Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry, 1912)

Owen McCafferty's verbatim play at the MAC is sleek, beautiful and finely-crafted, but perhaps a little cold

Buildings, like boats, are merely things. Beautiful maybe, stupendous perhaps, but they are defined by the use that we put them to. Much over the last month has been made of the architectural and engineering achievements of the city of Belfast, with our crowning glory, ‘that great boat that sank’, being front and centre.

Light shows have been lit, MTV has filled the city with noise, and memorials have been expanded to truly welcome the world to our place.

Into this landscape of aggressive marketing enters the Metropolitan Arts Centre, or, for ease of use, the MAC. Launched with no less fanfare, the MAC is the culmination of a once in a generation investment in the arts infrastructure of Belfast. This will likely never happen again, so the pressure to get it right is tremendous. The architects and managers are to be applauded for creating a modern space which has a utilitarian elegance, a welcoming atmosphere but above all brings a vibrant energy to the city’s arts landscape.

To open the new theatre in the MAC, Belfast playwright, Owen McCafferty, author of Shoot the Crow and Scenes from a Big Picture, arrives with a play, which takes a new angle on the sinking of the Titanic by focusing not on the actual events of April 14, 1912, but on the inquiry which sat for two months to investigate the reasons behind the sinking. 97 witnesses testified in that time, often cross examined by four or five different inquisitors, creating the definitive source material of what it euphemistically referred to throughout as 'the accident'.

This is a sumptuous production. Within the beautiful theatre space boasted by the MAC, Richard Kent’s set and Conleth White's lighting design have occupied the entirety of the space in a striking manner to create a sense of the size and importance of the inquiry. It's one of the most beautiful and effective designs seen in Belfast for years. A large cast use the space tremendously, led by Paul Moriarty as Lord Mersey, chair of the commission, who is ably supported by 13 brilliant character actors, rarely putting a foot wrong in bringing to life the relief and guilt felt by those who survived the sinking.

Director Charlotte Westenra, beings a theatricality to proceedings in creating a broad canvas, but allows the actors to communicate in small detail the subtle characteristics of individuals. In a departure from the inquiry text, Ian McElhinney is our guide to proceedings as an invented Clerk of the Court, there to provide a link between our lives and the Edwardian lives on show.

McCafferty utilises the techniques of verbatim theatre, a form that over the last ten years has become popular as a means of creating an emotional link between the actions of governments and a theatre audience. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, the Scott Inquiry into the Arms to Iraq scandal, and the Hutton Inquiry are three such that have been dramatised. Pared down to its essence, the technique allows real testimony to take the place of a playwright's vision of contemporary history, with grand claims being made that verbatim theatre is a truly democratic form of drama, bringing the minutiae of government to the people, at a time when we are increasingly detached and alienated from the decision-making that dominates our lives.

This use of verbatim technique is at once a strength and a weakness of the play. A strength because it is a welcome blast of reality in amongst the marketing shtick about Titanic swirling around us over the last two months, and McCafferty is masterful in using the source material to delineate the subtle definitions of Edwardian society. Brilliantly he introduces Ernest Shackleton, the eminent Irish born explorer, and the reaction of the judges and witnesses to his presence tells you all you need to know about their attitudes to achievement and futile heroism.

The technique is also a weakness, however, because these events are a period piece, and seem strangely irrelevant to our lives now. McElhinney closes the show with McCafferty's words, rounding off the historical verbatim dialogue with perhaps a more modern emotional view of the tragedy. Throughout the play the witnesses and attorneys are keen to not distress with any recollection of the horror of that night, but we are reminded in the final speech of the human cost of driving a massive boat at speed through seas full of icebergs.

This addition sounds a false note. If we are to use the words of the dead, as their minor roles in great historical events are inquired upon, let us trust ourselves to hear them. For this element to work, we needed more of McElhinny, not merely an introduction and epilogue.

Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Inquiry, 1912) allows us under the bonnet of Edwardian England, in a production all should be proud of. Sleek, beautiful and finely crafted, but in the end a little cold. What fails perhaps, is the choice of technique. A brilliant playwright such as McCafferty could create his own vision of Edwardian life and times. His own words may well have gripped the heart more.

Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Inquiry, 1912) is at the MAC until May 20. For more information on upcoming events at the MAC and other venues check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide.