This year’s May elections in Northern Island mark a watershed, as the first elections in which votes can be cast by children born after the Troubles officially ended, with the Good Friday agreement, in 1998.
A significant moment in Northern Irish politics; one that makes Theatre N16’s production Your Ever Loving seem all the more poignant. The play follows Paul Hill, one of the innocent men who made up the Guildford Four, as he is wrongly framed for two bombings and a murder, and imprisoned with a confession given under coercion and torture.
Adapted from Paul Hill’s letters to his family by Martin McNamara, Your Ever Loving seizes on the twin zeitgeists of an ever-present fear of terrorism, and miscarriages of justice. Though a historically based story, this production couldn’t have been written more to highlight current issues.
Seizing on this, directors Jamie Eastlake and Sarah Chapleo pepper the play with foreshadowing and popular culture hints that ring familiar to a modern audience. Although a newly established theatre, this is a production that packs an in-your-face-punch that its West End counterparts could only hope to emulate.
The audience enters through a curtain; half of the theatre has been transformed into a carnival tent, conveying the sheer farcical nature of the Guildford 4 case, and the laws and enforcement that kept them imprisoned. The stage is backed with a looming brick wall, covered with IRA propaganda and rebellious messages daubed with paint. This wall may be but the backing for this play, but it’s a divisive reality all to familiar to Palestinians – and maybe soon for Mexicans too.
The bricks that litter the stage conceal the props that James Elmes – playing the Rest of The World – uses to change the scene, and to populate the play with a wide array of intimidating, nonsensical and surreal characters. Perhaps the most effective of these is the radio; reminding us of the world outside of Hill’s four walls, tuning through the radio and swapping around wigs, glasses and props gives Elmes the chance to showcase his range of characters. When the radio goes, we notice along with Hill – who spent 5 years in solitary – the absence it leaves.
In a black coat, with hidden pockets housing his innumerate characters, Elmes is the judge, the jury and the policemen who piss on Hill’s bed and put glass in his food. Although the audience builds a close connection to McClusker and the lonely world in which he inhabits, The Rest of the World is never too far away, upsetting any routine, watching, laughing and mocking; at times even attacking the protagonist.
Elmes’ host of characters create a world outside of Hill’s head, and keep the story moving. With a performance that is anything but background, Elmes provides the foundations, humour and change of pace, that allows McClusker to keep relatively true to Hill’s dark story, softened with his optimism.
The rest of the set is sparse, and the scale of the theatre creates a profound intimacy between Paul Hill, played by Stefan McCusker, and the audience. McCusker never leaves the stage, and locks you in with a sensitive and considered performance. This is a role that requires emotional outbursts, but these are carefully tempered with the mundane reality that makes up a long imprisonment.
As McCusker reflects: “You cannot fault the police when it comes to “‘justice.’” With his voice stifled, Hill was not just wrongfully convicted; he was frequently mistreated in prison. As an enforcement of Her Majesty’s Prison Service’s power, Hill and the rest of the Guildford 4 were regularly ‘ghosted;’ moved prison, sometimes to the other side of the country, at night and with no forewarning. McClusker brings the routine rigmarole to the fore as he moves (and is moved) from side to side of the stage; from prison to prison, from end to end of the land.
This constant upheaval helps the production flicker through 15 years of time without dragging it out. Though McClusker remains physically unchanged, his tone and demeanour hardens across each snapshot of time as he is increasingly institutionalised. Whereas once a police officer pissed in the bed, he eventually cultivates a reputation that sees him squaring up to the law… and seeing them back down.
Although the play occupies a resolutely male space, and features an all-male cast, it puts women at the centre of the story. Elmes dons lipstick once to portray Hill’s girlfriend Gina, but it is McClusker’s ability to create and communicate to the matriarchs of his life that stave off an overwhelming masculinity. It is women, Hill’s mother, aunt, girlfriend(s) and daughter, who are the intended audience of his monologues, and it is these women that facilitate our identification and relationship with Hill.
The production manages to dualistically retain its interiority of prison claustrophobia, whilst weaving turmoil outside the four walls. Indifferent – at times creepy – Catholic priests and a leering Jimmy Saville hint towards future political outrages, outrages that similarly become political footballs to be kicked about at the whim’s of the establishment.
Other major events – namely the IRA’s activities, Hill’s grandmother’s death, the miner’s strikes and the Hillsborough tragedy – are all filtered through to us through radio, newspaper, and letters Hill receives. We are trapped in, and forced to confront a reality that we cannot touch, but must see.
Yet filtering through from the outside, we are also brought messages of hope. Like Steven Avery – the allegedly wrongly convicted felon at the centre of Making a Murderer – the Guildford 4 became pop culture capital, and Hill’s bemusement as he becomes memorialised in songs – some of which were banned, another example of the establishment’s attempt to stifle resistance – again reminds us of the farcical nature of the situation; especially once a group of convicted IRA bombers claim full responsibility for both the Guildford and Woolwich bombings. The wilful blindness of the law is made most clear by a politician declaring, “Let us be clear, a conviction had to be got.”
The play comes to its climax not with the pronouncement of the four’s innocence – a moment which is shrouded in legalese and boredom – but with the reenactment of Hill’s torture. “Why would you confess to something you didn’t do?” is counteracted with a brutally physical and overwhelming torture scene in which lights flash, sound overwhelms and officers consistently and repeatedly make life unbearable. The lights return to normal as McCluske is stood like Christ on the cross; the full circle of individual punishment for collective “sins” and the crushing power of the establishment is completed.
The pace tapers off as an older Hill, with a slightly American accent, replies to McNamara’s initial email that starts the play. “I wanted these letters to be read for what they were… This was all I could do for my mother. I just wanted to lift up other’s spirits.”
In relentlessly holding on to innocence and hope, even in the face of strife, adversary and a political game bigger than any one man, Paul Hill’s story has become symbolic of all miscarriages of justice. Artfully, the team behind Your Ever Loving have brought to light a tale that not only highlights the interiority of Hill’s experience, but places it in a political climate that is not too unrecognisable.
Terrorists may sport a different face in the post-9/11 world, but we owe it to each human being, and to the future of humanity, to judge individuals on the sums of their individual actions, regardless of race, class, religion or accent.
Your Ever Loving is on at Theatre N16, upstairs at The Bedford in Balham, Monday 18th April – Thursday 5th May (excluding Fridays and Saturdays). Tickets are £8 – 14 and available HERE.