Hofesh Shechter's inclusive production gives Derry~Londonderry something to be truly proud of
When you are offered ear plugs on the way in to what is ostensibly a dance production, it should provide fair warning that you are in for something a little different. So it goes with Political Mother: Derry~Londonderry Uncut.
This City of Culture event is the culmination of a decade of work from Hofesh Shechter (pictured below) – a visionary Israeli choreographer now based in London – which examines issues of conflict and the role of the individual within and against the ‘system’.
But Political Mother is no mere dance piece. Shechter draws on a diverse musical and visual pallete to deliver an immersive, visceral experience for his audience. Nor is Political Mother necessarily highbrow – this is culture and creativity as spectacle, involving amateur musicians from across Derry~Londonderry.
As over 1,500 of us file into The Venue at Ebrington, we are greeted by a darkness penetrated by ethereal mist. With ear plugs in hand, the sense of anticipation and expectation is palpable amidst the standing audience, who are primed more for a gig than a contemporary dance performance.
The show opens with a lone samurai-like figure emerging spotlit through the mists to begin a slow, quiet dance centre stage – and with that we are off! Put simply, the first 20 minutes of Political Mother is probably the most engaging, thrilling experience I have ever had at a cultural event.
From those dark mists (of time? The fog of War?) we jump via Lee Curran’s stunning lighting design to the top tier of a previously unseen set. Up in the God’s, some 30 feet above the stage, a full rock band is assembled. Clutching guitars and poised over drums, they burst into pulsating, eardrum-ripping life.
Political Mother is not a show to sit back and enjoy. It grabs you by the scruff of the neck and physically demands your engagement. The crowd begin to move and marvel at what we are seeing and hearing.
The violent energy of the rock soundtrack is then undercut by the gentler intonations of a string section located on the second tier of the stage, again picked out in lights and made up of local musicians. We are teased as the dancers play out a series of occasionally raucous, occasionally reflective vignettes, sporadically accompanied by a line of snare drummers.
A clear visual and rhythmical pattern begins to emerge of the cyclical and repetitious nature of war, conflict, torture and oppression – played out through brutal, lyrical dance, with the occasional addition of a deranged dictator or manic rock star picked out high above the stage to add to the already heady mix.
There is clearly much that can be said about the meaning and purpose of all of this. Shechter’s meditations on man’s inhumanity to man and its endless replaying are serious and real, but for most of us in the audience Political Mother is all about the immediate effect.
I take a look around at my fellow audiences members, open-mouthed and wide-eyed in their focus on the stage, and realise that this is a new experience for most of us. The collective sense of awe and wonder is incredibly emotive.
After the initial 20-minute assault on the senses, we are given some opportunity to draw breath as the pace shifts slightly. Rock gives way to classical, and the dance sequences orient more towards the impacts of conflict than its portrayal. The cyclical pattern of contrasts remains though, with the brilliantly cinematic lighting design switching the general focus.
Then a message is revealed in lights across the stage. ‘Where there is pressure there is…’. The enigmatic statement hangs uncompleted as the backdrop to a large-scale dance piece, before we get the unexpected reveal: ‘…folk dance’. In this moment of levity the audience laugh and applaud with rueful gusto.
The light humanity of this touch, undercutting the darkness of what has gone before, is reinforced as Shechter works the audience beautifully, charming the pants off the locals with an Irish fusion piece – complete with lambeg drums and fiddles. ‘This is for you Derry!' And Derry loves it.
Political Mother ends with a haunting dance sequence set to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ – the lyrics providing the first real words of the evening as Mitchell sings ‘I really don’t know life at all’. Given all that has gone before, it feels a curiously anti-climactic ending. But then perhaps that is Schechter’s point – the energy and drama of war is ultimately replaced with real life, whatever that is…
Political Mother Derry~Londonderry Uncut has set a real benchmark for Derry~Londonderry’s year as the first UK City of Culture. It is surely the best quality dance piece to reach this island for some years, and arguably one of the best live performance experiences you could ever wish for.
In terms of stretching an audience's understanding of performance, art and culture, it is unique, and will pave the way for future performers and producers in Derry and beyond to push boundaries and do things differently.
The insight that the local musicians will have had during their three months of rehearsal – not just regarding the performance itself, but also the planning and preparation required for such a world-class work – will undoubtedly leave a legacy.
Hofesh Shechter’s vision may now seem an obvious fit for a conflicted space such as Derry~Londonderry, but as always, it is all about the delivery of that vision. At the performance level, Political Mother is manically, crazily brilliant and will live long in the memory of all who attended.