Saturday, November 05, 2022

Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools – apposite, uncompromising, shocking, and profoundly beautiful (until Saturday 5 November at The MAC as part of Belfast International Arts Theatre) #BIAF22

Theatre can kickstart conversation. It can contribute to conversation. Or, as in the case of Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, it can be entirely based around conversation, between the artists on stage and the audience in the stalls.

For the first hour or more, Kiinalik is the most beautiful show. The back and forth exchanges between Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Evalyn Perry retell how they met on an Arctic expedition ship, a somewhat touristy journey from northern Canada to Greeland, through the melting glaciers on an ironically diesel-fuelled vessel. We hear about the other passengers, the landscape, the melting (“more melting means more melting”), the ways of life, the practical impact of colonisation, a government’s intentional relocation of indigenous people, desecration, violation, prejudice, discrimination. There’s science, history (though much of it is better described as “living memory”), multiple marginalisation, psychology and sociology, but always conversation.

The dialogue is often gentle, making it all the more powerful when Evalyn quietly admits she once campaigned with Greenpeace to stop all seal hunting. (Greenpeace now says that “the large-scale, commercial hunt is a world away from the traditional practices of Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic [who] have shown time and again that they understand how to protect the Arctic ecosystem they call home, and their hunting practices have never been a threat to seal or whale populations”.)

Images of the Arctic float past on two angled screens behind Evalyn and Laakkuluk. Ice flows. Birds. Settlements. Shots from land, sea and air. They’re controlled by video artist Elysha Poirier who sits to one side of the stage, weaving the imagery into the narrative. Facing her sits Chris Derksen with an electrified cello – sometimes sweet, sometimes sliding, sometimes distressed and dissonant – who accompanies Evalyn’s guitar, both making great use of loop pedals to build up the texture of the score.

The lights come up to allow audience members to discuss how far north we’ve ever been. ‘North’ and ‘south’ are contended and complicated in so many different cultures and places. When Evalyn sings a childhood song, North West Passage – after all, “you know you are at home when you know all the words” – the lyric mentioning “savage” jumps out. The pair’s overlapping experiences and family parallels bring them together. Their distinctive starting points orientate them in very different directions.

I could have listened to the pair all day. The most wonderful section sees the artists step away from their ice-fronted raised stage. They bounce back and forward in time with short observations. The relevant year appears over their shoulder on the screen behind. It’s a quick fire round of immersion in their own past lives and the history of their country. Chaotic, yet so easy to follow.

The appearance of an overhead projector – remember those! – is a clue that the mood may be about to change. Having established the ground rules and built a sense of respect, Kiinalik turns on its heel to become more in-your-face, testing whether the audience have truly entered into the spirit of respect and curiosity. Laakkuluk’s artistic practice of uaajeerneq – inadequately translated as Greenlandic mask dancing – combines fear, sexuality and humour in an intense and explosive performance as she moves through the audience. It’s okay that it feels uncomfortable ... the explanation that follows helps make sense of how you’ve felt and what it signifies.

Originally developed and co-produced by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille, Kiinalik is ultimately a provocation to explore the unresolved, to enter into a shared conversation that won’t necessarily include apologies or come to full agreement, but will be respectfully open to hear about hurts, listen to other perspectives about things you’ve long been told or believed, and feel fear without having to fight or flight. To find reconciliation without first having to bring about full resolution.

Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools is the most apposite of the pieces of queer Canadian theatre that have been showcased in Belfast International Arts Theatre. It speaks to these fractured islands in multiple dimensions. It’s uncompromising, shocking, and yet profoundly beautiful. The final performance is at The MAC on Saturday 5 November at 19:45. It’s a production you’ll not forget in a hurry for so many good reasons.

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