Distortion – The Mac Theatre – Review
by Cathy Brown
Date: 30 Sep – 24 Oct 2021
Time: On-demand until 24 October
Location: Digital Show
Distortion by Amanda Verlaque – Produced and digitally streamed by The MAC, Belfast
Political theatre comes in all shapes and sizes: satirical, fictional, documentary and agitational but the plays that are most successful are those that focus on the human aspect of the political sphere, rather than simply the polemic. Amanda Verlaque does just that in her new play Distortion, which digs deep into the fertile and murky world of politics in Northern Ireland to great effect.
Distortion is set in a recognisable political world where campaigning is grubby, image is everything and its statesmen self-interested. Following the disgraced resignation of a homophobic MP, a seat is up for grabs at Westminster. Kevin (Michael Condron) and Heather (Mary Moulds) are a husband and wife team at the head of a political Party, who see a chance to take his once safe seat. They are young, have married across the religious divide and their message is fresh, but they need the help of PR-guru Jo Devine (Valene Kane) to rub their rough edges smooth and create the perfect political personas to win over the electorate. Or, as Kevin so subtly puts it, ‘to stop me making a dick of myself’.
Jo, an openly gay woman, sees her chance to take the couple all the way and make a name for herself in the process. She wants to ‘wake this fucking place up’ but she is also well aware that modern politics is governed by carefully controlled images. Her plan for the pair, and for herself, becomes complicated when his casual homophobia, their shared secrets and the power dynamics between the three begin to shift and the cracks begin to appear.
This is a world where everybody lies. Relationships are routinely sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism – whatever it takes to win. Under the taut and intelligent direction of Rhiann Jeffrey, the narrative drive comes from the tense drama of endless power struggles as she subtly moves her actors, like chess pieces, into their changing power positions on the board.
Michael Condron is perfectly obnoxious as the chameleon-like Kevin, willing to do and say whatever it takes to carve out his political position. Mary Moulds gives an intelligent and perceptive performance as Heather, who keeps her cards close to her chest and turns out to be the lynchpin of the whole enterprise. Valene Kane is stuck in the middle of this noxious pair and deftly manages her characters’ journey from hunter to quarry while Lata Sharma, as a local TV reporter, never overplays her role as chief interrogator.
Played out on Ciaran Bagnall’s minimal and structural set, the production is skilfully filmed, blending traditional theatre staging with filmic close-ups, which heighten the personal drama without losing the collective expression of the company. Garth McConaghie’s soundtrack is suitably atmospheric if a little overplayed at times.
It is refreshing to watch a play set in the world of Northern Ireland politics that eschews parody for sharp satire. Distortion is intense and intelligent, shining a light on the dark corners of government. There is a refusal to moralise, both in the directorial decisions and in the performances, which leaves the audience feeling complicit in the deceit as well as having a better understanding of it.
With all its Machiavellianism and manipulation, Distortion is not a show to encourage optimism about the power of politics as a force for good, but its intrigues are gripping – and its cynicism feels in keeping with the mood of the times. What Verlaque’s play does pin down, with great accuracy, is the knowing need to offer the electorate a vision of hope and a sense of authenticity, and the lengths politicians will go to in order to create that façade.