From Belgrade to Amsterdam to North London, there is a long and unfortunate history of soccer bringing out the worst ethnic, religious, and partisan anger and violence. Some of the most egregious cases hail from Ireland during its decades-long period of political violence known as the Troubles, which pitted those loyal to the United Kingdom, mostly Protestants, against the mostly Catholic Irish Nationalists. A Night In November, which opened this week at Portland’s two-year-old Irish theater company Corrib, brings us to Belfast in late 1993 right as the conflation of sporting and political rivalries reached their epoch on the Emerald Isle.
Playwright Marie Jones tells the story of a Northern Irish Protestant named Kenneth McCallister, whose experience of the vitriolic hatred among Protestant fans at a World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and the Republic serves as the catalyst for a major reexamination of his own deep-seated sectarian prejudices. Jones has no need to exaggerate her character’s experience at the match: it’s worth looking up the highlights on YouTube just for the angriest rendition of “God Save the Queen” you’ll ever see. Indeed, McCallister is so shaken by his peers' behavior that he eventually travels to the 1994 World Cup to support Ireland.
As the play’s sole actor, Damon Kupper brings energy, personality, and humor to the role of McCallister. It takes a moment to adjust to Kupper’s impersonations of the people in his character’s life, but that adjustment is rewarded with caricatures that are both painfully funny and illustrative of Jones’ themes. Scenes involving McCallister’s chain-smoking and Catholic-hating father-in-law strike the best balance between comedy and tragedy—whether or not you find these characters compelling probably depends on your willingness to put up with an unreliable narrator.
A Night In November’s failings have less to do with its script and more to do with the problems inherent in a one man show. Sure, the first act is unnecessarily long, bogged down by overwrought character development and self-examination that don’t really pay off in act two. But this play couldn’t be understated even if it were under an hour: the only outlet for thematic exposition is Kenneth McCallister’s internal monologue, and no one’s stream of consciousness is particularly subtle, especially not a fiery, full-blooded northern Irish lad.
A Night In November
Thru Mar 5
There’s an argument to be made that senseless sectarian violence and hate—not to mention the realization of one’s own complicity in those phenomena—is not something that needs to be treated with a subtle hand. After all, there’s nothing nuanced about thousands of angry Protestant soccer fans' appalling chants of, “Trick or treat! Greysteel eight, Catholics nil” (an actual chant from that night referencing the eight Catholics killed in the Greysteel massacre on October 30, 1993). Director Gemma Whelan was on campus at Trinity College in Dublin when the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) detonated a bomb at the back gate, so you can understand her attraction to Jones’ script.
But with only one character’s experience to work with, the inevitable result is a somewhat one-sided survey of events. Republic supporters might have been slightly more welcoming to Northern Ireland fans at games in Ireland (debatable), but for every bigoted Unionist there was an equally bigoted Irish Nationalist. The IRA blew up buildings and cars just like the UVF.
Fortunately, this unbalance comes no where near toppling A Night In November, because this play isn’t really about politics as much as it’s about personhood: what gives us our humanity, and how we can thoughtlessly and reflexively deny that humanity in others. It’s in that realm that Jones’ script and Corrib’s thoughtful production succeed ably, reminding us of the failure of imagination and the dehumanizing force that is prejudice.