It’s a peculiarly Northern Irish take on the old line about turning swords into ploughshares — paramilitaries hammering their violent past into “literature.”
The arts world is awash with “poetry”, “fiction” and “drama” from the pens of men who had a closer insight than most of us into the age-old theme of crime and punishment.
It would be fair to say though, that Mr W. Shakespeare has no immediate cause to fear being upstaged by any of these efforts.
I haven’t seen A Reason to Believe, the debut work of playwright Bobby ‘Beano’ Niblock which has been described as “darkly funny material”.
But, judging by reports that it’s about two middle-aged loyalist ex-cons who feel like has-beens since their release from prison and that it is packed with “blackly comic Northern Irish scenarios”, there’s no reason to believe this is intricate and sophisticated drama.
Much more action-packed and compelling, actually, has been the drama unfolding around the performance of the play — the |sub-plot if you like, about its author and the horrific past his sudden fame has revealed.
Scene One: Niblock is busy in rehearsals for the play when he is approached by a young man who cries out “Beano!”
Niblock hurries towards this stranger. Who can it be? His face falls as recognition dawns (and this is surely an uncomfortable moment for our leading man).
The newcomer is in fact the brother of a murdered 23-year-old pal of Niblock’s. The young man was mercilessly beaten and stabbed 52 times by Niblock and a gang of others.
The brother has only recently been told the full details of this terrible story by his aunt.
He tells Niblock he wants to know why his brother was murdered. Niblock refuses to even discuss it.
Scene Two: later that evening the brother and his aunt show up |at the opening of the play. They are denied entry.
Scene three: the family go public. They give newspaper interviews describing their suffering and call for Niblock to meet them. The brother demands that any money made from the play should go to charity. With heartfelt words he describes the awful pain his mother, in |particular, suffered following her son’s murder.
He says: “My mother fell to bits but never lost her nerve. She had to hold it together for us.” She had to hold it together for us.
In that one throwaway line is a truly powerful and poignant reflection of the true human cost of paramilitary murder — and the courage of its victims, many of whom have never had their stories told or their loss acknowledged. It certainly puts the “plight” of a couple of fictional has-been prisoners and their “darkly comic struggle to adjust to life on the outside” into some context.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of August 1969 which some people take as the beginning of the Troubles.
Down the decades many of the men of violence have gradually and seamlessly morphed into peace processors, politicians, poets and playwrights.
Having a previous conviction for violence is actually seen as a bit of a plus point on the artistic CV |these days.
By contrast, for 40 years the grief and victims’ stories have all but been airbrushed from the plot.
The spotlight falls almost exclusively on the perpetrators and their “pain.”
I don’t doubt Bobby Niblock is |sincere in hoping his play serves as a warning to young people about getting sucked in to paramilitary gangs. And he is, of course, far from being the only dramatist with a |violent past. But odd, isn’t it, that our process has encouraged us to applaud the killers who have “moved on” while primly drawing a line under the terrible stuff from which they have moved on?
And darkly ironic (as the reviewers might say) that peace entails we have to package up, sanitise and side-line so many stories of heartache, horror and heroism.
Maybe some day somebody will write a play about that.