Monday 14 April 2014

O'Connor and Theology

Martin O'Connor remains one of Scotland's most gifted writers. As he demonstrates in Theology part 2: A Govan of the Mind, he can polish Glaswegian dialect into evocative poetry without losing its essential roughness. His fierce wit and literary intelligence allows him to parody the mass and take on big issues, like sectarianism or urban decay: never slipping into sentimentality or impatient reformism, he imbues his scripts with compassion and dramatic tension.

Theology is a two part study of the 'place of religion in Glasgow today': in part 1, he cleverly recasts the Mass as a commentary on how Papal visits, the name of The Lord and cultural identity have gradually lost their spiritual dimension. The Pope is mistaken for a celebrity singer, football fans remember their allegiances only for fighting, and Jesus is called upon not in pious prayer but blasphemous desperation. By using a choir to sing his poems, O'Connor conjures the sanctity of the Mass alongside a lairy belligerence. When he takes to the pulpit to pray or read the Gospel, he reveals the fragmented, distorted remains of Christianity that inform and infect his understanding of daily life.

Turning tales of the apostles into stand-up routines, he connects to the proud tradition of Christian artists re-imagining The Bible in their own times: the tension between a secular outlook and spiritual longing is tantalising and tense. Yet O'Connor is quick to laugh, sending up the pomposity of religious moral teachings and his own doubts. It's only when he describes the detail of the Mass (in his normal voice), or tries to give a homily on recent newspaper articles that he slips out of character and loses focus.

Eventually, he sends the choir on their way, and goes solo in part 2. This is a soundscape with live poetry, a mash-up of O'Connor's previous work. He rattles out his 'greatest hits' - sketches of conversations or monologues that bring to life characters found around Govan - and offers a few thoughts on Govan's disintegration. Visually, this is weak (O'Connor is charismatic, but the lighting design here is poor, especially the attempt to have flashing lights at a dramatic moment), while Nichola Scrutton's sound design is an ambitious ambient yet engaging score that lends the words a dark subtext. Humour and tragedy are side by side.

Unfortunately, parts 1 and parts 2 do not enrich each other: part 2 may imitate the Novena, but lacks the spiritual investigation of part 1, feeling like a separate performance. The contrast between the community and the lone poet is too broad and the narrative arc lent by the Mass structure is squandered in part 2's more impressionistic selections.

Theology: part 1 is a profound commentary on how religion, although lost, remains influential and an occult aspect of human identity, stopping off to make swipes at its use as an excuse for Old Firm ruckus. The lightness of touch, and satirical bite, are O'Connor trademarks, and he twists dialect into eloquent forms. While part 2 contains adventurous use of sound and many excellent individual poems, its energy is too diffuse and distracts from O'Connor's skill.

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