The Guildhall, Derry, was the intended destination of the Northern Irish civil rights march against internment that ended in massacre on January 30 1972, an event that shocked the world and entered the annals as “Bloody Sunday”. It also became a base for the Saville Inquiry, which concluded that the British Army had killed 13 unarmed Catholic protestors (a 14th died later), for which the government, under David Cameron, offered an official apology in 2010.
On Sunday, the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest days of the Troubles, the venue premiered a monumental act of theatrical commemoration: The White Handkerchief, written by the late Liam Campbell – a writer and scholar – and directed by Kieran Griffiths, who runs the Derry Playhouse. It’s an ambitious attempt to do justice to the tragedy, using music, song, dance and a local, mainly professional company of more than 30 actors.
To an impressive degree, the production guides its audience through the rough chronology of events, from tense chatter and gatherings ahead of the march, into the terrifying tumult and towards a place of numb emotional desolation.
Its primary artistic approach, however, is impressionistic – lots of vignettes and tableaux vivants, the cast flitting nimbly across a narrow traverse stage, sometimes sheltering beside it. Instead of a blow-by-blow account, the effect is potently atmospheric: collective gaiety turned to grief, dream turned swirling nightmare.
Movement is at the heart of the evening – whether that be the impassive aiming of the Paras in their maroon berets, the crowd mock-simulating the attacks and retreats of a riot, or bystanders thronging together to denote the speeding Saracen personnel carrier that ran over a teenage girl.
The famous shot of Fr Edward Daly holding up a bloodied white handkerchief as he tried to help the first fatality (teenager Jackie Duddy) is stirringly recreated.
Each bullet’s impact is registered in a stylised fashion too – there’s no helpless falling to the ground. Instead, the victim adopts a freeze-frame attitude; an image of their body seems to float away on screens above.
Acting almost as the master of ceremonies, and introducing calm lyricism as well as an initial levity, is William McKinney (Warren McCook) a typesetter on the Derry Journal killed in the melee.
The risks with this project are manifold – it could seem exploitative, ghoulish, insensitive, incendiary. Yet the combination of researched material, fiction and something more ethereal works well, combining respect with creative daring. Though the songs veer into a Les Mis-like bombast and sentimentality, they’re undeniably poignant.
There was a protracted standing ovation at the end of the first performance – testament to local endorsement, including that of relatives. Watching the live-stream (available on-demand this week), I still had a few misgivings. There’s no glossing the behaviour of the soldiers, but even though we get – as in Paul Greengrass’s 2002 film Bloody Sunday – a sense of reluctance in one of their number, the brutality and contempt for “this godforsaken wasteland” is laid on with an agit-prop trowel. It’s as if the script is shot through with a surfeit of hindsight indignation.
No less remediable is the omission of subsequent IRA atrocities. If Bloody Sunday opened a Pandora’s Box of retributive violence, then it surely makes healing sense to acknowledge, however incompletely, those swept up in the fatal tide of sectarian fury.
Until Feb 5. All performances are sold out, but for tickets to watch online go to derryplayhouse.co.uk