One-man plays have a tendency to either make or break reputations. Ransom Production's previous play Hurricane was an unprecedented success but Protestants is a completely different proposition. Whereas Hurricane is based on the triumphs and failures of a popular sporting hero, Protestants is a much more ambitious play, aiming to define a global faith through the eyes of some key exponents and contemporary believers.
Paul Hickey has the unenviable task of attempting to play such disparate characters as Queen Elizabeth I, a thuggish Glasgow Rangers fan, Martin Luther, an Irish soldier in Cromwell's New Model Army, a snake-handling petrol pump attendant from Mississippi and a Protestant child from Northern Ireland. Initially the characters don't appear to have a great deal in common but as the play unfolds a clear theme begins to emerge. Robert Welch's play defines Protestantism as the religion of the protestor, the individual who reacts against dogma or even reason.
Hickey stalks around a stepped semi-circular stage, picking up carefully placed key props as he changes character. Tellingly, Hickey moves to a different point on the stage according to a particular character. Whilst Luther is keen to talk about the life-altering power of the Gospels, Queen Elizabeth is more interested in political power. Cromwell's soldier extols the sense of purpose he feels in following a great leader but the snake handler simply relies on his faith as protection against the snake venom.
Hickey is impressive as he morphs from one character to the next. He even manages to make the football hooligan; the least sympathetic character; engaging as he tethers himself to a chain at the side of the stage and bristles with impotent rage. The props tell their own story. Queen Elizabeth's ruff is constructed from a giant cog sawn in half whilst the snake handler's petrol pump doubles as his scaly enemy.
Although Welch doesn't shy away from exploring the uglier sectarian side of Protestantism at times the theme of protest seems slightly forced. Conversely, the music played between the character changes, from Van Morrison to slave spirituals to Ash's Shining Light, echoes Luther's insistence that faith is "so simple".
When Hickey adopts his final pose as William Blake's crucified Christ, the audience reaction is overwhelming. Perhaps Welch didn't succeed in capturing the essence of Protestantism but when he's created such an accomplished play that really doesn't seem to matter.
- Claire Simpson (reviewed at the Old Museum Arts Centre, Belfast)