A new play at Vault festival explores hypermasculinity and reaching potential in Belfast

Vault Festival spans 54 days and showcases more than 2,000 artists and this year, it’s debuting the writing of 30-year-old Alice Malseed – giving her work one of its best platforms to-date.

Alice was raised in a town near Belfast, and her third major play, Jade City, begins its five day run at the Cavern venue tonight.

Jade City is a two-man show following working-class boys Sas and Monty, who struggle to comprehend a violent event in their past.

Starring Brendan Quinn and Barry Calvert, it’s set in the gritty east end of the Northern Irish capital and was written after Alice moved to a new part of Belfast.

“I started seeing a lot of people who had so much potential but because of their circumstances, they couldn’t progress,” she said.

“I met this guy and he inspired me – his character really inspired me.”

The man in question was in his forties, had struggled with substance abuse, long-term unemployment, and fathered several children to several different women.

“He had so many ideas and so much going on inside his head but it was hard for him to express and articulate himself,” Alice said.

Alice and her muse have now stopped talking, but when they first met in spring 2017 he was trying to improve his circumstances; something Alice quickly realised he might never do.

“This guy knew his life was really f**ked up but also knew there wasn’t much he could do about it,” she said.

From there the play took shape, offering a social and cultural critique of modern-day Britain and Ireland where some are cast aside and misused, while others have opportunities and privilege bestowed upon them.

Alice explained: “I became really aware that life can be s**t for some people and if it is, who are we to question or judge them and say they can’t or shouldn’t do something?”

While social inequality is a prominent theme in Jade City, ‘toxic masculinity’ also takes precedence.

“Sas and Monty are always trying to be the most macho and testosterone-filled versions of a British man.

“They both really struggle with the more feminine qualities of softness and emotional expression which they don’t think they should have – but that’s something the play tears to pieces. The play really shines a light on the unhealthiness of hypermasculinity,” said Alice.

Jade City is Alice’s first play to star men and her first without any visible female characters, something she initially found uncomfortable as a feminist writer.

“Women are only mentioned, never seen. I realised that this was the only way I could tell the story – it was essential that there were no women,” she said.

But in this dark and troubled story an emphasis is placed on the universality of suffering among the ‘underclass’ – irrespective of whether you see them or not.

“No one comes out well in this play. The men get themselves into a bad spot and the women are disadvantaged by virtue of their connection to the men. It really emphasises that the patriarchy we live in is not healthy,” she added.

Taking Jade City out of Belfast sees Alice return to London where she studied as a undergraduate at Goldsmith’s.

“I have mixed feelings about London,” she said. “I think it chews you up and spits you out, and returning to it is like going to see an ex-boyfriend.”

But this has not wiped the shine from appearing at the Vault Festival.

“I’m really excited about it, it’s such a prestigious festival and there are so many other brilliant companies to be sharing a platform with. It’s the biggest platform my work has had outside of Ireland,” Alice said.

And this might not be the last time we see Alice’s work in London, as a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has enabled her to write a new play set in nineties Belfast; while her involvement with a BBC development scheme means she’s pitching her first television script.

She’s also in talks to take Jade City elsewhere.

So watch this space.

Feature image shows Barry Calvert (left) and Brendan Quinn. Image credit: Will McConnell.

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