The Conquest of Happiness, Ebrington Square, Derry/Londonderry – review

The opening scene of this promenade piece may be set in the Israeli-occupied territories, but the sight of a military-ordered bulldozer ripping through a family home will have resonated with many among the open-air audience in Derry last weekend. This will be heightened by the fact that the performance took place in a former military and naval base on the east, predominantly Protestant bank of the River Foyle, yards away from one end of the new Peace Bridge linking the two halves of this city long so polarised that its inhabitants don’t even agree on its name. Bosnian director Haris Pasovic, whose work dwells on identity, division and tribalism, has found a fitting location for his first work to premiere in the British Isles, as part of the UK City of Culture programme that has revitalised Derry/Londonderry’s artistic sense of itself.

This is not an entertaining evening. Scene of oppression followed scene in the main square of Ebrington: we saw the murder of Victor Jara in Chile, Henry Kissinger discussing the destabilisation of Cambodia, and of course Bloody Sunday, the Holocaust and the strife in the former Yugoslavia. In an outdoor space of this scale, there is no need to suggest an impression of brutal action: we could be shown the bulldozer quite literally, or the bus taking away all the men of a community – only the National Stadium in Santiago seemed too big a space to re-create. The international cast is augmented by local community choirs from each location the touring production will visit.

These scenes are interspersed with, and punctuated by, commentaries from the figure whose writings give the work its title, Bertrand Russell. Some of the Russell character’s lines are taken directly from his writings, some paraphrased or updated in Pasovic’s text. Nor is there any attempt to portray Russell with visual accuracy: he is played with fierce conviction by young Sierra Leonean-Briton Cornelius Macarthy. It is unremitting stuff, perhaps too much so for more than two hours standing in a chill autumn that has begun too early – although such unpleasantness for an audience pales beside what is recounted. The piece will return in late October to Belfast for that city’s festival, but its intervening tour takes it to Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and first, this weekend, to another bridge heavy with historical significance: the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, now rebuilt after its destruction by the shells of Croat forces in 1993.

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