Friday, 8 November 2019

Mitchell - Abomination, A DUP Opera (Belfast, 2019)

Conor Mitchell - Abomination, A DUP Opera 

The Belfast Ensemble, 2019

Tom Brady, Conor Mitchell, Rebecca Caine, Tony Flynn, Dawn Burns, Matthew Cavan, Christopher Cull, John Porter, Richard Chappell, James Cooper, Tara Greene, Caolan Keaveney, Helenna Howie

The Lyric Theatre - 7th November 2019

Abomination, A DUP Opera couldn't come at a more opportune moment, although to be fair NI politics present so many that practically any moment would be opportune. As far as this opera is concerned, it comes a month after equal marriage legislation and abortion rights had to be imposed on the province in order to bring it up to the same status as the rest of the UK. The law was passed despite an impotent show of bigoted opposition from the DUP, the largest party in Northern Ireland among whom some members - as the opera notes - regard homosexuality as "an abomination".

Coming just a month before a general election moreover, it's a timely reminder of the party's stance, one that - along with their association with the Tory party and support of Brexit against the will of the majority of voters in Northern Ireland - will hopefully cost them dearly at the ballot box. Ah, if only socially engaged opera and the arts really could change the world! Even if Abomination, A DUP Opera plays out to a mostly sympathetic and progressive audience at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast for the Outburst Queer Arts Festival, Conor Mitchell and the Belfast Ensemble's opera makes enough of an impact that I think it's bound to create ripples outside.

Even from its title and poster image, the opera makes no bones about its subject or target, and that is the former DUP party MP Iris Robinson, the wife of the then NI Assembly First Minister Peter Robinson, in relation to comments she made in public interviews in June 2008 about homosexuality being "an abomination". The day after her comments were made, a young gay man was almost beaten to death on the streets of North Belfast, but rather than row back or tone down her comments, Robinson went further in interviews and on a live phone-in BBC Radio programme hosted by Stephen Nolan, comparing homosexuality to bestiality and describing the AIDS epidemic in Africa as being a curse from God for sodomy.

Her views were shared by other DUP politicians and Abomination makes sure that the voices and ignorant views of repugnance towards homosexuality expressed by Willie McCrea, Jim Wells, Jeffrey Donaldson, Ian Paisley, Ian Paisley Jr, Sammy Wilson and current leader Arlene Foster are all aired in the opera. Rather than invent a scenario around this, composer and director Mitchell uses the politicians' own words for the libretto; the music and lyricism of singing these words aloud and in chorus to an audience them only serving to highlight the absurdity of their homophobic pronouncements being directed and expressed unashamedly in such a way to the general public.

Of course the DUP were only expressing what many of their followers believe, but what is staggering is the arrogance of the DUP politicians believing that the Bible and firmly held Christian beliefs give them the right, the justification and the impunity to share these hateful views in public, Robinson even going as far as to declare that it's the duty of government to uphold God's laws. The tragedy of this position - if you want to see it as a tragedy - is that public opinion progresses faster than the DUP's regressive attitudes, showing them up not only for their bigoted views, but also the hypocrisy of their so-called Christian morals when involved in political scandals, expenses fraud, heating fuel corruption and - in the case of Iris Robinson - the revelation of a favours granted towards a young businessman she was secretly involved with in an affair.

As part of The Belfast Ensemble, a company that is very much concerned with opera, theatre and musicals being relevant to the times and the place we live in, Conor Mitchell then is not wrong in finding this a fascinating subject for an opera. Still, it's unquestionably a challenge to find a way of setting it to music and drama and present it to the public in a way that perhaps serves as some kind of social commentary, but it has to be said that the results are magnificent, and Abomination: A DUP Opera is far and away the biggest and most accomplished piece of work from The Belfast Ensemble to date, genuinely engaging with local matters and social issues with great musical and lyrical finesse.

Since it was indicated beforehand that the opera was using the actual words of Iris Robinson herself for the libretto, I suspected that the Abomination might follow the Ensemble's most recent piece, Lunaria, using actors reading rapid-fire news reports over recent political developments in Northern Ireland, with Mitchell's insistent rhythms matching the flow of projections of newsreel footage. In reality, Mitchell displays a full range of musical pieces in a variety of styles, moods and tempi. Abomination is an opera in the truest sense, with individual singing, some operatic in nature - Rebecca Caine as Iris and Dawn Burns are outstanding - others semi-spoken, with choruses and even a musical dance sequence presenting Iris's illicit affair with an 'angel' lover.

The narrative thread of the work is centred on and continually returns to Robinson's infamous talkshow interview with Stephen Nolan; Nolan here not a singing role but played by an actor, Tony Flynn. Nolan's position is firm on holding Robinson to account for what she says, being careful not to accuse her of being responsible for the beating up of a young gay man, but implicated through words that might have incited or at least given licence to others to similarly express their views. In-between almost anything goes as far as musical arrangements and dramatic enactments are concerned, Mitchell's direction putting the position of the DUP voices in an almost fantastical setting - detached from reality certainly - using projections showing the person in question, with newspaper articles reporting quotes of what they said, while they are sung almost rapturously.

Although it's hugely entertaining there is a serious side to the work and it may lead to accusations of Abomination being nothing more than a DUP bashing, or worse, an invective more directly aimed at Iris Robinson. Mitchell is careful however that there is nothing in the opera that is not actual direct quotes from the people concerned, so he cannot be accused of misrepresentation. Letting the protagonists speak in their own words and make a laughing stock of themselves, and giving them voice in operatic declamation only highlights the absurdity, ignorance and arrogance of their position on matters of homosexuality and gay rights (a mindset that persists within the DUP).

Whether it's fair to treat Iris Robinson as the focal point of the opera or not, she at least is the person who brought these attitudes out into the open with her designation of homosexuality as "an abomination", and she epitomises this sense of belief that their religion gives them divine endorsement or some kind of god-given superiority over others. By the end of the opera however, Abomination, A DUP Opera seems to come around to apply one of the Christian sentiments that appear to be lacking in Robinson's own words and actions, to love the sinner and hate the sin, her own downfall from public office leaving a somewhat tragic figure alone on the stage with a phone and no-one to listen to her any more.

Links: The Belfast Ensemble