Saturday, October 14, 2017

Dancing at the Disco at the End of the World – new world, old rules (until 27 October) #BelFest

Replay Theatre Company conjures up a post-apocalyptic world in which only people under the age of ten have survived a deadly virus outbreak. With a chance to start again and rebuild society, will they repeat the sins and mistakes of the past? Or will they reform and create a more utopian world?
“Keep together … Keep safe … Do as I say.”
For Dancing at the Disco at the End of the World, Riddel’s Warehouse has once again been transformed into a multi-level performance venue. Order is quickly established as the audience arrive and are curtly directed to their seats. Amazingly nearly everyone obeys the command to power down and not just silence their mobile phones. While the man in a beige jumpsuit barking the instructions was carrying an improvised truncheon made out of an iron bar which did give him some clout, I make a mental note that my fellow audience members are not the kind of people who are going to rebel against their revolutionary overlords.

As we are chaperoned across the floors and up and down the stairs we pick up the vocabulary of the new society. Electronic goods and books are ‘stash’ and must be collected, bagged and destroyed to prevent further infection. These ‘seekers’ protect their skin from contact with stash and live in the ‘Homeplace’ where regular ‘burnings’ are used to rid the world of contamination. ‘Controllers’ set the rules. Every society has controllers …
“The job of a seeker is to serve the Homeplace.”

Playwright John McCann has a sense for language and dialect and has developed a Homeplace catechism that the seekers recite upon challenge. Original thinking and even remembering the past are not just discouraged but forbidden. Bruises (hopefully from make-up rather than rehearsals!) remind us that life is tough in this new world. Susan Scott’s costumes have a scavenged look, combining the uniform of asbestos workers with desert fatigues!

We meet two dissenters who live outside of Homeplace in ‘the place beyond’. They live under the threat of being found by the zealous seekers. While Manus (Miche Doherty) carries injuries that confine him to their bunker, Skye (Diona Doherty) runs a one person resistance movement, confusing and attacking the enemy. She understands what’s going on with the “bitter wee boys barracking themselves up in Homeplace playing God”. Chris Grant and Daniel Kelly are seekers, and the cool and authoritative Emer McDaid exerts control over the pair as their tutor.

Mary McGurk plays the role of a new seeker. She journeys through the system as an ingénue, learning about both sides of the conflicted land before having to face up to her own choice about what and who she believes. We watch the seeds of distrust and conflict being sewn inside Homeplace, and see the outworking of clashes between the righteous seekers and the dissenters.

The penultimate scene is like a special episode of Eastenders: full of hysteria, blood and family revelations. However, this outpouring of emotion and distress overshadows the final big reveal delivering a slightly anticlimactic ending to a thoughtful and energetic evening of science fiction theatre.

Promenade performances are quite rare. Good use is made of warehouse space, though as the 90+ minute show goes on, competition hots up to be in the half of the audience who will get a seat in each new scene! Much of the ground floor fabric of the old warehouse is covered in polythene sheeting. Set designer Ciaran Bagnall has abandoned the Meccano of his youth and embraced scaffolding to create a playground of runways and bars over which the seekers can climb and run and spin.

Familiar patterns of behaviour pervade this vision of the post-viral future. The undertone of gender discrimination and men doing what men always seem to do even when there’s a chance to start again is accurate albeit depressing. There’s a nuanced exploration of whether people blindly follow an oppressive regime or whether they pretend to play along but are more aware than they let on about their overlords, in this case the aptly named controllers.

Dancing at the Disco can definitely be seen as an allegory for Northern Ireland politics with a younger generation potentially able to seize control in the vacuum left by the so-called adults. Are these the sort of mistakes that they would make and repeat if they got hold of power?

Replay specialise in theatre for young audiences and I’d love to see and hear how their younger audiences evaluate this vision of a society emerging from the hands of the young few who remained after the virus.

A technological armageddon. The resilience of luddites. A road to a new hell paved with good intentions as human patters of behaviour survive annihilation by a virus. With a superb venue, a good ensemble cast and a thoughtful script, Dancing at the Disco at the End of the World is a new piece of theatre that seems sure to rattle around my head for days to come. It runs in Riddel’s Warehouse as part of Belfast International Arts Festival until 27 October.

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