Planet Belfast

Paul Kennedy in 'Planet Belfast' by Rosemary Jenkinson, presented by Tinderbox in association with The MAC.

Paul Kennedy in 'Planet Belfast' by Rosemary Jenkinson, presented by Tinderbox in association with The MAC.

Tara Lynne O'Neill in 'Planet Belfast' by Rosemary Jenkinson, presented by Tinderbox in association with The MAC.

Tara Lynne O'Neill in 'Planet Belfast' by Rosemary Jenkinson, presented by Tinderbox in association with The MAC.

In Rosemary Jenkinson's vision of her native city, Belfast is a place apart, poised between war and peace, struggling uncertainly to find its place in the wider world while remaining stranded in the wasteland of a long drawn-out conflict, whose victims have become pawns in a lucrative, internationally funded industry.

In 1997, another Belfast playwright Gary Mitchell wrote a play for the Abbey Theatre, centred around loyalist violence in the estate where he grew up and entitled In a Little World of Our Own. In the title of her latest play, Jenkinson identifies that same city as Planet Belfast. Thus, sixteen years later, the message remains the same. The first, deceptively sweet, line carries heavy overtones of irony, while the second uses deliberately flippant, fashionably retro language to hint at an inward-looking, insular society, a veritable little world of its own.

Jenkinson opts to cast her net wide, into the ethics surrounding the great global food debate and the advantages and drawbacks of genetically modified crops. But, for all her good intentions, the albatross of the Troubles still hovers ominously over proceedings, its unresolved fall-out posing a profound moral dilemma for Martin (Paul Kennedy), a writer and academic who already has more than enough problems to contend with at home.

Martin's wife Alice (Abigail McGibbon) is a minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, a prominent member of the Green Party, currently engaged in a political battle of wills to prevent the introduction of GM crops into the region. As an articulate, assertive young woman, she has become something of a media darling, widely recognised and photographed, her every move at work and at play held up for scrutiny and analysis. How the real life Green Party must yearn for such attention!

One becomes intimately acquainted with the detail of Alice's professional life and personal problems within the first five minutes, as she opts to share the information with her husband - as though he would not know already? Their stilted, expositional exchange launches a succession of static, slightly awkward conversations between pairs of characters, huddled in cramped corners of Ciaran Bagnall's spectacular set. As a result, the first act feels over-loaded with talk and explanation, crying out for an injection of dramatic narrative.

To the beat of Andrew Stanford's punk-inspired soundscape, Bagnall's visual concept is mesmerising and production values are extremely high in Michael Duke's sheeny production for Tinderbox. Ceiling-high, opaque sliding screens are constructed entirely from taut, closely threaded strands of silvery fish wire onto which video artist Conan McIvor projects a subtle patchwork of shadowy, indeterminate images - stars, falling snow, tiny plankton, blurry images of the Troubles, archive newsreel. The effect is of a shimmering, strangely beautiful environment within which uncomfortable truths are concealed and covered up.

Jenkinson could not possibly have asked for a more apposite moment at which to premiere a play on this subject. The thundering hooves of the horsemeat debacle resound around Alice's impassioned ambitions to keep the planet clean, natural and free from the influence of ruthless international corporations, who seek to profit from the desperate plight of a hungry global population.

Her nemesis is an old university friend Claire (Tara Lynne O'Neill), who has suddenly - and apparently unaccountably - popped into Martin's life via the warm, cosy doorway of Friends Reunited. Claire is a smooth-talking public relations consultant, bright, glossy, fun and sexy - qualities that he no longer recognises in his volatile, hard-drinking wife.

Meanwhile, Martin has taken his first tentative steps into the parallel universe of a Belfast trauma centre. He is employed there as an archivist, charged with transcribing harrowing personal accounts of conflict victims. The job has been procured for him by his celebrity wife, who is much admired by the centre's do-gooding manager Danny (Conor Grimes), a curious, uber-earnest character whose cure for the painful process of sharing stories is to invite a hug from a teddy bear called Verity. Horrified by the realisation that such projects amount to little more than a means of acquiring vast amounts of public funding for cushy jobs, Martin decides to write a book exposing the scandal.

After all the soul-searching and squabbling - and an excruciatingly clumsy seduction scene - the second act eventually parts to reveal the core of the play. Contrary to perceptions, however, that play is not primarily about green issues but about a marriage in crisis, a couple desperate for a child, a partnership of unequals and the way in which friendship can be manipulated and abused for personal gain.

Duke has chosen his excellent cast judiciously and all four live up to the high expectations resting upon their shoulders. McGibbon gives a bruised performance as a troubled woman whose meteoric rise to the top of her profession has come at a very high personal cost. Kennedy has the look of a man at the end of his tether, vulnerable to exploitation as a result of living in the shadow of his wife. Grimes directs his famously oddball comedic talents towards a figure whom one struggles to take seriously, while O'Neill does well in the thankless, two-dimensional role of the femme fatale. In the way that the play suddenly opens up to embrace the central human dilemma, so too do the actors embrace their roles after a stiff start.

Tinderbox is widely respected for its meticulous attention to script development. It is clear that considerable thought has gone into honing, focusing and knitting together the plethora of issues taken on by Jenkinson, though the lengthy first act could certainly use some additional cutting and sharpening. After the interval the demeanour of the actors seems to indicate renewed engagement with the emerging storyline, winding in the action to an intriguing denouement which, for more than half of the evening, felt like an unlikely conclusion.

Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based arts journalist, critic and screenwriter, who also reviews for The Irish Times, The Stage, Culture Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Planet Belfast by Rosemary Jenkinson

19 Feb - 2 March, 2013

Produced by Tinderbox Theatre Company, in assocation with The MAC
In The MAC, Belfast

Directed by  Michael Duke

Dramaturg: Hanna Slattne

Set and Lighting Design: CiarĂ¡n Bagnall

Video Image Design: Conan McIvor

Cast: Conor Grimes, Paul Kennedy, Abigail McGibbon, Tara Lynne O'Neill