The Conquest of Happiness

The human spirit triumphs in Prime Cut's 'spine-tingling' co-production in Derry~Londonderry

Lest we forget,
What they were dying for.
Lest we forget,
What they were killing for.
Lest we forget,
What the hell it was for.

The repeated line in the final stanza of Canadian poet Owen Griffiths's powerful poem has become a motto for Remembrance Day commemorations the world over. And so it is in The Conquest of Happiness, a remarkable theatrical event partly inspired by the English philosopher Bertrand Russell's book of the same name.

The highly respected Bosnian director Haris Pasovic and his co-creator Emma Jordan have pinpointed nine remembrance day scenarios, fearlessly evoking a string of atrocities from recent times while exposing the political corruption and human greed lurking behind their provenance.

So massive is the slate that one imagines the initial challenge must have been in deciding what to include, and what to leave out. The outcome amounts to nine exquisitely crafted, fully-formed little plays, recreating bleak snapshots of the horrors of Auschwitz, Srebrenica, Bloody Sunday, Vietnam, Cambodia, Palestine, Rwanda and the Chilean coup of 1973.

This hugely ambitious, theatrically audacious piece is a co-production between Belfast's Prime Cut Productions, of which Jordan is artistic director, Pasovic's Sarajevo-based East West Centre and Theatre Mladinsko in Ljubljana, and plays over two nights on the weekend of September 20 in Derry~Londonderry.

Commissioned by the Culture Company for UK City of Culture 2013, the project attracted major funding not only from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland but also from the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA) of the European Union, an acknowledgment of the way in which, through content, vision and creative composition, Prime Cut has reached out across Europe and made valuable cultural connections.

Russell's book, published in 1930, was not intended for academics and professional philosophers but for the benefit of the common man. The distinguished writer, logician, mathematician, social critic and pacifist was unshakeable in his faith in the human spirit's ability to re-seed and flourish, even in the wake of the most devastating disasters.

Pasovic and Jordan have taken as a starting point Bertrand's assertion that 'the secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible'. Guided by the reincarnation of Russell himself, played with strength and sensitivity by Cornelius Macarthy from Sierra Leone, the two-hour promenade production navigates a path through a series of gut-wrenching illustrations of that 'horrible, horrible, horrible' world.

As dusk settles over the Foyle River in Derry~Londonderry, the journey begins on a patch of rough ground outside a derelict brick building on the Ebrington site. Its course is plotted by a glorious, eastern European-flavoured instrumental and choral score, played live by composer Neil Martin on cello and uilleann pipes, and Rod McVey on saxophone and piano.

The two musicians settle into a makeshift shelter and build a plaintive lament as a Palestinian village unfolds around them. Young men kick a football on the street, a woman prepares food, a couple dance, a man decorates a wall of his house.

Suddenly, domestic harmony is shattered by the roar of a JCB digger, which charges into view and, under the directions of a Jewish settler, reduces their flimsy homes to rubble. The courageous protests of local people prove futile and it is with heavy hearts that the audience leaves this scene of destruction to process towards the paved yard of the beautifully restored former barracks.

This massed gathering recalls the atmosphere of a civil rights march, and very soon it becomes apparent that this is precisely what it is. Banners and slogans transport us back to January 30, 1972 and the familiar images and events of that terrible day in this city.

The vast performance space is dominated by towering watch towers, from which blinding searchlights pick out faces in the crowd. Pushing their way through are armed guards and soldiers, performing as though for real.

Also moving among us are performers in the guise of innocent people at the mercy of military juntas and invading foreign forces. The result is a thrilling, sometimes intimidating experience, with the audience forming an integral part of the action.

The Conequest of Happiness

 

Through the gathering darkness begin to emerge the clumsy, squatting shapes of army lorries and trucks, their open sides providing all manner of stages and modes of transport. A dizzying cacophony of disembodied voices, music, sound effects and lights come at us from all directions, engulfing proceedings in a sense of shared fear and apprehension.

Production logistics are complex, the pace is frenetic and the levels of physicality intense as the nine actors – who come from England, Ireland, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Slovenia and Belgium – dash between roles and locations.

An enduring image of every scenario is that of ordinary people whose peaceful, happy lives are brought abruptly and violently to an end. Individual performances powerfully print those images on our consciousness.

Belgian actor/choreographer Thomas Steyaert is brilliantly convincing as the Chilean musician, poet and political activist Victor Jara, who was arrested, beaten, tortured and shot dead with 44 machine-gun bullets after a heart-stopping game of Russian roulette.

Steyaert reappears coaxing a group of bright-faced children in a detention centre to overcome the sinister implications of the yellow star worn on their clothing. Their happy play is interrupted by the entry of Zeljko Hrs's silent, white-coated Joseph Mengele, who takes his pick of victims before consigning the rest to the back of a lorry. To the sound of its young passengers' sweet singing, it drives away – to the gas chambers.

A Vietnam veteran struggles with post-traumatic stress as he shares with a journalist his recollection of the part he played in the My Lai massacre. Meanwhile, back in the White House, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his associates plan the intervention that will result in the killing fields of Cambodia.

And closer to home for the Bosnian members of the cast are shocking scenes of systematic rape and murder, culminating in the male population of the village of Srebrenica being herded onto a school bus and 'disappeared'.

As the tragedies pile up, compassion fatigue threatens to set in. At this point, Russell makes his final appearance. All along, his wisdom and insightful words – coupled with those of writer Damian Gorman – keep the audience focused and informed.

He observes the inescapable fact that, down the centuries, atrocities happened that were not prevented. But he comes to a realisation that pain can be dominated and wisdom derived from it. And he foresees that Europe will be multi-cultural, or it will not be at all.

Turning from the blood-letting of Rwanda – for which the part played by the French government is called to account – Macarthy leads us to a viewpoint looking across the Foyle from the Waterside. With the lights of this once divided city reflected in the water and the Peace Bridge rearing up into the night sky, he speaks of diversity and the human propensity for happiness. It is the last in an evening of spine-tingling moments.