True story from Troubles of lives reconstructed is salutary lesson
It is always worth being reminded of the simple power of the spoken word to convey a compelling story. When even direct testimonies given by witnesses of events can hypnotise listeners, in the hands of a seasoned writer and experienced professionals, the impact can be memorable.
This is the case with historian Philip Orr's In Search Of Hope, the true story (drawn from conversations and interviews) of a RUC officer and his wife as they emerge from the after-effects of a devastating gun attack on his person more than a quarter-of-a-century ago in Belfast city centre, an incident that took the life of his colleague and traumatised those who witnessed it and who came to his aid.
The staging couldn't be simpler: two chairs, lights, and two actors delivering shaped and crafted "verbatim" accounts, which move from deep emotional intensity to wry observation to hints of intimate exchange, across 50 minutes of gripping narrative.
And it is so gripping, in fact, that the attack itself pales beside the decades of complex reconstructive surgery - with operations still in the pipeline - needed to restore the officer's face. Taking turns to detail the appalling physical and emotional legacy of the attack, including unexpected insights such as a fear of the city centre, of strangers calling to the door, of flashbacks and grief, of delayed reactive depression which affected the officer's wife a year after the attack, what isn't present in the drama is anger or rancour.
This can be put down, largely, to the couple's religious faith, which held firm even through experiences which would have put paid to most versions of a kindly God.
Even amid the great sadness, though, there is humour. When the officer is being led through a hospital for surgery he is draped in a blanket and, with his hands joined at the wrists in front him, is passed off as a republican prisoner. The reality is that visits to the hospital posed extreme security risks for officers and their families.
Of the many stories arising from the Troubles, this is one of the less often heard. This officer wasn't "collateral damage". He, like those of his colleagues dead and injured and their families, were "targeted", in many cases followed, watched, stalked and then attacked.
The sense of fear which the real-life survivors have derives from that sense that what happened to them was indeed "personal" and might, at any moment, happen again. The feeling remains that someone will come to finish the job. The audience in Comber British Legion was rapt, reflective and appreciative of the nuanced and completely credible performances of Xander Duffy and Louise Parker as the officer "David" and his wife "Anne". The absence of recrimination or bitterness or even understandable rage is down to Orr's skilful stewardship of the story itself as well as the generosity of spirit shown by the recovering couple.
Both people are now active in their community. The metaphor of "reconstruction" is a good one. That this man and woman can find it in themselves to engage in the civic life of a community that tried to kill him is astonishing and a salutary lesson for all of who are onlookers on conflict and what it takes to make reconciliation happen.
This a story, difficult though it may be, which must be heard in schools and community halls far outside the safe zone of legion halls, right across our community.
It's up to the rest of us to make that place of safety possible for the many people who have suffered as these two have.
In Search Of Hope is at the Royal British Legion, Bangor, on Friday, November 10 and the Village Hall, Ballywalter, on Saturday, November 11. The play runs from 7-9pm each night. Light refreshments will be served and there will be an optional discussion afterwards