Belfast playwright and arts journalist Jane Coyle has just returned from the Corfu Literary Festival, where she was giving a talk and readings from her new play After Melissa.
The play will have its world premiere at Belfast International Arts Festival on 3 November. It will be directed by David Grant, a former artistic director of the Lyric Theatre and senior lecturer in drama at Queen’s University Belfast.
It is inspired by The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, one of the great novels of the 20th century. Coyle has close associations to the writer through her work as an editorial assistant at Faber & Faber, one of the top publishing houses in London. Durrell was among its most celebrated writers.
“I worked at Faber for a man called Alan Pringle, who was Durrell’s long-time editor,” says Coyle.
“After I’d been there for only a few months, he suddenly lost his sight and died within the year. He instructed me to become ‘his eyes’, a terrifying prospect at the best of times but a veritable baptism of fire given that we were awaiting the arrival of a new novel by Durrell, the first of his acclaimed Avignon Quintet.
“Reading The Alexandria Quartet as a teenager was a rite of passage. Ever since, I have harboured the notion of writing some kind of response to it.”
Durrell and his eccentric family – famously portrayed in the popular ITV series The Durrells – lived on Corfu for a number of years. He wrote extensively about the island, which, along with Donegal and the Egyptian city of Alexandria, is one of the settings for the play.
The central character of the play is Eamon Quiery, a writer from Donegal, who has returned to his home place after living for some years in the exotic port city of Alexandria. With him is a young child, the silent, introverted daughter of a nightclub dancer called Melissa, Quiery’s former lover.
As he struggles to write a memoir of his time in Alexandria, Quiery’s concentration is interrupted by memories and imaginings of Melissa and a wealthy socialite called Justine, with whom he had a clandestine love affair.
He finds homecoming a challenge, especially as the single guardian of a young girl. He questions whether it is possible to return to your family and the place of your childhood and really belong.
And then an uninvited visitor arrives, who turns his world upside down.
Two gifted Northern Ireland actors Ruairi Conaghan and Caitriona Hinds (sister of film and stage actor Ciarán Hinds) play Quiery and Justine, with the young Bosnian screen actress Sanja Nović taking on the role of Melissa.
Donegal-based Palestinian actor Fadl Mustapha is cast as the voice of the doctor Balthazar and Emily Bagnall as the voice of the Child.
After Melissa runs at the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen’s University on 3,4, and 5 November, then tours to the Seamus Heaney Home Place, Market Place Theatre in Armagh, Down Arts Centre in Downpatrick and Cushendall Golf Club (where the Hinds family have long and deep connections).