Sunday 5 March 2017

Belfast Girls renews 170-year-old fresh ideas

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  The timing of Belfast Girls and its story of 1850 Irish women emigrating to Australia is perfect in 2017. The renewed rise of chauvinism & kulturphobia are disquieting worldwide trends. Particularly in light of how those developments compete directly with tens of millions of desperate migrants and refugees. Their common denominator? All are breathlessly seeking escape from one or another social faction or murderous scheme in their home states -- all hoping some brave new world will magically champion and embrace them. 

Five women in a sailing ship's sparse forward cabin have taken advantage of tea magnate Earl Grey's 1848 Orphan Emigration Scheme to escape famine-stricken Ireland.  In order, they're told, to become helpmates to the men of Oz where women are in scarce supply. 

Act 1 is largely a series of disquisitions in the claustrophobic bunk room aboard S.S. Inchinnan about the characters' personal plights that led them to flee Eire. Turns out they are mostly, in today's vernacular, sex trade workers. In no way righteous orphanage-raised women with well-honed domestic skills that their priests claimed them to be on their visa applications. Act 2 continues the conversation but also switches to violent dramatic action as the underlying tensions among these gnarly street-wise women break out into the open with one in their midst who is hoist on the ship's yardarm.

How it's all put together : Worth noting that playwright Jaki McCarrick latched onto the Irish Famine idea to present an allegory expressing her anger at the patriarchal Irish banking system. It nearly collapsed altogether in 2008-2010 due to a housing bubble funded by billions of offshore bonds in what amounted to a vast ponzi scheme. A larger version of what in USA bankrupted Goldman Sachs thanks to collusion by Fannie Mae and Wall Street. So Belfast Girls is largely, but not simply, a "feminist Irish Famine" tale.

Back to 1850 Oz. At the time it was in effect a massive penal colony of exiles from overcrowded UK prisons. They'd been sent there to serve out their sentences by performing manual labour in that roughhewn continent down under. "Pommies" from UK -- the moniker thought by many to derive from a slang acronym referring to Prisoners of Mother England -- were hardly going to find in Oz a land of silk-&-money. Hardscrabble lives awaited them. Even worse for these Belfast women after their arduous 3-month sail. History accounts reveal they landed in Sydney only to be shunned and disparaged as low-life harlots. Destined at best to become concubines of wealthier Oz, or, worse, sex trade street workers all over again. 

Belfast Girls explores these layered themes of victimization and degradation not only at men's hands but at their own; discourses on what kind of socioeconomic system they believe would create better lives for them; what if the "to" the women are facing is no better than the "from" they're escaping.

Production values that shine through :  Mood is the first word this show brings to mind. The mix of costumes, spot-lights on characters in the darkened ship's hold; repeated musical interjections of Irish pan flute and fiddle all blend together nicely. They join Director Wendy Bollard's naturalistic sequencing of scenes that feature at times longish (purposeful) gaps between lines of dialogue. Effective writing and staging both.

On the dialogue side of the ledger, the contrast between the rough-tongue streetwise yitter-yatter of Hannah (Tegan Verheul) and Ellen (Paige Gibbs) with poetry readings from Molly (Olivia Sara Grace) -- as well as discussions of Marx/Engels' Manifesto ideas with the women's wrangler and madam, Judith (Mariam Barry) -- all of this as the women sail to a new Land of Opportunity underscores the earlier observation made by Hannah : "The land is innocent, it is the people who fuck it up." As an emigre to Canada myself I could not agree more.

Earnest debate of the ideas of the day that were on everyone's tongue is the take-away from BG. And despite any protestations by Ms. McCarrick, the feminist dominance of ideas carries the drama. I was utterly at home with it. Action? Not much. Primarily it involves the women hanging out in the ship's cabin moving from bunk-to-table-to-floor as they exchange histories and dreams and fears and bitternesses.

That both the male gender and their aristocrat and gentry classes come in for visceral denunciation in this script hardly surprises. Only late in Act 2 are the characters -- and the audience -- forced to confront the fact that the land of hope and opportunity they are seeking may be considerably more of the former than the latter. 

Acting pin-spots :  As written, the characters are roughly equal in their design and idiosyncratic emphasis by creator Jaki McCarrick. While Judith is the show's protagonist and the women's sergeant-at-arms, characters Hannah and Ellen provide the most compelling by-play on stage as well as the only consistently sustained Irish colloquial accents. But steady performances by Olivia Sara Grace as Molly and Amelia Ross as Sarah Jane, too. Sarah and Hannah's revelations about what their families and bairns suffered thanks to the famine were gripping and compelling, as was Ellen's description of how she got the boot from Pa and found herself on the streets. 

Who gonna like :  It is a fact that current live theatre scripts aim for shorter performances than longer : our attention spans have been abbreviated by the internet and social media, the theory goes. 

Belfast Girls could, probably, have as much if not more impact if it were 15-20 minutes shorter. Still and all the height, weight and breadth of the social, cultural and economic issues being debated and acted out engaged this critic's eye & ear & mind imaginatively and provocatively. The stage trappings of lighting, sound and costume contributed significantly to the outing, no question. 

As noted above, there is considerable timeliness to a script brought forward in a world whose men seem once more to be running amok with crazymaking self-indulgence. Such a context makes this an experience that is magnetic & troubling & enlightening even if its dramatic arc and theatrics are not utterly breathtaking. 

No question live theatre is most often devoted -- for marketing and bottom-line purposes -- to less pushy, more people-pleaser scripts. Fair enough. But more of playwright McCarrick in the hands of director Bollard would be welcome  alt-fare on our region's stages.

Particulars :  Written by Jaki McCarrick.  Produced by Peninsula Productions.  Directed by Wendy Bollard.  At Coast Capital Theatre, White Rock, until March 1th.  At Vancouver Cultch (as part of Vancouver CeltFest), March 15-18.  Run-time 140 minutes including intermission. Tickets and Schedules via or by phone to CCT @ 604.536.7535.  Cultch tix/schedules via The Cultch or by phone 604.251.1363. 

Production crew : Director Wendy Bollard.  Producer Janet Ellis.  Assistant Director Lori Tych.  Stage Manager John Halliday.  Sound Designer Corina  Akeson.  Lighting Designer Nicole Weismiller.  Set Designer Andy Sorensen.  Costume Designer Chantal Short.  Props Diana Kjaer-Pedersen.  Backstage Ian Cook.  Fight Choreography Mike Kovac, Ryan McNeill Bolton.  Set Construction Grig Cook.  Dialect Coaching Ashley O'Connell.  Publicity Kirsten Andrews.  Program Michele Partridge.  Photography Beverly Malcolm.  Hair Shannon Regan.

Performers :  Mariam Barry (Judith).  Paige Gibbs (Ellen).  Olivia Sara Grace (Molly).  Amelia Ross (Sarah).  Tegan Verheul (Hannah).


No comments:

Post a Comment