Tuesday, April 02, 2019

A Queer Céilí at the Marty Forsythe – electric theatre (Kabosh) #ImagineBelfast

Writer Dominic Montague and director Paula McFetridge break a lot of theatrical rules and in the process create a piece of drama which illuminates a moment of history and deftly challenges strongly held beliefs and worldviews in A Queer Céilí at the Marty Forsythe.

The background to the story is that National Union of Students Lesbian and Gay Conference pledged to hold their annual meetup in Belfast if and when homosexuality was decriminalised. Fifteen years after the English legislation was passed, the NUS kept the word of their promise, if not the spirit of it, and those delegates who could afford the vastly inflated registration fee on top of the travel costs came over to spend an October weekend in 1983 Belfast.
“You can just about smell the limited freedom in the air”

Pints at the bar cost just 60p. Save Ulster From Sodomy banners are waving in front of QUB Students Union in a cross-community protest led by the DUP and some in the Catholic Church. The play picks up with local students Brendi (Simon Sweeney), Michael (Christopher Grant) and Margo (Paula Carson), meeting Mancunian George (Brendan Quinn).

For the first half hour, scenes are frequently interrupted by one of the cast members turning towards the audience, causing the rest of the action to freeze, and delivering a monologue to brief us about some aspect of social or political attitude of that time. There are nods to Inez McCormack and Jeff Dudgeon.

Quinn does well to hold his Manchester accent throughout, allowing George to provide the outsider’s eye into our parochial situation, comparing the situation in England with Northern Ireland. The gay community’s fit with other outsiders – punks, rockers and anarchists – is explored. The way that politics fragments every community is highlighted, even gays and lesbians.

Carson gives Margo a sharp edge that cuts through some of the other characters’ flimsy arguments attitudes. Sweeney and Grant bounce well off each other as Brendi and Michael tease out what it means to be gay in a 1983 Belfast where homosexuality is decriminalised but it’s still not safe to be out or visible.

Kabosh specialise in site-specific drama, in this case using the Marty Forsythe club (now called Trinity Lodge) as the venue for the play. We sit around tables in the room once visited by the students. (They’d organised another céilí to follow the final performance of this four-night run!) The bulky loudspeakers in the ceiling belt out 1980s dance tunes before the show: Fleetwood Mac, Cutting Crew, Foreigner, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet. Eurythmics’s Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This has toes tapping during the performance.

On the Saturday evening, the students are invited to attend a céilí in the Marty Forsythe social club in Turf Lodge. Not very punk! The trip up into West Belfast takes the student activists away from political and religious protests, and brings them face to face with people their own age, and families who offer them a bed and hospitality for the night.

It’s here that the acting and Montague’s script rise to another level and sing out with a warm and engaging passion. Multi-roling introduces a lot of humour – mostly through misunderstandings that compete with the best of the first series of Derry Girls – and the combination of pathos and laughter creates moments of remarkably raw and electric theatre.

The cast of four do well to fill the expansive dance floor, standing level with the audience, sometimes moving the action up to a raised area to one side of the stage. Sight lines are far from perfect, but the voices carry across the still hall. Despite the lack of bodies to give everyone a dance partner – I feared the audience would have to be asked to join in! – McFetridge primes the céilí scene with energy and a clear choreography.

The backdrop is simply projections of newspaper clippings and signage, reminding us that this is a fictionalised version of actual events. A final extended montage of images brings the struggle up-to-date in a non-dramatic yet highly emotional manner.

Montague neatly laces his script with parallels, including security cordons and barricade keeping the security forces out of republican areas. While republicans are celebrated for their Turf Lodge welcome, the question of whether any republicans would arch in a gay (pride) parade is not dodged. There is a real sense that sympathy with the LGB struggle was laced with a certain amount of discomfort, and prioritised well under the matter of the border.

We’re reminded (a few too many times) that the pesky NUS executive banned political discussions at the conference, much to the chagrin of local students who didn’t view the NI Gay Rights Association organisation as representative of the totality of their views, and saw linkages between different type of liberation in the overall hierarchy of struggle, including national liberation (the border issue) and the way that state forces target gays.

The argument that the different types of oppression on the island of Ireland cannot be separated is well-observed and quite persuasively made. On top of the historical re-enactment, it’s a useful reminder – and one that eventually embarrassed Sinn Féin into making a U-turn on abortion policy ahead of the Irish referendum – that there picking and choosing our freedoms and oppressors to campaign for and against is a perilous business.

If When A Queer Céilí at the Marty Forsythe returns, it’ll be well worth the trip to Turf Lodge or beyond. Building on his 2017 audio tour Quartered, Montague and Kabosh once again demonstrate their ability to turn heads to gaze in different direction and help audiences hear lesser-told stories that continue to shape the city of Belfast.

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