Sunday, September 16, 2012

Creating Trouble

I still remember a fistfight I got into with my brother in the early 1980s over some incendiary speech the Unionist politician Ian Paisley had given about Republican representation in the affairs of Northern Ireland. And we were both Canadian Protestants whose knowledge of the "troubles" in far-flung Belfast had mostly been gleaned from Bono and U2! Still, the episode is a telling example of how quickly and routinely the entrenched factionalism surrounding the fate of Northern Ireland--which had then ratcheted up another notch with the recent election of Margaret Thatcher--devolved into violence.

That fraught time--and, more importantly, place--is where we're once again transported in playwright and performer Stephanie Henderson's The Troubles, a multi-character solo piece from Resounding Scream Theatre that had its last performance at the 2012 Fringe Festival yesterday. And it's clear that even fourteen years after the Belfast Agreement, the wounds are still fresh.

Henderson is a wonderfully open and engaging performer, and the production plays to her naturally empathic strengths by having her address the audience directly from the top of the show--in a flawless Irish accent, no less. Her character, we soon learn, is leaving Belfast, fed up with the bloodshed and violence, and the rending of communities and families simply because of religious affiliation and/or the accident of one's birth. We only learn the woman's name, Molly, at the end of the show, but to Henderson's credit, we never learn her religion. Saving her ideology for where it most belongs--in service of compelling theatre and creating an affective connection with her fictional characters as they daily negotiate the turmoil of a city divided--Henderson, the playwright, wisely doesn't take political sides.

However, she does take lots of physical risks in embodying her characters, who range from a young schoolboy who literally has his friendship with his best mate, Jimmy, knocked out of him, to a father labouring to keep his family safe, to a beer-chugging Man U fan who narrowly escapes an IRA bomb, to a young Catholic girl who loses her brother in the Bloody Sunday attacks. All are believably drawn, and whether wearing a balaclava or toting a teddy bear, Henderson is never less than fully "present," drawing us into each character's story as much with her gestures as with her voice (if you want a lesson in how to make love to a pint of Guinness, see Henderson).

My one complaint, and it's a small one, is that the transitions between the characters are not always clearly delineated. Nor are the connections between them. Perhaps Henderson does not mean for the stories she tells to be linked in a direct way. That said, the conceit of framing the piece from Molly's perspective does encourage us to try to connect the dots of all that happens in between back to her. In future versions of this work maybe those connections (or disconnections) will become more sharply defined. So, too, may the purpose of the video projections. At present I feel like the iconic images we see (including of the priest Edward Daly testifying about the British military firing on unarmed civilians during Bloody Sunday) take the piece out of the fictional world of everyday negotiation Henderson has worked so hard to create and into the too-easy world of ideological identification and condemnation. Two-dimensional visual images, even of the documentary variety, have a way of flattening the lived--and live--complexity and messiness of day-to-day existence. Which is why, of course, we go to the theatre.

My own Fringe theatre-going, such as it's been this year, is over. But the fall season is just beginning. I look forward to what's in store.


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