Saturday, November 09, 2019

Abomination: a DUP Opera (Lyric Theatre until Sunday 10 November by the Belfast Ensemble as part of Outburst Arts Festival)

People queueing to pick up their tickets from the box office were heard talking about this being their first visit to the Lyric Theatre. There to watch a brand-new opera, Abomination: a DUP Opera by the creative and talented Belfast Ensemble, that is political in every sense.

The golden thread through the 70-minute performance is formed by Iris Robinson’s June 2008 interviews with Stephen Nolan on his BBC Radio Ulster programme. She described homosexuality as “an abomination” in the same week a gay man was beaten in a homophobic attack.

“I’m asking you again, Iris, to share your understanding of homosexuals with us, not your condemnation” says Nolan. Voiced, rather than sung, by an unflustered Tony Flynn, the presenter’s precision questions certainly stand the test of time and forensically zero in on Robinson’s verbal gymnastics. “I don’t need a lecture from you, Stephen, the Bible is very clear” she retorts when Nolan challenges the tone of her language.

Projections onto he back wall and floor are used to establish the time frame and identify key figures. Conor Mitchell’s libretto uses verbatim words – spoken and written – by Robinson as well as many other DUP representatives discussing homosexuality over the last forty years. It’s almost liturgical. Nothing is added, and at intervals the phrases being sung are visually highlighted in contemporary newspaper reporting to emphasise that nothing has been twisted or taken out of context.

“Peter will not marry Paul in Northern Ireland” explained Jim Wells to the Belfast Telegraph in April 2017. An early, shorter version of Abomination was performed as part of the same festival last year in concert form with the final work now programmed into Outburst Arts Festival long before the notion of Westminster legislation to allow same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland or the notion of a general election.

Standing on the shoulders of the operatic greats, the melodies switch from tragic minor keys to major motifs for the darkest of language (“the curse of God”) counterpointing what many in the audience would hear as hate-filled speech with uplifting, mellifluous phrases. Down below in the pit, Tom Brady conducts the sparky 13-piece orchestra, whose dissonant brass accompanies the word “repulsed”.

It’s amazing that 11 years ago a modern politician could go on the airwaves and speak about “a very lovely psychiatrist who works with me in my office … he tries to help homosexuals”. While shocking in language, tone and intent, the Nolan/Robinson interviews perhaps marked a political turning point which encouraged more moderate unionist voices to speak out and change their own rhetoric and engagement.

Soprano Rebecca Caine’s grey suit and wig are loosely styled on the central anti-hero, but none of the rest of the cast visually imitate the well-known politicians or radio presenter. This isn’t played as a farce. While her diction is crystal clear, her poise and expression hint that not all is well in the life of Robinson.

Dressed in similarly grey suits – a reminder of how many party representatives spoke with one voice over the decades – the performers stand in the visible wings waiting to step onto the stripped-back monochrome staging. Jeffrey Donaldson appears in the form of mezzo Dawn Burns, accessorised with a Boudician union flag shield and trident.

They Are Poofs, a moment full of uproar and joy in the concert version – based on Sammy Wilson’s comments in June 1992 after gay rights activists requested the use of Belfast City Hall when he said “They are poofs. I don't care if they are ratepayers. As far as I am concerned, they are perverts” – is far more subdued in this performance, yet the use of loudhailers quietly emphasises the total lack of listening by the cloth-eared party.

Stunningly lit, alternating between from above, the side and below, Mary Tumelty throws lots of shade and at times turns the cast into LS Lowry-esque stick figures moving in silhouette across the stage.

Large, brightly coloured props decorate the stage. One DUP flunky (played by Matthew Cavan) slowly dresses in sparkling orange platform boots and his trademark outrageous wig, perhaps a reminder that there’s more welcome for diversity among the party faithful than any public representative is yet willing to admit. Baritone Christopher Cull and tenor John Porter complete the solid DUP voices, joined by gutsy chorus of James Cooper, Tara Greene, Caolan Keaveney, Helenna Howie and Connlaodh McDonagh. Away from the arias, the performers combine to surge up to meet Mitchell’s soaring refrains and create some powerful moments of vocal glory.

Robinson’s affair with the local butcher’s son (portrayed beautifully in a wordless dance by angelic Richard Chappell while red, white and blue balloons gently sway in the far corner of the stage) reminds audiences that the politicians comments were made at a fulcrum of personal crisis, vulnerability and self-destruction, though that excuse isn’t available for the decades of other speeches and comments that are featured from Paisley (senior and junior), McCrea, Wilson, Shannon, Donaldson, Wells. Also wordless is the brief appearance of a tiered cake with two well-known puppets sitting on top, providing social context.

As one audience member commented afterwards, to wrap a dinosaur artform around dinosaur politicians is a beautiful thing. Abomination is no hatchet job. If anything, it is all the more powerful for being restrained. Arlene Foster’s comments in June 2018 that “we must respectfully engage and listen to each other's viewpoints” even offer hope, albeit tinged with incredulous scepticism. The countermelody of Jesus Loves Me has been retained from last year and adds a musical twist to the final moments.

Abomination is a powerful reminder to public representatives about the lasting import and impact of their utterances. But more importantly, it’s a cutting edge example of how to take a social issue and translate it into a compelling art-form, with high production values and great performances across the cast, orchestra and creatives.

While no doubt a difficult piece for anyone quoted to contemplate sitting through, it’s also a challenge for many in and connected with the LGBT community who carry the hurt and isolation from years of often unchallenged political rhetoric.

Composed, designed and directed by Conor Mitchell, Abomination’s sold out run in the Lyric Theatre as part of Outburst Arts Festival finishes on Sunday 10 November. A powerful addition to the Belfast Ensemble’s repertoire of original musical theatre, it will surely resurface across Europe, where the politics and themes will resonate.

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