Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Pillowman (Lyric Theatre, 24 March-19 April): "We like executing writers ... it sends out a signal"

Martin McDonagh is a master story-teller and his play The Pillowman is not only based around a powerful story arc, but contains a series of grisly fairy tales in the form of short stories that are read out during the performance.
I’ve never done any anti-police thing, any anti-state thing …

Katurian (played by Peter Campion) has been blindfolded and taken to a concrete curved-walled interrogation room. The door is heavy and riveted; the only window is grilled and three metres or more above the tiled floor.

The writer of hundreds of infrequently published short stories is initially not sure why he has been brought in to help the two policemen who question him.

Ariel (Gary Lydon) wears braces and plays bad cop, with a reputation for using torture to extract confessions. The more experienced and more senior Tupolski (David McSavage) is the better mannered good cop – or perhaps less-bad-but-still-sinister cop – dressed in his sharp grey suit. But can either be trusted? And what baggage to they bring to the investigation?
I’m a high ranking police officer in a totalitarian regime …

McDonagh’s trademark rapid-fire repetition of dialogue and ping pong between characters along with a magnificent use of pauses create confusion, tension and give the performance injections of pace despite its limited cast and restricted set. Yet the menace is laced with humour and comedy genius.
We like executing writers … it sends out a signal.

Katurian (and McDonagh by extension) is a modern day Grimm, writing short stories that involve children or adults being mistreated, often violently. The police are concerned that his fiction now resembles a recent series of read-life child murders. At times you’ll wonder whether Katurian or the interrogators are the bigger storytellers!

They’ve searched his house, gathered up his stories, and brought his older brother Michal (Michael Ford-Fitzgerald) to the next door cell. Michal’s experience of childhood abuse and learning disabilities make him a vulnerable and sometimes hard-to-read figure in the play.

A couple of times between scenes, Owen MacCárthaigh’s magical set morphs to allow short stories narrated by Katurian and be illustrated by a subsidiary cast on an elevated platform behind him. These tales offer autobiographical insight into Katurian and Michal’s life and deeds.

The stories within the story are so well fashioned. Katurian/McDonagh’s story of The Little Green Pig that enjoys being “a little bit peculiar” would make a great children’s story book or even a radio Thought For The Day.
They’re not going to kill my stories, they’re all that I’ve got.

A suitably fairy tale ending befits the dark and macabre themes throughout the play.

The Pillowman is inappropriate in so many ways. If the actors on stage are racist and mock disability that reflects the nature of their characters. But a lot of the audience giggle along to the stories, maybe occasionally pausing to think through the wrongness of their response. In the theatre environment, the audience would be cold-hearted not to have empathy but they don’t express anger, speak up or storm out. We are carried along by the storytelling, and aren’t as far removed from the on-stage characters as we might hope.

The power of storytelling is somewhat lost in today’s world of sound bites.

Few broadcast news reports have the time to stick with a prolonged narrative and instead quickly cut away to a synopsis, analysis or an alternative opinion. Newspaper articles get ever shorter as interaction research shows that readers engage with the first few paragraphs and the final ones before skimming the rest of the text (if they even bother).

Yet children love the repetition of a well-crafted, oft-rehearsed story being repeatedly read to them at bedtime. And as I’ve discovered, as they grow older, they start to enjoy less well-crafted and made-up-on-the-hoof parody stories involving favourite characters that play with words and stretch their imaginations.

Some of the most effective sermons are those in which the preacher tells a Biblical story, amplifying it, asking what might have been going on in the heads of the characters, looking at the interactions, painting a rich three dimension picture of the plain words on the page and activating it in the minds of the congregation before making some points or challenges.

The Pillowman illustrates the power of storytelling, the challenges to the freedom or a writer, as well as the consequences if your motivation is misinterpreted or your words are taken as justification for awful action.

Is The Pillowman the product of a warped mind, or a prophet? Is there a responsibility attached to the creation and sharing of tales?

The Pillowman’s cast totally live up to the quality of the script. Peter Campion is never off the stage for the two and a half hour performance and is completely believable as an author, a brother, and a wide-eyed young man running out of time. The language is very strong throughout, and the themes are raw.

After ten years, 2015 is the first time that the play has been performed in Ireland. Having passed through Galway, Dublin and Cork, it’s worth catching The Pillowman at the Lyric Theatre until 16 April.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Courtroom drama ... performed in an actual courtroom: Dave Duggan's DENIZEN - a dissident republican addresses the court

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole

The word ‘denizen’ conjures up the notion of a citizen, yet perhaps one with fewer rights or living somewhere that isn’t home.

It’s also the title of Dave Duggan’s new play, a courtroom drama written in verse which opens in the north west this weekend and will be performed in two courthouses.

Interviewed last week, the playwright told me:
The conceit in the play is that the judges have given Denizen an hour to speak to the court of public opinion. … [Denizen] is a dissident republican with a long tradition of being involved in militant anti-state activity, in the militant republican tradition, and he’s arrived at this point where he’s about to appear in court again. It’s not his first time.

In an unusual and gesture – only available in theatre! – the judges have given him an hour to step outside the confines of facing the judges into a public space in the courts to speak to the audience, the citizens.
Dave added:
He a fictional theatrical character and he interrogates himself, the guards interrogate him, and he presents his case, his past and present, and he pushes himself into the future with a set of options.
The playwright reckons “there’s a sense of singularity and isolation implied” in the word ‘Denizen’ and as an artist with a reputation for playing with words - who else could construct and use the word "de-chastellained"! - he admits that it trips off the tongue in a neat way: “denizen … dissident”.

I first came across Dave Duggan at last year’s Belfast Festival. His science-fictional play Makaronik wove together English, Irish and Empirish (TALK TALK UNDERSTAND MOST). This time, his play is in verse!
When I came to write this I had a sense that the matters that Denizen engages with and the gesture he makes, they are larger than life. To do it in a naturalistic style I felt wouldn’t carry it theatrically. So it’s in iambic pentameter, terza rima, ballad style, there’s singing in it, but it’s in verse.

One of the pleasures of theatre is relishing language. I like words … how we use them … the possibilities of them … the way they run into each other, infect each other, cross-pollinate with each other. Much of that is present in Denizen.
To quote Denizen:
I speak in verse because my heart is pure.
My actions chill you daily, provoke fear.
But the verse, the beat, the pure note rises.
Let me tempt you with a few surprises.
Before you stands a local, wanted man.
But not by you. Not wanted. Abhorred?
As dog turds on a peace bridge are abhorred.
Avoided. Yuk! Walked round. Scraped off your shoe.
Do not bring me into your cosy home.
I am the pariah part of yourself.
Dave Duggan strongly believes that theatre is about “pleasure-making, engaging and entertaining”.
For me the pleasures of theatre, particularly in a world where so much of the images we get are on screens, laptops, phones, televisions, films … so the challenge to – and opportunity for – theatre makers is to do something that is consciously theatrical in a way that people think “this is something different … I’ve seen something refreshing and new”.

Why choose the subject of the last dissident republican?
The subjects tend to choose me. I’m soaking up what’s going on in my life and my world, matters arising and this matter arises for me. What is it about this choice of violence? Why do people choose violence to find a way to create social change?
The character Denizen says that “what he wants is regime change” and reflects on examples of regime change across the world as he explains his own actions at home.
Forced regime changes, and the lies, proceed
Daily, under cover of denials
Each night on broadcast news, across the globe.
So why not my desire for regime change?
By brute force, if that be necessary?
I am a midge on the sturdy white bull
Of war and violence. The state's white bull,
Proud and fierce, calling us to give homage.
Ultimately, the play asks whether a future can be built without violence, by the state or its citizens?

Many people won’t have been in a court room unless on jury service. Dave Duggan describes the work as “site responsive” rather than “site specific” and he’s glad that years of discussion with Courts NI mean that audiences will get to see it in Bishop Street Courthouse and Strabane Courthouse.

Denizen is played by Diarmuid de Faoite (Corp agus Anam) while Orla Mulland (The Fall) and John Duddy (boxer turned actor) play the main guards. The rest of the chorus of guards who challenge Denizen are played by local actors. The Hive Studio provide the audio-visuals, allowing the audience to see the imagery in Denizen’s head.

The script has been published and there's also a good piece on Culture Northern Ireland about the play.

Currently rehearsing in unit B15, Denizen is produced by Creggan Enterprises Limited in association with The Hive Studio and opens in Derry’s Ráth Mór Centre on Monday 30 and Tuesday 31 March (£5), before moving to Bishop Street Courthouse between Monday 6 and Wednesday 8 April (£10/£7) and Strabane Courthouse on Saturday 11 April (£10). Follow the links to the ticket sites. Derry tickets are also available from the Pennywise shop in the Ráth Mór Centre.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Tim Ward's take on what Daniel and Joseph could teach us about Ashers & that cake: Don't panic ...

The inside half of our folded church announcement bulletin often reprints a weekly column from someone connected with Evangelical Alliance. Truth be told, I often find the attitude of the articles quite irritating. But while my heart sank when I realised the subject of this week's essay was that cake, my spirits rose when I realised the less predictable tack that Tim Ward was taking with his message.

The first few paragraphs set out the ground work for EA's UK-wide audience ...
It’s a storm in a cake tin. Or actually it’s not, because the cake in question wasn’t baked. A while ago a campaigner for same-sex marriage, Gareth Lee, asked a bakery in Northern Ireland to make him a cake to support his cause with an iced topping that featured a slogan in favour of gay marriage, along with a picture of the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie. Confused about how a couple of puppets get dragged into this? Ask Google.

Ashers, the bakery in question, is run by a family of Christians, and they declined the business. Mr Lee, supported by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, is taking legal action against the bakery, and the case will come before a Belfast court later this month. This week a lawyer acting for the bakery published a legal opinion warning that if the case goes against the bakery then in the future all sorts of people could be legally required to act against their conscience: a Muslim printer could be forced to print cartoons of Muhammed, an atheist web designer could be forced to build a website for six-day creationists.

My, this is complicated. And because it involves individual conscience, it’s quite hard to make a comment without causing offence to someone somewhere. Of course, this case is simply the newsworthy tip of a very large everyday iceberg. Many Christians will encounter related issues in their working life – a financial advisor, say, required to regard a same-sex couple as married.
... before the twist ...
I just want to make two simple observations. The first is that the Bible tells us of a number of people who look like they’re in thoroughly morally compromised situations, but yet serve God faithfully. Daniel was a senior civil servant in Babylon, an empire that had not exactly established a reputation for justice and moral probity. Joseph was second-in-command to Pharaoh in Egypt, and married to the daughter of a pagan priest. Both men must have constantly found themselves in positions that might be regarded as morally compromised.

The second observation is that the world of Daniel and Joseph has been the norm in most places through history - except for Europe, North America and few other places, and that for just a few 100 years. Those of us brought up in these cultures often have a knee-jerk reaction to think that something has recently gone horribly wrong – that something is happening that threatens the possibility of faithful Christian living, when the unconverted world around us decides rather suddenly to act in line with its principles and ditch the assumption that biblical morality is the norm for all.

How do these observations help Christians? They don’t immediately solve all the questions we’re suddenly faced with. They don’t automatically tell us whether the Ashers have any biblical basis for expecting the law of the land to protect their consciences in this matter. But I suspect that Daniel and Joseph are effectively telling us something pretty helpful: don’t panic. The world does what it does. It will likely change its mind again one day. And while all that goes on, we can still be utterly faithful to God in the midst of what often feels like moral compromise. After all, even the son of God could take a human nature, be born, live and die in the mess of this world, without for a moment compromising who he was and is as the holy God.

Tim Ward is associate director of the Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Training Course

Finally someone with something fresh to say on the subject. I'm not sure I entirely agree with the piece, but it was refreshing and not as simplistic as the cookie-cutter arguments that the local media are full of this week.

As a postscript, I notice a comment under the original post on EA's website:
Is doing something you do not agree with hurting you or others? Jesus said if made to carry a Roman soldiers cloak [it was law for a solider to ask anyone to carry it a mile, to carry it another.

So maybe this bakery should have thought about making them two cakes, one they asked for and another free one. A plain one of course.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Imp (Jude Quinn) - Bouffon theatre in Belfast - a playful creature, or something more sinister?

Superficially, the Imp is a Bouffon artist clowning around on stage on four limbs in a tight black body suit with extra lumps and bumps. The Imp is at first playful. While Bouffon creatures are often asexual, this Imp is definitely male.

The audience's first sight of the Imp – for those paying attention to the stage and not chatting away to their friends – is a white hand that crawls onto the stage before walking off again. Soon the full Imp is moving around, introducing his “Je Suis …” placard to the packed audience in the MAC.

Jude Quinn trained for the Bouffon style of comedy at the L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. He remains silent for the hour long performance, other than the noise of his suit against the floor and some heavy breathing. The routine is full of slow movements and controlled gestures, many of which are rewarded with audience giggles. Jude's eyebrows and chin deserve their own dressing room given the level of performance they give.

You can smell the fear as the bare-footed grotesque Imp walks off the stage and up the steps into the stalls. Audience members who’ve settled into their chosen seats are moved around with hand-signals, nods, raised eyebrows and a few comical false-starts.

Tension is carefully managed throughout the performance with a level of trust maintained between performance and watcher, though for some individuals this becomes pretty stretched as their belongings and eventually their whole selves become part of the on-stage action.

Bouffon ridicules and challenges normally respected figures and practices – religion, taste and decency – and The Imp certainly explores all of these right up to and perhaps beyond your point of discomfort. Any misgivings that the Imp will turn out to be a hilarious gimp-suited Mr Bean are quickly dispelled.

The “Je Suis ...” chalk sign contemporises the performance and provides the chapter markings as the phrase is modified between scenes. While the Imp is imaginary, the domination and torture that the multi-layered act explore are very real. Snapshot the action and you’ll even spot the recreation of an Abu Ghraib thumbs-up photo.

There's more than a nod to Edgar Allen Poe's The Imp of the Perverse as the Imp displays his own mischievousness and leads people into mischief. Through wordless direction, some audience members are encouraged to step outside their comfort zone and play along with his plans. Individual self-interest is conquered and the Imp masters and dominates all those in his reach.

With the final victim audience member on stage and a good rapport built up, the Imp flicks the balance of power and in an instant the humiliation is complete. The performance ends with the Imp miming along to Pulp’s Common People, a further reminder that in this messed up world we’re no better than the rogue and perverse Imp that’s been entertaining us for the last hour.
Laugh along with the common people
Laugh along even though they're laughing at you and the stupid things that you do.
Because you think that poor is cool.
I want to live with common people …

While the Imp appeared at the MAC for just one night back at the end of February, Jude Quinn together with his director Gemma Mae Halligan and their physical theatre company Amadan have created a monster that will hopefully return to local stages as well as further afield venues to provoke and terrorise more audiences. Over time the poignancy of the Je Suis … Charlie Hebdo motif will fade, but I'm sure the playful-yet-sinister Imp will find a way of getting his way with new audiences.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Kajaki: The True Story - a war film with a neutral stance on everything except military incompetence & human bravery

Kajaki: The True Story is a gruesome yet gripping retelling of a real-life incident in September 2006 near Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.

Soldiers from 3 Para are living primitively on a ridge high above the dam. A sign at the entrance sums up the conditions: “Please leave all morale here”. The boredom of their round-the-clock observation routine is broken with banter and the arrival of new supplies which don’t include much needed radio batteries. The film paints a bleak picture of the men’s physical and technical isolation, not to mention their frustration with the poor level support they receive.

Three soldiers set off down the hill to position themselves closer – within sniper range – to what they suspect is an illegal checkpoint. While crossing a dried out riverbed, one steps on a landmine and part of his leg is blown off.

We watch a tourniquet being tightened around the raw flesh that looks like minced meat in a butchers. Morphine is injected to dull the pain. Local US security contracts guarding the engineers who are repairing the dam lend them working radios as they try to organise air evacuation for their injured colleague.

But there’s more than one mine in the area, though no one’s sure why the Russians planted them. British military incompetence is compounded when a Chinook – without a winch – is sent to the minefield. Dust swirls. The vast helicopter leaves without its injured cargo, but in the maelstrom as it takes off, rocks are dislodged onto the booby-trapped riverbed and there are further casualties.

In the dangerous terrain, some soldiers are left to apply tourniquets to themselves. Dressings and medicines run low. The medic must face conquer his panic and make a dangerous journey to apply his skills to the next batch of injured, ignoring the wise advice:
Never walk into a room you don’t know how to get out of.
The pace slows down in the final quarter of the film. The audience, like the soldiers, are impatiently waiting for evacuation. Wounded men struggle to keep themselves and their colleagues from drifting into unconscious and death. The heat, lack of meds and massive blood loss all take their toll.

Other than a beautiful song that accompanies the credits, the soundtrack is as barren as the sandy, lifeless landscape. The dialogue is peppered with strong language, soldiers’ taunting, inappropriate humour, and compassion wrapped up in insult. The ensemble cast are a convincing military unit. There were laugh out loud moments, even for the four of us previewing the film mid-morning in a deserted cinema complex. But Kajaki is far removed from the tone set in BBC Three’s Bluestone 42, a comedy drama about a bomb disposal unit serving in Afghanistan. While the film makes no attempt to hide the guts and gore, the explosions are kept at a strangely restrained volume and the bangs and booms are well signposted with gentle hints that avoid scaring the audience unnecessarily.

Kajaki takes a remarkably neutral view of conflict. I’m not a fan of war films, but this one turns the normal narrative on its head. For director Paul Katis and writer Tom Williams, the real enemy is the incompetent system rather than the foes they target and fight (and we barely see). Kajaki offers 108 minutes of fighting against the landmine legacy of someone else’s conflict.

There is no glorification of war, just a celebration of bravery and resilience while confusion and panic reins in the barren isolated situation. If anything the sense of peril is increased because the storyline is real and I found the most emotional part of the film the eventual evacuation and the end credits with their haunting "All of my life" lyrics written and performed by Phoebe Katis and photos of the actors matched up with photos of the soldiers. The music acts like a calming bridge from conflict and casualty back into the real world and the cinema car park.

For some there will be painful echoes of scenes from 1972's Bloody Friday in Belfast. For others there will be discomfort with the British Army being portrayed as heroes. But for all there should be the questions of why land mines were ever a good solution, and why it was appropriate for troops to still be in the region.

Kajaki is showing exclusively in Omniplex cinemas across Ireland from Friday 13 March.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Gift: an enchanting piece of immersive theatre by Cahoots, the masters of illusion & storytelling #bcf15

It’s like being in a fairy tale. Once you’ve found the empty shop unit right at the back of Castle Court’s first floor (behind the food court, opposite Argos), you enter a plush waiting room and before long you’re being led through a door – that appears out of nowhere – into a circular space with enough chairs and pillows to allow forty people at a time to see Charles Way’s enchanting piece of immersive theatre, The Gift.

It’s a story about what we offer each other – as much about presence as presents – and the wonderful gifts we can make the most of and can give to others by using our resources of time and money well. It’s also a tale that examines how a young child’s understanding of the world around them changes and matures as they grow up, and what we feel is important along the way.

The audience drift through a series of recollections from Mary’s childhood and youth. Played by Clare McMahon, Mary is a delicate child and recognised as a talented pianist who works hard to perfect her forte, whereas her older brother Keith (Niall Murphy) just picks up an instrument and teaches himself.

Their father (James Doran) is a largely absent sailor (one of “those who keep moving”), and their “stand in the one place” mother Noreen (Maggie Cronin) is joined by neighbour Ellie (Julia Dearden) in bringing up the children and steering them through their teens and into their twenties. Other characters are played by Keith Singleton (who makes a bubbly priest) and Jude Quinn.

While Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney always sprinkles some magic dust over his productions, The Gift is the most intimate piece of theatre I’ve seen him direct.

You’re never sitting or standing more than a couple of metres from a member of the cast.

The unexpected feeling of movement in the first room is only the start as the actors and the audience move through a series of interlinked spaces – including the family house, a wooded outdoor scene and a concert hall dressing room – before coming full circle back round to the beginning. While my nose stopped working twenty or so years ago, some of the children at tonight’s show explained to me afterwards how certain rooms stank and how you could smell the trees and the fusty house.

Garth McConaghie has been working his audio magic too with rich tracks of ambient noise accompanying each scene, off-stage dialogue and recollections of conversations. The variety of spatial sound sources and moody lighting mean you spend sixty minutes not realising you’re walking around an otherwise deserted retail space.

The script doesn’t feel like it’s been written specifically for a young audience but the more junior attendees tonight assured me that by the end it all made sense. As children we don’t always understand the full context of what the adults in a room are saying, and the opening scene captures this idea well. There will be empathy with the childish arguments and sibling jealousy, and the darker moments are lightened with jokes and a spot of dancing at a wake!

Between the acting, the live music and the quality of the set and staging, The Gift is an entrancing production that I strongly recommend.

Since it’s part of the Belfast Children’s Festival you should feel free to bring your own or borrow somebody else’s child to accompany you! With such limited capacity at each performance, book early as The Gift is sure to sell out quickly. Daily shows in Unit 70 at the back of Castlecourt’s upper mall from 6 until 13 March.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of Belfast Children’s Festival great programme (PDF). Narrow in the Lyric looks like another quirky show not to be missed this weekend.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reassemble for Purpose - contemporary art at Platform Arts

A couple of weeks ago it was contemporary dance; today at lunchtime it turned out to be contemporary art. It could be some time before I develop an expert appreciation about either of these artforms!

Above the Poundstretcher at the end of Belfast’s Queen Street, Platform Arts hosts studio space for member artists. Up on the top storey, four artists are exhibiting across the 3000 square foot floor.

Their theme is Reassemble for Purpose, engaging with ideas of reconstruction and the potential of transformation with each artist taking a very different approach within their individual disciplines.

Visitors to the gallery walk through Clodagh Lavelle’s tent-like corridor on the way into the main exhibition space.

Reminiscent of a set for a late 1970s/early 1980s science fiction drama, the yellow fabric catches the side of your body as you enter before opening out a less claustrophobic and more airy mesh of fabric and string, giving views of the other artists’ work.

Rachael Campbell-Palmer is obviously in to her concrete and has taken a mold of the top of a column and created new concrete casts which sit abstractly on the floor, several metres lower than the original, and upside down!

A graduate of QUB’s Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC), Helena Hamilton has lit the far wall of the gallery with fluorescent tubes. However once you’ve walked across to inspect the visual bait, you’ll discover the work’s audio trap.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember Budgie Butlins, a previous work by Catherine Roberts back in September 2010. The window of Paragon Studios Project Space (PS2/PS Squared) gallery allowed passers-by to gaze into an artificial bird-safe caravan park with its model landscape filled with holidaying budgies.

In Captive Landscapes, Catherine has recreated an animal enclosure (without any live animals this time) showing off how “grim” they can be, stuffed full of human elements: a plastic barrel, a tyre hanging from a rope, a bucket of slop, part of a chain-sawed tree and a wire fence. Even the carrot is unnaturally sliced with a knife. The artist describes it as the “disconnection between the audience and the animal meant to live here”.

Walking around the exhibition alone my initial reaction was one of bafflement. What did this all mean? Why was this art? Where was the monkey (or whatever animal was supposed to be in the enclosure)? How did any of this make the world better?

Catherine’s explanation helped make sense of some of it. Though truth be told, what I like to think of as my rational, scientific inner self clearly fails to fully ‘get’ the inspiration and purpose of some artistic expression. But that shouldn’t necessarily lessen its value to others who may instead be wondering why there’s any need for a NI Science Festival!

The Reassemble For Purpose exhibition runs until 28 February and Platform Arts is open Wednesday-Friday between noon and 6pm and Saturday 11am – 4pm. If the door bell doesn’t summon someone down to let you in, give them a ring on the more reliable phone (028) 9031 1301.

All photos mine except Helena Hamilton's of her light+sound work.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Review: Stitched Up ... peace walls coming down, along with standards in the National Death Service

Kate (Roisin Gallagher) comes home buzzing with excitement at the news that her years of negotiation have paid off and there is a political agreement to bring down all of NI’s peace walls.

But in a flash her mood changes when she notices a letter on the kitchen worktop that explains her surgeon husband Aidan (Richard Clements) has been suspended from work due to a patient complaint.
Kate: “The peace walls are finally coming down …”
Aidan: “… pulled down by the political munchkins”
Rosemary Jenkinson’s play Stitched Up clearly echoes the frustrations she has experienced with the NHS processes, waiting lists and her need for a back operation. Though I trust her surgeon didn’t leave a small pair of scissors inside her. [You can listen to my interview with the playwright in last week’s preview post.]
“I take full responsibility … it was the theatre sister.
While Aidan has a humanitarian calling to help people, Kate is driven by power (being seen to sort out the peace walls) and money (her husband’s) rather than altruism. The couple’s relationship is passionate, yet laced with jealously, insecurity and secrets. The loss – at least temporarily – of a surgeon’s income jeopardises Kate’s penchant for expensive high-heels; but the publicity from Aidan’s defensive statement to the press about the state of the NHS and the Royal’s management imperils her standing in the local peace industry.
“Who do you think you are? Julian Assange? Everyone hates a whistleblower.”
The tempo in C21 Theatre Company’s production is upped whenever Aidan gets a phone call one night from someone who cannot go to hospital but wants to take advantage of his vulnerable position to benefit from his stitching skills. Ruari (Darren Franklin) enters the house and soon recovers his Ballymurphy swagger, though his comic one liners – “Only rakin’ yer bacon!” – get so many laughs from the audience that he almost loses his more sinister edge.

The acting has a pace that is unfortunately lost during some of the prolonged scene and costume changes: it’s early in the run and should get slicker as the production matures. Gillian Argo’s minimalist kitchen island unit set will travel well as the play tours Northern Ireland after this week’s run in the Lyric Theatre.

While politicians make sweeping statements and proffer unqualified optimism, I’m not convinced that a long-time practitioner like Kate would use the rhetoric of “no more anger, suspicion or distrust”, “tonight the Troubles are over forever” and suggest that David Cameron’s promised investment of £50m in each interface area would eliminate poverty.

However, throughout the play, local vernacular abounds and lifts the mood. Some of the dialogue causes the audience to wrestle with racist-sounding utterances from the lips of a supposed peacenik as Roisin Gallagher throws her talent at the representing the complexities of Kate.

Health Minister Jim Wells gets the last line in a play that is as much about the insecurity, integrity and power-struggles in a couple’s relationship as it is the crisis in the local health service and the next steps in the peace process. The well-drawn tension in the 75 minute one act play and the universal pressure on health provision mean that the production could travel further afield without losing its impact.

Stitched Up is in the Lyric Theatre until 21st February before embarking on an NI tour.

  • Wednesday 25 at 8pm: Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, Newry 028 3031 3180
  • Thursday 26 at 8pm: Riverside Theatre, Coleraine 028 7012 3123
  • Friday 27 at 8pm: Strule Arts Centre, Omagh 028 8224 7831
  • Saturday 28 at 8pm: The Playhouse, Derry 028 7126 8027

  • Tuesday 3 at 8pm: Michelin Club, Ballymena 028 2566 3655
  • Thursday 5 at 8pm: Craic Theatre, Coalisland 028 8774 1100
  • Friday 6 at 8pm: Market Place Theatre, Armagh 028 3752 1821
  • Saturday 7 at 8pm: The Courtyard Theatre, Newtownabbey 028 9034 0202
  • Sunday 8 at 7pm: Cushendall Golf Club, Cushendall 028 2177 1318
  • Friday 13 at 8pm: Island Arts Centre, Lisburn 028 9250 9254
  • Saturday 14 at 8pm: Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick 028 4461 0747

Production photos by Neil Harrison

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

NI Science Festival (19 Feb-1 Mar): maths, sound science, films, games, zombies & stars

The inaugural NI Science Festival starts this week and over 11 days it will explode 100 events in venues across Belfast, Derry, Armagh, Glengormley and beyond.

Festival Director Chris McCreery jumped from a career in lobbying and public affairs to set up and run the science festival. He told me at the festival launch that being able to programme so many events in its first year “reflects the vibrancy of Northern Ireland’s tech sector, universities and the real interest amongst the general public as well as public interest”.

We wanted to create a festival for all, focussing on both kids and adults … Science is such a core part of culture and society that it had to be celebrated.

There are hands-on workshops for children – and a world record breaking World’s Largest Science Lesson – as well as theatre, film, music and comedy for adults. Many of the shows have been developed specifically for the festival, and local universities, science bodies along with the Department for Employment and Learning and Belfast City Council have added their support.

The full programme is available on the festival website. and you can follow last minute updates @niscifest.

Some highlights ...

Thursday 19 February

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz // 7.30pm // Belfast Film Festival Beanbag Cinema // £6 // If you missed the screening of a shortened version on BBC Four, head down to the Beanbag Cinema at 23 Donegall Street to discover the story of programming prodigy and information activist Aaron Swartz. He co-founded Reddit, helped develop RSS, but also had a passion for social justice and political organising combined with an aggressive approach to information access that ensnared him in a two year legal nightmare. It was a battle that ended with the taking of his own life at the age of 26. A personal story about what we lose when we are tone deaf about technology and its relationship to our civil liberties.

Saturday 21 February

The Art and Science of Sound // 3-5pm // QUB Sonic Arts Research Centre // Free // SARC is an ear and eye-opening research facility dedicated to all things sonic. Between 11am and 2pm, they’ll be running workshops (booking required) and then at 3pm they’ll throw open the doors to everyone to get their hands on demos of:
  • Haptics in Virtual Reality - Ever wanted to be inside a video game? Well now you can! Come and experience virtual reality first hand with the Oculus Rift head mounted display and Leap Motion hand tracking.
  • Two Weeks - Lose track of real-time as you delve into the sounds of 'Two Weeks' – a sound installation compressing a whole week in one hour which will run on a loop for the duration of the open session.
  • Shaping sounds with gestures - Try out (or watch) two digital gestural interfaces developed to manipulate different types of audio synthesis, pre-recorded video files and live video feeds.
  • Robots in Education - This display shows how humanoid robots are used in Electrical Engineering to interactively teach students how to program.
  • The DIY sound-artist – Learn how to turn your Rock Band 3 controller into a polyphonic synthesiser, your Wii mote into an audio scrubber and your Xbox Kinect into a granular engine.

Sunday 22 February

Zombie Science: Brain of the Dead // The Black Box // 1-2pm, 2.30-3.30pm, 4-5pm // £6/£3 // A spoof lecture from the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies lifts the lid on the Zombie skull and peers into the brain of the infamous movie monster. Presented by expert Zombiologist Doctor Ken Howe. Brain of the Dead is the third show in the Zombie Science spoof lecture series, which has attracted sell-out performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This is the science you need to survive the inevitable zombie apocalypse!

Tuesday 24 February

The Higgs' Boson and Cancer Therapy // 7-8pm // Ulster Museum // Free // Belfast-born Prof Steve Myers will talk about our relationship as a civilisation with particle accelerators, sophisticated and often enormous machines that are normally seen as providing us with insight into the dawn of the universe. But they also have a use in the treatment of cancer, scientific research into the properties of materials and in security.

Armagh Planetarium Open Night // 7-9pm // Free // The planetarium is hosting a viewing session providing views of the Moon, planets and deep sky objects through our 12 inch telescope. Observations require clear sky. Pre-booking required if you also want to enjoy the free Beyond the Blue digital theatre show at 7.30pm.

Lifting the Lid: Ongoing Adventures in the World of Pseudoscience // 8pm // Sunflower Bar // £5 // Join Belfast Skeptics and Michael Marshall (Project Director of the Good Thinking Society and Vice President of Merseyside Skeptics) who will explain what happens when you begin to crack the surface of pseudoscience, revealing the surprising, sometimes shocking and often-comic adventures that lie beneath.

Wednesday 25 February

Sir Bernard Crossland Lecture: Alligator, Sex and Scars // 6-7.30pm // Riddel Hall // Free // Prof Mark Ferguson illustrate how unexpected discoveries open up new scientific and commercial opportunities.

Thursday 26 February

Turing Lecture // 5.30pm-8.30pm // Belfast City Hall // Free // The BCS and IET are bringing this year’s Turing Lecture to Belfast. VP of Global Technology at Cisco, Dr Robert Pepper will talk about The Internet Paradox: How bottom-up beat(s) command and control and discuss the next market transition to the Internet of Everything and the interplay between policy and technology as well as highlighting early indicators of what the future may hold for the Internet. FULLY BOOKED

Friday 27 February

Friday Salon: Stargazing with Mark Thompson // 1-2pm // The Black Box // £6/£3 // Join the “people’s astronomer” as he reveals the hidden nature of the universe and brings it to life with mind-blowing demonstrations.

Be An Astronomer for the Night // 6.30-9pm // BBC Blackstaff Studios // Free // Operate a real life telescope and take your own images of your favourite astronomical objects by joining Mark Thompson (BBC Stargazing Live) and astronomers from the Open University for an evening exploring the night sky with the Open University’s remotely-operated PIRATE telescope in Mallorca. Drop in to Great Victoria Street, no booking required.

Sunday 1 March

How to (Almost) Solve the Riemann Hypothesis // 1.30pm // The Black Box // £3 // Four years ago musician Colin Reid watched a BBC documentary about Leonard Euler's famous result pi squared over six. This is what happened next ... an alternative look at mathematics's most famous unsolved problem.

My Life As An Experiment // 8pm // The Black Box // £8 aged 18+ // A scientist puts his life, his career, and his field under the microscope in this theatrical essay on the scientific method as he communes with the Muses of Science: Curiosity, Diligence, Inspiration, and Obsession. Live music, songs, and flights of imagination, devised and produced by the always incredible Wireless Mystery Theatre along with Drs Ruth Kelly and Alan Trudgett from QUB.

Other events …

Make it Digital With the BBC is taking over BBC NI’s Blackstaff Studios on Great Victoria Street for three days. Open on Thursday 26th 10am-7pm, Friday 27th 10am-9pm and Saturday 28th 10am-7pm, you’ll find no end of interactive digital goodness: coding games inspired by Doctor Who, digital fabrication, gaming, robotics, workshops, Open University talks. You’re free to drop-in and join in the fun, though it may be worth booking for workshops with limited places. See the BBC’s programme brochure for details.

Playspace // Gaming culture takes over the Queens Film Theatre for a weekend of workshops, screenings and tournaments, including Halo on a cinema screen. Local game developers will be showing off their creations in the café/bar. See the QFT’s leaflet for full details and times of events over the two days, Saturday 28 February and Sunday 1 March.

  • Saturday 28 February at 3pm – From Bedrooms to Billions, the story of how a small number of individuals fuelled the creation of the video games industry.
  • Saturday 28 February 7.30pm – Tron and a panel discussion on the shared future of film and gaming at 7.30pm on Saturday.
  • Sunday 1 March at 6pm – Scott Pilgrim vs The World, a hilarious homage to the 8-big gaming world, based on Bryan Lee O’Malley graphic novels and directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead).

Glasgow Science Centre’s Bodyworks exhibition is visiting W5 from Friday 20 to Sunday 22 February. Dozens of hands-on exhibits taking a look inside the human body, examining synthetic body parts and taking a 3D virtual journey through the body’s systems and a walk through a giant heart.

Following the NI Science Festival, watch out for the monthly science café that will be organised in the Black Box, along with the regular Friday Salon lunchtime events.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Preview: Stitched Up (by Rosemary Jenkinson) - NHS whistleblower and a peace facilitator in a moral conundrum

Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Stitched Up premières at the Lyric Theatre next week.

Directed by C21 Theatre Company’s Stephen Kelly, Stitched Up is a one act play starring Richard Clements as an NHS surgeon Aidan who has turned whistleblower in order to try to clear his name after an operation has gone wrong. His wife Kate (played by Roisin Gallagher) is a peace facilitator keen to pull down Belfast’s peace walls, and keen that Aidan switches to a more lucrative career in private medicine. Against this crisis, a stranger – Ruari (Darren Franklin) – enters their lives and causes havoc, making them question their morality and social views.

Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson told me that she likes her characters to have “big issues in life”.
It’s a moral conundrum of how they navigate through all the big issues that they face … If you devote yourself to big issues, it’s usually at a cost to your private life and your personal relationships with people.

Also I like to throw a spanner in the works, a choice will come when they really have to choose between that and maybe actually in reality doing good. In theory they’re do-gooders, but when it actually comes to the bit, are they that moral?

Stitched Up is billed as “an entertaining satirical drama” and questions how difficult it is to be moral in contemporary society.
Satire is the best way of getting your political point across but with humour … I think I’ve elements in my play of comedy, farce and straight drama … Satire is great because it really drives home your point and is also amusing and witty. I love that idea of a night out being sparkling which is what satire is.

Over recent months I’ve noticed that some playwrights have a specific message they’re intent on imprinting on their audiences, while others are upset by that suggestion and prefer to think that audience members take away their own individual meaning and challenge.
I do hope that they will go home thinking about something. But I hope that while they’re actually in the theatre they’re being entertained and they’re not aware that there is a big message behind it. You want that to seep through afterwards rather than [thinking] “I’m going to the play, oh no I’m going to be taught something” or “it’s educational”. I much prefer that they have a great time and then hopefully there will be something that stays with them.

Rosemary’s previous plays have covered bonfires, Planet Belfast dealt with GM crops, political corruption and the victims “industry”.
Our whole political system here is great for satire, totally ripe …

She describes NI as having a constant backdrop of big political questions.
I think our society is amazing … it’s not like the rest of the UK or Ireland … I like to use that uniqueness.

Some other Northern Ireland writers have started to turn their backs on the Troubles and politics: David Park post-The Trust Commissioner and Owen McCafferty (whose play Death of a Comedian is also running in the Lyric Theatre).
It comes on a play by play basis. I’m certainly not a Troubles writer … If you’re setting a play in Belfast I can’t see how you can really escape what is the local scenario. You could say: Is this too local? Is it not capable of transferring? But I think [those themes] can transfer all over the world … It’s relevant, it’s now and I love to write about what is current in Belfast … If you’ve got a post-conflict play then go to the places that are also post-conflict … a little tour to Afghanistan would be fantastic.

There’s an opportunity for the British Council!

Rosemary has been involved in the rehearsals, tweaking the text to fit the actors. But would she fancy producing and directing her own plays?
I would absolutely hate to be a director! … I think you really have to have been an actor to understand the process … at the start I didn’t have a clue about the stresses they go through. I have no aspirations, I prefer being a writer and letting someone else take control of it.

Stitched Up opens in the Lyric Theatre on Tuesday 17 February and runs until Saturday 21 before embarking on a Northern Ireland tour:

  • Wednesday 25 at 8pm: Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, Newry 028 3031 3180
  • Thursday 26 at 8pm: Riverside Theatre, Coleraine 028 7012 3123
  • Friday 27 at 8pm: Strule Arts Centre, Omagh 028 8224 7831
  • Saturday 28 at 8pm: The Playhouse, Derry 028 7126 8027
  • Tuesday 3 at 8pm: Michelin Club, Ballymena 028 2566 3655
  • Thursday 5 at 8pm: Craic Theatre, Coalisland 028 8774 1100
  • Friday 6 at 8pm: Market Place Theatre, Armagh 028 3752 1821
  • Saturday 7 at 8pm: The Courtyard Theatre, Newtownabbey 028 9034 0202
  • Sunday 8 at 7pm: Cushendall Golf Club, Cushendall 028 2177 1318
  • Friday 13 at 8pm: Island Arts Centre, Lisburn 028 9250 9254
  • Saturday 14 at 8pm: Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick 028 4461 0747

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Review: Salome (NI Opera) - a big piece of musical theatre & strong performances with an intense & macabre plot

Opera is a form of slow-motion storytelling, with larger than life characters and their huge voices and big gestures injected into an over-the-top plot that inhabits an enormous stage.

Richard Strauss’ Salome – based on Oscar Wilde’s play – adds horror into the mix, re-working and twisting the original twelve verse Bible story of the death of John the Baptist into something much more gruesome and depraved. The character of John – Jokanaan in the opera – is probably the most unchanged and authentic.

NI Opera’s staging of Salome moves the setting from a palace in Galilee to what looks like a drug baron’s ranch in the America deep south. In the front yard, two guerrillas wearing combats and carrying rifles guard an oil tank in which Jokanaan (Robert Hayward) is incarcerated. Herod (Michael Colvin) is dressed like a golfer; his wife Herodias (Heather Shipp) looks like an escaped Charlie’s Angel attired in an asymmetric one-shouldered cerise jumpsuit. Add to this five Jews arguing with Herod over dinner and wearing Bermuda shorts and shell suits. It’s a cacophony of fashion.
Your eyes never leave her. You should not stare at her so!

The opera differs from the original by shifting the main villain from Herodias to Herod. He is the civic leader who killed his brother, married his sister-in-law and now leers at his step daughter Salome. Jokanaan was locked up for condemning the marriage as incestuous, but the troubled Herod fears the “holy man” and won’t hand him over to the Jews. Disturbed by visions, Herod ignores the ample warnings to change his ways.

Soprano Giselle Allen owns the Grand Opera House stage. Her powerful voice and varied expression conveys the complicated character of Salome, a princess approaching adulthood with a bunch of boundary issues. She rejects the advances of the captain of the guard Narraboth (Adrian Dwyer) but still persuades him to allow the grotesque and slimy Jokanaan to emerge from his dungeon.

There are lighter moments throughout the performance. The princess sits down against the fence for a smoke while the rest figure out what to do with Narraboth’s body. Two Nazarene’s unexpectedly break in through the compound wearing “Vote Jesus” and “You are headed for Hell” t-shirts that make their allegiance obvious.

There’s a lot of affection and attention rejected. Salome rebuffs Narraboth. John spurns Salome. While Salome does accede to her step father’s prurient request for a dance, she’s building him up for a fall.

NI Opera’s interpretation of Salome’s dance of the seven veils was the subject of much speculation in the run up to the performance. Dancer Hayley Chilvers ingeniously takes over from the soprano to complete the transformation from a princess to the monster that her parents have created.

There are no veils. Instead of a salacious strip tease, at first Herod gets a little of the cabaret he craves, before a frenzied Salome distances herself from the men gathered around to watch, sets down her teddy bear, and strips away their hold over her. While standing still, naked, it’s not about her loss of clothes or dignity; it’s a symbol of her vulnerability being unknowingly transferred to Herod as she bids to take over the power, gains independence and perhaps attempts to recover her dignity. (Or alternatively, it’s a vision of how a vile and filthy Herod wants to see his step-daughter.)

Despite the offer of jewels and wealth Salome sticks to her request for the head of the prisoner. “You are inspired my dear daughter” sings Herodias, who had counselled Salome not to dance and in the opera version wasn’t consulted about the prize.

Earlier Herodias disappeared behind the bike shed oil tank with a guard when her husband is distracted. Herod strikes his wife later for screeching in sympathy with Salome. Suicide, alcohol, visions, preaching about the need for salvation and a beheading. The 24 hour dry cleaning bill for the show’s costumes will be enormous. But this is no soap opera.

Salome premiered in 1905 but manages to speak into 2015. The manner of Jokanaan’s detention conjures up parallels with Guantanamo Bay and black sites holding “war on terror” detainees. His beheading echoes many of the stories dominating our daily news from the Middle East. And Herod’s sleaziness and abuse sadly has modern equivalency too.

A latex replica head of Jokanaan emerges from the tank dripping with blood and Salome dances with it, sings to it, and clutches it to her body before eventually kissing the object of her attraction. That’s the moment of greatest depravity, and clearly shocked some members of the audience, never mind Herod who orders her death.

Strauss’ score is atmospheric and discordant, but melody wise it is not hummable and a credit to the singers that they can hold its tune.

Underneath the on-stage action, the Ulster Orchestra are hidden in the pit. Unfortunately they aren’t in the oil tank so while not playing at full volume, the music still tends to drown out the singing for the audience in the stalls.

The full libretto (words) is printed in the programme, but with the house lights off it’s next to impossible to follow them during the performance. It is testament to the cast’s acting and Oliver Mears’ direction that most of the story is still conveyed to the audience who applauded for over two minutes as the performance ended and the cast and creative team came on stage to take a bow.

In his review, the (London) Telegraph’s opera critic Rupert Christiansen describes NI Opera’s “considerable reputation in recent years for sparky, edgy work that engages with native musicians and creates a bit of a splash”. Quite a number in the audience had travelled from afar over to Belfast specifically to see Salome. There were more younger faces in audience that I’d expected for a night at the opera. And there were no protesters outside - they must all have got tickets to check it out for themselves!

Director Oliver Mears’ elevator pitch from our interview last week proved accurate:
It’s fantastic music performed by outstanding soloists, with the Ulster Orchestra, and a story that will knock you for six.

Salome will be performed again on Sunday afternoon in the Grand Opera House at 3pm. Some tickets are still available. It’s a big piece of musical theatre, with strong performances and an intense and macabre plot. You’ll not see the like of it in Belfast for quite some time.

And if you tune into Sunday Sequence tomorrow morning you may hear Father Eugene O’Hagan back on air to give his reaction now that he’s seen the opera.

Friday, February 06, 2015

God of Carnage / The MAC (until 21 February) - turning a childish altercation into a parental pantomime

Filling the width and height of the MAC’s main stage, Ciaran Bagnall’s set is reminiscent of a pressure cooker with wooden ribs curving up above a living room’s soft furnishings. A cream carpet cries out not to be sullied as the four actors make their choreographed entrance at the start of God of Carnage.

Two sets of parents have come together to discuss what to do after one’s son hit the other’s with a bamboo cane and knocked out two incisor teeth. Should an apology be offered? Will Ferdinand and Bruno be reconciled? Can the parents reach a consensus that allows both families to move on positively?

Over the 80 minute, one act, one scene play, layers are stripped away from the cast as each character reveals their true nature to the enthralled audience. Scratch behind the surface and these well-to-do professionals have a rotten core.

Veronique (played by Ali White) is an author and an expert on Africa. She controls the early conversation, outraged that her son was “disfigured” by his playmate. Her flaming hair is a visual clue about her at first overly assertive and later more aggressive personality.

Husband Michel (Dan Gordon in a part that could have been written for him) starts out subdued, ineffectively echoing his wife’s statements and serving up slices of clafoutis (fruit tart) before his inner Neanderthal emerges like a red-faced Incredible Hulk and he loses his inhibitions and spousal deference.
Michel: Children consume and fracture our lives.

Alain (Sean Sloan) is a corporate lawyer and is no doubt that his son is “a savage”. Conversations on his incessantly ringing Blackberry take priority over any drama happening around him in the room. He’s trying to cover-up a troublesome story about a drug with harmful side-effects by blaming the press rather than admitting liability.
Alain: At least all this has given us a new recipe.

Veronique: I’d have preferred it if it hadn’t cost my son’s teeth.

Annette (Kathy Kiera Clarke) works in wealth management. Her calm exterior belies an impatience with her distracted husband who insists on calling her by a demeaning nickname.

A sudden bout of sickness disrupts the uneasy discussion and thereafter every fifteen minutes or so another intervention significantly worsens the characters’ relationships. When the rum comes out of the wooden sideboard, high heels are kicked off, tongues loosen further, and scatter cushions are … scattered.

The fast-paced play has a mathematical quality, with symmetry between the fathers’ subplots (hamster-cide and pharmaceutical malpractice) and a regular progression between warring factions (the couples fight; husbands square up to wives; Michel sides with Annette against Veronique and Alain; etc). The denouement comes suddenly – too suddenly for me – as the playwright pulls on the handbrake and rips the audience away from the inter- and intra-family quarrel.

Yasmina Reza’s play (translated into English by Christopher Hampton) is incredibly wordy, yet Emma Jordan’s direction permits the action to pause at key moments, giving the audience time to draw breath and allows gentle waves of laughter to spread across the stalls. Garth McConaghie’s choice of very low background music subtly changes as the tempo of conflict quickens, following rather than leading the atmosphere in the living room. As always with the MAC, it’s the small details that count: the sound of a phone ringing comes from the precise direction of the actor holding the phone.

While the cast is local, their accents are kept neutral. It becomes very sweary and the translated play keeps French place names and references to “madam” and “monsieur” along with a phrasing that ensures you don’t forget that the action is always taking place somewhere far from Belfast.

The distance makes you an observer, able to dispassionately critique the contradictory morals, specious arguments, and dodgy parenting on display. How do children’s gangs in Paris compare with fighting in Africa? However, the script is crying out for adaptation to a Northern Ireland location with local occupations and local reoccupations.

As you leave the theatre, you’ll have laughed, winced and you’ll need to take a deep breath and relax. Other than Christmas shows, Prime Cut’s God of Carnage is the funniest play I’ve seen in Belfast since Spelling Bee in May 2013.

Well worth catching in the MAC before the run ends on 21 February. Ticket prices range from £12 to £25.

Production shots: Ciaran Bagnall

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Rev Ian McNie: "If Presbyterian Church elects a woman moderator ... they will have my full, complete & utter support"

Rev Ian McNie (Trinity Presbyterian Church) was elected moderator-designate last night after 12 of the 19 Presbyteries across Ireland put their weight behind the Ballymoney minister.

He’ll take over from the current moderator Rev Michael Barry on 1 June, on the opening night of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s General Assembly.

Rev NcNie was one of the runners up in last year’s tight contest which went to a second round of voting after a three way tie. Rev Liz Hughes – the other 2014 runner up – got support from four presbyteries. Two presbyteries endorsed Rev Frank Sellar and one backed Rev Robert Bell.

Born in 1950 and ordained in 1978, the Ballymoney minister describes himself as “conservative evangelical” and says he confines himself to working within the congregation and its parish. His congregation offers a daily playgroup as well as a range of activities for young and old. Church teams have gone out from Trinity Presbyterian over many years to support missionaries in Malawi.
As a conservative evangelical, I recognise that we are living in the 21st Century and therefore seek to steer the congregation in such a way that we do not cling to the traditions of the past, but seek to be relevant today. At the same time, I also recognise that the truth of the Gospel has not changed and we should not allow society to pressure us into departing from the core values of the Scriptures.

During a five minute interview on Good Morning Ulster, Rev Ian McNie started off by explaining why he described himself as a “conservative evangelical” before being asked whether the Presbyterian Church was “falling behind” other denominations like the Church of England which has just started to appoint female bishops [and the Church of Ireland which beat them to it]. He was pushed on whether he “believed in the ordination of women clerics” …
I would have a conviction that like many other people within all main denominations that there are some concerns about that issue and yes I would share that conviction as well.

There are two or three questions that a new moderator designate always get asked. Will you participate in worship with Catholic clergy? What’s your view on women ministers? And what football team do you support? Two out of the three need snappy and unambiguous answers prepared in advance.

Rev McNie was back in front of the media at a mid-morning press conference in Assembly Buildings, the denomination’s central Belfast headquarters.

Afterwards I spoke to Rev McNie and asked him how he heard the news last night and he talked about the ministry of his congregation. He also spoke about how he would work the denomination’s theme of A Caring Fellowship into his moderatorial year.

Ecclesia semper reformanda sums up Protestant reformed theology that believes the church needs to continuously reform and change. It started not ended at the Reformation. I asked whether the Presbyterian Church showed evidence of (continually) reforming?
I think the principles of the Reformation were clearly the proclamation of the Gospel and then people taking the message of the Gospel out in to the community and one of the things I have sought to encourage our people to do – having responded to the Gospel as Christians – not to cocoon themselves in the church building but to get out into the local community to filter into the different avenues and aspects of community life and to be witnesses for Jesus Christ in those areas.

For example I myself am a member of the local sports centre and I would go up there two or three times a week … I have discovered myself that … it has opened the door to be involved with so many people and I have always sought to encourage the folks. I have befriended a number of people and it has been an added dimension to my ministry and I would encourage others to do the same.

His year as moderator will take him away from parish and into the public square meeting a wider set of people. Rev McNie agreed that he was looking forward to it, saying “it will be a nice diversion for a year to be involved with people both in the public square and in the church”.

Given the fuss over his statement on the radio and continued confusion over his remarks at the press conference, I asked theologically where does Rev McNie stand on women in ministry. He answered, speaking slowly.
As I’ve said before, every major denomination has this struggle with regard to women in the ministry. And those who are not fully convinced of the ordination of women don’t take their position from personal preference, nor do they take their position from media pressure or how society is changing, but they take that position from what they see as they interpret the scriptures. And I think that position has to be accepted as existing in all major denominations and there has to be a real tolerance – as there is within our church – between those who have reservations and those those who don’t.

You would have reservations though?
I at this moment would have some reservations.

But those reservations don’t stop you from working with colleagues?
By no means, oh not at all. If any female colleague in the ministry invites me to take a service I will me more than happy to go.

Jesus was a radical. Does Rev McNie think that as Presbyterians we need to be more counter-cultural and provocative, and be like Jesus?
Very much so. At the end of the day We can wither influence society or society can influence us. We as Christians are called as Christians to go out and to influence society for good. And in order to do that at times we may have to stick our necks out and we may have to say things that society is not terribly happy with. But that’s what Jesus did. And that’s what he calls us to do … I would like to think that the Church would look at the issues of society and that if it felt it had a positive contribution to make that we wouldn’t be behind the door in making that contribution.

While Rev McNie was finishing off his interview with me, over on Radio Ulster, William Crawley picked up on the subject of women in ministry on Talkback, with contributions from Rev Richard Murray, Sunday World journalist Roisin Gorman and Presbyterian chaplain at Ulster University Cheryl Meban. [That surname looks familiar!]

The topic popped up on Evening Extra too, with Rev John Dunlop and Rev Lesley Carroll.

During the press conference, Rev McNie was asked whether he would support women achieving a higher role than they currently hold in the Presbyterian Church, he responded:
I believe the time will come when that will happen … If the Presbyterian Church elects a woman moderator within the next number of years, they will have my full and complete and utter support.

Asked whether this was a change of position from his remarks on Good Morning Ulster, Rev McNie admitted:
I may have not expressed myself as clearly as I should.

The Clerk of the Presbyterian Church Rev Trevor Gribben emphasised that “women have every right to ordination to every office that is ordained that is open to a man that is open to a woman”. He humorously added “if I was to predict it … there could well be a moderator of General Assembly who is a woman long before there is an Archbishop of Canterbury who is a woman”.

Responding to a question about Church of Scotland Presbyteries recently voting overall in favour of accepting the appointment of gay ministers [though the decision still must go back to this summer’s General Assembly] …
I feel very uncomfortable with the rift within the Church of Scotland … I think the vote has caused some degree of sorrow and regret for the Presbyterian Church [in Ireland] but the Church of Scotland – the “mother” church – are masters in their own house. They have made that particular decision. And that’s not a decision that will probably be on the agenda of our church in the foreseeable future.

On Ashers Bakery, Rev McNie thought that “the Equality Commission have gone over the top”.
I do think that the Ashers Bakery had the right to take the decision that they took simply because of the convictions that they had.

The problem in our society … is that the definition of tolerance has changed considerably. It used to be that if I disagreed with you, and you disagreed with me, we were tolerant of each other and we agreed to disagree. Nowadays it seems to me that the definition of tolerance is such that we are not only supposed to accept that there are a whole lot of views that there are, but we’re supposed to accept and embrace as equally correct every view that is expressed.

Tolerance is always in the atmosphere of disagreement. We don’t have to tolerant of each other if we all agree together.

So I think as far as the Ashers case is concerned, they should have the right to determine what they do as a bakery and they should be tolerated because of the Christian convictions and views that they have. And in that particular case, as I understand, there was absolutely no need for the people to go to Ashers if they knew they weren’t going to get the cake. They could go elsewhere … [Ashers] should be allowed as a service provider to have certain principles.

Rev McNie had obviously been doing his homework and frequently flicked through the file in front of him to find his notes on topics he’d predicted might come up, including three parent babies. He confirmed that he supports Manchester United.

Asked if he was “a political animal” Rev McNie replied “not terribly”.

On Stormont:
It’s working to a degree, and at the same time I think that all our politicians need to clearly work together for the betterment of all within our community and have that at the forefront of all that they are doing, simply working for the good of all and trying their best to build on the peace process …

Rev McNie confirmed that has attended Catholic funerals in the past, and would be willing to preach in other denominations’ services.

Asked by Gerry Moriarty (Irish Times) about Stephen Fry’s recent comments, the moderator designate said:
I suppose my immediate reaction to it was that I felt sorry for the man that his understanding of life is simply confined to the here and now and that from his position of atheism there is no hope for the future.

On a church-led parading initiative suggested recently by Canon Ian Ellis, the Moderator designate would “certainly encourage” it, saying “we’ve got to get that situation sorted out as soon as possible”.

Today’s news bulletins were dominated by the notion of a Presbyterian moderator who had reservations about women in ministry. Hardly the image or message that the denomination would have wished for. To be honest generating an alternative positive-yet-still-newsworthy soundbite would have been difficult, though more wholesome.

Yet underneath the fumbled explanation, the “conservative evangelical” moderator designate is perhaps less conservative that he self-labels, with more nuanced approaches to the shibboleths that test out new denominational leaders.

The minister who has “some concerns” about women in ministry is also the minister who is happy to support them in their ministry and welcomed a woman who recently received a call to his Presbytery. Also conservative by name but showing humanity and not hardline with regards to attending Catholic services or taking part in acts of worship that do not include mass.

The labels are useful shortcuts. With over 628 ministers (and a similar number of ruling elders) voting for moderator each year across the 19 presbyteries, personal acquaintance with the four or so candidates will be limited. But the labels disguise the nuance and character with which convictions and beliefs are held.

For Rev Ian McNie, his support of Manchester United remains a problem …

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Coverage in Belfast Telegraph (which talks about a "U-turn"), three stories in News Letter, the Irish Times, UTV and a fun piece in the Irish News (behind its paywall).