As summer approaches, theater officials often ease off the pedal and host fewer performances but this certainly does not seem to be the case at The Metropolitan Arts Center, otherwise known as The MAC, in downtown Belfast.
Diverse upcoming shows this month range from musical concerts to comedy sketches and theater, not to mention international art exhibitions.
Attending a recent production of ‘The Train,’ a dramatic musical retelling of events surrounding the ‘Contraceptive Train’ in 1971 by which Irish women defied outdated legislation and brought contraceptives to Dublin from Belfast, I was deeply impressed not just by the high caliber of on-stage acting, singing and choreography but the diverse menu of other productions being offered.
This particular show, a sell-out at the Dublin Theatre Festival, arrived at The MAC direct from the Abbey Theatre. Using innovative stage props such as moving metallic staircases and walkways, the show introduces a kaleidoscope of characters ranging from bishops and priests to passionate community activists and politicians who collide either side of this, then, sensitive sex-related issue, at a time when the Catholic Church dominated social affairs in Ireland.
The church’s arrogant attitude towards women is well illustrated by clerics’ view of them as meddling gossips and their collusion with politicians to keep them underfoot and maintain the status quo and their own long-term power. Ultimate triumph is shown through the eyes of a worried wife and mother who bravely joins the foray and in doing so creates a more open-minded husband. The couple, aptly named Adam and Aoife, are ‘the plain people of Ireland’ and a hilarious scene involving Aoife and a priest lying side-by-side in bed illustrates her questioning of the role of the church in her marriage. The couple’s escape from conservative religious tradition is shown vividly as Aoife dances with a snake around her neck and her husband pushes a staircase away from nosy nuns on a balcony.
The complexity of sexual understanding at this time in Ireland is highlighted when activists from the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement are briefly uncertain whether they should be linked to ‘unmarried mothers’ and ‘lesbians.’
Yet, while the central issue of ‘The Train’ is a serious one, it is not dealt with in a heavy-handed way by either playwright Arthur Riordan or director Lynne Parker.
To help those unfamiliar with the issue, the show opens with a chorus of women, with a live backing group, taking the audience through a brief timeline of events, with Bill Whelan’s music and lyrics both entertaining, with tongue-in-cheek musical numbers, and informative.
‘The Train’ is a balanced interplay of the humorous and the serious, the latter when one woman tells how her mother died giving birth to her tenth child and the former when the determined but naive activists arrive in Belfast and discuss whether they should go to a ‘Protestant chemist or Catholic chemist’ to obtain the contraceptives.
One memorable line from the script is a classic defiant comment on dominant male societies, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”
Here are a sample of other events hosted this month at The MAC.
Following a triumphant run as ‘Elphaba’ in ‘Wicked, the Musical’ On-Broadway, singer Rachel Tucker will perform classic jazz, soul and musical theatre favorites as part of her first UK solo tour. Rachel is currently reprising her role as Elphaba in London’s West End, as part of Wicked’s special 10th Anniversary cast, having also previously played the role to great acclaim in London for three years, where she holds the title of longest consecutive running Elphaba and won the 2011 ‘WhatsOnStage’ award for Best Takeover in a Role.
Until mid-June, The Mac will host a new exhibition entitled ‘Lost in Narration’ guest curated by Manuela Pacella and bringing together several multi-layered projects across a range of media by Italian artists Riccardo Giacconi, Invernomuto and Luca Trevisani. Giacconi considers the cultural and historical resonances evoked by Colombian puppet character, the Espiritado; Invernomuto unpacks complex histories and stories between Italy, Ethiopia and Jamaica; and Trevisani has worked in a small town in Kenya with researchers to study the fraught existence of Sudan and the world’s only surviving male northern white rhinoceros.
Other upcoming events at The Mac this month include hosting the classic 1928 silent movie ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc,’ hailed as a landmark of cinema and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer who depicts one of history’s most captivating women.
Theater productions include ‘Waves,’ the story of Elizabeth Moncello, her youth on a small Australian island in the 1930s and how she came to be the unofficial inventor of the butterfly swimming stroke. While ‘Not The Norn Iron News’ is a live satirical news show by satirist and professional Twitter troll, John-Paul Whearty, who follows up his popular show last year, ‘Adventures In Ulster.’