Ken Branagh’s film Belfast is an overwhelming and moving experience. It reminds us that the human spirit is resilient. That there is a flame of goodness and decency and compassion in all of us that can flicker and fade but will never be blown out.
Because of the events that Branagh deals with, the vicious sectarian violence and the heavy handed military response which followed, Belfast became a city to avoid. A city synonymous with grief and anger, with lives and hopes cut short.
In 1981, when I was asked to put on a one-man show at the Arts Theatre Belfast during the Festival, I readily agreed. Friends were guarded about my decision. There were bombs going off, and killings and reprisal killings were still a regular feature of life in the city. But the rationale for my travels has always been see it for yourself. If you want to know what people think you first have to meet them.
This was the first time I’d ever done a one-man show, and I’d loaded myself with a paraphernalia of costume and prop changes which I knew had to be done fast otherwise I’d lose my audience. So well-rehearsed was I that I ran out of material after 35 minutes. I threw myself on the audience, announcing an early interval (‘ Drink as much as you like’) and a whole second half of Q and A.
The response was fantastic, including a suggestion I try and break the Arts Theatre record for running from the stage, round the auditorium and back onto the stage again which I was told had been set by Sir John Gielgud at 19.5 seconds. ( I beat it by three seconds !) I learnt a valuable lesson in Belfast that night. Listen to the audience. Hear what they say about where they live.
I returned to the Festival two years later with a show called More Than Thirty Five Minutes with Michael Palin. I went back there throughout the 80’s. Though I was offered the Grand Opera House I always preferred the shabby intimacy of the Arts Theatre. It was twenty years before I ever felt the need to do my one-man show anywhere else.
Thank you Belfast.