Thursday, November 10, 2016

Bag for Life - reckless revenge triggered by a chance encounter (Lyric Theatre until 13 November)

A chance encounter in a supermarket bumps Karen up against the simmering trauma caused by a tragedy in her family’s past and triggers a campaign of rage and revenge. Through physical, physiological and phacebook Facebook stalking, a woman who outwardly appears ‘normal’ becomes consumed by her mission to undermine the security and stability that her brother’s killer has built up around himself. All the while she recklessly risks her own family’s security and stability.

In Bag for Life, Karen’s outlook is very black and white. Dressed like a summery bride, Julie Addy spends 75 minutes perched barefoot on top of a small plinth in the middle of the black and white stage, trapped in her virtual cell of anguish. Her eyes wide open and hands gesticulating, she leans forward on her platform and throws a scullery full of emotions at Colin Bateman’s script as the mother and wife becomes unearthed and loses contact with reality. It’s only as the play reaches its breath-taking dénouement that the virginal white set is finally sullied with colour.

Black and white images are nearly continuously projected onto small white blocks suspended around the stage. Looping video, sophisticated cues and a confident actor allow other filmed characters to walk into shot and briefly interact with the three dimensional Karen. The wickedly dark humour in Bateman’s monologue is enhanced by visual references thrown up on the screens … yet the script seems strong enough that it would survive without the gimmick of projection should the bulb ever pop or a pared down production be considered.

With director Kieran Griffiths turning up the emotional intensity to eleven right from the start of the no-interval performance, the unvaried angsty and shouty tone lacks colour and variation as Karen’s insane plan is enacted. At times the sound effect of heavy rain threatened to drown out Addy’s micced up voice.

Commissioned as a legacy project for the Derry/Londonderry 2013 UK City of Culture and premièred earlier this year in The Playhouse, the play asks whether “the men of violence whose time has been and gone and have settled into civil and civilian life” really have it easier than the survivors and families of victims.
“You never know when a bag for life will come in handy.”
The play’s title works at many different levels and the production exposes the unaddressed prevalence of mental health issues that remain long after conflict withers. It reminds us that for some revenge is more attractive than forgiveness. It allows us to laugh heartily at jokes and asides as a way of coping with the distressing tale that is unravelling on stage.

In my review of Lucy Caldwell’s Three Sisters it turns out that I prematurely noted that it included “the best (and only) use of ‘flibbertigibbet’ on stage in Belfast this year”. You can now hear the word used on both stages at the Lyric every evening until this weekend!

Bag For Life challenges the view that it’s safe to delay addressing the legacy of conflict, safe to impede the exposure of truth, and safe to defer addressing the mental health scars that run deep through Northern Ireland society. You can catch a performance of one of the most visually arresting plays of the year in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 13 November. The production will tour Northern Ireland in 2017.

Production shot via The Playhouse

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