Rawlife Theatre Company, The Sugar Room @ The Potthouse. Tuesday 25th October 2005
On Saturday evening, I sat on the outside windowsill of my ladyfriend’s house. I had decided from the wearied redness of her eyes that the haven of her bed was the only place for her. She went there immediately and I, knowing less fear than I should, awaited my cab outside.
British Summer Time gave way to British Winter Time (or whatever) and the central database of bookings and orderings crashed. My homeward bound lift would be an hour plus half again in the making. Several calls to the company had not yet made this clear to me, so, favouring politeness over my own warmth, I settled myself outside with a reasonable book.
It grew later and later, as night time is wont to do, then, uncharacteristically, it grew earlier, until eventually reverting to old ways. From atop the Broadway, where there is a rough bar, I heard the clamour of young men. They crowed and hollered. Their footsteps grew closer and more rapid in their falling. My eyes buried themselves deeper into the print. One of the gentlemen sang and the other pounced, landing just at my feet.
That each of them was an old school friend of mine is probably the point of the story, but the point could so easily have been something else. The knife in my kidneys, perhaps.
Such is the risk of living in Belfast. It is, no doubt, the risk of living in any town, but I beg to say that we find ourselves in a different context to yourself. Elsewhere there has always been a threat from an underclass, but in Northern Ireland, this is not so. For ourselves the threat came extensively from old men in Aran jumpers or broad men in denim outfits; one was more likely to be blown into cells or shot to bits than mugged senseless or roughed up. The danger came from sitting in a particular pub, shopping in a certain centre or using a specific taxi firm; walking down the street was when you were at your safest. Before the paramilitaries became merely para—s, they kept the delinquents at bay; keeping their people safe with one hand, even if being a shower of bastards with other. Nowadays they don’t do so much of either.
To hear A Clockwork Orange performed with Nirish accents, then, is to hear the story of spides (chavs, neds etc. – Ed.) finally unleashed on the public and a police force, with a history of brutality, attempting to deal with criminals who cannot be viewed as cold-eyed killers or political enemies. Based on their poor performance, it is perhaps crediting the young company too much to suggest that they had planned this subtext all along, even if each droog is played as if from West Belfast and each parole officer, jailer and correctional scientist as if they are reading a BBC national news bulletin. It is perhaps more likely that, with the majority of the cast growing up in the nineteen-eighties, every authority figure they have ever known has been imported from John Bull’s principal island.
The anti-governmental liberals and socialists, who make an important appearance towards the play’s end, sound like they come from somewhere in Cork as well.
It has been variously said, mainly by Nirish theatre critics, that if it were not for The Troubles, Nirish playwrights would have nothing to write about. It is quite probably true too that, if it were not for The Troubles, Nirish actors would not know what their motivation was. But to ignore such a psyche-defining event is probably beyond some people’s abilities.
Now, if we may return to my assailants for a moment One of them, a tall drink of water with a blotch of greying hair and, I’m told, a penchant for kinky sex, accompanied me to conversational Russian classes back in the days when it was customary for us to ignore our Advanced-Levels. Thus I am familiar with the premier Slavic tongue flopping about inside a Nirish mouth.
This probably sets me out amongst the assembled audience, who would have to wrangle their ears around Mr Burgess’ borrowed argot throughout.
Now, as we know, the very purpose of slang is exclusiveness. The youths, as they are, isolate the generation previous by concocting phrases anew or using words in ways that could not be imagined. In a manner they render their antecedents aurally illiterate. But within the context of Mr Burgess’ prose, or even the crystal clarity of Mr Kubrick’s film, the impenetrable vernacular of the droogs unfolds over pages and we are gradually initiated into the group. The familiarity with half terms like “viddy” and “gulliver” that comes with chapter after chapter of reading allows eventual understanding, but when rendered, not only by Nirish brogues, but by Nirish brogues projected from leaping and prancing gobs, which will, at best, reach only one of the three flanking stalls, the dialogue becomes as thick and daunting as Mr Shakespeare’s. From the wild intonation, one can surmise what is going on, but you’ll be damned if you can work out exactly why.
If one is to stage a theatre version of A Clockwork Orange, one is faced with a difficult choice; do you play up the ultra-violence with fists, brollies and ornaments in threatening motion and risk losing the explanatory word-smithery? Or direct it in stasis, where each word can be heard and understood, but where the audience may think them not such bad lads after all (“I mean, they just stood there”)? Rawlife have made their choice and, if nought else, they can be commended for their choreography.
Productions by small Nirish companies will always be ropey. It cannot be helped. There is simply not enough going into local arts. The arts world here is small. See, not only were my assailants old school chums, but I recognised some of the droogs as being from the alma mater too. It is not only the resources that are few here; so too is the inspiration. We have only one theme; not only for the companies, but for critics too. See how they made even me (yes, me) write about The Troubles in a frank and open manner? It is saddening in one way, but in another it is challenging; I await my chance to shoehorn thirty years of violence into a production of The Faery Queen.