A passion for the theatre of ecstasy

Anne Devlin's portrayal of Ireland appeals more to the English than the Irish. Clare Bayley asks why
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The Independent Culture
What do you do if you are a happy, fulfilled ex-Catholic expatriate Irish socialist feminist living in Oxford and you suddenly start having quasi-religious visions: fiery tongues, banshees, even Old Nick himself? This is the situation faced by Greta, the heroine of Anne Devlin's play After Easter, which opens at the RSC's Pit in London this week.

"Catholicism was an area of great unease in my life," the self-exiled Irish writer says, "so I had to go towards it, to touch that area of anxiety in order to resolve it." After Easter represents a personal and a spiritual exploration which evades simple explanation, despite Devlin's desire to "solve" something by writing it. The visions could be explained by Catholic liturgy, or by Celtic mythology, or simply by psychoanalytic theory. In fact, they are inspired by all and none of these. Devlin claims she doesn't go to mass, is not a pagan mystic, and the only experience of therapy she has are the diaries of Anas Nin.

"I often say that the reason I'm a dramatist is because of my chronic indecision," she jokes. "It's almost impossible for me to have a single point of view." Although After Easter has strongly liturgical references (First Communion veils make an appearance, there's an offstage, impromptu Eucharist at a bus-stop, a vision of flames at Pentecost and a crisis scene the playwright describes as "the Agony in the yard"), Devlin refutes any suggestion that it is a liturgical play.

"I come from a divided community," she says. The grand-daughter of an English Catholic and daughter of an Irish socialist, Devlin grew up in Catholic Belfast but taught English and drama in a Protestant school in Ian Paisley's constituency in County Antrim, before moving to England in 1976. "I learnt a huge amount about something supposed to be alien to me. So when I left, I took that with me. Now what happens to the Protestants in the audience concerns me. So there's the liturgical aspect, and on the other hand you've got the Protestant tradition represented. I'm using the ecstatic imagination, which is unifying, not divisive. It's what Yeats described as the difference between erotic theatre, which is about arousal, disruption and reconciliation, and ecstatic theatre, which is about assertion and celebration of difference."

Last year the play was simultaneously premiered in Stratford (directed by Michael Attenborough) and Belfast (directed by Bill Alexander), but while in this country Devlin's combination of personal, spiritual and political issues was lauded, the Belfast critics unleashed a vitriolic tirade against her perceived "clichd", "patronising", "dated" vision of Ireland. "She's writing about our present based on her past," commented one reviewer, "with all the clichs of the Troubles - bombs, hospitals, soldiers and the Irish as aspiring, lovable folk. The situation is different now to when she lived here."

Devlin is sanguine about the resentment of the mother country towards an exile. "It's partly the thing Joyce described as the sow that eats her own farrow," she says. "But the same thing happens in England. It happened to Pinter. If they don't know whose political agenda you're serving, they distrust. So if I write a scene with soldiers, and I don't seem to come down on anyone's side, they worry."

The incident again illustrates the internecine complexities of Irishness which the play explores. And while Devlin has written non-Irish works (she adapted the famously slated Juliette Binoche / Ralph Fiennes Wuthering Heights, and D H Lawrence's The Rainbow for the BBC) Ireland does recur in the work closest to her heart, which is her stage plays. "I'm of Irish culture, just not of Irish society," she says. "But my culture is going to contribute to the mainstream culture."

n `After Easter' is in repertory at the Barbican, London EC2, 30 March- 27 July (0171-638 8891)