The Wedding Community Play Project is not a title which trips easily off the tongue, and those of us suspicious of any artform which privileges "process" over "product" might be forgiven for approaching with trepidation a play which wears its origins so openly. Co-written by Martin Lynch and Marie Jones, along with seven different community theatre groups from different areas of Belfast, The Wedding threatens, on the face of it, to be a horse designed by a committee, especially given the political delicacy of some of the issues it addresses in dramatising the effects of a mixed marriage.
Lynch's programme notes attempt to get their retaliation in first for such objections, arguing that "collective cultural and artistic expression is not a contradiction in terms but is very, very possible and indeed, very desirable". It's hard to argue with Lynch's contention that most art form performances are the result of some collaborative effort, but one fears a certain amount of special pleading is going on when Lynch's co-writer, Marie Jones, writes that: "Whatever the critics say about the final outcome, the process has been a major success, but I suspect that won't make good copy."
This defensiveness is unnecessary. The Wedding Community Play Project is an ingeniously crafted, thought-provoking and highly enjoyable piece of work, described by its producers as "the most unusual play structure ever performed in Belfast". The Wedding actually appropriates the most familiar and popular form of drama of the late 20th century - soap opera - and brings it to life by setting its story in the homes, streets and public spaces of the city.
On a cold, bright, beautiful November afternoon, we assemble at the Community Arts Forum, opposite St Anne's Cathedral, where we're divided into groups of eight or nine each, and bussed across the Lagan to the nationalist enclave of Short Strand, and the home of the Todd family, where preparations are in full swing for the wedding of Margaret Todd's son, Damien Kelly, a Catholic, to Nicola Marshall, a Protestant.
Driving up the Newtownards Road, we pass a gable wall with an elaborate UVF mural, turn a corner and pull up 100 yards further along, beside a large grafitto: "INLA - NOT A BULLET NOT AN OUNCE NOT A CHANCE". You get the point - this is cheek-by-jowl territory. I feel like one of those Troubles tourists who gawp at territorial markings and notable atrocity sites, as we get off the bus and troop dutifully into the Todd house. Mind you, I'm not alone: the mostly middle-class Belfast audience is nearly as vague as this Dublin interloper about the geography of the area, as I discover when I ask around me.
Inside the house, our group is directed into the kitchen, where Damien (Joe McDowell) and his mates, decked out in morning suits, are waiting for the cars to arrive. Each scene takes about 15 minutes, then there's a complicated game of musical chairs, as our group is shepherded on to the next room. From the kitchen, we move upstairs to a bedroom, where Damien's sister, Shirley, is pining over the boyfriend who has just dumped her, then down to the parlour, where his mother and stepfather are getting ready.
Each scene happens simultaneously, and some characters - Damien's uncle Danny, a former republican prisoner; his natural father, a Catholic conservative hypocrite - arrive, move from room to room and leave within the 15 minutes. So there's a Rashomon-like unfolding of the same events from different perspectives, and each audience's experience of the narrative is altered by the order in which they experience the rooms. Meanwhile, over in the Marshall house, another busload of viewers is experiencing the Protestant family's preparations, before they come over to the Short Strand and we replace them on Templemore Avenue.
There are arguments, jokes and tears, and all the usual mild hysteria of a wedding morning, but there is also a sense of foreboding about the whole affair, and a sense of things left unsaid. The thin, late-autumn sunlight streams through the windows, which frame the giant Harland & Wolff crane better than any art director could have managed. The experience is slightly disconcerting - like being physically transported into a soap opera, where you can really wake up and smell the coffee.
In a world saturated by "reality" TV, The Wedding makes its audiences the actual flies on the wall - rather large flies, admittedly, crammed like invisible sardines into a corner of each room as each vignette plays itself out.
But modern media fetishises the private and the ordinary to such a degree that being invited into a real house is a voyeuristic experience with which we are all familiar. The eye is free to roam over the mundane details of the house, giving added significance to each element. Is that Catholic wallpaper? Should I read anything into those fridge magnets? Maybe not, but you can't help thinking that any professional stage or film designer could only dream of getting their creations so up close and personal to an audience, with none of the spatial distance of theatre or selectivity of the camera. (As it happens, the Todd house is an actual lived-in home, while the Marshall home is a vacant property leased from the Housing Executive, which probably accounts for its spartan appearance, more than any questions of Calvinist aesthetics).
In such confined spaces, every actor is in permanent close-up, and the most effective performances are in miniature. Terry Brady, as the father of the bride, is an effective, quiet, tortured presence, harangued by his wife (Patricia Anderson) over his failure to prevent the marriage. Indeed, one of the most effective aspects of The Wedding is its study of Belfast matriarchy - the married men are inarticulate and repressed; the ex-prisoners (there's one on each side of the family) have had their lives stunted by losing all those years to their respective causes. In the final denouement, it's the confrontation between the women which brings events to a crisis point, and it's the women who effect a reconciliation.
WHERE the play runs into problems is where the issues obtrude too obviously into the conversational stream - a subplot in which two female friends of the Marshalls discuss Protestant identity over the washing-up smacks a little too much of over-workshopped ideology. But it would be wrong to blame the production process itself for such difficulties. After all, "love across the barricades" is one of the most cliched of Troubles genres, responsible for some awful, hackneyed rubbish over the years. The Wedding Community Play Project conforms in some respects to the expectations of the genre (I can't remember ever seeing one of these stories in which the woman is a Catholic and the man a Protestant. Why?).
There's the dreaded mirror image effect, in which each side's flaws and strengths need to be reflected, tit for tat, in the other. Such parity of esteem clearly doesn't make for good drama, but it's been handled far less subtly before, by writers who didn't need to take the views of a multitude of community groups into account. The Wedding productively scrambles some of the signals - Damien's mother is married to Protestant Sammy Todd, for example, so this is a second-generation mixed marriage - and hardly ever descends into stereotyping.
From the Marshall house on Madrid Street, we move on to the ceremony at Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church, and the mood and style shifts to musical slapstick, with the congregation launching into versions of Tamla Motown and other pop classics, and an "Angry Man" (Hugh Boyd) popping out from various parts to denounce the poisonous hypocrisy of Belfast. Then on again to the gleaming glass tower of the Hilton Hotel. It really does feel like a wedding now, with the audience rushing en masse for the bar to get a drink in before heading upstairs for the reception. narrated in boisterous fashion by the Waitress (Jaz Pollock), who introduces the edited highlights of the evening's events.
If the church and reception segments are less successful than what has gone before, then that's due to the sheer effectiveness of those intimate domestic dramas, after which the return to more conventional theatrical techniques seems something of a letdown. It may also have something to do with the difficulty of finding believable narrative closure in the public space of the wedding reception, particularly to problems as intractable and deep-seated as those depicted here. But one shouldn't grudge the play its rather rushed happy ending - this is an optimistic polemic about the future of Belfast, delivered with vigour and humour, and it's hard to argue with that.