- Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queens
In the years immediately following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which ended the Northern Irish Troubles, citizens of the state felt both optimism (that they would now be free of violence) and trepidation (that the peace would not last). This mood has become more ambivalent in recent years. While it seems unlikely that large-scale violence will return, it has also become clear that the GFA did not solve the problems of the state. Distrust lingers between Catholics and Protestants and partisan deadlock has stymied the new devolved government. In addition, the global financial crisis has taken a serious toll on the North, resulting in the loss or reduction of many social services. At the same time, the “Occupy” movement has drawn attention to worldwide imbalances between the wealthy and the poor. Nearly all citizens of Northern Ireland agree that the state is in a significantly better condition than it was during the Troubles, but the initial optimism of the peace process has faded.
Many of the most significant plays at the 2011 Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queens (which sold approximately 45,000 tickets for events in music, dance, visual arts, and theatre) expressed this frustration. The discourse surrounding the peace process has emphasized moving forward into a brighter “shared future” (a term frequently deployed by pundits and politicians), but these plays questioned the utility and validity of such progress narratives. Staged by both local and international companies and held in venues around the Belfast city center, these performances replaced the image of the idyllic “shared future” with imperfect and even disastrous visions.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, in which a genetically engineered virus has eradicated most human and animal life, Paul Kennedy’s Guidelines for a Long and Happy Life offered the most pessimistic vision of the future. The play’s three major scenes, staged in reverse-chronological order, followed six survivors through the aftermath of the disaster. Each character appeared in only one scene, with the exception of The Woman (Katie Richardson), who was in two. Between these scenes, a chorus provided glimpses into the rest of this world; for example, a wordless vision of refugees searching for food. These interludes also featured the titular “Guidelines for a Long and Happy Life”—radio broadcasts offering survival tips, including farming techniques and making friends when meeting other survivors. The characters also referenced the Guidelines; in the first scene, when Ack (John Shayegh) and Bin (Stevie Prickett) met The Woman, they tried to use the broadcasts’ advice to befriend her. Her hostile reaction to their overture—she pulled a gun—prompted Bin to shoot and kill her. The next scene showed the reason for her extreme reaction; when she had previously followed the Guidelines, an unnamed man (James Doran) used her trust to rape her (although The Woman was arguably the play’s most fully developed character, it is unfortunate that the one female character remained nameless and was primarily identified as a victim of sexual violence). The final scene explained the origins of the broadcasts: two men (friends, possibly lovers) recorded them in an effort to bring some order to the newly decimated world and to come to terms with their own trauma. Colenso (Faolán Morgan) and Pleasance (Andrew Stanford) created the broadcasts out of a sincere desire to offer hope to any other survivors.
Belfast’s Tinderbox Theatre Company produced the play in an empty warehouse in East Belfast, where Michael Duke’s direction transformed the venue into a frightening wasteland. Duke staged each scene in a different part of the warehouse’s open floor, but Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting design [End Page 424] and the use of haze throughout the space meant that each set only became visible when the audience had nearly reached it. Set designer Niall Rea gave the floor different textures: in one area mud, in another sand, and leaves in yet another. This gave the impression that it was truly crossing significant distances as it moved between scenes into unknown territory. Like the characters, audience members...