmaker Margaret Salmon and tells a story of ordinary lives, still dominated to this day by the looming presence of the Belfast peacelines.
This semi-autobiographical worK focuses on the voices of working class women, amplifying untold stories of marginalised communities and collective trauma. The composer is the internationally renowned Annea Lockwood, with improvised vocals by French opera singer, Héloïse Werner. It began its development during the writer’s fellowship at the Royal Opera House in London.
Fusco grew up during the Troubles, in an interface area in the north Belfast working-class district of Ardoyne. “Walking along the perimeter wall on Alliance Avenue (during the making of a BBC documentary) was the first time I had ever been to the other side of that peaceline”, she says. “I suddenly realised how little people know about the peacelines and thought that there was more creative and critical work to be done in that area (of Belfast life).
“I wanted to embody the voices of working-class Northern Irish women and their roles in conflict zones, to ask who has the right to speak and in what way? To me, an opera feels like an obvious choice, especially with our tendency here for a touch of the theatrical. I feel that opera should make more of a commitment to working-class stories and a range of accents.”
She was especially interested in gathering sounds from the Troubles onwards to bring the work together, including both archival and field recordings:
“The film features archival recordings of women’s voices from my own family recordings, made when I was a child. I’m interested in how you learn accent through tone and range, how the environment seeps into you, how you try to assimilate. We utilised other archival materials, including ‘historic’ Belfast military sounds, which our singer Héloïse improvises with: a helicopter, an army Saracen, a riot.
“We decided to focus entirely on the sonic. When I was growing up, you would run and hide when a riot was happening, not stand outside staring at it. So your experience of violence is largely sonic, you’re a reluctant participant.
“We also worked with recordings of the peaceline in Ardoyne made by composer Annea Lockwood, whose pioneering work in field-recordings has been an inspiration to me for a long time. The music evolved out of those recordings and has been transformed into something which has real beauty and depth.
“The piece is sensitively shot by artist-filmmaker Margaret Salmon. The reason we decided to make this as a film rather than a live work is that I want people in different countries to see it, especially women living in post-conflict zones. The work seeks to present an emotional state of life in a post-conflict city and what that feels like. There are also moments of humour and slapstick, which are so important in the Northern Ireland psyche.”
History of the Present is supported by the British Council, Creative Scotland and the Royal Opera House, and was developed with the assistance of the Abbey Theatre/ Amharclann na Mainistreach. Following its Belfast premiere, it will tour nationally and internationally – Royal Opera House on 2 June, Art Night Dundee on 24 June and Edinburgh Art Festival in August 2023.
Co-directors: Maria Fusco and Margaret Salmon
Librettist: Maria Fusco
Composer: Annea Lockwood
Singer: Héloïse Werner
Images from the film courtesy of the artists, Maria Fusco and Margaret Salmon
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