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The Belle of Belfast Needs to Rock

Date: May 11, 2015
The Irish Rep's latest play creates the rough energy of 1980s Belfast


If you know the folk song "I'll Tell Me Ma," which is also called "The Belle of Belfast City," then it might conjure images of a joyous Irish community. Or it might remind you of that one Chieftains album everyone had in junior high. Chances are, however, it won't make you think of bombs killing innocent people. And for Claudia Weill, that's a problem.

That's because she's directing the Irish Repertory Theatre's production of The Belle of Belfast, Nate Rufus Edelman's new play about a teenage girl trying to survive the Troubles in 1985. As she navigates the civil unrest that's tearing apart Northern Ireland, young Anne Malloy has to contend with the constant threat of bombings and the ongoing trauma of the attack that killed her parents when she was a child. Even the local priest – whom she's got a crush on – may be complicit in her pain, despite his ability to see through her foul-mouthed persona and into her wounded heart.

In other words, this is not a misty-eyed comedy about an idealized Irish past. Yet Weill was set on closing this production with a rendition of "I'll Tell Me Ma," particularly since Anne ironically sings it during the show. "I knew I needed to end with that tune," the director says. "There's something very resonant when you hear the song that she sang and the song that's the title. All of a sudden, it makes you reflect back on this girl and her journey."

However, a vintage ditty doesn't make sense in a world where the local disco can get blown up while teenagers dance inside. "If I had ended with the traditional version of 'Belle of Belfast,' which is very cheerful and upbeat and sweet, it would have been almost a betrayal of the play," Weill says. That's why she asked a friend in the music business to record a hard-edged, punk rock cover. It's what we hear as we leave the theatre, and it has the wild energy of a place like Belfast in 1985 -- and of a girl like Anne, who battles back against the real and symbolic explosions in her life.

The soundtrack underscores that Weill, who directed the play's Los Angeles premiere in 2012, wants the audience to comprehend how the characters might have lived. That's also why historical photos of Belfast in the 80s, including images of people being pulled from bomb sites, are occasionally projected onto the walls.

"This show is not just about a girl who seduces a priest, or this odd couple of priests who live together, or the friendship of two girls, or this bawdy aunt," Weill says. "It's not just these characters. It's these characters in this context. It's really a play against the legacy of hatred that comes out of any sectarian situation, and it's also about the ability of the human spirit to survive."


Mark Blankenship
is the editor-in-chief of TDF Stages

Photo: Kate Lydic (left) as Anne and Arielle Hoffman as her friend Ciara. Photo by Carol Rosegg.