Let the record show that this is the sixth time I’ve tried to start this review. I’ve written, in different sentences, trying to introduce the concept in several different ways, “Oona Doherty is the real deal.”
The minute you write something like that, you have to interrogate your own value systems. A real deal presupposes the existence of a fake deal, a phony case. It’s true that Doherty is anything but phony; earlier this year I watched her being interviewed at the Spring Forward dance festival in Val-de-Marnes, France, where she gave rather dry, single-sentence answers to questions, seemingly uninterested in verbose self-promotion. When asked what drew her to dance, she replied, “I was shite at school but good at dancing… I had a dance teacher who asked us to improvise being a cat and I was really good at it. “
The pieces she performs for Dance Umbrella’s 2019 festival, Hard to Be Soft and the double bill Hope Hunt and The Ascension into Lazarus, are concerned with masculinity, working class communities, Northern Ireland and Belfast specifically (Hard to Be Soft’s subtitle is ‘A Belfast Prayer’). If you are – as I am – a middle class reviewer, based in London, ethnically and culturally 50% English, then in this context, words like ‘the real deal’ look like crawling left-wing fetishism of the working class.
But Oona Doherty, I am sure of this, is still the real deal.
Hope Hunt opens in a car park at the Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick, a 110-seater in a former warehouse. As we are standing in the car park waiting for the performance to begin, a fellow audience member remarks, “There’s a lot of backpacks around.” Her companion replies, “Yes, it’s because they all ride bikes everywhere, so backpacks are safer than tote bags.” For the record, I am also wearing a backpack.
In the middle distance, tires screech. A performer (Joss Carter) reverses a car almost in to the massed audiences, then leans out, cigarette in his mouth, can of Red Stripe in his hand. He offers an unopened can to an audience member, then opens the boot of the car. Out tumbles Doherty. She’s dressed in a loose tracksuit that obscures the shape of her body and limbs and sprawled on the floor. Her body flashes up – once, twice – then collapses to the ground again, like a fish out of water shuddering. When she brings herself upright, she skips and swerves around the crowd like a punch-drunk boxer, ducking and jabbing. Her hips lead her through the massed bodies. She squints into peoples’ faces, smiling lopsidedly.
This confrontational introduction is put out to the soundtrack of Strength NIA’s song ‘Northern Ireland Yes’, and Doherty returns to Carter’s side just in time for the lyric, “God is a Catholic man from Creegan.” They lift one fist in the air for the lyric, lift the other when it repeats. When the song ends, Carter jumps back in the car and drives off in a flurry of screaming tires. Doherty shouts after him, slumps in defeat, then turns to us.
“Get in the theatre!” she roars hoarsely.
Hope Hunt continues in the theatre, switching into The Ascension into Lazarus by means of a brief blackout and a change from a blue tracksuit into a white one. Hope Hunt is a playful piece of dance theatre that sees Doherty taking on a German accent, speaking Italian, speaking French, phasing in to a new person each time. Her whole body flickers and jerks in time to words she barks and growls, merging in to one another: a repeated, slurring ‘shellsuit’ becomes a chant of ‘Chelsea!’ before morphing into ‘Alsatian’ (and a humorously nervous mime of trying to get an invisible dog to relax).
Despite the swagger and shuddering rough edges, there’s affection in Doherty’s portrayal. The uncanny exactness of her European hard boys necessarily comes from a place of close and tender observation. She can be funny, but the laughs are never directed at the characters with which she fills the stage. They are – she is – not a joke, but the real deal. When you’re sat in a warehouse conversion in a gentrified neighbourhood whose original inhabitants can no longer afford the local rents, the sheer veracity of Doherty’s neds, spides, hoods and knackers come out of the woodwork like a rising sap.
The Ascension into Lazarus is very similar to the first quarter of Doherty’s large-scale piece Hard to Be Soft, ‘Lazarus and The Bird of Paradise’. A solo performed by Doherty, it sees her taking on the personas of a variety of voices played in the soundtrack, including a man muttering threats, a cheerful bantering lad, and a screaming woman (Doherty spreads her arms in the pose of the Crucifixion for every scream, teetering on tip-toes, her face awash with fear). The switches between these personas have a visible switch-flicked sense to them, as Doherty wrenches her whole upper body sideways with a squinting grimace or folds herself down until her knees and the back of her head hit the floor.
The final quarter of Hard to Be Soft, ‘Helium’, is another Doherty solo, this time inspired by the physical mannerisms of Belfast – greeting people, shouting across rooms, walking with hands tucked in to the front of tracksuit bottoms, laughing, throwing a punch. Doherty manages to fill the whole stage; it’s almost impossible not to visualise the people she is slapping on the back, being punched by or cussing out. She takes each subtle tug and each quick stagger and spins it out into something vast, space-taking. If you’ve ever seen candy floss being spun, you’ll recognise the creation of colour and substance that Doherty makes from nothing.
The two centre pieces of Hard to Be Soft, ‘The Sugar Army’ and ‘Meat Kaleidoscope’, are central to this fumbling notion of Doherty being the real deal. ‘The Sugar Army’ is performed by a group of teenage girls from each city that Doherty performs in, and she will take a week or two teaching them the section and talking about media representations of women. The London Sugar Army wears shiny white nylon tracksuits with neon tops, their hair in French braids, their make up primary colours. Sometimes they face the audience, with stamping feet and rhythmic body slapping, unafraid and warlike – they stomp out a direct challenge, demanding to be looked at on their own terms. At other times their formation loosens and weaves across the stage, as the girls whisper to one another or ostracise a single other.
‘Meat Kaleidoscope’ has a name like an upscale abattoir, but it is the most tender and strange of all Doherty’s pieces. Two heavyset, topless men – one old enough to be the other’s father – shuffle slowly across the stage towards one another, before leaning their bodies in to one another and beginning a grapple that hovers between embrace and fight. In the background, a projection of their bodies spins in a giddy pinkish kaleidoscope. It’s a meditative, slow piece, and this is all that happens, but it’s also shockingly moving. The fact that it’s bizarrely and brutally called ‘Meat Kaleidoscope’ feels like a deliberate push against the tendency to sentimentalise complex relationships between men, especially fathers and sons, or to flatten their depictions to a grindingly basic exploration of masculinities clashing. It seems exactly right, and yet it defies expectations in subtle and quiet ways. That’s what Oona Doherty manages to do in all of her work – she is the real deal.
Ka saw Hard to Be Soft at the South Bank Centre on 10th October, and Hope Hunt at the Yard Theatre on 14th October, both as part of Dance Umbrella 2019. Find out tour dates for Oona Doherty’s work here.