This year's Belfast Festival begins with two plays offering differing views on icons and images: at the Lyric Theatre, David Pownall's Getting The Picture blends 19th-century Irish liberationism with photography, while St Anne's Cathedral hosts a production of Murder In The Cathedral which replaces the liturgical heart of T. S. Eliot's work with spasmodically malfunctioning technical gewgaws.
Pownall's play (produced in association with the Atlantic Bridges cultural organisation) takes 1845 as its historical jumping-off point, when, shortly before his death, the former American president, Andrew Jackson, sat for the pioneering photographer Matthew Brady. With this, the playwright interweaves a visit from a young Ulsterwoman, intent on persuading Jackson to support Daniel O'Connell's Repeal movement; and the constant petitioning of Jackson's black housekeeper to free from slavery his children by her.
Will Hargreaves's design makes the play's motifs visually explicit, ranging blank picture frames against opaque windows, and dominating the upstage area with a huge frame, within which are projected various photographic images - and through which young Sorcha Kinlock (Jasmin Russell) enters. Jackson is an icon: his support for the O'Connellites would put pressure on the British, his daguerreotyped image in Brady's New York window brings in extra custom – but how can the image of such a liberator be reconciled with Jackson's unyielding status as a slave-owner?
Eoin O'Callaghan's production does not falter at Pownall's sporadic over-writing. Chris Crooks rumbles nicely as the elder statesman, and if Micéal McBrian is a little monochrome as Brady, Russell moves confidently beyond her early principal boyishness as Sorcha.
Although it was completed relatively recently, St Anne's Cathedral is not architecturally modern; its majestic stone cavern is setting in keeping with the high-Anglican stateliness of Murder In The Cathedral. All things considered, it may not have been advisable for director Michael Poynor to stand his principal actors on mobile tubular-steel pulpits to be wheeled around by cowled, white-masked supernumeraries. Nor, having made that decision, to be unable to afford or accommodate enough of these monstrosities, so that some of the actors have to be left out of climactic confrontation scenes; nor to affix thereto badly focused lights, which inconsistently illuminate either the actors' faces or the cathedral's vaulting. The similarly malfunctioning radio microphones which caused one performer to corpse on Wednesday night were the icing on the mechanical cake. And I haven't even mentioned the acting.
Poynor might be trying to make the point that this story of Becket is removed from modern religious experience, or that those who propel the action are not the antagonists we see immediately before us. Alternatively, he may have believed that this ridiculous gimmickry would be impressive in itself. Whichever interpretation may be true, he is sorely mistaken. Ulster Theatre Company seems to contain elements of training, youth, am-dram and semi-pro work; however, neither play nor programme mentions this. Consequently, this production must be judged entirely by the standards of an international arts festival: by those standards, it is woefully inadequate.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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