Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Timely reminder of sectarianism’s enduring cancer

It's 100 years since St John Ervine’s play first opened at the Abbey Theatre.

His study of sectarianism in Belfast through events in one family is compelling in that it is both historical and contemporary.

Religious division is the one constant in a turbulent century.

Mixed Marriage is far from a period drama — its political message links it to Over The Bridge and Dockers, and its themes are as current as when first produced.

Ervine sets his drama in pre-partition Ireland.

It’s 1907, in the home of the Protestant Rainey family.

Factory workers have voted to strike for better pay, but tensions are rising as Catholics are blamed for stirring up trouble.

John Rainey is determined to unite men from both sides of the community against their masters.

Marty Maguire gave a terrific performance as the bull-headed Orangeman, respected by his peers, who is driven by the conviction of his beliefs.

Every swagger told of a man happy in his skin: he’s right, and he doesn’t care who knows it.

These don’t extend to his son marrying a Catholic girl.

Director Jimmy Fay used the parlour showdown to great effect: impassioned youth tackling old prejudices — although the bigotry lies in the street, too.

Ervine dissected the issues of religion and class here. Workers, he argued, allow religious arguments to overshadow the issue of class.

His argument was articulated through Mrs Rainey, a model of tolerance and endurance.

She pre-dates O’Casey’s Juno by more than a decade, and like her Dublin counterpart, seeks reason while the menfolk rage.

Played with bustling pragmatism by Katie Tumelty, Mrs Rainey — like so many women in Irish drama — is the heart of the story.

Alyson Cummings’ simple set allowed us to concentrate on Ervine’s text.

Chaos descends. As the curtain falls, Rainey clings to his beliefs, trying to convince himself that he’s done the right thing.

“Loyalism in Northern Ireland operates not as a class system, but as a caste system,” our national poet said this week.

But Ervine said it first.

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