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  • Chris O'Rourke

Belfast Girls

Fiona Keenan O'Brien and Leah Rossiter in Belfast Girls. Image by Sean McMahon


There’s no overstating the importance of regional venues like Dundalk’s An Táin Arts Centre. Both to their community and to the wider arts community. Offering opportunities to meet up and engage with a myriad of diverse performances, several directly assist in the development of local artists by offering significant practical support. Like An Táin Arts Centre’s resident Quintessence Theatre, who get to hone their craft through practice and experimentation. To celebrate ten proud years, An Táin Arts Centre recently presented their biggest production to date, the Irish premiere of Belfast Girls by award winning Dundalk writer, Jaki McCarrick. A tale of five women in 1850 aboard the Inchinnan as it sets sail for Australia. Each eager to escape Ireland for the imagined freedoms, and food, of the new Promised Land. Which, like Belfast Girls, isn’t quite all it promises to be.

The cast of Belfast Girls. Image by Sean McMahon

Topical, with overt feminist leanings, Belfast Girl has enjoyed several productions internationally. Begging the question, why not here? Well perhaps because, despite its good intentions, its front loaded political messaging undermines its dramatic medium, despite some spirited work by its five strong cast. Or rather, its six strong cast. True, there’s only five bodies onstage, but there’s six distinct voices. The dominant one being McCarrick, determined to hammer home her politics often at the expense of everyone and everything onstage. Unapologetically Marxist, McCarrick divines an astute connection between the banking crisis and Ireland during the Famine. Both being times when women and children suffered severely under austerity measures, the guilty were let walk free, and the victims were penalised with many forced to leave home. Her characters trying to serve two competing mistresses; their story which they’re trying to tell, and McCarrick’s political grandstanding. Which often reduces them to ventriloquist dummies offering commentary, or declaiming mouthpieces for an unchallenged Marxist manifesto. Undermining story, its power, and its people, all in the name of power to the people.

The cast of Belfast Girls. Image by Sean McMahon

How so? Narratively, nothing much happens. Five Irish women pressed into a hull of a ship undertake a three month journey to Australia. Over time secrets emerge, one leading to injury, till all arrive at their destination a little older, a little wiser, and a little more politically aware. Dramatically, there’s little onstage action, less real conflict, and hardly anything at stake till near the end. The bulk of the play’s concerns having happened before the play started. Instead, the past is recounted when the future is not being divined like a party political broadcast. Tales of fathers selling their daughters, of sexual and emotional abuse, of dead and dying children are all reduced to political fodder, like babies in a politician’s photo op. Even a burgeoning lesbian relationship proves more political than personal, being all about the points being made. And so it goes, more or less, for the guts of two and three quarter hours. As the end arrives, it’s less a case of gears finally clicking into place so much as a house of cards toppling as it all makes a mad dash for the finish line. Working hard and fast to try bring its characters safely to land. Which it does by allowing their humanity shine through.

Carla Foley and the cast of Belfast Girls. Image by Sean McMahon

Whilst director Anna Simpson is conscious of the dichotomy between medium and message, she compounds rather than resolves the disconnect. Indeed, talk of Quintessence’s unique style of physical theatre raises its own issues. While Simpson is often brilliant at creating movement onstage, an effort to speak to something beyond words via choreographed musical moments, looking straight from the ANU playbook, ranges from the genuinely interesting to showing an unforgivable lack of rigour (a scene in which all characters sway during a storm suggests they’re each standing on separate ships). Compositionally, while Simpson can be strong on intimacy, too often she resorts to actors cheating (placing actors facing the audience when they talk rather than the characters they should be speaking to). Her cast frequently positioned like opera singers undermining their own power. The visual image compounding the experience of Belfast Girls as essentially one long, laboured lecture trampling all over the interesting play that’s trying to get out.

The cast of Belfast Girls. Image by Sean McMahon

Indeed, the less characters have to say politically, the far greater they, and their stories, are realised. Placing a hard working Donna Anita Nikolaisen as the rebellious Judith at a serious disadvantage. Spending much of her time as one of McCarrick’s mouthpieces, playing the lines so the points get made rather than the scene in which Judith lives and breathes, Nikolaisen frequently compensates with an animated performance in an effort to express something more than a diatribe, or else to enliven it. Resorting to, or encouraged to perform too large gestures when less would have been so much more is something Simpson should have addressed. A tendency that also afflicts Siobhan Kelly’s secretive maid Molly, whose schoolmarmish tone and mannerisms reinforce a lecturing trope. Yet Nikolaisen and Kelly are both utterly sublime when their characters are allowed to breathe rather than being corseted inside someone else’s borrowed ideas. Equally sublime is a terrific Carla Foley as the duplicitous Sarah, who conveys guilt, spite, pride, and jitteriness that speak far more eloquently than Belfast Girls political rallying call. Similarly a superb Fiona Keenan O’Brien as the will of iron Ellen, and an outstanding Leah Rossiter as the brash, loudmouth, whiskey swilling Hanna. Frenemies whose comic duelling and front and centre personalities are a joy to watch. No surprise that the character most removed from political lecturing, Hanna, proves the most enlivened and memorable, with Rossiter announcing herself as a serious talent. Simpson shining when her direction leans into the story instead of back burning it to accommodate McCarrick’s overt political posturing.

Donna Anita Nikolaisen and Siobhan Kelly in Belfast Girls. Image by Sean McMahon

Which is not to discount anyone’s political beliefs, but rather the belief that the writer’s political ideas can take precedence over the play they’re grounded in, making it a vehicle for a dressed up pamphlet at the expense of the people whose politics it’s meant to represent. If that’s the way you want to go, go Brechtian. Having characters perched on McCarrick's soapbox, Belfast Girls divides them against themselves. Never clearer than when they slip free of their reins and are allowed speak rather than recite. McCarrick’s humanity, which underscores everything, made beautifully evident in her humans being human. Trapped in the confines of Sinéad O’Donnell-Carey’s stunning set and costumes, which suggest a serious talent in the making. The cleverly tiered and angled frame, basked beautifully in Sophie Cassidy’s majestic lights, sees both contributing to the richness of the experience. O’Donnell-Carey and Cassidy two artists you’re sure to hear more of.

The cast of Belfast Girls. Image by Sean McMahon

If Belfast Girls often gets in its own way, An Táin Arts Centre are to be applauded for allowing young artists experiment, fail better, and find their feet. If the experiment doesn’t entirely come off this time, always a risk with experiments, there’s still much to admire and enjoy here. Especially when performances are unencumbered by an excess of political baggage. For having the courage to take such risks, allow artists on and off stage to experiment, and introducing us to works like Belfast Girls, An Táin Arts Centre deserve every congratulations. As well as thanks for nurturing rising talents and promising companies like Quintessence Theatre. Here’s wishing An Táin Arts Centre many more years of continued success to come.

For more information visit An Táin Arts Centre

This review refers to the production at Solstice Arts Centre, Navan, February 16, as part of Belfast Girls tour which also visited Lyric Theatre, Belfast, the Droichead Arts Centre Drogheda, following its premiere at An Táin Arts Centre, Dundalk on January 24.


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