First published in The Times, Friday August 26 2016
In the long-running story of the United Kingdom’s constitutional make up and future, Northern Ireland is often treated as a footnote, as though eighteen years of peace have rendered the province unworthy of close attention. That situation may be changing, though, at least in cultural terms. Mark Cousins’ fluid documentary meditation on his hometown of Belfast was released earlier this year, and now we have this engaging, multifaceted exploration of the same city and her people from the musician and theatre-maker Matt Regan.
Greater Belfast does touch directly upon the Troubles (though the word is deliberately avoided here) in a moving scene in which Regan recounts his experience of visiting the Ulster Museum with his father and being emotionally overwhelmed by a panel detailing the history of the conflict and the numbers of casualties. Yet, the canvas is far broader and richer in a piece whose tone gradually evolves from melancholic and nostalgic to upbeat and celebratory.
Via the amiable Regan’s meandering first-person address we learn of the Belfast Millies who worked in the linen mills; we explore the impact of the “peace lines” on the city’s geography. There are nods to Belfast’s rich musical heritage, including bands such as Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones, and there are diversions into troubling contemporary trends, such as the suicide epidemic among young men, which, ironically, has rocketed in peacetime.
The piece shifts in mood and content like the Belfast sleech, the muddy clay substance from which the city was built. Regan’s laid-back informal persona belies the show’s rigorous organisation and the tight direction by Claire Willoughby. One of the most compelling elements is the music, a series of Regan’s own compositions, performed live by the Cairns string quartet, whose rhythms interact with and resound off the spare poetry of the text.
Simon Hayes’s beautiful lighting imbues these vivid scenes and fragmented reminiscences with an almost numinous quality. There are times when we can almost perceive the ghosts of Belfast past flitting before our eyes. Yet this is also a forward-looking and optimistic piece, about a city coming to terms with and moving on from the past.