Do people from Northern Ireland have a right to be happy?
A theatre production puts the audience up close to atrocities such as the killing fields of Cambodia, the Holocaust and Bloody Sunday to pose questions about happiness in a ‘horrible world’
Cornelius Macarthy in a Cambodian scene from The Conquest of Happiness. Photograph: Martin McKeown/Inpresspics
A depiction of the torture and murder of Chilean musician and activist Victor Jara in The Conquest of Happiness. Photograph: Martin McKeown/Inpresspics
An Auschwitz scene in The Conquest of Happiness
In his book The Conquest of Happiness, published in 1930, the distinguished logician, philosopher, pacifist and social critic Bertrand Russell argues the possibility that the greatest obstacle to happiness is what he calls “the disease of self-absorption”. He believed that his own personal conquest of happiness had been brought about by diminishing his preoccupation with himself, maintaining that ego can play no significant part in the affairs of the wider world.
The book was intended for consumption not by academics and philosophers but by ordinary people. This spirit of accessibility and sharing with the wider world forms the vein of truth running through a thrilling new multimedia performance, which had its premiere at Ebrington Barracks in Derry in September. The piece, commissioned by the Culture Company as part of the Derry UK City of Culture celebrations last year, contextualises Russell’s writing against horrific acts of violence of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The audience moves through and becomes an integral part of a series of fully formed dramas, which powerfully recreate real-life atrocities from modern times: the killing fields of Cambodia, the My Lai massacre, Bloody Sunday, the destruction of Palestinian homes by Israeli settlers, the state-organised torture and murder of Chilean musician and political activist Victor Jara, the Holocaust and more. The horrors unfold in a vast space enclosed by military vehicles and watchtowers, illuminated by blinding searchlights. Under the guiding presence of Russell himself – played by Cornelius Macarthy, an actor from Sierra Leone – they expose not only man’s inhumanity to man but also the human capacity for endurance, generosity and happiness in even the most desperate of circumstances.
Made in Bosnia and Belfast
The driving force is the highly respected Bosnian director Haris Pasovic, who has formed a partnership with Emma Jordan, artistic director of Belfast’s Prime Cut Productions. The piece features a cast of actors from Ireland, Slovenia, Bosnia, Belgium, Sierra Leone and the UK, and is a co-production between Prime Cut; Pasovic’s company East West Theatre Company, based in Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Theatre Mladinsko, Slovenia.
“We were directed in our work by Russell, and inspired by the wonderful words of one of the most intelligent minds of the 20th century,” says Pasovic. “Russell was Everyman to all of us. In this book, he wrote about the most fundamental issue in anyone’s life – the issue of happiness, a subject which had rarely before been discussed in a serious or philosophical way.