Friday, November 24, 2017

There’s A Bishop in My Bedroom - an unembellished real life story which moves and challenges (Outburst Festival)

There’s a familiar format to many of the one (wo)man shows that migrate from the Edinburgh Fringe across to Belfast stages. Someone in their mid-twenties scandalises some episodes from their teenage years, making jokes at their own expense, highlighting family dysfunction (a theme nearly guaranteed to resonate with most of the audience), all the while working some period hits into the soundtrack.

Richard O’Leary’s one man show – There’s A Bishop In My Bedroom – differs because he has gone out of his way not to accentuate the raw situations that he has woven into his narrative. Instead he tells the simple unembellished truth about his experience growing up as a gay man in Cork, falling in love with a Church of Ireland minister, and being inundated with bishops and an archbishop in his physical and metaphorical bedroom. As the Irish Times’ political correspondent James Downey once wrote: “We have got the pig out of the parlour, but not yet the bishop out of the bedroom.”

The premise of the show was that, as a child, his father wanted him to be a Catholic priest. Set designer James Watson (also responsible for Tactics for Time Travel in a Toilet) has draped white cloths over household furniture and a lectern as they would the bread and wine at a mass or communion service. A purple stole (the colour associated with bishops) flowed down from heaven high up above the set.

O’Leary is a natural archivist: a ‘hoarder’ in common parlance. Send him a letter and he will not throw it out. If he goes for dinner, he keeps the menu. So his monologue was peppered with props, photographs, posters, letters and books. It touched on many of our local sore points. Imagine a mixed-religion gay couple living up the Shankill ten or more years ago, one with an obvious Cork accent.

Anyone who has attended more than a few of the monthly Tenx9 storytelling events in The Black Box will be familiar with O’Leary’s skill as a story teller. The fabulously funny tales he has previously related were not reused. This show, premièred as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festive, used new material but retained the familiar utilisation of props and an ability to switch quickly from comedy to tragedy that has left many a cheek tear-stained at Tenx9. The Richard O’Leary who stood in front of the MAC audience was altogether more serious and less relaxed: his nervousness quite understandable given that this was the academic’s first ever opening night.

Director Patrick J O’Reilly (responsible for perhaps the most memorable Outburst Festival performance ever with his play Damage back in 2014) and dramaturg Hannah Slӓttne have crafted O’Leary’s material into a sequence of scenes, each with a liturgy around the props. While the storytelling felt very gentle at the start, there was some very deliberate and confident use of elongated silence and the final ten minutes of the hour-long performance were heralded by a change of mood and the knocking over of the bishop’s mitre (which up to that point had been a comedy prop). That single action with its unsuppressed emotion in the face of discrimination felt hugely significance and gave the show depth, creating the atmosphere for a very fitting and moving end.

There’s A Bishop In My Bedroom deserves to return as there is much about Richard O’Leary’s life story that merits being shared across this island a beyond.

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