Wednesday, 13 March 2013

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Political Mother, Derry-Londonderry Uncut

Famed contemporary artist Hofesh Shechter raises the bar for City Of Culture 2013 with a spectacular fusion of sight, sound and movement

Original, innovative, multi-layered, consistently kinetic and, above all, exciting, Hofesh Shechter's Political Mother, Derry-Londonderry Uncut (hereafter Political Mother) draws upon a series of cultures, instruments, voices, movements and beats to create a music and dance spectacle worthy of the city it's being staged in. While the sound of the drums and the moves of the dancers will probably linger longest in the minds of the thousands present at Ebrington’s Vital Venue, Political Mother amounts to much more. It's an audio-visual treat, a series of stunning sights and talented artists that are impossible to look away from. It's a show where numerous cultures intersperse with one another to create a sometimes haphazard but overall unforgettable kaleidoscope. In other words, it's the perfect fit for our turbulent times, and has set the benchmark for everything that will follow it in this cultural celebration in North West Ireland.

Even more remarkably, at first glance Political Mother doesn't seem to make much sense. One moment, you see a dancer dressed as a samurai, feigning his own death. Then, a series of dancers march out onto the stage in harmony. At other times, you see a singer with a monster mask, and then another singer who thinks he's Freddie Mercury. Early on, you see and hear a series of drummers suited up like British soldiers playing Arabic music... all while string instrumentalists, a wall of guitarists and even more drummers are at work in literally every other corner of a multi-levelled (can I say three-dimensional?) stage. Sometimes simultaneously. It is an absolutely overwhelming experience, maybe too much so at times, but it's always intriguing.

To Shechter and his troupe, contrasting cultures always appears to be the name of the game, from British to the Middle East to the Far East; at one point, the drumming reminds this observer of the legendary Tao drummers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival of 2009. And not for one moment do the moves of the dancers feel mechanical – no matter what dancer you watch, or which way they are looking, there is always something interesting to see.

Some may dismiss Political Mother as a pretentious series of bright flashes and loud bangs. But I personally see it as a hyper-stylised, colourful, energetic "silent" (in that speech is irrelevant) movie that does not lend itself to any one genre, and is all the better for it. Maybe, then, Political Mother should be best remembered for its sights, rather than its sounds? More as a feast for the eyes than for the ears? Not necessarily. Not when you consider the finale, played out to Joni Mitchell’s "Both Sides Now", a stirring classic previously made famous by undoubtedly the finest scene in Richard Curtis's uneven but endearing Love Actually. In fact, a minor comparison with Love Actually is somehow apt. Like Curtis's film, you watch Shechter's composition and think that logically, it shouldn't work. But it does. And it certainly seems like the kind of thing you can enjoy again and again. Furthermore, the best moments truly are indelible.

Political Mother is the sort of work that may leave some of its viewers slightly baffled. Yes, it really is what it advertises itself to be: a massive slice of heavy rock riffs, drum beats, dance, energy and so on. But what is it all about? The dancing, the music or just flashes and bangs dressed up as something more highbrow? Does it really have that much to say?

Ultimately, the best way to sum up Political Mother is probably not to sum it up at all. It's something that transcends easy answers. As Roald Dahl put it in Matilda, fine writing, or art – which Political Mother undoubtedly is – will always make you feel like you are an active participant, rather than a passive spectator. And when watching it, one need not worry about the movements that he or she does not understand – the best thing to do is stand back, and allow the choreography to wash around you, like some of the greatest harmonies and melodies ever written.

(Photos courtesy of Lorcan Doherty Photography.)