Sunday, August 05, 2018

So I Can Breathe This Air – a study of belonging, identity and home while walking across Belfast (TheatreofplucK until 7 August as part of EastSide Arts Festival)

Walking across Belfast in a group, we’re listening to the stories of members of The Rainbow Project’s Gay Ethnic Group (or GEG as they somewhat tongue-in-cheek refer to themselves). Each has made a different journey for different reasons to end up in Northern Ireland. Some are claiming asylum, some have been refused, some acknowledge that they fall outside the definition of refugees. Through So I Can Breathe This Air, all are telling us about the mixture of bureaucratic, social, racial, religious and financial challenges they face as they seek to integrate.

We’re wearing headphones, having synchronised pressing the play buttons on our MP3 players. Our guide – Noel Harron – wearing a fluorescent yellow vest pauses and we stare across a street. The building facing us might be referenced in our ears at that moment, or perhaps a character brushing past (Martin McDowell) represents the person whose story we’re listening to. The acting is subtle and the actors – particularly the many women played by shape-shifting Holly Hannaway – often attract the attention of passers-by (some of whom come close to intervening) as she bangs on doors or stumbles along the pavement. Ultimately we become hypervigilant, bringing all kinds of random people on the Belfast pavements into the story we’re building up in our minds.

Reviewing another audio walking theatre piece Quartered: Belfast, A Love Story last November, I wrote about the challenge of walking a mile or two in somebody else’s shoes. There’s something very intimate about walking along with other people’s stories in your ear. Shannon Yee (Reassembled, Slightly Askew) is a master of new forms of storytelling, yet never lets the technology trump the narrative.

The audio is beautifully crafted by sound designer Isaac Gibson and director Niall Rea. This isn’t just a set of recorded interviews that have been cut and paste together and exported out to an MP3 file. The voices are crisp and clear, and the subtle binaural (I assume) affect places the words at a slight distance to your ears, making it more like walking down the street listening to someone than merely listening to a podcast. Music and street noise adds to the realism.

Starting out at Europa Bus Station and meandering eastwards, plenty of time passes – not to mention miles passing underfoot – to relax and be drawn into the oppressive asylum system and its methods of crass intrusion and overly-suspicious investigation. A change of mode of transport at one point provides a reminder of what it’s like to feel lost and having to navigate somewhere unfamiliar, yet perpetually on the march with no end in sight.

Any notion of complacency is also challenged early on with questions about quite how progressive society is in Northern Ireland compared with the experience of some of the GEG participants back home. Some of the external reflections on our local peace process are illuminating too. As too are the often, though not universally, negative experiences with churches and people citing religious faith as their reason for exclusion.

It’s a sterling exploration of belonging, love and identity – to all of which food is often associated! – and the struggles that build resilience among those who can survive. Where do I belong? Where is home? Questions that we often take for granted. The performance is long. On a dry Sunday afternoon, it was a joy to be outside. On another day with inclement weather, it would have been quite a trudge since the pace of the audio cannot be altered. Yet the subject matter and the real and very personal stories from GEG deserve our attention given how rarely they are told and how rarely we bother to listen out to hear them. 

So I Can Breathe This Air is running as part of EastSide Arts Festival and continues twice a day on Monday 6 and Tuesday 7 August. The journey from Great Victoria Street across to the Newtownards Road takes approximately 2 hours 10 minutes. It takes another 40 minutes if you need to walk back to the beginning. There is an opportunity for a comfort break and light refreshments along the way.

1 comment:

Catherine Couvert said...

Beautifully said. And yes, it's definitely worth doing if you're free today or tomorrow. I hear a few places left.