Underbelly starts with words spoken in total black. It gives it a feel of Genesis; that some new beginning will spring from the darkness. When the lights do come up they illuminate a writer in a brown suit with large yellow tinted glasses that sees the world through jaundiced medicated eyes.
I was born a little after the Beat Generation, a few more years removed from the frightening blinding light of the first atomic explosions. “The bomb” is what informed a generation of poets. Instead of seeking shelter and protection in a basement from the inevitable disaster and self destruction they believed would visit us, they sought relief in concoctions and potions that provided inspiration and escape. Jayson McDonald has written a piece that captures the distrust of authority and creativeness of William S. Burroughs.
The starkly presented piece takes place in police stations, alleyways and darkened rooms where your shoes stick to the tacky veneer of spilled drinks and assorted bodily fluids. The entire atmosphere is provided by McDonald’s words and sound design accompanied by Dave Dawson’s lighting.
A few years back I saw a show at NAC called The Dream Machine that got too tricky and didn’t capture the essence of the period or the movement. McDonald succeeds by allowing the words and ideas to take control of the moment. The cast of characters created in underbelly are Burroughs', contemporaries Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac plus an assortment of junkies, petty thieves and policemen.
It is difficult to say in a one person performance where the direction starts and ends but one has to assume that the dots were connected properly and that director Jeff Culbert did his job given that the play works so well.
Although the essence of the play is storytelling it is more a thematic narrative than the more traditional theatrical formula. The writers of the Beat generation inspired troubadour poets that followed like Bob Dylan and they rapped more profoundly than many current day hip-hop artists.
Like the cover on the programme, underbelly is a patchwork of stories and images that relate a history of a generation of artists born of a bullet, incubated by the warmth of a hydrogen bomb, living in the shadows of injustice. They desperately need medication to feel normal in a world that they feel is mad, where you trust your hallucinations more than you trust the reality. I hope it finds a larger audience as the run carries on.