A searing evocation of the city: Oona Doherty’s Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
August 21, 2019

Róisín O’Brien

To see Oona Doherty perform is a privilege. Her honesty when she moves is enthralling; she takes you on a cathartic and intense journey.

Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer is Doherty’s offering to and elevation of her working-class surroundings. In the two solos which open and close the performance, Doherty herself, who moved to Belfast from London when she was ten years old, inhabits the lives of the hard men and fierce women, the suffering and the scared.

In the middle, Doherty choreographs ‘The Sugar Army’, a group of young women clad in shimmering sports jackets and tight white jeans. Their ponytails are slick, their make up perfect. They run and hunch around the stage, an autonomous group with its own inner social groupings and an attacking, confident stance that demands recognition.

They’re followed by the ‘Meat Kaleidoscope’, a duet of two men who advance gut first slowly towards each other. They meet in the middle, morphing between angry tugs and intimate embraces. Their staunch, fleshy presence contrasts with the bright lights framing the young girls, and the ghostly, mourning ephemerality of the ‘Gate Boys’ who open the piece standing over a smoking object. The smell of incense fills the theatre for a long time after.

The Sugar Army in Oona Doherty's Hard to be Soft: A Belfast PrayerPhoto Gaelle Beri
The Sugar Army in Oona Doherty’s Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer
Photo Gaelle Beri

It’s all surrounded by Ciaran Bagnall’s set and lighting design of stark white bars that frame the three sides of the stage. Conjuring prison bars and vaulting church pillars, they condense in the middle in a trippy visual illusion. The dancers are often pulled towards it, as though the bars could continue indefinitely into a new, unknown place.

This may all seem like highly strung, overly conceptual work with a barrage of religious iconography. But Doherty consistently treads that road from the street to salvation with insistence, always searching, always curious, always intrepid in her aim of shining light onto those who remain trapped in the horrors of the past and the doggedness of stereotyping. She has the ability to utilise and adapt the trappings of religion, without being trapped by it. Her sensory spoken poem at the end of the piece is a weaving, intricate river of words.

Doherty’s solos (‘Lazarus and The Bird of Paradise’ and ‘Helium’) not only capture all of this: they are the choreographer at her bravest. She is almost terrifying to watch, her commitment to the fall, the stumble, the cry, the swagger a dizzying vortex of people, places, and emotional states.

In ‘Lazarus’, she is iconic, dressed all in white, a bullish yet vulnerable young man. In ‘Helium’, has she found redemption? What does redemption mean in a place like this? She seems older, her clothing less brash (a pale polo neck and trousers), and she seems to gesture to a small child. While the other performers in the piece gravitate towards the condensed bars at the back, Doherty’s last embodiment walks off stage, almost at peace.

As a dance critic, you read those who came before you write of performances that shaped not only their work but their lives. Doherty feels like one such performer. We are lucky to be here to witness her.

Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh to August 24. Visit www.eif.co.uk for details and tickets.

Oona Doherty will be performing in London in October as part of Dance Umbrella 2019. Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer is at the Southbank Centre on October 11. Hope Hunt and The Ascension Into Lazarus is at The Yard Theatre from October 14-16. She is also curating DU: Sunday Shorts a mixed bill of short films at The Barbican on Sunday October 13. Click on the links for details and tickets.