“To God we are breath, to be followed by another and another”
The Moot Virginity of Catherine of Aragon is abundant with beautifully carved words such as these, whispering of titanic themes which never fully materialise into a tangible entity. Fragments are passionately unleashed by the impressive emotional depth of Abigail McGibbon in her interpretation of Catherine of Aragon, but are left to dissolve with the furls of smoke enveloping the room. Beauty for beauty’s sake is not to be disregarded, but this performance seemed to strive for relevance and meaning – unfortunately falling somewhat short of the mark.
It is a well-timed piece, in light of the Pope’s recent call for Christians to ‘repent for the Reformation’, but it is difficult to divine any commentary or explication of themes, to provoke further thought on the performance upon its ending. It feels almost as though something is missing, dangling just out of reach, which if obtained, would provide clarity to the entire performance. A drastic modernisation of this historic figure has been decided upon, in terms of props, set and costume, but to what end? How does it interlink or enhance the story? What are we to take from it? These are questions that feel impossible to answer; any suggestion a mere grasping at possibilities rather than any meaningful offering of artistic interpretation.
The true triumph of this production is (the composer, writer and director) Conor Mitchell’s exploration of form and structure. Based on a traditional song-cycle, it has been reconceived to replace singing with recitation, with the aim of creating “a live concept album”, each scene designed to resemble a music track. As an emerging theatre company, this is a bold showing from The Belfast Ensemble, and could easily become their defining feature. The live music is beautiful and adds a necessary dimension; rich and full-bodied, at times delicately simmering beneath the surface to augment the mounting tension, at others rising to a ferocious crescendo to leave the spine tingling. The music is a living, breathing element, the second character to this one-woman performance and works in perfect symbiosis with McGibbon’s lilting Irish voice, which takes on a charming musical cadence of its own.
The staging is intimate; mats and cushions interspersed with more traditional seating arrangements in a semi-circle surrounding the stage area, a heady scent of incense cloaking the air. This level of proximity to the action intensifies each moment; heightening the impact of McGibbon’s authentic violent outburst of emotions, and allowing an unrestricted view of the real pig’s head used as a prop; a controversial and morbid addition to a play littered with indeterminable symbolism.
The structural concept of presenting The Moot Virginity of Catherine of Aragon as a live concept album is solid, but is muddied by too many elements thrown together; the quirky seating arrangement, the all-white colour scheme, the contentious props and the revamping of Catherine of Aragon into a modern era, complete with business suit and telephone. These seemingly arbitrary twists detract from an exciting and potential-filled direction for The Belfast Ensemble, one which I dearly hope they pursue.
At Sherman Theatre by The Belfast Ensemble