The Sign of the Whale

Joe Nawaz has an urge to rewind Tinderbox's surreal, subjective play

Tinderbox’s latest play is not only one of their best in years but also one of the best plays to emerge from our fertile little corner of the theatre world in quite a while. Writer Jimmy McAleavy has concocted a heady tale that incorporates fable, allegory, political commentary and homage. Director Mick Duke has taken the raw stuff of stellar story-telling and formed it into a spectacle as powerful and profound as theatre can be without disappearing up its own backside. And that’s quite a balancing act – believe me.

It’s Belfast, 1977 and soul searching sub-editor Dermy and troubled teenager Tony have both been blinded in separate unexplained incidents. Dermy wakes to find Tony and himself in some kind of hospital ward. Elsewhere (in best Norn Iron newsreader diction), there’s rumours of a killer whale trapped in Belfast Lough. In between the violence and mayhem on the streets the media find time to track the movements of our very own Moby Dick (or ‘Dopey Dick’ or even ‘Dopey Mick’ as one naval cad lets slip later in the play).

The Sign of the Whale then unfolds in a series of reminiscences and language both jarring and rhythmically hypnotic as Dermy and Tony relay their stories – tracing their histories and actions (and the whale’s too) to the beds they currently find themselves in.

That’s just the start of it. Writer McAleavy has a keen and affectionate affinity for the geographical and historical anatomy of the city of Belfast. His script deliberately meanders, ruminates, turns in on itself, becoming reflective and opaque before emerging with a killer joke – it’s all in the timing. Never has the description of a walk down Corporation Street been as funny and equally evoked such a sense of menace.

The bright, white, stark set fashioned, appropriately enough, from newspaper piles, houses the protagonists’ physical selves while their inner lives spill out around them. Scenes of Dermy and Tony’s exchanges and reminiscences (when they aren’t being played out in flashback) are interspersed with news-flashes and interviews between 1970s TV archetypes behind a half-lit gauze wall – the stuff of nightmares, if we dreamed in beige.

The Sign of the Whale is, as it says on the tin, all about signs. Signs as meaning and counter-meaning. Subjectivity is compulsory in this world – a magic realist rendition of a very real 1970s Belfast. As Tony almost says at one point, the only thing that the Whale in the tale doesn’t represent is nothing.

McAleavy’s writing comes from a place of self-understanding and is a marvel at times. Whether he’s making sly in-jokes about the printed media (the guy clearly has a hack history), turning little gems such as 'piss and self-preservation' or even making a little space in the middle of a character’s sprawling hallucination to duly note the prevailing antipathy towards seat-belts in the 70s, it’s never less than well crafted.

His play is devoid of the clumsy trappings of typical ‘Troubles’ theatre, by dint of the fact that the horrors of the violence are not portrayed literally, rather through the imaginations of the characters or in dream-like newscasts.

The cast, led by a mesmeric Miche Doherty as Dermy, are excellent. Michael Condron is also deserving of special mention for laying on a virtuoso bumper pack of diffuse supporting characters, both real and imagined and including one Whistlin’ Ian Paisley (to give him his authentic blues name).

When we reach the inevitable but in no way predictable dénouement, as revelations are made, and the whale’s demise coincides with the harsh rebooting of the reality of the times, there’s a sense of having witnessed something great whilst having missed something important. The urge to rewind is overwhelming.

The Sign of the Whale should be running a little longer at the Baby Grand, if only to deliver a clarion call of shame to the hollow karaoke ‘Troubles’ porn of Give my Head Peace ,as it is wheeled out once more to totter about the main Opera House stage. The word ‘antithesis’ has never sounded sweeter.