Edinburgh Fringe 2019
John McCann is our storyteller and in his companion piece to Fringe First Award winning DUPed from last year, he has again gone into the passion and the politics of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to give us a tale of his journey. This time he has widened his outlook to include the fundamentalist Presbyterian biblical authorities that the founder of the DUP, used as quotes and as authority for his views. From this former resident of the Tunnel, Portadown we reflections on 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement, interviews with figures in the DUP and the church as well as his own observations. Couched in the tragedy of the loss of life of Lyra McKee, we begin with her wee 8 year old self and where she was in 1998 and what should have been a new dawn for her and we end with the hope that dialogue between the fundamentalist and the apostate is possible, even though Lyra is unable to live to see it.
McCann greets us as we enter, his warmth enticing us to sit and join in the hymn playing out behind us. We await the end of the hymn to find ourselves listening to the boom of a voice so often heard on the 6 O’clock news to tell us that No is always the favoured option. McCann takes up the story of how he has developed and returned to the stories of DUPed but now widened the approach; he wishes to engage and talk to those with whom he would fundamentally disagree.
It is a fascinating tale and journey. As we trip round the voices of Paisley, Lyra McKee, the head of the Drumcree protest, the pastor who’s service he attended and the DUP members willing to talk to him we get a sense of progress which divides the achievable. We are left to wonder why some would draw the sword of implacable indignity to the process in which we had hoped to have left peace; to be fair they seem unable to offer much by way of explanation.
McCann’s voice is not a strident one but a comforting one, managing to scale outrage and pathos as he takes on the views of those who talk him through their views of the future. There is a break in the cadence of his expression when describing what happened to McKee because he knew her. She was a journalist of substance who was murdered by dissident republicans; and a murder it was. The sensitivity of his approach brings much to the table as we hear the underpinning sense rather than the overbearing bluster. A particularly poignant piece was the way in which they tried to get her to a hospital to save her.
Those to whom he has spoken are given respect. The recorded interviews some of which required him to go to many taking lengths to “prove” himself are given a platform to be heard. They are provided an opportunity to speak before being set into new contexts. Revelations abound and the one where the head of Drumcree took literally the authority to talk to anyone to resolve the impasse seriously is a gem. He tells of his meeting with Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, and then the equivalent excommunication from the Orange Order for not realising that when they said “talk to anyone” they meant “anyone but HIM” It allows the meaning of what happened to hit home without being hammered home and how far apart people on the ground have not come. Similarly the DUP activist from a working class standpoint manages to show his opposition whilst exposing his belief in being a working class activist; it shows a glimmer of opportunity for dialogue.
The joy here is often the linguistic phraseology and how it makes utter sense in comparison to the power of the events is what makes this work; and work so well. Any solo performance needs a decent script and it has it in bucket loads. Because McCann has lived this, we get to breathe it in.
As a performance piece it was always going to have, after DUPed and its success, the feeling of a difficult second album and there is a bit of that. We are getting much the same as before, presented in the same successful manner and if it aint broke… Except there are times when the story could do with a greater connection to the message of how we need to break bread with those who at one time would have tried to break our heads.
The performance space is intimate and great, the voiceovers and authentic voices powerful and apt.
It has a feeling of a possible trilogy and I would love to see where it goes now. You get the feeling of being on a journey and McCann might return next year in a two hander with Arlene Foster. And why not? As the priest who managed to get a standing ovation at McKee’s funeral, for the words directed at political leaders, “I am, however, left with a question: Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get to this point?”
McCann may not have political leaders in front of him but we are all able to become political in how we offer hands across the barricades; his words equally as powerful as motivators in asking us to make the offer.