BY LOUISE CONVERY
BELFAST writer Sam Millar is an award-winning writer best known for his grisly crime stories but it was writing his first stage play “Brother in Arms” that proved to be his most challenging project yet.
Born and raised in Belfast, Millar won the prestigious Brian Moore Short Story Award in 2000, and other awards soon followed. The movie rights for his best-selling memoir On The Brinks detailing his time as a republican prisoner and involvement in the Brinks heist in New York have been acquired by Warner Brothers.
Since then, Millar has written numerous crime novels to great acclaim including Dark Souls, The Redemption Factory, The Darkness Of Bones and his Karl Kane series.
Millar was approached to write a stage play by playwright Martin Lynch for “The Ulster Trilogy” - which would be complemented by plays from Hollywood screenwriter Ron Hutchinson as well as Lynch himself.
“This is the first time I’ve ever written a stage play. I was approached to write it for a production of three plays, the first about republicanism, the second unionism and the third about the victims,” he explained.
“I looked upon it as a challenge, I wanted to know if I could complete a stage play. Brother in Arms is about the problems that are happening within republicanism, those who are for the Good Friday Agreement and those against.
“I thought there was no better place than to put it on stage and let people see what’s going on. I don’t like to ram anything down people’s throats, I like to get a balance and try to get people to understand where I am coming from.”
He added: “This play is particularly important at the moment because of the violence that’s going on, people are being labelled ‘dissidents’ - but I don’t like to label anybody because it’s harder to get them to talk.”
The play focuses on the divide between two brothers, one a dissident republican, the other a Sinn Féin MLA - who come together to bury their father.
“I want the audience to have their own opinion, and that’s what has been so great about it. I’ve been told I have given too much sympathy to those against the Good Friday Agreement, and others have said I’ve been too sympathetic to Sinn Fein and Stormont so I think that works perfectly!” Millar said.
Millar’s story of modern-day republicanism tackles a controversial but increasingly relevant issue, but manages to do so with a comic element.
“The characters are played by well known actors. BJ Hogg, who was in Give my Head Peace, plays the uncle and so far he has been stealing the show. He’s a sort of rascal, he doesn’t want to get involved in politics and tries to take everybody’s side,” Millar said.
“There’s a lot of dark humour in the play, the audience have been killing themselves laughing. I know it’s an awfully serious subject but I don’t like giving dark, serious history lessons to anyone. I like there to be a bit of dark laughter.
“It played first in North Belfast where I live, so people local to me could see it first. Every night so far has received a standing ovation and numerous curtain calls.
“I was very nervous, I went to see it with all my family and friends,” Millar added. “I was glad to be met by so many shades of public opinion, nationalists, unionists, loyalist and republican ex-prisoners all came up to me and said they enjoyed it and a lot said they didn’t agree with it.”
As proud as he is of his stage play, the experience for the writer has been a turbulent one.
“When you have to sit there among people, you are wondering what reaction there will be, is someone going to walk out or boo it - the sweat soon comes out of you,” he admitted.
“I would never write another political play again. It took me a long time thinking about it, it took me about a year and a half to do it and it got me in trouble with my publishers because I got behind on my latest crime novel.
“It drained me emotionally, you know, and I don’t think I would do it again. It was too nerve-wracking and I had to be careful to make sure everything was accurate, whereas in fiction you can get away with murder, literally.”
‘Brothers In Arms’ is directed by Martin Lynch and is at the Burnavon Theatre, Cookstown on Monday 20 February, tickets available from www.burnavon.com.
Sam Millar’s next novel in the Karl Kane series, Dead of Winter will be published this autumn.