Belfast Blues / Protestants / Shining City / Othello / Henry IV part 1 / Blues For Mr Charlie / Dirty Blonde / When Harry Met Sally
Various venues
June, 2004

There’s a particular kind of solo theatre that might, for want of a better term, be called “showcase therapy”.  You get the whiff of it at shows which may be relatively fluid in their creation and virtuosic in their performance, but seem to have been created either to address an issue personal to the performer – in psychotherapeutic terms, to abreact – or to display said performer’s range of talents... and if both at once, so much the better.  I hope it doesn’t seem racist or sexist if I observe that it seems more prevalent among American performers, and female ones at that.

Geraldine Hughes isn’t American, although she’s lived and worked in California for some years and her show Belfast Blues was created there.  As its title might suggest, she’s originally a compatriot of mine from Northern Ireland.  And indeed, her show contains much harrowing detail of a childhood spent at the 1970s height of the Troubles growing up in the Divis flats, which were for some years literally the textbook example of the worst public housing in Europe.

Personal issue

Yet, as the hour and a quarter of Hughes’ show progresses, the principal theme seems to become less the depredations of a West Belfast childhood than the identity crisis fomented by her being cast in one of the child roles in an American TV movie about the Troubles.  Yes, it’s all very well to speak of the feeling of dislocation, of being caught between two worlds neither of which quite comprehends the other; but this is surely not an area where the paradox holds true that the more individual a dramatic treatment is, the more universal it can also seem.  This is Hughes’ personal issue, and by the end I was left with a strong feeling that she was using the piece to work out her feelings of guilt at betraying her promise to her dying father by leaving her family and going off to university in the US.

And why shouldn’t she work it out this way, as long as the show is polished enough to stand judgement as a piece of theatre in its own right?  This may be my issue as much as hers.  I think, in my case, it dates back to 1990 or so, and a show on the Edinburgh Fringe entitled The Courtship Of Inanna And Dumuzi.  Sold as the oldest written love story in the world, it in fact turned out to be an Israeli guy and an American chick (I feel sure that “chick” is the right term in this context) describing their own relationship, and how they didn’t always understand each other but the sex was good, and interspersing this with snatches (no pun intended) from the ancient Sumerian text, sometimes ponderously rendered along the lines of “Who will plough my vulva?”  I got so enraged at having paid good money to see these two people parade their personal problems in front of me that I clean forgot I hadn’t actually paid any money.  Nevertheless, ever since then I’ve been dubious about the ethics of charging people to watch you tackle your own issues.

Conflict of interest

There’s a further matter here, though, and one about criticism in general.  Although I’m broadly of the same generation and class as Hughes, and went to school a stone’s throw (ha!) from the Divis, it can’t be denied that I had a far easier time of it than her and, crucially, that I come from what the currently fashionable euphemism refers to as “a different cultural tradition”.  Or, to use the terminology of my childhood (and with apologies for any unintentional offence), I’m a Prod and she’s a Taig.  Now, knowing as you now do that creator and reviewer come from opposite sides of an often all-too-bitter divide, then for all my professions to liberalism and impartiality, and even though I’m avoiding addressing the political element of the show (which is often palpable), to what extent can my opinion of Belfast Blues be trusted?

To put the question in more general terms, at what point does background knowledge relating to a show constitute a conflict of interest, or an outright personal agenda?  I remember, as a student, hearing one of this country’s foremost theatre critics (who shall remain nameless) fulminating passionately in a public discussion that it was morally reprehensible to have staged a certain play, on the grounds that its politics were pernicious in an absolute sense.  Given that individual’s personal history, I can well understand his holding such an opinion about the play in question; but, even at a time when I had had no serious thoughts of becoming a reviewer myself, it struck me that that might not be the best way to go about the job.

Over the years, of course, I’ve come to appreciate the complexities of the issue.  Any critic worthy of the name must be prepared to address broader and deeper issues than staging and dramaturgy.  But cases such as the one I’ve alluded to (so frustratingly vaguely!) remain extraordinary, extreme instances.  When we bring something of our own to the table, we should be both candid about it and reasonably sure that it will have a general value and validity, not simply advance our own agendas, whether conscious or unwitting.  So, with Belfast Blues¸ I ask you to trust to my good faith in saying what I’ve said.

Glib programming

Part of the responsibility, I think, lies with Soho Theatre + Writers’ Centre for a rather glib bit of programming.  It looks superficially attractive to pair Belfast Blues with a second-house run of Robert Welch’s Protestants (from the Belfast-based Ransom company that brought us the wonderful Hurricane in the same venue earlier this year): a solo show from either side, as it were.  Such claims are not at all explicit on the venue’s part, but the subtext is there, and it’s one that does a disservice to both shows, especially (again, please believe I’m trying not to be influenced by my own upbringing) to Protestants.

The two shows really don’t inhabit the same territory. Where Hughes is being direct and autobiographical, Robert 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.  True, Welch uses Northern Ireland as a primary focus for his impressionistic portrait of an entire strain of belief; but it’s really only in the sense that that’s a location where both the virtues and vices of Protestantism are at their most conspicuous.  A number of reviews seem not to have grasped this, and so berate the piece for not doing what it never set out to do.  Some folk also seem surprised that Welch’s thesis is that Protestantism is intimately bound up with the notion of protest.  Well, duh!  Even if the etymology hadn’t tipped them the wink, the press release did say so in as many words, so it ought to have been no great shock to find an explicitly trailed notion actually present in the play.  It’s not an unqualified success by any means (personally, I’m mystified as to why actor Paul Hickey makes Martin Luther sound as if he came from central Asia), but it seems to me that it’s had a slightly rawer deal than it deserves, due in part to expectations misdirected by Soho’s programming.

Faint exotica

Having taken up so much of these two pages musing around a pair of relatively minor shows, then, a whistle-stop tour of my own around the half-dozen other offerings I saw during the fortnight.  Ian Herbert writes at length in this issue’s ...At The Back about Conor McPherson’s Shining City.  I think he’s on the harsh side, although it’s certainly true that McPherson is growing more skilled not at writing plays so much as at mounting his monologues on theatrically plausible armatures, so to speak.  It’s also curious that, in general, it seems much easier for English sensibilities to tune into the idiosyncrasies of a southern Irish perspective than of a northern one, whether the latter be Protestant/unionist/loyalist or Catholic/nationalist/republican.  There’s a similar sense of faint exotica about the South Africanness of Gregory Doran’s Othello as it arrives in the larger of the two Trafalgar Studios carved out of the former Whitehall Theatre.  Sello Maake ka-Ncube has great dignity as the Moor, but it does take a while to attune to his accent, and the recourse to shamanic ritual as Othello sinks deeper into jealous unreason seems gratuitous rather than marking out the otherness of the character.  Likewise, chilling though Antony Sher’s Iago is, his malice is driven by a broth of diverse motives, not simply the racism so brutally acted out here.  (I’m fairly certain it’s just my imagination that detects in ka-Ncube a faint resemblance to Thabo Mbeki and in Sher’s Iago a rather fainter one to Pik Botha.)

Broad though I like to think my tastes are (it would be unhelpful at this point to call them “catholic”!), I’m fairly conservative as regards outdoor summer fare: as James Fox says in the film Performance, I like a bit of a cavort.  It astounds me that after a fair few years in the game, I’ve yet to see a Regent’s Park Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Instead, I took in the venue’s Henry IV part 1.  Director Alan Strachan is aware that a number of people think similarly in this regard, and so he plays up the comic aspects of the piece, leaving the more serious realm-in-jeopardy side of things to flap around rather limply.  This may be partly due to the two young leads.  Keith Dunphy is a talented actor who makes some odd choices here as the rebellious Hotspur; I heard someone a few seats along from me ask her companion, “Is he meant to be autistic?”, and Dunphy’s naïve, half-dislocated portrayal can be read that way.  As for Jordan Frieda’s Prince Hal, he is a vapid, smiling poster boy for the monarchy, without either embodying the kingly virtues or showing any consciousness of his change of role when he forsakes his roistering tavern companions for the court and the battlefield.  Christopher Timothy is first-rate with the rumpled, bogus dignity of Falstaff, and even Christopher Godwin’s lanky astringency as King Henry is strangely appealing; but Strachan never puts his weight behind the play’s status as history, and so in performance it ends up as neither fish nor flesh.

Righteous ire

James Baldwin’s Blues For Mr Charlie follows up Guantánamo as a Tricycle presentation to kindle righteous ire.  Baldwin’s great achievement was to write characters who are often stereotypes when examined individually, but who slot together to provide a complex picture.  Its conclusions are unambiguous, but it’s not a monochrome picture of angels and ogres.

I don’t know why I have a hunch that Claudia Shear’s Dirty Blonde may go the way of all too many other recent West End shows, into early retirement.  It has a more than honourable New York pedigree, a big name as its subject – Mae West – and enough of a feelgood air to the show itself, notwithstanding the obligatory relationship-ese of much of the modern-day strand of its twin-track narrative.  It seems odd to berate a show about Mae West for not being big and brash enough.  And in any case, given my recent record on calling West End developments, no doubt my very apprehension means that it’s guaranteed a respectable run.  Also, after being so disappointed in the first cast of When Harry Met Sally, it’s a relief to report that Molly Ringwald and Michael Landes are an altogether stronger pairing.  Landes finds the trick, as Luke Perry did not, of reconciling Harry’s acerbic dialogue with a cuddliness of character.  And, Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan though I am, there’s something even more sacrilegious about watching Alyson Hannigan’s successor as Sally, Ringwald, the former teen heroine of so many of John Hughes’ 1980s movies, now grown up, in the flesh and faking an orgasm.  Their twin performances are almost enough to make one want to spare Ultz’s life for designing such a performance-hostile set.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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