Friday, 29 June 2012


Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and Queen Elizabeth of England shake hands in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast (54 degrees North, 5 degrees West). It is billed as a gesture of reconciliation. It is also a grand gesture of macro-politics.

Why does it take place in a theatre? Why not in a hospital? A factory? A farm?

At one level, staging macro-political gestures in locations that are perceived as welcoming to people of all political allegiances (republican/royalist) and national affiliations (Irish/British) is challenging. One of the many achievements of the Lyric Theatre over the years is its assertion of openness and, as far as is possible for any publicly-funded body, independence.

And, of course, gesture is part of the great repertoire of effects that makes theatre exhilarating and enthralling. Situate two characters in a conflict; face them across centuries of colonialism, rapine, pillage, rebellion, collusion, violence and peace-making then, by an orchestrated dramatic process, – a peace process? - have them meet and be reconciled, symbolically represented by a handshake.

Where else, but in a theatre? It is one of the great powers of theatre that it can bring focus to such events and characters.

 All  the world's a stage;
And all the men and women merely players.
The focus tends to be less fine and the gesturing more complex on the lesser political stages. In coming months, look out for Sinn Féin councillors shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth's relatives at local theatres. 


Queen Elizabeth is paid handsomely by British taxpayers – castles, flights, staff, gear, horses, cash, etc – to perform such symbolic gestures. Martin McGuinness is on a political project. And, at a human level, both individuals, no doubt, gesture in good faith.

Will the gesture materially benefit the citizens?

Will it lessen the likelihood of state and paramilitary violence?

Film actor James Cagney, who starred in a film about Ireland entitled Shake hands with the Devil, once said 

... a career was the simple matter of putting groceries on the table.

And for Hamlet, actors/players 
are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. 

Let the Deputy First Minister and the Queen gesture. 

And let citizens see what lands on the table.

Peace? Groceries?

As you like it: stage play; William Shakespeare; 1599
Hamlet: stage play; William Shakespeare; 1601(?)
Shake hands with the Devil: film; Michael Anderson; Pannebaker Productions; 1959

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