Sunday, July 11, 1999

The Wedding Community Play (Various, Belfast)

"My only love sprung from my only hate..." The line from Kabosh's all male version of Romeo and Juliet might as easily have been plucked from another show at this year's Belfast Festival. The scene for The Wedding Community Play may be fair Belfast rather than fair Verona, but it's the same old story down the Short Strand.

It is the wedding day of Damien of the House of Todd and Nicola of the House of Marshall, and the place in uproar. Granny tanks up on whiskey, Sponge runs around trouserless and a proud father ponders a speech on peace and reconciliation.

It is a pertinent issue, since the Marshalls are a Protestant Family, while the Todd's are Catholics. Neither family is comfortable with intermarriage. And while everyone's misgivings might only be spoken behind closed doors, we have joined the cast behind those doors.

The Wedding Community Play is a pilgrimage of a show, played out in the very locations -- terraced houses, church and hotel -- where the dramas of the city's wedding days unfold. The show, written by Marie Jones and Martin Lynch, is built on the dense network of community theatres across Belfast, with its massive cast drawn from one or another of seven amateur companies from both sides of the city's divide.

We meet the young couple in much more than a metaphorical sense. And it is that switch, the one from "we open in a small sitting room in Belfast..." to finding oneself in a small sitting room in Belfast that helps give the Wedding Community play its considerable pleasure, value and fascination.

A short coach ride from St. Anne's Cathedral, two busloads of audience disembark into an ordinary terrace house in Short Strand. One little band are taken to the bedroom, another to the living room, The rest of us find ourselves crammed in a small kitchen where the bridegroom (Joe McDowell), the best man (Gideon Greig) and friend Sponge (Bill Elwood) are pawing over copies of wedding etiquette books.

Later, we sit in an upstairs bedroom, as the bridegroom's sister gets dumped -- via mobile phone . In the front room, the neighbourhood women cry and choose hats. All the time, the sounds of car radios and children playing drift in from the street.

As each of the scenes unrolls, we here noises off -- a shout, a thundering of feet on the stairs. Only when we've been ushered to another room, and another scene, do all the noises of the house fit together into a perfect picture of our time in Short Strand.

A short ride on the bus and a few streets away we are inside another house in the flux of wedding morning preparation. Nowhere in Belfast, it seems, is offstage and the continuous round of entrances and exits gives things an unstoppable momentum. Despite moving from place to place, the drama remains thoroughly cohesive and the sense of time crisply precise.

The sensation is enhanced by the relaxed style of that directors Jo Egan, Gerri Moriarty have established in the domestic scenes. Freed from the requirements of projection, the cast can deliver hyper-naturalistic performances, filled with details of which only a TV close up could normally make sense.

As we stand alone with the bride's mother, Jeannie Marshal (Patricia Anderson) leaning over an old photo, all we hear is the slightest stuttering of breath, all we see is the smallest movement of the shoulders to tell us the woman is in tears.

But The Wedding is not even bound by its own rules. In the ceremony scene, in Rosemary Street church, director Michael Poyner ditches restraint, quick cutting between highlights of the ceremony and full cast song and dance numbers, in a style reminiscent of the celebrated church scene from The Blues Brothers.

Finally, at the Hilton Hotel we are ushered into a large banquet room, where, aided by some buck's fizz and a slice of wedding cake, and with a little help from Jaz Pollock's conniving waitress/narrator, we eavesdrop on the fallout from this magnificent day of colliding worlds. A blessing on both your houses.

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