Friday, February 21, 2020

Singing the (Good Friday) Agreement: peace in 4/4 time … only at the Imagine! Belfast Festival (Monday 23 March)

“singing the d’Hondt formula would just be weird”
We’ve implemented it, ignored it and extended it, but never before in Northern Ireland has it been sung!

But on the opening night of Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics, you can settle down to hear singers from Spark Opera perform the local première of a choral setting of the Declaration of Support at the start of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement text.

The doors of Accidental Theatre in Belfast’s Shaftesbury Square (under the big screen) open on Monday 23 March at 6.30pm for a 7pm start, and the Book Bar will be open to quench your thirst.

The Good Friday Agreement: peace in 4/4 time is a somewhat unexpected work was composed by Clare Salters, who worked in the Northern Ireland Office and was involved in the negotiations.

Alongside the musical performances from our talented choir who will bring to life a number of other appropriate choral pieces alongside the Agreement, I’ll be in conversation with a former politician who was inside the talks in Castle Buildings as well as a journalist who anchored hours and hours of the rolling late-night TV coverage that accompanied the negotiations. An evening of nostalgia and reflection.

So why not join us on Monday 23 March for an hour of music and talk with Spark Opera’s performers and our panel of guests. Tickets for this Imagine! Belfast event are available from the Accidental Theatre website.

The negotiations concluded in April 1998 – or entered their next phase – and when I caught up with Clare recently, I asked whether she’d immediately sat down to set the Agreement to music?
“[It wasn’t] really until 2018 when I became involved in the iPlay4Peace initiative. That was mainly focused on WW1 and the centenary of the Armistice, but it was obviously also the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and I’d been struck by how many people – particularly in Great Britain, though not only there – had forgotten its significance, what it covered, and why it was still relevant. So when the call came out for entries for the iPlay4Peace 2019 compositions I thought I should give it a go.”
The composition includes the opening declaration rather than the 30 or more pages of the Agreement!
“I’d really wanted to do the whole thing, but quickly realised that would make for too long a piece, and would be too difficult to sustain the opening cryptogram for the entirety of the piece without being monotonous. Plus singing the d’Hondt formula would just be weird. But I realised that so much of the spirit of the Agreement was encapsulated in that opening declaration, so I focused on that.”
Clare is no stranger to choirs, having sung in the Belfast Philharmonic for a number of seasons “before work took over my life”. But while she was familiar with orchestrating for instrumental ensembles, the former civil servant hadn’t tried her hand at choral writing since school days.

Her early days at the Northern Ireland Office were as “a very junior cog in the wheel”.
“Graduate trainees in the political directorate were part of the department’s note taking rota, taking it in turns to trot round after the Secretary of State to record all his – later her – meetings. It was a fabulous opportunity to be part of genuinely historic developments at a very early stage in my career. I was really lucky.”
Subsequently roles in the NIO included working on human rights and equality, the Patten reforms of policing, the legacy of the past, the St Andrews Agreement and restoration of devolution, the devolution of law and order functions and – latterly – Brexit”.

The choral piece has been performed in England, with a few familiar NIO faces in the choir, and will now get its Northern Irish premiere on the opening night of Imagine! Belfast festival in March.

How does Clare feel about the work being heard for the first time in the city where the words were crafted and negotiated?
“I’m really delighted. They’re words that need to be heard elsewhere, but they belong in Northern Ireland. The nerdy constitutional equivalent of ‘football’s coming home’!”
Presented by Slugger O’Toole in association with Spark Opera as part of the Imagine! Belfast festival.

Cross-posted from Slugger O’Toole

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Dream, Sleep, Connect – Rosemary Jenkinson holds up a mirror to our dystopian present (C21 Theatre at Lyric Theatre until 22 February + NI tour)

The opening soundtrack of Kate Tempest’s People’s Faces is very apt – “I face off with the physical … / There is so much peace to be found in people's faces … / More empathy / Less greed / More respect” – perfectly sets the mood for C21 Theatre Company’s latest production Dream, Sleep, Connect which investigates our modern tendency to eschew face-to-face contact for a spot of digital disconnection.

Connexia are quickly established as a global IT solution provider with few scruples and big profits. Programmer Chris has just finished working on a cutting-edge technology-led customs solution for the border – as absent of friction as it is staff on the ground – and finds himself constructing a big brother system to trawl through social media and weed out benefits scroungers. Meanwhile the upcoming work ‘do’ reinvigorates his efforts to find a +1 until his boss Lucy becomes less than h-app-y with his phone’s constant buzzing and messaging. His first meetup is a lucky escape, but the second shows promise.

The dystopian themes play well into the Lyric’s current season which includes New Speak and 1984 in April.

Richard Clements plays the geekish loner Chris who seems bullied by his mum, his boss and everyone who responds to his right swiping. Opposite him is the versatile Maria Connolly who deftly switches between three well-rounded roles as boss, date and girlfriend. We learn much through the tone of voice of Connolly’s characters: Lucy’s somewhat robotic articulation of the company strategy hints that they may not be alone in the office while Cora’s nervous chitter belies someone veering between fragile and paranoid as the pair meet for drinks in the local pub.

Rosemary Jenkinson doesn’t write politically correct theatre. She’ll have been delighted that audience members audibly gasped at the closeness to the bone of some of the dialogue in last night’s performance. Clements and Connolly display bravura and bravado as they deliver the lines and ignore sensibilities and poke at sores until there’s pain before applying a soothing balm of humour and jokes about corkscrews.

The simple set incorporates a disguised screen to let us snoop at the messages pinging back and forth on Chris’ devices and delivers a rather neat effect near the end of the one act play.

While the characters are not too extreme, this isn’t a drama that demands your emotional involvement. Director Stephen Kelly allows it to be played for satire and laughs all the way through and never attempts to bring too much realism to the fabricated situation (though the awkward first date banter may seem uncomfortably recognisable). While you can leave your pathos at the door on the way into the theatre, you’ll have to pick it up on the way back out and ponder the fresh hell we have created by mixing up long working hours, app culture, narcissism, transactional relationships, surveillance and privacy concerns with trending poor mental health. There must be more to life than dreaming, sleeping and connecting?

Dream, Sleep, Connect finishes its run at the Lyric Theatre on Saturday 22 February before touring through Strule Arts Centre, Omagh (Wednesday 26), Island Arts Centre, Lisburn (Friday 28), Cushendall Golf Club (Saturday 29), Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, Newry (Tuesday 3 March), Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (Friday 6) and Market Place Theatre, Armagh (Saturday 7).

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Doctor Who: The Scripts Tom Baker 1974/5 – a dip into the old ways of making classic science fiction

Peter Davison, the first fifth Doctor, is my favourite, the affection cemented by the actor’s performances in the A Very Peculiar Practice drama (which also featured two, never-explained, bin-hoking nuns who drove around a new university campus in a tiny Mini).

As a young child, I remember catching episodes of the long-scarfed Tom Baker (the fourth) on Saturday evenings while visiting my Granny in Ballymena. Picking up a copy of Doctor Who: The Scripts Tom Baker 1974/5 from his first season on the show – somewhat before my TV viewing began – it was interesting to see how both the scriptwriters, script editors and the actor himself had shaped the evolving personality of the Time Lord.

Five stories spanned the 20 episodes (each 24–25 minutes long) that made up this series, a far cry from the 50-minute standalone episodes with a loose overarching story arc that make up modern Doctor Who.

The scripts for each episode are annotated with the intended text struck out where it was replaced with (often) shorter dialogue contrived during rehearsals and filming. Two episodes were recorded every fortnight, with most of the action shot in chronological order, unless particular sets were only needed for a couple of scenes.

In an age of CGI and visual effects, the 1970s were simpler times. Fast cuts were scarce. Sets were built, but only had to stand up to the scrutiny of standard def TV sets, no HD or 4K to worry about. Scale models were built, and video footage was mixed with film.

The TARDIS materialisation/dematerialisation was achieved in camera by filming the first part of the scene with the TARDIS and its flashing light, then rolling the film back, removing the prop, and filming over it to create the illusion of fading away. Then just add a wheezing sound effect in the edit, which sometimes only seems to have been completed in the week before transmission.

While chromakey video is an everyday occurrence, particularly in TV news and weather studios, it was used – often with a yellow background – in order to superimpose models of monsters and explosions on top of real scenes. Some

Running a video storyboarding course some years ago, I used a one-minute clip from the Jon Pertwee era (The Green Death) to get the class to dissect the shots. The slow pace of storytelling and cuts meant that it was possible to sketch out the six-shot storyboard in real time!

The season featured Davros and the Daleks (sounds like a 1970’s band!) and much like the fabulous Thirteenth Doctor’s current series, finished with Revenge of the Cybermen in which the Doctor escapes his bonds with a trick he learnt from Harry Houdini and destroys the cyborgs (who are allergic to gold) just in time to race back to Earth to respond to an emergency space-time pager alert from UNIT’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Northern Ireland Science Festival – AI, Antarctica, brewing tea, juggling custard, saving energy, and discounting torture (until 23 February 2020)

Northern Ireland Science Festival is back for its sixth year, running until Sunday 23 February with its blend of science exploration, education and storytelling, with a particular focus on the climate crisis and championing sustainability. Always enlightening and never dull, the festival programme is full of play and discovery – with an enhanced Create, Make, Play set of hands on workshops – that will attract the young and old over the half term holidays.

With 270 events stuffed into in the 11-day programme, here are just a few of the myriad of gems coming up during this half term week.

Ask Us Anything sees a panel of Ulster University experts try and answer any science questions you pose. Belfast Campus, Monday 17 February at 6–7pm. Free but need to book place in advance.

StrongWomen Science sees fast-paced duo Aoide and Maria use circus skills to reveal scientific secrets. Expect liquid juggling, fire-eating, feats of balance and extreme acrobatics.
Tuesday 18 at 11am and 2pm in Crescent Arts Centre. Aged 7+. £6.

Margaret Sayers from ESB and Engineers Ireland will deliver the Sir Bernard Crossland Lecture in Queen’s University’s Riddel Hall. An electrical engineer by training, she’ll be talking about how we can switch on to the energy transition that is seeing a move to low-carbon products, e-cars and smart energy. Tuesday 18 at 5.30–7pm. Free but need to book in advance.

The Science and Engineering of Superheroes is Professor Colin Turner’s lecture topic as he assesses the validity or falsehood of some of the science and engineering that surrounds popular superheroes of page and screen, and gets the audience to help with some experiments. Wednesday 19 at 6–7pm in Ulster University Belfast Campus. SOLD OUT Free but need to book in advance.

This year’s Turing lecture – Digital Twins: The Next Phase of the AI Revolution? will be delivered by Professor Mark Girolami on the topic of intelligent digital avatars. Thursday 20 at 6–8pm in the Assembly Buildings Conference Centre. Free but need to book in advance.

If you’ve watched The Report on Amazon Prime you’ll be aware of some of the issues behind Why Torture Doesn’t Work, Shane O’Mara’s explanation of the neuroscience of suffering and why it produces deeply unreliable and even counterproductive and dangerous information. Thursday 20 at 8–9pm on The Crumlin Road Gaol. Aged 18+. £8.

The Science of Beer and Cheese Tour tastes the refreshing craft drinks on offer at Northbound Brewery in Campsie before a scenic trip to Dart Mountain Cheese in the Sperrin Mountains to hear their story and sample their award-winning produce. Friday 21 February. Age 18+. £18.

The Mathematics of Dessins d’Enfants is an interactive exploration of the incredible mathematical theory of children’s drawings. Models, illustrations and hands-on activities will unlock some of the secrets. Saturday 22 at 10–11am in The Open University offices. Free but need to book in advance.

White Space with Beth Healey hears from the medical doctor who conducted a year-long mission for the European Space Agency to a research station in Antarctica to study the effects of the extreme environment with its isolation, inaccessibility, altitude and low levels of light. Hear about her daily life during 2017, and what lessons it teaches us for future settlements on Mars. Sunday 23 at 1–2pm in Ulster Museum. £5.

Spilling the Tea on the Perfect Brew is a tea testing session in the front Green Room at the Black Box where SUKI Tea will share the history of company founder Oscar Woolley and help you create your own personalised blend of tea. Rescheduled to Tuesday 3 March at 7–8.30pm. £10.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Emma – a humorous take on the Austen classic full of grotesque characters and a myriad of misunderstandings (in UK and Irish cinemas from 14 February)

With sufficient wealth in the early 1800s came the possibility that idle hands would seek amusement through the manipulation of those in their company. Or at least that’s the trap that 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse falls into as she endlessly matches up friends and acquaintances, dispatching them to the local church altar. Yet her antennae are ill-tuned to pick up the correct signals, causing herself, and those around her, much distress.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma is at first snobbish and particular, though by the end she’s learned a little humility. Her best friend – or primary victim – is Harriet, played by Mia Goth as a delightfully awkward girl whose romantic feelings can come to the boil in an instant. Bill Nighy makes quite an appearance as her fidgety widower father, displaying hypochondriac tendencies inherited by his frightful other daughter (Chloe Pirrie).

A youthful George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) sees through Emma’s games and is the only one to ever call her out. Miranda Hart, John O’Connor, Tanya Reynolds, Amber Anderson and Callum Turner join the grotesque cast of figures that you’ll immediately love to hate.

The soundtrack is sporadic, and less is definitely more with bursts of music to accompany scenes of dancing, and some lovely a cappella singing helping join scenes together. Cotswold properties and immaculate period details shine out along with rather fine costumes. The exquisite level of detail does, however, sometimes divert attention from the quality of the acting, the very many knowing glances, and the contorted network of relationships that weave together into a story.

Debut feature director Autumn de Wilde delivers a pleasant, assured and quite humorous adaptation of Jane Austen’s fine novel through Eleanor Catton’s fine script. A cheeky lack of undergarments feels like a shout out to the Poldark audience, but otherwise she sticks to including snogs over smut. The quality of her vision makes her an exciting talent to track in coming years.

What’s missing in Emma is Little Women’s sense of speaking into today. Other than a strange nod towards The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s very little contemporary messaging. Instead, you’re invited to sit back, relax, and enjoy a surprisingly comical version of the classic novel.

Emma will be screened from Friday 14 February in Movie House Cinemas and Queen’s Film Theatre.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

The Lighthouse – two salty keepers and a lewd tale of horror

William Dafoe plays an old bullying keeper who farts and belches while barking orders at his novice colleague (Robert Pattinson). The Lighthouse starts out as a tense stand-off between these two men. Every manual duty to keep the seafaring facility ship shape is handed off to the taciturn probationer; nothing is shared, particularly not the senior keeper’s command of the higher levels of the tower. It’s two weeks before Ephraim shares his name; another fortnight before Thomas follows suit. By then, the isolation – much like the damp – is beginning to spread and rot their nerves and any sense of wellbeing.

The question that runs through the film is what would cause someone to choose to spend alternate months on a remote offshore lighthouse? What are they running away from? Expect to find out some but not all of the answers as the gruelling and somewhat extreme character study shines its bright light into the depravity of these men’s souls and their grim surroundings.

Director Robert Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke perfectly capture the isolation and fierce climate in this black and white tale. The near-square aspect ratio, lack of colour, and idiomatic language underline the 19th century setting, a time before radios and diesel-powered generators.

As time passes and the relationship between the two wickies continues to decline, their lewdness grows, and a plentiful supply of alcohol swerves the action towards the delusional and possibly even the siren-enhanced supernatural. Pattinson lets fly with an unhinged performance that allows Ephraim to display a turbo-charged rage while Dafoe walks the tightrope between noir and nutty as the odd couple square up to each other’s habits and insecurities.

Ultimately the concept and the skilful imagery are superior to the story. Despite the ending, neither man is a Prometheus, and their increasingly violent tussles do little to grip during the final half hour of the 109-minute film.

The Lighthouse is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre and at some Movie House and Omniplex cinemas. If you do go and see it, don’t forget that gulls aren’t to be messed with!

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Parasite – a glorious class struggle flooded with satire, horror and visual delight

Parasites feed off their hosts for nutrition and survival. The titular metaphor applies to the Kim family who inveigle themselves into the employ of a tech CIO’s home, taking advantage of their talent at roleplay and a mother’s naivety and gullibility in order to take over as chauffeur, housekeeper and the children’s tutors. But the beautiful house holds a secret that upsets the Kims’ parasitic idyll and more than one leeching beast ultimately spills blood.

Imaginative and entrepreneurial Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and his audacious sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) live in a squalid basement flat, stealing free wifi from neighbours and making money where they can. Together with their no-nonsense Mum, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), and beautifully sarcastic if impractical father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), they form a strong family unit that prises open the defences of the affluent Park family.

This South Korean masterpiece from director Bong Joon-ho begins as a class struggle before widening its ambitions to examine how the rich also rely on and destroy their employees. The expansive glass in the Park’s open plan living space enjoys views of the well-kept garden and frames the heavy deluges of rain. Contrast that with the single high-level window in the Kim’s subterranean flat that celebrates a view of urinating drunks heading home. Steps and stairs emphasise the upstairs/downstairs and well-to-do/down-at-heel nature of society and conveys the sense that the wealthy flood the poor with their waste.

The clues about the pests inhabiting the home are picked up by the sensitive and wholly misunderstood Park children. This isn’t the only gloriously satisfying element of Joon-ho’s Parasite. His confident swing from satire into horror and back to comedy is as assured and steady as Ki-taek’s driving through the busy streets. Jaeil Jung’s orchestral score is rich and swells in all the right moments before fading back into the mix when the tense action can speak for itself. The attention to detail across the sets (there’s a bathroom you’ll not forget in a hurry) and the humorous nuances of each main character make Parasite a real gem.

What feels like an overly-bloody denouement deserving of the end credits is swiftly followed by a somewhat predictable twist and then a rather fantastical turn that attempts to round up the morality tale. As a device, it doesn’t quite hold water, but no harm is done to the quality of the previous two hours of cinema.

Parasite is an exciting, well-executed tale being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre. This afternoon’s matinee screening sold out so booking is recommended.

Friday, February 07, 2020

BRINK and THE HERE TRIO – negotiation 101 and a study of connected space (Maiden Voyage Dance and Liz Roche at The MAC)


Two dancers lie on top of a raised table. For a long time they remain linked as they explore the flat square they’re lying on. Exploring the edges, and then, extending over the edges, they hold onto each other. As Katie Richardson’s soundscape lifts from crashing boulders to more hopeful string pads, the figures begin to explore what is above them. They reach up and out, stand on each other to gain advantage. Yet soon they’re leaning in, wrestling and trying to slam each other down into submission as this power play reaches its final stages. By the end, they’re positioned pretty much as they started, but exhausted from the contest.

Vasiliki Stasinaki and Ryan O’Neill display strength and composure as they writhe and push and balance during the 25-minute performance. Their profound sense of space allows them to roll over but never fall off their elevated stage. Stephen Dodd’s lighting subtly shifts its intensity and focus from above and to the side – you never notice any of the transitions happening – at one point neatly dividing the table into quarters as the brilliant white-costumed dancers try and occupy the best areas in their fame of human Risk.

Eileen McClory’s choreography captures the frustration of negotiations that imperil everything yet need (most of) the players to remain on the table to seal a deal. It’s like an apocryphal vision of the UK and EU scrabbling over Brexit, with a sweaty Johnson and Barnier trying to get one up on each other yet unable to deliver a fatal blow in case they’d lose everything they’d previously gained. Whether wrapped up in the continuing search for Brexit concessions, reeling from the sudden return of the political parties to Stormony, or pondering the impeachment process in the US, BRINK is a totally up-to-date piece of physical performance commentary commissioned, produced and presented by Maiden Voyage Dance.


After the interval, Maiden Voyage Dace are back with Liz Roche Company in a coproduction that explores place and how we occupy space. Three dancers – O’Neill joined by Sarah Cerneaux and Gloria Ros Abellana – take it in turns, almost like improv performers rushing up to a mic, to throw themselves about a green runway of a lawn as percussion rains down from above.

The voiceover explains that “space is a vehicle to connect” and soon the dancers are competing, repeating, and rearranging. They rewrite and rewire structures, feel the pain of old scars indelibly marking land and bodies. The trio seem conscious of the shape of their shadow, particularly provocative when performed in Cathedral Quarter whose skyline is threatened with the shadow of commercial property development over the next few years. Staggering, fitting, falling, they feel the pressure of the space they co-occupy. Their bodies race ahead of their minds.

Midway through the 35-minute performance there’s a lovely original moment as a small portion of Bryan O’Connell’s projected drumming is highlighted with a square of wood, opening a window of detail into the music, bringing us from the outside to the inside of the piece.

How do we occupy and reoccupy space? Do our actions betray our lack of thinking, or reveal our inner thoughts? How are we affected by those around us, mirroring and rejecting and competing?

Maiden Voyage’s double bill of BRINK and THE HERE TRIO finishes its run at The MAC on Saturday 8 February at 8pm.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Kiss Me, Kate – men behaving badly while one woman fights back against the shrews (NI Opera and Lyric Theatre until 22 February)

With music and lyrics by Cole Porter and the book by Bella and Sam Spewack, Kiss Me, Kate goes behind the scenes of a musical production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and witnesses one of the principal actors wooing a young starlet while also reengaging with his estranged wife. As the show progresses, the Shakespearean storyline (complete with the Bard’s “woo her, wed her, bed her” line) interplays with the lives of the cast and crew in the theatre.

It’s a show that I remember seeing performed by local operatic companies as a child in venues like the long defunct Harberton Theatre behind the King’s Hall. The stage could swallow up 30 or more performers by the time the minor roles and a chorus line were added to the main cast. Yet this co-production by NI Opera and the Lyric Theatre manage to get through all the acting, singing and dancing with a tight cast of thirteen.

Right from the start, it’s clear that while this is much more musical theatre than opera – there’s a lot of spoken dialogue between songs – the quality of the cast’s singing sets it above what you’d normally expect, and the 12-piece band in the pit under the flamboyant baton of Conor Mitchell inject huge energy into the shenanigans above them. Jennifer Rooney’s snappy choreography creates great shapes out of the small cast and gives the show’s big numbers a lot of visual oomph.

Other than a fitted-out dressing room that sits to one side of the Lyric stage, the set is chunky but simple, always visible sitting in the wings when not needed. It revolves to shift our perspective, though that oddly leaves the dressing room perched in what we would imagine were the front rows of the stalls in one scene. A curtain flies down to emphasise the moments when the cast are on-stage, and a cute theatre sign emphasises the fantasy nature of what we’re watching.

Norman Bowman gives the theatre director and lead actor Fred (playing Petruchio in Taming) a sense of aggression early on that opens the door for his later acts of menace, abuse and assault. Standing up to him across the stage and dressing room is Melle Stewart who plays Lilli and Shakespeare’s Katharine. She portrays a woman whose confidence is evident yet damaged by her previous relationship which was definitely not Wunderbar. And when he appears in person, her new military lover (played by Richard Croxford) turns out to be another mistake waiting to happen with his assertion that “I can make the little woman happy”.

Jayne Wisener’s Lois Lane seems flirty and keen to manipulate her relationship with the director to further her career, yet there’s more than a hint that Fred may be grooming her Weinstein-style. It’s the start of an unsettling #MeToo conversation that inhabited my thoughts during the rest of the show.

In the wings, Fred and his team of scantily clad tinselly angels (Maeve Byrne, Jolene O’Hara and Brigid Shine) recline in an armchair watching this old production, as if a black and white show on late night TV. As a framing device to allow the audience to enjoy the inappropriate behaviour on stage – men are bullies, bums are slapped until one character can’t comfortably sit down – it works some of the time.

For me, it’s definitely a show of two halves. Before the interval, there’s a coherence to the staging, set and sensibility that become much more stretched when we return. Matthew Cavan’s Too Darn Hot is spectacular and memorable, but while it begins among the audience before returning onto the main stage, the context of the cast relaxing in the alley behind the theatre isn’t at all clear, leaving it as a sizzling cabaret number dropped into the rest of the narrative.

In the second half, the already well-established front of house/backstage conventions of the show are complicated with some actors changing in view of the audience and cast members running off one side of the Lyric stage and reappearing at the other side.

Two debt-collecting mobsters – Marty Maguire and Darren Franklin – provide a superbly comic rendition of Brush Up Your Shakespeare, and their incursion from the world of gambling into theatre is very enjoyable.

But the major conundrum with the second half is whether the conceit holds up and I can still allow myself to believe that I’m inside the head of a horrible man watching abusive power relationships play out without any feeling of remorse. Should such a monster really be rewarded with pity songs … or should the mobsters have finished the job they came to do?!

I’m sure that watching performances as a child in the 1980s I giggled as Kate was carried over the shoulder of Fred, no doubt with her bottom still being slapped as the pair exited stage right. There is a suggestion that Bella Spewack wrote much of the dialogue and that a sense of irony was also deliberately present in The Taming of the Shrew. However, that is backstory audiences will only garner if they devour the programme before the lights go down.

As a production, there’s no doubt about the high quality of the performances. The cast and musicians do huge justice to Cole Porter’s talented songs. Where else would you see and hear 25 professionals on and under the stage giving their all? But I can only imagine how the gender politics and abusive sexism must have been a tension that perplexed and preoccupied director Walter Sutcliffe and the cast throughout rehearsals. It would be a fascinating topic for an after-show discussion.

Audience members sitting passively could become complicit in the on-stage tale. But if theatre is meant to make you think, and opera is meant to heighten situations to make a point, then Kiss Me, Kate could be a very relevant contribution to the ongoing societal shakedown over breaking silence, showing empathy, empowering the vulnerable, and changing attitudes to have zero tolerance for workplace harassment, domestic violence and abuse.

Kiss Me, Kate continues in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 22 February.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

Sunday, February 02, 2020

JoJo Rabbit – deftly delivering what at first felt like a distasteful tale

Young Johannes’ imaginary friend is a maniacal yet somewhat beguiling Adolf Hitler with a dodgy moustache who offers encouragement when the lad’s experience of Hitler Youth training camp turns sour.

Based on Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies, the premise of JoJo Rabbit at first seemed distasteful. Yet soon the empathetic ten-year-old boy won me over as he reacts to a series of encounters with a teenage Jewish girl and a forbidden friendship is klindled.

Roman Griffin Davis plays the young boy who slowly begins to question his grasp of the Führer’s ideology.

Taika Waititi throws a bit of The Joker into his Hitler pastiche, while Scarlett Johansson plays Johannes’ secretive mother.

But it is the performance of Thomasin McKenzie, exuding warmth, fear and eventually bravado as Elsa Korr that becomes the lynchpin of the film’s success.

The poetry of Rilke adds substance to the film whose mood swings like a pendulum from ridiculous (and ridiculing) comedy caper to deathly sombre and back over the 108 minutes. Hitler constantly offers Johannes cigarettes (which he refuses) as if this is the worst action the Nazi leader will take.

Yet just in time the final scene removes any lingering doubt that JoJo Rabbit wasn’t going to turn out a good film. It certainly doesn’t break new ground or merit Academy Awards, but it’s serviceable and thoughtful.

JoJo Rabbit is still playing at Belfast Odeon and some Movie House cinemas.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield: unusual perspectives and joyful storytelling

January has been a good month for cinematic adaptations of classic fiction. I caught Little Women after Christmas and was wowed by the well told and superbly watchable tale of the March family siblings.

Armando Iannucci reaches back twenty years earlier and picks up David Copperfield, the somewhat autobiographical eighth novel by Charles Dickens. There’s no one right way to tell a story. While Iannucci plays fast and loose with convention right from the early scenes when Copperfield is at home witnessing his own birth, the novel approach never unsettles or distracts from the tale.

The Personal History of David Copperfield sees Copperfield banished from his home by his mother’s new husband. The lad slaves away in a bottling factory, boards with the ever-expanding Micawber family, and falls on the mercy of his Great Aunt Betsey Trotwood. Along the way he meets the at first cloying then devious Uriah Heep.

Dev Patel captures a maturing David Copperfield who is feeling his way through a circus of relatives, landlords and workplaces. Jairaj Varsani plays Copperfield as a young boy.

This topsy-turvy journey into adulthood is full of unusual perspectives. There are strong and well-drawn characters around every corner: happy-go-lucky chancer Mr Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his fecund wife (played with a heart-warming twinkle by Bronagh Gallagher), ever-tipsy Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong), gloriously eccentric Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) drafting from being to becoming quite fond of young Copperfield, kite-flying delusional Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie).

While Dickens was a cracking storyteller, Iannucci can make a script sing, and with this talented (and deliberately colour-blind) cast he imagines up two hours of joyful, free-flowing, absurd entertainment. Little Woman and The Personal History of David Copperfield are leagues above flimsy dross like Downton Abbey (admittedly not derived from a novel).

The Personal History of David Copperfield continues to be screened in most local cinemas.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Preview: Dream, Sleep, Connect (Rosemary Jenkinson & C21 Theatre) – what happens when natural connection is replaced with technology?

Mars confectionery company wanted us to Work Rest and Play. Others deconstruct the monotony of adult existence to Sleep Work Repeat. But in playwright Rosemary Jenkinson’s mind, she homes in on society’s obsessions with digital disconnection with her new piece Dream, Sleep, Connect.

The premise of the play is that Chris (played by Richard Clements) is working on a technological solution for the Irish border under the beady eye of his boss, Lucy (Maria Connolly), when he realises the he has no one to invite to the office party. He joins Tinder only to find he’s met his match in more ways than one …

When I caught up with Jenkinson as rehearsals started, she explained that she feels online dating is “a very untrustworthy medium” and can lead to insecure and paranoid partners wanting to check your social media and your computer in case you’re still swiping. “It only takes one second to swipe. Whereas going out to actually pick up another partner actually requires effort. And, fingers on a screen and fingertips on your keyboard are no match for eyes across the room.”

One of Jenkinson’s heroes, Dario Fo, said that “a theatre … that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.” Her previous plays have tackled topics like finance, benefits, food banks, asylum and whistle blowing, all of them contemporary issues. And the electronic screening of potential dates isn’t so different from the faceless automation behind Chris’s company’s solution for electronic screening at the border.
“You'll get the idea that I'm fairly anti-digital age in this play …

“It's almost like Big Brother is watching has now come round to Big Self is watching me. We’re surveilling ourselves. It's narcissism in the absolute extreme. Something's gone very badly wrong. People think, you know, social media is going to last forever. Well, it absolutely won't. There'll be a revolution against this eventually because people will realize that over-computerisation is damaging for health. It's just a matter of time before that happens.”

The playwright notes that social media and online chat rooms are negatively connected with self-harm and suicide websites.
“Everything is consuming too much time on computers and there’s not enough time for personal interaction with people” she says, adding “I think my life is slightly ruled by social media, which is really annoying. I'm generally against it even though I use it for self-promotion – you're forced to in this society at the minute – but it's not by any desire of mine.”

Clements and Connolly are no strangers to Jenkinson’s plays.
“You can never be sure because they're so busy they might not be free … but both of them are brilliant. Maria gets to play Chris's boss in work as well as some of his dates and gets to swap in and out of different roles which she loves [and] she's brilliant at transforming herself into different characters.”

What’s next for Jenkinson after Dream, Sleep, Connect? The playwright also writes short stories and a new collection – Lifestyle Choice: 10 Milligrams – will be coming out soon. She enjoys the contrast between plays and stories. “I think the theatre is a bit more political, whereas the short stories are probably more personal.”

And while the quartet of Michelle and Arlene rapid-response plays are finished for now – though Jenkinson sounds like she could be tempted to pen another – she still has satire in her sights.
 “I will return to political satire at some point because there's still so much going on, particularly with Brexit, so I'm dying to get back to that.”

C21 Theatre’s new production premières in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast (18–22 February) before touring through Strule Arts Centre, Omagh (Wednesday 26), Island Arts Centre, Lisburn (Friday 28), Cushendall Golf Club (Saturday 29), Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, Newry (Tuesday 3 March), Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (Friday 6) and Market Place Theatre, Armagh (Saturday 7).

Monday, January 20, 2020

Bombshell – telling the story of Ailes at Fox reveals Trump’s ticking timebomb

Bombshell a sick, telling a story that should never have had to be told. It’s about abuses of power, about chains of command that can keep awful secrets hushed up and not spoken about even though hundreds of people have more than a clue about what is going on. In one sense, it’s a universal story; in another, its awful essence is that it is based on a US television news channel that was meant to be reporting wrong-doing and exposing perpetrators rather than covering up its own sin.

When presenter Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) was forced out of Fox News, she sued the chairman and CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) claiming sexual harassment. Ailes had built the conservative-leaning network up into a huge profit centre of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

Even before the film studio video idents are played, a screenful of text reminds Bombshell audiences that the real-life story has been dramatized. A younger composite character (Kayla Pospisil played by Margot Robbie) is used to challenge one of the older protagonists, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) about the cost to others of her years of silence about Ailes behaviour. I still can’t decide whether a silent scene with the three principle women in a lift is brilliantly uncomfortable or excruciatingly poor.

Over on this side of the pond, these Fox News figures are not particularly well known and some commentators who know a lot more are reluctant to label Megyn Kelly as a hero. But director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph seem to attempt to redeem Theron’s character at the start of the film with footage of her challenging Trump over his attitude towards women at a Republican presidential candidate debate:

“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals … Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on the Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president? And how do you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton – that you are part of the war on women?”

While I’m male and no expert, to me the film successfully portrays Ailes behaviour as unequivocally wrong, and conscientiously explores the complex emotional and financial reactions to Carlson’s accusations. Some women who had experience of Ailes’ harassment lie low while others stand square behind the sleazy second floor boss who had more than a penchant for female presenters’ legs, viewing his abuse as a transaction that had advanced their careers. Even Kelly’s producer, played by Rob Delaney, swings between supporting his female colleagues and self-interest about his own future if they dare to speak out.

Kidman depicts the main accuser as someone who does their homework and remains calm under pressure, even when other women are slow to speak to her lawyers and join her action. Theron demonstrates the hesitancy of her character’s need to weigh up the possible effect of speaking out on her career and reputation. Robbie manages the delicate balance of portraying someone who is young and ambitious yet vulnerable and trapped. Her interactions with a gay colleague played by Kate McKinnon add to the three-dimensional reading of the complex relationships and fears at play in this super-conservative workplace.

Bombshell takes a while to warm up and launch its attack. The opening sequences break the fourth wall and allow Kelly/Theron to address the cinema audience before reverting to more traditional storytelling, though inner monologues still periodically burst out. Shade is liberally thrown, with an element of guilt by association of which the average audience cannot judge its veracity.

Yet Bombshell turns into a powerful reminder that no single man – or in this case, two: Ailes and Bill O’Reilly both leave Fox under considerable clouds – can bring everyone in an organisation down with them when they fall. The inclusion of presidential candidate Trump in the tale is surely a nod to his own feet of clay and the possibility that he is not beyond being toppled over under the burden of past sins.

The film also reminds audiences that there is a cost to speaking out: being part of Ailes’ downfall has not been good for some of the women’s careers and earning potential. In choosing to depict complexity over an (even more) simplified narrative, Bombshell highlights moral dilemmas without mandating particular binary choices that everyone should have taken.

In a good world, there would never be a need to make another film like Bombshell. But in the meantime, this is just one drop in a cinematic ocean from a film industry that has a lot of stories of bullying, harassment and coercion littering its own back yard to expose and atone for.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

1917 – set in an immersive battlefield, the technical bravado overshadows a weak story

“Pick a man. Grab your kit.” It’s 6 April 1917, and these instructions thrust Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) into an unwanted mission as he accompanies Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) across no man’s land, through seemingly deserted enemy lines to warn another company not to proceed with an attack that will see thousands of men walk into a trap, with the added hook that Blake’s brother is at the far end and due to be part of the doomed attack.

A single camera travels with the pair, sometimes anticipating their movements, watching from in front and then circling around behind as they navigate the treacherous terrain. The giant CGI rats deserve an Oscar. The very long takes are neatly stitched together, though the passage of time and distance (the lorry, the blackout, the river, resting with the mother and baby) is a constant struggle throughout a two-hour film that relies on enormously detailed trench sets, armies of extras, and fabulous ADR that recreates the immersive sound of the battlefield and the pair’s journey to add grit to the less than weighty story.

As war movies go, 1917 contains at least as many warnings about the failings of war as moments of heroism. Some of its strongest themes are the questioning the motivations of senior leaders (seen to be gung-ho) and the articulation (by Schofield) that widows won’t be cheered up by gallantry medals. This is a film about following orders, brotherhood and sacrifice; about letting go and getting up; about endurance and inner steel; about the fruitlessness and mass death that comes with war.

Neither the storyline nor that dialogue is particularly rich or believable (though the inspiration for the plot comes from a story from director Sam Mendes’ family). It takes a long time before there’s any real sense of tension, even when the pair jump into an Indiana Jones-style sequence running through collapsing tunnels, though the first big death scene delivers an emotional punch. Everyone they meet along the way is merely a wayfarer, present for a few minutes before the mission rushes on past, leaving them in the dust behind. So it’s highly appropriate that near the end Schofield pauses in a field and listens as the haunting voice of a soldier singing The Wayfaring Stranger wafting over resting troops.

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling through this world of woe
Yet there's no sickness, toil or danger
in that bright world to which I go.

I know dark clouds were headin' around me
I know my way is tough and steep
Yet beautious fields lie just before me
Where God's redeemed their vigils keep.

I'm going there to see my mother
She said she'd meet me when I come
I'm only goin' over Jordan
I'm only goin' over home...

The technical bravado (I’d love to see the IMAX version) and 1917’s ambitions are impressive, but perhaps, most of all, Mendes should be applauded for avoiding dressing up war as anything other than a monstrous act that must be avoided at all costs.