Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Jack and the Beanstalk – is the emergence of online panto the green shoots of theatre reawakening or a stretch too far? (Cre8 Theatre and Buglight Theatre)

Pantomime on a Saturday morning in July? Oh no there isn’t! Oh yes there was! Cre8 Theatre and Buglight Theatre staged their online Jack and the Beanstalk last weekend to the delight of a mixed-age audience.

Pantomime is normally the preserve of winding down for Christmas. It’s a family affair with parents or grandparents bring youngsters on a rite of passage visit to the theatre. Outside of some shows in Belfast Children’s Festival, it’s the most boisterous and highly interactive family entertainment you’ll find on stage. Pantomime in July is a stretch, but with so many traditions being torn up, why not?

While there are plenty of Zoom puns and a computer antivirus scanner that knowingly nods towards the pandemic, the ‘C word’ is never uttered and the story stays in the make-believe world of pantomime.

Dazey Cow was the first character to burst on stage on screen. The high energy hostess and narrator played by Althea Burey calmed down the excited kids and reminded us about the housekeeping rules to keep on mute but expect to be asked to take part. There was a song with actions to learn too. Everyone has a theme tune and something to keep the audience on its toes: my idea of hell, but the rest of the audience seemed much less inhibited! And I still ended up in the spotlight on-screen wearing my brussels sprout shirt and doing the actions at one point …

The story – adapted from Cre8 Theatre’s December 2019 production at the Braid Arts Centre in Ballymena – revolves around a Giant (Richard Galloway) who wants to lock everyone up, starting with people in Zoom rooms. The role of pantomime dame is filled by Christopher Grant playing cleaning obsessive Ms Pinch complete with beauty spot and plenty of witty repartee. Her son, Great Craic Jack (Harri Pitches) needs income, a job and motivation. But does the Butcher (Galloway) who pays peanuts magic beans have ulterior moo-tives? Can the beanstalk be felled in time? Can Dazey Cow be saved from the Butcher? Can work shy Great Craic Jack save Virtual Vlogger Jill (Holly Greig) from the Giant’s lockdown and also get rich and famous?

Lasting less than an hour, the cast of five really work the small screen environment. Good facial expressions, big hats, leaning into the camera (Galloway’s close-up stares are brilliant), playing with perspective in the virtual green-screen backdrops (including some neat videos). Greig delivers the least shouty performance as the damsel in distress, proving that there is room for tenderness and not everything online has to be manic. But with so much energy and so little feedback, I wonder if the actors find it more exhausting than exhilarating?

While there was no need to choreograph any big dance numbers, there was incredible precision in how a performer could lie back and appear to be in bed, or turn to face the (invisible green screened) stairs behind them at the right angle to shout up to someone in a bedroom. And wrapping an arm around the beanstalk (spoiler: probably achieved with a well-placed green armband) was another moment that hinted at the level of planning and practice.

Other producers of Zoom shows will be looking at the use of live filters (like the ones on Snapchat that add horns in realtime) and wondering what magic beans were added to the video workflow to make that happen. (Though despite advanced technical trickery and my inner nerd, I still find physical effects to be the most engaging.)

Written by Sarah Lyle (who co-directs with Keeley Lane), Jack and the Beanstalk is a solid piece of online interactive family theatre. It’s great to see live theatre, even if it’s from a distance. And it’s encouraging to see people experimenting with form and adapting to limitations and innovating.

If theatres remain dark over Christmas, this may be an alternative and quite classy format for panto, albeit with limited audiences and very limited opportunities for performers and creatives. However, it is ultimately a pale imitation of the collective experience of anticipation, joy and yelling that can be found when a large audience is in the same room as the performers who can feed off their reaction and create a frisson of energy that Giant Pandemic has stolen.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Military Wives – a warm and pleasing middle section slightly let down by the overture and finale (digital download from 29 June, DVD/Blu-ray from 6 July)

Military Wives tells a fictionalised version of the real story of the formation of a choir made up of partners and spouses on a UK army base story. You may have watched The Choir: Military Wives in which Gareth Malone nurtured the original group and brought them to the Festival of Remembrance in London in November 2011.

If you can bear with this filmic version of Military Wives beyond the irritating overture as the premise and the necessary antagonism are established (they lay it on just a bit too thick) then you are rewarded with a beautiful middle section. The set-up is that with the company of soldiers posted overseas in Afghanistan, it is important that the families left behind on base are kept busy. On top of coffee mornings and knitting circles, a choir is suggested.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Kate, a stiff colonel’s wife who is grieving the loss of her son and meddles in the organisation of activities that should fall to Lisa (Sharon Horgan), whose husband is newly promoted and she’s still adapting to the expectation that she’s now a leader too. Horgan revels in the physical comedy and emotional rattiness of her character.

Along the way there are some very ropey rehearsals – Lara Rossi’s deep and loud vocals deserve special mention, as does the impromptu rendition of Only You under a stone bridge which sounded superb) – as well as lots of insecurity and bumps to the group’s self-confidence.

The aftermath of Lisa’s daughter’s wild night out (smartly played by India Ria Amarteifio) and an inevitable tragedy that hits the base bring a pathos to the piece that rescues what could have just been a film about some very amateur singers. Instead, the narrative becomes one of how communities can support each other.

With the real choir’s haunting performance of Wherever You Are in the Royal Albert Hall still vivid in British viewers’ memories, the film’s alternative song is high concept and lyrically strong, but melodically too weak to hit the necessary crescendo to end the 112 minute film. For local audiences, a stronger finish would have cut the story just as the signers walked out towards the stage, and certainly culled the unnatural chit chat afterwards.

Sandwiched in-between the stale crusts, Military Wives has a warm-hearted tale that’s well acted and well told. Appearing in local cinemas in the days immediately before screens went dark due to lockdown, Military Wives will be available for digital download from 29 June, and on DVD and Blu-ray from 6 July.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Lucid – dreaming up success at the end of Tinderbox’s 2020 Play Machine programme

Tinderbox Theatre Company never aspires to be ‘normal’, and this year’s Ignition production at the end of its Play Machine programme certainly surprises and astounds. Artistic director Patrick J O’Reilly’s works with what any cast and creatives bring to their rehearsal room. And even without a physical space to collaboratively occupy in this period of extended lockdown, this weekend’s online showing of Lucid demonstrates his ability to inspire others to create and invent.

Confined to their homes, the 11 artists who had taken part in the six-months of Play Machine run by Tinderbox out of the Crescent Arts Centre are having a frustrating time rehearsing over Zoom. But a somewhat left-field suggestion from the director to meet up in a dream, where they’ll be free from social distancing constraints, takes the tale of Mr Ruffle’s Truffles in a whole new direction.

Isaac Gibson’s troubling soundscape enhances the creepiness and sense of distress that lingers throughout our window into the cast’s surreal rehearsal escapades, while Conor O'Donnell’s video editing gives the piece real pace and overcomes the smorgasbord of self-filmed clips he stitches together.

The opening act describes the less-than-ideal rehearsal process, and walks a fine line between honest appraisal and complete piss take as the young actors talk excitedly about playing supernumerary villagers in the ever-name-morphing production about Sir Ruffalot and his Truffles.

Once you lean into the handbrake turn into ‘lucid dreaming’ – an interesting metaphor for the Play Machine cast wrestling back control of their final production from the hands of the coronavirus nightmare – the real acting begins and O’Reilly fades from the picture and the cast take over. Mr Ruffles haunts their every action, Harry Styles is suitably disrespected, and general craziness ensues as the cast try to break free of the shackles of isolation. It’s dynamic, physical, absurd and never humdrum. For those not living alone, goodness knows what family members thought as they were asked to film people sliding down the stairs or acting out their nightmares.

I’m left wondering what a stage version of the Ruffle/Truffles production might have looked like? No doubt it would have been equally dark, equally zany, and equally unpredictable. As theatre adapts to closed venues and necessary distancing, these 11 artists – Vicky Allen, Aoife Browne, Jonny Cameron, Conor Cupples, Rory Gillan, Orla Graham, Joe Loane, Faith McCune, Calum McElwee, Seon Simpson, Fergus Wachala-Kelly – will have learnt things about themselves, theatre and filmmaking in the final weeks of Play Machine that weren’t envisaged as part of the curriculum back at the start.

I think I’ll avoid too much cheese before bedtime tonight in case Mr Ruffle creeps into my subconscious. But I will look forward to seeing where these talented artists next turn up.

Caricatures by Fergus Wachala-Kelly.

Monday, June 08, 2020

The Machine Stops – the humans may be slaves to technology in E M Forster’s classic tale, but Big Telly prove again that they are masters of Zoom theatre

E M Forster’s The Machine Stops is a science fiction novella first published in 1909. 111 years later, it reads like a short story from 2020 that fell through a wormhole into the past. In it, people live indoors and are content to be discouraged from venturing out onto the unsafe surface of the Earth. In their underground bunkers, they are consumed by instant messaging and instant delivery of services, and prefer recycled ideas and thinking (which they don’t perceive as stale) over personal experience of the unknown. They have learned to defer to the Machine and the ever-present Book of rules and regulations.

Big Telly Theatre and its artistic director Zoe Seaton are making a name for themselves with their innovative Zoom theatre productions during lockdown. The format is not that new, but the skill with which Big Telly are adapting and stretching the conferencing solution surely pushes them to the forefront of this socially distanced form of theatre.

Their adaptation of The Machine Stops sets up two parallel narratives. Kuno (played by Gary Crossan) invites his isolating mother to travel across the world to visit him. There are things he wants to explain that he cannot divulge through the Machine’s communication device. Vashti (Anna Healy) is at first reluctant to leave the security of her room. We are introduced to the Committee, the pious guardians of the Machine and the Book’s policies for living and maintaining order. All the while, the Operator (Nicky Harley) mediates between the audience, the Machine and its Committee. Jonny Cameron, Emily Lamey, Rosie McClelland, Niamh McEnhill and Christina Nelson complete the ensemble.

You can read Forster’s 12,000-word short story in a little over an hour. This theatrical production has a similar run time and doesn’t over-labour the parallels between Forster’s vision and the present day. Inciting revolution to rise up against the Machine is a neat participatory device, though the time carved out to introduce the Committee somewhat detracts from a longer examination of the off-on-off relationship between mother and son.

Big Telly’s last production, Operation Elsewhere, thrived on the company’s love of high energy, madcap shenanigans. The Machine Stops could have been an earnest production consumed by the grey of Forster’s tale of humans becoming slaves to technology. Yet Seaton’s adaptation finds space for colour and humour with props being ‘passed’ between cast members and a tea-pouring ceremony that could have been borrowed from Alice in Wonderland.

McClelland, Nelson, McEnhill and Cameron portray officiousness and privilege with ludicrous believability, while Harley transitions (along with the audience) from compliance to non-compliance. Crossan and Healy are convincing as Kuno and Vashti, a family like many others with wildly differing worldviews.

The Machine Stops is visually much more ambitious that Operation Elsewhere, with a clever sense of depth achieved in some scenes by inserting layers of David Morgan’s beautiful steampunk props (and some repurposed household furniture and fittings) in-between the cameras, actors and green-screened backdrops. It’s a sign of Big Telly’s increasing confidence with Zoom. Kuno’s chamber even plays with perspective in a way that might open up the possibility of much-needed movement in future works (if cast members’ spare rooms allow). I know it’s theatre and not film, but watching it on a screen means that comparisons are hard to ignore, and the consistent use of medium close-up shots – which often mirroring the pose of audience members (if you sneak a quick peek at the gallery view) – means that over the hour-long performance, the fun props can only go so far to distract from the lack of on-screen physicality and interaction.

Staring at the screen is tiring. Video conference theatre lacks the escapism and immersion of leaving your day behind and sitting in the stalls of a theatre (or the plush chairs in a darkened cinema screen). The mechanics of the production absorb a lot of audience energy that otherwise should have been devoted to absorbing the plot, the dialogue and the themes.

With an audience normally trapped in an auditorium until the interval or the final curtain, only the boldest – and there are always a few in every show – will pick up their phone mid-performance to check their messages. Knowing that the audience are watching from the comfort of their own home – though the setting doesn’t add much intimacy – perhaps on a laptop screen rather than a big television, this production works hard to keep the audience’s attention focussed on the story they want to tell. As lockdown continues and future productions embrace video conferencing, the periodic checkpoints that require the audience to hold household items up to the screen or (as in The Machine Stops) join in a revolution (which creates a lovely moment of interaction) may become tiresome. Yet they may also be unavoidable.

With all that said, the feeling of peril that the whole performance could collapse with one wrong click of a mute button or the selection of the wrong virtual backdrop gives shows a deliciously dangerous edge that is rarely felt in a physical theatre. While The Machine Stops again has Zoom wrangler Sinead Owens on hand to smooth over any technical lumpy moments, Seaton admitted that Zoom performances were ‘terrifying’ during the Meet the Makers Q&A that followed Sunday’s matinee performance. Although the cast and crew in a more traditional situation may also be flying by the seat of their pants without the paying public realising.

Forster’s prediction of how technology could destroy the human soul is great material from which to have crafted a lockdown show. The compliance culture being encouraged by governments and public health experts has practically issued us with a five step ‘Book’ of what we can and cannot do. Many of us are incredibly attuned to social media sentiment and share – online and offline – what other people post rather than engaging with the issues of the day ourselves. Yet shouldn’t we be more like Kuno and seek to jump out of the fast current and explore what’s up on the surface first-hand before jumping to conclusions?

Many other theatre companies have gone into hibernation or branched out into recording solo skits and monologues or screening archive recordings of old shows. Under the circumstances, all these options are quite valid, but Big Telly are to be applauded for tearing up the rule book and instead adapting their experience of games and outdoor theatre to find ways to keep making live theatre, to keep taking risks – technical and dramaturgical – to discover what works and what doesn’t in pandemic storytelling. Under the circumstances, this production of The Machine Stops keeps true to most of the original story and delivers engaging performances that test out the constraints of Zoom as a medium. Neither are perfect, but in lockdown conditions, both far exceed the alternative of nothing.

Keep an eye on the Big Telly’s website for any future performances of The Machine Stops and other works in production. The Machine Stops is produced in partnership with The Riverside Theatre and Ulster University, and in association with The Marketplace Theatre Armagh, The Portico of Ards, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and Ards and North Down Borough Council.

Friday, May 08, 2020

New Speak Re-Imagined – vignettes of propaganda, surveillance and self-expression for a time of pandemic lockdown (Friday nights at 7pm from Lyric Theatre)

Half-way through its run of four weekly instalments, how is the Lyric’s repackaged New Speak Re-Imagined season of short works to accompany Bruiser’s COVID-19-affected coproduction of 1984 shaping up?

What might Orwell’s Newspeak from 1984 sound like in coronavirus-laded 2020? Dominic Montague has adapted the format of bullish and simplified messaging to create a frighteningly familiar yet contemporary vision of state control. In Real Talk, Patrick McBrearty at first delivers the deeply cynical talking points to viewing citizens – “please remember that viewing is mandatory, and you may be tested” – with enthusiasm in the first episode, with director Oisin Kearney allowing stylised jump cuts to amplify the sinister feel of the messenger’s implorations. Yet by the second episode, even the professional mouthpiece seems to be finding it hard to swallow some of the key messages, and I can only assume that his descent into possible thoughtcrime will continue to audibly drop in coming weeks. Close to the bone when viewed alongside the nightly press conferences from 10 Downing Street, it’s a wonder Montague and McBrearty haven’t been tapped on the shoulder by a government spin doctor to work on their national communications.

Another aspect of 1984 is picked up by Lata Sharma in Sausage Sodas and Onion Bahjees. The surveillance state may be on the rise, but her experience as an Indian growing up in Belfast was accompanied by twitching curtains and a tiny ethnic community who could communicate gossip and criticism faster than you could get the bus home sitting beside a good-looking lad from college. Emily Foran keeps the monologues moving and allows Sharma’s autobiographical reminisces to speak into modern times as the viewers wonder how much has changed.

The Perception of the World Through My Eyes adds dance into the New Speak mix with high energy routines – week one in a small white-walled studio, week two on a bridge while dog walkers pass by in the distance. Poetry is mixed with movement Zara Janahi stares into the camera as if wilfully continuing to find ways to self-express in isolation..

The Great British Lockdown drops into Rebecca and Graham’s living room as they mull over their lockdown situation. Their often unknowing and mostly ignorant misinterpretation of guidelines and rationale reminded me of Jim and Hilda Bloggs in Raymond Brigg’s When The Wind Blows. They were isolated and unable to properly process the nuclear holocaust. Rebecca and Graham are bamboozled by the unprecedented isolation. Pray for wee Josh who has to survive the pandemic and his parents! Amadan Ensemble are often sinister and in your face in their real life performances, but these histrionic performances are no less effective in conveying fear and unease.

The final part of each week’s instalment of Lyric Theatre creativity come in the form of a music video from Katie Richardson. My Mind is a Weapon enjoyed a forest performance, while the second episode’s The Dark That’s Settled In is endued with a simple yet ornate shelving motif with mini-Katie heads subtly integrated into the household tableau of ordinariness.

Each Friday evening at 7pm, a new episode featuring these five strands pops up on the Lyric Theatre’s YouTube channel to pay homage to the continuing themes of George Orwell’s prescient work and the creative industry’s heartbeat of imagination and expression that refuses to lie down in the face of adversity.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Operation Elsewhere – experimental and experiential – going with aplomb where few other theatre companies would dare to venture (until 4 May)

A border security guard prepares the online audience to go on an hour-long journey to Elsewhere where a changeling aided by Birdman Sweeney disrupts the wedding of Anya and Dave and causes all manner of chaos.

Big Telly are no stranger to adapting Irish myths for the stage, but in these times of isolation, Zoe Seaton has plunged into the multi-dimensional wormhole that is Zoom to create Operation Elsewhere,  a piece of experiential theatre that proves that more is possible than you’d expect for theatre in your living room.

With every actor managing their own homebound location, they’re having to manage scene changes (swapping virtual backdrops), costume changes, and props all by themselves. The level of concentration must be exhausting. There’s attention to detail in the direction as props are passed between characters, and Garth McConaghie’s soundtrack neatly links scenes playing out miles apart.

The audience are no passive bystanders or observers. They’re part of the story, instructed with movements, props to find, things to say, and even given lines crucial to the plot. Nicky Harley’s wild-haired Scatha is hard to ignore – you never know when your camera’s view might pop up on everyone’s screen – when she issues commands to do various actions and keeps the show from losing momentum.

Rosie McClelland manages to play bride Anya and another wedding guest in the same scene, while Keith Singleton dials back his usual madcap zaniness to deliver Dave, a delightfully deadpan groom. Versatile Rhodri Lewis makes a great changeling throwing himself into his target’s wedding day outfit. Michael Johnston, Cillian Lenahan and Chris Grant complete the cast.

As we adapt to living in a less-than-mythical world of coronavirus, this style of experimental theatre is no substitute for the immersive experience that can be achieved in a hushed theatre. Yet it can achieve a level of involvement that is missing in all but the most perambulatory performances in olden so-called normal times. Only a kids show would normally have this level of willing participation, yet singleton adults, couples and whole families could be seen

The mechanics of Zoom have been fully-exploited by the Big Telly team; yet hats off to ‘Zoom magician’ Sinead Owens who never allows the technology to get in the way of the plot in Jane Talbot’s tale, even managing to orchestrate breakout rooms normally reserved for big conference events that allow cast members to pop in and out with urgent messages.

There’s an overwhelming sense that live theatre will do well to hold onto the side of the life-raft (if there is one) during the coming months of distant socialising. Solo performances and edited video work seemed to be the only options for those performers whose artform could adapt to the large or small screen. Yet Big Telly have proven that a cast of seven can create something theatrical that more than achieves its ambition of going live twice a day, telling a good story that both resonates with this island and our current disrupted situation.

Operation Elsewhere continues with 3pm and 7pm performance daily until 4 May. Audience numbers are limited, and with some shows already sold out, zoom along and don’t miss out on a ticket.

Monday, April 20, 2020

New Speak: Re-imagined – new work to be premiered weekly on the Lyric Theatre’s YouTube channel from 24 April

Just over a month ago – though it feels much longer – I sat down in the Lyric’s bar area to interview a very excited Lisa May about her upcoming production of 1984.  The show should have begun its previews on the Lyric Theatre main stage last weekend, running until 16 May.

George Orwell’s ideas about state surveillance, social pressures, doublethink (the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously), Big Brother and the Thought Police echo around my head in these days when you can be fined for straying too far from your home, and smartphones may soon help the health services (and the government) understand who a patient who tests positive for COVID-19 has been in contact with in recent days.

Bruiser Theatre’s production has had to be postponed, though remembering Lisa May’s enthusiasm for the project – “I keep going down a never-ending series of rabbit holes – frustrating and wonderful – as I research” – leads me to believe 1984 will return in better times.

Running alongside the main stage production, the Lyric had commissioned dynamic short performance pieces under the banner of New Speak: Re-imagined that sought to engage with the urgent questions raised by our current political, social and economic moment.

While the five artists (Amadan Ensemble, Zara Janahi, Dominic Montague, Katie Richardson and Lata Sharma) cannot stage their work in the Naughton Studio, the Lyric and its artists have adapted their concepts to move them online and will be featuring the performances in four weekly instalments that will premiere on the Lyric Theatre YouTube channel at 7pm on Friday evenings from 24 April. Each work will be available to watch for seven days.

Based on a quote – “I can see what the future will look like” – from Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s Olivier Award-nominated stage adaptation of 1984, their work will reflect the current coronavirus pandemic landscape; how we got here, and imagining where we go next.

The Lyric’s Executive Producer, Jimmy Fay, describes the Seed Commissions as “compelling, invigorating new work”.
“Our stages may be dark but our mission to create, entertain, inspire as well as support and platform new works continues as we adapt to engage our audiences during these challenging times.”

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Abomination: The Behind the Scenes Documentary (on the QFT Player from today)

The Belfast Ensemble’s Abomination: A DUP Opera sold out its initial concert version performances in 2018’s Outburst Arts Festival and its full theatrical run on the main stage at the Lyric Theatre in 2019.

The opera, written by Belfast composed and musician extraordinaire Conor Mitchell, is a verbatim piece. The lyrics are quotes from DUP politicians discussing homosexuality over the years. The elected representatives’ rhetoric is often used in long chunks and given quite a lot of context.

The central thread through the performance is the extraordinary interview by Iris Robinson on The Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster. She was both an MLA and MP for the Strangford constituency – resigning 18 months later over a different issue – and her husband was First Minister.

In the run up to the most recent production, Nicky Larkin shot a documentary, going behind the scenes with the cast and musicians in their East Belfast rehearsal space. There’s something powerful about making high art out of offensive rhetoric. There’s also something powerful and jarring about watching a deconsecrated church building being used to rehearse a show that highlights how religion and religious language can be used and abused to stamp on and bully homosexuality, never mind the cast’s own varying levels of belief in God.

Larkin’s documentary picks out some key cast members and creatives and weaves short interviews in amongst the rehearsal footage. It’s a fond companion piece to the original opera, bringing to the surface some of the experiences of LGBT members of the production and the emotions that having to professionally sing insults that they’ve heard hurled against themselves in the past.

They Are Poofs is the most hummable tune in the opera. (It’s based on Sammy Wilson’s comments in June 1992 after gay rights activists requested the use of Belfast City Hall when he said “They are poofs. I don't care if they are ratepayers. As far as I am concerned, they are perverts.”) Larkin uses the song to good effect – and the 43-minute film finishes with extended footage of the on-stage version (which was more muted and less flamboyant than the original concert version).

There’s a lack of tension, even though Mitchell’s habit of not finishing writing a piece before it goes into rehearsal could have been an easy hook. Instead, Larkin steps outside the rehearsal room and travels three and a half miles up the Newtownards Road to examine community reaction to the political processes that are on the verge of bringing same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland. He stumbles over some people protesting (and maybe even counter-protesting) in front of Parliament Buildings that were larger in life than any satirist or opera director could have drawn.

Originally due to be premièred in the Queen’s Film Theatre as part of the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics, the sold-out screening of Abomination: The Behind the Scenes Documentary was cancelled due to coronavirus. But you can see a taster of the documentary in the clips that accompany my interview with Larkin that was filmed and screened instead as part of the festival’s virtual coverage when it switched online.

Since then, The Belfast Ensemble’s show has been awarded the accolade of Best Opera Production by the Irish Times Theatre Awards.

And from today for a week, Abomination: The Behind the Scenes Documentary is available to watch for $1.99 through the QFT Player link on the Queen’s Film Theatre website.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

A double bill of Dutch shows with beautiful visuals, gorgeous movement and audience participation closed Belfast Children’s Festival #bcf2020

Belfast Children’s Festival is clearly in rude health. This year’s events finished on Wednesday night with a double bill of Dutch physical performance that shone out as amongst the best of work aimed at young audiences. And the quality and inventiveness of local work featured in the festival – like Kindermusik and The Untold Truth of Captain Hook – held up against the international work.

At first the wooden box in the middle of the stage seemed quite shy. Movement behind one fabric face of the cube revealed light and shadow. Soon the coughing of the hermit hiding inside added a deeper layer of meaning, ‘social isolation’ to use the phrase de jour. Hermit comes alive at the point that the box spins round and digits appear, and then door bells galore, and later a pivotal moment of ringing the bell, looking inside and saying “I’m not at home”. Like much of the best children’s work, Simone de Jong’s words are minimal, but those that are uttered bring at first a deep sense of sadness and later joy to this beautifully crafted onehanded production that succeeds in exploring what it means to be alone, to be settled, and to feel at home. And the way that the show finishes – I’ll not give too much away – with the rehearsed performance morphing into a joyful time of audience participation is particularly heart-warming.

With a similar style of ending but a much more energetic performance, Tetris also captures the involvement – and at times invasion – of the audience with a playful dance performance that uses familiar shapes and movements from offline and computer games. Beginning with piano music worthy of a Saturday evening BBC Four Nordic Noir drama, the cast of four combine, intersect and tessellate their bodies into shapes. Arch8’s display of body engineering demonstrates great precision and strength. It’s as if human bodies could be stuck together with magnets. The crazy human centipedes are superb to watch, their extreme Tai Chi shapes and extensions a marvel of physical discipline. But then the audience are allowed to become complicit in the remote control of the dancers using a familiar cubic toy, and it was rewarding to watch children young and old set aside their traditional Norn Iron reserve and join in the on-stage antics with minimal instruction. The final switch of perspectives and role reversal

Both of these Dutch shows eschewed a passive audience experience and offered a wholehearted sense of participation to everyone present. Both shows used beautiful visuals and gorgeous movements to tell a story and project ideas and questions into the heads of their audiences. Great choices to finish a festival which speaks directly to children who have fewer preconceptions and inhibitions about engaging with new concepts and difference.

Hurrah for another successful Belfast Children’s Festival. And here’s to plenty more.

Photo credit: Simon Graham (right hand image)

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Preview – 1984 – (Bruiser Theatre coproduction with Lyric Theatre from 18 April)

You could be forgiven for thinking that we’re now living in the middle of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in this age of self-imposed surveillance with our reliance on apps and social media, never mind government surveillance and the introduction of facial recognition cameras. And with alternative facts and a scant regard for truth and accuracy in some quarters, Orwell seems particularly prescient.

While Animal Farm was the novel favoured by English classes at my school, and served as my introduction to the notion of different political ideologies, 1984 is so much darker and more rewarding each time I’ve picked up and reread my battered copy.

Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s Olivier Award-nominated stage adaptation of the classic novel is coming to the stage of the Lyric Theatre in April.

“Fantastic, bold, immersive and very clever” is how Bruiser Theatre Company’s director Lisa May described the script when I sat down to talk with her last week.

The local cast of nine (eight adults and one child) has just been revealed, and the director is bursting with ideas to take into the rehearsal room.

“I’ve had it in my mind’s eye for the last two or three years. It’s just so relevant and being written in 1948, you would think that Orwell had a crystal ball. Obviously he didn’t, but what he did have was a really amazing understanding of the human condition and our weakness, which is apathy.”

1984 follows a group of historians as they pore over the diary of Winston Smith, discussing the merits of long-erased Comrade 6079, and how his love for a woman called Julia starts to free his thoughts from his mandatory allegiance to a controlling regime. The appendix to Orwell’s novel also forms a vital part of the play.

Richard Clements has been cast as Winston, Sophie Robinson plays Julia, and they will be joined on stage by Tony Flynn, Jo Donnelly, Marty Maguire, Terry Keeley, Richard Croxford and Karl O’Neill.

“The play should appeal to the academic as well as to people like me who love the novel. It’s very true to the original. Icke and Macmillan don’t take any liberties with it, but they have created a framework that is so clever, that addresses all the themes in a very slick and tight manner.”

May has long been a fan of Orwell’s novel and in preparation for directing the stage play, she has been soaking up books and films about the book and its author. She describes 1984 as “meatier that any other show I’ve done in a long time … so I've sent the cast a cheat sheet to do some homework” in preparation for the conversations she expects to have at rehearsals about how it all fits together.

“I keep going down a never-ending series of rabbit holes – frustrating and wonderful – as I research. Therein lies madness! So I'm really looking forward to entering the rehearsal room, getting the cast engrossed in it, and beginning to explore it all physically, instead of just over thinking and slowly going mad!”

One of the key concepts of 1984 is ‘doublethink’: the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.

There are parallels with theatre even before adding the notions involved in this particular story. “Theatre in itself is doublethink,” explains May. “[The cast and the audience] know they’re in a theatre and not Oceania. We willingly trick ourselves.”

One unanswered conundrum in the novel is whether Winston’s lover Julia is a member of the Thought Police. “That's one of those eternal questions that will come up in rehearsals,” says May. “Julia might be, but she might not. That’s also doublethink, so the actors almost have to go through a process of doublethink as we don’t provide the answer.”

Over the last few years, Bruiser have enjoyed success on stage with shows like Putnam County Spelling Bee, Cabaret, The 39 Steps, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Ladykillers, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ and The Colleen Bawn.

May sums up the company’s style as staging physical, fast, choral, ensemble work that places actors at the centre of performances without reliance on elaborate sets or costumes.

While there’s no room for slapstick comedy or farce in 1984, and the set is large – “though we’re going to use everything about it across the play” – there’s a sense of pace in Icke and Macmillan’s script that suits the Bruiser style.

May hopes that local casting, accents and setting – “I’m basing it here because it could be anywhere” – will help audiences to connect more and see themselves in the story.

The Lyric’s executive producer Jimmy Fay says that “this brilliant, chilling and exhilarating adaptation of 1984 will leave audiences gripping their seats in astonishment”.

“It also reminds us of our responsibility as human beings to each other. It is extraordinarily relevant to our current age of fake news and unexpected politics. Big Brother may be still watching us; in fact, he never went away. But like heroes in a David Bowie song, we are always rebelling against the shackles.”

1984 contains scenes of violence and an age recommendation of 15+ is advised.

“This production really shakes you up, it’s not easy viewing,” says May. “I want the audience to feel that discomfort … This adaptation is so clever that it turns the cameras back on us and suggests we are complacent in this, that we should take responsibility for what we put online and how we choose to live our lives.”

One of the lines in the play – though not taken directly from Orwell’s text – says: “The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening.”

Or as Orwell put it: “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”

The Lyric Theatre and Bruiser Theatre Company coproduction of 1984 runs from Saturday 18 April until Saturday 16 May. On the eve of the production, the Lyric will stage New Speak, with dynamic short performance pieces commissioned from five artists (Amadan Ensemble, Zara Janahi, Dominic Montague, Katie Richardson and Lata Sharma) that seek to engage with the urgent questions raised by our current political, social and economic moment.

The Hunt – a sardonic gorefest (UK and Irish cinemas from 11 March)

A handful of gagged oddbods wake up in a green field and find a stash of weapons. But it’s soon apparent that they’re ill-equipped to defend themselves against their hunters. But don’t choose a favourite character too quickly as The Hunt very quickly becomes gruesome and stays bloody until its almost dance-like finish.
“Nothing better than going out to the Manor and slaughtering a dozen deplorables”

Why a group of business elites would think that it was possible to get away with – and survive – this dastardly weekend activity is never properly justified. And why they’d be so blasé about their own number becoming collateral damage in the fightback is part of the reality that needs to suspended in order to enter into the film’s universe and find entertainment.

Directed by Craig Zobel and co-written by Damon Lindelof, The Hunt’s most interesting character emerges as Crystal, played by Betty Gilpin with sardonic wit and a great sense of timing. Her retelling of The Tortoise and the Hare is worthy of something Martin McDonagh might have slipped into his play The Pillowman. She’s more than a match for any of her fellow deplorables and is overequipped to fight back against the hunters. The final highly choreographed fight scene is beautiful to watch but quite fanciful.

The sense of a game board ever expanding until the prey are never certain what is real and what is truly part of their own personal hell is well executed. There’s a lot of grim humour wrapped around ghastly injuries and deaths, though the special effect for bodies exploding into smithereens is a little overused.

The idea of a pig called Orwell is good until you realise that the references to Animal Farm are ill-fitting and the ‘Snowball’ character makes no sense. There may well be an allegory buried inside The Hunt, but it’s pretty illusive. Instead we watch as a bunch of rich ne'er-do-wells take revenge against people that they dislike, proving that the rich have no sense and deserve whatever comeuppance is meted out against them. The elite are (mostly) liberal – a sugared drink is described as poisonous, though would the truly woke actually joke about pro-choice, race and gender in the way they do? – but despite picking up on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton rhetoric, it’s hard to buy into the trap that they would be Trump haters or Trump supporters. Any why the complete lack of remorse when their friends are gunned down one at a time? The satire is spread very thin over a slightly stale sour dough bagel of plot.

Last year’s Ready or Not was funnier and had a more satisfying ending. But if you want to escape into a repulsive world where life is little valued and another death is only ever just around the corner, then this is the film for you.

After a delay of five and a half months, The Hunt is released in UK and Irish cinemas on Wednesday 11 March (ahead of its US release on Friday 13 March).

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Kindermusik – since Mozart was composing aged five, The Belfast Ensemble want to inspire young people to follow suit #BCF2020

On Saturday afternoon, I sighed as I drove out of the Stormont Hotel car park and down the Newtownards Road towards the city centre. There are days when blogging about politics and covering party conferences clashes with artistic events. Should I stop off at St Martin’s? Or should I just drive past, swinging onto the Lagan Bridge and down the Westlink to head home.

I’m so glad I stopped.

Last year The Belfast Ensemble performed a concert version of The Musician, a children’s horror opera. This year they were back with Kindermusik, a gentle tale about a musical journey.

Once upon a time there was a page of music, but amongst the lines and notes was a dot who wasn’t like the other dots. She dreamt of freedom, jumping off the page, landing with a clang on the piano, and bouncing off onto a highly-strung violin. From there it was a quick hop to a clarinet with a sticky key, a grumpy old cello, a drum, a trumpet and a flute.

Instruments pick up where Abigail McGibbon’s storytelling snippets end – why isn’t she narrating CBeebies nightly Storytime? – and the young audience sit on cushions (with chairs for the older bottoms) in the middle of the floor, listening to the musicians who are seated on small platforms around the circumference. No conductor is required with eye contact across the room used to coordinate the playing. Beautifully tuned sounds reverberate off the old church’s brick walls. Conor Mitchell throws in a wee joke at the expense of jazz, and drummers and trumpet players should be on high alert for any signs of disrespect!

Over 40 minutes we all learn about pitch and duration, composing and harmonising. A bit of nifty deconstruction reveals that Mozart was aged five when he wrote his Minuet in G, as young as some of those sitting on the floor listening to Kindermusik. Soon the dot is composing its own tune, a familiar melody that is at first melancholic before blooming into something joyful.

Back in 2017 I wrote that “the genius of The Belfast Ensemble is that together the artists produce high quality, imaginative work that is riddled with enough layers of meaning that you are left wanting to hit rewind and go back to the beginning to breathe it all in again”.

This afternoon, I found myself sitting in a circle, listening to the music and words tell a story, with a huge satisfied grin on my face. Kindermusik is definitely high quality, definitely imaginative and oozes charm for young and old.

Kindermusik continues as part of Belfast Children’s Festival until Sunday 8 March.

Friday, March 06, 2020

The Untold Truth of Captain Hook – gripping and imaginative with a surprising set and mesmerising performances (Replay Theatre in Lyric Theatre) #BCF2020

Replay Theatre opened Belfast Children’s Festival this evening with a charming and intricate piece of theatre that mesmerised children and adults alike. The Untold Truth of Captain Hook takes a look behind the popular villain and imagines an origin story that humanises the figure of hate who looms large in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

James is a minute older and a decade less spontaneous than his twin brother Peter. When their mother dies and their father disappears, they have to fend for themselves. But ‘better together’ isn’t always an enduring strategy, and when the two lads become separated, one grows up quickly while the other clings onto childhood out of fear of further loss.

Chris Grant and Niomi Liberante play James and Peter with vim and vigour. Extended fight sequences show the rough and tumble of siblings playing at being pirates. Acrobatic Liberante exits the stage in novel ways and doubles up as another orphan Rupert. By the end of the show, Grant’s swaggering James feels a foot taller than at the start. Gary Crossan plays the father/narrator, allowing an increasing knowingness drift over the story like a sea fog as the audience are lured into the unfolding tale.

David Morgan’s tale is beautifully structured and weaves in so much of the Peter Pan universe while leaving space for new imagination. Promises, fears and juicy moist bananas speak to children. But their parents recognise regrets, dilemmas, and doing the wrong thing for the right reason. The soundscape is rich, though sometimes abrupt in its transitions. Diana Ennis’ set takes the shape of a tall ship’s quarter deck with time pieces covering the teak beams. The nautical design reveals surprise after surprise as the cast of three clamber over its levels and swing from the rigging. The use of shadow fighting projected onto the sails is a nice nod – though probably unintended – to Paul Boyd’s Peter Pan that ran in the Lyric over Christmas.

Janice Kernoghan-Reid works magic with repeated gestures, small props, and unexpected moments to draw together the strength of the writing and the design to create a rather stunning new piece of children’s theatre that runs in the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast Children’s Festival until Tuesday 10 March.

With Cahoots NI touring the world with their powerful shows and Replay Theatre on top form with Hook, Northern Ireland is demonstrating that it’s a powerhouse for children’s arts.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Masterpieces – an exploration of the pain, power and pleasure involved in pornography (Blacklight Productions at Smock Alley Theatre and Crescent Arts Centre)

Blacklight Productions have modernised and localised Sarah Daniels’ 1983 play Masterpieces in which she lays out a spectrum of male outrage, starting with telling misogynist jokes at one end and extending to the enjoyment of violent porn and snuff movies at the other. Other than some deliberately off-colour jokes near the start – which neither merited laughs nor received them in the Dublin show I attended – brace yourself for two hours 15 minutes of serious messaging without any satire to lighten the pressure.

Plays can often be used to unpick the complexity of an issue, confronting the audience with moral dilemmas and competing motivations that cannot easily be resolved. In the case of Masterpieces, the audience are faced with three men who are wholehearted and unapologetic consumers of all manner of porn, and three women who to varying degrees are willing to name the victims and call out a causal link between watching violent porn and becoming sexually violent.

Early on in the first act, a rowdy dinner party with three couples reveals the accelerant that will spark an eventual inferno, firing up Rowena to be on trial for a terrible action on a train platform. That some of the women can socially join with the men in telling rape jokes is an early indication of peer pressure and blurred lines of acceptable attitude and behaviour. With the ‘Rugby rape trial’ and the public sentiment around it still vivid in people’s memories, the Belfast run of Masterpieces will have an added frisson of revulsion on top of the understanding that #MeToo has awoken.

A social worker by day and maligned wife by night, Ellis O’Donnell plays Rowena with a growing determination. Her mother (Maureen Rabbitt) drinks heavily though it is only after the interval that we fully understand the pain she lives with. School friend Yvonne (Danii Byrne) is the first to voice concern at the sexual exploitation she witnesses boys ogling every day in school. Gemma Long plays a single mother, Irene, one of Rowena’s clients, creating the most gripping and empathetic performance of the piece with an early defensiveness that is coupled with a desire to change.

After the initial setup, Masterpieces settles down to a relatively undramatic sequence of one-on-one conversations and monologues directed out at the audience. Cast members uninvolved in a scene mostly remain on stage, sitting with their backs to the audience, though Cliodhna McAllister’s direction sometimes allows the women to watch and nod along sympathetically with other female characters.

Daniels writes her men as unrepentant and without any possibility of redemption. Playing Yvonne’s husband, Conrad Jones-Brangan towers over every woman who appears on his radar with a bullying and dismissive persona. “I’ve never raped anyone, I’ve never attacked a single woman” claims Rowena’s toxic partner (Aidan White) who is shallow, smarmy and wears a mocking Repeal t-shirt that sullies a cause he doesn’t pretend to understand. Meanwhile Eoin O’Sullivan slowly reveals the less than winsome traits of Rowena’s step-father. Síofra Brogan plays the judge and a number of other roles.

Other than a garden area to one side, the on-stage drama is conducted astride a three-level concrete cake structure which makes the actors look like polar bears in a zoo enclosure performing for the paying public. Ivy grips every structure, much like the abusive porn that is seen to pervade each character’s life.

Voxpops with the public admitting whether or not they use porn, and academics and workers talking about the impact of sexual violence on women bookend each act. These moments of realism only serve to underline the fantastical and somewhat forced nature of the some of the drama that might have been as effective with the mother/step-father couple removed.

Sporadically throughout the script, Daniels adds in minor characters and pockets of dialogue that try to unpack the reasons people give for excusing terrible behaviour. The most effective is a young mother who is trying to weigh up the love she feels for her teenage son with the anger she’d have felt if it had been her daughter he’d raped. Yet it’s as if simultaneously holding these two opposite emotions is being challenged as abnormal.

The video and unobtrusive soundscape work well, through the show’s lighting is uneven, sometimes leaving cast members speaking in the gloom as they walk around the set. Daniels’ cross-examination dialogue is salted with a good dose of fictional pretence that make old episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey seem like real-life court transcripts with cheeky back and forth jousting tolerated between Rowena, the judge and the prosecution lawyer.
“If they did to dogs what they do to women there would be a public outcry.”
If the play’s strength is its demolition of arguments against the harms underlying pornography, its weakness is that the production takes aim at so many different targets: men, legislation, courts, press barons, and sex shops. All are worthy of coming under the spotlight, but the width of field does blur the focus. And if there’s an accidental moral of the story, it’s that the three marriages at the heart of this anti-romcom play all demonstrate terrible choices that are worthy of much regret.

While there is much to critique and mull over, the unrelenting drive in Daniels’ writing, the ambition of Blacklight Productions to restage a play that split opinion back in the 1980s, coupled with the elaborate detailing of the set and some of the glimpses into other people’s lives make Masterpieces a novel if distressing trip to the theatre.

Masterpieces and its exploration of pain, power and pleasure runs nightly at the Smock Alley Theatre Dublin until Saturday 7 March and will be up in Crescent Arts Centre from Thursday 16 to Saturday 18 April.