Conor Mitchell’s Abomination: a DUP opera – with Rebecca Caine & Tony Flynn; directed by Conor Mitchell; conducted by Tom Deering

Conor Mitchell

Abomination: a DUP opera – Verbatim opera in one Act [sung in English]

Iris Robinson – Rebecca Caine
Stephen Nolan – Tony Flynn
DUP Soloists – Sarah Richmond, Matthew Cavan, John Porter & Christopher Cull
Chorus – James Cooper, Tara Greene, Helenna Howie & Gerard McCabe

The Belfast Ensemble
Tom Deering

Conor Mitchell – Director

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 5 May, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

This London premiere run of Conor Mitchell’s Abomination – ‘fusing opera with drag, cabaret and political satire’ in the Southbank Centre’s accurate description – coincides mordantly with Charles III’s Coronation festivities. This ‘verbatim opera’ is a collage of judgemental statements about homosexuality made by politicians (usually within a half-baked discourse of fundamentalist, evangelical Protestantism) of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party in the not very distant past – the same party that propped up Teresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ [sic] minority government for a while after the bungled general election of 2017. That collation – unattributed but implied by the programme to be by Mitchell – centres on a notorious interview given as recently as 2008 by Iris Robinson – a DUP minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and wife of its first minister, Peter Robinson (also of the DUP) – at the time of a fatal homophobic attack in the province. Among other comments, she condemned homosexuality as an ‘abomination’.

That interview with the BBC journalist Stephen Nolan and the wider context of public DUP homophobia is recreated through Mitchell’s cheekily energetic and witty ‘possession’ (as he describes it) or reclamation of those divisive statements. They, and the people making them, are made to appear ridiculous through being rendered under a very different guise in this ‘queer’ integration of the elements of musical and cabaret for the score. Amidst the otherwise continuous music setting, Nolan alone is allowed to speak his part unaccompanied, so that his dispassionate, reasonable interrogation of Robinson cuts through clinically in Tony Flynn’s aptly deadpan, unflinching performance. That contrasts with the frenzy of Robinson’s comments, counterpointed by other remarks from her DUP colleagues (in the Assembly, Parliament, or elsewhere). They are delivered by Rebecca Caine and her fellow singers in the camped-up, contrived style of a musical, or almost as coloratura at times in the extended and highly-wrought sequences which amount to arias, where the hysterical repetitions of incendiary words or phrases suggest the irrational obsession such paragons and moral guardians of traditional Christian virtue exercise in relation to the ‘sin’ of homosexuality. One duet throws back the derisive comments of one DUP mayor about “poofs” with a deliriously jolly accumulation of arpeggios on that word to withdraw the sting of that bigoted attitude.

It’s a canny move by Mitchell to tap ironically into the traditions of cabaret for this purpose, as it was that genre which once explored different presentations of sexuality and gender, most notably in the music theatres of Weimar-era Berlin. In parallel with that, Mitchell’s production has the protagonists adopt a series of increasingly camp, outlandish demeanours and sartorial adornments to question and undermine their straightlaced pronouncements further. The effect is akin to the bizarre and surreal interpretations of character which Ken Russell imposed upon various historical personalities in some of his films, to uncover in a Freudian manner their latent neuroses and psychological quirks. In Robinson’s own case, that is alluded to here when a young man, envisioned as an angel, alluringly dances around her as she reclines on a bed, in reference to the extramarital affair she conducted with a nineteen-year-old at the very time of the interview she gave, asserting the authority of Biblical teachings on sexual morality. (Subsequent investigation into the scandal in 2010 also uncovered undeclared payments which she had arranged to support the man in question.)

It may also be an ingeniously ironic part of Mitchell’s strategy that, possibly, La voix humaine is invoked by having Robinson participate in the radio interview over the telephone (rather than face to face): her brazen engagement in that very public confrontation – the telephone’s ringing initiating the performance – is the very opposite of the anxious, private conversation between Elle and her lover in Poulenc’s opera (gay himself).

Tom Deering’s conducting confidently navigates the score’s shifts from hectic minimalism-like scurrying, to more sustained homages to the styles of musical, cabaret, and operatic aria. Not all the text is entirely audible in the strenuous declamations of the latter, which is a problem in the absence of surtitles, although some of it as reported in newspaper articles is projected on a gauze screen at the back of the stage. But the work’s overall thrust is clear as it uses an eloquent stream of music and choreography, rather than logical refutation, to subvert the repellent prejudices encountered.

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