In a verse dedicated to his aunt, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote of a “sunlit absence”. That striking image of loss has now directly inspired a theatre production that will pay tribute to those who died during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Anything Can Happen 1972: Voices from the Heart of the Troubles is set to be staged at Derry Playhouse this autumn. The theatre usually seats 150 but social distancing means the vast majority of its red chairs will be left empty, with space for only 20 or so people. The Playhouse is inviting audiences to contribute significant objects or photographs that connect them to loved ones lost during the Troubles or the pandemic. These will be placed on the empty chairs around audience members and illuminated, creating a kind of spotlit absence. Kieran Griffiths, the director of the Playhouse, says this cross between installation and theatre production is also a way of “spotlighting our missing audiences and our theatre community in mourning”.
The title’s date is a reference to the year of the Troubles with the highest number of casualties. The production, by the poet and playwright Damian Gorman, is billed as telling “previously unheard stories” from that year. Gorman said: “The empty chair is a very powerful symbol of loss and grief. Somebody defined grief to me as ‘love which has nowhere to go’. Rather than having all these empty chairs that would be housing absence, we will be housing something of significance.”
Griffiths said that grief has become “like a low-lying fog” during this year of pandemic. “It’s grey, feels impossible to lift and kicking it sees it rise around us. Our plan is to honour that grief and to fight through with resilience and creativity.”
Theatres in Northern Ireland are still waiting for an official green light to resume indoor performances but the play is scheduled to open in September and will be streamed online as part of a digital season. Other live productions, performed for a small audience at the theatre, will also be broadcast on the Playhouse’s YouTube channel to viewers around the world. The Playhouse’s new season will begin on 28 August with Proud to Be, which explores the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community. It was created in lockdown by poet and performer Mel Bradley and director Kieran Smyth.
“When lockdown began,” said Griffiths, “we asked ourselves, how do we change? How do we programme for our communities and keep them safe? And how do we survive when social distancing means our theatre can hold only 20 audience members? The answer was, by using technology to ensure that the show can certainly go on, both at the Playhouse and online.”
Anything Can Happen 1972: Voices from the Heart of the Troubles is part of the Peace IV Programme, funded by the EU, to support peace and reconciliation.