Emotional Return to Belfast for Liam Neeson
By Mary Egan
April / May 2008
New York-based movie star Liam Neeson flew home to Northern Ireland in January to take part in the final curtain call at Belfast’s historic Lyric Players Theatre on the banks of the River Lagan which is closing to make way for a $30 million redevelopment. Liam’s appearance on stage earned him a standing ovation from a delighted capacity crowd. Afterwards he went backstage to meet over forty young actors, aged between 7 and 12 years, who had taken part in the final production. These Protestant and Catholic children, many from very disadvantaged parts of the city, had performed side by side for over ten weeks, demonstrating the crucial role which arts can play in integrating young people outside of traditional community boundaries. Liam spent several hours answering questions, signing autographs and posing for photographs with his young fans.
Liam started his professional acting career at the Lyric Theatre in 1976, learning his craft there before going on to appear in dozens of blockbuster films. Liam has remained closely involved with the Lyric and has been instrumental in helping the theater to raise millions of dollars to secure its future in a landmark new venue.
“When I started at the Lyric it was a very dangerous time for Northern Ireland, and yet the theater never closed,” said Liam during his visit to Belfast. “There were at least two performances I can think of where there was a bomb scare and we had to wait out on the street dressed in costume, but then we came back in and resumed the show. This theater has been a beacon of light and hope throughout Northern Ireland’s darkest days and it has a vital role to play in Belfast’s cultural, social and economic regeneration. In the face of the deep divisions that have traditionally kept communities apart, the Lyric serves as a powerful unifying force, providing a safe and neutral space in which people from different backgrounds can enjoy shared experiences, develop creatively, and explore their rich cultural diversity.”
During his visit to Belfast, Liam hosted a dinner for major benefactors, including Irish businessman Dr Martin Naughton and his wife Carmel who have donated $2 million to the capital campaign. The Northern Ireland Assembly’s Culture Minister, Edwin Poots MLA (DUP) attended the dinner, as did Sinn Féin Councillor Alex Maskey, representing Belfast City Council. Fellow actor and Golden Globe nominee James Nesbitt also attended and joined Liam on stage at the Lyric.
The Lyric’s current venue was built in 1968 and has become extremely dilapidated. Actors and staff work in temporary trailers at the back of the theater building. The new $30 million theater, designed by award-winning Irish architects O’Donnell & Tuomey, promises to transform Belfast’s cultural landscape. The designs include a new flexible studio space which will be used throughout the year to host education, outreach and training programs with a particular focus on increasing creative development opportunities for young people from disadvantaged areas. The Lyric has to raise a final $2 million before construction begins this spring.
To find out more about the new Lyric Theatre and its fundraising campaign, log on to www.supportthelyric.com.