Gordon Osràm's Funeral
Though not always subtle, this interactive swan song is a multi-layered and undeniably fun piece of theatre which puts every inch of its surroundings to use
The premise of Gordon Osràm's Funeral – ostensibly it is about an artist stage managing his own funeral – couldn’t be more timely, especially as, arguably David Bowie has just done exactly that, and beautifully.
The play is immersive and its space, Riddell’s Warehouse on Ann Street, is the star of the show. It is caged in scaffolding, face-packed with soot, with weird sculptural rosettes poking out from the clipped wings of its buttresses. Dr. Dan Jewesbury could probably make a decent fist of a walking tour around it.
Nothing betrays the theatrical experience waiting inside; it’s just another magnificent dead building in Belfast’s city centre, rotting gently into that good night.
Will I survive the performance without attack from falling masonry or petulant pigeon? I barely survive the attacks by the performers! I’m greeted by Juliette O’Hagan (Vicky Blades), the 'experience ambassador', on message in goth black and '80s peroxide, who hands the crowd their tour maps for the funeral – I’m totally getting a tour map for my funeral.
The space is extraordinary, smeared with a patina of brick dust: all exposed masonry, plastic tarpaulins and gaffa-taped railings. The Dirty Onion this is not! It is the blasted guts of an industrial building, though beautifully dressed: the focus is an inky black wreath trailing fibre optics, but leading away from this centre-piece are five retrospective 'Osràm' exhibitions, each a loving pastiche of Y.B.A. excesses, whilst also providing a narrative thread that will weave through the emerging story.
The attention to detail is astonishing and the work is thrillingly plausible and wittily rendered. This gratuitousness is glorious, utterly enriching the immersive experience.
Upstairs is an amphitheatre framed by chairs. At its centre are two people in fluffy white cat/bear suits chained to an orange box. As the face of the deceased Osràm (Brian Hutton), is projected onto a screen, like Marlon Brando as Superman’s dad, he exhorts us to shake each other’s hands and the two cats come to life, wriggling and shrieking their heads off, literally in fact, as the fluffy helmets fall to the floor, revealing Clare Black (Colette Lennon) and Jessica Young (Megan Armitage) collectively known as art terrorists 'Polar Pussy'.
What follows is textbook immersion: the audience are chided for standing there and staring ('Why are you filming this!' screams Black in disbelief), asked to help find the key, two of their number tasked with releasing the trapped artists from their shackles.
The story gathers momentum as Juliette confronts the pair and questions their motives, playing their anti-art manifesto on the big screen and revealing them to be just as pretentious as the artists they pillory. As Juliette abruptly switches off the video Black snarls, 'You didn’t play the best bit!' adding, with a nod to the audience, 'You wouldn’t understand it anyway.'
Black refuses to believe that Gordon is dead and is waiting for him to show himself. Juliette, very much the ringmaster here, quietly assures her that he is not around, albeit in teasingly opaque terms.
At this point there is a narrative fugue: Julia says that anyone who wants to listen to Polar Pussy’s rants can do so just by following them, while those who want to stay and listen to Gordon’s auto-eulogy can do so. This splits the audience and also the content of the play. It’s a nice idea and something that this play does repeatedly and well.
There are further interactive moments: a conga breaks out, disposable cameras dispensed and selfies encouraged. There is dancing and the licensed destruction of Gordon’s work and each time the audience are invited to take part. All of these difficult parts are handled with aplomb by the committed cast.
Where the play is less successful is in its lack intimacy, subtlety or nuance. Everything is bellowed and shrill. That’s not the fault of the actors necessarily; they’re acting in a barn and emoting at the top their voices, they have few options.
Some of the dialogue is shockingly banal too, soap-opera reactions to sudden revelations. 'I hated him...but I loved him too,' opines Black. 'Jessica, we’re doing just what he wants!' At one point she gives the ghostly Gordon a long slow handclap like an unmasked Agatha Christie murderer. It seems strange in a play where the supplementary materials are so on the nose that a good deal of the dialogue, particularly towards the end, falls somewhat flat.
The final twist, the true fate of Gordon Osràm, is neat but feels slightly unearned. It does, however, offer Black full closure. She is no longer waiting for Gordo.
Gordon Osràm's Funeral is an undeniably fun night out and makes great capital of its environment. There is a level of ingenuity and detail that is truly impressive in the work and the cast all acquit themselves well, despite some uneven spoken elements and peculiar changes in pitch.
And where else would you be able to knock a fist sized hole through contemporary art with a glass of wine in your hand and not get arrested? Go on, unleash your inner iconoclast!
Gordon Osràm's Funeral continues at Riddell's Warehouse, Belfast until Saturday, March 19 before touring venues across Ireland with shows at The Complex, Dublin (April 13 - 16), Shambles Market, Armagh (April 20 - 21) and The Playhouse, Derry~Londonderry (April 23). To book tickets visit www.accidentaltheatre.co.uk/gordon-osrams-funeral.