There’s currently a political vacuum in Northern Ireland. We need to fill it with alternative narratives. Religious and political binaries have devastated us for too long. It’s time to dismantle them and move forward. One human story at at a time.
Richard O’Leary’s hilarious and deeply moving one man play, There’s a Bishop in My Bedroom, is a phenomenal start. Originally performed at 2016’s Outburst Queer Arts festival, Richard was back for Outburst this week, this time at the MAC, directed by Patrick J O’Reilly and produced by the Tinderbox Theatre Company.
The play is a telling of Richard’s personal history. From being ear-marked for the priesthood as a child by his Cork family, to moving to Belfast in the 1980s, coming out as a gay man, and falling in love. With Mervyn – a Church of Ireland vicar.
Richard’s story tos and fros between the north, where he lived with Mervyn on the Shankill Road, hiding his strong Cork accent, and the south, where they lived pre-decriminalisation in 1993. There is a constant tension between wanting to love openly, and the fear that Mervyn would lose his vocation as a clergyman.
The play weaves together barriers to Protestant/Catholic relationships in Northern/Ireland, with the even greater obstacles to LGBTQ relationships within the church. There is a visceral railing against the clergy, as Richard underlines the hypocrisy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. He connects this to the churches’ hostility to sex in general, and questions their obsession with it.
Eventually something happens which blows Richard and Mervyn’s silence apart. It’s a stunningly moving and pivotal moment in the play. The packed room was utterly silent. I was in tears.
The genius of There’s a Bishop in My Bedroom is how it combines fury at the churches’ homophobia, with a deeply humane, sometimes even affectionate portrayal of faith. Mervyn loved his job in the church. Richard and he wanted to change things from the inside. They did make some progress in this regard. Although the deepest optimism in the play comes from Irish society rejecting the worn-out pleas of Bishops, and deciding themselves to embrace marriage equality in 2015.
Despite its political and cultural importance, this is a hugely funny play. Richard’s comic timing is perfect. Moments of deep sadness and anger were repeatedly broken with razor sharp humour. The audience’s emotional investment was tangible. Richard’s performance was arresting. There wasn’t a second in the hour-long show that my attention strayed.
Richard incorporated a huge number of artefacts from his personal life into the play – the first Valentine card Mervyn sent him, his classic gay 80’s leather hat and bomber jacket. This gave the play such authenticity. As did the sound design – Pet Shop Boys tunes gave way to religious organ music, throwing into stark contrast the two worlds they were trying to reconcile.
The recent marriage equality referendum was a turning point in Ireland. This is when we realised that political change is not won by Nolan-style debate, but by the power of human stories. I don’t know how anybody could watch There’s a Bishop in My Bedroom and not be moved, or challenged by its raw humanity.
I recognised some of Northern Ireland’s old LGBTQ guard in the audience. Lots of younger people, some politicians, and a number of clergy from various denominations. I hope it gets programmed again soon. More people need to see this play. More people of faith need to see this play. It could be a game-changer.