My column from Saturday's News Letter.
As last week’s election count ground on through Friday evening, I took a much needed break from the coverage to visit the reopened Lyric Theatre in Belfast. It’s been closed for the past year or so, as the old building was more or less rebuilt from the ground up and replaced by a gleaming, modern venue costing £18.1 million.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Lesiure stumped up about half of that total. A hefty price tag, but it seems to be money well spent.
The lack of sound-proofing at the old Lyric was a particular irritation, with the roar of traffic from Stranmillis Embankment, car alarms and the like constantly intruding on performances. Nothing quite explodes the illusion that you are in say, 7th century Denmark, like the cheesy jingle of an ice cream van.
There are no such issues with the new theatre. The heavy wooden panels surrounding the auditorium insulate it perfectly from the outside world. The first production in the reopened building is Arthur Miller’s drama, The Crucible, and it looks great, on a state of the art stage, with clever lighting and a convincing set.
It is a good choice of play for election season too. Miller’s account of the Salem witch-hunts is full of political symbolism. It may have been written as an allegory for McCarthyism, when thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathisers, but it has things to say about intolerance and hysteria which could equally be applied to Northern Ireland.
That’s a mark of good writing and good drama. It stays fresh and it has the power to make us re-examine our attitudes and assumptions, long after it was written, in a different country and a different context.
It’s a huge asset to Belfast to have a professional company which can really bring a play like The Crucible to life for audiences in Northern Ireland. And it’s important that the Players have a world class home like the new Lyric Theatre.
There’s a danger that when things get tight financially, cultural projects are always the ones which miss out on much needed resources. It’s often presented as if any money which culture does bag comes at the expense of hospitals or schools.
The Lyric’s reopening reminds us of the real value which the arts bring to our society and to the local economy. It is a stunning building, which will stage quality productions and act as a magnet for talented and creative people. That, in turn, will attract visitors to Belfast.
Without investment in facilities like the Lyric and the refurbished Ulster Museum, Northern Ireland’s tourist industry will struggle to grow. It’s all very well urging people to visit and spend money in our hotels and restaurants, but we’ve got to give them something to do while they’re here and to tell their friends and family about when they get home.
So, rather than resent every penny which is spent on the arts, let’s celebrate a new jewel in Belfast’s cultural crown and hope that many more are added in the future.