The following invitation by Brian Friel, one of Ireland’s most beloved playwrights, is inscribed on the wall inside the entrance of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre: “This is your playhouse, come play with us here.”
These sentiments are embodied by Belfast born playwright Marie Jones, whose portrait comes into view alongside that of Friel’s as you ascend the staircase to the centre of the Theatre.
Born into a working class family in East Belfast and a child of ‘the Troubles’, her plays walk the high-wire over comedy and tragedy, finding a place in the hearts of audiences at home and around the world. It is her skill with both comedy and pathos that has ensured her popularity in Northern Ireland – a society still coming to terms with its difficult history of conflict and division – yet a place famed for its hospitality and good humour.
Like many playwrights she began her theatrical life as an actor. Finding herself increasingly frustrated with the lack of roles for women, however, she and four others established Charabanc Theatre Company in 1983, an all-female touring group. Departing in 1990 and having written the one-hander, A Night in November in 1985, she co-founded DubbleJoint Theatre Company the following year with many more plays to follow.
Being one of Northern Ireland’s most prolific playwrights and having achieved huge success with her 1996 two-hander Stones in His Pockets, a hit in the West End and Broadway and winner of the 2001 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, she has cemented her place as one of the most popular playwrights of her time.
Centred upon two extras in a Hollywood film which has taken over a rural Irish village, and with two actors playing 13 roles, Jones pulls off a masterclass in witty, sharply accurate vernacular dialogue. Even though the play tackles poignant issues such as friendship, dreams, and even a suicide, it never risks indulgent sentimentality.
The tragedy underlying the comedy is beautifully understated yet ever present beneath the waves of humour, and this level of humanity creates an enduring appeal.
By inhabiting the language and humour of the world in which she grew up, she creates a unique depiction of Ireland away from any ‘chocolate box’ romanticism. Her ability to combine a uniquely Irish sense of humour and a universal understanding of humanity with all its wants, desires and ultimately its follies creates works that are as bittersweet as they are humorous. It is the unfiltered reality of life that she presents alongside the resilience of the human spirit in its constant search for laughter that sets her apart as an important figure in contemporary Irish writing. She is a master of reality and humanity.
It is to her and a thriving theatre scene that Northern Ireland’s burgeoning film and TV industry owes gratitude. And with a film version of Stones in His Pockets starring Conleth Hill and Ronan Keating seemingly on the horizon, her work’s appeal and acclaim can only continue to grow.
Photo credit: Donald Tong via Pexels