Sunday, April 19, 2020

Abomination: The Behind the Scenes Documentary (on the QFT Player from today)

The Belfast Ensemble’s Abomination: A DUP Opera sold out its initial concert version performances in 2018’s Outburst Arts Festival and its full theatrical run on the main stage at the Lyric Theatre in 2019.

The opera, written by Belfast composed and musician extraordinaire Conor Mitchell, is a verbatim piece. The lyrics are quotes from DUP politicians discussing homosexuality over the years. The elected representatives’ rhetoric is often used in long chunks and given quite a lot of context.

The central thread through the performance is the extraordinary interview by Iris Robinson on The Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster. She was both an MLA and MP for the Strangford constituency – resigning 18 months later over a different issue – and her husband was First Minister.

In the run up to the most recent production, Nicky Larkin shot a documentary, going behind the scenes with the cast and musicians in their East Belfast rehearsal space. There’s something powerful about making high art out of offensive rhetoric. There’s also something powerful and jarring about watching a deconsecrated church building being used to rehearse a show that highlights how religion and religious language can be used and abused to stamp on and bully homosexuality, never mind the cast’s own varying levels of belief in God.

Larkin’s documentary picks out some key cast members and creatives and weaves short interviews in amongst the rehearsal footage. It’s a fond companion piece to the original opera, bringing to the surface some of the experiences of LGBT members of the production and the emotions that having to professionally sing insults that they’ve heard hurled against themselves in the past.

They Are Poofs is the most hummable tune in the opera. (It’s 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.”) Larkin uses the song to good effect – and the 43-minute film finishes with extended footage of the on-stage version (which was more muted and less flamboyant than the original concert version).

There’s a lack of tension, even though Mitchell’s habit of not finishing writing a piece before it goes into rehearsal could have been an easy hook. Instead, Larkin steps outside the rehearsal room and travels three and a half miles up the Newtownards Road to examine community reaction to the political processes that are on the verge of bringing same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland. He stumbles over some people protesting (and maybe even counter-protesting) in front of Parliament Buildings that were larger in life than any satirist or opera director could have drawn.

Originally due to be premièred in the Queen’s Film Theatre as part of the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics, the sold-out screening of Abomination: The Behind the Scenes Documentary was cancelled due to coronavirus. But you can see a taster of the documentary in the clips that accompany my interview with Larkin that was filmed and screened instead as part of the festival’s virtual coverage when it switched online.

Since then, The Belfast Ensemble’s show has been awarded the accolade of Best Opera Production by the Irish Times Theatre Awards.

And from today for a week, Abomination: The Behind the Scenes Documentary is available to watch for $1.99 through the QFT Player link on the Queen’s Film Theatre website.

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