This is What We Sang

Lalor Roddy as Lev in Kabosh's production of 'This Is What We Sang'. Photo: Aidan Monaghan

Lalor Roddy as Lev in Kabosh's production of 'This Is What We Sang'. Photo: Aidan Monaghan

'This Is What We Sang' presented by Kabosh at Belfast Festival at Queen's.

'This Is What We Sang' presented by Kabosh at Belfast Festival at Queen's.

Set on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, this new production from Kabosh is a thought-provoking piece of theatre that uncovers a much neglected history of the Jewish Community in Belfast. Performed in the Belfast Synagogue, the play follows the story of several Jewish characters, all from the same extended family, and their varying relationships with Belfast, from a Latvian immigrant in the nineteenth century to a recently unemployed New York businessman returning to settle family accounts. Written as a series of monologues, Gavin Kostick’s new play is a predominantly humorous exploration of the complexity of family histories, and centres on themes of repentance, sacrifice and forgiveness.

Intrinsic to the production is its site-specific nature, with the environs of Belfast Synagogue aptly reinforcing many of the themes of judgement explored in the text. Standing on a raised central platform in a circular synagogue, whose roof is supported by concrete beams which form the shape of the Star of David, the characters tell the stories of their lives, presenting themselves not only to the audience but also to a higher power. Inscriptions on the wall in Hebrew tell us ‘Know before whom you stand’ while a small blue lamp signals the eternal nature of God. Conleth White’s excellent lighting design gives full lighting to the performance space. Both the performers and the audience are clearly visible as the production asks us to ponder who is judging who, and who are we to judge.

Under Paula McFetridge’s skilled direction the five-member cast deliver consistent and strong performances with each actor occupying their own space and remaining on stage throughout. In his portrayal of Lev, Lalor Roddy works well to create a contradictory character that is both likeable because of his ingenuity and survival, yet detestable because of his misogyny and adultery. Lev’s wife Hannah (Laura Hughes), who has moved to Belfast from Leeds, is simultaneously pathetic and loving in her response to the treatment she receives from her husband and is wonderfully played with a composed anger and understated sadness by Hughes. Although on stage throughout, Lev’s brother, Saul (Alan Burke), does not narrate his story but leads songs and prayers at various moments.

Adding a contemporary dimension to the narrative is Lev and Hannah’s great-grandson Bill (Paul Kennedy) who, until recently, worked with Lehman Brothers in New York and now must re-evaluate his own goals and dreams. In his portrayal of Bill, Kennedy’s New York accent is exact and precise, as is his performance. Many of Bill’s revelations add new insight to versions of tales related by the other characters as ideas of fact and fiction weave their way through the narrative and the audience is encouraged to question the very truth and validity of the stories presented.

However, it is the character of Siss (Jo Donnelly) that is most memorable in this production. This results from both Kostick’s writing and Donnelly’s impressive performance. Born and raised in Belfast, Siss recounts stories of her life from skipping games in the street to experiences of World War II and the sacrifices she made for her family. It is mainly through Siss’s growth and development that we are also presented with the story of a changing Belfast from the 1930s to the present day. Although the character has a heart that is hardened by the weight of her family’s history, Donnelly’s Siss has a poignancy that is not overshadowed by her cynicism.

The costumes, designed by Rosie Moore, also add to the complexity of the production. The actors are dressed in varying outfits of white which is in keeping with the traditional dress code for Yom Kippur. The men also wear Tallits or prayer shawls with fringes at the end which, within Judaism, function as a reminder of observing God’s commandments. In exploring themes of truth and lies, of what is said and what is left unsaid, the production uses such costumes to represent the hypocrisy of some of the characters who, it transpires, do not adhere to these commandments.

As the monologues progress, narratives begin to overlap and connect. With expert timing, at certain moments McFetridge has the actors subtly look at each other, sometimes as acts of judgement, sometimes as acts of forgiveness, as the production explores the power dynamics of the confessor and the listener. However, at times, the significance and seriousness of what is being disclosed is undercut by witty comments or throw-away remarks with the result that any dramatic impact is lost on the audience. The script and the manner in which lines are delivered often detract from the emotional complexity of the characters’ dilemmas. The play sometimes lacks dramatic tension and the audience are distanced from the performance. As a result, we hear the stories but are not always fully engaged by them.

Pádraic Whyte is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast.

  • Review
  • Theatre

This is What We Sang by Gavin Kostick

22, 25-29 October 2009

Produced by Kabosh
In Belfast Synagogue

Directed by: Paula McFetridge

Original Music: Neil Martin

Set Design: Stuart Marshall

Costume: Rosie Moore

Lighting: Conleth White

With: Lalor Roddy, Laura Hughes, Jo Donnelly, Paul Kennedy, Alan Burke

Presented as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's.