Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912)

Ben Caplan as Sir J Simons in 'Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912)' at the MAC.

Ben Caplan as Sir J Simons in 'Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912)' at the MAC.

'Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912)' by Owen McCafferty at the MAC.

'Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912)' by Owen McCafferty at the MAC.

Thomas Howes in 'Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912)' by Owen McCafferty at the MAC.

Thomas Howes in 'Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912)' by Owen McCafferty at the MAC.

Over the past month or so, there have been enough Titanic-related events in and around Belfast to sink a ship. An impressive amount of new work has been commissioned, including two site specific pieces by Kabosh, a play for the Lyric Theatre, a musical and a requiem. But throughout the Titanic Belfast Festival, which this year commemorates the centenary of the disaster, keen attention has been focused on the final fixture, the premiere of a tantalising play by one of Ireland’s most accomplished writers. To add to the anticipation, its opening marks the inauguration of Belfast’s spectacular £18 million arts venue The MAC.

It is a sign of Owen McCafferty’s stature as a playwright that he can step away so effectively from his usual muscular, Belfast vernacular-driven narrative style to assume here a quasi-curatorial role, sifting through almost 100 witness statements, gathered during the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, and crafting from them an elegant, absorbing piece of verbatim theatre.

As television coverage of the Leveson Inquiry vividly demonstrates, riveting real-life drama can occur in the least prepossessing of surroundings and emanate from the most unexpected sources. The plain, unadorned room which is Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice is a far cry from the polished wood and wrought iron Edwardian magnificence of Scottish Hall in Westminster’s Buckingham Gate – stunningly recreated by designer Richard Kent and starkly lit by Conleth White – but the weirdly interlocking testimonies of wrong-doing and hubris which have emerged, albeit a century apart, register as equally compelling.

Director Charlotte Westenra has a highly-regarded reputation for handling this tricky genre, for maintaining pace, intrigue and dramatic tension in a clinical environment far removed from the situations and locations in which the actual events occurred. She has overseen similar pieces on Darfur and the Frost/Nixon interviews, as well as Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry. Thus, she is extremely skilled at teasing out and plaiting together individual threads of shared experience, allowing them to echo and resound between and against one other.

McCafferty has given her a rich palette from which to work. Insistent upon having approached the assignment not as a historian nor as a journalist, his imagination has, nevertheless, shaped and set the content in a fashion which instantly grabs attention, and never lets go. He contributes some stirring, lyrical writing into our first and last encounters with Ian McElhinney’s Clerk of the Court, an engaging fictional character very much of our own time, who fills the essential role of narrator. He runs us through the groaning inventory of the ship’s kitchen and stores before teeing up the two inquiries – in New York and London – naming the members of the legal team and introducing the witnesses. Then he briskly closes the gauze curtain, taking the audience back to May 1912. Before another word is spoken, a violinist steps forward to play the great Titanic hymn ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, which was reportedly performed on board as the ship went down. James Kennedy’s sound design allows its haunting air to fill the space before being horribly fractured by the sounds of metallic grinding and creaking, as the stricken vessel gives up her battle with the sea.

Under the sardonic and ever attentive eye of the Commissioner Lord Mersey (Paul Moriarty), Michael Hadley’s silky-smooth Attorney General Sir Rufus Isaacs rises to his feet and proceedings begin. One by one the witnesses take to the stand, beginning with those from the lowest ranks of ship and society and rising to the upper reaches of the aristocracy, captains of industry and illustrious experts. The questioning begins gently enough, but as crucial points are repeatedly raised, with timely interjections from the Commissioner, one starts to sense where this Inquiry is going.

Titanic at the MACReginald Lee (Timothy Chipping) is correctness personified, retelling in spare but precise detail his experience as a lookout on that fateful night. Jaunty Scouser Charles Joughin (Kevin Trainor), chief baker, recalls a horrific three hours treading the icy waters of the North Atlantic as though it was a stroll in the park. Cockney steward John Hart (Jack Beale) paints a troubling picture of the evacuation of third class passengers, while softly spoken George Symons (Thomas Howes) is visibly racked with denial at his failure to turn back a half-empty lifeboat in an attempt to rescue the dying. Charles Lightoller (James Tucker), the most senior officer to survive, gives a professional, visually arresting account of the calm starry night and mirror-like waters out of which the dark iceberg loomed, his judgement endorsed by the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton (James Hillier), called as an expert witness. The tension rises with the grand entrance of Sir Cosmo (Jay Villiers) and Lady Duff Gordon (Andrea Irvine), their careless recollections and superior demeanour significantly ruffled by the acute and persistent questioning of the four counsels. Finally Joseph Bruce Ismay (Patrick O’Kane) emerges, managing director of Oceanic Steam Navigation Company. Slowly, awkwardly he makes his way to the stand, watched from the viewing gallery by the previous eight witnesses. Under merciless interrogation, he comes close to admitting that he did indeed order the captain to steam ahead in spite of ice warnings. His is a guilt that cannot speak its own name.

The Clerk returns to intone a grisly roll call, paying tribute to the dead and to the courage of those who strove to save them. In a movingly understated last bidding, he urges the audience always to be open to the “cheering salutations” of the victims from the depths of the waves.

It is nothing but a pleasure to acknowledge the highest standards of performance and production values in this persuasive, sensitively controlled piece of work. The excellent, mainly English, cast reminds us of the provenance of the majority of Titanic’s passengers and crew. McCafferty has avoided falling into the trap of selecting the most harrowing of the witness statements, thereby avoiding overtones of sentimental nostalgia. This intensely human play has all the elements of a thriller, with the audience slowly awakening to conflicting deeds of heroism and cowardice, humanity and corruption, pride and privilege played out against a vision of hell, which will forever dominate the minds of those who were there but which others can, thankfully, only begin to imagine.

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

  • Review
  • Theatre

Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912) by Owen McCafferty

Produced by The MAC & Patrick Talbot
In The MAC, Belfast

Directed by Charlotte Westenra

Design: Richard Kent

Lighting Design: Conleth White

Sound Design: James Kennedy

With: Jack Beale, Caolán Byrne, Ben Caplan, Tim Chipping, Michael Hadley, James Hillier, Thomas Howes, Andrea Irvine, Ian McElhinney, Paul Moriarty, Patrick O’Kane, Kevin Trainor, James Tucker, Jay Villiers, Rufus Wright