Replay Theatre Company presents 'Bulletproof'. Photo: CiarĂ¡n Bagnall

Replay Theatre Company presents 'Bulletproof'. Photo: CiarĂ¡n Bagnall

Bulletproof grew out of the determination of Replay to address issues of mental health through the medium of ‘verbatim theatre’. So the language of the ‘play’ is authentic, it draws exclusively on the spoken or written words of ‘real’ people. It is task of the writer, in this case Gary Owen, to act as curator of those words, editing and shaping them into a dramatic work.

In Bulletproof the experiences conveyed are stark: Michael (Brian Markey) and Alex (Kerry Cleland), barely out of their teens, speak of mental disorder, ADHD, hyperactivity, obsessive behaviour, self-harming, depression and (the topic that so many people find impossible to address) suicide.

With a target audience of young people aged 14+, the play is normally accompanied by a resource pack which comes with a hazard warning about the sensitive issues, the need to hold pre-show activities and to have a counsellor on hand at the performance. And if the intention is to facilitate young people to air their experiences, fears and uncertainties, it is serving a most worthwhile purpose, in a compelling manner.

In the showcase performance in the Old Museum Building, Belfast, Michael and Alex range restlessly through a room of chairs and tables, set out like a classroom. There is a total lack of self-consciousness on the part of the actors. They eye-ball the members of the audience relentlessly. They want them all to be drawn in; there is an aggressive insistence that they pay attention. Listen up! The adult audience goes along with this, without appearing to be unduly uncomfortable. It might work in a very different way in the intimate setting of a school classroom.

To look at it as theatre is to find two young actors taking on their roles with great intensity. As Michael, Brian Markey exudes a coiled energy that has him “hurrying enraged” almost without pause through the aisles, between the desks, pacing and sometimes almost sprinting. There is an intimidating edge to his movement: “I push myself to the limit.” Kerry Cleland has a more personable role. Alex is more outgoing – she keeps herself busy, keeps her routines, makes the most of things: “What my brother taught me was life’s too short.” Then comes the breaking point, the collapse, the panic attacks, narrated rather than enacted.

In Adele Thomas’s production, there is no physical interaction between Michael and Alex; they occupy separate, parallel spaces in the room, so that it takes some time to decipher the relationship between them – and this disconnectedness is no great addition to the piece. They are siblings, but the narrative doesn’t make this altogether clear – cutting between the two characters, each of whom is preoccupied with their own version of things. In addition, there are allusions to characters outside the action – the religion teacher, a sister, parents who “don’t get on” – these are not adequately realised.

As for 'Verbatim theatre', how much value is there in ‘authenticity’? Just because these are the ‘real’ words of ‘real’ persons, drawing on a range of first-hand sources, which may provoke important conversations, does not necessarily mean that they make great drama. For an adult audience, there’s something missing: it’s less of a play and more a kind of intervention, a fragmentary insight into the minds of teenagers at odds with school or home, friendships or sibling relationships, or themselves.

The total context of Bulletproof comprises the preparation, performance, theatrical elements, such as design and lighting (the costumes and Garth McConaghie’s introductory music are unremarkable), the post-show discussion/workshop, as well as the printed support materials for teachers. The absence at the showcase of most these components, other than that of performance, laid bare a deficiency of structure and purpose that might not be so evident at a presentation of Bulletproof in its totality and in a school setting.

Derek West has attended two of the Theatre for Young Audiences Gatherings, as a member of the Board of TEAM.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Bulletproof by Gary Owen

Produced by Replay Theatre Company
In Old Museum Building (former OMAC)

Directed by Adele Thomas (original production by David Fenton)

With: Brian Markey and Kerry Cleland

Performed as part of The Gathering, hosted by Theatre for Young Audiences Northern Ireland in association with Theatre for Young Audiences Ireland, 21-23 October 2010.