Writer: Pamela Carter
Director: Stewart Laing
Reviewer: Cormac O’Brien
Upon entering the Peacock and discovering that the lobby is no longer a bar but has been converted into a meticulously curated exhibition that recounts the rôle that one Paul Bright – a maverick young theatre maker – played in Glasgow’s 1990 stint as European City of Culture, you realise that all is not what it seems with this show.
Once seated, and Untitled Projects’ Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner starts, the audience bears witness to a two-hour multi-media monologue delivered by George Anton. Anton is a skilled actor who informs us that he’s giving not a performance but a presentation. And that’s exactly the part he plays – dressed like a hip university lecturer he delivers a keynote address perfectly suited to an academic conference. Anton emotively tells the tale of his erstwhile friend, Paul Bright, a talented young theatre maker in 1980s Scotland who, after becoming obsessed with James Hogg’s 1824 novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, manages to secure a large grant from the Scottish Arts Council to stage six pivotal episodes from the book at various locations around Scotland over an extended period of time. Of course, the follies of youth and a fondness for alcohol and chemicals intervene, and Bright’s project falls apart. He disappears from the Scots theatre world never to be heard of again, until his death in an obscure Belgian hospital in 2010. A cautionary tale then, about a misunderstood artist who couldn’t find his place in the world.
Nothing new here then, you think – at first anyway. But you soon realise that something else is happening; that there’s another jigsaw to be pieced together. Primarily through Anton’s nuanced flexibility as a performer as he eerily delivers lines such as “I’m very persuasive” and “acting is telling lies and getting away with it” – coupled with tiny anomalies in the home-movies that he plays – it suddenly dawns upon you that there’s a strong likelihood that Paul Bright never existed. A bit further along, and you begin to think the whole thing is an elaborately constructed hoax.
And that’s when this show takes on a whole new resonance – what’s the agenda here, then, if this highly charged memorial to a misunderstood artist is one big lie? Is it a critique of collective cultural memory and commemoration? Is it questioning the stories we tell each other, and the narratives we construct to make sense of the world and those who occupy it? Or, is it satirically poking holes in the current spate of documentary theatre that is oh-so-seriously doing the rounds in Ireland and the UK? Or is it all of those things?
This is a very unusual show in that it’s not all that enjoyable to watch – its about forty minutes too long, and the tale of Paul Bright wasn’t, for this reviewer anyway, all that interesting. But afterwards, yes, that’s when the show starts to work as a piece of theatre that questions the unquestioned authority we give to social and cultural narratives and the porous borders between the real and the imaginary.
This is a show where the pleasure lies in the after effects.
Photo courtesy of Dublin Theatre Festival. Runs until October 11th.