Northern Exposure

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Course Information
Theatre Arts
Terms offered: 
Language of instruction: 
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The aim of this course is to increase students’ understanding, appreciation and critical perception of Irish theatre – with emphasis on theatre from the North. Examining texts from both sides of the ‘Peace Wall’ this course is an exploration of the cultural landscape of Northern Ireland through the eyes of contemporary Northern Irish Playwrights.

The students will participate in a workshop format and through practical application will be encouraged to explore, analyse and evaluate the following questions: “Can theatre really change minds, in a highly politicized culture?” and “How can Northern Irish playwrights depict their society without the work becoming ‘ghettoised’?”, “What place has humour in this society?” and, “Do gender roles and portrayal matter in political conflict drama?”

To enhance the students’ understanding the tutor will use imagery from the Northern Irish conflict to evoke emotions and personal responses from the students, and to deepen their awareness Photographs of the Northern Irish Political Murals, of the so-called ‘Peace-Wall’ and the work of celebrated photographers from ‘the North’ such as Paul Graham, Willie Doherty will be used as will the work of painters, Rita Duffy and Chris Wilson.

Through reading and performance the students will discover the dynamic voices from a fractured society reflecting beliefs and issues from both traditions.

All students will be expected to contribute fully, in the time allocated, to every aspect of the workshop including text exploration, rehearsal, and to the final showcase – including developing and devising the production and its direction. Emphasis is placed on the realization of the play as script and theatre as a craft. They will be assessed in terms of commitment, creativity and overall input. 

Attendance policy: 

Because IES courses are designed to take advantage of the unique contribution of the instruction and the lecture/discussion format, regular class attendance is mandatory. Any missed class, without a legitimate reason will be reflected in the final grade. A legitimate reason would include: documented illness or family bereavement. Travel, (including travel delays) is not a legitimate reason. 

Learning outcomes: 

Upon completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • Articulate their understanding of the range, and personal and social value of Northern Irish theatre
  • Analyse further the practical implications of European dramatic structure; language and gesture
  • Incorporate into their own stage work the playwright’s conception of characterization & motivation
  • Demonstrate a deeper appreciation of the language, including rhythm and cadence
  • Develop a sense of the unique place of Irish Theatre, North and South of the Border within a European context
  • Participate in a performance of a selected piece which reflects both the host culture and its political divisions
  • Evaluate the relevance of theatre in a fractured society 
Method of presentation: 

Meetings, rehearsals, critiques and tutorials. These will take place over 45 contact hours, two hours per week during the Gaiety Semester (20 hours) and the final 25 hours in the last three weeks of semester, (3 x 3 hour sessions weekly in the first two weeks and in the third week 1 x 3 hour session and 2 x 2 hour sessions) culminating in a showcase. Students are required to do research and preparation outside these class times in line with contemporary theatre practice. 

Required work and form of assessment: 

Due to the essentially practical nature of the course, and the fact that it is taking place as the extension and expression of all they will have already learned, the key elements are class participation which amounts to 30% including devising work, critiquing of texts, and editorial work in creating the final showcase; the final performance itself will be worth 40% with an additional 30% for a research presentation of 2000 words. 

Week Content Readings/Assignments

What’s the ‘Trouble’ with the ‘Troubles’? Exploring a brief relevant political and social history of the conflict, and how we got to where we are. What is special about the drama of the Northern Irish conflict? Which theatrical voices emerge? 

  • Short “timeline” of the Troubles, (pp 548-560)
  • The Troubles, Tim Pat Coogan, Arrow, 1996; Ch. 1 (pp. 15-26), Ch. 3 (pp. 39-54),
  • Representing the Troubles, Brian Cliffe, Four Courts Press, 2004
  • Selected essays from the C.A.I.N website (, New University of Ulster; Ch. 20 (pp. 647-677), The Ulster Anthology, Patrica Craig, Blackstaff Press, 2006 

Image/Text. Looking at some of the shocking images from the conflict – and how they might inspire, feed into, or challenge the work of Northern Irish dramatists. Scenes from relevant plays will be explored. 

  • Foreword (pp. 6-9) and Ch. 4. (pp. 118-192), Thinking Long: Contemporary Art in Northern Ireland, Liam Kelly, Gandon Editions, 1996.
  • Assignment: Students will complete written responses, in class, prompted by specific questions, to images from Willie Doherty, Chris Wilson, Rita Duffy, and Jack Packenham. 

Northern Rhythm Sound & Silence. An introduction to the many sounds of Northern Ireland, vocal, melodic and percussive, Drama as a means of being heard. In a conflict, many take refuge in silence, hence the Belfast mantra “Whatever you say, say nothing” What does this do to the playwright, to the actors and even the audience. Podcasts and practical demonstrations of Ulster cadence Irish and Ulster Scots influence and an exploration of some of the indigenous music. 

  • Selected poems by Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, and Ciaran Carson, and listen to authorial readings of the same
  • Read RTÉ interview with Northern Irishplaywright Gary Mitchell. 

Warring Narratives. How do writers on either side of the divide get heard without succumbing to the clichés and stereotypes of their ‘own’ side? A brief practical examination of drama from other modern conflicts, set alongside scenes from Northern Ireland. 

  • After Easter, Devlin, Anne, Faber & Faber, 1986; Excerpts from A Night in November, Marie Jones, Nick Hern Books, 2000
  • “Theatre of War Contemporary Drama in Northern Ireland” by Ashley Taggart, Ch. 8 (pp. 67-83), Theatre Stuff, Critical Essays in Contemporary Irish Theatre, Carysfort Press, 2000. 

I’ve always been jealous of Catholics says Gary Mitchell, one of the most prominent playwrights to emerge from the North in the last twenty years (and a Protestant). Why might this be? And what does it say about playwriting as a weapon? Further scrutiny of the radically opposed attitudes to drama from the two sides using scenes from Mitchell’s plays. 

  • Selected press interviews with Gary Mitchell, as well as sections of his plays, Loyal Women, Nick Hern Books, 2003, (20 pages)
  • As The Beast Sleeps, Nick Hern Books, 2002, (30 pages)
  • The Force for Change, Nick Hern books, 2000 (entire play, 58 pages)

A Woman’s Place… and the Conflict – Ourselves Alone. Examination of the role of women as protagonists in the conflict (within paramilitary/political groupings, as well as the familial context), before moving to engage with the work of female dramatists such as, Anne Devlin, Christina Reid and Lucy Caldwell. 

  • Joyriders, Christina Reid, Methuen 1987 (entire play 43 pages)
  • Ourselves Alone, Anne Devlin, Faber & Faber, 1986 (entire play 55 pages)

Gallows Humour – the laughter of the last resort. A look at the rich, varied and fascination uses of humour in extremis. Humour as parody, satire and self-defence in Northern Irish plays. The work of Marie Jones will be used as exemplar and students will engage with the range and depth of humour from the Northern Irish canon. 

  • A Night in November, Marie Jones, Nick Hern Books, 2000 (entire play 45 pages)
  • Mojo Mickeybo, Owen McCafferty, Lagan Press, 1998 (entire play 50 pages)
  • Extracts from Eureka Street, Robert McLiam Wilson, Vintage, 1998 
8 What now? A look at the most recent work which has emerged from Northern Ireland in the wake of the Peace Process. How has the portrayal of Northern Ireland changed? How do playwrights deal with the ‘absence of conflict’? In what direction is Northern Irish theatre moving? Look at the ground-breaking work of Tinderbox Theatre Company. DVD’s and podcast interviews.   
9 & 10 The final two weeks will be used to select, review and edit some of the range of material covered thus far, in order to devise a final performance showcase.   


Required readings: 

Short Selections from the following plays will be used: 

  • Caldwell, Lucy. Leaves. London: Faber & Faber, 2007.
  • Devlin, Anne. Ourselves Alone. London: Faber & Faber, 1986 and After Easter.
  • London: Faber & Faber, 1994.
  • Friel, Brian. Translations, London: Faber & Faber, 1981.
  • Jones, Marie. A Night in November and Stones in His Pockets. London: Nick Hern Books, 2000.
  • Lynch, Martin. Dockers and The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty. Belfast: LaganPress, 1982.
  • McCafferty, Owen. Mojo Mickeybo. Belfast: Lagan Press, 1998 and Quietly.
  • London: Faber & Faber, 2012.
  • McGuinness, Frank. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme. London: Faber & Faber, 1986.
  • Mitchell, Gary. In a Little World of our Own. London: Nick Hern Books, 1998 and Loyal Women. London: Nick Hern Books, 2003.
  • Monro, Rona. Bold Girls, London: Samuel French, 1991.
  • Parker, Stewart. Pentecost. Belfast: Lagan Press, 1989.
  • Reid, Christina. Joyriders & Did you hear the one about the Irishman. London: Methuen, 1987.
  • Teevan, Colin. Missing Persons; Four Tragedies & Roy Keane. Oberon Books, 2007.