The Alternative – what if Ireland was still part of the UK and an in/out referendum was to be held tomorrow? (Lyric Theatre from 8 October)

What if Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom? What if Home Rule had passed? If there had been no Rising? No partition? If Ireland had remained part of the United Kingdom … until now. It’s the night before the referendum when citizens will decide whether to leave the UK or remain. Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney’s new counterfactual play transports audiences to the studio of BBC Dublin, the scene of the final leaders’ debate.

To celebrate their 30th anniversary, Fishamble: The New Play Company provoked theatre makers to pitch a big, ambitious play that would capture the zeitgeist of the island. Narrowed down to a long list of 30 plays, and then further shortlisted after development work, The Alternative made it through to win the overall competition. Produced by Fishamble, the play was developed in partnership with the Lyric Theatre and their head of new writing Rebecca Mairs.

I spoke to Michael Patrick, cowriter of The Alternative, ahead of the work’s arrival in Belfast next week at the end of a tour that has played to audiences in Cork, Dún Laoghaire, Galway, Limerick and Blanchardstown.

Patrick describes the play as “a political satire set in a parallel universe where … the entirety of the island is still part of the United Kingdom, much like Scotland is today”.

The action happens in the current affairs debate studio on the eve of the in/out referendum.

“The head of the Remain side is the prime minister of the UK and Ireland, a woman from Dublin, and the head of the Leave campaign is the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. We see this political debate take place, but threaded through [it] is a personal story between the lead producer and his daughter. They’ve recently lost their mother and wife and this personal family drama plays out in the background of the political comedy satire.”

The competition was looking for an ambitious new play that could tour.

“There’s a lot of support for smaller touring productions, one- and two-man shows, and Fishamble supported us [Patrick and Kearney] with our one-man show My Left Nut. And there’s a lot of support for massive productions in big [venues], like Good Vibrations in the Lyric, which don’t really tour and stay in one place. But there’s not been a lot of support for big shows that can tour.”

Fishamble’s idea was for A Play for Ireland, with an interval and large numbers of cast members. A touring, state-of-the-nation production.

“All we had to do was pitch a single A4 sheet of paper and then it would be a two-year process to write it. We sat down and thought, what was on our minds? Obviously being from the North, it was Brexit. Oisín is from Warrenpoint, right on the border. Brexit affects the whole island, but the North more so. What [could] we do to … make it much more about … where Ireland is?

“It’s coming up to the hundredth anniversary of the creation of Northern Ireland, the creation of the Irish state. We wanted to use [this moment to] talk about what have been the failures and the successes of the past hundred years of the Irish state, the Northern Irish state, and of partition.”

Patrick rejects the narrative that looks back at history and says that 1916 and all that followed was inevitable.

“We wanted to say no, it was a very slim chance that [all that] happened. If you go back to the late 1800s, everyone assumed Home Rule was going to go through … There was lots of talk of an independent Ireland with the Queen as head of state, a lot of these people who were pushing for independence still wanted to keep the Queen. You say that to an Irish nationalist or republican now and it just seems absolute nonsense …

“What we wanted to do with this play was needle people as much as we could and say look, this is what could have happened, and people would have been fine with it, it would have been the status quo, they would have been looking for things to change but it wouldn’t have seemed out of place for them.”

So in The Alternative, Cork could have been as British as Finchley! Patrick adds:

“… the play isn’t all about Irish nationalism. It’s critiquing it and … a lot of it is thinking how can we work together on this island, unionist or nationalist.”

YouTube video

Patrick assures me that The Alternative is no dark, brooding Irish play: “Expect to get swept along in the madness”.

“We talk about these high-minded political ideals, but it is very much a comedy,” he says. Part of the satire involves a BBC interviewer “who really riles people up”. And given that it’s a political debate, some audience members might get to ask a question.

Do audience reactions vary across the different venues?

“We skewer lots of Irish historical figures … what do people find more offensive? Us being mean to Éamon de Valera or us being mean to Michael Collins? In Cork, the Collins’ jokes always got a big ‘Oooooh’ but in Dun Laoghaire it was more of the de Valera jokes. So you see where people … hold certain historical figures in more regard. I’m fascinated to see how it will go down in Belfast.”

Hundreds of playwrights pitched for the competition.

“Some of the writers we know who got through the first or second stages are absolutely phenomenal writers who have been writing for years, so it really means a lot for us.”

While Patrick and Kearney are writing partners, they’re rarely in the one place at the same time. The Fishamble development process took two years, and for a long stretch of that, Kearney was in Colombia working on his documentary Bojayá: Caught in the Crossfire while Patrick was acting in England for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Kearney was also responsible for localising Willy Russell’s Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine scripts for recent Lyric productions.

“We’ve done most of this writing separate and apart. Google Docs is an absolute godsend … Wherever we are in the world we can write together and we can both see the document changing in front of our eyes. If we didn’t have that, I don’t know how we would ever get anything done.”

After The Alternative’s tour finishes, the writing pair are looking forward to the BBC Three adaptation of My Left Nut which was filmed in Belfast this summer and is expected to air in the new year.

Directed by Jim Culleton, and starring Karen Ardiff, Lorcan Cranitch, Maeve Fitzgerald, Fionntan Larney, Rory Nolan, Rachel O’Byrne and Arthur Riordan, The Alternative opens in the Lyric Theatre on Tuesday 8 and runs until Sunday 13 October.

Production photo credit: Patrick Redmond. Cross-posted from Alan in Belfast.

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