Conquering happiness (or trying to…)

We don’t go out much, my husband and I. Three kids and financial constraints have all but smothered our social life. Newspaper reviews are fast becoming my only link to ‘culture’. Our film viewing is limited to the dwindling DVD selection at our near-bankrupt branch of Xtra-vision. The cinema is a distant memory and Netflix a post-austerity dream. But, every now and then, an event comes along that simply can’t be missed. Something like The Conquest of Happiness… An interpretation of the writings of Bertrand Russell by the Bosnian director, Haris Pašović, it was part of the Belfast Festival at Queens in October. Via a website based in Sarajevo, I’d heard about its performance in Derry a month earlier. And I’d been disappointed that we couldn’t make it there. However, after a tour of the Balkans, the show was returning to Ireland. Good reason to head northward. The children were delighted at the prospect of a sleep-over with their grandparents. While a night to ourselves was a rare thrill indeed!

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The production sounded intriguing. Its location promised no comforts – a skateboarding rink in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. The ‘peace dividend’ may have brought regeneration to this area, but the cranes of Harland and Wolff still loom behind it. Testimony to when ships, doomed or otherwise, made their maiden voyages downstream from this berth. The venue blended into its quayside environment. The woman in the box-office described it as ‘just a big warehouse’ – the audience was warned to wear warm clothes. Rightly so, for our breath rose before us, even in the dim interior. The theatre-going crowd seemed apprehensive at this unfamiliar format. Nervous laughs, shuffling feet, as we waited.

The start came as a surprise. We were ushered out of the building and led through muddy puddles to a re-enactment of the levelling of a Palestinian settlement. Occupied Territories. In a city that’s often split between east and west, with a powder-keg north and an affluent south completing its simplified jigsaw. Its reality, of course, is much more complex. We listened to a stern figure philosophising in front of a bulldozer. Some heckling… was it genuine or scripted? Whispers among the throng as we herded back inside.

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The show proceeded in a series of vignettes, played out on makeshift stages and the trailers of articulated trucks. Bloody Sunday in Derry, Chile under Pinochet, a Vietnam veteran admitting he’d killed ‘men, women, children… and babies.’ The Khmer Rouge’s reign of slaughter depicted by the disappearance of dancers. Local kids became the inmates of Terezín. Their songs preludes to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. An atomic bomb exploded on a screen. Uprisings were crushed. We were catapulted to the end of the twentieth century: Bosnia, Rwanda, the failure of the international community. Beyond, to the wake of 9/11… A historical helter-skelter threaded together by an actor who grew up in Sierra Leone speaking in the clipped tones of an English aristocrat.

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The action swept the audience with it. The music roused and haunted – from the soloists to the choral groups, to the cellist’s dirge. My husband may have been the only one who could lip-sync to the hits of former Yugoslavia. But we weren’t alone in crying as they were transposed into clashing keys of torture. Though maybe tears flow faster at what we know is essentially unreal. Drama. By definition, a staged reproduction. A bunch of Belfast fellas driven away in a minibus falls far short of representing Srebrenica. It’s not My Lai we’re watching, or the Holocaust. We bought tickets for what’s labelled ‘entertainment’. Granted, of the ‘edifying’ kind, which means your toes grow numb from standing on cold concrete. Afterwards, you go for drinks or food… or home to bed, to families, to safety. More enriched than if you’d indulged in some escapist fluff. Perhaps more hypocritical… The cynics have a point.

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Yet, on the other hand, the performance stained. With its reminders – French complicity in the Rwandan genocide, American manoeuvring that treated Cambodia’s people as sacrificial pawns, Ratko Mladić rounding up men and boys while a blue-helmeted soldier stood aloof. The facts it threw out incriminated global institutions, respected powers, politicians, military personnel. Then, they accused us. Because, as onlookers, we also have a role and, most times, we’re the characters who ignore. And in doing so, facilitate. ‘Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing’ – thus observed John Stuart Mill, another pedlar of philosophy, in 1867. They speak a lot of truth, these sages.

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But can words, in our weapon-glutted age, conquer oppression? Is it not a luxury to be happy when suffering is rife? The title of Pašović’s show sounds like a misnomer in a world which Russell acknowledged to be ‘horrible’. It’s derived from a tome that’s been classified a self-help book written by a pacifist thinker. Yet Russell’s work focuses on active engagement rather than introspection. His sense of humankind’s connectedness, in confronting evil that often seems endemic, infuses the drama inspired by his ideas. So is The Conquest of Happiness a call to transform? Or am I just a sap who wants to believe that art can have social purpose? And would looking outward make us any happier? I’m not sure. Though it might be easier to live with than knowing we did nothing.

There were many questions I would’ve loved to have asked the director when we met him, very briefly, at the end. But the show was moving to London. And, even if he’d had time, his creation didn’t court deconstruction. It was too raw for subtle subtexts. The reaction it elicited went beyond the cerebral, the aesthetic. Its impact was emotional. Deep but unpretentious as Haris himself, in his leather bomber jacket and furry hat. Like a cuddly ex-airman whose panache glinted unexpectedly in the sheen of his bronze-lined scarf. We were star-struck, gobsmacked as he thanked us for travelling north to attend. The journey was his, after all. The privilege of being there was ours. We were grateful for the memories.

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Thoughts of conflict, past and present, filled the frosty skies over the lough. Triggering insecurities as we drove off… Can we risk getting lost in East Belfast, in the dark, in a southern-reg car? Why is the city centre so quiet on a Saturday night? Eventually, we found a Chinese restaurant, just before last orders. It was nearly empty and a bit too brightly lit. Though, as evidence of the diversity spreading through this divided town, it was a perfect place to stop. For our first chance in a long time to talk about what united us. Things we’d almost forgotten under the pressure of daily toils. The struggles that brought us together, from a spark of chemistry at a protest… We’ve still got to face them, whether or not they’re conquerable. But sometimes they give us strength and make us aware of our wider responsibilities. We all have chorus parts in the epic of human existence. In playing them to the full, maybe there lies ‘happiness’.

A version of this post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 29 November 2013

Official website of the show: http://conquestofhappiness.com/

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