The Belfast Ensemble
Lyric Theatre, Belfast – 2019 Outburst Queer Arts Festival
Rarely is a political party both the subject of an opera and the author of its own libretto. With apposite timing, in the middle of an election campaign and with same-sex marriage recently legalised in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party comes centre stage in this bold new work by Conor Mitchell. While taking responsibility for concept, music and design, Mitchell leaves it to the DUP to supply the words.
The entire libretto comprises verbatim statements spoken over the past thirty years or so by members of a party which has been the maker or breaker of successive Brexit deals. Expressions of revulsion for the gay community by some of Northern Ireland’s best known politicians, are thinly masked by their oft-repeated mantra that it is the sin which they find abhorrent, not the sinner.
In the spotlight is former MP Iris Robinson, wife of then First Minister Peter Robinson. In June 2008, during a BBC radio conversation with presenter Stephen Nolan, she described homosexuality as ‘an abomination’. Shortly afterwards, a young man from north Belfast was the victim of a horrifying homophobic attack.
On the day after her husband was appointed First Minister, Robinson was invited by Nolan to take part in a follow-up phone interview and given the opportunity to repudiate or justify her earlier inflammatory comment. Questioned closely about the potential for violence that such words might unleash, Robinson remains staunchly unrepentant, falling back on treacly vows about loving the sinner and seeking to return him/her to the path of righteousness.
This second extended interview provides the framework for a torrent of hate speech, also lifted from Hansard, news reports and televised Westminster speeches. At one point, an army of hate-spouting figures advance aggressively on Nolan in a dramatically executed moment of real personal jeopardy.
Chronologically, the opera’s starting point is the infamous Save Ulster From Sodomy campaign, launched in response to the National Union of Students’ Lesbian and Gay Conference held at Queen’s University Belfast in 1983. It would prove to be only the tip of the iceberg.
Vitriolic language emanating from high profile figures like Rev. Ian Paisley, Ian Paisley Jr, Jim Wells, Jeffrey Donaldson, Rev. William McCrea, Arlene Foster comes peppered with scriptural quotations, professions of Christian morality and cavalier references to equality. Mitchell’s stark, high gloss design vividly demonstrates that while the modern day messengers may be better dressed and more stylishly presented, their uncompromising message remains the same.
The Lyric space is stripped back to its full height and depth. At the centre of this vast black box, soprano Rebecca Caine brings glamorous presence to the power-dressed, unapologetic Iris, a woman who will be exposed as living a double life. In the Robert Wilson-inspired staging, backed by ever-changing pixilated close-up projections, a team of sharply suited, silhouetted special advisors scurry obediently at her command and jostle for her favour.
In the opera’s only spoken segments, Tony Flynn’s Nolan relentlessly probes her every utterance, holding it up for scrutiny and examination. Brandishing an outrageous fake wig and a pair of orange glitter platform-heeled boots – regarded with palpable disgust by Iris – Matthew Cavan adds a wittily camp coda to proceedings. There are knowing visual tilts at words like ‘party’ and ‘cake’ – a reference to the high profile legal case involving a cake carrying a message in support of gay marriage. The humour is mischievous and wry, but tightly controlled and never overdone.
A surreal sexual encounter between Iris and a handsome boy angel (Richard Chappell) is a reminder that while she was loudly condemning homosexuality, offering psychiatric services to repentant gay people and proclaiming her Christian credentials, she was engaged in an affair with a 19 year-old man. The fact that she is called Mrs. Robinson adds a dollop of relish to the real-life drama.
Mitchell’s crisp orchestration, played with verve by the Ensemble orchestra and directed by Tom Brady, swoops and soars as the mood of the piece dictates. And as a complement to Caine’s precise solo enunciation, Christopher Cull, Dawn Burns and John Porter’s rich voices ring out as the politicians leading the chorus of vicious jibes Northern Ireland’s gay community has long endured.
This fearless, beautifully executed new opera was commissioned by the 13th Outburst Queer Arts Festival and kicks off proceedings with brio.
An edited version of this review was first published by The Stage on 11 November 2019.