The story of this play is quite loyal to real historical events – France is on the brink of revolution and of ending its age as an absolute monarchy – yet the modern adaptation makes for an interesting analysis on today’s society. The Catholic royal family and their friends are somewhat bemused by the new Protestant Prime Minister of France, Jacques Necker, who is by all standards a commoner in the eyes of the Aristocracy. Necker represents a class of people that most of the Catholic elite avoid, yet his role in connecting with the people of France is crucial, as riots by left-wing republicans are becoming a nuisance in Paris. The riots are only set to get worse, and as Necker advises the conscientious King Louis XVI to make France a constitutional monarchy, chaos is about to take its toll on everyone, not just the commoners.
The play’s script makes a brilliant and carefully balanced connection between Northern Ireland’s socio-political background and that of France at the time, in both subtle and obvious ways. In this story, the Catholic elite try to ignore and belittle the years of Protestant oppression, which, when roles are reversed, sounds all too familiar to the events that led to Bloody Sunday and the Troubles. It must be noted here, however, that Russell has made sure not to glorify the royalist or republican sides of the French Revolution (paralleling the unionist/nationalist storyline of Northern Ireland) nor has he forced such a comparison to make a point. Instead, the connection feels very natural, so much so that it is provides a surprisingly entertaining insight into modern history. The play’s characters show both the ugliness and compassion of both sides, however, making clear that neither group are victors in the end. The script also features snippets of familiar political quotes, including words by Margaret Thatcher, Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy, which makes for a wider modern-day impact.The acting is positively superb from start to finish, and this becomes especially impressive when one realises that most of the cast are university students of drama (it should be noted that this play takes place at an amateur theatre). Lauren Browne, who plays Pauline, certainly stands out for her perfect comic timing and delivery, making her character a clear favourite to the audience. Conor Doran, playing the republican Marat, is powerful in his scenes with Nuala Davies (Charlotte), while one cannot but feel compassion for the King (Tom Flight) and Queen (Emma Taylor) who try their best to do what they feel is right for both the Crown and the country.
Overall, there is no doubt that The Gate of the Year by Gareth Russell is one of the most insightful, powerful and thought-provoking pieces of drama to come out of Northern Ireland for quite some time. The modernisation of the story – touching on current topics, most notably same-sex marriage – shows clearly that the events of 18th Century France are not too distant from the social and political issues of modern-day Europe. In short, Russell and his wonderful cast show us that history can often teach us a thing or two about today.
The Gate of the Year by Gareth Russell runs in the Belvoir Players’ Theatre, off Belvoir Drive in south Belfast, on Friday, 7 March and Saturday, 8 March. Both productions begin at 8pm and finish by 10pm. Admission is £9 or £7 for students. For more information, visit belvoirplayers.org.
[All photography: Ella McMaster]
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Upon which revolution is ‘The Gate of the Year’ based?
a) Spanish | b) French | c) American
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