Thursday, November 27, 2014

Mistletoe and Crime - securing laughs in Belfast this Christmas at the Lyric (until 11 January)

They may only seem like background noise in a city of hundreds of thousands, but they’re the people Sue and Aileen will be serving this Christmas Eve at the Lyric Theatre.

It’s the night before Christmas and Sue (played by Tara Lynne O’Neill) is starting her last shift in the force. Recently split up from a married colleague with whom she was having an affair, her festive cheer is running low.

Aileen (Katie Tumelty, fresh from playing Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret) is a mature entrant into the PSNI and this is her first night on the beat. Together the pair patrol South Belfast sorting out the homeless, the abused, the lost, the criminal and ultimately themselves.

Mistletoe and Crime has been written by Marie Jones and directed by Dan Gordon. Unlike previous Lyric Christmas shows, this isn’t a sketch show that’s just playing for tinsel-laden laughs. But there was plenty of giggling in the theatre as the packed audience enjoyed the humorous examination of community policing in a familiar city through the eyes of our very own Cagney and Lacey.
That’s my Sue: 22 years in this place and you still believe in fairy tales!
There are no flags, no parades, and no protests. Instead, there’s a newcomer being thrown out on the street by her partner, a spide who hawks fake designer gear, a mother who’s lost and unwanted, a barrister who’s forgotten the Sandy Row bowl he was baked in, and a lovable tramp called Haribo (Ciarán Nolan) who’d like to spend Christmas in the warm cells. And inside the station, there’s a fly fishing-obsessed custody sergeant Mal (Gerard Jordan), a duty solicitor and a family who may be suffering the after effects of their mother’s trip to Turkey. (Maybe she should have gone to Phuket?)

The first act gently introduces the well-drawn characters. Mistletoe and Crime certainly passes the Bechdel Test with its two strong lead women and countless other female roles.
You’re a policewoman, not their mother.
While light-hearted, Mistletoe and Crime gets underneath the flak jackets to expose the humanity of neighbourhood police officers. They bend rules to do the right thing while adopting a no-nonsense approach. It’s clear that the play is inspired by real life officers and incidents. (If the senior command of the Pasty Suppers of NI book the front row of seats at the Lyric some night – can you imagine the reaction of the cast if ‘the Chief’ showed up? – I reckon they’d approve of the skills and attitude being portrayed.)

The play is at its strongest after the interval when the tempo is upped and each character faces up to their own personal predicament and finds resolution. A single beautiful song – performed by a wannabe Duke Special – captures the mood of the city and its theme carries the drama towards a surprisingly mellow conclusion.

Sharing the Lyric main stage with Sleeping Beauty, the set and lighting are relatively simple, but watch out for some great animal shadows, unexpected entrances, the SOS bus and a cameo by the Skiddle Dee Dee one.

In a season when the news is ridden with cynical politicians, cheap shots and historic abuse, Mistletoe and Crime offers an earthy and endearing alternative to pantomime that’s full of kindness and warmth. Catch it in the Lyric Theatre before the run ends on 11 January.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Equal to Rule: Leading the Way - Dr Trevor Morrow in conversation at Contemporary Christianity (Tue 25 Nov)

Amidst the Church of England formally adopting the legislation that would allow its first female bishops to be ordained next year, BBC News online indulged in a spot of hermeneutics to explore what St Paul said about women’s role in the church.

Contemporary Christianity (formerly known as ECONI) have organised a well-timed public conversation with Rev Dr Trevor Morrow on Tuesday 25 November at 7.30pm.

Back in June during the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland launched his book Equal to Rule: Leading the Way.

The organisers sum up the purpose of the evening:
Disagreements over women’s ordination or women in church leadership usually bring up two prominent attitudes: on the one hand, a number of people assume that the plain teaching of Scripture prohibits it; on the other hand, for a number of people, it simply feels right and they do not get to grips with biblical teaching.

Both parties end up in the same place; reluctant to study the biblical text freshly, objectively, with the willingness to go where it leads.

Dr Trevor Morrow has written Equal to Rule in order to show why churches like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland ascribe to full equality for men and women in leadership in the churches on the basis of the teaching of scripture. It is the fruit of years not only of biblical study and preaching, but also of experience in applying the gospel to the lives of women and men in different cultural contexts.
The event is free to attend, and whatever you believe you are encouraged to attend and engage with the retired minister of Lucan Presbyterian Church (and denomination’s youngest ever Moderator).

Head along to the Contemporary Christianity Office (3rd Floor, 21 Ormeau Avenue, Belfast, BT2 8HD) for the 7.30pm start on Tuesday 25 November 2014.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Elsewhere ... Carbon, Capitalism and Unsustainability ... and a disappointing SDLP conference

Elsewhere last week I blogged on Slugger O'Toole about ...

Carbon, Capitalism and the Transition from Unsustainability with a report on Prof John Barry's inaugural professorial lecture at QUB on a very wet Wednesday evening.

Perhaps the only Professor of Political Green Economy, the academic and North Down Green Party councillor argued that "injustice and unsustainability go hand in hand" before critiquing a capitalism that is addicted to “orthodox, undifferentiated economic growth”.

His answer? Economic growth needs replaced with economic security, with Resilience (creating head room), Redundancy (a principle of long-term sustainability to not put all our eggs in the one energy/financial/resource basket) and Reducing resource and energy use. John finished by quoting George Bernard Shaw who said “all progress depends on the unreasonable man” … so let’s be unreasonable. You can listen to the lecture in two halves and browse some of the slides over on the post on Slugger.

Yesterday I blogged about the SDLP party conference. While there was mention of vision and a "New SDLP", the event - and not just the leader's speech - lacked passion and oomph. Deputy leader Dolores Kelly and ex-minister Alex Attwood delivered the sparkiest speeches of the day, and while there was plenty of Sinn Fein-bashing and an appearance by Mairia Cahill at a fringe event, there was little that seemed to lift the mood and morale of party members who are perhaps sitting in neutral waiting for a new leader. You can listen to the morning's debates on motions and Alasdair McDonnell's leader speech.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Damage (by Patrick J O’Reilly) - a new play exploring gay reparative therapy

Patrick O’Reilly’s one act play Damage grew out of a short story into a compact piece of theatre that squeezes in humour and surprise alongside the serious issues it addresses.
“We don’t look like a couple” ... “We’re not”
Two strangers sit nervously perched on the edge of a hotel bed. It’s mid-afternoon and their chatter is stilted and full of gaps. Questions that would usually be normal in conversation feel prying and unnatural as they try and break the ice.
“This is new for me and I feel anxious.”
Robert (played by Keith Singleton) can’t bring himself to say that he’s gay. In fact, he’s desperate to prove that he has put same-sex attraction behind him. Thus through a website he has arranged to meet Louise (Kerri Quinn) to further his conversion.

Robert is tormented by his ‘old’ self. Accompanied by Katie Richardson’s rambunctious sound track, he shakes uncontrollably, unable to settle in conversation never mind make a cup of tea or cuddle his companion.
“I hate myself. They told me I need to fight it, but I can’t fight it any longer. I just wish it would leave me alone.”
There are three personalities in the room - quite literally three in the very bed they’re sitting on - as Robert battles to repress his instinct and sexuality. A silent Matt Forsythe skilfully slips in and out of the action - and Robert’s attention - without hogging the limelight or distracting from the two protagonists.

It’s not all about Robert. Issues around isolation and the need to feel wanted are explored as Louise’s gentle yet assertive nature is tested when Robert’s attraction fails to ignite, and her patience turns to humiliation and rejection.
“... taught by my pastor, parents and friends to hate myself ...”
Robert’s use of religion - probably ‘religion’ rather than ‘faith’ – was fundamental to the damaging counselling he had received. The circumstances under which he signed up to this therapy wasn’t really explored. While “the church” isn’t made out to be the only bad guy in Damage, the aspects of evangelical fervour that promote gay conversion with its abusive practices as a healthy solution are clearly and deservedly criticised.

A play can never be a seminar, and the nuances and width of a subject have to be boiled down to a single narrative. But the experiences of Robert in the play don’t seem far fetched as the abusive practices in gay reparative therapy are explored.

Two thirds of the way through I felt the plot would resolve cleanly in one of two ways. And suddenly it took a third darker twist as the fifty minute play came to an end.

O’Reilly’s play has the good sense to stay short and leave plenty to the imagination of the audience. The audience in the upstairs Brian Friel space sat right up against the hotel bedroom set and found laughs in unexpected places as they witnessed the early awkwardness of the encounter and the turbulent emotions of the characters. While a difficult and challenging subject, the quality of the script and the intensity of the acting made it a very satisfying piece of theatre that deserves a longer run and wider audiences.

There are two further performances of Damage at 7pm and 9pm on Saturday 15 November in the Brian Friel Theatre in the QFT as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festival.

- - -

Update - Jane Hardy's review of Damage on Culture Northern Ireland is worth a read. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Unhome ... a dark and deeply unsettling play by Tinderbox ... in the MAC until 22 November

Unhome is a new play by Jimmy McAleavey that explores what it’s like to no longer feel secure in your home and your mind?

Since her mother’s death and her father’s failure to cope, Kitty (played by Clare McMahon) has been brought up by her Granny Cait (Helena Bereen). The pair have a complicated relationship. Cait communicates through long-form story telling. Conversations frequently descend to frivolous wordplay slams as each vies to outdo the other with rhyming phrases and twisted retorts. There is a neediness – on both sides – with an active yet homebound grandmother increasingly relying on the presence and help from her young relation.
“The world is sick with dreams.”
Kitty is now in her twenties with a good job and fanciful dreams of going to drama school and living in a posh area of London. (It’s only really in the second half that the drama’s location is finally placed in north Belfast and Ardoyne.) The sale of her mother’s home is nearly agreed and her financial security almost guaranteed. Yet Kitty no longer feels at home in Cait’s house and is suddenly hit by a mental breakdown which her doctor describes as “a chemical imbalance in the brain”. More worryingly, she no longer feels at home in her own self.

Tinderbox Theatre Company previously staged Summertime in the MAC this time last year and Unhome certainly pushes further some of the themes of that disturbing play to the extent it makes Raymond Briggs’ When The Wind Blows nuclear fallout story feel like a rom-com.

The action takes place in the claustrophobic environment of Cait’s front room. There’s shivering and jumping in seats as the shadowy lighting and the porous walls in Ciaran Bagnall’s set allows characters to come and go unnoticed. Actors Miche Doherty and Seamus O’Hara bring a physical presence to the sinister voices that succeed in unsettling the audience as their words rattle around Kitty’s head.

Appropriate for the mood and subject of the play, clouds move across the stage as the light streaming in through the set’s front window changes between acts. Watch out for some beautiful silhouettes created by Simon Bird’s lighting design as actors stand in doorways.

As the dark figures mercilessly prey on the young girl, an angel briefly appears to pray with her. But even this fleeting hope is quickly extinguished as the male voices from Kitty’s past become more personal and menacing. The audience watch and wonder whether Kitty will have the inner-resilience to remain alive? And what will be the toll on Cait?
“If you could tell me what it is I could take it …”
Unhome is absolutely exhausting to watch and with the dark play running for more than two hours (with interval) it felt too long. At times Justin Yang’s background soundtrack was less than ambient, jerking into earshot rather than gradually looming into the audience’s subconscious. Perhaps that will settle down during the run. If you’re playing Belfast theatre bingo, then put a big cross through translucent wallpaper, chalk and ghosts.

While the drama may accurately portray psychosis and auditory hallucinations, the near total absence of happiness and joie de vivre sucks all enjoyment out of the piece – much like the Death Eaters in the Harry Potter novel Kitty is reading – and left me feeling sick and gloomy rather than satisfied and challenged. The acting is strong, and Michael Duke’s direction makes it nearly impossible to emotionally detach from Clare McMahon’s despair and torment as she struggles with mental illness.
“Every home is a house of horrors”

Last night’s opening clashed with the first episode in the new series of The Fall. Northern Irish noir drama is absolutely in vogue, but very strong language, adult themes and a couple of sinister men you wouldn’t want to meet up a dark Hill Street may will put some people off watching this play.

Unhome runs upstairs in the MAC until 22 November. Tickets (£12-£17). If you’re under 25 you can take advantage of the £5 ticket offer by calling the box office on 028 9023 5053.

Production shots by Neil Harrison Photography.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Outburst Queer Arts Festival (14-22 November): theatre, film, photos & even some Doctor Who

Outburst Queer Arts Festival aims to bring “world class and new local theatre, performance, film, visual arts and discussion” to Belfast.

In the eight years since the festival began – never mind the 24 years of Belfast Pride – the city’s attitudes towards LGBTQ issues and communities has matured enormously. (Though many acknowledge that the Equality Commission action against Ashers Bakery could be a backward step in good relations as some conservative-leaning groups are choosing to fall out of relationship with LGBTQ communities.)

While not everything on the programme may be to everyone’s taste, there’s certainly a lot to make you sit up and think. Some notable events from the eight day Outburst programme:

Damage is a new play by Patrick J O’Reilly (Hatch; Emcee in Cabaret) that deals with the practice of “gay reparative therapy and the damaging effects of sexual repression and identity”.
Robert doesn’t want to be gay. Louise doesn’t want to be married. Meeting each other to find the reason why it’s all so very wrong.

Damage runs in the Brian Friel Theatre Studio (QFT) on Friday 14 at 7.30pm SOLD OUT and Saturday 15 at 7pm and 9pm. Tickets £12.50.

Regarding Susan Sontag is being screened in the QFT on Tuesday 18 at 8.30pm. The film studies “one of the most important literary, political and feminist icons of her generation”.

Aunty Ben is a play written for audiences from 7 years old and up looking at the experience of nine year old Tracey and her Aunty Ben.
It doesn’t matter to her that Aunty Ben is actually her uncle, or that he’s a drag queen … But when Ben meets her school friends, Tracey is shocked to discover that other people’s families can be very different to her own.

Theatre can be used to open up conversations and help people of all ages understand issues they face – or will face – from safe perspectives. After Belfast, Aunty Ben is heading to London. Sunday 16 November at 3pm. Tickets £6, £3 for under 12s.

Belfast Feminist Network are screening Derby Crazy Love in the Black Box Green Room on Sunday 16 at 2pm with a look inside “the adrenaline-filled world of women’s roller derby”. Tickets £5. It’s followed at 3.15pm by a craft workshop and at 5pm by adults sharing their most embarrassing teenage writing: teen diaries, bad poetry, love letters, the lot! And if roller derby’s your thing, In The Turn is showing in the QFT on Saturday 15 at 3pm.

A Week in my Homosexual Agenda is a photography project running in The Black Box’s Green Room café throughout the festical, with an interactive exhibition and a chance for local photographers to upload their shots as the phrase “the homosexual agenda” is explored.

And for anyone mourning the end of the latest Doctor Who series, as part of BFI’s Sci Fi Days of Fear and Wonder celebrations, The Black Box are screening some favourite episodes from Doctor Who on Saturday 22 November between 11am and 3pm. The title Gayllifrey: a queer celebration of Doctor Who reflects some people’s sense that sci fi mirrors the “otherness” of LGBT experiences. You can agree or disagree with that at the panel discussion and the team quiz. Tickets £5.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Preview of CS Lewis Festival (20-23 November): walks, talks, crafts, films & documentaries

Fifty one years after the death of CS Lewis, interest in the Belfast-born author is still high and this year’s CS Lewis Festival offers a packed weekend of events for adults and children between 20-23 November (PDF version of programme).

Thursday 20 November

Narnia Breakfast / Park Avenue Hotel / 8.30am-9.30am / Free / Join guest speakers Stephen Williams and Trevor Gillian for a “Narnia-themed breakfast” as they discuss “Lewis’ life and beliefs and his relevance today”. Places need to be booked by emailing heather AT eastbelfastpartnership dot org or phoning 028 9046 7925

CS Lewis – the Bigger Picture / Strand Church, Connsbrook Avenue / 7.30pm-9pm / Free – no booking required / The two experts are back with a longer session on Thursday evening. Booking required.

Friday 21 November

CS Lewis and the Great War / Ulster Hall / 1pm-2pm / Free / On his nineteenth birthday, CS Lewis arrived at the front line in the Somme Valley. Sandy Smith will “unfold the story of Lewis and his war-time comrade Paddy Moore”.

Children might want to drag their parents along to:

Aslan Masks Workshop / Belmont Tower / drop in between 1pm and 4pm / Free.

Doodlebugs Creative Workshop / Framewerk, 10 Upper Newtownards Road / drop in between 5pm and 7pm / Free – must book / Make your favourite CS Lewis character “move and groove around the iconic Narnia lamp post”.

The Man, the Myth and the Wardrobe / Strand Arts Centre / 6.30pm-7.30pm / Free – must book / Watch Moore Sinnerton’s BBC NI documentary, delving underneath the revered reputation and image of the author.

Saturday 22 November

CS Lewis Storytelling / Holywood Arches Library / drop in between 10.30am and 1pm / Free / Sit back on the bean bags and listen to a skilled Young At Art storyteller read some of CS Lewis’ work.

CS Lewis Nearly True Walking Tour / meeting at Campbell College / 12.30pm until 2.15pm / £3, family ticket £10 / A blend of historical fact with hysterical fiction as ‘Nearly True’ George guides you around the school on a colourful comic journey mingling fake facts with true stories. Dress for inclement weather! Repeated at noon on Sunday 23.

An Evening With CS Lewis / Campbell College / 8pm-10pm / £10 / In association with David Payne Drama join CS Lewis and a group of American writers at his home in Oxford as he recalls the people and events that inspired his thought and shaped his life.

Sunday 23 November

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe / Strand Arts Centre / 2pm and 5pm / Free / Screening of the 2005 film. Update – SOLD OUT

The Narnia Code / Strand Arts Centre / 8pm-9.45pm / Free – must book / I’m not too sure what to make of the title of this event and the promise, but researcher Michael Ward will walk the audience through “the complex spiritual symbolism and ancient cosmology underpinning the Narnia stories” and “tracking down the ‘secret imaginative key’ to Lewis’ masterpiece”.

During the festival, yarn bomber Redhead Thread will be creating CS Lewis-themed artwork around East Belfast. And you can pick up a CS Lewis trail to follow from the East Belfast Partnership Offices (278-280 Newtownards Road) or download one from the Community Greenway website (along with similar trails for Van Morrison, the Yardmen and George Best).

Nearly all events – including the free ones – require advance booking. More information available on the CS Lewis festival website, Facebook page  and Twitter feed.

Elsewhere ... #ChallengingRacism report and the launch of the NI Open Government network

Elsewhere last week I blogged on Slugger O'Toole about ...

The #ChallengingRacism report was published by two QUB academics (reminiscent of the NI Peace Monitoring Reporting) who collated statistics across a range of topics – population, employment, housing, benefits, economy, healthcare, education, crime and social cohesion – in order to dispel (rather than substantiate) some of the myths about migrants.

Northern Ireland has welcomed relatively few newcomers to society. The NI Census from 2011 says that 5% of the population are blow ins from have a place of origin in England, Scotland and Wales. According to the census, less than 2% of the NI population are from Eastern Europe. The report also explained that "in places of high in-migration there is no link between rising crime levels and migration ... in fact, evidence shows that crime has actually decreased in these areas with higher percentages of migrants".

The NI Open Government network launched on Wednesday morning with a speech from Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, and analysis from Peter Osborne and Lizetta Lyster (from the Cabinet Office Transparency Team). You can listen back to their remarks - Felicoty Huston's contribution was particularly memorable! - and watch the three main speeches.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Elsewhere ... council funding of bonfires and the complexities of parading

Elsewhere last week I blogged on Slugger O'Toole about ...

Council funding of bonfires and asked whether this was burning public money or a necessary investment in good relations? Details of breaches of grant conditions (no flags, no political posters, no tyres etc) are now available for this summer's bonfires. However, inspections seem to be partially avoidable and evidence gathering isn't complete.

Fewer breaches found in 2014 than 2013. Most of those sites will not receive the full grant amount. Yet the ability – year after year – to still claim 70% of the funding isn’t much of a deterrent. Particularly if the shortfall is for part of the budget that isn’t core to the costs on the day.

Surely those sites which breach the conditions should only be offered a reduced grant if they apply the following year, restored to the full amount the year after if they successfully meet the full conditions.

A seminar on The Complexities of Parading was held on Wednesday evening by the Journey Towards Healing project of NIAMH Wellbeing (Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health). Gary Mason hosted the conversation, with remarks from Mervyn Gibson (minister of Westbourne Presbyterian Community Church and assistant grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland) and Sean Murray (Sinn Féin). The two talks were followed by Q&A with the thirty or forty people present in a Belfast City Mission meeting room, including challenging responses from Linda Ervine and Deirdre Hargey.

As an experiment, I filmed the talks using a tiny Polaroid Cube camera clamped onto the side of the side of the audio recorder. More about my impressions of the Cube

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Suit - stripped back South African theatre that enchants - don't miss it (Lyric until 31 Oct) #BelFest

Having thought that I'd run out of Belfast Festival tickets and shows, I'm very glad that I came out of retirement last night to watch The Suit in the Lyric. The steady stream of new people coming forward to access Victims & Survivors Services, never mind other troubling stories that have been dominating the local news, remind us that Northern Ireland is still coming to terms with the deeper consequences of how the Troubles affected society and in particular family life.

The Suit is a play from Théâtre Des Bouffes Du Nord that looks under the lid of the bustling 1950s South African suburb of Sophiatown as it prepared to be broken apart and sent 20 miles further out of Johannesburg to make space for white working class housing. In a middle of that civil disturbance, a marriage was also on the point of collapsing.

Philomen (played by William Nadylam) gazes over adoringly at his sleeping wife Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) as he gets up for work each morning, until one day he is told that his wife has an intimate visitor every day after he leaves.

Soon after Philomen arrives home, a man in his underpants runs out of the flat leaving his suit behind. The husband’s reaction is at first muted, but he formulates a novel punishment.
I see we have a visitor. We should show him every hospitality ... he will eat every meal with us and share all we have ... you, Matilda, will look after him meticulously ...
Propping the suit up on a chair, the trophy husband threatens to kill Matilda if she doesn’t respect their ‘visitor’. The suit is fed at mealtimes and watches over them in bed. Tension builds as the passive aggressive bully ritually humiliates his wife and the audience reevaluate who they think the real victim is.
It’s not like the explosion of a devastating bomb; it’s more like the critical breakdown of a intricate mechanism ...
The simple set fills the stage with painted chairs and clothes rails which are spun round to create new rooms, windows and even vehicles. The gentle lighting settles the mood with primary colours washing across the dark backdrop. The Lyric main stage acoustics allow Matilda’s singing to fill the auditorium with hope and joy.

Three musicians (Arthur Astier, Mark Kavuma and Danny Wallington) sit to one side accompanying the action with a muted trumpet, piano, accordion, guitar and an array of colourful hats. They also act the role of minor characters in the play. Despite the destructive - and deconstructing - relationship, Peter Brook’s direction (along with Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk) provides humour with some characters engaging with the front row of the audience and throwing in the occasional ad lib.

Actor Ery Nzaramba anchors many of the play’s crucial moments with his narration, though the other characters also speak of themselves in the third person, narrating their own circumstances and actions. It’s an unusual but distinctive device that works well throughout the unhurried 75 minute performance.
It’s not like the explosion of a devastating bomb; it’s more like the critical breakdown of a intricate mechanism ...
The Suit is based on a 1950s South African short story by Can Themba. Just as violence hangs over the apartheid society, in turn violence, humiliation and repression are present in the lives and relationships of those living in the black township. Northern Ireland audiences should ask questions about how the Troubles affected our society, and whether we have yet recognised the consequences and begun to properly deal with the aftermath.

Despite the miserable-sounding plot, The Suit is an enchanting piece of theatre that is well worth seeing. It is stripped back, at times whimsical, yet deadly serious about the repercussions of a violent society. Between the mellow music and the script, it’s an intimate piece of theatre that is just the right length and leaves you feeling satisfied - if a little sad - by the end.

The Suit’s brief run as part of the Belfast Festival finishes in the Lyric Theatre on Friday 31 October. So hop on your broomstick tonight and get yourself a couple of tickets for a cracking piece of theatre.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Elsewhere ... war photography, public opinion on abortion reforms, bandsmen reflecting on WW1 and reviewing Jamie Bryson's new book

Elsewhere last week I blogged on Slugger O'Toole about...

Paul Conroy delivered the Amnesty NI annual Belfast Festival lecture when he spoke about his experiences of war photography in Syria and the death of fellow journalist Marie Colvin. For those who missed his talk, his book Under the Wire relates the dangerous and ultimately fatal assignment in detail. A version of the post appears on Amnesty NI's website.

Amnesty NI released opinion poll information that showed that the majority of Northern Ireland public support the three amendments to abortion legislation that are in the current Department of Justice consultation. Under the banner of their My Body My Rights campaign, Amnesty's headline figures show that a majority think that the law in Northern Ireland should make access to abortion available where the pregnancy is the result of rape (69%), the result of incest (68%), or where the foetus has a fatal abnormality (60%). No matter how the statistics were sliced – by gender, age, social class, political preference or denomination – over 50% support the legislative changes. Support for abortion to be available if there is a fatal foetal abnormality is a little lower than pregnancy as the result of incest or rape, particularly amongst respondents identifying as catholic and nationalist. Good to see that my graphic to illustrate some of the research results was useful and made its way into other people's posts about the launch!

More Than A Flag ran in Ballymacarrott Orange Hall for three performances at Belfast Festival this week. I caught the dress rehearsal (and went back on Saturday evening) to see twelve young bandsmen remember local East Belfast men who served in the First World War. It was incredibly poignant to watch lads the same age as many of those went to war reading out names and addresses of fallen soldiers who came from streets only a stones throw from the venue. No flutes or drums, but plenty of speeches, poems, acting, dance and songs. And hope. The transformation of twelve guys from bandsmen into actors … and by the end of the performance, bandsmen who are actors.

Jamie Bryson released his latest book My Only Crime Was Loyalty on Friday, and I published an exclusive preview on Slugger O'Toole that morning with a review of the work and extracts from key passages. Now available in paperback (£7.99) and on Kindle (£8.04), the first hundred pages document his experience of being on the run, arrest, charge, bail, intelligence services and the Ulster People’s Forum. He also throws in how he came to read leaked copies of the Haass proposals.

Fundamentally Bryson has written the book to explain the background to his encounters with the PSNI over the last two years and his very long running court case. The process of writing may have been cathartic, but an increased understanding of his psyche and motivation, knowing that his bail condition variation requests were more about trying to humiliate and embarrass the authorities than ease the constraints will not change a lot of people’s minds about Bryson. Yet reading the book will allow Bryson to get under people’s skin and might just humanise the best-known face of the flag protests.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Makaronik (Dave Duggan/Aisling Ghéar) - Can language be eliminated? Why does culture threaten?

Playwright Dave Duggan describes himself as being “in the pleasure business”. He invites audiences to come and experience the Irish language and enjoy engaging with it in a theatrical setting.

Makaronik is his latest play, set in a futuristic 2084 when the Empire is in crisis and tidying up dormant stray elements of language that if ignored might later turn into threats.

The Centre has sent guards Gráinne (played by Mary Conroy) and Dairmuid (Cillian O’Gairbhí) to the Béal Feirste outpost to arrange for the remaining Irish stories, songs and poems to be archived by its last remaining resident Makaronik (Liz Fitzgibbon) and shipped back to headquarters. Then it will be JOB JOB DONE with LOOSE ENDS NO. Unlike their last assignment in Dakar where they got distracted: LIE DOWN LIE DOWN. MISTAKE MAJOR. JOB FAIL DUTY FAIL.

Gráinne and Dairmuid’s mother tongue is Empirish, but over the years they’ve picked up smatterings of other languages, including English which has been DEAD DEAD for many years. Yet given the cultural cleansing that has already been completed, they are surprised and feel insecure when Irish-speaking Makaronik demonstrates a knowledge and use of more languages than they expect: Latin, English and even Empirish. (Though the pair from the Centre might be equally shocked to discover most of the audience is fluent in Empirish by the end of the show too! EMPIRISH EASY LEARN LEARN.)

Makaronik doesn’t want to leave. And Gráinne could be persuaded to stay and abandon her mission of language genocide.

There’s more than a touch of Blake’s 7 in David Craig’s set. Old domestic machines lie on their sides, scavenged for wire and parts, and curvy coloured panels hanging from the roof. Chris Hunter’s Empire uniform favours knee-length leather boots, and Decathlon-style tight fitting black tops with simple colour detailing, and communicators fitted to the palm of its agents’ hands.

About three quarters of the dialogue is in Irish, the rest in English and Empirish (which has its roots in Orwell’s Newspeak (1984), pidgin English and a little Clockwork Orange and Harrison Ford/Blade Runner).

Makaronik is definitely a much trickier play to engage with if you have no Irish. It’s like watching CEEFAX with a set top aerial on a portable TV: parts of the page of text are missing. In the case of this play, most of the words are missing. Every minute or two another crib note in English will flash up on the three monitors above the actors’ heads, usually with a summary of a particular plot point rather than a translation of what was being said. (Personally I'd double the number of crib notes.)

The playwright likens it to watching an Italian Opera. The audience follow the action and understand the story through the clues given in gestures, facial expressions, the tone and their imagination. For Makaronik, the acting and interactions are good and as I type this the morning after I’ve a clear idea of what the play was about.

Yet sitting last night in the Lyric Theatre and watching the action, there was time to think. A bit too much time in-between the sporadic on-screen crib notes. It is clear that the science fiction play is richer for those who bring both Irish and English into the theatre. The wordplay will be greater, along with the precision with which audience members pick up the nuances of the characterisation and plot.

Audiences will – and should – choose to come into a somewhat alien environment, outside their comfort zone and enjoy what they can. Language should open doors, should increase understanding and expression. If there’s a message from last night’s performance it is that we need to get over our fear of languages and stop being threatened by them. Culture and language can’t be killed, they can’t easily be suppressed or eliminated. They tend to live on in people’s hearts.

Makaronik is on in the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast Festival (Saturday 25 at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm) before touring in Galway, Monaghan, Derry, Maghera and Dublin. You can read Dave Dougan’s article on Culture Northern Ireland to get more background on why he wrote Makaronik.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

More Than A Flag - East Belfast bandsmen poignantly look back at WW1 as the audience see future potential #BelFest

Twelve young guys who couldn’t be much older than twenty. Most with no acting experience. Some haven’t been in a theatre never mind standing on a stage. Bandsmen. Proud of their community, proud of their culture and their flag. Often derided, stereotyped, and written off.

Over the last couple of months, Dan Gordon has realised a long held dream and produced More Than A Flag, a powerful piece of community arts by Happenstance Theatre that will be premièred in the Ballymacarrett Orange Hall on the Albertbridge Road over the next three nights.

Over ninety minutes, these young men remember local East Belfast men who served in the First World War. Watching last night’s dress rehearsal I found it incredibly poignant to see lads the same age as many of those went to war reading out names and addresses of fallen soldiers who came from streets only a stones throw from the venue.

While it’s a celebration of service it’s not a celebration of war, with room in the production to explore the awfulness of the conflict and even those who ran away and were court martialed and shot.

No flutes or drums, but plenty of speeches, poems, acting, dance and songs. And hope. The transformation of twelve guys from bandsmen into actors … and by the end of the performance, bandsmen who are actors.

Bandsmen. Proud of their community, proud of their culture and their flag. Talented, and now celebrated, seen to be full of potential.

A quality production that looks back at the past, but also looks toward a bright future, playing at Belfast Festival for three nights only. Some tickets still available for the opening tonight if you phone the box office 028 9097 1197.

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You can also read Culture Northern Ireland's preview.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

All aboard The Holy Holy Bus as Brassneck's brand new production takes audiences on a side-splitting tour #BelFest

The Holy Holy Bus left the front of Clonard with its three passengers and tour guide setting off on its annual pilgrimage around Ireland’s religious shrines and relics. Last night’s packed Waterfront Studio audience strapped themselves into their seats as Brassneck Theatre Company delivered an exhilarating and entertaining performance of their brand new production which is premiering at Belfast Festival.

Lily (played by Stella McCusker) is coming to terms with illness and old age. She’s the kind of woman who confesses to murders to wind up visiting priests. Her daughter Sally (Roisin Gallagher, fresh from Pentecost in the Lyric) is childless, divorced and reluctantly agrees to accompany her mum on “one last big adventure”.

Tour guide Perpetua (Claire Connor) is devout, devoid of a sense of humour, and takes a condescending attitude to the loud Shankill taxi-driving bleached “pradestant” Rita (Caroline Curran, bringing a copy of 50 Shades with her) who joins the other three women on the bus “for the craic”.

Five picture frames mounted across the simple black backdrop ground each scene with simple images and the occasional well-placed video.

The laughs flow continuously with banter, truisms, facial expressions, a touch of slaggin’ and topical references to Garth Brooks and the Metropolitan Tabernacle. One joke about Bulimia jars amongst the otherwise measured script. Audience members couldn’t keep themselves from joining in the singing and humming along with the music played between acts.

As the play progresses, the Holy Holy Bus morphs into a secular bus and spiritual renewal is totally replaced by dreams of sexual fulfilment. In fact, some of the material in the second half – and the ad nauseum references to “black bamboo” – perhaps unnecessarily turns it into 15+ show. While the production moves substantially beyond the initial character stereotypes to get to the heart of the pain that is driving each woman, humour ultimately propels the show towards its finale as much as true healing.

The mother/daughter scenes between Stella McCusker and Roisin Gallagher are incredibly fond and moving to witness. While going on a physical journey could have become an enormous cliché around the production’s neck, Pearse Elliott’s well drawn script, strong cast and Tony Devlin’s intelligent direction mitigate the risk and deliver a great night’s entertainment.

The Holy Holy Bus is the tightest, feel-good comedy theatre I’ve seen in years, with believable on-stage chemistry and a cast with the ability to switch an audience from belly laughs to silent pathos in an instant.

This isn’t high theatre with beautiful soliloquies and speeches that school children will ever be forced to learn by rote. However, it is the kind of populist alternative pantomime deserves to be the worthy successor to the tired Grimes and McKee yuletide shows. Last night’s Waterfront Studio audience – young and old (the most diverse I’ve seen at this year’s festival so far) – loved it.

The Holy Holy Bus departs from the Waterfront Studio at 8pm every night (except Sunday) until 31 October before going on tour to Lisburn, Newtownabbey, Newry, Strabane and beyond.

Now if I could only get the tune of Hallelujah out of my head …

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Grania McFadden's review of The Holy Holy Bus in the Belfast Telegraph.

Other theatre worth checking out later this week includes An Enemy of the People (Thu-Sat), More than a Flag (Thu-Sat) and Makaronik (Fri-Sun)