Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Belfast Ensemble's triptych of work - Usher, Catherine and Lunaria - a celebration of quality and perseverance (Lyric Theatre, 28-30 June)

Belfast Ensemble’s weekend ‘Bash’ is a bit like having enjoyed a few episodes of a new programme and then sitting down to binge watch the boxset, with the added bonus of a new episode revealed at the end. It’s very satisfying to nestle into your theatre seat and let the performances challenge your senses and explore your mind, even if the dark themes of chaos and white noise pervade the two and a half hours of entertainment.

Never content to sit on their laurels and rehash an old production, Conor Mitchell and his assembled masters of musical theatre have restaged and further refined two of their previous works.

The House of Usher (reviewed with a longer title this time last year) introduces the notion that life is out of control with its heavily raked set. Convention is broken with the silhouette of a dark figure pacing around the lit floor, his eyes and mouth mostly invisible, but his whole body and demeanour emoting in tandem with the narration (based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story). Video projection (Gavin Peden) both provides blocks of light with which Usher (Tony Flynn) can interact and a garbled, blocky, noisy representation of his state of mind.

The soundscape (Ian Venard) is rich with a ticking clock at one point that propels the story without every dominating. It’s just one example of the expert balance that The Belfast Ensemble brings to their combination of dramaturgy, music, acting, lighting, sound, set and projection to create multi-layered performances which – like a good film – reveal more upon repeat viewing.

Part of me longs for an audio commentary to accompany The House of Usher. There’s richness in the production that probably only the cast and crew fully comprehend. Yet the magic is that not understanding the full complexity never dilutes the effect or harms the experience.

The C*** of Queen Catherine was back on stage after the interval. The third version that I’ve attended, and the first which didn’t require that the audience perched on beanbags.

The Castillian princess reveals that she’s more than the first in a tragic line of six wives of King Henry VIII, looking back over her life and in particular the ramifications of her earlier disappointing marriage to Arthur, Prince of Wales. Gender and reproduction are at the heart of her story – hence the piece’s unbroadcastable title* – yet are not the only lens through which we can view her life and legacy. References to building a wall add a dash of Brexit realism and help ground the piece in 2019 as well as 1531.

White pant-suited Abigail McGibbon is as sure-footed in her extended music-backed monologue as she is navigating the slanted set with its adapted table and chair. Light and shade (Simon Bird) once again enhance the drama. A bed of mellow viola (Aoife Magee) beautifully underscores some of the most intimate moments of Catherine’s self-realisation. For the first time, projection is introduced, and while it animates the stormy voyage to London, for the most part it feels like less would be more and McGibbon’s emotional range is sufficient to carry the piece.

*During the second interval you play the game of inventing new titles for the piece. The Cats of Queen Catherine was my favourite out of some of the suggestions I heard which included, Cows, Cock and Cyst …

As if two old favourites weren’t enough, this weekend’s audiences at the Lyric Theatre are being treated to the première of new commission (PRS Foundation) that will shortly be performed in London and Hull as part of the 2019 New Music Biennial. Lunaria (a flower that blooms every two years) takes verbatim news reports and Hansard transcripts from the last two years to create an ingenious overlapping 11-minute performance that highlights the confusing, contradictory, unexpected and often inexplicable nature of UK politics.

In this local staging, the orchestra and actors are arranged in concentric circles with their backs to the audience who mill around the performance. An agitated score sits beneath Matthew Cavan, Tony Flynn and Abigail McGibbon’s readings of long and dense passages that cover a General Election, Brexit negotiations, and the death of Lyra McKee. Brexit, borders, rights, agreement, discord, backstop: it was all there.

For me, that final and unanticipated section with its cacophony of contradictory and contrapuntal sources – the Real IRA statement, a news report and then Father Martin Magill’s powerful funeral address – converged to create a very emotional moment. Yet ensuing melee was also a reminder that the distressed news agenda that reflects our stressed identities, aspirations and values across these islands is often now heard as noise that oppresses our senses and further confuses us, rather than painting a picture that we can follow and buy into.

As a triptych of original, international-standard work, the fusion of The House of Usher, The C*** of Queen Catherine and Lunaria are a good match in the one evening. While the intimacy of the earlier in-the-round treatments with their overhead sets has been reduced, I found the distance refreshing, giving a wider perspective and space to imbibe each production’s themes and story.

The final performances of the Bash triple bill are on Saturday 29 June.

Hats off to The Belfast Ensemble for persevering with their vision for excellence in musical theatre. They’ve quickly become one of the most prodigious producers of new work in Northern Ireland, and deserve to cross these shores and increase their reach and impact.

At a time when Belfast theatres seem to be totally risk-averse and more financially-stretched than ever before, and only seven months away from the Grand Opera House stages going dark for major refurbishment, it’s refreshing to see edgy and thoughtful productions in a sector that has been lost a lot of its innovative verve, mostly through being financially winded with year-on-year cuts and politicians that on the whole talk a lot about the negatives of some types of culture but can’t sell the benefits of this kind.

Aside from all this, The Belfast Ensemble still have one more exuberant celebration of musical theatre up their sleeves. On Sunday night they’ll be back with a gala concert version of The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan’s irreverent comic opera about a group of undesirables that take on the establishment’s sense of duty and redefine the notion of a sea border. In the continuing chaotic context of Brexit, it could be more modern horror than mirth, but the promise of some guest stars (Marie Jones making her operatic debut) and the teasing sound of rehearsals wafting up through the floorboards one evening make it feel like a Sunday night treat.

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