Thursday, July 21, 2016

Bobby Sands: 66 Days (review)

Bobby Sands: 66 Days is a 105 minute documentary film that weaves together the story of 1970s and 1980s republicanism with day by day updates on Sands’ condition and diary entries throughout his hunger strike.

The documentary film is bookended by quotes from Fintan O’Toole. In one he describes the 1981 hunger strike as “drama at the absolute rawest edge it could possibly be”. In the other, the author and commentator says that, like 1916, 1981 was also “undoubtedly a turning point” in Irish history.

It’s a peculiar melange of styles and devices. Far too much explanatory text appears on screen. We see a replica cell being built out of wood which is used to stage images from the cell to illustrate changes in Sands’ environment. Some animation is employed. And with very little footage of Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers, his presence is mostly conveyed through his poetry and other writings alongside rich imagery, photographs and archive news footage of events outside prison.

Amidst this hotchpotch of storytelling, the director Brendan J Byrne and editor Paul Devlin create some interesting cinematography – running footage of car bombs and shootings in reverse, and slow motion republicans bands drumming – creating space for audiences to pause and think about events.

The international dimension and reporting of the story is highlighted with an ABC News ‘Special Report’ announcing Sands’ death. A sense of morality is (not so subtly) introduced through a reading from the Bible.
“He stopped being a soldier and he became an artist – his body taking so much punishment.” (Finton O’Toole)
There’s a lot of hyperbole in the statements made by the (predominantly male) experts interviewed for the film. It’s clear that the republican family was happy to cooperate with its making, with contributions from Danny Morrison and Séanna Walsh. Gerry Adams is interviewed wearing a Féile an Phobail t-shirt.

Thomas Hennessey adds a welcome academic and historical perspective to the political and cultural commentary: he’s one of the few talking heads that brings any energy to his observations in this overly long film.

At one point the voice of Ian Paisley booms out of the screen. While the general lack of overtly unionist voices – Norman Tebbit is an exception – doesn’t lead to any overt romanticisation of Bobby Sands, it does make the narrative a bit boring (if ‘boring’ is ever an apt word to describe a film about people starving themselves to death).

It’s difficult not to compare and contrast 66 Days with Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger which achieved a much better balance with its examination of the work and lives of prison officers alongside the central narrative of the republican inmates and the conditions they lived in.

Where 66 Days does a better job than Hunger is in conveying – though perhaps, overplaying? – the untypical background of Sands: the boy from Rathcoole who played in a cross-community football team.

At times 66 Days seems contradictory. Early on one voice tells the audience that there’s a long history of hunger strikes; later we hear that “hunger strikes are peculiarly modern”.

The film doesn’t make Sands out to be a hero; but it is clear that many of the contributors do view him in that light. The pain in the voices of Sands’ election agent and fellow prisoners who survived is still evident as they recall saying goodbye.

Much is made of an old quote from 1920 hunger striker Terence MacSwiney that “it is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will [win],” suffering publicly and over a long time.

Fintan O’Toole concludes with a central lesson from the film:
“Ultimately Bobby Sands effectively marks the end of the tradition of armed struggle in Ireland. Because what he said is there is really no justification or need to kill people. What you really need to do is dramatise your own suffering.”
One challenge of the film is for mainstream republicans to preach this message to their dissident peers. “You win when you capture the public imagination” and endure rather than inflict suffering.

The film finishes with the jump from Bobby Sands’ death to the emergence of the peace process (and significant US involvement). Just before the closing credits, a caption appears marking Bobby Sands’ birth and death and noting that in total 3532 lives were lost in the conflict between July 1969 and December 2001.

Bobby Sands: 66 Days is neither an apologetic nor a rose-tinted documentary. The film sets events firmly in context but the critique of the hunger strike, the decisions of the UK government and the protest’s long term effect is fairly lenient.

Polling day for this year’s NI Assembly election coincided with the 35th anniversary of Bobby Sands’ death. If anything, Sinn Féin played down references to the hunger striker during the election campaign and didn’t seek to make too much obvious political capital from the anniversary.

If the ambition was to commission a documentary to examine the legend of this republican hero, the dissatisfactory result is a well crafted but very curious blend of comment, re-enactment and voicing of Sands’ words that bounces between facts, analysis and the deteriorating health of the prisoner.

Unionist politicians complaining about the film should save their breath until they’ve seen the completed work and then decide whether they even want to draw attention to the work.

The film is a co-commission for BBC Four Storyville and BBC Northern Ireland made by Fine Point Films and Cyprus Avenue Films (in association with Northern Ireland Screen, Sveriges Television and the Danish Broadcast Corporation with the participation of The Irish Film Board).

Bobby Sands: 66 Days will be screened in the Kennedy Centre Omniplex on Wednesday 3 and Thursday 4 August (tickets £8) as part of Féile an Phobail and will go on general release from 5 August.

Update - Denzil McDaniel reviewed the film for the Impartial Reporter.

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

John Hewitt International Summer School (25-30 July) #JHISS

The annual John Hewitt International Summer School runs next week in Armagh. While it’s possible to book a place and take in the full programme, individual events are also ticketed.

Everything takes place in The Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, Market Street, Armagh, BT61 7BW.

Monday 25 July at 11:15am - Diplomat in Moscow, Belfast, New York, Finland and Estonia, ambassador to London and the UN, Dáithí O’Ceallaigh will deliver the summer school’s opening address. Retiring from the Foreign Service in 2009, he is currently director general of the Institute of International & European Affairs in Dublin.

Monday 25 July at 4.30pm - Creativity in the Digital Revolution is the title of poet Dr Leontia Flynn’s Heaney O’Driscoll Memorial Lecture.

Tuesday 26 July at 9.45am - In her talk 1916 & Women: Unfinished Business Dr Linda Connolly will argue that women’s roles and rights in Irish society deserve much fuller attention, both in relation to the history of the 1916 Rising and its historical legacy.

Tuesday 26 July at 1.30pm - Author, broadcaster and screenwriter Glenn Patterson will read from his latest published novel Gull.

Tuesday 26 July at 4.30pm - A panel discussion ‘Reflections on Remembrance’ will be chaired by CRC’s Peter Osborne who will be joined by
  • Jeffrey Donaldson MP (also chair of the Northern Ireland WWI Centenary Committee);
  • John Concannon (director Ireland 2016 and formerly Failte Ireland);
  • Tom Hartley (historian, former Sinn Féin councillor and former general secretary and national chairperson of the party);
  • Ruth Dudley Edwards (biographer of James Connolly and Patrick Pearse, commentator on Irish affairs).
Tuesday 26 July at 8.30pm - An evening of music with Duke Special.

Wednesday 27 July at 9.45am - Catriona Crowe asks How Have We Remembered 1916? She’s head of special projects at the National Archive of Ireland and manager of the Irish Census Online Project.

Wednesday 27 July at 4.30pm - Malachi O’Doherty will be in conversation with author Eimear O’Callaghan sharing his thoughts on Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams. Malachi’s biography of the politician will be published by Faber.

Thursday 28 July at 4.30pm - A panel will discuss Where were the women when history was made? Chaired by Ruth Taillon (director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and author of When History Was Made: the Women of 1916, which identified 200 women who took part in the Easter Rising), the panel will include:
  • Catriona Crowe (head of special projects at the National Archive of Ireland and manager of the Irish Census Online Project);
  • Susan McKay (journalist and author).
Friday 29 July at 4.30pm - Poet Chris Agee is editor of Irish Pages and will deliver the publication’s 7th annual lecture. In Troubled Belfast Chris will distil 37 years as an immigrant in Belfast, focussing on the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement and drawing on pan-European parallels. He’ll reflect on the dynamics that continue to “trouble” Belfast and speculate that becoming multicultural may be the most momentous of all the changes in Belfast following the Troubles.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Chevalier - an object lesson in how to be “The Best in General” (QFT until 28 July)

Six men gather on a doctor’s large luxury motor boat. For some it seems to be a regular getaway; for others it’s the first time they’ve come along to the macho retreat.

It’s quickly apparent – if anything in the ponderous 105 minute film Chevalier is truly ‘quick’ – that there’s a competitive streak running through the boat. And the competition escalates whenever they decide to formalise their rivalry into a “The Best in General” contest. The winner is supposed to wear a Chevalier signet ring until they get back together to play again.

Soon every gesture, posture and activity is being judged and scored. It’s like a very mundane version of Jackass. Less physically painful to watch, but even more emotionally gut-wrenching as the performance anxiety, sibling rivalry, bullying, opportunities for humiliation and fatuous testosterone-driven tournament progresses. Fans of Swedish homebuilt furniture will be particularly impressed with one round: the only challenge I’d have won!

Frankly it’s baffling that these six guys would ever want to share time away together. Of the six, Dimitris (played by Makis Papadimitriou) is vulnerable and naïve and the object of pity; he has tagged along with his brother. He’s the most honest of the game players, yet he’s still not likeable.

The opening shots set the dark tone, bringing out the black of the rocky coastline. The first few minutes with its tight foreground focus on the men and very blurry distance made by eyes hurt, but the visual effect was soon dropped. Music is used so infrequently that the three or four times it is dropped into the soundtrack of waves and wind it’s like a fresh character walking onto the screen.

The on-screen angst transfers into the chests of the audience who are bound up in this dreadful derby. The air of judgement also transfers to the yacht’s crew. Playing Top Trumps with blood test results deservedly elicits a giggle or two. There are laughs at irregular intervals, but the film stops well short of being any kind of comedy, never mind a black comedy.

The all-male movie keeps women behind the camera. Is the director Athina Rachel Tsangari perhaps judging even more harshly than the men, with a similar notebook full of scribbles and marks? And do men really play these games? Really? Surely it’s a phallic fallacy? There have got to be better ways to live and rest and enjoy company than this.

The insecurities and poor judgement feels universal rather than Greek, and the film could have been set in any shoreline around Europe (or further afield) as easily as around the coast from Athens.

The end is apt and some came out of the screening I attended raving about the film. Others – like me – found it to be a pointless object lesson on how to be a complete idiot, with five or six prime examples to work from. Either way Chevalier is a painful, yet effective, character study.

Chevalier is in the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 22 to Thursday 28 July.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

"We're here because we're here" #Somme100 #wearehere

Yesterday morning in Belfast a group of men dressed in WW1 uniforms quietly marched down the Stranmillis Road and stopped outside Queen’s University, leaning against bollards, lying back on the wrought iron gate. After a while one soldier struck up the song “We’re here because we’re here” – sung in the trenches – and the other voices joined in.

When approached by a member of the public, rather than speaking they simply reached into a pocket and handed over a white card bearing the name of a local soldier who died at the Somme on 1 July 1916.

The squad moved throughout the city, appearing in Great Victoria Street bus station, outside the Europa, in Victoria Square, the MAC, the Big Fish and even caught the train to Ballymena. Another group were based in Derry. And across the UK, similar uniformed soldiers – ghosts of the war – appeared in railway stations and public places in a moving tribute to the losses at the Somme.

The juxtaposition of khaki onto the modern colour palette was striking. The sound of boots marching in formation down the footpath.

Last night, after the ghosts had disappeared from the street, the back story to the event was explained. The local volunteers, organised by Lyric Theatre and The Playhouse were part of a UK-wide collaboration that saw 1400 men appear dressed in replica uniforms. The modern memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme was commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, and the work was conceived and created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller working with Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre.

“The project breaks new ground in terms of its scale, breadth, reach and the number of partners and participants involved. This is the first time three national theatres have worked together on a joint project, and the first time so many theatres have worked together on a UK-wide participation project.

“The participants who walked the streets today were a reminder of the 19,240 men who were killed on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Each participant represented an individual soldier who was killed that day. The work is partly inspired by tales of sightings during and after the First World War by people who believed they had seen a dead loved one.

“The participants wore historically accurate uniforms, representing 15 of the regiments that suffered losses in the first day of the Battle. The soldiers did not speak, but at points throughout the day would sing the song ‘we’re here because we’re here’, which was sung in the trenches during the First World War. They handed out cards to members of the public with the name and regiment of the soldier they represented, and, where known, the age of the soldier when he died on 1 July 1916.

“The day long work ran from 7am to 7pm and covered the width and breadth of the UK, from Shetland to Penzance. Sites they visited included shopping centres, train stations, car parks and high streets – taking the memorial to contemporary Britain and bringing an intervention into people’s daily lives where it was least expected.”

For further events commemorating the battles of the Somme, check out History Hub Ulster’s Belfast Somme 100 programme, supported by Belfast City Council.

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Notes on Blindness - John Hull's new view on life (Queen’s Film Theatre until Thu 7 July)

“Every time I wake up, I lose my sight.”

It’s a sobering explanation from John Hull who had sight problems throughout his childhood and finally totally lost his vision as an adult in his 40s.

A writer and university lecturer, he at first distracted himself finding ways to compensate for his failing sight and learning how to function as a blind academic by building up coping strategies and enlisting an army of readers to record text books onto tape cassettes. However, over time he realised that he had to chose whether to live in nostalgia to whether to fully embrace blindness.

We see the real couple just once during the film. But throughout we hear their voices, with the soundtrack of Notes on Blindness piecing together John’s audio diaries made during the 1980s as he began to study his condition, and later conversations with his wife Marilyn recollecting on their experience of living with his blindness. Filmmakers Pete Middleton and James Spinney are imaginative in how they craft clips together, matching contemporaneous recordings of events with reflections years later.

The sound track leads the visuals, with many of the shots are partially obscured, with the cast acting in shadows, seeing only part of their faces. Actors Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby are seen lip syncing to some the recorded dialogue. While the technique is used sparingly, the audience sometimes experience blindness not only with darkness but also with bright whiteouts – eg, snow blizzards – that make it impossible to determine form or location.

The film proceeds at a gentle pace, feeling its way through John’s evolving exploration of his new vision. Fond family memories are blighted by depression at not being able to see his children unwrap their Christmas presents. A dream of being able one of his daughters for the first time turns out to be more of a nightmare. We hear how John hesitated at the opportunity to visit his parents back in Australia, a place which no longer has any remaining visual memory and familiarity for him.

There are some very tender, vulnerable moments. [It may be some sort of QFT record that tears didn’t come to my eyes until the 64th minute.] Yet we learn little about John’s views on any subject other than blindness. Even hearing him lecture, it’s not obvious that he’s a theologian. The one spiritual experience towards the close of the film puts his “gift” into a new perspective.
“Question is not why have I got it, but what am I going to do with it?”

Notes on Blindness is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 7 July.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Belfast Somme 100

As a non-historian, I come to understand the past fairly late in any cycle of commemoration. My school English teacher wrote a well-regarded book about the Somme and we had a signed copy at home, but I've never read it. Philip Orr is a member of the History Hub Ulster's advisory panel.

Belfast Somme 100 is their programme of events and projects - funded by Belfast City Council - marking the centenary of the battles of the Somme, exploring the place of the Somme campaign within the First World War and its place within the social and political history of Northern Ireland and pre-partition Ireland.

The Cenotaph at Belfast City Hall will be the venue for the annual wreath laying ceremony at 11am on Friday 1 July, remembering the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division who lost their lives.

Already there have been concerts, walks and talks. And between now and November, there will be exhibitions, lectures, conferences and films across north, south, east and west Belfast. Keep an eye on the website for details of the kids programme planned for Saturdays in July and August.

Saturday 2 July / HMS Caroline have a family open day with Creative Centenaries and their green screen allowing you to go back in time on board the ship / Normal admission fee applies

Monday 4 July at 6.30pm / Training Kitchener’s New Army in Ireland – What Can Archaeology Reveal? is a lecture by Heather Montgomery in Belfast Central Library / Free to register

Tuesday 5 July at 12.30pm / 1916 Walking Tour of Belfast Merchant Companies led by Nigel Henderson, starting at the front gates of Belfast City Hall and focussing on the Somme stories of the sons and daughters of some of Belfast’s most famous merchant families. / Free to register

Wednesday 6 July at 3pm / 1916 Sources Tour - join Catherine Morrow as she opens the archives of the Newspaper Library in Belfast Central Library / Free to register

Lots of partners are running events too ...

Until 18 September five zones in the Ulster Museum will feature extensive photographic and video archive material from leading heritage organisations including the Imperial War Museum, National Museums Northern Ireland, National Library of Ireland, and Public Records Office NI. Creative Centenaries - led by the Nerve Centre - have brought together diaries, graphic novels and even a drone war rug. / Free admission

Between Tuesday 5 to Saturday 16 / Frank McGuinness' play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme will be performed in the Lyric Theatre.

Between 3 and 14 August, Féile an Phobail will host a series of talks around the Battle of the Somme anniversary.

Until 19 December, an exhibition highlighting the contribution of Orangemen at the Battle of the Somme - The Lily and the Poppy - is running in the Museum of Orange Heritage in Schomberg House.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sixteen South open new studio - exporting kids TV from a building that once sold fancy hankies round the world

This morning, Sixteen South officially opened their new offices in One Clarence Street, the company’s third premises. Chief Executive Colin Williams explained to visitors and press that back in 1884 the building was home to the Clarence Finishing Company, a linen manufacturer.
“They sold – all over the world – fancy handkerchiefs … and I think it’s a little bit fitting that 130 years later it’s now home to us, part of the new creative industries of Belfast, and we’re trying to do exactly the same thing as the Clarence Finishing Company and selling stuff all over the world.”
Sixteen South are celebrating being in production of season two of Lily’s Driftwood Bay – a show “proudly born and bred in Belfast”. The new series takes it up to 100 episodes of the show that has been sold to over 100 countries across Europe, Africa, Middle East and America. Another show Claude is also in production for Disney and will be dubbed into 21 languages. And there’s a new pilot for PBS in the works too.

The company’s first foray into children’s television came with two series of Sesame Tree [which led to my favourite ever interview] followed up with Big City Park, Pajanimals, and Big and Small.

Over the years, the First and deputy First Ministers have attended many launches at Sixteen South. Despite acceding to being photographed with Muppets in the past, the joint leaders of Northern Ireland have always seemed relaxed at these events. The gathered press were keen to capture political views on Brexit this morning before the opening began.

The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union does create uncertainty for the film and animation sector in Northern Ireland. In a few years time they will fall outside quotas for broadcasting EU shows and their product may be a lot less attractive to television channels across Europe.

The First Minister Arlene Foster reminded those gathered that she’d “been a huge supporter of the creative industries right throughout my time as Enterprise Minister”.
“It’s wonderful to see the ambition, the drive, the innovation, the imagination that you have here in everything that you do. Of course, entertaining young people is no mean feat. I had the privilege of visiting many primary schools and many pre-schools during the election time, and they have absolutely no filter! … They certainly are a tough audience and you seem to have succeeded with young people.”
Highlighting the £329 million contribution to the local economy, the First Minister added:
“Animation and everything surrounding the creative industries is so exciting … It’s grown quite quickly but it’s [an industry] that the deputy First Minister and I are committed to continue to support and promote globally for you and your colleagues.”
She finished by admitting that “we’re delighted to be here this morning – it’s a little bit of light relief whilst everything else is going on!”

Thanking Colin for the invitation to attend, the deputy First Minister quipped that “some of those hankies would have come in useful last Friday”.

Martin McGuinness remembered being at the original launch of Lily’s Driftwood Bay and said the international success was a “tremendous accolade to yourselves and a testimony to the quality of the work”.
“Arlene and I are committed to working together even though we were on different sides of the [EU referendum] discussion and the debate. It’s still our duty and our responsibility to take our society forward and we’re absolutely determined to do that.”
NI Screen’s Richard Williams reminded those gathered that the Opening Doors Strategy target is to have a screen industry here in NI that within ten years is second only to London in the UK and Ireland.
“Sixteen South and the broader animation and children’s sector are illustrating exactly how to do that. Totally internationally focussed, connected to every centre of finance and creativity that’s relevant in their sector, and showing the entrepreneurship, the leadership, the innovation, the energy and belief required to ensure that we all deliver on behalf of Northern Ireland our ambition.”

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

Monday, June 20, 2016

A tale of the unexpected as the cast of IGNITION faced their fear (Tinderbox Theatre)

Four actors, a director and a dramaturg walk into an empty theatre. It’s like the start of a joke … or in the case of the cast, Patrick J O’Reilly and Hanna Slättne, a self-imposed five day nightmare.

The external instruction they received on Monday would shape the entire week.
“What could we do if we weren’t all so afraid?”

It’s a great question for the entire arts sector in Northern Ireland never mind the recently refreshed team at Tinderbox Theatre. [You can read my preview post for more background on the production.]

The Friday and Saturday night audiences had no idea what was ahead when they walked into the Upstairs at the MAC theatre for IGNITION. Unless the team had sat in the pub for the last week, between the group exercises and the perspiration accompanying the ever-closer deadline, they must have dreamt up something?

What happened next was reminiscent of some of the shows in the Old Museum Arts Centre. There was gentle audience participation as we took our seats, joining in the cast’s new ball game (a cross between a net-less-volleyball-badminton-baseball variant). Later the show paused for a moment of reflection and we helped servce refreshments.

The main show – which can’t really be distinguished from the moments of breaking the fourth wall – is a metadrama, increasingly self aware of the pressure under which it was created. Flipcharts and post it notes cover many of the walls around the stage. There’s an air of incompleteness and unanswered questions that drives the performance forward.

Snippets of contemporary news from a local newspaper propagate belly laughs in what becomes a roller coaster of emotion. Panic is stirred up by kill joy Keith Singleton. Louise Matthews and Michael Patrick are joined on stage by Julie Maxwell who doesn’t escape a shower of water (though less immersive than her previous role in the Upstairs theatre!) while her eyes have a lethal glare. There’s even room for some multi-lingual tongue twisting around the fear-ridden referendum.

One giggler audience member in the front row described it as a “pure geg” as the performance reached its conclusion. What we witnessed was what happens when six artists face their fear. There’s latitude within the scenes to ad lib and stretch the boundaries, while

IGNITION is a promising format. A sustained burst of creativity tested out on an audience before complacency and script rot can set in. A different cast and we’d have a totally discrete show. A different line of inspiration and we’d have been transported to a totally new destination. Nerve-racking for the company, pretty nerve-racking for the audience too. Not a bad way to light up an evening.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fire at Sea - facing up to tragedy at Lampedusa (QFT until 22 June)

Fire at Sea is a powerful if unusually crafted documentary based around the island of Lampedusa, about 200km away from Sicily.

The local fishing boats that set sail from the harbours are no longer the only vessels in the sea. Refugees pay to make the perilous journey from Libya across to Italy in boats packed with bodies. Standard fare sees you crammed into the dark hold, risking burns from the diesel fuel and death from the heat and dehydration. Pay double and you can perch on the deck.

The film follows three generations of a fishing family, often watching the play of young Samuele whose war games involve his slingshot and pretending to shoot with his pump action finger.

We hear the ship to shore radio communication between a boat in peril and the Lampedusa Coastguard station, and watch as naval vessels launch a helicopter search mission and sailors equip a boat’s passengers with life jackets before evacuating the most severely dehydrated, the walking wounded, and finally the dead bodies.

Running just shy of two hours in length – though unlike The Revenant, the time passed quickly – the narration-less documentary with its sparse dialogue patiently lingers over each scene, allowing the audience to spot moments of visual and thematic symmetry between the different strands of the film. Months spent safely out on the water fishing is contrasted with the treacherous flights to escape. An ultrasound scan looks eerily like the Coastguard sonar display.

The new life represented by the intertwined twins huddled together in the dark in their amniotic fluid contrasted with the refugees clinging to each other in the dark hold of the smuggler’s boat. The treatment of Samuele’s lazy eye: a reminder of need to correct the tunnel vision of many in society who would prefer not to do anything about the 60 million or more displaced people across the world.

A doctor bridges the islander and migrant communities together: 
“It’s the duty of every human being … to help these people”

People’s eyes speak out about fear, relief and uncertainty about the future. Official photographs taken with ID numbers but without the dignity of a name, and often with the country of origin guessed by a slow process of elimination.

There are no shortage of poignant moments in Fire at Sea, but perhaps the most soul destroying is the instant a rescued woman sitting on the deck of a naval vessel asks in desperation “Are all the black men on board?” before breaking down in tears.

While a few domestic scenes look less than naturalistic, the post production on Gianfranco Rosi’s film is very subtle and it’s hard to believe that a colourist was employed.

Fire at Sea is difficult to watch. It gently captures the human tragedy that sails towards Lampedusa on a weekly basis and personalises the staggering numbers of deaths. In the first five and a half months of this year 2,438 people have been reported dead or missing on sea crossings to Italy, and another 376 on their way to Greece.

Refugee Week runs from 20-26 June. You can catch a screening of Fire at Sea in the Queen’s Film Theatre until Wednesday 22 June.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Smiley - a comedy five a side football heist as one man tries to repay a debt (Lyric Theatre until 2 July)

Smiley has a plan to pay back his debts which involves entering a team of less-than-amateur ringers in a local football tournament with a big prize fund. But when an ex-paramilitary god-mother intervenes, his odds of success change. Throw in a very credible Elvis impersonator, a drag-queen and a complicated set of interpersonal relationships, and you have a comedy tinged with peril.

Gary Mitchell’s new play Smiley looks at a society in transition where not everything is going forward. Characters bring their past lives with them into the locker room of life as they confront new problems with their old skills. The Northern Ireland allegory is kept very much in the background, so much so that for many this may only be seen as a funny heist about football.

For a stage play, Smiley has an incredible number of set changes with bulky furniture keeping the stage hands busy as the plot's overly complex twists and turns are revealed.

It’s probably closer to a film script that theatre. While this shows off Liam Doona’s artificial grass set and John Comiskey’s suspended lighting array, it adds a lot of injury time to the first half.

Smiley is at its strongest at the beginning of the second half, with the plot, dialogue and directing sprinting together up the wing with an assured pace that makes up for the lateness of the evening.

While the story revolves around Michael Condron’s shouty titular role, James Doran has the most rounded character to play with. Director Conall Morrison paints Malcolm as a menacing minder, but has the audience aahing in sympathy in a moment of vulnerable revelation before the vicious dénouement.

Jo Donnelly revels in being monstrous, though her intimidation fails to work on Smiley’s ex-wife Elaine (played by Kerri Quinn) who temporarily reduces her threat level. Gavin Peden brings to life Smiley’s son, a consistently weedy and androgynous lad with more imagination than talent.

Sub plots and themes litter the script. An exploration of homophobia is responsible for a sustained string of sexual innuendo that generates cheap laughs.

Ten years ago the play would most likely have featured fewer female roles: it’s a shame that the only way found to portray a woman as being confident was the use of a push-up bra and cleavage that should really apply for its own Equity Card. The gender bending is completed by Charlie (Roisin Gallagher), a successful woman footballer who is crowded out of the script by the more thuggish elements of the story.

While the stadium-like set looms darkly over the cast, at times the staging was nearly too ambitions. The clever rain effect on the bus shelter wasn’t echoed by the characters elsewhere on the stage. A phone rang on stage but the sound came from behind the audience. And the final spotlighted shadows failed to deliver the intended crisp shapes being thrown by Aaron/Elvis and Cameron (Tommy Wallace). Small niggles that may disappear during the run.

Smiley’s fast-paced humour has the audience in the stands guffawing throughout two halves. The final minutes of the play show off Gerard McCabe’s great voice in a scene reminiscent of Dennis Potter‘s love of throwing tunes at a show and allow the play to wrap up its loose ends and go out on a high.

With football in the air you can catch Smiley at the Lyric Theatre until 2 July. It’s fairly likely the local teams playing in Euro 2016 will be home in time to catch a performance before Smiley’s run finishes!

IGNITION - 5 days, 4 actors, 1 new piece of theatre (Tinderbox 17-18 June at the MAC)

IGNITION is a new project by the rejuvenated team at Tinderbox Theatre Company. Starting on Monday morning, four performers will be locked in a rehearsal space with artistic director Patrick J O’Reilly and dramaturg Hanna Slättne to devise a new work that will be performed on Friday and Saturday evening in The MAC.

Alongside the rapid turnaround innovating, a one day State of the Arts dramaturgically led workshop will be held on Saturday. Ten other theatre makers will attend and be assisted in the development of their new ideas.

Tinderbox hope to run IGNITION twice a year in order to work “the wealth of talent we have here” in Northern Ireland. Over time they’ll use different performers, different styles and even vary the writers-to-performers ratio in the rehearsal room.

“We hope to find gems of idea that we want to develop with writers and make into larger pieces of work” says O’Reilly who has just finished touring Britain and Ireland with Big Telly’s madcap production of Spike Milligan’s Puckoon.

Time bound by one week, there’s isn’t scope for big sets and complicated productions. But that doesn’t put O’Reilly off: “for me simplicity is the key”.
“You can have a piece in development for over two years, which is great. But I also think you also have to enjoy the spontaneity and freedom of making something in a very intense, short period of time.”

He believes that stopping to perform or read a new work opens it up to discussion and fresh ideas, before picking it up for further development.
“It’s important to make art accessible to everybody so it doesn’t remain in one demographic. We can take shows to people’s homes, to community centres in very remote rural areas as well as playing in commercial venues. Theatre doesn’t fit one size …

“How we view theatre also needs to change. We need to take it away from that end-on fourth wall environment and find new ways to excite audiences and organisations and theatre goers.”

Book a ticket and head along to The MAC at the end of next week and see what Louise Matthews, Michael Patrick, Keith Singleton and Julie Maxwell have come up with.

As well as IGNITION, Tinderbox are planning a triptych of pieces – What We Are Made Of – to be performed in the autumn. Three forty minute shows will highlight new writing and new devising processes. They’ll be performed together over a two week season but will also tour on their own, with at least two hitting international circuits.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Love & Friendship … scheming towards matrimony in this whimsical delight (QFT until 9 June)

The lilting harp music that opens Love & Friendship is quickly followed by some light drumming, perhaps hinting at the emotional light and shade ahead in this entirely whimsical but utterly enchanting period drama.

Love & Friendship doesn’t take itself at all seriously: that’s immediately apparent from the captions that appear under the book-like introductions to the large cast. Yet it’s beautifully shot and moves along like a real page-turner.

Filmed in Ireland and based on an early Jane Austen novella, we step back into the highfalutin English Regency era where men wore wigs and tights while women sought husbands of wealthy enough to fund their lavish wardrobes.

Widowed Lady Susan (played mischievously by Kate Beckinsale) has escaped to her in-law’s estate while the chattering classes gossip about her morals. It’s all true. She’s as twisted as some of the old trees on the estates she flits between. But she’s a woman with a mission: she needs a man to fund her lifestyle, and so does her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) who’s nearing the end of her formal education (though her mother has a thing or two to teach her).
“We don’t live, we visit.”

Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) is a fool, and one who could fill the whole vacuum of space with inane twaddle unless someone interjected. He has proposed to young Frederica who has the wit to be repulsed by him. Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) is of fine stock but his parents warn him to be wary of any dalliance with the flirty widow. And then there’s the already married Lord Mannering (Lochlann O'Mearáin) and his hysterical wife (shrilly played by Jenn Murray).

In what becomes a fast-paced reality show complete with playground gossip of who’s going with whom, new plot points draw up to the door of stately homes by horse and carriage and through the delivery and reading of letters sealed with wax causing characters to travel post haste across England to steer men in and out of the way of Lady Susan’s charms. Chloë Sevigny plays Alicia, and American confidant of the devious star of the film.
“Facts are horrid things.”

A queen of manipulation, Lady Susan could talk herself out of anything. “Only clever tradesmen can evade” her charms and genius quips one wise character.

Before you know Whit Stillman has the ninety minute film all wrapped up and the credits are rolling. For such a sweet film, the succinct ending is a little unsatisfactory. While justice has perhaps been done, I can’t believe Lady Susan would go to all that effort and then be content with the eventual conclusion.

You don’t need to be familiar with Jane Austin to enjoy the film. It’s complete nonsense, but delightfully entertaining all the same. Love & Friendship is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 9 June.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Northern Star - the seven ages of Henry Joy McCracken (Lyric Theatre until 29 May)

“Citizens of Belfast …”

The clever set for Northern Star portrays the backstage area of a theatre, with piles of props and a cue station monitoring the action on the other side so the backdrop. It’s quickly clear that this a metaphor for Henry Joy McCracken’s seven reminisces on the eve of his arrest and execution. A noose hangs over the stage as another reminder of McCracken’s ultimate fate.

The script’s opening stage directions are read aloud at the start reminding the audience that the cast flit between characters during the play. A large Lambeg drums sits on its side at one corner of the stage, along with a piano and various other instruments. Members of the cast slip in and play.

McCracken is mostly played by Paul Mallon in a low key performance, while other male and female cast members get to wear his fetching green jacket too. He’s a leading light in the Society of the United Irishmen in Belfast (liberal Protestants who longed to end British interference in Ireland and bring about a shared social change).
“Every joke turning into a nightmare. Every nightmare into a joke. That’s an Irish lullaby.”

Words flow out of McCracken’s troubled mouth like a tap that is stuck open. He’s simultaneously eloquent, quotable, incisive and absurd. He’s hiding with Mary Bodle (Charlotte McCurry) and their illegitimate baby in a cottage with a loft in one corner of the set. She dozes upstairs with their daughter while he spends a sleepless night talking to the ghosts of his past. Mallon and McCurry are joined on stage by Richard Clements, Darragh Kelly, Eleanor Methven, Rory Nolan, Robbie O’Connor and Ali White.

Other reviewers who are more ‘in the know’ will explain how different scenes in the play are written by Stewart Parker in the style of other Irish playwrights (Wilde, Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Beckett etc). But that device is lost on the average audience member who like me will merely notice some abrupt changes of language and style.
“It isn't true to say they forget nothing. It's far worse than that. They misremember everything.”

Heavy themes of identity, nationhood and legacy run through the play. There’s a little humour – Wolfe Tone has the most outrageous costume and the dark glassed beret wearing duo cut a comedic pair in the second half – but it’s mostly pretty serious.

In the end Lynne Parker’s direction and Zia Holly’s set couldn’t overcome the obstacles in the original script to transport me back to 1798. The clash of styles and the density of the language left me exhausted and I came out of Northern Star only a little the wiser. The thrust of Stewart Parker’s Pentecost proved much more accessible when performed on the same stage last year.

Rough Magic’s Northern Star has toured through Dublin and Glasgow and plays in the Lyric Theatre until 29 May.

Green Room: a battle of the bands followed by blood and red laces (QFT until 26 May)

It takes a while for Green Room to make sense. Why has a van come to a halt in the middle of a maize? Why are the four passengers (played by Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole and Callum Turner) asleep? Why do they carry around the necessary piping to siphon petrol from other cars rather than buying ‘gas’ for themselves?

The Ain’t Rights are a punk band and they’re touring on the cheap. A gig falls through but they’re promised a slot in another out of town red-neck venue. Twenty minutes into the film and one band member’s chance sighting of the aftermath of a stabbing casts a dark shadow over their own longevity and their future as a four piece group. The white supremacist venue’s manager (Macon Blair) struggles to keep a lid the situation, holding the band hostage in the green room along with a beefy bouncer and the dead girl’s friend (Imogen Poots).
“I’m not keeping you: you’re just staying.”

For the next seventy minutes, we witness what happens when the blood, gore and violence faders are slowly turned up full in a tense and often brutal slasher movie. Along the way there’s some industrial bandaging with duct tape, a DIY zombie look when a fire extinguisher is discharged, and dogs that you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night. Patrick Stewart gets to be evil, playing the venue owner and man in charge of handing out the coveted red laces to the neo-Nazi group.

Writer and director Jeremy Saulnier is wedded to the soundtrack, happy to cut away where others would have lingered. (Despite the heavy influence of the punk scene, unlike last week’s release Everybody Wants Some, there’s no rendition of Alternative Ulster to cheer everyone up.) The slow motion mosh pit scene easely on is artistic and a moment of relative calm before the storm around the corner.

I’m not a fan of horror films, so when one character asks “Shouldn’t we be panicking?”, I know that anyone with a nervous disposition (who’s left) in the screening has already mentally answered “We are”. The special effects, slashes and blood spurting are high quality. The characters are hard to love, with very shallow backstories and a sense of increasing expendability.

Green Room is screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 26 May. Update - also playing in Omniplex and Moviehouse cinemas.