The Market Place Theatre, Armagh
30 July, 2015
The second of two plays during the John Hewitt International Summer School 2015, ‘Newbliss’ represented a most unusual piece of theatre. It was, in effect, three different things: a play, a poetry reading, and a concert, all in one. And, a few minor flaws aside, this combination made for one of the most interesting and rewarding shows this reviewer has had the privilege to see.
Essentially a memoir brought to life, ‘Newbliss’ (named after the County Monaghan village that proves to be the scene of a key turning point in the playwright’s life) tells the story of Moving Hearts’ Keith Donald, as performed, written and recited by the man himself, from his childhood abuse and early break on BBC Radio at the age of ten, to a varied, successful career in music, juxtaposed with a series of personal tragedies and horrific accidents, and, most insidiously throughout it all, an unhealthy relationship with drink that descends into full-blown alcoholism.
As a piece of writing, ‘Newbliss’ was at once jarring and exciting, the shifts from prose to verse to music often far from seamless, and yet almost more compelling for their rougher, rawer quality. The entire piece brimmed over with heart and humanity, the rhythm of the poetry, the texture of the music, the often understated, surprising revelations in the prose (the sexual abuse and death of a friend in a car crash key early examples of this) all creating a portrait of a fractured, somewhat lost man, with much to give and a genuinely sensitive soul, the sometimes fragmented nature of the writing ultimately helping to illustrate the conflicts and catastrophes that have haunted the playwright his whole life. Just when the story would appear to be letting Donald get on his way and overcome his demons, a new disaster would be lying in wait. Particularly affecting and unsettling for this reviewer was the history of a succession of accidents and car crashes that left Donald with broken bones and injuries throughout much of his youth. Broken bones are perhaps not something we often think of as that serious an affliction anymore, desensitised by fiction and media to regard them as something much like a bad cold, that some time in a cast or plaster will make good as new. But here, Donald told a much darker, psychologically unsettling tale- broken bones leading to partial paralysis, horrific pain, depression and a sense of uselessness, all interlinked in a vicious cycle that made the misfortune start to feel like a cruel game of the gods against a tortured mortal, as the crashes kept happening. It was powerful, thought-provoking stuff. Stylistically, meanwhile, much of Donald’s poetry was beautiful, even if, sometimes, it took a moment to realise he had lapsed into verse, while the music, in particular one stirring, triumphant piece towards play’s end, was a fitting manifestation of the writer’s troubles and angst, and ultimately, his redemption.
As an actor, Donald fared even better, creating a self portrait of a man currently at peace with himself and his past, and able to relate it all to the audience, and yet, as a result of that peaceful state, almost seeming more vulnerable to being brutalised by the dark memories that struck out of the play like sharp, cruel attacks, evoking empathy for Donald and everything he’d been through, as we wondered how on earth he’d come through it all to arrive at this point of calm. Through body language and posture, often slouching slightly when sitting, or scratching and half-concealing his face when walking around, Donald left an impression of a character ultimately saved, but spiritually injured and left with plenty of nervous tics along the way.
Although the only performer physically on stage throughout, Donald was nonetheless leant surprisingly haunting support by two disembodied voices, that of his younger boyhood self, and a mysterious woman called ‘Ethyl’, whose identity gradually became clear over time. Ruadhan McBride Smith, especially, as the younger Donald, did a genuinely affecting, moving bit of work in the space of a mere few lines, his performance that of a melancholy soul robbed of innocence, while Susan Slott as Ethyl wove a sultry, seductive, and ever so slightly sinister shadow over the play.
Completing the hat trick as his own director, Donald had his real-life character continually move about the dressing room set, lifting and setting down instruments, putting on and removing items of clothing, displaying physical gestures of reflection and pondering, and coming to life as much as his world-weary character could while in the midst of his musical performances, all of which were spaced well throughout the show. Unfortunately, issues with the audio and Donald’s microphone proved jarring at times, certainly in the quieter moments, every small movement the actor made around the set echoing through the theatre, most startlingly as he put on a hat around halfway through, while Donald’s means of departing the stage, though a door at the back that, once opened, allowed the outside world to intrude into that of the play, proved, for this reviewer, unsatisfying. The set itself, meanwhile, a small dressing room adorned with old Moving Hearts posters and memorabilia, was suitably intimate, warm and inviting to the audience, drawing us into Donald’s story and making us want to stay and listen to every line.
‘Newbliss’ was undoubtedly a hybrid, not entirely a play, not entirely a musical performance, but, for the most part, a quite magical and compelling fusion of the two. It wouldn’t be the sort of theatre that would be to everyone’s taste, but, as part of a cultural summer school themed, this year, on the idea of difference, it made for a suitably unusual, and rewarding, form of storytelling.