BY R. J. DONOVAN
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
From Hollywood to Broadway, the world has long romanticized the sinking of the Titanic. Further, the story of the 1912 tragedy has focused strongly on the ship being a luxury liner that took to its watery grave a fairly well-to-do list of passengers.
What many people don’t realize is that the Titanic – the largest ship in the world at the time – was designed to transport emigrants. And, that it was built in the shipyards of Belfast.
These two points play a pivotal role in the Tir Na Theatre production of the new play, “Jimmy Titanic,” being presented by New Repertory Theatre in Watertown June 19 to 30. Directed by Carmel O’Reilly, the production had its world premiere last fall at the Origin Irish Theatre Festival in New York. Following a run in Philadelphia, “Jimmy Titanic” made its Irish debut in Donegal in April.
By Belfast journalist-turned-playwright Bernard McMullan, the play is set 100 years after the disaster in the north Atlantic, revisiting the journey of Jimmy Boylan and Tommy Mackey, two proud, young, Belfast shipyard workers aboard the ship’s ill-fated voyage.
Colin Hamell, Tir Na’s Producing Artistic Director, portrays more than 20 characters in the one-man show, including Jimmy, Tommy, God, the Angel Gabrielle, Titanic passengers and crew, St. Peter, John Jacob Astor, Belfast Mayor R. J. McMordie, and more.
It was Hamell himself who had the idea for a play about the Titanic. He discussed it with McMullan, who subsequently agreed to write the piece but wasn’t sure what form it should take. Says Hamell: “He came up with a very original slant. Half the play is set in Heaven and half the play is set in Belfast. And it talks about how important the shipbuilding industry was for northern Ireland. One of the big reasons the English held on and fought to hold on to the north of Ireland was because they had a great shipbuilding and textile industry. It was very important to them, in the scheme of economics, to have that.”
He continued, “The reality was, the Titanic was very important, and the heart of the shipyards was very important, to the people who lived in Belfast. Sixteen thousand people worked at the shipyard.”
Although many of the characters are based on real people, Jimmy and Tommy are fictional. Hamell said they’re just “two guys, two best friends, who worked together on the building of it and sailed together. One is from the South, one is from the North. But it doesn’t really speak to the whole Protestant-Catholic thing at all. . . . Everyone thinks of the beautiful grand staircase that was destroyed, all the cutlery, all the chandeliers. John Astor went down. But there were also Jimmy Boylans and Tommy Mackeys . . . their stories were, in effect, a lot more tragic because they had a real connection to Belfast and a real connection to the boat.”
The play also questions the world’s continuing obsession with the ship. “The Titanic was very special for the people who built it and the people who worked and sailed on it,” Hamell said. “But why is it so special for other people?”
The character of Jimmy becomes very protective of the tragedy and challenges the fascination directly with the audience. Hamell says Jimmy asks, “Why are you all here? You’re all here because of something about the Titanic. Well, you know, I worked on the Titanic. I helped build it. I sailed it. It’s my experience. Why don’t you all go do your own thing. Find out what it really feels like to experience something really, really, special once in your own lives.”
The play also blends in humor to balance the tragedy, especially in a scene where the passengers begin to arrive in Heaven. “All the first class passengers [are] completely disgruntled,” Hamell said. “The Titanic was meant to be the greatest ship of all time, and the next thing they’ve hit an iceberg. All the first class passengers are giving it to God. And I play God as a chain- smoking inner city Dublin guy – (kind of) a gangster. And he’s basically taking no responsibility for the iceberg.”
“I particularly like part of the Heaven scenes where I play [both] God and the Archangel Gabrielle. . . Basically, it’s a conversation between them. . . Gabrielle’s on the take, so as people arrive to Heaven, he takes all the money and watches off them at the gate. And he has to split the take with God. I just really liked the way the scenes worked out.” He said the humor provides a necessary change of tone at just the right time in the play.
Addressing the ability of the Irish to look for contrary humor amidst tragedy, he said, “I get that pointed out to me more and more over here by Americans. And I see it. We kind of look to find the dark humor in these things. I don’t know why that is. Is it because historically, so much stuff happened to us over the years [that] it’s ingrained? That, as a way of surviving, you have to just find the brighter side of it?”
Proving the point, he said he was recently speaking to his mother back home. “Everyone in Ireland talks about how bad the economy is. This person’s not working, that person’s not working. My mother’s telling me this cousin’s lost his job and no one can get money from the bank. And then she says, ‘But you know Colin, we always say to ourselves – at least we’re not from Greece.’”
Despite the sometimes precarious nature of the theater, Hamell, who hails from Navan, County Meath, is cautiously optimistic about what the future may hold for the show. One New York review called “Jimmy Titanic” remarkable, adding that it . . . “manages to entertain, inform, move, and comment from a completely original point of view . . . Colin Hamell has the energy and passion of a holy roller evangelist . . . Scenes that make one shudder are balanced by those with wicked humor. The conceit of such cavalcade being presented as a one-man show is inspired.”
The Irish premiere was especially meaningful for Hamell. “The developer of the Belfast Titanic Visitors Center owns a castle called Solis Lough Eske in Donegal. And he had a Titanic themed weekend [planned], so he invited me to do the show there. It was one of the greatest weekends ever. Fabulous. Beautiful weather, great crowds. It was unbelievably well received. The people from the Belfast Arts Festival came over. I’ve now been invited to come back and do it in October in Belfast, which is where Bernard is from . . . So it’s really taken on a life.”
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
Tir Na Theatre’s “Jimmy Titanic,” June 19-30, at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street in Waltham. BIR readers can save $5 per ticket when using the code “titanic” online at newrep.org or 617-923-8487