Kabosh Theatre Company use Titanic Belfast as the set of their latest site-specific piece. It works
Jimmy McAleavey's Titans, a site specific Kabosh Theatre Company production, could have been a gimmicky show. It promised 'a theatrical trip behind the scenes at Titanic Belfast' … 'a world premiere for a world-class building'.
I had fears that this would be a folksy meander around our glossy new homage to the world's most famous liner, part of the mad outpouring of unquestioning pride about Titanic. I expected that we would meet a few famous faces from the past – poor old Thomas Andrews, perhaps, or Captain Smith – and have a gawk at the amazing architecture of Titanic Belfast, and that would be it.
Luckily, I was wrong. Yes, Titans is performed 'in promenade', the audience following the actors up stairs and escalators, along private corridors. And yes, it does feature characters from the Titanic story. But this is no lazy, corporate schlock.
On the contrary, Titans is a rich, opaque piece: its themes of loss, mortality, forgiveness and atonement linger in my mind long after I walk out the big shiny doors of Titanic Belfast.
We began in the Drawing Offices, where Titanic and the other leviathans of the White Star Line were designed. The plangent beauty of this decaying space never fails to strike me: it is atmospherically lit, choral music floats through the air.
A hooded figure strides in, declaiming the words of Psalm 130: 'out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord'. This anonymous man – anarchic pastor, lost soul, tortured madman, mystic – is our guide for the night. We follow him as he stalks the building, eavesdropping on his conversations. His quest – using a series of magic symbols – is to find a way to reunite with his wife and child, who lost their lives when Titanic sank.
On an emergency staircase, stark with strip lighting, we encounter Bruce Ismay, the disgraced chairman of the White Star Line, who survived the disaster, supposedly by dressing as a woman and slipping on to a lifeboat. Notoriously, he was responsible for reducing the number of lifeboats on board Titanic in order to make more promenade space.
Here, played with conviction by Ian McElhinney, Ismay is a shambling creature, a pale ghost of a man, convinced that he is unforgivable. 'No-one can know how precious life is until he had been responsible for so many dead,' he says.
Later, we come across Violet Jessop, the stewardess who became famous for surviving both the sinking of the Titanic and her sister ship, Britannic. Our desperate chaplain calls her 'the Jonah of the White Star Line', asking 'why did the sea spit you out again and again?'.
These encounters are perplexing – what answers does the pastor want? What does he expect these ghosts to give him? But the haunting lyricism of the writing and the energy of the performances keep the momentum going.
Titans is no sanitised tourist board fantasy. John Quinn, shipyard stoker, incongruously sipping a whiskey in the exclusive corporate suite at the top of the building, asks, 'Do we still have that servile spirit that we need a sunk ship to be proud of?' Good question.
The denouement of Titans is a moment of strange, almost eerie transcendence, which makes full use of the remarkable architecture of Titanic Belfast. Even the much-vaunted replica staircase from the ship – itself admittedly rather underwhelming, in both scale and quality – is used to great dramatic effect.
After such a crescendo it is a pity, then, that the audience is unable to applaud the players. Instead we are ushered into a gallery and left to wander confusedly among the exhibits for ten minutes, before being showed out of the building.
It is an awkward ending, a little anti-climactic. But Titans itself is a moving, resonant play, and – in a city currently gripped by Titanic mania – it offers a rewarding, curiously off-beat approach to an endlessly re-told story.
Titans runs until April 15, duration one hour, times 7.25pm, 8.00pm, 8.40pm and 9.15pm.