We're all used to plays being misrepresented by hyperbolical publicity blurbs, selectively quoted reviews and the like. Sometimes, however, context alone can make the implication. I suspect that Soho Theatre reckoned that scheduling Belfast Blues and Protestants to play in separate first and second houses on the same dates made for a diptych that was both convenient and illuminating: both solo shows "from" Northern Ireland, one rooted in the Catholic/Nationalist/Republican nexus, the other... well, look at the title.
But therein lies the mistake. Draw inferences from the combination of the title of Robert Welch's play and its cultural provenance, and you're adding add two and two and getting seven. Where Geraldine Hughes' piece is a memoir of a childhood in West Belfast's Divis Flats during the 1970s and early 1980s, Welch's play is a self-consciously dense, literary/poetic tour d'horizon of Protestantism, from Martin Luther to a bigoted soccer thug in a Glasgow bar. Soho's programming may have enabled the two shows to piggy-back on one another's box-office trade, but its implicit suggestion of a Troubles mini-season with one play from each "side" does both shows, and Protestants in particular, a disservice.
It's impossible, of course, to ignore the Troubles in a play such as Belfast Blues. The Divis development was, after all, created at the fag-end of the Stormont era to be a Catholic ghetto if not a slum, and it very quickly became a textbook example (literally) for many years of the worst public housing in Europe, including the then-Soviet bloc. Such a background in turn politicises the inhabitants of the area. Hughes' dramatic memoir describes events from the Troubles such as her mother being enlisted to smuggle a gun past a British army patrol, various shootings in the flats and so on, but seldom takes an explicit political position. When it does so, the response of this reviewer (with his East Belfast Protestant upbringing) is broadly akin to the way I read Tim Pat Coogan's histories: I am annoyed and resentful at the stridently hostile tone, but none the less entirely persuaded by the horrific mass of facts which underpins it.
Ultimately, though, Belfast Blues isn't "about" the Troubles. Hughes, on a stage bare except for a table, a chair and a series of back-projected photographs, performs a number of character sketches of her family and neighbours as she herself grew up, but it's in the second half of the show that one begins to form a sense of its true raison d'être. For at the age of 14 or so, she was cast in an American film about the Troubles (which the Internet Movie DataBase reveals to be the 1984 TV picture Children In The Crossfire), and consequently began to find herself between two worlds, neither of which really understood the other. In the end, Hughes went to UCLA to train as an actress, and now lives and works in California, whence this show originates.
This may explain the faint air of "showcase therapy" which hangs about the piece. It's fluid in structure and adept in performance, but one suspects that it has been created to display Hughes' range of talents as a performer, and ultimately to address an issue personal to her: my hunch is that she is trying to justify that move to Los Angeles, which meant breaking the promise she had made to her dying father that she would stay and look after her family. This impression can retrospectively devalue the rest of the piece, since however much else it may contain, it is apparently founded upon navel-gazing, and asking its audience not merely to enjoy or to be impressed but to validate Hughes' choices.
Protestants is far the simpler show in respect of conceptual genesis, if of nothing else. An impressionistic portrait of an entire strain of belief is, after all, much easier said than done. True, Welch uses Northern Ireland as a primary focus for his account, but really only in the sense that the province is a location where both the virtues and vices of Protestantism are at their most conspicuous.
The staging, too, is more adventurous, and in keeping with London expectations of Rachel O'Riordan's Ransom company after the triumph of Richard Dormer's Alex Higgins bioplay Hurricane, seen at the same venue earlier this year. In a mini-amphitheatre – a wooden "O", indeed – performer Paul Hickey uses a meagre selection of poor theatre-style "found" props to create the character and tone of each of a series of first-person episodes, interspersed with a vaguer, more poetical present-day thread. Thus, for instance, half of a circular saw blade hoisted upon his shoulders becomes the ruffed collar of Queen Elizabeth I, whilst a Zimmer frame suggests both her voluminous gown and her advancing years at the time of her betrayal in Ireland by Essex; the Glaswegian tough, eagerly anticipating a bout of sectarian ultraviolence, strains and snarls at the end of a chain, like a fighting dog in his pit; and so on.
That the play is only erratically successful in its professed aim is only to be expected. It's an immense area to cover, especially when trying to give both individual portraits and a hint of overarching thesis all in little more than an hour. The tone adopted by Welch recognises this practical impossibility. Nevertheless, such a thesis is advanced, and it is that Protestantism is intimately bound up with the notion of protest. Oddly, a number of English critics seem to have been surprised by this notion, despite both the blatant etymology and a press release which explicitly trailed this as the underlying perspective of the piece. Certainly, Welch's account of Protestantism is almost entirely oppositional in character; his Martin Luther (played by Hickey with a bizarrely inaccurate accent, more suggestive of central Asia than Germany) passionately conveys his opposition to certain doctrines of Catholicism, but gives much less of a sense of what he is in favour of than, say, John Osborne's dramatic treatment of the same figure. Of course, doggedness in the face of insuperable difficulties, such as evidenced by the production as a whole, is arguably itself one of the characteristics of Protestantism.
Written for Irish Theatre.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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