Vincent Higgins in 'Titans'. Photo: Neil Harrison

Vincent Higgins in 'Titans'. Photo: Neil Harrison

Carol Moore and Maggie Cronin in 'Titans'. Photo: Neil Harrison

Carol Moore and Maggie Cronin in 'Titans'. Photo: Neil Harrison

Jimmy Doran in 'Titans'. Photo: Neil Harrison

Jimmy Doran in 'Titans'. Photo: Neil Harrison

Vincent Higgins and Ian McElhinney in 'Titans'. Photo: Neil Harrison

Vincent Higgins and Ian McElhinney in 'Titans'. Photo: Neil Harrison

Since its inception in 1994, Kabosh has set out to challenge the notion of what theatre is and where it can be staged. In reinventing ways in which stories can be told, the company’s raison d’etre is to commission a steady flow of new writing and devise additional work for site-specific environments and installations.

Created specially for the commemorative programme of this year’s Titanic Belfast Festival, the unique selling point of this promenade production is the fact that it affords an 'access all areas' pass to two spectacular, contrasting buildings, standing cheek by jowl at the hub of the Belfast docklands.

The grimy brick and sandstone-built administration and drawing offices of the Harland & Wolff shipyard have become semi-derelict, but that cannot take away from the fact that here, in their magnificent interior, is where the concept and creation of Titanic and her sister ships took shape. Rearing up behind its main entrance, like a great bird of prey, is the new Titanic Belfast signature building, its jagged, aluminium-sharded angles dramatically scoring the skyline along the River Lagan.

Photo: Neil HarrisonMany will recall the sometimes obscure but colourful word pictures, the musicality of the prose and the bewitching poetry of Jimmy McAleavey’s second stage play The Sign of the Whale, produced by Tinderbox in 2010 and the winner of that year’s Stewart Parker New Playwright Award. Two years on, those same qualities are the hallmark of this ambitious new piece, which opens in the vast, vaulted space of the abandoned drawing office, filled with natural light and looking down the channel of Belfast Lough towards the open sea.

Its ghostly, cathedral-like atmosphere is invaded by the arrival of a tall, priest-like figure. His eyes blazing with zeal, Paul Kennedy immediately captures the audience’s attention as he intones the Latin words of the great penitential Psalm 130, a lament for the faithful departed: “From the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord...” As the faint strains of the the ever-present choral soundscape drift into earshot – beginning appropriately with Arvo Pärt’s 'De Profundis' – he instructs his little congregation to follow him on the mysterious quest he has set himself.

He departs the Edwardian age and traverses the paved courtyard separating it from the lofty, copper-panelled foyer of its 21st century companion building. This six-storey architectural puzzle will become an active character in the drama, unfolding at a brisk pace up escalators, through galleries, along service corridors and into a huge banqueting hall, complete with slightly underwhelming Titanic replica staircase – and all of it punctuated by heart-stopping views of nightfall over the lough far below.

Slowly emerging out of McAleavey’s occasionally obtuse narrative is the realisation that this is a priest who worshipped ungodly symbols and rituals. He installed his wife and daughter on board Titanic, promising to join them in New York when his work was done. Tormented by his actions, he is pledged to seek meaning and some kind of redemption for the ensuing tragedy through fleeting encounters with others who were confronted by a similar fate as his loved ones.

In a starkly lit stairwell he tracks down the White Star Line magnate Bruce Ismay. Ian McElhinney brings real poignancy to his brief appearance, portraying this once hugely influential figure as a blustering but broken man,rendered very small by his cowardly actions on that terrifying night.

Photo: Neil HarrisonAt the window of a long gallery space, ship’s stewardess Violet Jessop (Antoinette Morelli) waits patiently, searching heart and conscience for an answer from God as to why she was destined to survive two disasters – the sinking of both the Titanic and the Britannic. She recalls - and we relive - small bundles being thrown down to her for safety. They are tiny children, wrapped against the cold. Morelli's performance is at once dignified, despairing and genuinely moving.

Former stoker John Quinn has taken up temporary residence in the incongruous surroundings of the executive bar. James Doran's bleak, world weary Belfast humour injects welcome laughter into proceedings, while shining the light of cold reality onto the disaster. He sketches in broad brushstrokes some details of the sectarian and civil strife in and around the shipyard at the time, the chaos surrounding the coal workers’ strike, the divisions precipitated by the Home Rule debate.

Finally, the priest takes out the tokens he has begged from each of them – a ball, a jewelled brooch, a coin – placing them at the points of the star in the floor at the base of the staircase. Two haughty grande dames, archly played by Carol Moore and Maggie Cronin, descend from First Class, their once-opulent gowns stained and tattered. Oddly amused by his plight, they grant him safe passage out onto the upper reaches of the building, where, he is received in the darkness by two white-clad wraiths, poised to escort him to heaven or to hell.

In spite of several segments in which one struggles to find narrative clarity, the overriding experience is both unsettling and thrilling, vividly defining the overused term ‘site specific theatre’. Paula McFetridge’s imaginative direction makes exciting use of this Rubik’s cube of modern architecture, while JP Conaghan’s spine-tingling sound design uses plaintive, well chosen musical extracts from, amongst others, Faure’s 'Requiem' and Purcell’s 'When I Am Laid in Earth' (from Dido and Aeneas), to gift-wrap a package which is hard to resist.

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

  • Review
  • Theatre

Titans by Jimmy McAleavey

8 - 11 April, 2012

Produced by Kabosh & Titanic Belfast
In Harland & Wolff Drawing Offices and Titanic Belfast

Directed by Paula McFetridge

Costume Design: Diana Ennis

Sound Design: JP Conaghan

With: Maggie Cronin, James Doran, Vincent Higgins, Paul Kennedy, Ian McElhinney, Carol Moore, Antoinette Morelli, with Dermot Clengahgn, Abigail McGibbon, Stacey Curley