For the past few months, whenever Damian Gorman has sat down to write, he has been greeted by a photograph of John Hume on his desk. “I had your man looking at me all this time,” the Co Down-born playwright says with a chuckle from his home in Wales, as he recalls his efforts to distil Hume’s eventful life into two hours of theatre. “I was very conscious that everyone has their own John Hume, even his five children.”
Now, though, his work is nearly done. Hume: Beyond Belief, Gorman’s take on the story of the SDLP leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner and that of his late wife, Pat, opens at the Guildhall in Derry on Friday, March 31st.
There’s another artefact on Gorman’s desk, however, that speaks to his own experiences and helped him better understand the often uncomfortable path Hume forged in his quest for peace. It’s the MBE awarded to Gorman in 1998 for his work with An Crann, his project for people across the sectarian divide to tell their stories of the Troubles.
From a Catholic, nationalist background, the writer accepted the honour only after much soul-searching. “I was arguing with myself,” he says. “But if I just said no, I didn’t know if I could explain that to the people who I’d been working with.”
[ John Hume obituary: Nationalist leader who championed ‘agreed Ireland’ ]
Knowing the reality of peacebuilding, Gorman was determined his life of Hume should eschew hagiography. “The descriptions I was reading of John Hume were ‘titan of peace’, ‘icon’, ‘hero’,” he says. “I don’t disagree with any of that, but what’s much more interesting is that this was a human being who wasn’t perfect, who felt pressure, who was of a place and of a family and this human being managed to do extraordinary things.”
As if capturing Hume’s personality wasn’t difficult enough, the story has to be told through song. Hume: Beyond Belief is a musical, with Gorman writing the book and lyrics for a score by the composer Brian O’Doherty.
Directed and produced by Kieran Griffiths of the Playhouse in Derry, the show focuses both on Hume – portrayed as a young man by Conor O’Kane and in his later years by Gerry Doherty – and his wife, Pat, played by Naoimh Morgan. “The unforgivable thing would be if this piece didn’t acknowledge that this was a double act,” says Gorman. “It wasn’t his work. It was their work.”
With such complex material, taking the musical route seems unorthodox, to put it mildly, potentially courting ridicule. Gorman thinks music brings a vital dimension to the tale, however. “People have said to me: ‘Why is it not a serious treatment, without any music?’ Well, my feeling is that it’s a very good way to take this on. For a start, music can get into your crevices. People don’t have the resistance to music they have to words. It’s the art form that can fillet you and fill you up simultaneously.”
It’s not the first time the Guildhall has hosted musical theatre based on events in Derry’s troubled recent past. Last year saw the premiere of The White Handkerchief, also directed by Griffiths, which marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday by retelling that day’s terrible events in a musical setting. With such charged subject matter, the project initially drew some sceptical reaction.
“One reporter quipped, ‘Bloody Sunday: The Musical – are you off your head?’” Griffiths recalls. Like Gorman, however, the director believes that music theatre – his preferred term – can deal with charged material more resonantly than words.
His decision was vindicated by the positive reaction to the production, scored by O’Doherty and scripted by the late Liam Campbell. “The energy and stirring of emotion in the Guildhall in that week’s run last year was something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”
Griffiths looked to a new musical to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, approaching the Hume family about a show about their late parents. “I made the same promise to them that I made to the Bloody Sunday families, who were involved very early in the process. I said if they weren’t supportive of it, we wouldn’t proceed.”
Griffiths’s determination to do things ethically speaks of the Playhouse’s contribution to reconciliation since it was founded by Pauline Ross in 1992. “Just like South Africa had its truth commission, Pauline had it in her mind that the boards of the theatre can tell the truth,” he says.
One strand of this ongoing engagement with survivors of the Troubles is the theatre’s Peacebuilding Academy, which in 2019 commissioned a piece from the eminently qualified Gorman, who has also worked on projects bringing together young Israelis and Palestinians.
Following Campbell’s shockingly premature death from cancer in December 2019, Gorman was a natural choice when Griffiths got the go-ahead from the John & Pat Hume Foundation, which is a partner in the production. (“The arrangement isn’t that there’s a sign-off on the script or anything,” Gorman adds.)
A poet as well as a playwright, who last year cowrote So Young, his brother Gerard’s account of sexual abuse at the hands of a paedophile priest at boarding school, Gorman relished collaborating with O’Doherty on the score, even as he pondered how to present Hume’s life.
Though he takes imaginative liberties in the script – fictional characters appear alongside real-life figures such as Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley – Gorman thinks the show’s title captures the essence of his subject.
[ John Hume: The mesmerising persuader the public rarely got to see ]
“Beyond Belief was the thing that came to me, that he wasn’t hidebound by shibboleth,” the writer says. “Belief was not a fetter for him. People in the SDLP even would say that he went on solo runs. And then when he was talking to Gerry Adams, people thought that was beyond belief in a different sense.”
As well as charting Hume’s protean career, the show also deals with the sad coda of his later life, when he suffered from dementia. “That’s something we don’t shy away from,” says Griffiths.
There’s a hope that Hume: Beyond Belief will pack an emotional punch from being staged in Derry by a local cast, including performers from the Playhouse’s music-theatre training programme. Hume’s death at the height of the Covid lockdown in 2020 (Pat died in 2021) also adds to the poignant air.
“We were conscious that people in Derry felt robbed of a proper leave-taking,” says Gorman. “So that was in my mind when I was shaping the story, to provide some sort of opportunity for that.” That said, the show looks beyond the local.
Griffiths has aspirations to tour the production – the week-long run is sold out, but there is a live online broadcast of the final performance, which he sees as a “digital asset” to reach diaspora audiences. Still, as with The White Handkerchief, the setting is crucial to show’s impact. The world was Hume’s stage, but Derry was his home.
“Here were two parents, a husband and wife, raising five children amid a troubled context, trying relentlessly and never ever succumbing to violence during their time to bring us to peace,” Griffiths says. “And if our community can walk away from this production saying it was indeed a great love story, then I will be happy.”
Hume: Beyond Belief is at the Guildhall, Derry, from Friday, March 31st, until Friday, April 7th