This week, my newest play The Gate of the Year is premiering in the Belvoir Players' Studio in south Belfast. The Gate of the Year imagines the events of the French Revolution from a few months before the famous attack on the Bastille fortress until a few days before the fall of the palace in October, as if they had taken place in the modern-day. It focuses on the high court nobility, led by the King's youngest brother the Duke of Artois (played by Belfast actor David Paulin) and his friend, the elegant but manipulative Duchesse de Polignac (played by Rebecca Lenaghan), as they struggle against the growing forces of the revolution. It also contains the storyline of the notorious journalist Jean-Paul Marat (Conor Doran) and the young idealistic republican Charlotte Corday (Nuala Davies).
One of the joys of writing The Gate of the Year after writing the story of the actual events of the French Revolution, The Audacity of Ideas, a few years ago, is to re-imagine the events and personalities to fit with a more modern setting. Marie-Antoinette, played here by the wonderful Emma Taylor who played Imogen in both stage versions of Popular, was seen by many as the inventor of what later came to be called haute couture, by public fascination with her soon turned ugly and in this alternate reality, she becomes the victim of invasive and crushing media attention. Trying to keep the ghosts of Grace Kelly and Princess Diana at bay was tricky, but luckily Marie-Antoinette's own involvement, last-minute, in the politics of the French monarchy meant her story took on a very different hue regardless of her modern-day similarities.
History, I think, has eternal themes and balancing those with the characters of those who lived and died in the 1790s has been a hugely rewarding experience and one of the highlights of any challenge I have faced as a writer thus far. In this world, The Marriage of Figaro controversy becomes about the same-sex marriage debate and Marie-Antoinette complains of the paparazzi, but words like "recession" and "hunger strikers", words that have such an immediate emotional impact on people today, particularly in Northern Ireland, slotted right into the story with surprising ease.
|From left-to-right. In rehearsal for The Gate of the Year, Emma Taylor as Queen Marie-Antoinette, David Paulin as the Duke of Artois and Tom Flight as Louis XVI.|
The French Revolution casts a long shadow over the two centuries that came after it and perhaps the most surprising thing is not how much needed to be changed but how much could remain the same. The events of The Gate of the Year are very different to the chronology of what happened in 1789 - with modern technology, it was impossible to have Louis XVI (Tom Flight) and Marie-Antoinette's eldest son die of tuberculosis as he did in 1789, here, they are the parents of four surviving children - but at the end of it all, I can't help but think that the feeling of what that euphoric and horrific summer must have been like for the people living through it has remained the same.
The Gate of the Year is open to the public at the Belvoir Players' Studio Theatre in Belfast on Friday 7th March at 8 p.m. and Saturday 8th March at 8 p.m. An industry performance is taking place on Thursday 6th. For more information, you can visit the theatre's booking page here.