Friday, April 27, 2012

Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912 (Owen McCafferty) at The MAC

A new play in a new building: Owen McCafferty’s Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912 is playing in the MAC in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.

It’s a verbatim play with nearly all of the cast’s dialogue taken from the transcripts of the London inquiry that quickly followed the Titanic’s sinking.

[Another playwright Denis MacNeice used a similar technique in his play Blackness After Midnight (adapted for television “SOS – The Titanic Inquiry” by the Hole in the Wall Gang) to focus on the testimony of the crew of the SS Californian, a nearby ship that somehow did not come to the assistance of the Titanic.]

Directed by Charlotte Westenra, there is a very large cast: five legal counsel, including the delightfully and increasingly ratty Inquiry Commissioner Lord Mersey (played by Paul Moriarty); nine witnesses who are called to the stand to give their evidence and then remain seated at the side of the stage for the remainder of the performance; and one fictional character, the clerk of the court (Ian McElhinney) who acts as narrator, introducing the witnesses and commenting on the scale of the tragedy.

The set is built at a slight angle, and has beautiful lighting that subtly changes between witnesses to suggest time of day and the sun’s movement. A beautiful on-stage model of the Titanic provides a continuous focus for the play as well as helping actors relate where on the vessel their action took place. At times, loudspeakers underneath the audience seating join with the stage amplification to surround the audience with the sound of the Titanic. The black wire wastepaper bins under the heavy desks were a little anachronistic, more 2012 Ikea than 1912 Royal Scottish Drill Hall!
“I used by discretion and was the master of my situation …”
Amongst the witnesses, the audience hear a series of perspectives from one particular lifeboat and unravel a little of the mystery of how Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon along with just three other passengers made their escape in a lifeboat, promising £5 to each crew member rowing them away from the sinking Titanic. Where the seamen not surprised when nobody suggested that they row back to rescue other passengers and crew from the water after the Titanic sank beneath the surface?
“The possibility of being able to help anybody didn’t occur to me at all.”
Another set of linked witnesses dissect possible reasons for the proximity of the berg to the Titanic, and even includes statements from polar explorer Earnest  Shackleton who enjoyed celebrity status in the courtroom.
Attorney General: You have had a large experience of ice?
The first couple of witnesses drew laughs and giggles from the audience as they answered questions from the inquiry counsel. Later witnesses recollected their experiences in a more sober manner.
Attorney General: Can you tell us how far off the iceberg was?

Lookout: We hit it!

Attorney General: No, I meant …
Lady Duff Gordon’s smiley and whimsical responses jarred with the tragedy of the situation. At times it was difficult to believe that the inquiry had been organised and the witnessed called a mere month after the Titanic sank. In general there was a lack of trauma in the delivery of the lines: perhaps due to the Hansard-like cleaned-up minutes from the inquiry on which the play relies.

As a verbatim play it was well constructed, well acted and used the space on the stage to good effect. Yet sitting in the audience I felt like I was at a history lesson and didn’t really connect emotionally with the cast. The play lacked intrigue. Many of the theatrical devices normally used to transport an audience through a plot could not be employed due to the source of the majority of the script.

Much like 1912, questions remain about the actions and motives of crew and passengers. The failure to slow down and take time to look for bergs is significant. The disparity in survival rates between first, second and third class passengers – and amongst different crew functions – is stark.

In the aftermath of the centenary commemorations of the Titanic, Owen McCafferty’s play is a fine reminder that the story did not end with the sinking. But it’s a million miles away from McCafferty’s pacier Shoot the Crow: much less drama and more history.

Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry 1912 runs for a month in The MAC, finishing on 20 May. With the MAC’s pricing scheme, the earlier you book your ticket, the cheaper the price. And if you’re not fussy, the £9.50 ‘Take a Chance’ option is a real bargain.

I attended the preview with a complimentary ticket.

Update - adding links to enthusiastic reviews in the Irish Times and the Guardian ... and Hugh Odling-Smee's thoughts at Literary Belfast/Culture NI.

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