Long before we hear the lilting lyrics of Madonna’s Vogue (“I know a place where you can get away …”) in TheatreofplucK’s provocative performance installation, the hidden realities of gay life during Northern Ireland’s Troubles are brought astonishingly to light. In a history freighted by sensitive politics and religious conflicts, an LGBT culture can seem inconceivable.
Playwright Shannon Yee is honouring her own history as well as that of her country; ten years ago she and her partner were the first to be publicly civil partnered in the UK. Her new work, opening Belfast’s queer arts festival Outburst and coinciding with the first of two court cases challenging Northern Ireland’s ban on same-sex marriage, feels charged.
Ushered into a dark studio, we stand before monitors adorning the walls of designer Niall Rea’s high-tech and panoptic installation: a transparent cube, gradually a cage in which the exposed figure of a near-naked man (Andrew Stanford) sits still inside.
On these screens, testimonies from over 46 LGBT people who lived during the Troubles are performed by an impressive cast of Northern Irish performers including Marie Jones, Ian McElhinney and Carol Moore. Meticulously assembled by video designer Conan McIvor and sound designer Eduardo Patricio, the feed begins with the attractive airs of a singer (Ross Anderson), whose unaccompanied crooning of the disco classic Dance Yourself Dizzy is austerely poignant: “Tonight there’s something in the air / Tonight, to set this mad affair …”.
The monitors on all sides of the cube suddenly jump into different feeds, like a rush of repressed histories released at once, threatening an overload. These recorded performances are often juxtaposed against images from a violent past, photographs of burnt out cars and looming helicopters.
One voice recalls regular cinema trips to see Bette Davis and Joan Crawford before the city centre became effectively shut down in the late 1960s. With a lack of public space, more secretive codes of practice came into being, with one speaker remembering a formal invitation to a debonair man’s house for dinner, and an equally civil invitation to bed.
During later decades marked by divisions, gay bars, extraordinarily, were sites of dissolution, where for customers their ethno-religious background didn’t matter. Feminist and lesbian movements also enjoyed a beneficial correlation.
Meanwhile, the stigmas of a homophobic society were rampant, as evidenced from Richard Clements’ soft channelling of a soul met with clinical doctors, attempting to convert his sexuality into a diagnosis. Elsewhere, Anderson recalls a volunteer’s efforts at the beginning of the Rainbow Project, Northern Ireland’s leading LGBT health service, and the savagery of the media while trying to deal with the AIDs crisis.
Yet, the lack of knowledge surrounding homosexuality was something of a saviour in a memory nimbly performed by Miche Doherty, where a youth in the clutches of a violent gang was surprisingly released upon the arrival of his boyfriend. Elsewhere, a sweet duet between Dan Leith and Finnian Garbutt sees one young man in a shop absolutely compelled by another who casually picks up a gay magazine.
The biggest story belongs to the exposed figure inside the cube, as the event abandons video for live drama towards its conclusion. Stanford’s sculptural performance, under Rea and Anna Newill’s careful direction, slowly dresses a fraught RUC officer whose retreat from his homosexuality has led him to a hellish post at Newry. His morose observations of a homophobic organisation contain the tragic story of Darren Bradshaw, a 24-year-old member of the RUC who was shot dead in a gay bar in 1997.
The shocking recreation of the story seems set to hit hard, in a present when there can be no doubt of prejudice. Earlier this month, Northern Ireland’s assembly voted in favour of same-sex marriage but the largest party in parliament, the Democratic Unionists, vetoed any change in law. Last week the Deputy Mayor of Derry and Strabane suggested that gay people could be ‘cured’ by praying.
Add to that the punishing cuts to arts funding in Northern Ireland, there is a sense that Rea’s TheatreofplucK is operating in a hostile climate. The transfer of the installation to Belfast City Hall in December, when the second court case against the same-sex marriage ban will be heard, will likely take advantage of an opportunity to go on the offensive. That’s not asking for trouble.
That’s making it.