Monday, August 09, 2021

Billy Boy – Eleventh Night drama with absurdity, humour, poetry and authenticity (Eastside Arts Festival)

Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson has a knack of embedding puns, rich rhyming slang and the lingo of the street in her passionate dialogue. With her latest play, Billy Boy, which was performed in the Strand Arts Centre this weekend as part of EastSide Arts Festival, director Matthew Faris and actor John Travers elevate some of the word play into performance poetry, adding real rhythm and stacks of energy to the prose.

Eight thousand words. One hour. Countless characters. One actor. The action is set in the environs of an east Belfast bonfire, a day or so ahead of being lit on the Eleventh Night. Aaron Orr’s leather armchair sits on a platform of pallets, designed by Tracey Lindsay. His throne. Travers slips in and out of other characters, with the script rarely allowing the pace to drop. His head tilts, he speaks out of the side of his mouth, his hands and arms gesticulate, he squats, he stretches, all creating a sense of verve.

“Ten meat wagons and six white contractor vans. Squad of ninjas lined up, all batons and riot shields … Contractor fellas in their balaclavas - just who are the paramilitaries round here, like? Tell me that.”

The police, council, bonfire remove contractors, the media, tutting taxi drivers, and middle-class middle-ground haters, they all get it in the neck. Meanwhile, the culture and concerns of loyalist bonfire builders are given space to be expressed. It’s honest and challenging, yet it neither turns into a piece of apologist puff theatre nor an incendiary play to wind audiences up.

While Jenkinson gives space to loyalist concerns and viewpoints – doing her small bit to address the much-shared view that local cultural output is skewed by volume towards telling republican stories – also throws in an external view (Aaron’s Dutch girlfriend who “even has her own eyebrows” as well as her own views) and some of the mad contradictions which probably aren’t entirely made up (like brother Jamesie who’s been “taking Irish lessons down the Skainos” and is always “slabbering Gael talk like we’re in the Gaeltacht, pretending he’s saying something profound”) even if they do jar against a story in the Sunday World newspaper that morning.

Helping the talented Travers convey the frenzied emotion of the bonfire subculture is Marty Byrne’s soundscape with a rumbling bass, techno sets from the bonfire DJ, and precision sound effects that allow the action to continue without ever picking up any physical props. In quieter moments, the absence of a continuous soundscape is sometimes missed with noise from the cinema screens on either side of the Strand venue bleeding in.

Away from the heat of east Belfast, Travers develops Aaron’s character into less of a big lad, more reflective, nearly lonely in his isolation in Amsterdam. When the action returns to Belfast, Aaron’s physicality has mellowed with his clearer perspective on what’s of value, what’s wrong, what’s worth defending.

The word play is funny. So too are many of the absurd observations and situations Aaron and his cohort of acquaintances get into. Billy Boy’s short run is already over, but hopefully it will return and maybe even get an outing at Féile an Phobail on the other side of the city: much of the sentiment is universal to Belfast, even if the politics is less well understood.

Billy Boy was commissioned and produced by EastSide Arts. You can also read a preview of the play along with an interview with playwright Rosemary Jenkinson from last month.

Production shots: Stephen Crossland

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