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Michael Copeland, who left Assembly during battle with depression is back in spotlight - as an actor

Former UUP MLA Michael Copeland, who departed the Assembly last year during a battle with depression in which he says he tried to take his own life, is back in the spotlight .... as an actor

By Ivan Little

Published 10/11/2016

Former Ulster Unionist MLA Michael Copeland as a policeman
Former Ulster Unionist MLA Michael Copeland as a policeman
Michael Copeland
Michael Copeland wearing a Donald Trump mask while appearing with the Belvoir Players
A workshop
Cast members perform in Romeo And Juliet

A former Ulster Unionist MLA who resigned from the Stormont Assembly last year after saying he'd tried to take his own life amid bouts of depression is back in the public eye...as an actor.

And Michael Copeland says he'll never return to politics.

Mr Copeland, a former member of the UDR, appeared in an offbeat production of Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet with the ground-breaking Belvoir Players amateur drama group in south Belfast.

Ironically, at one point Mr Copeland donned a Donald Trump mask as a guest at a party, and also played the part of a Belfast police officer on riot duty.

In September last year he quit his seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly citing ill-health.

He represented the East Belfast constituency, but said he was stepping down because he had been suffering from depression.

He told the media that he'd tried to take his own life, and claimed there had been a smear campaign against him.

Party leader Mike Nesbitt said Mr Copeland had been good for the Ulster Unionists because "he valued compassion above all else".

He added that by stepping down he would create space for himself to concentrate on his own well-being.

Mr Copeland said that he didn't want to revisit the reasons for him leaving politics.

And he told the Belfast Telegraph that his decision to join a drama group had been made on the spur of the moment.

"It was almost an accident, a happy one," he said.

"I was driving in south Belfast one night when the Belvoir Players suddenly came into my mind.

"I'd known about their work for a long time and I wandered into their drama studio to see what they were doing.

"I got chatting to one or two people and they asked me if I wanted to go and see a rehearsal.

"Trevor Gill, who was directing Romeo And Juliet, then invited me to join the cast.

"He was looking for more men to take the bit parts. I wasn't doing very much else at the time and I said 'yes'. And that was that."

In his youth Mr Copeland acted in a production of the George Bernard Shaw play Androcles And The Lion at Lisnasharragh Secondary School in Belfast and that led to a number of appearances in radio plays for the BBC.

Mr Gill said that, initially, he had no idea who Mr Copeland was, and the ex-MLA said he enjoyed the anonymity with the cast and crew.

Mr Gill said that the ex-politician was perfect for the role of a policeman complete with shield and baton, which were used to control people during a riot scene in the play.

And Mr Copeland doubled up as a party-goer at the Capulet masked ball wearing the Trump mask.

Mr Gill said: "As soon as I discovered that Michael had been a politician I really fancied the idea of some of his ex-associates from Stormont turning up to see him as Trump. We didn't have a wig, however. Just the mask."

Mr Copeland said that the discipline of the theatre production, with its twice-weekly rehearsal schedule, was a breath of fresh air for him.

He added: "I have never been involved in anything that had so much latent talent and enthusiasm surrounding it."

He also said the first night nerves of the play were on a different level from anything he had experienced in his political career.

"I was terrified it would be a total disaster, but on the night it went better than I'd ever expected. And afterwards I stood at the back of the cast on stage as we all took our bows and nobody had a notion who I was."

As well as his on-stage roles, he also acted as the prompter off-stage to ensure that there were no mix-ups with lines.

"That wasn't an easy job either, having to follow the script and the action on the stage," he explained. "But no one needed me.

"Going into a room after the play was over to join everyone else who had made the journey with me was fantastic. It was like winning the World Cup.

"I only had a small role but it was a big thing for me. It was a great sense of being part of something. And everybody needs that. There was also a sense of delivering something that the public were prepared to pay good, hard-earned money to go and see."

Mr Gill said he hadn't been aware that Mr Copeland had had personal issues before joining the cast of Romeo And Juliet.

He added: "One of the functions that the Belvoir Players and other amateur groups fulfil to some extent is around socialisation and removing social isolation.

"We get a lot of people coming in here who simply want something to do. They want to meet new people. One of the things that pleased me about Romeo And Juliet was that as well as Michael, a number of other people from the Czech Republic and Hungary joined us, and we've become a lot more culturally diverse as a result."

The Belvoir Players have forged a close relationship with the Royal Shakespeare Company in England over the past four years through their Open Stages programme.

They were one of six drama groups across the UK asked to provide actors for the RSC's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Grand Opera House in Belfast and at its own theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Michael Corbidge, the RSC's voice and text coach, came to Belfast to do a workshop with the cast of Romeo And Juliet the weekend before the show opened.

He said the talent at Belvoir and Belfast in general was remarkable.

"I'm constantly humbled by what I encounter in my workshop rooms - skill, tenacity, passion, dedication, a joy of discovering and always wanting to do more to push the envelope and dig deeper," he said.

Mr Gill said the performances of Romeo And Juliet were really well received by audiences.

"It was a very different production of the play," he explained.

"I didn't want to put on the Protestant/Catholic thing, because that has been done to death in Northern Ireland.

"I did, however, want to do a street version of the play, so I set it in Verona Heights, a rundown housing estate which was basically an urban hellhole.

"The production started with a mime in which a gang threatened Juliet and tried to take her handbag off her but she stuck the head in and took the knife off them.

"We also reversed the balcony scene, and we had Romeo up top and Juliet down below.

"In the background we also had a band and the music was very modern with songs like Moondance and White Wedding."

As well as the riot shields and truncheons, other props in the play included bottles of Buckfast, hurley sticks, baseball bats, rifles, pistols and daggers.

At one point Leonardo DiCaprio even made a brief appearance - "or at least a mask of him did", said Mr Gill.

"Romeo put it on during the ball and the audience went crazy," he added.

The zany production came around the same time as the artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London departed in a row over her presentation of the Bard's work.

Emma Rice's use of lights and sound angered The Globe's management.

In light of that, Mr Copeland said he didn't know what The Globe would have made of the Belvoir Players' Romeo And Juliet.

As for the future, he said he would like to get involved in more productions with the company.

"If roles could be found that I could help with I would be happy to go on," he said.

The next Belvoir Players production is their annual pantomime Sleeping Beauty, but he isn't in it.

"Some people would say that I used to be part of the biggest pantomime of all just a few miles away at Stormont," he said. A return to the political spotlight isn't an option for him now.

"I have no plans to go back. None at all," he added.

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