Abomination: A DUP Opera at Queen Elizabeth Hall
The title of this cabaret-style opera, which received rave reviews in its first run in 2019 and then won the 2020 Irish Times Theatre Award, refers to a 2008 radio interview on BBC Radio Ulster, in which Iris Robinson (Rebecca Caine), then a DUP politician, condemned a recent assault on a gay man before describing homosexuality as “an abomination”. She would go on to place it on a par with child abuse, refusing to retract her words and recommending psychiatric help in the form of conversion therapy. This interview forms the core of this opera, which takes Robinson’s words as its text: 75 minutes of rage and prejudice with a wicked ironic grin and no redemption.
Words can destroy, but we can take ownership of words – that’s exactly what happens here, and verbatim. Comments from Robinson and other DUP members (Ian Paisley and Arlene Foster make an appearance) are unedited and amplified, and projected along with spinning newspaper headlines over the set by video designer Conan McIvor. The only gay role on-stage is a drag act (Matthew Cavan) with a huge orange wig and heels, who represents everything the DUP feels justifies their homophobia. Most of the songs are delivered to the audience – the roles don’t interact – and there is almost visible discomfort at some of them: the saccharine I Have a Lovely Psychiatrist and the revue-like They Are Poofs. Powerfully effective is the contrast between Iris Robinsons’s often melismatic soprano and the unsung speech of her only counterbalance, radio interviewer Stephen Nolan (Tony Flynn). Mezzo-soprano Sarah Richmond plays the remaining female characters with a chilling intensity.
The Belfast Ensemble, a chamber outfit, is conducted by Tom Deering, and Conor Mitchell’s score focuses on heavy woodwind and brass. It is a revelation, bringing together influences from the minimalism of Philip Glass, Hollywood romance, Broadway and Britten – and it is very loud and rude.
Abomination remains close to its material throughout, and there is a sense that we should already know the details and context; if not, some of the action can be difficult to understand, especially given that many facts surrounding and following the incident are omitted. The unrelenting hate speech can feel like an attack at times, which is probably the point – as is the fact that there is no redemption or let-up. By the end, the DUP still prevails, with Robinson grappling Nolan to the ground.
Photo: Pete Woodhead
Abomination: A DUP Opera is at Queen Elizabeth Hall from 5th until 7th May 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.