Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast
This compendium performance by Convergence Ensemble, offered three short plays, and though diverse in style and theme, each had something of interest to recommend it, with theatre used as a tool to look at where we are at as a society.
The first piece, The Burial, was a comic satire about political corruption, and referenced many of the recent scandals that have dogged the ruling elite in Northern Ireland, including the infamous “sports massage’ of Paul Berry, the NAMA property scandal, and Iris Robinson’s toils with her 19 year old ‘friend’. The piece was ably played by principals Natalie Curran, Conor Doran, Marina Hampton and Peter Heenan as spin doctor, politician, politician’s wife and intern respectively, and in places it was bitterly funny. The daytime TV interview of the politician’s wife, on a show called Women Talking, was particularly good. Mary Lindsey as the presenter and Hampton riffed off one another in a smartly underplayed exchange.
At other places though, the play felt flat. We were urged to get a sense of jeopardy as the party major domo, the Revered Adair, fell on his sword but despite a quality performance by Jim McDowell, we didn’t have enough sympathy for those involved to feel any real sense of something important at stake.
The second play, Boundaries, was the stand out play of the evening and one of the most powerful pieces we have seen in Belfast theatre for many months. A one person show, this followed the mounting distress and ultimate emotional collapse of a woman called Sylvia (Deborah McCormack) who is the subject of a campaign of victimisation by a group of young thugs, led by the feral Eyebrows. This stalking is all the more horrifying for being inexplicable, and finally culminates in a terrifying sexual assault, where Sylvia is groped in a late night filling station. Wisely though, the writers, (director Don McCamphill and Marina Hampton) avoid any kind of In-Yer-Face gruesomeness. The act that Sylvia is victim of is awful enough to leave the audience shocked and angry.
The build-up is superb: it is one of those plays you cant bear to watch, yet can’t draw your eyes from. The script nails the kind of terror of the ASBO thug that is the real paranoia of modern city living, and as Sylvia recedes into herself, we long for some sort of Death Wish style revenge.
When it comes, the dénouement is startling and ingenious. While it will leave readers of this review unsatisfied, we are not able to offer a spoiler here: the company plans further performances and it would be unfair to ruin it for future audiences. Suffice it to say that some members of the audience were observed holding tissues to their eyes. The remainder were buzzzing when they left the auditorium at the end. It is certainly not a show anyone will forget in a hurry.
The final piece, Heritage of Violence, looked at how the NI Troubles have affected generations born after the end of the conflict, and was largely composed of movement sequences, interspersed with terse dialogue exchanges. Jenna Byrne and Jake Douglas play a school age couple, full of the joys of teenage love. Their early movement pieces were celebrations of the liberty and joie de vivre of the young. But by degrees, the boy’s parents, played Rachael Holloway and the excellent Roger Dane, battle to impose their values and control on the young couple. By subtle manipulations and emotional blackmail they contrive to destroy the relationship.
Byrne, as the girl, seems to have lost her ability to resist, beaten down by the manipulations and by the weight of history, Her attempts to hold her own against the ex-combatant father, played by Dane, are fruitless, and we fear for her safety, physical and emotional, at the end of the play. And then, in the final moments she rejects this control, and walks. It is an act of liberation and a sign of hope, and is sorely needed for the audience. We feel hopeful for ourselves as much as for her.
In design the three pieces were all played on the simplest of stages, with a few simple props and minimal stage furniture. Lighting was subtle but effective, creating mood rather than attempting to replicate any sense of location. The plays taken as a whole provided a very enjoyable evening’s entertainment, and also an insightful look at the state of the nation Performances were, across the board, of high standard.
This ensemble works well as a team and while there was some unevenness of quality across the three scripts, there were stand out moments too. And there can be no doubt that when we left the theatre, we had a much clearer idea of where we are as a society.
Heritage of Violence