Thursday, October 27, 2016

Belfast Rising: a rose-tinted musical pageant about the Belfast influence on Easter 1916 (Lyric until 29 Oct) #belfest

Starting back in 1798 and accelerating up to 1916, Belfast Rising explores the contribution made by women and men from the area around Belfast to the Easter Rising. Tony Devlin writes, directs and stars in the Brassneck Theatre Company show which looks through rose-tinted rebel eyes at the events in Ireland.

Over two hours, including an interval, Devlin and talented co-star Séainín Brennan introduce the audience to individuals like Nora Connolly, Charlie Monahan, Alice Milligan (a Methodist from Omagh who moved to Belfast and whose brothers fought in the Somme), Séan Mac Diarmada and Winifred Carney. [Winnie, originally from Bangor, became secretary and confidant to James Connolly and after the Rising, and long after the end of the play, she married an Orangeman!]

Both actors are gifted singers and Donal O’Connor sustains the show with superb live accompaniment played from one corner of the stage. Piano, tin whistle and fiddle create necessary light and shade in the scenes which feature just one of the two actors singing songs and delivering long monologues based around some of the key northern individuals, including hefty chunks of speeches and letters. Off-stage singing and live music means that the actors are mic’d up, with sound levels uncomfortably loud in the back row during some moments of shouting.

The simple set consists of a large flag draped across the back of the stage and a multi-purpose wooden chair that is oppressed stood upon in every scene. While I’m not normally a huge fan of theatrical projection, it works well in Belfast Rising with a supersized bright image projected onto the Naughton Studio’s brickwork – often taking advantage of its texture – introducing new characters and managing not to distract from the cast or music.

“Winifred Carney, the typist with a Webley.”
Belfast Rising is at its most passionate when telling the story of women, their motivation for getting and staying involved in the Rising and what they hoped would be achieved.

Yet it falls into the trap of mythologising their role, persisting the notion that many of them fought with the weapons they had been trained with. Irish History academics do not agree.

Theatre can be a great medium in which to leave people questioning at the end of a show. When the final cry of Mise Éire went up, the audience knew to applaud. Belfast Rising affirms one particular narrative and while it’s the job of other writers and directors to give alternative perspectives, I wish there had been more room for reflection in this production, more critical remembering than mere celebration.

Belfast Rising is at the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast International Arts Festival until Saturday 29 October.

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