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Shibboleth. “Themens” from “Usens”

October 15, 2015


Saw this the other night.  At the Abbey Peacock Stage.  Shibboleth by Stacey Gregg.

Shibboleth is a play that is very very aware of its own capacity to become very very pompous and has taken steps to puncture this pomposity at regular intervals.  At one point a character describes ley lines crossing the surface of the world and converging at a nearby pound shop, a “line” that itself smells of very studied and necessary bathos.

The two communities that still need separating despite two decades of ceasefire are never named or described other than as Themens” and “Usens”.  And we are never told who are the themens and who are the usens.  The notion that tribalism is ultimately bereft of meaning or content is of course a stale and lofty liberal piety – and therefore one that needs to be pricked.  Though perhaps not often enough.  Sometimes I started to hear the famous Seamus Heaney poem “Whatever you Say, Say Nothing” poem in my head – whenever the denunciations of sterile sectarianiam became too predictable.  Before the play begins, we sit watching a electronic sign that gives advance warnings of other famous international walls and checkpoints from the dawn of recorded history.  Some people (i.e. me) find it a little irritating when plays make claims for “universality” of their theme by effectively putting up placards saying “the theme of this play is universal”.  Let an audience make their own comparisons, their own connections can’t you?  There are Polish characters here already bringing their own experience of a divided Europe to the table.  Let us join our own dots.

In Shibboleth we have a mother who wants to send her child to an integrated school against the confused instincts of the father, who is working on an extended version of a “Peace Wall” that now threatens to take a slice out of a school playground.  We have a Polish builder called Yuri whose educational advantages earned in Poland seem to count for nothing in Northern Ireland but who remains cheerful nonetheless.  As he enters the workforce, the muscle memory of themens and usens needs to be renovated and remodeled to accommodate a more mixed portfolio of prejudices.  It’s a play that asks a very obvious and necessary question – why – when the war is over – do we keep building and rebuilding and extending peace walls?

The closest thing to a political analysis – something that transcends street level psychology – involves the odious figure of the local councilor – for whom trickle-down economics is the solution to every conflict.  So long as “investment” is coming in from somewhere – lasting peace is inevitable.  So long as someone in the neighbourhood is getting rich – a “process” must be coming to fruition.

The builders of this wall manage to be poetic and inarticulate at one and the same time.  They mumble then they chant – they talk singly and confusedly and then in perfect unison.  This is perhaps the single most effective aspect of the play.  The dialogue is rhythmic, artificial and musical yet earthy enough in places and unafraid to accommodate yawps of utter incomprehension and despair.

The play has a chorus in the shape of the Wall itself – arguably the “wittiest partition” I’ve seen on stage since the fifth act of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Wall does not talk – she can only sing.  To her credit, she (and the rest of the cast) resist the temptation to burst into Pink Floyd’s most tediously obvious hit record.  Wall is dressed as a kind of torch singing construction worker and has a very deep earthy sort of voice – a song like a haunted archaeological dig.

The wall, once built, eventually eats someone – the least intellectually adept and articulate character in the play.

This play would be slightly more important if it didn’t stop to keep telling us how important it is.  It is better in the detail than in the design.  At its very best it’s a play that likes language and the limits of language.  At one point, when following a declaration that nothing can really change in this town, the play itself stops and one of the actors picks up a play text and reads from it to invoke a sense of how very very awkward it is when a play just stops.  This is, praise be, a play that is not afraid to fail.

So it’s trying things.  Yuri had a background in dance back in Poland so he is instantly christened “Billy Elliot” by his workmates, a dangerous joke given that the whole play teeters on the brink of becoming Billy Elliot – of proclaiming the power of wordless dance to transcend impossible situations.  Yuri’s daughter Agnieszka becomes a very obvious test of whether or not someone can survive violent outrage to reconfigure words and bodies in liberating ways.

Because at the very very end of the play a bunch of kids run on stage to initiate Agnieszka’s recuperative dance lessons and one of them is mine.


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