Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Habsburg Tragedies – The Belfast Ensemble – Lyric Theatre (12-15 April)

The Belfast Ensemble are really putting themselves on the artistic map with their sumptuous and sensual production of The Habsburg Tragedies in the Lyric Theatre by Conor Mitchell.

The first half shone a light Mitchell’s verse cycle about Catherine of Aragon which previewed last year in The MAC under the apt but hard to market name of The C**t of Queen Catherine (reviewed last April).

Now called The Moot Virginity of Catherine of Aragon, the audience watch the titular character pace around the room in which she is trapped. She is incarcerated, but not silent. Wearing an immaculate white pant-suit, Catherine, perhaps best known as Henry VIII’s first wife, rehearses the stages of her life and loves. Behind her, hugging the edge of the stage sit a seven piece orchestra who accompany her spoken words.

Abigail McGibbon’s acting is breathtaking and absorbing as she captures the tormented soul. Conor Mitchell’s piano playing, hand movements and nods to the other players compete for attention as his meticulousness and fine tuning of the performance become apparent.

The lighting invites interest too. Simon Bird’s artistry is beyond what you would reasonably expect for a show of this scale. Razor sharp lines cast from far above light the very edge of the stage. Precision fog sending rivulets of cotton wool clouds across the stage were another virtuoso stroke of genius.

The second, shorter act – The Final Confession of Juana ‘the Mad’ – switches to the less well-known story of Catherine’s sister. Again, locked up for a long time, Juana and her daughter Catalina act out a court room scene, using bottles of dead creatures preserved in coloured-formaldehyde as the other characters in their drama.

Again the lines are spoken, but this time very tightly syncopated with the music, with little room for hesitation or lapses in concentration. Jo Donnelly and Stella McCusker parry back and forth as Catalina facilitates Juana’s extended confession. Many of the same themes are explored – blood, virginity, power, disappointment, Europe – against the intricate accompaniment.

The brilliance of the lighting is turned up another notch in the second half, with some experimentation with colour and even darkness. Less nasally-challenged audience members told me how the smell of incense also added to the atmosphere.

At times I became distracted from the plot. But it really didn’t matter. The sheer level of multi-sensory performance squeezed into the show means that sitting through the show is exhilarating, incredibly satisfying and makes it very tempting to keep going back to experience more.

The emerging Belfast Ensemble have proved beyond doubt that their combined expertise and imagination can create beautiful art that is engaging and extremely rich. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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