Identity Performance in Northern Ireland and Australia: The Belle of the Belfast City and Radiance

By Pelan, Rebecca | Australasian Drama Studies, April 2005 | Go to article overview
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Identity Performance in Northern Ireland and Australia: The Belle of the Belfast City and Radiance


Pelan, Rebecca, Australasian Drama Studies


Issues of national and cultural identity have been integral, if contentious, aspects of contemporary reconciliation debates in both Northern Ireland and Australia. In both places, an attempt to reconcile what it means to be Northern Irish and Australian, founded on sect and race, respectively, has taken distinct and often pressing forms. Popularly, and too often politically, identity in both places has been represented as homogeneous, yet polarised: Protestant/Catholic in Northern Ireland and black/white in Australia. In recent years, such straightforward representations of what are otherwise highly complex and multiple facets of identity formation have been increasingly interrogated in the creative arts, particularly in drama. In contemporary drama from Northern Ireland, for example, in the work of playwrights such as Anne Devlin, Frank McGuinness, Brian Friel, Christina Reid, Graham Reid, Marie Jones and others, the representation of identity often reveals an interrogation of entrenched notions of what it means to be Northern Irish. In Australia, too, simplistic binaries, as well as notions of authenticity, have been challenged through the work of both Aboriginal and white Australian dramatists such as Jack Davis, Louis Nowra, Michael Gow, Stephen Sewell, Josie Ningali Lawford, Kevin Gilbert, Mudrooroo, and Eva Johnson, as well as by the substantial number of Aboriginal theatre groups that emerged in the 1990s: Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts (Brisbane), Kooris in Theatre (Sydney), Ilbijeri (Melbourne), and Yirra Yaakin Youth Theatre (West Australia), to name a few.

In order to discuss some of the dramatic shifts in identity interrogation that have taken place in performance-based texts, I will examine two plays, one from Northern Ireland and one from Australia. The texts, Christina Reid's The Belle of the Belfast City (1989),1 and Louis Nowra's Radiance (1993),2 share many similar features, though there are too many contextual differences to suggest that they are doing exactly the same thing. Rather, their fortuitously similar textual features offer a means of discussing the ways in which political drama produced in such very different national contexts problematises dominant assumptions about political, cultural and gender unity in comparative ways, but principally through the use of central and multiple women. However, one of my principal aims is to show that, despite the extensive amount of work undertaken by contemporary dramatists in both places to challenge simplistic and, largely, essentialist notions of identity, that wherever a 'twinning' appears of gender and race/ethnicity, or gender and sectarianism (to name just a couple of examples), there remains a strong tendency in reviewing and critical practices to prioritise the 'non-gendered' position. I will also examine briefly the ways in which critical and reviewing practices can use the issue of authenticity, in relation to both the text and the author, to avoid engaging with the dramatic issue of gender as an alternative and politicised category of identity formation.

Reid's The Belle of the Belfast City centres on three generations of women in a Belfast Protestant family who come together during a period of anti-Anglo-Irish Agreement feeling. The play, like so much of Reid's work, exposes the behaviour and complexities of Unionist loyalties and traditions, and provides a highly complex version of Protestant identity based on both generational and gender differences within the same class. In Belle, Reid exposes variations of identity formation that are not generally taken into account in discussions of Unionism: there is a Catholic policeman in the play, and a black grand-daughter who embodies modern notions of hybridity, but who points out the relative nature of sectarianism and racism by telling her mother: 'You can decide not to be a Protestant. I can't decide not to be black'.3 But Reid equally portrays the complexity of Protestant/women's identity in the play by juxtaposing the varied and fractured voices and experiences - both personal and political - of the main female characters Belle, Vi, Rose and Janet - with the much more singular and ideologicallydriven voices and experiences of the male characters.

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