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23 August 2001 Edition

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Teenage Reality

Theatre Review

Final Encore

Written by Rosaleen Walsh

Performed at the Ardoyne Fleadh by the Irish Youth Theatre

In the summer of 1968, I was 14 years old. I was a vigilante, with others my own age, protecting Bryson Street in the Short Strand from invasion by loyalists.

When I was 15, a British soldier, who was also claiming to protect Bryson Street (and I foolishly believed him) let me hold his rifle and look through its night sight.

When I was 16, I was caught up in a six-hour-long gun battle, which became known as the `Battle of St. Matthews', when the fledgling IRA defended the Short Strand against loyalist gunmen and overnight became the `People's Army'.

When I was 17, the Paras swooped on the Short Strand to intern republicans and I had my first taste of CS gas.

Before I was 18, eight of my comrades were killed in premature bomb explosions on IRA missions. And when I was 18, I was interned for nearly two years.

In the midst of all of this, I dealt with growing up, teenage angst, anger and rebelliousness. But these age old and natural emotions had an additional focus. They had a channel outside of my family and my immediate group of friends. Whatever the mood I was in, and they were varied and numerous, they were quickly overtaken by events on the streets.

These were the thoughts that were going through my head a few weeks ago as I sat with Danny Morrison and around a hundred children aged between 8 and 16. We were watching Rosaleen Walsh's play, `Final Encore', about teenage suicide. The venue was the `Golden Thread Theatre' in Ardoyne's Flax Mill. It was festival time, a time of fun, usually, for the people of north Belfast, but not this year.

We watched the play amid fear and apprehension. Ardoyne had been under siege from loyalists for a six-week period before the festival was launched. You could touch the atmosphere. I looked around the theatre at the gathered children and wondered how many of the young teenagers were vigilantes, protecting their area from loyalists in the year 2001 as I had done more than 30 years ago. Ten minutes into the play, another reality shook the audience. Loyalists threw two blast bombs at the theatre. They landed a few feet away from the front door. Pandemonium broke out among the children and it took several minutes to calm them down.

But from a small group of teenage girls and boys at the back of the theatre a chant, at first hesitant, grew into a crescendo, demanding `the play must go on' and go on it did. This spontaneous display of youthful courage is what we have come to expect from the people of Ardoyne. This is the spirit of defiance that the people of north Belfast have shown repeatedly over the last 30 years of conflict. It reminded me of the song `They Sowed the Seeds of Freedom in their Daughters and their Sons'.

The teenagers watching the play had an additional burden to carry that I did not have as a teenager. They were not strangers to the issue the play was dealing with, teenage suicide. Society, or at least my experience of it, has changed so much since 1969 that official figures show that on average each week in Ireland 12 people commit suicide and many of them are in the 15-24 age bracket, male and female.

Suicide is, of course, the ultimate act of human despair, which leaves in its wake human desolation. It is a difficult issue to speak about, never mind write about. Rosaleen Walsh has treated the issue with care and sensitivity but also a sense of harsh realism.

Alienation from society and oneself is the cornerstone of the play. There are two scenes. One with Graham, an only son, alone with his computer in his bedroom. The other around a headstone in a graveyard with six teenagers. We move regularly between the two sets.

Teenager Graham is struggling with being gay. He loves his only friend, Sam, who isn't gay. And Sam doesn't know Graham was or that he has such feelings for Sam. Sam has a girlfriend, which makes Graham jealous and more depressed.

When Graham tells Sam he loves him Sam doesn't understand and rejects him, which pushes Graham further down emotionally. Sam runs out of Graham's house without speaking, totally confused, takes a route home he never took before but never gets home. He is murdered by the river bank.

Graham blames himself. And so his descent into the abyss unfolds.

Rosaleen's imagery and language for this descent is powerful. Graham has no friends except `Packard', the computer in the corner. He talks to it constantly and it talks back. There's a phone in the corner, his only contact with the outside world. His mother rings. He answers the phone, sharply puts it down, and then rages against her.

He says to `Packard': ``I am someone but no one... I breathe, I move, I listen... Don't seem to be anyone... Sam and me... I was colourful, transformed... Sam was my electricity.''

Graham's alienation is further illustrated through his love of his dead father, whom he talks to, and his love of nature, in particular lupins, his father's favourite flower.

He is overcome with his grief, loneliness and love for Sam. He can't live without him so he joins him by committing suicide.

The play's other scene is equally despairing. A group of teenage girls and boys are drinking `bo' around the grave of their 14-year-old pal, Paul Delaney, `D'. He was killed joy riding and is now their hero. Child abuse, drugs, drink, sex, pregnancy, loneliness is the language of this group's world.

They hate the world, themselves and each other. Everyone is a ``creep''.

Their language is despairing. ``Don't give a fuck.... Out of your fucking head... My head is done in... Glued up killed a kid doing wheelies at 90... Got his knees blown off...''

Sorell, `D's' girlfriend, tells us ``I'm all fucked up''. And like Graham missing Sam, she slowly descends into the abyss amidst loneliness for `D' and a feeling that she belongs to no one - an emptiness inside her that she can't explain or get filled. ``Lonely for something or someone,'' she too commits suicide.

The play was relentlessly despairing as the author intended it to be. How else could it be given its subject?

The Dublin-based Irish Youth Theatre delivered excellent performances. There are some very promising actors amongst the cast. Those involved in working with young people across Ireland should seriously consider booking this play and showing it to the young. It could act as a resource for those in trouble.

BY JIM GIBNEY

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland