Review: Hard to Be Soft – A Belfast Prayer at the Lyceum
4★★★★

A smoky spiral of incense rises from the front of the stage along with the choral harmonies of Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus’. Men’s voices cut in over the music: harsh with aggression, revved up for the possibility of violence – their words lifted straight off the street corners of Belfast, where circumstances still dictate that it’s hard – even unwise – to be soft. It’s a tellingly conflicted start to Oona Doherty’s four-part “physical prayer” for the city and its people, abidingly influenced by the Troubles of the past.

Doherty herself, all in white, takes on the opening solo, her body bold with the macho swagger that goes with the brash talk on the soundscore. A raised arm lobs an invisible brick, her head rolls back from an unseen blow. Falling prone, she rises again – but maybe, just maybe, choosing to walk away from the ruck and the despair it camouflages.

The machismo of Episode 1 – ‘Lazarus and the Birds of Paradise’ – is followed by the upbeat energies of the all-girl ‘Sugar Army’, recruited from House of Jack, a Leith based hip-hop collective, and strutting the stuff of life-affirming defiance. Doing it for themselves while the menfolk play at being hard…duh!

Episode 3, ‘Meat Kaleidoscope’, is where Doherty’s choreography gets to grips – in every sense – with the way ‘hard’ men shy away from touching one other outside of exchanging blows. John Scott and Sam Finnegan, both shirtless and decidedly big-bellied, slam into each other in a wrestling match fuelled as much by personal stresses as any festering grudge. But as the sweat makes flesh slippery, so the contact morphs into the support of a bear hug, the rancour cools…briefly.

It’s this need to move on, escape old tyrannies – hinted at by the cell-like set of white bars – that surfaces in the final solo, ‘Helium’. Doherty’s movements carry the sense of transition. Of sloughing off the old, hard skin and becoming a new self – and, if you’e a man, that means letting your softer side come alive.

Hard to Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer, Lyceum, 21-24 Aug, times vary

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