Theatre: Making a drama out of a crisis

In 'Leviathan', on BBC2 tonight, two young Northern Irish playwrights, Pearse Elliott and Gary Mitchell, talk about growing up amid the Troubles. Here are their stories
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Pearse Elliott: I used to live in Ardoyne. It's a Nationalist enclave marooned in Protestant north Belfast. I always had this fear, this feeling of being isolated, segregated from everything else here. It affected the way I wrote the way I thought ... and my nationalist identity. Being nationalist, to me, means I'm Irish. It was always explained to me that it's good to be Irish, it's great to be Irish.

When I was nine we moved to Lenadoon, a nationalist estate in West Belfast nestling underneath the hills. You can't get away from your history here - it's everywhere. From a very young age, it's passed on by word of mouth, from your Da, your Ma, your grandmother. It's on every corner, every wall. Everyone on this estate is well versed in history.

I grew up with stories of injustice to Catholics, usually meted out by British troops. I don't remember a time when British troops weren't on the streets - all I knew growing up was a sense of this vast apparatus, intimidating and terrifying. Going to school could absolutely traumatise you. Troops that were in the estate would be scoping me in their sights, as if it was so nonchalant, to be pointing a gun at me. In later years I recognised that it was vaguely Kafkaesque - it's got all the aspect of a war that no one admits to.

Within the estates, because there's no faith in any legitimate police force, the likes of organisations like the IRA are turned to as a surrogate police force. Simply because of the lack of faith and mistrust in the RUC and the British Army. They are in fact the custodians of the estates.

In 1981, prisoners in Long Kesh went on hunger strike in order to gain political status. I remember the chaos on the estate and this time it truly invaded my life. At three o'clock in the morning an RUC and British army patrol kicked the door in on my house and ran amok. What was terrifying for me and my six brothers and sisters was that my mother was completely apolitical, and that was violated. They politicised me through this, because it was a catalyst for me wanting to know what was going on within this place I lived.

What actually changed was that I started to write, to try to explain this injustice, to try to articulate my feelings of persecution within the confines of my tiny world. And then that tiny world erupted when the first prisoner, Bobby Sands, died.

There were 100,000 people at his funeral, and there was just the palpable silence of the wounded, the maimed and the wrecked. It more or less embroidered my sense of identity and nailed it to the ground that day.

I don't think the burden of history can be addressed in my lifetime. I think for anyone to make and acknowledge some sort of solution to this will take 50, 60, 70, 100 years. People have been living on the precipice of serious crisis, there's never been any kind of scabbing process for people to come to terms with that crisis. We need to create a time to convalesce - the referendum could be that time.

Gary Mitchell: When I was growing up I never thought about the Republic of Ireland, or Irishness, or anything like that. I was just a Protestant person who lived in a Protestant place that was totally British.

In a way, my education began at Sunday School. It was where I was introduced to God, and Jesus Christ as my own and personal saviour. And basically I found out that the Pope was the anti-Christ, that Roman Catholics were the enemy and that we as Protestants were in fact the chosen people.

In 1974, when I was still a young boy, during the Workers' Strike, barricades went up around the Protestant areas all over the country. I suddenly had this image that this is our life - that we've erected this wall around ourselves because there's something out there that's trying to harm us. And it's like a scar, that no matter how intellectual you become, no matter how distanced you feel, you'll never really heal. That outside this area, you're not safe.

I was watching television in 1988, the funeral of an IRA man, when two off-duty British soldiers were attacked by mourners and later killed.

Immediately my thought was that we should get together and punish those people - all of them. And we didn't know who they were, so how would you do that? You would just attack the entire Catholic community - if possible.

Two minutes later, of course, you calm down, your intellect clicks back in and you realise that you're thinking terrible things.

When the British government began to distance itself from Northern Ireland in the late 1980s, it had a knock-on effect - you begin to question your identity - am I loyal to this? The then minister, Peter Brooke, declared that Britain "had no self-interest in Northern Ireland, be it strategic or economic." My response was to think, didn't we die in the war for your interest? And now you're saying that you don't care about us anymore, and that if someone comes in and claims our territory, you're just going to abandon us? That's when you really start to get the feeling of being stranded, of being abandoned.

Everybody reaches a point in their life where they have to make a decision - basically a question of good and evil. I decided to be good, and fortunately, what I found was writing plays. I was able to use them to continue my exploration of myself, humanity, my community, and what it means to be Protestant, and I will always continue to do that in my work.

For me, the IRA were always the terrorists, and the Protestant paramilitaries, if you like, were just defence organisations - we were the good guys. My worst nightmare is that one day there will be a united Ireland and my community will be the terrorists. We will be the bad guys. That's what I don't want to happen.

'Leviathan', BBC2, tonight at, 7.30pm

About the playwrights

Gary Mitchell was born and still lives in Rathcoole, North Belfast. After eight years of unemployment he began to write in 1991, and won the BBC Radio Drama Young Playwrights Festival that year with "The World, the Flesh and the Devil". Since 1993 he has been commissioned to write a further 11 plays. One stage play, "In a Little World of Our Own" was performed all over Ireland and won the award of Best New Play in the Irish Theatre Awards. The play was performed at London's Donmar Warehouse earlier this year. He is currently working on three new plays, one for the Royal National Theatre, at which he is now the writer in residence.

Pearse Elliott was born in Lenadoon in the predominately Nationalist West Belfast. He won the BBC's First Bite Young Playwrights Festival in 1995, with his play "The Fall and Demise of Joseph Loughran", which was produced for Radio 4 and was subsequently nominated for a Sony award. "State Macabre" followed in 1997, again for Radio 4. His short story "The Hurricane's Mane" won joint first prize in the collection "Children of the Troubles", published by Simon & Schuster. Work in progress includes two new stage plays, a further commission for Radio 4 and three monologues for BBC2.

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