Geraldine Hughes "Belfast Blues" debuts this evening as part of the Irish Repertory Theatre's Digital Fall Season and continues through Sept. 27. Go to www.irishrep.org for details.
By Peter McDermott
The Irish Rep’s Ciarán O’Reilly contacted Geraldine Hughes not long ago with a plan.
He would send a green screen and whatever was needed to film her autobiographical one-woman show “Belfast Blues.” It would be part of the Rep’s Digital Fall Season.
“We can film it like we did ‘Molly Sweeney,’” O’Reilly suggested.
Hughes replied, “Well, I could do that, but I have a broadcast quality version that I’m working on, which I think is a really special experience.”
Unlike the Rep’s recent staging of “The Weir,” which filmed separately six actors who’d been in previous productions of it, she filmed hers in actual performances last year at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
“He was thrilled,” Hughes said of O’Reilly’s reaction to that news.
The actor said she “wouldn’t have been incentivized to have done it [a production for the Rep] so rapidly” if she hadn’t had put the work on film already. “To be honest, I don’t know whether I could’ve mustered up the courage and the energy to do it,” she said.
Lockdown has been hard. “It was a rough beginning,” said Hughes, who lives in upstate New York with her husband. Her aunt passed away in Ireland from Covid, and her mother was ill, but not from Covid-related illness. She is now recovering.
“In the midst of it, work saves, creativity saves, if we’re lucky to have that in our bones,” she said. “I created some zoom space for workshops, for different groups of people who come on.
"It’s free — just to create a space for people. That really helped me because it was a matter of checking in every week with a group of people who were creative. It was really a beautiful experience.
“Out of that some people who’ve never written before have created beginning, middle and ends of shows. A few women have gotten together and written a movie. That made me feel very good.”
Hughes filmed her own iconic “Belfast Blues” because she didn’t think she’d be performing it again. “I wanted to capture it,” she said.
She’d been invited to do performances at the Lyric Brass Neck Theatre Company, as part of the West Belfast Festival in 2019. She arranged the camera crew herself and she produced and directed (the stage production is directed by Carol Kane).
“I’ve been performing ‘Belfast Blues’ for 15 years and I’ve never seen it” Hughes said. “The other day, when the complete version came in and I sat down in my bedroom. It’s horrifying for me to look at myself. I often don’t watch anything I’ve filmed, any TV stuff. I don’t watch it. I can’t. I’m just too insecure about how I look.
“Watching it from beginning to end, I was so overwhelmed. It’s because I realized that when people see it, their response is so emotional and visceral and I had the same reaction, I thought ‘My God, this story still holds. It’s still important. It’s a piece of history.’ And I’m so proud of myself. I think some of it, all of it, looks really beautiful as well.”
Hughes added, “And also we have the other character — the audience.”
She remembered being very nervous before the first performance at the Lyric. When she said the first line, “My mummy’s name is Sheila,” a woman from the audience said, “I know. Sure I worked with her.”
“I kept that. [Because] I was given permission from the first line,” Hughes said. “I kept that in because it had never happened before. It was just brilliant. A Belfast audience — they’re ahead of you. They know the joke is coming.”
Hughes said, “There is nothing like being in the theatre. However, I think with this particular filmed version, there is an opportunity to see a close-up and [you can see] what happens in someone’s eyes and face and you can sit that closely. I think that’s a huge advantage. I could have filmed this with one or two cameras, but I filmed it with three. So we have three angles and we have an entire close-up version, and that’s important. That makes it cinematic.”
For more information about “Belfast Blues,” which was first screened tonight continues through Sept. 27, go to IrishRep.org.