Running throughout the short but powerful new work from Belfast Ensemble were sections of Iris Robinson’s infamous radio interview on the Nolan Show back in 2008. The audience, mostly sitting on the wooden floor, were reminded by Tony Flynn about the presenter’s careful probing around attitudes towards homosexuality, with the former Strangford MP’s surprisingly stark replies sung by Canadian soprano Rebecca Caine.
Dressed in glittering red, Caine recharged the blunt and expressive statements while Abigail McGibbon and Cherrie On Top (Matthew Cavan) also brought back to life statements from Jim Wells (2018), Maurice Mills (2005), Gregory Campbell (1985) and Sammy Wilson’s 1992 press statement “They are poofs” after gay rights activists requested use of Belfast City Hall.
As always with the Belfast Ensemble, it’s the combination of talent that delivers the consuming richness of each performance. Video effects added rather than distracted: projections of key words and definitions filled the width of the brick wall behind the stage. The poise of the cast was dripping with righteousness, particularly Caine with her whole-body gestures, and Cavan with his extraordinary wig and attitude.
Conducted by composer Conor Mitchell, a small group of musicians accompanied the singers: strings, woodwind, brass and piano. The music added levels of complexity to the emotionally-charged moral rhetoric and damnation, at one point introducing a faint countermelody of Jesus Loves Me, at first played on the flute against the main theme before spreading across the instruments to take over the driving force of the piece.
There was nothing deliberately gleeful about Abomination. It was all very matter of fact.
The power of words was aptly displayed, alongside the power of music to appropriate hate speech and serve it up with bright airs. An occasional factual aside was inserted to contrast with the political messaging, but nothing was entirely mocking, and judgement was certainly left to the minds of the audience.
With a vocabulary of ‘nauseous’, ‘disgust’ and the titular ‘abomination’, were these statements kind, or respectful, or responsible, or justifiable, or objectionable?
Whether through imagery, satire, music or poetry, art can take concepts with which we’ve become complacent, and shake them up to challenge us afresh with the beauty or the horror of what counts for political discourse and leadership.
“… with [the tongue] we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” (James 3:9)