District 6 is a green gash in the middle of Cape Town. In 1966 the white apartheid government declared it a white area and brought bulldozers in, flattening the houses and shops and sending the black and coloured residents out onto the townships of the Cape Flats. It is a shocking tale of injustice.
On the first of my many trips to the District 6 Museum I rushed to the little bookshop to grab a history of the place. Nothing! There are novels, plays, poetry books, photographic books, biographies and even a fascinating programme to The Public Sculpture Project but nothing more concrete (did I really use that word).
I was fascinated with this approach in dealing with history. We in Northern Ireland are right in the middle of the dilemma as how to deal with our past. I started to ponder if art was a better way to unpack it than in a history book of blame.
Philip Orr’s play Halfway House helped convince me that there is something in this. In our year of 1916 Centenaries, there will be much talk and discussion, debate and argument. It is important that we look back at such crucial events as the Easter Rising and The Somme to find out what shaped us into who we are today. However, how we look might be as crucial as what we look at!
What Orr does with this play is give the historical facts flesh and blood. He humanises The Easter Rising and The Somme and the consequent events. We need to remember that we don’t jump from 1916 to 1969 or 1998 or 2016. After those dominos fell one hundred years ago, they tipped more to fall. There was a continuing story.
So, two women meet in 1966, halfway between then and now, in The Half Way House Pub on the Glenshane Pass. They are caught in a snow storm and, taking shelter around the fire, they share their lives. They find out that they are from the same town. Their families know each other. There have been interconnections. Yet, two very different lives are lived in the very same place.
There is the uneasiness of finding out they are from different sides of the community and their discussion about family, loved ones and particularly fathers lead them into uncomfortable conversations about The Somme, The Easter Rising, the immediate legacy and how both families might commemorate those events 50 years on.
The two actors Louise Parker and Antoinette Morelli are brilliant engaging the audience from start to finish with just a conversation. They show the tenderness, frustration, anger and at moments empathy and sadness. They shine many lights onto our history both in the information about the era and insightful commentary too.
I was impressed by Orr’s particular genius with this play in the breadth of audience in the house. In Fitzroy, where I watched, there was a wide range of political affiliations in the room. I have heard that in other places even wider. None of those affiliations would have left feeling that their side of the 1916 story was given a bad press nor would any have felt the other side’s story was unfair. If any had ears to hear then there was a lot of helpful listening.
Listening is of course the theme for this year’s 4 Corners Festival. At the Festival we will be putting on Philip Orr’s other work about 1916, Stormont House Rules. Where Halfway House was set in 1966 this one is up to do date. It is more of another dramatic reading debate and will be a little more vociferous but will again be an artistic way to engage with historic events. It might open a door in our souls.