Thursday, October 13, 2022

Propaganda – truth, lies, politics, survival and a brilliant night of musical theatre (Belfast Ensemble and Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast International Arts Festival until Saturday 5 November)

It’s rare to go to the theatre and be confronted with the full package. When the pinpoint lighting and the projection are fully integral to the storytelling, when the wingless stage floating on top of scaffolding built up from the subfloor below the orchestra pit is an essential part of the discourse, when the music has emotional impact as well as an arresting stylish dissonance with the subject matter, when the lyrics and dialogue all come together to sell the plot to the audience.

From a couple of minutes into the performance, it’s apparent that Propaganda: A New Musical is a very special piece of musical theatre from the pen of Conor Mitchell. The main cast of seven are supported by a band of 14 players, some of whom are four metres down below the action, the rest tucked out of sight of all but the audience in the side balconies.

It’s the late 1940s and parts of Berlin are under Russian Blockade. Slavi and Hanna, a photographer and his muse, scrounge a living by selling glamour shots. Always under pressure from their photographic publisher and profiteer Ruddy, an American smuggler whose silver tongue circumvents the closed supply routes, Hanna con(vince)s a talented actress, Margot, into posing for a glitzy photoshoot. But her sudden enthusiasm for the stunning talent behind Slavi’s portfolio brings the artist and his work under the critical microscope, throwing everyone’s life, safety and future into doubt.

The action never leaves the elevated apartment, with characters entering via a staircase from below. After fifteen minutes the audience discover that there’s also a ramp running across the width of the back of the stage, providing a second stage for the B story to develop.

Musically, all seven principals have great voices that can carry Mitchell’s lyrics. Slavi and Hanna’s co-dependency is modelled by Darren Franklin’s depiction of an aggressive and stressed snapper with Joanna O’Hare taking her character on an adept journey from vulnerability to confidence. Their first act What Kind of a Life is This, Hanna? showcases the pair’s vocal talent.

The orchestra rarely stop playing, booming out big band numbers, soulful Soviet songs, big anthems and even Mitchell’s riff on simple piano scales, all under the enthusiastic baton of Bob Broad and heard through the crystal clear PA and Ian Vennard’s sound mix.

While former concert pianist Magda is heard to play in her downstairs flat, Rebecca Caine’s character is forever popping up to the upstairs apartment-cum-studio, wearing glamorous attire from her heyday. Celia Graham’s Margot is a savvy operator, making pragmatic tacks when the waters around her get choppy. Both women have fabulous voices, teaming up with O’Hare for the particularly memorable Comrade Chaplin.

Gerhardt is the willing butt of Margot’s jokes, but there’s a twist in his tale and Matthew Cavan’s solo Oh, Rodina in the second act is a spine-tingling performance. Oliver Lidert’s Del Boy character is somewhat neglected in the middle of the first act, but Ruddy returns with vengeance and vocal power in Don’t Panic and later in the unexpected but apt 1916.

Sean Kearns’ first speech introduces the concepts of truth, facts and lies into the show, the standards against which the other characters should be judged. Later we discover the role that his Comrade Poliakoff will play in manipulating the artists and creating a truth that suits his purposes.

I’m unsure why Slavi and Hanna speak with Irish accents, sounding more like they were liberated from a concentration camp in South Armagh rather than Ravensbrück. It’s an odd stylistic choice that jars amongst the other characters’ accents, instead of defaulting to a spot of received pronunciation or a nondescript European accent. Though it does set the scene for a glorious second act demonstration of Soviet-style Irish historical revisionism.

Having enjoyed the original concert performance by the Belfast Ensemble back in April 2019, my bar for Propaganda was set very high. I was not disappointed. Mitchell has found a way to tastefully direct what seemed three years ago like an impossible to stage opening scene. The Russian anthem at the close of Act One is perhaps more muted, but no less powerful as the stirring theme is wrapped around the characters whose lives have abruptly taken a difficult turn. The rejigged ending ditches the temptation for a flash, bang, wallop finale and instead stays true to how the characters are learning to handle their own truth, lies and freedom.

Aside from the holistic production values, what makes Propaganda stand out is the multi-layering of the story. You could simply enjoy it for the character story: a young couple ambitious for each other and willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect their lover. The analysis of the politics of the time and place also bears examination. And then there’s the meta-narrative about the relationship between truth, lies and propaganda. It’s like biting into a rich cake and not always knowing which taste or texture to savour first before the next sensation hits you.

Some shows are written with the cleverness proudly exposed. Propaganda is more laid back in its brilliance, letting the audience feel good about connecting the dots of how the balance of truth and lies is shifting across the characters, and sniffing out the scent of modern resonances some seventy years after the action, whether in post-conflict Northern Ireland or Russia’s at war with Ukraine.

It’s a complex juggling act, and while there’s room for a nip here and a tuck there to tweak the flow or accentuate a blin-and-you’ll-miss-it clue in future runs, the balls are never dropped, it feels incredibly mature for a first run. (Particularly when compared with some West End shows that are currently touring around Britain and Ireland and carry with them enormous plot and pacing issues.)

The dialogue and lyrics are littered with word play, fast-paced witticisms and sacrilegious statements that tickle the audience and play up farcical scenes. A dance break adds elegance to I Could Take It All Away which beautifully combines two different couples’ conversations into one continuous piece of storytelling.

Truth, freedom and lies that can protect, enslave, destroy and liberate. The characters all prove to be artists and actors. Their lives are living theatre. So when all Mary Tumelty’s spotlights clunk off and the working fluorescent lights above the Lyric stage flicker on, it’s a sign that it’s maybe time to ‘spill the T’ … or will it just be an opportunity for a creation of a new revisionist truth? Or a sign that the act of staging a performance in a theatre is also propaganda? Yet another layer to deconstruct.

Propaganda’s plot puts imperfect and broken people under severe stress. Everyone seems to be living a lie, twisting survival around their ambitions, covering for each other, unpicking the truth from the debris around them. Collusion and collaboration become the norm as “life is just a game” of survival.

It’s a masterpiece, probably Mitchell’s best work to date. And Propaganda didn’t roll off a ferry in a couple of articulated lorry. It was formed here in Belfast, with local talent on stage, in the pit, and behind the scenes. It jumped from concert version to full production with the investment of local money. Funding for new professional musical theatre doesn’t come easy to The Belfast Ensemble, but they deliver every time.

Propaganda: A New Musical is produced by The Belfast Ensemble and the Lyric Theatre and is running until Saturday 5 November as part of Belfast International Arts Festival.

Photo credit: Ciaran Bagnall

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

No comments: