Belfast International Arts Festival 2022: Propaganda: A New Musical
Joanna O' Hare in Propaganda:A New Musical. Image by Chris Heaney
Let's begin with the context. The Berlin Blockade 1948/49. If not quite as sexy as the Cuban Missile Crisis, it marks the first serious stand off between the former Soviet Union and The West. The USSR, in response to efforts to introduce a new, single currency throughout Germany, closed off supply routes to West Berlin for the Allies, (Berlin being situated in Russian occupied East Germany). The Allies responded by air lifting supplies into West Berlin at a staggering rate. Leaving the Russians looking ridiculous, and feeling more than a little furious.
Celia Graham and Joanna O' Hare in Propaganda:A New Musical. Image by Ciaran Bagnall
Why composer, writer and director Conor Mitchell thought this a suitable subject for a musical is likely to leave you scratching your head. But good idea or not, Mitchell's Propaganda: A New Musical is really quite the musical, with some cracking songs, most of which are brilliantly arranged. It's also that little bit subversive and satirical. Mainly because it's a tale for adults, instead of a dumb downed, Eighties retrofit featuring some guy from Hollyoaks. In Propaganda, music serves up a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. Yet if the taste is richly sweetened, the medicine never stops being a bitter pill.
Sean Kearns, Matthew Cavan and Darren Franklin in Propaganda:A New Musical. Image by Ciaran Bagnall
From its rousing opening, Like What You See, Boys? you're processing juxtapositions at an accelerated rate. The setting is East Berlin, but the music has its foundations in American jazz. A photographer, Slavi (Darren Franklin), is trying to take tasteful art photos, but his model and muse, the buxom Hanna (Joanna O'Hare), and their blackmarket distributer Ruddy (Oliver Lidert), are only interested in risqué, erotic money shots. But porn is beneath Slavi, who's a true artist, i.e., drinks heavily, beats women, is endlessly self-pitying while feeling superior and insists on telling everyone he's an artist. The kind of man you'd take a contract out on if your daughter said she wanted to marry him. What Hanna sees in him is impossible to say, though there was that saving her from a concentration camp thing. Giving credence to the belief that if someone saving your life means they're responsible for you forever, it's sometimes better to have died. Into their world, courtesy of a little intrigue, comes the fabulous and famous Margot (a divine Celia Graham), another woman with bad taste in men. The classy Margot becoming an erotic model for Slavi who, through her influence, finds himself catapulted to Soviet fame. Well, almost. A little indiscretion that could see him executed flips the tale in an unanticipated direction. Where if the end leads everyone to some sort of ever after, it isn't a happy one for all concerned. Survival might be survival, but it's not what you'd call living.
Joanna O' Hare and Rebecca Caine Joanna O' Hare in Propaganda:A New Musical. Image by Ciaran Bagnall
Scour through Propaganda's thematic rubble and you'll likely find whatever it is you want to find. Needy people and the people who need them. Affinities with Russia today. With Belfast today. With oppression today. With fake news today. With how the Irish inspired the Russian Revolution. It's all up for grabs. But where Propaganda really bites is in its depiction of art as propaganda. It might seem to be lambasting Soviet realist art and its ideology, but the West was far from innocent when it came to playing the ideological art card. The deliberate support of hitherto despised abstract art saw an American funded backlash against the USSR during the Cold War. Russia might have had peaceful realism, the West had personal freedom. But like much in Propaganda, Mitchell doesn't labour such points. He sets them up then leaves them there for you to think about.
Propaganda:A New Musical. Image by Ciaran Bagnall
Musically, Propaganda is as much an homage as it is satire and subversion. Mitchell scattering musical touchstones throughout, like gaming easter eggs for aficionados. Sondheim, Fosse; textual and musical references infrequently make their presence felt. Musically Propaganda may claim to speak to the end of the big band era, but it sounds much later. Closer to All That Jazz than Oklahoma. Songs and music made superlatively listenable courtesy of a live orchestra and a first class ensemble. Alongside O'Hare, Lidert, Franklin and Graham, each wonderful, Sean Kearns as Poliakoff, Matthew Cavan as Gerhardt, and an operatic Rebecca Caine as Magda also shine. Never as brilliant as during songs featuring complex, vocal layering. Even if some songs, especially those featuring Russian musical references, sound as if arranged by Tom Waits. If Conan McIvor's video design is simply stupendous, adding texture to Conor Murphy's scaffolded set, Mary Tumelty's lights, and Ian Vennard's sound design, further enrich what is a truly impressive production.
Joanna O' Hare, Darren Franklin and Oliver Lidert in Propaganda:A New Musical. Image by Ciaran Bagnall
Propaganda might feel like Cabaret: The Sequel at times, but ultimately it leans more into darkness even as it plays with the light. Particularly when highlighting the experiences of German women after the war. Being reminiscent, at times, of the classic, post-war novel, A Woman in Berlin. But only if married to the shenanigans of the music hall. Which poses a conundrum. Adorno asked if there could be poetry after Auschwitz? Propaganda marries levity and comedy to speak of the horrors of Soviet occupation, sexual and otherwise, on German women. A juxtaposition which doesn't always gel. Which is why Propaganda won't be to everyone's taste. Its final image likely to leave an acrid taste which none of its earlier sugar can sweeten. Propaganda might be fun, but it's no feel good, happily ever after. If you want a sugar rush, go elsewhere. If you want a proper meal, parts of which might be an acquired taste, pull up a chair.
Propaganda: A New Musical by Conor Mitchell, a Lyric Theatre Production with the Belfast Ensemble, runs as part of Belfast International Arts Festival 2022 at The Lyric Theatre until November 5.