Shipwrecked

Three traditions of song combine to tell the story one man's journey post-Armada

Elizabeth I of England and Philip II of Spain play pat-a-cake at the edge of the temporary stage in the Elmwood Hall. An hour and a half earlier that had been having a huge row, in which ships smashed and men drowned.

One ship's captain, Francisco de Cuellar (Oscar Hernandez), washed ashore on the coast of Ireland, is taken in by 'the savages'. He gets embroiled in Anglo-Irish hostilities, but finds himself hostage to the Irish chieftain when he wants to leave for home. Finally he makes it to Spanish-occupied Flanders, telling his tale while awaiting trial for treason.

Queen Bess and Philip are of course played by children, who each take a throne at the very back of the stage after this first spat. In front of them the core musicians (whistles, percussion and harp) are clad in modern black, but other musicians are in period costume.

De Cuellar sits front stage behind an ornately carved table, writing a letter. He acts out his distress, gripping the table's edges for all he's worth as he remembers almost drowning. Music and dance, both courtly and folk, illustrate his vivid narrative.

Unlike the English and Spanish Renaissance music, most of the Irish folk music had to be reverse engineered by eX's music director, Caitriona O'Leary. That oral tradition was only documented in the late 19th century. Pieces like 'Cuach Mo Lon Dubh Buí' (here sung to the Spanish tune Caleno) and the 'Irish Ho Hoane' have come to Shipwrecked in roundabout ways, but are no less affecting for it.

The members of the ensemble impress by taking up multiple roles, with instruments and voices. Both mezzo soprano O'Leary and soprano Clara Sanabras have distinctive voices. In their white collared shrouds they are awe inspiring when first seen as the spectral personifications of England and Spain. Later they have fun as a pair of Irish wenches fighting over our rakish hero, to the delight of the audience.

Tenor Julian Podger too forms a formidable presence, and in his court finery makes a believable archangel, lifting a dispirited De Cuellar, railing at heaven, to his feet again. When the three voices combine ('Parce Mihi Domine'), the effect is spinechilling.

Perched informally on the corner of the stage, Hernandez skillfully engages the audience, addressing individuals as he recounts De Cuellar ingratiating himself with the Irish women. Audience palms are read before he bestows a rose on one lucky woman, and dismisses a heckler ('You don't want to know!') without breaking character.

This is what narration should be. You can imagine how it was to hear stories around the camp fires, pre-mass media.

Hernandez's Spanish accent is at times difficult to follow, he adds authenticity. And although the song lyrics are largely in Spanish, Irish and Latin, the story line can still be followed. Much of this is paradoxically achieved through the singers' restraint. In their stillness, each gesture counts. Nobody could miss the significance of a lady indicating the finger where she expects a ring after being wooed by the hero.

The musical traditions of three countries blend perfectly, complemented by O'Leary's scoring and co-direction with Eric Fraad. Audaciously, 'Greensleeves' is played with a distinct Spanish lilt, then turns into an Irish lament.

To see Shipwrecked is to learn just how connected seemingly disparate musical traditions are. The drunken chieftain (Steve Player) plays percussion on his cheeks, but when he breaks into an Irish jig, Hernandez easily joins him with a flamenco.

For those afraid of opera, this oratorio has been an atmospheric, accessible detour into a world of music. It can only encourage further exploration. The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's audience went wild at the finish and wouldn't stop clapping and cheering until the last song was performed all over again, with added improvisation and some rude lute playing.

With a story conveyed with as much emotion as fact, multiple view points and the chorus depicting various roles (and forces), Shipwrecked can best be described as a dreamlike experience. It is a Renaissance phantasmagoria.

It effortlessly sweeps you up, but as with any dream, no description can do it full justice. eX have created a unique experience. So much so that we were tempted, like Francisco's chieftain host, to detain them to play for us forever and ever...