Gary Mitchell: 'I really wanted to be loved in my own back yard, but loyalists don't like my plays... my mother doesn't even like my plays'
Belfast playwright Gary Mitchell tells Laurence White about his struggle to be accepted and how his work saw him forced from home.
Playwright Gary Mitchell, who has been described as one of the most talked about voices in European theatre, can be forgiven for feeling that he is a prophet without honour in his own country. For the Rathcoole-born 51-year-old has been lauded more outside Northern Ireland than within.
His first major theatre success, In A Little World Of Our Own At The Peacock, won the Irish Times Theatre Award for best new play in 1997 after being rejected north of the border
His Force Of Change won the Evening Standard Charles Wintour Award, worth £30,000, for the most promising playwright, and in 1999 he was writer-in-residence at the Royal National Theatre in London.
Back home, however, his unflinching exploration of the loyalist mindset and the reluctance of many to engage fully in the peace process led to widespread criticism within in his own community, culminating in an attack on his home by paramilitaries that forced him and his family to go into hiding for five long years.
Indeed, even the BBC, for whom he had written extensively, said it would not broadcast any more of his plays unless they included a more positive take on the peace process.
As he prepares for the opening of his latest - Smiley - at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast on Saturday, Gary says: "All this reaction was upsetting to me. I just wanted to be loved in my own garden, but even my mum didn't like my plays. My community doesn't like my plays.
"I was trying to make the arts more accessible to my own family and my own community and I ended up making things worse.
"When I started writing (in 1991) people used to say: 'Why doesn't someone tell it straight and tell the truth?' I wrote plays which were total truth and some people didn't want that."
While he made his initial breakthrough as a playwright with productions which were broadcast by BBC radio and also picked up a number of local awards, he still believes he has got something of a raw deal locally.
"I love Northern Ireland and my first intention is to entertain people in Northern Ireland. That is my job. I suppose it is really a bit of a knock that people outside of my country respect what I do and some people inside it cannot stand me.
"I have tried to make more Protestants come to the theatre, to encourage more Protestant writers and actors, but I am not doing that well."
He laughs when he recalls a DUP politician once lamenting that there should be more plays like Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme, which was written by Frank McGuinness - "Yes, he wanted more plays by a Catholic from Donegal".
He finds irony or humour in even the darkest subjects, such as the 2005 attack on his home in Rathcoole by loyalist terrorists. His car was petrol-bombed and his entire family circle - other than his grandmother - were forced to leave the estate where some had lived for almost 50 years.
"The two guys who came to my house had their faces covered by Rangers scarves, and I was sitting in the house at the same time watching Rangers play Porto," he says.
"We love our dark humour - everything can be made into a joke. When you think of the things that divide us and the things that people go into a rage about, they are things which are just nonsense and are often hilarious."
But the threats to him and his family - he is married to Alison and has five children - were far from funny.
He was forced to stay at a secret address and had to have a police escort to attend his grandmother's funeral.
Gary now lives in Carrickfergus, having moved there to be near his mother after Alison suffered a heart attack following the birth of their youngest child.
"We needed help with the children and moving closer to mum was the best solution," he explains.
Gary was later to point out that had something similar happened in England - say a Muslim writer had been attacked and threatened - it would have become a cause celebre and would have attracted huge publicity.
The then-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, did invite him to Hillsborough Castle for a reception, but when he entered the room he found several leading loyalists enjoying a glass of wine. The Northern Ireland Office later said that no offence was intended.
During those dark days Gary did not write a word for three years.
"I was finishing off some work for the first year, but after that I could not get a job. Nobody wanted to work with me. I thought that my career had ended. There is nothing in this world that I can do except write." So, has he moved on since then? "I am being positive. I like to talk about transition. My community, Northern Ireland, and even myself are in transition.
"I am looking forward to making a more positive statement about my community. I would love to live in a more positive society and maybe have a chance for my work to flourish.
"But we are still a long way from living in a romantic, idyllic society. That is our goal, but we still need to question ourselves.
"There is a lot to be done to create true equality - when everyone, men, women, homosexuals, can feel valued. Lives have changed, but I also see a lot of people trying to resist change.
"One of the biggest changes has been the change from regarding ourselves strongly as British to regarding ourselves as Northern Irish. That is a move to the middle ground, which is welcome."
While Gary was brought up on a strongly loyalist estate, his father never pushed any views on him.
"That even included football," he says. "He was a Liverpool fan but never urged me to follow that team.
"I have tried to follow that example. I don't push my religion or politics onto my children.
"I remember one day my son Harry came home and said there had been a row about flags where he was. He said he didn't join in because he didn't know what side he was on.
"That is the kind of future I am interested in. We want to give our children the knowledge about their society which will keep them safe, and not the knowledge that brings resentment or bitterness."
Gary says his work, like himself, is also in transition. "In the past I wrote political thrillers with a strong message and just a little comedy," he adds. "My new play, Smiley, has a little bit of a message, but is much more of a comedy. People who don't like laughing shouldn't come to see it".
And he certainly would not want to see his children follow his thought processes when at school.
Although he passed the 11-plus, he went to Rathcoole Secondary School - "the sort of school where you got expelled into" - because his parents could not afford to send him to a grammar.
"After the first term I was top of the class in virtually every subject, but I had no friends," Gary says.
"It seemed to me that no one liked clever kids, so I worked very hard to ensure that by the end of the year I was bottom of the class in virtually every subject. Suddenly I was very popular and had loads of friends".
He is obviously hoping that his new play will win him some more friends. It is about a football team - "but there is only a couple of minutes of football in it" - that enters a competition hoping to win big money.
But then they are told by loyalist paramilitaries that if they don't win they have to steal the cash.
Smiley opens at the Lyric Theatre on Saturday and runs until July 2, tickets are £13-£24.50. To book and for more details, go to www. lyrictheatre.co.uk