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Northern Ireland has always struggled with remembering; what should we remember? What should we make an effort to forget? How do we mark remembrance? Can remembrance be a part of peace?
Abomination: A DUP Opera by Conor Mitchell, produced by the Belfast Ensemble and Outburst Arts, and which sold out four nights at the Lyric in Belfast as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festival, is an artistic act of remembrance. Every word used was gathered from statements made by DUP members over the years, with the addition of words used by Stephen Nolan, the BBC Radio Presenter whose interview with Iris Robinson, a then-senior DUP politician, is the frame for the opera. I sat in the front row pinned to my seat by the force of those words, emphasized exquisitely by Rebecca Caine as Iris, Tony Flynn as Stephen Nolan, and the powerful harmonies of the Belfast Ensemble. It’s hard to describe how something can be beautiful and frightening at the same time, but the brutal repetition of the DUP’s words about homosexuality over the years were heightened by the structure and musicality of each piece, lighting and movement adding a breath-taking visual. So we had, for example, Matthew Cavan beginning a piece where Sammy Wilson’s words ‘They are poofs- I don’t care if they are ratepayers’ was built into a chorus of poofs as Cavan’s outfit was adorned with clown accessories: a clown hat, a bunch of colourful balloons…
It is this juxtaposition of the light-hearted with the extreme words of DUP members which made the opera feel like an important political commentary. The audience giggled as a Bert and Ernie wedding cake was carried across the stage during one piece, and there were gasps of surprise as Iris’s character courted her young lover in a stunning piece of choreography during a piece about religious hypocrisy and humanity. There is an awareness in Northern Ireland that some of our equality issues are hard to understand if you’re elsewhere. The Ashers bakery story was an international talking point for a while and many people outside NI could only see it as a ‘freedom of speech’ issue. But I think when you know the context of anything like this you can understand the trajectory of inequality in Northern Ireland. You can see cakes and the right to have a marriage certificate as things which are inextricably tied to our history- to this history which has become an opera. It’s harder to separate the people from the issues when you know the full story, in any circumstance.
The point of Abomination to me was not to ask people hold a grudge, but that we can remember that every hurtful and damaging word is a link in a chain which chokes the life out of people. And it is right to be angry about that. Since the performance I have heard so many people say that they found it moving and cathartic. Part of the point of remembrance has to do with grieving and being moved to forward-action. And actually we’re good at that in Northern Ireland sometimes. The country at large could look to the queer and feminist communities here to see just how good. But why stop at the rest of the country? I would love to see Abomination: A DUP Opera tour further afield. It is an incredible showcase of the talent we have here- the writing, the singing, the drama- it is superb and shocking and funny, and it says something really important about violence and language. Many congratulations to Conor Mitchell, The Belfast Ensemble and Outburst Arts. I look forward to seeing it again.