Monday, March 20, 2017

Imagine! Belfast Festival of Politics and Ideas (20-26 March 2017) #imaginebelfast


The Imagine! Belfast Festival of Politics and Ideas is back for its third year. “It’s going to be great. The best festival ever!” was what one snowy Washington DC St Patrick’s Day celebrant didn’t report back to us after one two many Irish Champagnes.

In the ultra-climate, post-freedom, alt-gender, super-truth, pre-culture, trans-surveillance, info-reality, neo-Brexit society that we now live in what could be better than a non-partisan festival with an eclectic mix of talks, comedy, music, film, theatre, workshops, tours and exhibitions to encourage people to discuss and debate.

There’s even a competition asking for submissions of short poems on a political theme: limerick, haiku, iambic pentameter … you decide! The vast majority of events are free.

In partnership with Stratagem, Slugger’s own sold out event on Thursday night will pitch 7 Ways to Make Northern Ireland Great Again.

Between Tuesday 21 and Saturday 25 March, John McCann’s new play Famla will be performed by Tinderbox Theatre Company in The MAC. A haunting, hilarious and heart-breaking story of hidden secrets and hidden truths.

Some highlights from the programme of events that stretch over 7 days in 35 venues with 300 speakers and performers. Unless mentioned, events are free though you may need to follow the links to register if venue space is constrained.

Monday 20 March

Nat O’Connor explores the question of Could Northern Ireland become an independent member state of the EU? in the UU’s Belfast Campus between 12.30 and 2pm.

A Musical Journey presented by Beyond Skin in The Black Box from 7.30pm until 10pm. Expect music, rhythm and definitely drums from different cultures and backgrounds as band members and musicians celebrate identities and address stereotypes. Access All Areas is the follow up to the Music Unite project. £5.

Tuesday 21 March

Tuesday is Dialogue Day, with ten venues across the city hosting civic conversations over a cup of tea or coffee (buy your own!) between 10am and noon. The theme this year is ‘Surviving or thriving in turbulent times’. Check the programme for venues in case you turn up in Stormont House canteen and are disappointed it’s not participating this year!

Between 5pm and 6.30pm, the same venue will discuss Modern Medical Ethics: Moral Support or Professional Challenge as Duncan Wilson delves into the emerging field of bioethics and ponders how the changing political context and interdisciplinary input from law, philosophy and social sciences is helping or hindering the medical profession.

Why We Need Feminist Economics sees Katrine Marçal use wit and her considerable analysis to unpack the themes of her book Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? which challenges the gender-blind nature of mainstream economics. The hive Community Space on Grosvenor Road between 7.30pm and 9pm.

Wednesday 22 March

Students or Consumers? Has education become a business? Are students now consumers? Does the pressure on universities to balance their books now suppress their supply of education for the public good? QUB Students’ Union from 2pm until 4pm.

Where do young people access news – and does it matter for how they see the world? Online news outlets rely on algorithms to personalise our news feeds and we tend to live in like-minded social media bubbles. Social media is now a main source of news for young people. A panel will ponder how important stories and issues around immigration, international aid and refugees can be understood in those environments? UU Belfast campus between 3pm and 4.30pm.

Brexit and the Border: So What? has been organised by the Open University with a panel encompassing academia, media, economics and farming ready to discuss the impact – if any – on peace, politics and trade. Ulster Museum (Belfast Room) between 6.30pm and 7.30pm.

Thursday 23 March

As a teenager, I read far too much Tolkien with its myriad of ancient and made-up languages. So one day during a school summer I invented my own. It had some simple tenses, a grammar structure, and a book of vocabulary. All typed out with a manual typewriter on A4 sheets. Later in life I was told that this wasn’t a normal thing for a teenager to do. And it may explain why I loved Dave Duggan’s 2014 play Makaronik of which 10% of the script was performed in the made-up Empirish language. But it turns out I’m not alone. Researchers from the UU will converge on their Belfast campus between 10am and noon to host a hands-on workshop called Inventing a Language is a Lot of Fun where they’ll explore the universal properties of human language and create an alien language that can still be spoken by human actors. See you there!

Imagine if the Peace Walls Came Down? Not so implausible given that that’s the commitment by 2023 in the NI Executive’s TBUC/Together Building a United Community strategy. This workshop in the UU Belfast campus will conduct a thought experiment and imagine the consequences for local communities, services, planning, security and more of taking the walls down. 5.30pm to 6.30pm.

Friday 24 March

Democracy Day takes over The MAC with a slew of events organised by Building Change Trust that assesses How Healthy is Democracy in Northern Ireland? and looks at welfare reform, participation and deliberation, open policy making, civic activism, a citizen jury, a fake news quiz, citizen assemblies, digital tools for democracy from Iceland, Estonia and Scotland before putting Democracy on Trial.

Then head over to the Conor Lecture Theatre in the UU Belfast campus to hear Bill Adair, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning US fact-checking platform PolitiFact deliver a much-anticipated lecture entitled Are We Living in a Post-Truth Democracy?

Saturday 25 March

Between 2pm and 5pm at QUB’s Sonic Arts Research Centre Franziska Schroeder will give you a speedy introduction to using a microphone and an audio recorder to allow you to interview the public about how they think their lives might change post-Brexit. Then you’ll be helped to edit the audio into a short piece that will be played back at the end of the practical Sounding Out on Brexit workshop. All free.

Why is Elvis in your Toast? The Open University’s Patrick Wright explores pareidolia and how seeing images in objects can be a result of historical influences as well as our innate fears and anxieties. Between 6,30pm and 7.30pm in the Crescent Arts Centre.

Sunday 26 March

2017 marks five hundred years since Martin Luther nailed his Nine Five Theses to the door of his Wittenberg church and set in train the Protestant Reformation. Join a panel in the UU Belfast Campus between 3pm and 5pm who will be Reflecting on the Reformation and discussing whether this was really about religion or was a forerunner of Brexit showing disillusionment of the periphery with the perceived corruption of the cosmopolitan centre!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Personal Shopper: a remote and melancholic search for outfits, souls and the film’s meaning (QFT until 23 March)


While I sat in the cinema previewing Personal Shopper, politicians were meeting up in Stormont, searching for meaning and haunted by the ghosts of the past in a long drawn-out process. Much like the character of Maureen played by Kristen Stewart around whom the film revolves.

She’s a tortured and empty woman, dissatisfied with her hollow job sourcing clothes for rich clients while grieving the recent death of her brother with whom she shares a medical condition and is desperate to renew a spiritual connection.

Maureen dresses in baggy jumpers while ferrying thousands of pounds worth of haute couture garments and jewellery around in branded bags on her moped. Other than a brief moment of cowering when she detects a ghost, Stewart’s emotional dial is stuck on ‘glum’ throughout the film.

Writer/director Olivier Assayas takes his film on a meandering and melancholic odyssey through abandoned country houses, Parisian couturiers and a client’s high end apartment as Maureen carries out her twin searches for outfits and her brother’s soul. It’s lonely and remote work: many of the locations are desserted, Maureen’s client Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) is always distant or distracted, and even her boyfriend works overseas in Oman.

The backstory is revealed at a leisurely pace over 105 minutes. Unfortunately, the film feels at least half an hour longer. There’s a lot of spiritual mumbo jumbo including a novel but frustratingly prolonged episode of being haunted by text message and a nearly comical invisible man sequence that is rudely interrupted by a violent disturbance.

The soundtrack is relatively unobtrusive except for its very obvious signposting of imminent terror and moody chamber string sequences that unexpectedly accompany the revving of Maureen’s moped every time it scoots through the streets of Paris. The fade to white ending – a total contrast to the unusual slow fade to black that signifies the end of many previous scenes – is a total cop out that just adds to the wool shop-sized list of loose ends the audience is meant to leave the cinema mulling over.

In the end, the talks up at Stormont may be easier to understand and deliver more comfort and meaning than Personal Shopper which at worst is a vehicle for needless titillation at Stewart’s body and at best is a poorly executed ghost hunt that successfully sought to avoid being classified as horror.

Personal Shopper – which should perhaps have been titled ‘Shopping for a Ghost’ – is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 17 to Thursday 23 March.


Thursday, March 02, 2017

Review: Certain Women – a lingering celebration of the downcast, downtrodden & disheartened (QFT until 9 March)

Certain Women tells a triptych of stories, all set in rural Montana and based on short stories by Maile Meloy.

While a couple of brief scenes link together some of the characters, the three stories are largely independent. Yet they all share the same feeling of women and – despite the title – men battling injustice and loneliness.

Lawyer Laura (played by Laura Dern) has a client (Jared Harris) who can’t sue for proper damages after an injury in his workplace because he accidentally settled for a nominal amount. His dissatisfaction escalates, and in a sequence that falls just shy of black humour, Laura finds herself becoming a hostage negotiator.

Ryan (James Le Gros) is (mostly talking about) building a new family home. Driving home the couple stop off with an old friend and Gina (Michelle Williams) wangles a deal to use some unused stones. The elderly man is clearly confused, and Ryan is less than supportive of his wife’s attitude.

A worker on a pony ranch (Lily Gladstone) stumbles into a one-sided friendship with a out of town lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who is teaching a night class. Both feel trapped in their daily routines; but only one of them has the financial means to try to escape.

While I began to chuckle out loud at a couple of unexpected situations, I was halted in my guffaw by the feeling of overwhelming emptiness of depression created by director Kelly Reichardt.

There’s no element of feel good in this 107 minute film. Certain Women is primarily a celebration of the downcast, the downtrodden, the disheartened and the disappointed. But it’s beautifully filmed and the character studies are finely observed. Shots linger. The camera is often fixed, and kept in the shadow. The background noise of each location is allowed to fill the long gaps between dialogue.

There’s never a sense that the audience are being led through a well-signposted story. Instead, we’re all kept on tender hooks trying to figure our what will be important, which characters will endure, what the story line will be. And of course, the ultimate revelation is that the plot is less important than the example, emotion and experience of these three women and those close to them in reflecting everyday life.

Certain Women is undeniably an unusual film. But like Moonlight, it lingers long in my mind, retelling its stories. Screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre from 3 until 9 March.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

“Save our Neighbours” – high energy musical Glasgow Girls highlights Scottish asylum campaign (The MAC until 25 Feb)

No sooner has one piece of political theatre left The MAC – Entitled is touring through Bangor, Newry and Derry this week – than another bounces onto the main stage of the Belfast venue.
“Your asylum request has been refused … Your removal must be enforced”

When a fellow pupil failed to turn up at a Glasgow school one morning in 2005 – detained with her family in a dawn raid by the UK Border Agency and sent back to England to await deportation – her school mates set about raising public awareness and challenging the asylum system.

Their Glasgow Girls campaign reached the Scottish Parliament with the Green Party triggering a debate that voiced concern about how children in Scotland were being treated when families are removed for deportation.

This high-energy musical theatre production centres around the seven girls and their bilingual language support teacher Mr Girvan. Songs are accompanied by a pumping backing track and live fiddle and guitar. The fighting spirit of the city of Glasgow is celebrated – despite the early lyric “There’s bits of the city that are really shitty” – along with the broad welcome that asylum seekers received upon dispersal up to Scotland.
“It’s no their war; It’s no their sin”
Musical styles are varied with electronic grime, reggae-dub, folk-rock and the Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell conjured up as a glittering Elvis. The recreation of the debate in the Scottish Parliament which led to the promise that dawn raids and detention would not be used in cases involving families with children in Scotland is one of the most powerful scenes of the production.

The set consists of a playground climbing frame that provides performers with a couple of different levels and steps. The performers are individually micced and the sound design makes good use of echo and reverb to enhance the dialogue and singing. The choreography is very precise and director Cora Bissett has kept a good pace to the show while still allowing some intimate and emotional moments to flourish.

In-between the singing and dancing there’s quite a lot of audience education about the asylum system. The script doesn’t shy away from discussing anti-asylum sentiment, allowing some “I fear that they’re over hear to live for free” voices to be heard and largely rebutted. An older woman Noreen acts as the common (wo)man, not afraid to break the fourth wall to let the audience into her world of neighbourhood watch and offers a commentary on the less than successful campaign.

It’s a testament to the show that the unfinished nature of the campaign and the lack of fulsome political follow-through is core to the second half and a happy ending was not concocted. Instead Glasgow Girls finishes with a powerful call to action to “save our neighbours” no matter where we are.

I overheard one teenage lad leaving the theatre last night exclaiming “that was amazing!” to others in a youthful group who had attended the opening night.

Glasgow Girls is a wake-up call to the harsh outworking of UK asylum policy and the show’s revival and tour by Pachamama Productions is timely given the continued political and media focus on migration and asylum. It plays in The MAC until 25 February.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

NI Science Festival - space, stories, food safety, cognitive computing, astrophysics and quantum biology #nisf17

NI Science Festival is in its third year and still has a week to run. The programme is packed full of surprises and treats.

Reassembled, Slightly Askew runs at The MAC until 26 February as part of the festival and takes the audience inside the head of a patient with a life-threatening brain injury. You can read my preview of the show and interview with the playwright (who wrote about her acquired brain injury) over on the Culture Northern Ireland website.

Tuesday 21 February

Professor Dame Ann Dowling will deliver the the 16th Sir Bernard Crossland Annual Lecture in which she will discuss the role of universities in stimulating growth through the people they educate and through their research and enterprise activities. REGISTRATION CLOSED

Poetry meets science in the Black Box at 6.30pm tonight as MATRIX (the NI Science Industry Panel) teams up with the John Hewitt Society to curate an evening of talks and science themed poetry, culminating in a world record attempt for the most haiku tweeted at a single event.

Wednesday 22 February

Mew to TQ: Lighthouse Technology takes place at 2pm in W5. The Titanic Foundation and Commissioner for Irish Lights preview the 10 tonne, 7 metre tall, 130 year old Mew Island optic that will be coming to Titanic Quarter this summer. The talk will explore the science and the innovation related to lighthouse technology: illustrating that the Fresnel lens was a major scientific breakthrough, the pinnacle of lighthouse lens size, and the energy sources used to provide the light. See the event listing for details on how to book your free place.

The monthly Tenx9 storytelling event partners with the NI Science Festival for a second year to present an evening of true stories about “The final frontier”. Black Box at 7pm. Free entry; first come first served. Tenx9 is always a treat.

The Horizon strand of programming on BBC Two has been recently been repeating landmark editions of the long-running series which brings cutting-edge of science and technology to life and applies it to our everyday lives. Horizon's editor Steve Crabtree will curate a journey through the archives in Scanning The Horizon: The Health of a Nation, pulling out key moments of health discoveries and disease outbreaks. Through unique access to clips from the Horizon vaults, the Queen's Film Theatre audience can watch how medicine has evolved over the last five decades. Free but booking essential.

Thursday 23 February

Belfast City Hall will once again host the annual Turing Lecture, this year delivered by IBM Research's VP & Chief Science Officer of Cognitive Computing, Dr Guruduth S. Banavar. Beneficial AI for the Advancement of Humankind will explore cognitive computing, the technology breakthroughs that are enabling this trend, practical applications for the real-world, and ethical considerations guiding the development and deployment of the technology for the benefit of humankind. Get ahead of the curve and understand how cognitive systems will create new partnerships between people and machines to augment and scale human expertise in every industry, from healthcare to financial services to education. Free but registration required. From 5.30pm.

Friday 24 February

Dr Andrew Cannavan led the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Food Safety Assessment Team in Fukushima after the nuclear disaster and works closely with the Queen’s University Institute for Global Food Security. He'll deliver the Jack Pearce Memorial Lecture at 6.30pm in the QUB David Keir building, and will discuss his own experiences, emergency preparedness and responses to nuclear incidents. Free but registration required.

Saturday 25 February

Dr Niamh Shaw is a performer, scientist and engineer who is passionate about awakening people's curiosity. She attended the International Space University’s annual Space Studies Programme in 2015 in association with NASA and she was selected for the Crew 173 Mars analog mission (earlier this year in the Utah desert!) Niamh will explain about her plan to get into space within the next eight years and what it will take to become the first Irish Astronaut. Armagh Planetarium at 1pm or 3pm. £2. Booking essential - details in the event listing.

Sunday 26 February

St George's Market will be animated between 11am and 3.30pm with Busking Physicists use everyday objects to open up a new world of curiosity and understanding with their tricks and sights. The team from the Institute of Physics invite market shoppers to step into a realm of invisible forces and remarkable matter and to join in their unstoppably infectious physics fun!

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell will be in conversation with fellow physicist Jim Al-Khalili at 2pm in the Whitla Hall. The inspirational Belfast born giant of astrophysics is best known for her discovery of pulsars (rotating neutron stars that appear to ‘pulse’ since the beam of light they emit can only be seen when it faces the Earth). Her observation, made together with her supervisor Antony Hewish (he got the Nobel Prize, she didn't) is considered to be one of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the twentieth century. Tickets £6.

And Jim Al-Khalili returns to the Whitla Hall stage at 4pm to deliver a lecture introducing the field of Quantum Biology and examining the impact of recent research and what this means for our understanding of what life really is. John Stewart Bell (a QUB graduate) discovered Bell’s Theorem and his work on non-locality resolved a long standing dispute involving Albert Einstein and showed that Einstein’s views on quantum mechanics were incorrect. This first annual John Bell lecture honouring and recognises Bell’s contribution to the field of quantum physics. Tickets £6.

Logan (Wolverine III) - three men and a little lady meets Green Room

I haven’t seen any of the previous X-Men films on a cinema screen, and have mostly been working away at something else while catching some of them on TV. So going into the Movie House on Dublin Road last night to preview Logan, I had a passing familiarity with the Marvel Comics backstory, but certainly couldn’t have picked Wolverine out of a crowd and didn’t realise this was the last of a trilogy of films tracking his origin and adventures.

Hugh Jackman plays the mutant Wolverine whose sharp talons are quickly seen in action in an opening sequence with dialogue that mostly consists of roars and arghs as blood squirts out of severed arteries and body parts fly through the air in a garage forecourt. And carelessly, Logan – Wolverine’s name on his Social Security documents now that he’s living and working in Civvy Street– doesn’t even check to see if the wheel nuts had been loosened by the eviscerated gang before driving away in his Chrysler limousine!

Apparently there have been no new mutants for 25 years. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is living in an enormous overturned water tank with sunlight streaming in through holes in its rusty shell. It’s a beautiful set, and the jaundiced colouration echoes the sandy ground outside. Stephen Merchant plays the always sarcastic albino Caliban who tends to Charles and has an enhanced sense of smell but is vulnerable to extreme photosensitivity.

The motley crew of three become four when they pick up a taciturn young girl who combines her inner sharpness with powerful gymnastics to fillet anyone standing in her way. Laura (played by Dafne Keen) is the star of the film. Her steely and otherworldly on-screen presence is mesmerising. And when she breaks her silence, her voice and delivery is worth the wait.

The dialogue is perfunctory: “Wolverine – you’re the only one who can help me!” is an accurate yet clichéd call to arms. The soundtrack occasionally celebrates the onscreen carnage before reverting back to minor chord dirges. But this isn’t a film about words or music.

Over two hours and fifteen minutes the audience watch Wolverine go on a journey of self discovery, chased from New Mexico to North Dakota with nowhere to lay his head, with kidnappings, fights, more fights and a very creepy Richard E Grant playing Dr Zander Rice. There’s some playful humour but even during the occasional mellow lull in the skirmishes your stomach is churning, ready for the next sequence of choreographed conflict.

Logan is marginally less violent than Green Room, another sinister film featuring actor Patrick Stewart. A lot of deaths, and some new beginnings and the possibility that history will repeat itself. You can catch Logan at Movie House Cinemas and the Odeon from Tuesday 28 February, with the first screenings at 22.23!




Friday, February 17, 2017

Ardnaglass on the Air - rural living brings hilarity to the airwaves (C21 Theatre, Lyric + NI tour)

Take one ramshackle shed with a Yagi antenna in the corner of a busy farmyard. Add a muck-covered pig farmer who lives with his mum and a local barmaid who dreams of escaping her drunken husband for the bright lights of London. Throw in a one hour long community radio show which celebrates the quaint and quirky ways of rural living. And sit down and relax to enjoy an hour and a quarter of solid entertainment from C21 Theatre’s latest production, Ardnaglass on the Air.

Margaret Mary-Rose O’Boyle isn’t afraid of uttering a string of jaw-dropping double entendres that are nearly as dirty as her co-presenter’s overalls. Jo Donnelly gently steers her character between an impetuous tottering flirt to empathetic friend, and manages to give definition to the peaks and troughs of emotion that might otherwise have become a blur of excitement.

Sitting behind the mixing desk – do pirate stations really use DJ mixers to control their mics? – Marty Maguire drives the desk and guides the listeners through the local news, adverts, live breaking stories and a weather forecast that emphasises the latter rather than the former. Yet as the one act play heads towards its conclusion, Hugh Francis O’Donnell’s vulnerability emerges.

Convention is thrown out the window barn door. While some curious extra excuses for movement around the studio have been invented, presenting a radio show is a very sedentary pursuit. (Hugo Duncan is the one exception to this rule.) The big gestures of theatre aren’t available. But Stephen Kelly’s direction has created a rich palette of gestures and facial expressions that construct an intimate performance in the diminutive set. Casting a real-life couple adds a frisson of sexual tension to the on-air chemistry and certainly helps add a touch of realism to the scowls and disappointing glares when things go wrong on air.

As a townie, I feared that I was sitting laughing at a whimsical piss-take that was unfairly caricaturing culchie living. But rural dwellers up in the big smoke for the show confirmed afterwards that they recognised much about their friends and neighbours in the Jimmy Kerr’s script.

Ardnaglass on the Air is a hoot. It’s outrageously funny, full of vernacular and very entertaining. The only pothole in its farmyard is the ending which Jimmy Kerr has had to adapt from previous three-handed versions of the play. Instead of going out with a set-crushing bang or a surprise entrance it instead slows right down and fades out rather than keeping the energy up right the way to the pips.

You can catch Ardnaglass on the Air in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 18 February before it tours through Armagh, Coalisland, Newtownabbey, Cushendall, Newry, Limavady, Lisburn, Downpatrick and finishes in Jimmy’s home village of Moneyglass.

Review: Moonlight - seeking the stability of identity and security (QFT until 2 March)

Moonlight is a film in three acts. Each with a different actor portraying Chiron as a boy, a teenager and finally an adult.
“You don’t talk much but you darned well can eat!”

Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) befriend an uncommunicative youngster (played by a young talent Alex Hibbert) who stands aloof from his peers. The pair offer a positive parental influence and their home is a safe shelter while Chiron’s birth mother (Naomie Harris) neglects him and works as a health worker by day while selling sex by night. But the moral balance of Moonlight is always more complicated: the sensitive and caring Juan is the local drug dealer and supplier to the boys’ mother.

As Chiron grows up (now played by Ashton Sanders) the homophobic bullying he experiences becomes more pronounced and physical. A tender moment of self-discovery is followed by a violent confrontation that turns his life upside down and takes the remainder of the film in an unexpected direction.

Writer and director Barry Jenkins allows Chiron to remain a man of few words throughout. The transitions between actors are well signposted even though the visual similarity between the first two actors is more difficult to swallow when the incredibly muscular third Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) appears on screen, perhaps emphasising the complete change of lifestyle.

Jump cuts are out and instead the camera slowly pans around locations – perhaps as much a financial decision as a stylistic one given the low budget of the film.

Moonlight won’t provoke many laughs; nor will it generate tears. Instead it’s a fascinating, well-paced character study of a young black man coming to terms with his identity and his need for security. The lifestyle of the third instantiation of Chiron has more than a few echoes of Juan. Ambiguities and contradictions are everywhere.

While tackling homophobia, neglect and abuse, Moonlight also celebrates kindness, patience, acceptance and refuge. Broken relationships are healed – in a way that La La Land sadly couldn’t manage – and although a few too many quality characters are discarded as the years pass, there’s a character development arc and layers of meaning and questions that engaged and drew me in to this 111 minute film, leaving me wishing there was a fourth act.

Moonlight is screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until polling day, Thursday 2 March.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Looking Deadly: shape shifting actors inject life into a town’s rival funeral firms

The body of well known republican Tom McCarthy reposes in Lynch’s funeral home. Jane (played by Niamh McGrath) inherited the business from her father but local competition from Cost Less Coffins up the street means her finances are not healthy and the bank manager will soon be knocking on the door if the stress doesn’t invite the Grim Reaper to visit first. Rob (Keith Singleton) is her loyal yet under-appreciated mortician.

Looking Deadly is a black comedy directed by Amy Conroy that sets two funeral home businesses at each other throats while an array of quirky townspeople look on at the shabby dealings between the undertakers. There are no deathly silences but instead the theatre is filled with laugh out loud moments as the two actors shape shift between characters across the minimal black stage and set.

With a switch of the lights and spin of the coffin, the talented pair physically transform into Mick (the Michael O’Leary of the funeral home sector) and his hunched over son Seaneen. The death of local Doctor Mulhuddart provides the crisis point in the plot that finally stretches relationships to breaking point.

It’s a real treat. McGrath and Singleton deliver fifty five minutes of madcap physical and tongue-twisting verbal comedy together with synchronised gestures and beautiful accents that can’t fail to make you laugh.

Looking Deadly was performed in The MAC on Thursday 9 and Friday 10. Well worth catching the floral tributes along with the show as it tours Monaghan, Newry, Belmullet, Newbridge, Nenagh, Sligo and Carrick-on-Shannon.


Wednesday, February 01, 2017

T2 Trainspotting: worth the 20 year wait for Danny Boyle to choose to breath life back into the characters

It’s unashamedly nostalgic, yet T2 moves the story of the rag bag of heroin addicts from Trainspotting’s 1996 forward twenty years. Right from the first location the expectation is set that music will often speak louder than any character dialogue, and that humour will be present no matter how dark or deadly the situation. This is a film with bags more structure than the original: more of a night out in a pub than a rave in a club.

One by one the old cast are reintroduced, each with their own 2-3 minute scene, before Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns from a galaxy far, far away Amsterdam and the onetime gang are brought face to face with each other and their past actions. How have they adjusted to a world where their old tricks and habits no longer have the same currency?

Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) has a score – well, four thousand pounds worth of scores – to settle with Mark as he ropes his ‘mate’ into a hair-raising EU funding bid to develop his underwhelming pub. But while Sick Boy plots, Mark may already be stealing from under his nose once again.

Franco Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and his libido have been locked up in prison and he seeks his revenge served cold in a pool of blood rather than as a fistful of dollars. There’s a wonderful symmetry to the blackmail storyline as Kelly Macdonald reprises her role playing Diane Coulston.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Spud Murphy (Ewen Bremner) and the audience watch his redemption story unfold as he chooses to have a future, and chooses life.

But can Simon’s young Bulgarian beau Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) stay ahead of the old timers and prove that the young generation have more cunning and guile than Mark, Simon, Spud and Franco?
“Tell your story because we’re dying to hear it”

The film is not perfect. There’s an undeniable emptiness to the immoral living, a self-destruction that accompanies the drug abuse. Script-wise, there are far too many repetitions of the words ‘opportunity’ and ‘betrayal’. The movie’s pace suffers from arrhythmia in the second half. And Veronika is the only female character with any real depth. Yet ...

... T2 Trainspotting might well be my film of the year.

It shouldn’t work. Mixing in so much footage from the original film should undermine the sequel. But Danny Boyle’s genius seems to have created a movie that is both respectful of the original and sufficiently self-aware to introduce a lot of reflection on the sins of the past. It works as a standalone film too: at least for me who can’t remember that much about the 1996 version.

There’s magic at work in the edit. Mood and music switch in a beat without grating. Spine-tinglingly evocative old tunes are mixed with new. What sometimes look like rough camera work panning around a room delivers perfectly-framed images all the way through a jerky turn. Drone shots show off beautiful Edinburgh vistas while some special effects are thrown in when you least expect them.

King Billy even makes an appearance in a song that for anti-sectarian reasons will not be on the film’s soundtrack album but I fear will be heard during band parades in the summer.

While a particularly dire bog featured in the 1996 original, there’s plenty of toilet action in T2. The adjacent cubicle scene is physically brilliant, and porcelain makes quite an impact when it returns in a later fight sequence.

T2 has an uncanny ability to generate humour from nowhere. It induced several roars of laughter from this normally mirth-free reviewer. There are funny lines, funny snatches of music, funny shot composition, not to mention funny costumes. And then there are the creative portmanteau swearwords, no doubt imported from Irvine Welsh’s novels Trainspotting and Porno.

It’s complex. It races through your head as you leave the cinema. It has characters that shock and surprise, yet beg to be adopted and forgiven

Be a dreamer. Be like Spud. Choose life.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

Review - NI Opera's Powder Her Face (Lyric Theatre until 29 January)

Just ten weeks after their spectacular performance of Don Giovanni, NI Opera are back on stage with the smaller modern chamber piece Powder Her Face.

The plots of operas are often based around big personalities who make bad decisions and suffer the consequences; forbidden love and tragic death; power and downfall; secrets, scandals, shame and surprises. Rather than invent a central character, Thomas Adès took the real life story of Margaret Whigham (who later would become the Duchess of Argyll) as the basis for Powder Her Face.
“I was beautiful, I was famous, I was young, I was rich …”

On the Lyric stage, soprano Mary Plazas embodies the wealthy promiscuous woman who behaves as if money can buy her love and happiness. As the fifteen piece orchestra crank up Adès’ jazzy yet discordant musical opening, we quickly establish that the Duchess was disrespected and a figure of ridicule in her later life. The story then zooms back to the 1930s to follow her loose living and predatory conduct, marriage to the Duke of Argyll (no saint himself) and the reason for her divorce and fall from favour in high society.

Dressed in black, Plazas portrays a woman who teeters along the fine line separating confidence from vulnerability. “Will they write songs for me?” the young Duchess wonders. Oddly, other than occasional accessories and slower movement, little attempt is made to physically depict her changing age throughout the two act opera.

Daire Halpin provides much of the humour singing a number of roles in different wigs and costumes as maid, waitress, high society journalist and mistress. She gets the fun arias to sing and dances impeccably with tenor Adrian Dwyer who plays an electrician, waiter and delivery boy.

The other source of mirth is the set which is dominated by a larger than life mattress. A chaise (très) longue adds to the pantomime feel of the some of the scenes while Stephen Richardson’s entrance down some unanticipated steps onto the bed as the Duke adds to the symbolism of the piece. The judge’s bench after the interval is another unexpected but smile-inducing surprise built into the set. And what other opera would include vacuum cleaners, carrots, a lobster and a fluffy stuffed poodle as props?

Director and designer Antony McDonald has allowed this small scale opera to swell with its big set and big gestures. The small cast have clearly mastered a lot of choreography on top of the difficult score and the more intimate setting brings the acting more to the fore than than some of the other larger scale NI Opera productions I’ve reviewed. With its intimate theme, each cast member shows a lot more leg – and the case of Adrian Dwyer, buttocks – than normal as they expose the Duchess’ unravelling lifestyle and behaviour that is at the heart of her explosive divorce.

It’s a sign of how times have changed in Northern Ireland that the dramatic suggestion of a blow job fellatio now reduces a Belfast audience to nervous giggles inside a theatre rather than placards and protests outside on the pavement.

Many of the Ulster Orchestra performers under the baton of Nicholas Chalmers in the pit assisted with the enormous number of percussion instruments (including a swanee whistle) in the score. Some of the lyrics were drowned out by the musicians: a real shame given the English libretto and the relatively unfamiliar tale. NI Opera’s new artistic director Walter Sutcliffe needs to revisit the accessibility issue of surtitles. A bigger distraction was an audience member in F26 who conversed with people around her in a loud voice that must have carried onto the stage never mind back several rows to where I was sitting.

Interviewed earlier in January, NI Opera’s outgoing artistic director Oliver Mears talked about the woman at the heart of the opera:
“She was a colourful personality and certainly some of the things on stage in this show are colourful as well. Truthful to the type of life she led. I don’t think there’s anything gratuitous or salacious … it’s based on a real story, and the scandal focussed around the headless man photos that were the core of the divorce case in the sixties … you can’t escape that side of the story and be truthful to what her life was.”

The version of Adès opera as performed on the Lyric stage certainly stays true to the public understanding of the salacious life of the so-called ‘Dirty Duchess’. The creative team deliver a well produced, well directed, well acted and well sung performance While the Duchess definitely falls within the purview of normal operatic themes, I still left the show wondering whether she was a fitting cultural subject?

Yet in a society that values prosperity and satisfaction above benevolence and service, Powder Her Face is a reminder that neither money nor sex buys happiness, while the pursuit of both can be ruinous to your soul and health.
“It’s about people with extreme attitudes, extreme emotions, living on the edge in terms of their behaviour, so it’s not surprising that for some it’s a little bit too much to stomach. Opera has always been shocking down the decades.”

When your money is spent, your possessions have gone, your reputation is depleted and all you are left with is old age and notoriety, what do you have left?

Powder Her Face continues at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast until Sunday 29 January. Co-producers Opera Theatre Company will be taking the show on an island-wide tour during February and March.

Photo credit: Patrick Redmond

Saturday, January 21, 2017

I’ll Tell My Ma – four generations tell it like it is in witty one woman comedy show (The MAC until Sat 4 Feb)

There were two big talents on display at I’ll Tell My Ma on The MAC’s downstairs stage last night. The first was the comic flair of Christina Nelson who morphed between four generations of hilarious women in a West Belfast family in this ambitious one woman show.

Niall Rea’s ingenious costume design and its one foundational dress expedited Nelson’s metamorphosis from a mouthy school girl to a lusting airline attendant and from a creative writing granny to a uncompromising great grandmother.

But it’s wasn’t just the dress or even the accents that varied. Nelson’s entire demeanour changed as she slips between characters: mannerisms, breathing and stance. She’s a joy to watch. Nelson’s sense of comic timing left space for the laughter to rise and wane, while her sense of pace kept the show moving without becoming rushed.

First and last on stage is Granny Geraldine who is being mentored by a post-epiphanic tutor Danny Morrison – yes, that Danny Morrison – at a local creative writing group. Suffering from empty nest syndrome, this divorced mother is one of eleven siblings.

Throw in some impressions of nuns, references to West Belfast schools, era-specific tracks between scenes, not to mention the other female members of the family, and you’ve got an hour and a bit of Belfast comedy gold that had the Friday evening MAC audience in stitches. The loud chatter in the stalls during changes of scene signposted the recognition of social and geographic landmarks in the script.

The other talent exhibited was that of Patricia Gormley who wrote the play and until now performed it herself during Féile an Phobail. While the language is earthy in places, the humour is rarely cheap and alongside a couple of jokes that are as old as Great Granny Eileen, there was a lot of original material and local colour.

Amongst the witty dialogue and family-wide trait of mixing up words, the whoops of audience laughter are silenced when Nelson recounts the circumstances of a tragedy in her family. With autobiographical elements woven into the story, Gormley’s play resonates deeper than a simple West Belfast comedy. (You can read Gail Bell’s interview with Patrician Gormley in the Irish News.)

Having previously toured small community venues with only an ironing board as a prop, Joseph Rea Productions’ attention to detail and Alan McKee’s direction along with a mostly static set and some lighting tricks to elevate I’ll Tell My Ma into a strong piece of comedy theatre.

I’ll Tell My Ma runs in The MAC until Saturday 4 February. A tour is planned. With the deft wit running through Patricia Gormley’s imaginative characters, it would be great to hear their further adventures turn up on the Radio Ulster airwaves as a short series - though the characterisation of working class life might be too nauseating for some.

Photos: Joseph Rea Productions.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Oliver Mears on Powder Her Face (Lyric Theatre, 27-29 January) and his six years at NI Opera


Northern Ireland Opera is about to bring the black comedy Powder Her Face to the stage of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. It’s the last production that will directly involve their artistic director Oliver Mears who heads off to London shortly to take up the reins as director of opera at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

Powder Her Face is being performed in the Lyric Theatre Belfast between Friday 27 and Sunday 29 January. The production is directed by Antony McDonald and will be accompanied by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Chalmers. Mary Plazas stars as the Duchess, alongside Adrian Dwyer (Salome), Stephen Richardson (Turandot) and Irish soprano Daire Halpin. It’s a co-production between Northern Ireland Opera and Opera Theatre Company.

Interviewed in a South Belfast café, Mears describes NI Opera’s most recent show Don Giovanni as “a special one” with a great cast and strong representation from Northern Ireland both on and off the stage. As a ‘rental’ of a production he directed in Norway, it was a cost effective way – though not logistically straightforward – to restage the show in Belfast. Mears says that there’s a “great advantage to have these relationships with other opera companies in other countries”. It’s one of the ways in which NI Opera has thrived and built its reputation over past year.
“When I started [at NI Opera] I didn’t want to just do the core repertoire like La bohème, Carmen and La traviata – great as those pieces are – we wanted to bring a whole range of repertoire to our audience.”

Powder Her Face is emblematic of this policy. It’s a compact piece: a chamber opera with a cast of four and only fifteen players in the orchestra. The music was composed by Thomas Adès and the English libretto written by Philip Hensher in 1995. Mears remarks that “for a modern opera, it’s rare to find one with 300 plus performances across the world”.

The two act show tells the story about the life and many loves of Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll.
“[She] was an extraordinary character who had a very bizarre life. Certainly someone who was very passionate about her relationships which became notorious, culminating in a spicy sixties scandal around the time of the Profumo affair.

“It’s a tragic story of someone who had immense wealth and privilege and through the power of her sexuality became someone who was a social outcast. In some ways that’s not surprising given the strength of misogyny down the decades even until now.

“But it’s not depressing. The orchestration is amazing. It’s varied in its musical colours and alive in terms of its characterisation. It’s very witty and richly textured.”

The opera begins with the once promiscuous Duchess living on her own as a figure of ridicule in a hotel. (Later in life she ran out of money and moved out into a nursing home.) Subsequent scenes flashback to her earlier life and work forward though marriages, affairs and tragedy.

When I look back at some of NI Opera’s recent productions like Salome and Turandot, ‘dull’ certainly isn’t a word I’d use to describe them. They’ve been both exciting and challenging, embracing the emotional power and extremes that opera engenders. Powder Her Face promises to be another edgy production, particularly given the opera’s notorious reference to fellatio amongst the real life plot.
“She was a colourful personality and certainly some of the things on stage in this show are colourful as well. Truthful to the type of life she led. I don’t think there’s anything gratuitous or salacious … it’s based on a real story, and the scandal focussed around the headless man photos that were the core of the divorce case in the sixties … you can’t escape that side of the story and be truthful to what her life was.”

Mears reminds me that “opera is simply in its very nature controversial”.
“It’s about people with extreme attitudes, extreme emotions, living on the edge in terms of their behaviour, so it’s not surprising that for some it’s a little bit too much to stomach. Opera has always been shocking down the decades.”

But he cautions that it “hasn’t ever been our intention to cause controversy for its own sake”. Besides, as W. H. Auden said:
“No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.”

Oliver goes on to underscore the power of the opera as an art form.
“Opera is about emotion and that’s why people go and see opera because they want to be moved by the predicaments of the characters on the stage, and they want to be able to see something of themselves, perhaps, in the characters.

“If opera is not about emotion it is nothing. Wagner made very grand claims for the special place that music has in the arts because it is the art form that can move as no other art form can. And it’s particularly the case for opera because it has the potential for combining acting, design, singing and music in a complete, one-off live event.”

When speaking about NI Opera, Mears rarely says “I” preferring to speak about “we”, honouring the wider team. I ask how the company has developed during his six years at the helm?
“When we started we had absolutely nothing. We didn’t have a website. We didn’t have a name. We didn’t have an office … The progress since then has been about trying to create a culture of opera in Northern Ireland, trying to establish the idea of a national opera company and what that means. For me it meant foregrounding and showcasing the finest talent that comes from Northern Ireland and the island in general.”

He stresses the importance of the Young Artists Programme which nurtures and promotes emerging talent and gives them roles on stage: “Talent development has always been at the very heart of what we have done”.

The cultivation of an opera culture in Northern Ireland and fostering regular attendance has included the need to create a level of expectation about the shows that NI Opera produces.
“When people go to see a production by NI Opera they have a pretty good idea of what it is going to be like. They know it’s going to be brilliantly designed, very theatrical, very immediate and direct, and often it will in some way resonate with some of the history or culture or society here.”

His vision of a national opera company includes not being bound by a single building.
“We were very clear that we wanted to do work all over Northern Ireland. And that’s why we did our first show in Derry because I think there was an expectation that we’d do everything in the Grand Opera House. So we wanted to knock that one on the head and say that we can do stuff anywhere.”

Audience development has been a core part of NI Opera’s mission.
“When I started I said that my ambition was for the company was to make it a company that everyone here could feel proud of and feel that ‘this opera thing could be for me’, having a really good night out to be entertained at the opera.”

From early touring productions that played to audiences of thirty or forty in small venues across Northern Ireland, NI Opera has built up its audiences to the nearly three thousand who attended the sold out performances of Turandot in late 2015.
“There’s an even bigger audience out there that can be systematically encouraged to come to our shows. The work we have done demonstrates that there is an appetite for opera which is made by a company in Northern Ireland and isn’t just brought in [from elsewhere].”

Mears reflects on the similarities between his old and new jobs.
“Audiences demand quality. They demand excitement. They demand to be moved at the opera. That’s the same whether you’re talking Belfast or London.”

On the cusp of moving to London, Mears says “it’s very humbling to behold” the rich tradition and history of Covent Garden and the experienced and passionate team he will join.
“I can’t wait to start. It is an amazing place with amazing people. I’m not just talking about the singers and the chorus and the orchestra. I’m also talking about the people in the administration, costume and … all the people who dedicate their lives to the organisation. It really is a family … and that chimes completely with my own thoughts about what makes an arts organisation successful and is what I’ve tried to do here [at NI Opera], to create this feeling of a family obviously at a much smaller scale.”

Directing an organisation doesn’t mean becoming hands off from productions.
“I love the idea of being in a position to create experiences for people in opera that will stay with them forever. That can involve commissioning work, putting teams together, but it can also mean creating work myself. I’ve been very lucky to be able to foster both aspects in my career and I would like to continue to do that.

“A lot of the most exciting opera companies in the world are led by practitioners and it’s a great facet to be able to understand other people who are working and making work in your company if you have also come across the challenges and difficulties and dilemmas in making work yourself. You understand what their needs are and how they would want to be supported and how they can give of their best. That’s ultimately what you’re doing as a director or artistic director, enabling people to give of their best.”

Would Mears’ twenty something self be surprised that a passion turned into a job and took him to the Royal Opera House in London?
“When I first went to the opera I was still at university. I was a late starter really. The first opera I saw was Káťa Kabanová by Leoš Janáček, not performed very often. But the reason I wanted to go and see that was that I was into all things Russian – books and music – and it’s based on a Russian play even though it’s an opera by a Czech composer.

“I really saw myself as going down the path of theatre. But there was something about the unique electricity that there is at the opera with the orchestra and the singers and this incredibly rich and opulent musical texture which was very thrilling for me the first time I saw an opera.

“My whole career has been about trying to recreate those moments for others in my work and to convey some of the atmosphere and electricity when I saw an opera for the first time. That’s why people have a need or a hunger to go to the opera. It’s a little bit like a drug, something that hooks you and that’s why it’s so important to keep making the case that opera really is for everybody. Because if you only give it a chance you might get hooked too.

“The problem is the barriers of preconceptions which you’re battling as well. Rightly or wrongly opera does suffer with the prejudice that it is elitist and incredibly expensive and only for a very small portion of the population. What I would say is that opera at its best should be for everybody and it isn’t just a safe establishment art form. It’s something that can be much more dangerous than that and something much more red-blooded.”

Mears promises to keep an eye on NI Opera and has had a role in programming the upcoming productions of Radamisto and Così fan tutte later this year.
“Of course I’m going to want to come back to see those productions and support the team. And I think I’ll always want to come back every now and again. Northern Ireland will have a very special place in my heart.

“We’ve grown to love the place and the warmth of the people and the generosity of the people. Belfast is a really dynamic and exciting city. We’ll certainly miss Belfast and miss the team that we’ve put together which is like a family.”

Mears isn’t surprised that the recruitment call for his successor as artistic director at NI Opera was flooded with applications. (Walter Sutcliffe takes over as artistic director in February and will speak at pre-show events on the Saturday and Sunday performances of Powder Her Face.)
“It was an amazing opportunity for me. We wouldn’t be talking about what’s coming next for me if that wasn’t the case.”

The company had been “crazily ambitious” and he credits the huge reservoir of talent, a team with energy and vision, and the Arts Council with its vision to financially back an opera company in Northern Ireland.
“How brave of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to create an opera company in the middle of the worst recession in modern times. They’ve backed us all the way. And it goes to show what can be achieved when an arts organisation does have a vision behind it and is financially backed. We’re not talking huge sums here, compared to other national opera companies.”

He gives the example of the city of Berlin which has ten times the population of Belfast. NI Opera was awarded £561k of funding from the Arts Council for 2016/17. The combined public subsidy of opera in Berlin is closer to €120 million.
“In the context of Northern Ireland and the budget that the Arts Council has to play with it shows that it is possible to do something exciting with that amount of money. I’ve never complained about the amount of money that we’ve had – that doesn’t mean to say that we wouldn’t like more, opera is an expensive business – but equally I think that other organisations like the Ulster Orchestra should be funded more as well. In general there needs to be more arts funding and more awareness of the all round societal benefits that come from funding the arts.”