Wednesday, 25 September 2013

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: The Conquest Of Happiness

Haris Pasovic's production is spectacular, mind-blowing and sobering all at once

The audience stands on a hill, a little green hill not so far away, but well outside Derry-Londonderry's city walls. Directly opposite the doorway to the city's 2013 Venue, a saxophone, a cello, a boom, and the tinkling of bells are all heard. Part of a gloomy, Eastern European melody that gives you the first hint of where Haris Pasovic' The Conquest Of Happiness is heading on the night of its world premiere, in and around Ebrington Square.

In a setting done up to resemble Palestine, we see a trio of young men kick a ball on a dusty road, while two women, mother and daughter – or is it aunt and niece? – get on with arts and crafts in their hut. To our left, the saxophonist (Rod McVey) and cellist (Neil Martin) play on. It is a triple-pronged multicultural contrast stretching from the West to the Middle East, with the sax adopting an Arabian slant of sorts by this stage. A former army barracks is a fitting stage for everyone here, trying to find peace and joy in three different parts of a war zone – as befits the title of the production, a conquest of happiness. Happiness, that is, in playing football, crafting a dress, finding new love or making music in dangerous surroundings. Such surroundings are emphasized when a modern-day digger, a symbol of Israeli aggression, destroys the hut and one of the boys fights the machine single-handedly.

It is here where we hear the voice of Bertrand Russell, whose pacifist writings inspired this production, for the first time. Played with remarkable low-key command by Cornelius Macarthy, Russell condemns the aggression in the previous scene as a thimbleful of recognizable audience members – who just so happen to include participants from the city's Codetta choir – melodiously join in the protest and lead us toward Ebrington Square.

What we have seen so far is a jolt to the senses, but it is only the proverbial warm up. Our feet sink into the shallow, gravelly ground of the square itself as we find ourselves surrounded by fortifications, vehicles, and several stages. This truly is a war zone.

Those who stare at the big stage in the centre of the square waiting for what will happen next don't immediately see what actually happens next... courageous speechmaking from activist Violeta – Mona Muratovic in one of many roles – in one corner, and the sound of "We Shall Overcome" ringing out in another. It can only be Bloody Sunday, and the drama is recreated soon after by a group running amongst us in the crowd. One flinches as the sound of a shot ringing out, and a man collapses, before Muratovic's spellbindingly staggering alto rendition of trad classic "She Moved Through The Fair" transforms shock into poignancy in what seems like a split second.

The show has barely begun, and the production team have already made a greater impact on our senses than most, if not all, cultural productions this year.

Macarthy as Russell makes another passionate statement before he joins several other actors in a genuinely spectacular Spanish tango on the centre stage. The setting being what it is, however – dictatorial Chile – ensures the excitement doesn't last long, and every dancer soon finds him or herself a prisoner at gunpoint. Amongst various brutal happenings, a young musician gets slowly beaten up in another sequence that skillfully depicts the fine line between the happiness bubbling on the surface and its much darker underbelly.

From Chile to Vietnam & Cambodia, as actions are largely replaced with language in a less physical, but no less powerful, sequence. The words of then US Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger, played boisterously by Shane O'Reilly, resonate against Russell's emotional power play – one argues that "the fortunate must not be strained in the exercise of pity over the unfortunate" while the other states that "the worship of money promotes... a death of character and purpose." Idealistic hippie views, from a US pair (deliberately?) resembling Greg and Marcia Brady, are aligned against a poor guitarist gunned down in a sea of mournful ballads, and later an American soldier's point of view.

That on its own would be enough for a comprehensive dramatic narrative on the East Asian War of the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's. But The Conquest Of Happiness digs deeper, with projected graphics of both Vietnam and Cambodia during the famous war and later Richard Nixon's speech in China appearing on the very walls of the Ebrington Square building. Cue silence, brief confusion, and several dancers, including Russell himself, appearing in casual clothing on centre stage, only to be dragged off one by one in a symbolization of the removal of resistance.

A sudden change in lighting, costumes, sound effects and tone of music takes us back three decades to World War II and life in the Jewish camps during the time of "The Final Solution". It is arguably here where the production is at its most emotionally draining; imagine a grittier Schindler's List. Nowhere is the sequence more hard hitting than when we watch Jews of all ages circle the enclosure and be herded out of sight on a truck with only sorrowful strings to accompany them. Why, a character asks, was "Ode To Joy" picked as the final song for Jewish children to sing before their likely termination? Why, indeed? Presenting victims with false hope, followed by guilty feelings of shame from the mouth of Russell himself, is as cruel as it gets. War has "made it impossible" for Russell to "live in a world of abstraction", and further sequences set in Bosnia, Rwanda (in the 1990's) and the Middle East (in the present day) solidify his point, reminding us that the West will not always positively intervene. Joyous choral flourishes, like Ladarice's "Yugoslavia", an undeniable highlight, are only brief respites.

Like us, Russell has seen cities "collapse and sink", and wonders if the world we live in is a "product... of febrile nightmares", yet he retains belief that there is light at the end of this extremely dark and harrowing tunnel, leading us out from the square and into the pleasant backdrop of the city and the Peace Bridge. As Macarthy and the rest of the talented cast lead us in a happy singalong, one realises that this sobering, immersive and interactive experience has amounted to much more than just about anyone could have expected it to – a unforgettable theatrical triumph of epic proportions.

The Conquest Of Happiness will tour to Mostar Bridge, Ljubljana and Novi Sad before returning to Northern Ireland on October 25 and October 26 during the Belfast Festival at Queens. For more information, check out