Written and directed by Dominic J Allen, Belt Up Theatre’s Lorca is Dead is a remarkably complex play for something that is also a hell of a lot of fun. On a basic level it seeks to tell the tale of the death of the poet Lorca, which was Dom’s initial motivation for writing the play and borne out of both the reach of Lorca’s life and the tragedy of his “martyrdom”. Yet when told through the members of the Bureau of Surrealist Research and their guests (the audience) it becomes something altogether stranger.
Dom admits that the Surrealists found their way into the piece through Lorca’s relationship with Salvador Dalí, and were initially the ideal solution to avoid melancholia: “It had to encompass all of Lorca’s humanity, outgoingness and his huge personality and warmth – that’s the sense I get from reading about him and his work. When we were developing the play, all the actors, while they were researching their characters, tried to find ways and reasons to have links to Lorca. Each of the characters has a different, very strong connection to Lorca as a symbol of what he stands for, which I think gives the play its emotional strength.”
If you ask a cast member about their character, you would be forgiven for thinking that they have started talking instead about a treasured old friend, that constant source of amusement who is loved for their slightly eccentric but utterly brilliant ideas. The research and preparation that has gone in to constructing the play means that you learn more about Surrealism from one conversation with the company than a lifetime spent in an art gallery, and certainly more unusual facts than you would expect to see stuck up on a museum wall. Joe Hufton talks animatedly about Luis Buñuel’s recipe for a perfect martini, his loathing of Guernica, and the time he destroyed Charlie Chaplin’s Christmas tree, while Lucy Farrett passionately defends Gala, the wife of both Paul Éluard and Dalí. “I’m the first one to admit that Gala did really horrible things. But at the same time she really strove to make Dalí a success, as well as herself, but it was for him as well.” James Wilkes, who plays Dalí, says it’s the little details that make the characters feel real to them, “like when we found out that Gala’s favourite colour was yellow – that’s really insignificant but it says something about her,” and Lucy agrees, “it says a lot about her, and that’s another reason why I’m defending her! I genuinely think she was happy until she died. You can tell – she did exactly what she wanted all of the time.”
Yet despite all the research that has gone in to creating the characters, they are not intended to be seen as precise re-enactments of the actual persons, and to try and do so would be missing the point. Rather, each character, like Lorca, can be seen as heightened, symbolic versions of themselves – a dramatic convention that is made all the easier by the surrealist basis of the play. This allows for one evening to span many years, and has also meant the play can accommodate two new actors from when it was performed in Edinburgh. Serena Manteghi takes the role of Magritte and Dom will play Éluard – the challenge of writing, directing and acting in a piece only made easier by the fact they all already know what they’re doing already. James identifies that the greatest challenge came from responding, as Dalí, to two new and different characters. “I was the shortest member of the Edinburgh cast, so I used to play Dalí with small man syndrome. But now the others are shorter than me, so Dalí is more like the first child who is jealous of the new baby.”
The obvious problem Belt Up face is capturing the sheer radicalism of surrealism in an age of Lady Gaga (who is influenced by Gala herself) and Juno’s hamburger telephone. “Surrealism is completely fundamental to people’s perception of the world now” admits Marcus Emerton; and while Lorca is Dead manages to be surprising and fun, they all know that it cannot be as new and shocking as their real-life counterparts because “no-one can break those rules again.” Yet, they all acknowledge that their particular brand of theatre owes a lot to the Surrealist principles of automatism and dislocation. “They were bonkers,” says Joe, “but they were also quite brilliant, all of them, in their own individual ways. You’ve got to respect them because this – what we do – probably wouldn’t have happened without that.”
James confesses to me early on that he doesn’t consider what they do to be particularly intellectual, but after spending some time in their company I’d be inclined to disagree. Belt Up prove that theatre rooted in proper research and performed by actors with a rigorous understanding of the concepts need not be dull and dry. Although they “pick and choose” the elements of each personality to create a dramatic dynamic, it remains an impressive tribute not just to Lorca but to Surrealism in general. Joe sums it all up quite nicely: “I like to think even if they didn’t like it, they’d respect what we do.”