Monday, October 05, 2015

Preview - The Merchant of Venice (C21 Theatre, Baby Grand 20-24 October + NI tour)

The Merchant of Venice is the only work by Shakespeare that I can remember studying at school. [Third Form with Mr Duffy?] It’s part of the current GSCE syllabus and it’s the play that Arthur Webb has chosen as he returns to direct Shakespeare for the third time with C21 Theatre Company.

The issues in the good versus evil ‘comedy’ are contemporary: moneylenders; people up to their necks in debt they cannot repay; a contest to the win the hand of a beautiful woman (which sounds like a format that could be sold to today’s TV broadcasters); religious intolerance; along with fears over justice.

I caught up with director Arthur Webb in the company’s South Belfast rehearsal space last week and he explained that the two main themes of his production are “love and hate”.
“The love that Portia has for Bassanio is amazing yet she has to go through the will her father left her to find all these suitors who are coming in from every part of the world to marry her. And Bassanio has no money so he has to get money to be a relevant suitor. But is he in love with her? Or is he just an opportunist? There’s another passionate love between Jessica and Lorenzo: she runs away with a Christian …

The “hate that Antonio has for a Jew [Shylock]” is echoed by other characters in the play too. Arthur suggests:
“... if this play was written today by a contemporary writer there’d be rioting outside the theatre.”
C21 steered away from setting the Merchant of Venice in modern times, but instead chose 1920s post-WW1 America where people who had been “suppressed, depressed, anxious, worried, sad ... suddenly they go wild” in the Roaring Twenties with its more entrepreneurial spirit tinged with feelings of anger and demand for revenge.

The themes, the characters and the stories are why Arthur thinks Shakespeare’s drama is still so strong today.

In the spirit of Morecambe and Wise’s “all of the right notes but not necessarily in the right order”, one of his tricks to adapt old texts for modern day audiences is to do “a little bit of juxtaposing and taking a half line here and a half line there” as well as repeating lines or swapping them between characters to make the play as engaging as possible for audiences.

Full of characters that audiences should be able to identify with – including Antonio the entrepreneurial loner – The Merchant of Venice is a seventy minute production and is touring Northern Ireland from today (Ballymena, Coleraine, Strabane, Armagh, Downpatrick) before a week long run in the Baby Grand (Grand Opera House) from Tuesday 20 to Saturday 24 October (tickets £8.50–£13).

Friday, October 02, 2015

Surreal and memorable - Gulliver at the MAC until 17 October ... unless the Lilliputian's get there first

And now for something completely different …

Running in the MAC until 17 October, Big Telly Theatre Company’s stage adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels is mad cap theatre like nothing you’ll ever have seen before. (It’s like an extended version of the kind of outlandish show OMAC used to stage.)

Weird is definitely the new normal.
“We’ve no idea what he’s been through, and the whole town’s here”

Like all seasoned travellers, every time Lemuel Gulliver (played by the naturally hairy ‘mane man’ Bryan Quinn) comes home he has been changed by his journeys. His wife Mary (Shelly Atkinson who co-wrote the play with director Zoë Seaton), mother Alice (Helen Roche) have been joined by his two adult children – and the audience – to welcome him home.

In a role that he was born to play, Patrick J O Reilly swaps the fishnet tights of Cabaret for the leggings and ankle warmers of Gulliver’s son Johnny who should be dancing as a swan in London but has instead come home to witness his father’s return from his latest escapade.

Betty Gulliver (Nicky Harley) has arrived home too. She’s the most empathetic towards her father, and excuses most of his eccentricities. Both Johnny and Betty throw themselves around the stage with abandon. The sixth member of the cast Brandan Conroy plays Jim, Granny’s bit on the side who is a couple of jockeys short of a full racecard.
“Do you want him to have come back and not changed one little bit?”
This time his most recent equine experience has left Gulliver particularly unsettled and unable to communicate with his family. Through flashbacks, the details of some of his previous adventures are fleshed out as we see him dropping in at home, sometimes with quite a fanfare. The effect of his absence on the family is beautifully illustrated with mundane chores and conversations interrupting his tall tales.
“Gifts of experience … little glimpses into other worlds …”

While Jonathan Swift’s satire has been watered down, the caustic lessons for today’s society from what Gulliver has been subjected to are still present in the surreal script: from the seggterian issue of how you break your hard boiled egg – big-endian or little-endian [terms that Computer Science has happily borrowed] to difficulties dealing with difference and societies that have become “completely wrapped up in their on ideas … don’t even live in families”. Add to that a hilarious conception scene – along with death and resurrection – and the story works on so many levels.

Is Lemuel Gulliver mad, easily deceived or a righteous prophet of Houyhnhnmism and the evangelical cult of redistribution? And are we as depraved as our antagonists?

Diego Pitarch’s set is a simple wooden structure, with a mezzanine level accessed by ladder that acts as Gulliver’s bedroom. I fear that the slim-legged kitchen table won’t survive the full run given the abuse it takes. Sophisticated back projection allows the audience to be transported to other lands when Gulliver relives his exploits as well as providing a view of some hilarious happenings out the window.

Such heavy use of video brings with it the difficulty of synchronising human actions with Tapio Snellman’s beautifully crafted pre-recorded clips. At times the audience are treated to the visual perspective of Gulliver’s youngest daughter Tracey (who is carried around as a doll): over the extended run the timing may improve, but frequently cast members had moved on stage before the action changed up on the screen. It’s not a total distraction, but at on occasion it is more sophisticated than the show requires.
“Why do you want to do the thing that is not?”

The mood in the house changes swings all over the place as the show canters towards its conclusion. Despite sudden moments of brutality, I found myself grinning most of the way through the play, as if anticipating that there’d be lighter moments just around the corner. Several times I suppressed the urge to join in and heckle. The show is billed as suitable for 8 years and over, though with such a high shit-count in one scene 11-13 and over might be a safer guide.

If you head down to the MAC you can catch Gulliver until the 17 October, after which he plans to escape on a tour that takes in UK and Irish cities but sensibly leaves out the flying island of Laputa. Expect a surreal and memorable evening at the theatre. (But be quick, the tickets won’t be there furlong.)

And on Tuesday 6 October there’s a free after show discussion about satire with Newton Emerson, Brian John Spencer and a representative from LAD.

What's being served up at this year's Belfast Festival? (9 Oct - 1 Nov) #BelFest

When the Belfast Festival lost support from the local Russell Group university earlier this year, the organisers could have walked away with an enormous chip on their shoulders. Instead indefatigable festival director Richard Wakely has embraced the opportunity to make a fresh start and produced a programme of events for 2015 that is even larger and more alluring than last year.

Renamed the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival, over 24 days between 9 October and 1 November, 134 events from 23 countries will take place in 30 venues across the city. Around 30,000 places are available for free events during the festival, with an average ticket price of £12 for the paid performances.

Belfast has a thriving culture and arts scene, not to mention countless festivals. By now emphasising ‘international’ in the title it’s a bit more obvious what makes Belfast Festival distinctive from its sister organisations.
“Audiences here in Northern Ireland get to see work that they wouldn’t otherwise get to see elsewhere … so you don’t have to travel to Edinburgh, London, Paris, New York or Dublin to see the best of international arts. You can see it on your doorstep here in Belfast.”

With a week to go before the festival opens, what’s on offer? [full programme PDF]

On the evening of Sunday 18 October the front of the Belfast City Hall will come to life in The Animotion Show, a live collaboration between Russian visual artist Maria Rud, projection artist Ross Ashton and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie. Audiences will watch virtual brushstrokes being painted on top of the Portland stone face of the civic building, as musician and artist engage in an artistic conversation. Free, but booking required.

The Kitchen takes fusion cooking to a new multi-sensory level, mashing together the sights, sounds, smells and even tastes of South Indian cuisine in a theatrical treat. With a huge set, a team of drummers, and a couple cooking in tandem with big enough pots to feed a crowd, this wordless drama serves up the traditional Indian dessert of payasam in the Grand Opera House, Wednesday 21 – Friday 22 October. Tickets £12–£24.

Chivalry is Dead sees two men decked out in full suits of armour – deprived of trusty steeds, damsels in distress and holy grails – question whether knightly valour is all it’s cracked up to be in today’s popular culture. Today’s society tries to rid itself of heavily patriarchal structures, yet the concepts of chivalry and chauvinism are dangerously intertwined. Performed by Alexander Deutinger and Alexander Gottfarb, it promises to be a quirky yet serious part of the festival’s dance programme in The MAC, Wednesday 14 – Thursday 15 October. Tickets £10–£12.

Nicholas McCarthy hypnotised the audience at the festival launch event in September with his mastery of the piano and rendition of familiar classical works. Uniquely for a concert pianist, he specialises in the ‘left hand alone’ repertoire (itself the result of First World War injuries). The one-handed pianist who performed at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympics is in First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary Street on Saturday 10 October. Tickets £12–£14. Nicholas is also giving a free talk and demonstration to young people at 11am.

Turandot’s most hummed tune is Nessun Dorma, made famous at the Italia 90 World Cup by Luciano Pavarotti and the BBC’s coverage. In an enormous co-production with the State Theatre of Nuremberg and Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, Northern Ireland Opera are bringing Calixto Bieito’s English-language version of Puccini’s opera to the stage of the Grand Opera House to close the festival between Friday 30 October and Sunday 1 November. Staged in a slave labour factory under totalitarian rule, it questions modern day consumerism and the capitalism that feeds our demand for shiny technology at cheap prices. Over on Slugger O’Toole you can delve into some of the issues the shocking production hopes to raise. Tickets £18–£46.

Lyndee Prickitt reacted to the gang-rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a bus in New Delhi in December 2012 with outrage. She went on to create the multimedia narrative We Are Angry to blend together the written word, video recordings, vox pops and photos to “capture the real swell of anger” in the country and to give voice to the traditionally unheard victim in patriarchal India. The innovative 360 degree digital storyteller will be in conversation with Fionola Meredith in the Brian Friel Theatre on Friday 23 October. Tickets £6–£8. The film India’s Daughter is being screened in the QFT on Tuesday 20 October.

A free mad-cap double-bill of family fun in Belfast City Hall on Saturday 10 and Orangefield Park on Sunday 11 October with Waste (three Armenian brothers in concert with trashy musical instruments) and Le Poids de la Peau (tightrope artists Sébastien Le Guen maintaining his balance on gravity defying, rotating see saw). Free.

Who owns the news? Whose news is it? How do our own personal stories fit with today’s media priorities? Sister of Another Mama are artists in residence at the Belfast Telegraph. They’ll work with 11-14 year olds and the paper’s journalists to produce a supplement to accompany the daily paper one day during the festival. You can also drop into PSsquared between noon and 8pm on Saturday 24 October to explore some of the more performative aspects of their practise.

Other performances that jump out of the programme:

Having listed a play above that’s set in a huge kitchen, Mydidae is a play which shifts to the much more intimate setting of an ordinary household bathroom and the couple who use it over the course of a day. Facing up to each other, the state of their relationship and the long term effects of losing a child. Or as a reviewer of a different company’s production phrased it: “a ruddy great elephant has taken up residence in the extremely small bath”. (The play takes its name from the cosmopolitan family of scarily large flies.) Prime Cut Productions’ Irish premiere of Jack Thorne’s play is in the MAC, Tuesday 20 – Sunday 25 October. Tickets £12–£17.

Amnesty International’s annual festival lecture brings Gulwali Passarlay to the stage of the Crescent Arts Centre on Thursday 29 October. Aged twelve he fled Afghanistan and the conflict that claimed his Taliban father’s life. Smuggled into Iran, he eventually entered the UK in the back of a refrigerated lorry from Calais after a twelve-month odyssey across Europe that included prison, hunger and nearly drowning. Now twenty one Gulwali wants to positively change attitudes towards refugees … and one day run for President of Afghanistan. Tickets £4–£6.

Blending jazz and rhythm’n’blues, Georgie Fame plays the intimate 150 seat Black Box on Saturday 17 October for an evening to remember. £14 – £16. SOLD OUT

With an emphasis on Mexico and India throughout this year’s festival, the Queen’s Film Theatre is screening five Mexican films:
  • Güeros (Friday 23) – poetic and comedic film that pays homage to French New Wave with a Mexican twist as a misbehaving teenager is sent to live with his brother.
  • A Separate Wind (Monday 26) – sister and brother rite-of-passage road trip across Mexico in the wake of family illness
  • Poison for the Fairies (Tuesday 27) – gothic horror in which a school girl friendship is complicated by the confession that one is a witch.
  • María Candelaria (Wednesday 28) – 1944 Cannes-award winning melodrama detailing the intolerance of a prostitute’s daughter in pre-revolution Mexico.
  • The Obscure Spring (Thursday 29) – destructive lust between a couple working in a photocopier factory.

Originally from Derry, Darran Anderson’s book Imaginary Cities is “a work of creative nonfiction” and roams through cities made up by artists, writers, architects and lunatics to point out that we already inhabit real-world equivalents. Darran Anderson is in conversation with Mark Hackett in PLACE, Tuesday 27 October at 6pm. Tickets £3–£5.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Back in 2011 I gave away 48 free copies of Mark Haddon’s book as part of World Book Night. Adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens, this technically complex production takes advantage of a rich soundscape and projections to create sets that allow the audience to step inside 15 year old Christopher’s head, experiencing his world and at times the sensory overload, as he tries to resolve the mysterious death of his neighbour’s dog. Grand Opera House, Tuesday 13 – Saturday 17 October. Tickets £13–£32.50.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Macbeth: sordid, sworded, bearded, bloody but beautiful to watch (QFT from 2 October & other cinemas)

Gracious my lord, I should report what I see, but see not how to ...

For GSCE English Literature our class studied the play A Man for all Seasons, so other than an amateur performance of Macbeth in the now-defunct Arts Theatre on Botanic Avenue, I’ve little appreciation of ‘the Scottish play’ and no classic performances to measure director Justin Kurzel’s new cinematic production against. (The spoof MacBath from my student days doesn’t really help either, though it left me with a lasting memory of the line “Bubble bubble toilet trouble” …)

As the film starts, a few lines of text quickly scroll up the screen to introduce the historical context. And there’s the rub, to borrow a line from Hamlet: shifting a play from the stage to the silver screen means that while you can create fantastic locations and sets, individual lines of dialogue can only receive minor modernisation leaving their general phrasing unchanged and all sounding very unnatural.

If the actors speak their lines – rather than spitting them out with theatrical annunciation – then you pick up the mood but not the detail and significance of every last word. With a novel plot and a big cast of characters, the odds are against rare newbies in the Macbeth audience. (At times I wished for subtitles to unpack some of the denser dialogue, before settling back in my cinema seat and enjoying the moody visuals.)

In the history of tartan cinema, Scotland has never been mistier, had more snow-topped craggy ridges nor been windier. There’s barely a minute when the howling wind isn’t audible.

The prologue places Lady Macbeth (played by Marion Cotillard) and her husband (Michael Fassbender) at the desolate scene of their infant’s cremation.

Three witches – accompanied by a silent witch’s child – watch from afar. Prophecies are followed by brutal battle-scenes that cut in super slow motion close-ups with the wider-angled shaky handheld camera view of the cut and thrust of sworded combat.

Somebody’s going to pick up an Oscar for the spurting blood shots. Then it’s a matter of sexual tension at an altar, knives in the dark, coronation and a descent towards madness.

Star Wars marketing is everywhere at the moment. (You can even make a darling Darth Vader or cuddly Chewbacca in Build-a-Bear.) The science fiction franchise even extends to Lady Macbeth who sports a Princess Leia ‘cinnamon bun’ hairdo.

Is that a dagger well-trimmed beard I see before me?

There are anachronisms aplenty in this version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. While the warriors don’t take the time to wash the caked blood off their foreheads, Macbeth and his hirsute cohort pay rigorous attention to male grooming and the length of the hair on their faces and bonces.

By far the most interesting character on-screen is Lady Macbeth. Marion Cotillard has mastered dismissiveness and pulls off the portrayal of understated smugness and silent conniving with aplomb. Watch out for the dogs: no lifestyle magazine will be complete this autumn without a couple of hounds sitting at the bottom of a draughty castle’s four poster bed!

The final scenes are a visual masterpiece. Pay no attention to the hundreds of soldiers rooted to the ground in the mist who make no join in and hasten Macbeth’s dispatch. Instead enjoy the combat bathed in the red glow of burning shrub. It is beautiful. Even though colouration and layers of smoke and backdrops will have been added in afterwards, it’s a vision of one man’s hell that’s executed to perfection.

If you’re familiar with the play and can stomach some gore, check out this ambitious reimagining of the Scottish play. And if you want to be amazed at how special effects and harsh landscapes can be combined in cinematic success, a night out at Macbeth will be 113 minutes well spent.

Macbeth is being screened twice a day at the QFT from Friday 2 until Thursday 15 October and is also showing at the Odeon, some Moviehouse and Omniplex cinemas.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Belfast Comedy Festival - laughs, films, improv & the bouffon smell of fear (until 4 October)

If you’re looking for laughs, then check out Belfast Comedy Festival which runs until 4 October. There’s a competition to win tickets for Sara Pascoe and Diane Morgan up in the Mandela Hall on Wednesday 30th.

Lots of events every evening, but here are a few recommendations:
  • Monday 28 September - Bright Club brings back the NI Science Festival Hit with local comedians combined with university scientists exploring the topic of ‘Taboo’ in the Black Box from 8pm. Tickets £5.
  • Tuesday 29 September - Join Rory McSwiggan on the Belfast Barge at 8pm for his mad cap improvised singalong routine. Supported by Louise Taylor and David Doherty-Jebb. Compèred by Gemma Hutton. £8
  • Wednesday 30 September - Nuala McKeever is facing up to the fact that most of the time we’re all Winging It in the Black Box at 8pm. Tickets £10.
  • Thursday 1 October - Expect lines to be crossed, laughs to be had, and boundaries to be crossed as the Red Bastard takes to the Black Box stage (and likely the main seating area too) with his audience participation bouffon clown show. £10
My first place of employment is back in action as an entertainment venue next as Accidental Theatre opens its doors up on the fourth floor of Wellington Buildings (around the side of the Northern Bank Dankse Bank headquarters on Wellington Street):

  • Sunday 4 October - Those Who Can’t sketch show written and performance by Stephen Beggs and Rachael McCabe. Amongst much other mayhem, discover how to rid Belfast of its plague of Hipsters! The Crescent Arts Centre at 7.30pm. £7.
  • Sunday 4 October - And rounding off the festival, surreal nonsense from comedy genius Paul Currie in his third full length show FFFFFFFMILK (7 Fs, it’s important!) in the Black Box at 8pm. £10
The Beanbag Cinema (23 Donegall Street) is showing a selection of classic feature-length comedy films at 12.30pm some afternoons. Free admission, but you do need to book.
  • Tuesday 29 September – Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr
  • Thursday 1 October – Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!
  • Friday 2 October – Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert: “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into”

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Mia Madre - autobiographical, multi-layered and rather satisfying (at QFT until 1 October)

In a film about a film, Mia Madre’s director Nanni Moretti includes himself as Margherita (played by Margherita Buy). She’s a distracted figure caught between the chaos of shooting a film and the confusion of caring for her infirm mother Ada and separating from her partner Vittorio who is still acting on set. To further confuse matters, Nanni Moretti acts the role of Margherita’s brother in the film. And so begins the autobiographical film – the title translates as “My Mother” – that relives Nanni’s own experience of losing his mother five years ago while making Habemus Papam (We Have A New Pope).

“It’s not a sad film: it’s full of energy” says the on-screen director, perhaps giving the real life audience the first of many clues about how to engage with the movie they’re watching.

In the middle of the film, a press conference again gives the real director Nanni a voice to critique the industry through the mouth of his on-screen alter ego.

Scenes flit between sets, hospitals, apartments and Margherita’s imagination. When the cameraman supplies his own direction to frame shots more brutally than intended, and a lead actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro) can’t remember his lines, Margherita needs to assert herself and assume command. Can she follow the voices in her head that urge her to break out of at least one of her “patterns” and start to innovate?

Every scene revolves around Margherita whose instructions to cast members can be ambiguous and nonsensical, but they all seem too polite – or mystified – to say. While her brother has taken a leave of absence from work to concentrate on his mother, disturbed sleep leads Margherita to become easily flummoxed and a sense of panic ensues as she loses control.

A life-long Latin scholar, dying Ada has an organised mind but a slippery grasp of reality. There’s a tenderness to her relationship with her granddaughter. Ultimately, she’s better known and valued by her colleagues and ex-students than Margherita who is in denial and can’t bring herself to talk about death. Questions about lasting memories and familial comprehension jump off the silver screen as the audience watch Ada’s struggle.

Amongst the angst there are some brilliant moments of humour and there is much in this multi-layered and rather satisfying film that speaks out about modern cinema as well as family life and priorities. Mia Madre is being screened in the Queens Film Theatre until 1 October.

Playhouse Creatures (Bruiser Theatre Company, touring until 16 Oct)

Forget 1690! The important date in English theatre was 1660 when female actresses were welcomed back on stage and English theatres reopened after Puritan repression. Even the King, Charles II, patronised the Restoration comedies and satirical productions.

No longer did young boys have to play female characters. Instead old plays were adapted and new plays created to take advantage of female participation … and the female form. Dressing up in men’s breeches showed off shapely legs accompanied with increasingly risqué dialogue and sexual objectification.

Playhouse Creatures is a 1993 play by April De Angelis which examines the world of 17th century theatre from the perspective of pioneer actresses working in “the den of defilement, the pit of pestilence”.

Exposing the behind the scenes nature of the docu-drama, Bruiser’s staging has no wings, and the five actresses remain on stage throughout the two act show, pulling on dresses and breeches over their corsets while leaning against the huge overlapping gilded proscenium arches that make up the set. It’s as if the modern day audience has regressed three hundred or more years and are once again paying to voyeuristically sneak around to peep into the dressing rooms.

Jo Donnelly plays Mrs Betterton, an experienced actress keen to coach new talent in the ways of the theatre. She spent years supporting her actor husband before getting the opportunity to tread the boards herself. London audiences, however, want to leer at younger actresses and she is now exiting stage left towards the twilight of her career.

Nell Gwyn (played by Claire Burns) is also based on a historical character. Originally a cockney fruit seller, Nell inveigles her way into the Playhouse’s company where the amateur catches the eye of Charles II and becomes his mistress. Grandmother figure Doll Common (Roma Tomelty) feeds much-needed context to the audience and gets some of the best laughs as the older actress slaves for her younger colleagues and performs only minor roles.

Mrs Farley (Amy Molloy) is a prim preacher’s daughter and applies her classical education to her new wilder life in the theatre before a bump in her career path changes her fate. Normally the centre of attention in recent local productions, Roisin Gallagher’s portrayal of Mrs Marshall has to take a back seat and is overshadowed in the script by Mrs Betterton and Nell Gwyn.

Part soap opera, part gender equality lesson, the actresses push for further rights and seek to be shareholders in the Playhouse company while confronting the harsh realities of their profession.

If you come to the play cold, it takes the first ten minutes of De Angelis’ play before the various scenes reveal a plot. Understanding wasn’t always assisted by Matthew Reeve’s crashing and chaotic soundtrack that accompanies much of the action and at times threatens to drown out some dialogue.

Expect heaving bosoms, Cockney accents, dramatic dying, superb soliloquies, and ancient vulgarities in this oddly-written play that fails to lace up as tight as its corset costumes despite the good choreography, Lisa May’s direction and important history.

Bruiser Theatre Company’s production has been running in The MAC this week (finishes Saturday 26) and tours around regional theatres until mid-October. Full details of dates and venues can be found on Bruiser’s website.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

#CNB15 Culture Night Belfast ... expanded into the afternoon and up the quays into Belfast Harbour for free craic and entertainment

The third Friday in September marks Culture Night across the island of Ireland. Culture Night’s humble beginnings were in Dublin in 2006. Since then it was expanded enormously. A free celebration of creativity, culture and the arts … and lots of craic as roads are closed and good natured crowds spill off the pavements onto the streets.

Culture Night Belfast is well established and has been joined by sister carnivals in Armagh, Derry, Downpatrick, Holywood, Limavady, Lisburn and Omagh.

The Belfast merriment has expanded a little beyond its Cathedral Quarter roots and also stretched the definition of ‘night’ with many more afternoon activities squeezing into this year’s programme.

I spent the sunny afternoon in and around Belfast Harbour’s Clarendon Dock/City Quays where thousands of office workers were treated to the sound of the BeatnDrum Samba band over Friday lunchtime. A good deal noisier than the Tall Ships!

Some curious Intel staff even gazed down from their rooftop terrace … too far away to smell the blue cheese from Foodie Folk’s burgers

QUB civil engineering students together with school children had constructed a Meccano bridge across one section of the dock and were awaiting today's confirmation from Guinness World Record officials that it is the world’s largest Meccano construction.

Along the short waterfront walkway that now conveniently connects City Quays with the Big Fish – it’s just a couple of minutes on foot or bike – the Psychedelic Cyclo Taxi (a three wheeled pedal power machine!) zoomed up and down and photo-bombed its way into nearly every photo I took of the street artists who were brightening up the blue hoardings around a future building site.

Away from the drums, the more mellow sound of Réalta was a real treat.

There was even space for a mindfulness walk.

Captain Livesy and Nancy wandered about spreading their nautical magic mischief to unsuspecting kids and adults loitering around the Big Fish while Street Countdown’s consonants and vowels (complete with a Richard Whiteley shrine in Dictionary Corner) tested the vocabulary of passers-by with one eight letter word generating more tittering than normal. [Thank goodness Myleene Klass wasn’t playing.]

Across the road in Custom House Square, the Tesco Taste NI marquee had created the culinary version of the Ideal Home Exhibition with all the free samples and goodies going straight into your stomach rather than a carrier bag. More cocktail sausages than you could imagine as well as local suppliers’ breads, crisps, muesli, and startlingly coloured liquids from Maine Soft Drinks.

Further afield it was great to catch the I caught the end of Score Draw Music playing the soundtrack of an episode of locally-made Lily’s Driftwood Bay live in front of a packed audience of toddlers in the sweltering Black Box Green Room. Next door people were singing and dancing ... and I wandered around the early evening Cathedral Quarter, a DJ was playing outside Dawsons Music, 300 chairs were being set out for a drum circle, Film Hub NI had three sites showing archive film footage from Belfast, and hundreds of aspirations for Belfast in 2025 were being written down for the Message in a Bottle project.

More than 50,000 people in the city centre for a balmy afternoon and evening, with hundreds of events and artists and venues bringing the streets to life. Roll on CNB2016.

Disclaimer: Along with other bloggers, I agreed in advance to write about the Culture Night Belfast activities in and around Belfast Harbour. All opinions and photos are my own. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

How to Keep an Alien - a feel good stand against unromantic state agencies (The MAC, until 19 September)

While rehearsing a Russian play with English accents in an Irish castle, a fling becomes a thing for Irish actor Sonya and her Australian stage manager mate Kate.

But immigration bureaucracy gives their budding relationship a tight squeeze that threatens to permanently snuff out any burgeoning passion with deportation. How to Keep an Alien is soon an object lesson that teaches “falling in love requires paperwork”.

Sonya Kelly plays herself in the autobiographical lead role of this laugh out loud hour-long performance that spent the summer on the Edinburgh Fringe and on stage in The MAC this week.

Simple painted IKEA EXPEDIT (or are they the new-fangled KALLAX?) storage units filled with coloured lamps mark out the edges of the stage. Justin Murphy sits behind a desk in one corner, triggering sound effects and expertly filling in the snappy dialogue of various absent characters.

The script’s similes are outlandish – “eyes like the rabbits in Watership Down” –and alliterative and there’s a sense of performance poetry to much of the delivery. Sonya’s adventure with her alien is interspersed with diary entries from great great grandmother Ann Flanaghan’s uneasy voyage down which add perspective to the modern day emotional outbursts.
“… you want to live in Ireland, where sunshine is only a rumour? This concave tip of a rule-bending, economic wormhole full of sheep? … There’s no jobs, there’s no decent avocados …”

With some lovely moments of unexpected musical and visual humour, this one act feel good stand against unromantic state agencies has sparkle and a feeling of hope tinged with the realism that no amount of mozzie bites can make a grumpy immigration clerk believe that your relationship is real.

How to Keep an Alien is in the MAC until Saturday 19 September and tours Ireland until the end of November.

Warning: this show contains air guitar!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Tangerines: a beautifully judged character study of conflict and compassion (QFT 18-24 Sept)

Tangerines follows the fate of two men who stay behind in their Abkhazia village after the outbreak of the 1992 war. Their families flee and only those are stubborn or single-minded entrepreneurs stay behind.

Marcus (played by Elmo Nüganen) is obsessed with the potential of his tangerine orchard; Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) is a carpenter and makes crates for the harvest with only pictures of his family to keep him company.

The two farmers’ isolated existence is violently interrupted whenever Chechen mercenaries (fighting with the Abkhazians) come under fire from Georgian volunteers. A headstrong Muslim Chechen called Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) and a Christian actor-turned-Georgian soldier Nike (Mikheil Meskhi) survive. Ivo administers first aid and installs them in the bedrooms of his house before finding medical help.

What follows is a beautifully unsentimental study of generosity and grace as Ivo nurses the sworn enemies back to health. He negotiates and polices a truce so the two men will not kill each other while under his roof.

While Ivo plays the role of restrained hero, Marcus has fruit on the brain – imagining that the soldier are fighting for control of his tangerines – and he takes every opportunity to miss the big picture. His reaction to an unfulfilled pledge that local troops would spend a day picking produce is self-centred: “a beautiful crop will perish”.

The film’s sparse soundtrack mirrors the secluded location. A repeated lament marks the end of many scenes. Despite the sleepy locale, the side effects of the conflict are never far away. The tragedy is not yet complete, and the final poignant minutes make the character of Ivo all the more remarkable and beautiful.

Watching the film in Belfast while politicians bicker and rewind eight years of progress, at times the scene around Ivo’s kitchen table felt like we were eavesdropping on DUP and Sinn Féin political negotiations: at first tense and humourless, turning to civility and eventually breaking out into banter, though banter with an edge. If only …

Tangerines is a beautifully judged ethnic character study and a rewarding ninety minutes of cinema. You can catch it at Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 18 and Thursday 24 September.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (on general release + at QFT until 17 September)

Greg Gaines (played by Thomas Mann) steers an invisible path through his Pittsburgh school, avoiding any sense of antagonism or friendship with the various cliques and gangs. His careful detachment is only relaxed when he eats lunch with fellow student Earl (RJ Cyler) in their History teacher’s office. Together the two cinema-obsessives have made 42 short films parodying the titles of popular movies: A Sockwork Orange, The Seven Seals, Death in Tennis, etc.

Blessed with domineering parents, Greg is firmly directed by his mother to go and spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a school peer who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. In a reverse pity-plea, Greg heads round to Rachel’s house and beseeches her to thole him hanging out for the day otherwise his mother will kill him.

The genius of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the way it turns the befriending-a-sick-person genre on its head. This is no sentimental romcom. For a start, the only kissing you’ll see will be fairly inappropriate puckering up by Rachel’s divorced mother (Molly Shannon) who is on the cougar side of crazy.

Neither Rachel nor Greg are heroic. Rachel displays a degree of stoicism, but overall her chemotherapy, going bald, feeling weak, having to endure people’s truisms in reaction to her terminal illness all suck. Meanwhile quirky Greg’s ability to crack a joke and force a smile onto Rachel’s increasingly ashen face is cancelled out by his self-centred ability to be “terminally awkward” and treat his new pal as a burden. Yet he allows his grades to fall to the wayside as he invests time and creative energy in his platonic mate.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is laden with references to modern culture and cinema – most of which I probably missed – and cinephiles may be exhausted by the end of the 105 minute film. The camera work is distinctive, with long takes shot from unusual angles.

The short parody films that pepper the real-world action will surely be added as extras to the Blu-ray/DVD release. Full of physical humour, surrealism, stop go animation as well as crazy costumes and props, they bring back memories of classic films by Michael Gondry like The Science of Sleep.

Frequently laugh out loud funny and scarcely sentimental, I challenge you not to weep your lamps out as Rachel finally gets the chance to watch the film Greg and Earl have made for especially for her.

Artistic creativity combined with tender performances that celebrate the best and worst of teenage years make Me and Earl and the Dying Girl a deserving title to share a shelf with cinematic greats like Juno.

Alongside most local chains and independent cinemas, you can also catch Me and Earl and the Dying Girl at the Queen’s Film Theatre until 17 September. Well worth it for the surrealism and genre-busting screenplay. And if you’re lucky, like me you’ll end up deep in conversation at the bar with Harold and Maude – or other enthusiastic cinema goers – a long time after the movie has finished.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Dancing at Lughnasa – a community on the cusp of catastrophic change (Lyric Theatre until 27 September)

I love the sparse set Paul O’Mahony created for Dancing at Lughnasa. A huge cracked mirror covered in gauze hangs at an angle over the pallid kitchen set, reflecting the action as Michael reaches back into his memories of life as a seven year old in the Ballybeg house with his mother Christina and his four aunts in the summer of 1936.

The industrial revolution with its catastrophic impact on manual labour is just around the corner. Marconi’s newfangled radio set is bringing new tunes and new ideas into Donegal. There are troubling rumours about divination at the Lughnasa bonfires burned for the recent feast day for the harvest, and together with a Catholic priest’s abandonment of traditional rituals and practices, Brian Friel’s 1990 play Dancing At Lughnasa foretells Ireland’s future loss of faith in the Catholic church.

The five sisters spend much of their time in the kitchen: knitting, cooking, ironing, chatting, and even mixing cement. At times young “love child” Michael is mollycoddled by his coterie of aunts, yet his creative attempts to build a kite are somewhat disparaged.

Father Jack – their infirm older brother – is home on furlough from his missionary work with lepers in Uganda: his blend of Catholicism and increasing Paganism came to the negative attention of those further up the church hierarchy. Declan Conlon captures so well the illness wrapped up in jolly eccentricity and ambiguous sexuality.

While the five actresses are clearly invested in their roles, the lack of any attempt to standardise on a Ballybeg accent leaves them collectively unconvincing as blood sisters who have supposedly lived under the same roof for 30 years.
  • Rose (Mary Murray) has learning difficulties and it is uncomfortable to watch this vulnerable adult being played for laughs in the Lyric’s staging of Friel’s work.
  • Christina (Vanessa Emme) is bewitched by the intermittent and “poisonous” appearances of her Welsh lover Gerry Evans who is portrayed as more Cockney than Taffy by talented song and dance man Matt Tait.
  • Agnes (Catherine Cusack) is straight and old-fashioned, yet clearly has an eye for Gerry. She spends her days cooking and knitting gloves for sale.
  • Kate (Catherine McCormack) is the eldest and most bossy sister. A devout Catholic and a local teacher, she has taught half the neighbourhood and tries to uphold the moral backbone of the house.
  • Maggie (Cara Kelly) stands out as the character your eye doesn’t want to leave, bringing an energy to the fatherless household and is the ringleader in the bewitching eponymous dance.
“Much as we cherish local children in Ballybeg, they’re not the norm” [Kate]
The household action is bookended and interrupted by Michael’s narration, causing the actresses to freeze or slow down their movements.

While it’s a memory play and narration is part of the genre, Charlie Bonner’s delivery felt flat and failed to bring all of Brian Friel’s treasured words to life.

Towards the end of the first half, adult Michael skips ahead of the main drama and reveals all the remaining significant plot points – no fault of the actor – rather undermining any tension that might have been built after the interval as the harvest sown by the sisters is tragically reaped.

While the heavy reliance on Michael’s narration is unavoidable without butchering the original text, Annabelle Comyn’s direction adds space to parts of the production, allowing the dialogue to disappear while the sisters just go about their knitting and tidying up in the kitchen.

Overall, it’s a long performance, just shy of two and three quarter hours including the twenty minute interval.

Dancing at Lughnasa was clearly a much loved play for many in the Lyric Theatre audience on the night that I attended, and the drama remains on the local English Literature curriculum. Opinion was quite divided amongst audience members I spoke to. However, in terms of the script and the direction, for me Dancing at Lughnasa was a disappointment and didn’t live up to the hype. This may mark me out as a theatrical barbarian!

Hats off to the Lyric and the Lughnasa International Friel Festival organisers for ‘doing a MAC’ and handing out Maggie’s childhood school lunch (tasty soda bread, bilberry jam and a slice of cheese) during the interval.

Largely tragedy with a few comic moments, you can catch Dancing at Lughnasa at the Lyric Theatre until 27 September and judge it for yourself.

Friday, September 04, 2015

45 Years - do couples ever know each other inside out? (QFT until 10 September)

In the week leading up to their anniversary celebration, instead of reminiscing about his long marriage, Geoff is distracted by the sudden resurfacing of a tragically curtailed relationship from a time before he had met Kate.

After 45 years of marriage, a couple might be expected to know each other inside out. But Kate’s sense of control and stability is undermined when confronted by a dusty and unexplored corner of her husband’s life. Decisions, holiday destinations, favourite music and even the couple’s dogs are tainted by the revelations and Geoff’s descent into retrospection.
“The battle has been won – isn’t that worth celebrating?”

The clock is ticking towards the anniversary dinner which cannot be postponed. The habits of companionship are there, but not necessarily the intimacy. Has it been a good marriage? Is what remains valuable enough to venerate?

Kate Mercer is brilliantly played by Charlotte Rampling, capturing the mood and mannerisms of the retired teacher. She’s informed about the world, fit and healthy, drives the car and definitely wears the trousers in the household. Geoff (Tom Courtenay) is slow and ponderous, hesitant in speech, older than Kate and unable to match her long stride.

Throughout the film, the women are driven and organised while the men vent and bluster about ephemeral issues they cannot control. Yet by the end, it is Kate who is detached and Geoff who has found certainty and purpose.
“The choices we make when we’re young are pretty bloody important – like the choice Kate and me [sic] made 45 years ago today.”

Visually 45 Years is an interesting film, with Kate’s face sharp in nearly every shot while other members of the cast are allowed to drift in and out of focus. At times the camera voyeuristically skulks behind furnishings, as if the ghost of old flame Katya is peeking in at her namesake across the room.

Lingering wide shots of the flat Norfolk Broads landscape are in stark contrast with abbreviated sequences that jump from one location to another, eliminating the time needed for the characters to walk between them.

There’s no musical score to stir up your emotions. Instead there’s an unelaborate soundtrack of birds cheeping, people humming, and whatever music is playing on the radio in the background of the house.

At times 45 Years feels like it is let down by continuity (the back window of the car is open, then closed in the next shot), superpowers (can you neatly open an envelope while wearing gloves?) and poor direction (Kate fails to move the steering wheel of her car, giving away the fact that it is sitting on a trailer rig being towed along).

But the acting and the twist of sentiment in its final moments make it well worth a trip to the QFT to see 45 Years before 10 September.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Wolfpack - fear, seclusion, films and escape - a unique coming of age documentary (QFT, 21-27 August)

Fear breeds fear. Fear binds people up. Fear closes people down. To conquer it, fear must be stood up to.

In the case of the Angulo family in Lower East Side Manhattan, a Peruvian father’s fear about the outside world and what might happen to his children if they step over the threshold of their shabby four bedroom apartment means that he has insisted that his six sons and one daughter grow up in an indoor seclusion. Describing drug dealing in the apartment block’s lift and killings in the neighbourhood, the father comments (without any sense of irony):
“It was a piece of jail outside.”

Most years the children left their flat just a handful of times – if at all – and were taught not to look at or engage with people they saw. Their mother’s allowance for home schooling has been the sole household income since their father’s other act of rebellion against society has been to not go out to work.

While cut off from real people, Dad has been feeding his kids a diet of VHS and DVD films. Like a family locked into Play Resource Warehouse, the children build brilliant cardboard props, replica costumes, type out scripts, learn off parts and film each other re-enacting elaborate scenes from their huge and varied library of cinema.
“Is this the end of the beginning?
Or the beginning of the end?
Losing control or are you winning?
Is your life real or just pretend?”

Their father can’t see any alternative to staying indoors. But one son “can’t live with” or “get over” his father’s treatment and – taking inspiration from The Dark Knight – Mukunda goes for a walk.

A year after first tasting freedom, by chance filmmaker Crystal Moselle meets the six dark haired young men dressed in their striking black suits and dark shades – a cross between Reservoir Dogs and Blues Brothers – and her gentle film The Wolfpack captures what happens next.

Grainy home movie footage of their film re-enactments is cut in with scenes of day to day life captured over a couple of years inside the apartment. The story is at first told by the children, with their mother Susanne later letting down her guard, and finally a few underwhelming contributions from the father Oscar.

There’s little to admire about Oscar: a paranoid man who sometimes slaps his wife when their argue.

The boys are all strong characters, but Susanne is the figure in The Wolfpack that I’m most drawn to. She’s trapped in an abusive marriage – “probably more rules for me than for them” – but seems to have stayed to look after the children. The eldest child – Visnu – has a developmental disorder and “lives in her own world”.

While many formative years of proper socialisation have been stolen from the children, the six sons seem well equipped to engage with the real world … once they figure out how it differs from the movies. They’re thinkers, actors and film makers: bursting with creativity and musical talent. But there is less time remaining for Susanne – a former Mid West hippy – to catch up with her aging mother who until recently didn’t even know she had seven grandchildren. Susanne has been robbed the most.

The Wolfpack mixes imagination with disbelief, fiction with real life, and despair with hope. It is neither voyeuristic nor exploitative. A unique coming of age film that is well worth catching at the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 21 and Thursday 27 August.