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The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God spacer The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God
Protestants
by Mary Quinn
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Somewhere around the point where the text linked the Protestant ethic to the spirit of football hooliganism I lost interest in whatever broad stroke meaning-picture of Protestantism this play was trying to paint. I did tune in again briefly, three quarters of an hour later, in time for the culminating rhetorical flourish 'we are Protestants because we protest' but that only confirmed how wise I'd been not to listen to anything in between. Let's not forget, however, that this is a Ransom production, directed by Rachel O'Riordan, and it was this creative team that gave us Hurricane, a production marked as much for the choreographic and staging elements as for the text, so losing one of these elements shouldn't necessarily have been fatal to the quality of the show, which still had the potential to succeed as a purely visual event. Unfortunately another element of the wonderfully successful package for Hurricane had also been lost; the participation of Richard Dormer as the solo performer. The structure of demands on the performer are very similar in this show as they were in Hurricane; a one hour high-energy performance involving elements of physical theatre, mime, the creative use of a limited series of props and the rapid switching into multiple other characters. Dormer pulled this off magnificently in Hurricane, but Hickey, who seems a competent enough actor, just wasn't up to the job of bringing these elements together. It's understandable how many people could say, as they did, that Hickey's performance was 'wonderful', 'brilliant' etc., since it was evident throughout that he was working very hard to change his accents and jump around in different ways to give us the ten or so characters that he was required to produce. But all this work isn't what it's supposed to be about. The paradox of one person shows where the same actor has to perform multiple characters is that each character has to be fantastically well inhabited by the actor who can't rely on a different body or costume to lend some distinction to the switch between characters. To convincingly inhabit a character is, of course, a matter of art rather than science, but in this art the tools will always be the voice and the physical presence. Hickey's voice, switching in accent from Belfast to London to Glasgow to Cork to Germany always remained stuck in his throat; acting from the neck up. Of course he did move around, but his movement was samey whatever the character; his trunk remained square, his arms flaily, his ears the same size as they had been for the character before. The physical presence was always David Hickey doing someone. There was no series of characters, just a series of impersonations, and impersonations only have any value when they're funny (or to get by certain security checks). Either the actor just couldn't do the job, or had so much faith in the text that he thought it wasn't necessary to find some way of getting fully into these characters since what they were saying was the important thing 'we are Protestants because we protest'. Indeed.
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Apart from the single actor the other stuff that was there to be looked at consisted of a set composed of an almost complete circle of bleached and partially ornate wood, banked into three levels, and a series of props either resting on this set or protruding from it a petrol pump, an eyeglass, a chain, a ladder, a bucket. The props come into play at regular intervals and, in what's beginning to look like a Ransom trademark, they're always used in unexpected funky ways before being slung away. In Hurricane the elements were slung every which way, leaving a pictorial climax of Alex standing in the physical ruins of his own life. Here the elements are slung aside, leaving, perhaps, 'the bare body of the kirk', the naked truth of Protestantism as spirit not material. Except that the set itself is too fancy and ornate to let this point work properly and more and more as the play progresses the set comes to dominate, so that the eventual pictorial climax seems to run entirely against the grain of the text and declare 'we are Protestants because circular banked white wood.'
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The visual punctuation of the production is largely provided by the stage lighting. Ignoring the text gave me plenty of time to wonder why at certain points the most highlighted part of the stage was the empty space just beside the actor, or the big shadow behind him, or the loudspeaker just off-set, or (frequently) the big blinding light itself. There's a Belfast theatrical tale about an occasion when some bomb or other knocked out the lights and a production was completed with the help of audience members pointing powerful torches up onto the stage. Oh for a blackout.
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