Riven by decades of conflict, and even now existing in uneasy peace, the capital of Northern Ireland has created in its people a special hardness and resilience, which masks a diffident softness rarely allowed to surface.
All this provides precious material for Oona Doherty’s Hard to Be Soft, an unflinching piece of dance theatre that came to the Queen Elizabeth Hall hot on the heels of a successful run at the Edinburgh Festival.
On a dark stage a pot of burning incense gets us underway, surrounded by three dark hooded figures. The incense denotes the all-pervading influence of the Catholic Church, the figures the menace still and always in the air.
The stage is entirely encased in a cage (set and lighting design by Ciaran Bagnall), its symbolism clear enough. In David Holmes' soundscape, electronic notes are overlaid with male voices, loud, aggressive, heavy with swearing. Oona Doherty comes on casually dressed in sweats, her swaggering movements simultaneously a representation and a mockery of toxic masculinity.
Doherty is a good physical dancer, and in this solo, entitled 'Lazarus and the Bird of Paradise,' she alternately threatens and cowers, both aggressor and victim.
Female voices ringing in complete darkness herald Part 2. They tell us ‘we have to make light of tragedy,’ keep going and keep life ticking on. Women, they say, are superheroes.
In come 'The Sugar Army,' a group of 10 girls in their very early teens, hair braided, dressed in bright colours. They perform a tightly choreographed bouncing dance in a circle. It’s a ritual of defiance; and as they leave the stage one stays behind intrigued by a narrow shaft of light projected from the back of the cage. It looks like a way out. She is tempted. She doesn’t follow it, though.
The strongest part of this episodic work comes next in a section called 'Meat Kaleidoscope.' Two middle aged men, naked torsos, enormous beer bellies pushing out in front them come on from opposite sides of the darkened stage and very slowly walk towards each other.
When they finally meet they fall into an embrace. It’s unclear whether they’re fighting or seeking solace in each other – perhaps both. A slowed down kaleidoscopic video of their grappling is projected onto the backcloth. It’s a prolonged scene where through these two big, sweaty bodies there runs a complex web of violence, assertiveness, aggression, hidden vulnerability and ultimately neediness.
Finally, Doherty comes on for what looks like a coda, 'Helium,' which reprises some of the themes of the previous sections.
At 50 minutes, Oona Doherty’s Hard to be Soft is a concentrated impressionistic portrayal of life in Belfast, put together with a mix of rage and affection. Its impact is forceful, but not overwhelming.
|What||DU19 Oona Doherty, Hard to Be Soft Review|
|Where||Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, Belvedere Road, SE1 8XX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
On 11 Oct 19, 20:00 Dur.: 50 mins approx no interval
|Price||£18-£22 (+ booking fee; concessions available))|
|Website||Click here to book|