At times explosive, a visceral, overwhelming experience
Laying bare the violence and misery of disaffected, unemployed male youth and the trauma post-Troubles that inflict the city, the ‘prayer’ of the title is a plea for mercy and also one of hope. This is a theme familiar to those who saw her five-star performance of Hope Hunt and The Ascension into Lazarus at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 and they will no doubt be excited to see a Fringe star being taken up by an International Festival. Sadly, though strong and hugely impressive, minor glitches make the transfer not as successful as it could be.
A group of youths wearing anoraks and with heads bowed huddle around what looks like a gutting bonfire. One imagines they are homeless. Then a waft of incense reaches the front rows - a thurible? This is a moving image to start the show, suggesting that sectarian religion that tore the Northern Ireland apart is thankfully dying down.
As ecclesiastical choirs sing and a vertical beam of light pours down, the glorious set by Ciaran Bagnall of lit bars on three sides evokes mystical prayer. It might be a high vaulted church but the set also suggests a cage.
Oona is not only a choreographer, but a visual artist; her strength is in use of image aided by the set and lighting design but also in body language, performing vignettes of physical theatre to suggest the disaffection of male youth. Her appearance is androgenous in all-over white and hair tied back. Swaggering walk, overarm throws (miming stone-throwing), jeering gestures with one finger or to imply f*ck off, that word plus sh*t come out loud and clear in a voiceover but these stereotypes of male aggression are undercut with vulnerability as her face contorts in pain. This visceral performance is both Oona’s strength but also her limitation where the minutiae of her expressions cannot be seen in a large theatre unless one is prescient enough to bring opera glasses.
Her inexperience on a large stage is also shown by not owning the space and especially by not coming forward to the front of the stage. This is also shown in the second section, The Sugar Army, when a large group of young girls perform too far back. Dressed in bright waist-length anoraks and skin-tight white jeans they perform marches or run in a circle, in an almost war-dance, exuding self-confidence, one girl sticking out her tongue at the audience and some tossing long pony-tails.
The voiceover was clearer and moving, explaining how looking good, putting on ‘armour’ is how they face the world. With no jobs and no future ahead of them this is a poignant piece of bravery in comparison to the aggressive despair of the males in the earlier section.
These girls are locals who have been attending workshops given by Oona for this performance, as she had done when the show appeared in Dublin earlier. This laudable generosity is part of the force which drives her work - to create opportunities for those who might never experience this otherwise.
We see Oona’s powerful use of a single image again in the next section, Meat Kaleidoscope, where the confrontation of two men (John Scott and Sam Finnegan), bare-chested with pot-bellies like Japanese sumo wrestlers, gradually approach each other to meet in a great hug. A scene of solemity and power, a huge green cloud morphs into the distorted images of a kaleidoscope.
Unfortunately, the male voiceover is almost impenetrable, not just the Belfast accent but technically as the sound system muffled the voices. Odd words could be caught like ‘Respect’. This is an attempt at a generational reconciliation between father and son who are unable to express their emotions but there are echoes of the post-trauma of the Troubles too.
In the last section, Helium, Oona returns with a solo work, rather too similar to her first one but this time with wide arm gestures to express hope but with the inevitable falls. In an altercation where she plays two parts, her opponent says "You forget where you came from." This indeed is something that Oona does not do but is trying to turn things around and offer some hope, also suggested by the vertical light beam which ends the performance.
Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer is a thought-provoking show which would have been outstanding if not hampered by technical glitches.