By David Hennessy
The hunger strike of Bobby Sands has inspired a display of contemporary dance that can be seen in London this week.
Comrades In The Dark by Caitlin Barnett is described as an exhilarating and visceral portrayal of one man’s attempt to maintain his identity told through poetry, dance and Irish music.
The piece features as part of Brixton House (formerly known as Oval House)’s inaugural Housemates Festival, a two-week event which showcases a mix of live theatre, comedy, spoken word and dance.
Caitlin told The Irish World: “It’s really exciting.
“Brixton has been on my list For a long time.
“I knew about the Terence MacSwiney connection with Brixton prison so I really wanted to bring it to Brixton house.”
In Long Kesh Prison in 1981, Bobby Sands embarked on a hunger strike in pursuit of political prisoner status.
He died on day 66.
Nine other prisoners would die before the strike was called off.
With Comrades in the Dark, Caitlin presents a contemporary dance exploring the brutality and humanity within Sands’ poetry and prose, written in secret behind bars.
Caitlin, who creates work that centres around socio-political issues and is drawn to the stories of those that are brushed under the carpet or forgotten about, had little knowledge of Irish history before watching the film Hunger by Steve McQueen.
Feeling the need to learn more, she found the poetry and prose that Sands wrote whilst in prison.
Barnett has Irish blood from a Dublin grandparent.
“I have Irish ancestry, but I haven’t really been very connected to it.
“My partner is Irish so he introduced me to the film.
“All I knew about Northern Ireland was The Troubles and more so in the early 90s so when I watched the film, I was just sort of stunned about the story. It wasn’t that long ago and I was just a bit baffled as to why I had never heard of something that seemed quite world news worthy.
“The physical action in the film was what led me to think it would lend itself well to a contemporary dance piece.
“And then just as I was doing a bit more research, I found out that Bobby Sands had written all this poetry and prose while he was in prison so I dug into that and found all this material and that became what the piece revolves around.
“In the poetry there’s references to devils waltzing around so we got a lot of the movement from that.
“And there’s a lot of talk about birds. The lark is a symbol of freedom.
“The way birds move and flock together in the sky, and that represents freedom from being in the H box.
“Through death, through the hunger strike, they are free.
“So instead of really telling the story of the hunger strike, it’s more looking at the themes within the poetry and the state of mind that the prisoners would have been in during that time and trying to bring human qualities to the story.”
Caitlin reached out to the Bobby Sands Trust, and Danny Morrison (former Republican volunteer, author and Irish activist) connected her with former Republican prisoners who lent their voices to the recordings which were integrated into the soundtrack.
“That was really what elevated the piece really, it was having people who had actually lived it.
“We had Laurence McKeown who was a hunger striker, and Colm Scullion who shared a cell with Bobby Sands.
“Just listening to them talk about it gave more insight, but just having their voices in the show just adds that more authentic experience.
“You realize it did actually happen. People were affected by it, and still are affected by it.”
Caitlin took the piece to Belfast last year when it clearly struck a chord.
“We took it to Belfast in September, we had a standing ovation for that and I think it really touched people.”
Caitlin has received Arts Council National Lottery project grants funding to create and tour Comrades in the Dark and is starting to garner international recognition having been invited to present the work at the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival in Palestine later this year.
“It is not just the Irish story, it happens all over the world.
“I want it to resonate with all the other people have been oppressed and occupied and things like that.
“We are due to be going over (to Palestine) in June for the Ramallah Festival of Contemporary Dance, and they were just instantly interested in it because of the solidarity between the Irish hunger strikers and what’s going on in Palestine.”
Comrades in the Dark runs Tuesday 26 May- Friday 29 May.
Housemates Festival runs until 6 May.
For more information and to book, click here.