The theatrical highlight of last year's Belfast Festival was the remarkable The Wedding Community Play, a site-specific piece in a couple of East Belfast houses, a city-centre church and a bar/club for the reception. Writers Marie Jones and Martin Lynch were also among those involved in this year's flagship production Convictions, performed in various spaces within the currently disused Crumlin Road courthouse north of the city centre.
Convictions strongly overshadowed the rest of the theatre programme. An almost literally "flagship" piece, Fish, presented in a makeshift auditorium aboard the training ship H.M.S. Caroline, turned out to be all bells and whistles and very little substance. Big Telly Theatre Company seemed more concerned with demonstrating how well they could handle physical comedy, film projection and magical illusions (answer: not quite well enough, in any department) than with conveying any discernible plot or linking theme. A much more interesting, though sadly far under-attended, multi-media event was a screening of David Cronenberg's film Naked Lunch together with live soundtrack played by the Ulster Orchestra (conducted by composer Howard Shore) and, more rivettingly, the free jazz trio led by the fluttering insectoid cascades of legendary saxophonist Ornette Coleman.
I did not arrive in the city in time to see one of the few performances of Catalan company Els Joglars' presentation Daaalí; the other principal play in the "Festa Fiesta" strand, a version of Mario Vargas Llosa's La Chunga: The Woman Of Our Dreams, is on the underwhelming side. Set in a small-town Peruvian bar, the bulk of the play consists of a series of fantasies on the disappearance of the beautiful Meche: did she flee the town and her abusive boyfriend Josefino? Did he kill her in a fit of jealousy? When bar-owner Chunga "bought" Meche for the night, did the two women really sleep together? ...and so on, and so forth. David Johnston's firm, unembellished translation fits well Vargas Llosa's story in which Borgesian urban-gaucho machismo rubs up against Lorquista womanhood. However, Michael Scott's production (bolstered by what are without doubt the most precious programme notes I have ever seen), in playing things similarly spare, fails to generate a spark, and is not helped by serving up a clutch of audibly phoney Ulster accents (the prime offender being Jennifer Barry as Meche).
But the Crumlin Road experience would in itself be well worth a trip across the Irish Sea. The audience is conducted in groups around various parts of the courthouse (though not the infamously oppressive Tunnel), through a series of installations by Amanda Montgomery to witness a diverse collection of dramatic scenes by eight local writers; the material on show underpins the evocative atmosphere of the building itself, in terms of both its physical impression and its historical legacy as one of the bastions of Anglo-Protestant Ulster. Some of the scenes are a mite overwritten – Nicola McCartney's jury room episode, for instance; nor, surprisingly, does Gary Mitchell's two-hander in the holding cells quite come off. It is most successful when most savagely satirical about various approaches to post-ceasefire life, as in Daragh Carville's exchange in the men's toilets and Damian Gorman's seethingly corrosive portrayal of a retired judge trying to finance a pseudo-Wagnerian opera cycle about the Troubles. The final note, sounded by Martin Lynch, is the most necessary: a reminder that, irrespective of religion or politics, the unfortunates most often swallowed by the Crumlin court machine were poor working (or, worse, not-working) stiffs. Lynch rightly fingers our complacency at turning the sorry chronicle into a comfortable theatre-going experience, but he also knows that Convictions rightly transcends such easy digestibility.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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