Festival Dance

Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer

Lyceum, Edinburgh

Mary Brennan


THE prospect of a hard border re-emerging between the North and the South of Ireland surely sharpens the visceral impact of Oona Doherty’s Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer.

In it, her childhood city and its people are brought vividly centre-stage in a spirit of concern and hope. Unvarnished, explicit vox-pops and closely-observed body language are melded into movement that, across four short episodes, becomes a fervent “physical prayer” for working-class Belfast to move on from the Troubles of the past.

The opening solo – Lazarus and the Birds of Paradise – picks up on the combative aggression of various male voices swaggering on the soundscore. Dressed entirely in truce-seeking white, Doherty’s small frame assumes the poses of street fighting men, throwing punches, reeling under answering blows.

Meanwhile Ciaran Bagnall’s set design of floor-to-ceiling white bars suggests a cage-cum-prison cell where any signs of ‘soft’ emotions get locked away.

Cue The Sugar Army! Recruited from House of Jack, a Leith-based hip-hop collective, they represent the tribe of Belfast girlies who outface grim realities by partying full-on: they totally rock!

Episode Three, Meat Kaleidoscope. Ingrained macho resistance to any physical contact that’s not hostile comes barreling to the fore. John Scott and Sam Finnegan, both shirtless and decidedly big-bellied, certainly touch – but it’s okay: they’re wrestling. Flesh slams against sweaty flesh. Hands grab and grapple. Is it their own inner demons or each other that they’re fighting?

Either way, the pummellings are fraught, and desperate. To survive, something in them has to give: the moment the futile tussling shades into a bear hug is a brief glimmer of what Doherty is reaching for in the final section, Helium.

This time her solo is looking for a kind of closure, a freefall state where – hard-bitten men especially – can admit to uncertainties, can open hearts and minds to a kinder future. How you wish her Belfast prayer would hold true post-Brexit

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