Theatre review: The Conquest of Happiness, Ebrington Square, Derry~Londonderry


You needed stamina for this one: two hours-plus without an interval, standing in the open air at an ex-military barracks in Derry-Londonderry, as rain clouds threatened and a stiffening breeze blew inland up the Foyle estuary.

By and large, it was worth it. For all his international celebrity, Bosnian Haris Pašović hasn’t directed in the UK before, and is pulling no punches on his debut, part of Derry~Londonderry’s City of Culture 2013 celebrations. The Conquest of Happiness (the title is from a book by Bertrand Russell) confronts the least palatable truth about human beings – that they seem endlessly capable of inflicting pain and violence on one another.

Using a combination of drama, dance, video projection, and music, Pašović visits nine of the world’s most turbulent trouble-spots, re-enacting key moments in their troubled history. His presentation of events will not please everybody. Israelis will object to the wanton destruction of a Palestinian home by a mechanical digger being presented as emblematic of that particular conflict. There’s strong anti-Americanism too, and not all will approve the choice of Bloody Sunday as representative of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

It’s clear, however, that Pašović’s main intention is to rise above the unavoidable factionalism inherent in each national situation. Drawing on Russell’s pacifist writings, he punctuates each pod of action with reflections from the philosopher, starkly snapping the serial atrocities depicted into focus, and stripping naked the so-called justifications of the political elites who sanction brutalist solutions in governing their respective countries.

These interjections work, partly because Russell’s words are inherently so persuasive, partly because actor Cornelius Macarthy delivers them with a bite and venom which seems, momentarily at least, unanswerable.

He’s supported by an impressively multi-tasking cast, scuttling among the circle of military vehicles and scaffolded conning towers which define the performing area. The use of violence is measured and proportionate. The nauseatingly stylised rape of a Muslim woman by Bosnian soldiers is one enduring image. A truckload of young Jews (played by local Derry children) being carted away for gassing is another.

There are signs that The Conquest of Happiness is still a work in progress. The Middle East section at the end is curiously perfunctory, the concluding singalong to the children’s song “Five Little Ducks” dangerously bathetic. As an impassioned argument for human beings to stop killing one another, though, the evening is cumulatively devastating in its impact.

The Conquest of Happiness is at Belfast Festival at Queen’s 25-26 October