'The play's characters are as likeable and compelling as a romantic weekend with a Dalek'
Belfast 2068. Science is changing how we live. How we die. What we can remember. Ten ordinary people are facing the choices of their lives. Our future is in their hands.
A Tinderbox Theatre Company production, set in a future of infinite possibilities, and written by four experienced writers, Bruised was an unusual creative experiment that might have set the burgeoning world of sci-fi theatre alight. The fact is, however, that the lofty blurb attached to this production is perhaps the most interesting thing about it.
Composer and violinist Ruby Colly and designer Ciaran Bagwald deserve acclaim for their haunting musical score and lacy, spacey set design respectively. But it’s a struggle to find anything worth praising elsewhere.
The ten so-called ordinary people that populate the play – a husband and wife torn asunder by adultery, a hapless Belfast harbour patrol duo, a mother and her disfigured son, amongst others – are as likeable and compelling as a romantic weekend with a Dalek.
The four separate story lines that intertwine throughout the production, written by Maria Connolly, Stacey Gregg, Rosemary Jenkinson and Maria McManus, don’t so much compliment each other as unite to confound the viewer.
The central premise of the play is based around the futuristic notion that memory can be both removed and replaced surgically. The transplanting of body parts – the disfigured son, for instance, has his face replaced – comes with an existential downside. On the plus side, unwanted memories can be deleted. On the negative, you might have a new face, but as a result you've also got a lifetime of unknown memories to contend with.
As the rather repetitive female doctor character (played by Maggie Cronin) continues to emphasise throughout the play, pain and the memory of pain is an infinite phenomenon, carrying down through the generations via ears and hearts and skin and bone. ‘Neurology is the way forward. 100 years ago it was the stars.’ 100 years ago it was 1968, doc. The B-Specials did not take orders from hooded astrologers.
It’s an interesting concept, and one which Tinderbox put a lot of time and effort into bringing to the stage. In regurgitating the central conceit time and again, however, the script fails to do what all good sci-fi does, which is to examine how an unfamiliar idea affects the daily lives of real human beings. They try, but the stories are threadbare, the characters one-dimensional.
If all four writers had worked on one storyline, giving the audience more time to connect with the characters and sympathise with their incredible plight, perhaps the play might have worked better. Instead, the script wallows in pretentious language and amateur philosophy. The actors have very little to work with but bring very little to the table in turn - except, in parts, for Jack Quinn, who injects a humility and humour into his various characters.
Tinderbox drafted in a scientist to counsel the writers on the real-world complexities of neurological jargon. As a result, the doctor's interludes are all about paradigm shifts and PRS2 neuron amalgamations. Instead of adding authenticity, all this does is produce language that is infuriatingly incomprehensible.
The audience don't seem so bothered. Perhaps they're neurologists on a busman's holiday. For me, I find it difficult to remain in my seat. All the Brechtian glances toward the audience as the actors wander across the stage between scenes, and lines like 'I want to hear your heartbeat when mine stops' and 'your admiration is filled with hate' make Bruised a breath-taking bore.
I've never felt so uncomfortable, so moved to scream in frustration, in a theatre as when the house lights went up for intermission and the two young lovers remained in their seats, silent, pulling actor faces as the audience groped for understanding. Can we leave now? Is it worth coming back?
The saving grace of the piece is Colly's violin music. Using a foot-pedal controlled recording device, she builds up layers of melody that combine to add drama and coherence to an otherwise random series of vignettes. I frequently lose myself in her music, snap out of it, and wish that I hadn't.
Science fiction and theatre make uneasy bedfellows in this Tinderbox production. In the end, the audience are left with more questions than answers.
Four writers working together on a play was an interesting and ambitious idea, but leaving the Old Museum Arts Centre, a cliche immediately springs to mind - something about too many cooks and a spoilt broth. If Belfast is this dour in the future, I'll be hitching a ride out of town sooner rather than later.