Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Shadow of a Gunman: an energetic production of Sean O’Casey’s version of Coronation Street at the Lyric

Donal Davoren (played by Mark O’Halloran) is a poet and remains on set for the entire one hour forty minute duration of The Shadow of a Gunman. He’s a thin sockless figure, hunched over a manual typewriter on which he batters out poems when he’s not distracted and disturbed by the ever more colourful people who barge into his presence.

It’s May 1920, and Davoren enjoys being the mysterious lodger in the tenement. He plays up to the seemingly romantic notion that he might be a runaway IRA volunteer, giving rise to his private admission that he’s only “the shadow of a gunman”. But in the midst of ambiguity, some locals make false assumptions and their interactions with Davoren have extreme implications and repercussions.

Seumas Shields (David Ganly) peddles brightly coloured children’s toys, though he has the bushy beard of a man who may have been asleep for 50 years or more. He wishes the conflict would end and spars endlessly with Davoren.

While sticking to O’Casey’s text with its Dublinisms and deliberately mistaken words, director Wayne Jordan has created a very distinctive version of the classic Irish play. The language is dense and it took me a few minutes to break into the rhythm and accents. Even towards the end, some dialogue descended into muttering.

There is more than a hint of Schaubühne’s An Enemy of the People about The Abbey and Lyric Theatres’ joint production of Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman. The basic one-room set is built from wooden panels of wood, like an enormous study in brown by Sean Scully. There’s larger-than-life, animated hand-waving acting. There’s a use of distance between characters coupled with the invasion of personal space. The cast rearrange the set between acts accompanied by a booming soundtrack. So many contemporary theatre boxes ticked.

With a cast of eleven, there is no part-sharing in this full-scale production. Character development is unusually minimal: the cast adopt the personas sketched out by O’Casey and remain remarkably consistent from the moment they appear on the stage until the curtain drops at the end.

Adolphus Grigson (Dan Gordon) is a treat that playwright O’Casey and director Jordan reserve for the second half of the play. The bombastic, alcohol-infused Orangeman quotes from the Bible and disrespects his long suffering wife (Louise Lewis) as the nightly curfew is briefly overtaken by farce.

Amy McAllister, who plays the 23-year old patriot Minnie Powell, is perhaps the most watchable character on stage with her fidgety feet and expressive eyebrows that charm Davoren and later get her into trouble.
“That’s right. Make a joke of it. That’s the Irish way all over.”

Last night’s packed audience laughed and giggled their way through the play, finding the laughs that O’Casey buried even at the darkest moments in the play.

There’s deliberate incongruity in the costumes and props with an anachronistic mix of styles and decades. The otherwise drab set is brightened up by costumes (including a 1960’s A-line mini dress and some tracksuit bottoms that wouldn’t look amiss on any number of local estates) that are in contrast to more sedate Davoren and Shields (who wears long-johns and holds his trousers up with braces).

There’s no interval, yet the play takes its time. While there’s plenty of movement on stage, two minutes pass at the start before a word is uttered.

Sarah Bacon’s one-room wooden-walled set with a single door to enter includes two picture windows overlooking a back alley that is frequently integral to the action. It’s implausibly larger than an 1920’s flat, but the expansive floor space allows characters to be placed with a beautiful proportion across the room.

Leaving the Lyric last night, some people I spoke to were unimpressed with the extravagant gestures, modernist set and animated acting. Certainly, the enormous moon that descends was a surreal step too far! Yet the moments of modernity mostly work and are there to remind audiences that the themes of O’Casey’s play are still relevant today. Written only a couple of years after the ending of the Irish War of Independence, O’Casey already knew that it’s the civilians who can suffer the most in conflict.

A poignant play that balances tension and humour so delicately that it failed to build up empathy and left this member of the audience impressed by the energetic production but less than enthusiastic about the original writing.

The Shadow of a Gunman runs in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre until 6 June before transferring to The Abbey Theatre in Dublin (12 June - 1 August).

Photos by Ros Kavanagh

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Theatre for all ... Interview with Martin Lynch ahead of CRAZY opening in the MAC (26 May-14 June)

Crazy is a new play from the pen of Brenda Murphy that’s coming to the MAC’s stage at the end of May. I spoke to director Martin Lynch on Thursday and he explained the premise of the play:
It’s about three people who live in a house together and the central character is a woman called Ruby who is unlucky in love and is in search of a man. She’s also obsessed with the 1950’s singer Patsy Cline …

There are two other eccentric characters in the house: Gary is the owner and “is secretly in love with her” though she doesn’t recognise it; and Eddie, a “ducker and diver” who is “always making a mess of things and getting in the way of Gary and Ruby getting together … he’s like a magpie who comes in from the street and messes things up”.

Ruby’s search for love takes her on internet dating sites and a series of dates with “crazy nutcases”. Martin Lynch describes it as an “intriguing storyline of a triangle of people who have a very dysfunctional relationship set up between them”.
“It’s a comedy. It’s about fun and a good night out with the whole Patsy Cline music thing thrown in.”

Like much new theatre in Belfast, Crazy has a very small cast, though they all have the comic timing the director wanted: Caroline Curran (The Holy, Holy Bus; 50 Shades of Red White and Blue), Ciaran Nolan (Mistletoe and Crime; Man In The Moon) and Marty Maguire (Shoot the Crow; BBC’s Number 2s).
[Small plays are an] economic necessity these days. I remember when there was an interest in my work from different theatres and they would say to me 'Martin ... no more than a four hander ... we can’t pay any more than a four-hander'. And now that I produce plays I end up saying that to people like Brenda Murphy and other people who write for me. If you give me a six hander or a seven hander I won’t be able to do it.

Looking at the website for Lynch’s company that is producing Crazy, it’s populist stuff, raucous and in your face.
There’s probably two or three types of different theatre. I run two companies. I run Green Shoot Productions which is a not-for-profit and that’s where I do the plays that have strong social and political comment or content. My last play was My English Tongue, My Irish Heart which I wrote and directed, a very strong play about emigration themes. GBL Productions is the other company I run and that’s purely for entertainment, for people to have a good night out at the theatre. So this play Crazy is a comedy about a women who’s looking for love and obsessed with Patsy Cline and it’s right in that whole good night out category.

At a Stormont committee inquiry, Martin Lynch was very outspoken about the MAC theatre last May: “I do not accept that the MAC has a wide enough approach to the arts.  I think that it is elitist.  I think that an elitist smell comes off the building.  There is a middle-class ethos about the place that does not make it particularly comfortable or a warm house, if you want to use those political terms, for working people.” [The MAC strongly defended their practice and approach to the arts in their oral submission to the Culture, Arts and Leisure committee.]

So was it an uncomfortable conversation to talk to the MAC about performing Crazy on their stage when he had criticised them?
It’s been incredibly uncomfortable with the MAC from the very start because I would like to think that a new theatre that opens up in Belfast city centre should be a theatre that straight away should have programming that attracts the widest possible … The Belfast Telegraph in their editorial one time said I wanted a working class theatre. Let me clear this up straight away. I do not want a working class theatre. I want a theatre that is accessible to all. All. A. L. L. And that means the working classes as well.

Unfortunately I thought the MAC’s programme initially was aimed at excluding those communities, particularly the communities that are adjacent geographically to the MAC: York Road, New Lodge Road, Lower Shankill, Lower Falls.

If I was running that theatre I’d be directly making contact with those communities to see what they wanted, getting theatre work from them, putting playwrights in there, actors, writers. None of that has happened or did happen.

Since that initial row with the MAC I have had two or three productions on there. It’s an uncomfortable relationship which I would rather not have. I would like to have a theatre that welcomes me and the work that I bring, both the Green Shoot social and political work and the GBL more entertainment factor. And in fairness they have had those shows in the last couple of years and I’m delighted about that. But I feel that we’ve foisted that on them rather than their programming allowing for that or reaching out for that at the start …

I want all people to like a good night out at the theatre.

Martin Lynch sees big improvements in the local theatre industry.
I think Northern Ireland punches well above its weight. We have a very, very good generation of theatre makers … There’s a really good set of actors, directors ... I remember 20-25 years ago there were no theatre directors in Belfast. You had to go searching for a theatre director. Now there’s loads of them ... I’ve noticed the difference in working with actors 30 years ago till today and the level of skills there are today that weren’t there before.

Crazy is not the only show the director and playwright is working on at the moment.
Between Green Shoot Productions and GBL we do seven or eight productions of theatre a year. That’s a high turnout. At the minute we’ve just finished My English Tongue My Irish Heart for Green Shoot … straight into rehearsals for Crazy for GBL … I’m also working on a new draft of a play that Brenda Murphy’s doing called My Two Sore Legs which is going to the Edinburgh Festival … on top of that GBL’s putting out a regional tour of Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue … also working with Grimes and McKee to develop a follow-up to The History of the Troubles Accordin’ to my Da … and we have the franchise for the Waterfront pantomime … it’s non-stop.

Martin Lynch agrees that some local humour is lost in translation whenever Northern Ireland plays transfer to other countries. But his focus is on reaching local audiences.
Every play is different. Some plays transfer easier than others. In my own work I very specifically tend to try and connect into a specific Northern Ireland audience. It’s what I do. I’m not excited by an audience in Belgium* watching one of my plays. I couldn’t give two tosses if one of my plays goes on in Belgium ... it just doesn’t float my boat.

What matters to Martin Lynch is connecting with people and communities he knows.
If I think we write a play about a community or are involved in a community project that makes an impact there I like all that. It’s a big flaw and fault in my character as a playwright that I don’t aim for universal playwriting but it’s not what I’m interested in.

[* Brassneck Theatre seemed very happy that Man In The Moon went down so well with Belgium audiences in March!]

Despite this ‘flaw’, Martin’s had success with his own play Chronicles of the Long Kesh which sold out at the Edinburgh Festival, and toured as far as Tasmania. And given the “universal family theme” in Brenda Murphy’s play My Two Sore Legs, he’s planning to take it to Edinburgh Festival later this year and further afield afterwards.

Does Northern Ireland need to try to get our playwrights, actors and plays out there, exporting them to the rest of the world?
Very much so. I’ve been to the Edinburgh Festival, the New York First Irish Festival, the Brighton Festival and so on. Culture Ireland … has been sensational. The amount of money they’ve had to bring Republic of Ireland product all around the work is amazing. And they’ve also helped out northern companies: they helped us to go to Australia. But when you go to the Edinburgh Festival they have a big launch of their own, a big lavish reception where all their works are put out there and promoted. And coming from Belfast we were left standing with our arms both the one length feeling a wee bit the poor man’s son …

The City Council, the British Council and the Arts Council should get together and really start to promote Northern Irish work abroad because I do think Northern Irish theatre punches well above its weight. There’s lots of really good product that comes out of Belfast. It’s just a pity that at the moment we don’t have the focus and the resources to give it that springboard onto an international platform.

If you've got a lot of rhythm in your soul, check our Crazy in the MAC between 26 May and 14 June. All are welcome!

Lanciatore: an everyday household suffering from Wonga economics, set in Medieval Italy (until 17 May)

A young man is ambitious to provide for his family. He could never hope to earn what he needs to move to a bigger house, so he takes out a loan and then foolishly gambles it all away in a bid to grow his stake, leaving his family in peril of losing everything.

Sounds like an everyday household suffering from Wonga economics with society’s obsession for prosperity clouding all notions of sensible saving before spending.

It’s also the premise of Paul Kennedy’s new tragic comedy Lanciatore which sees the eponymous juggler (played by Terry Keeley) in Medieval Italy borrowing from an impatient money lender (Michael Liebmann) to play cards with the Vagabondi and put everything he’s built up for wife Victoria (Roisin Gallagher) at risk.

“Don’t be doing anything stupid” shouts Victoria, a former contortionist and now stay-at-home-mother. They make a sweet couple, one quietly ambitious, the other content and so forgiving. Roisin gets to channel her inner Lally The Scut as she mixes gentle love with emotional frustration and angst.

Three Ragazze (buxom wenches played by Claire Connor, Jo Donnelly and Julie Maxwell) provide the narration, often rhyming their way through extended sections of scene setting and reflection, weaving their lines around and on top of each other. They also play the Vagabondi card sharks [you'd count your fingers after shaking hands with them] and the money lender’s two bailiffs, humorously named Rack and Ruin who ponder “How can he juggle with broken fingers?”

Michael Liebmann alternates between playing the money lender (whose repayment policy quickly boils down to ‘your money or your wife’) and a needy priest who would prefer if confession included some decent sins to get his teeth into.

The cast are totally committed to their characters and the use of masks and accessories prevent costume changes and clearly differentiate the multiple parts being played. The venue – Belfast Circus School – chimes with the lead character’s occupation and his previous work in a circus.

Paul Kennedy’s script has rhythm and is peppered with word play: “I’m just havin’ a giraffe” [laugh]; “Any bin lids?” [kids]. Everyone becomes a victim, even the money lender when the bailiffs decide that he is bringing his trade into disrepute and they call in his own debts.

Lanciatore is a stripped back production that would fit into the back of a small van if Rawlife choose to tour. Niall Rea’s wooden box set conceals actors, props and is easily pushed around and rearranged by the cast to signify a change of location.
“I’m out of time and beyond help.”

Only an hour long, and playing to an audience of 50 or so sitting around three sides of the set, Lanciatore is a well-balanced and pleasing piece of theatre in which the script makes its point and moves on without delay. The ending is the play’s weakest point: it’s hard to build up to an energetic crescendo when the denouement has to be so tragic.

Co-directors Martin McSharry and Patrick J O’Reilly have brought the script to life in a way that’s interesting but not so overpowering that the message is hidden behind layers of choreography or over-the-top acting..

Lanciatore contains live juggling and some strong language. Having played as part of the recent Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Lanciatore is back in Belfast Circus School until Sunday 17 May. Tickets available for £12.50.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Spooks: The Greater Good ... shorter than Bond and Bourne, but no less enjoyable

Sir Harry Pearse is like the Robin Hood of fictional intelligence services. He sees it as his job to make the tough decisions, to weigh up levels of probable bloodshed, and to work with the big picture in mind rather than individual incidents and mounting death in service payments for his unfortunate staff.
"The Americans feel we're no longer fit for purpose - we need a scalp."
The plot's setup is that Harry (played as always by Peter Firth) goes on the run believing that someone inside MI5 helped the CIA's most wanted terrorist Adem Qasim (Elyes Gabel) escape from a gridlocked prisoner handover convoy. Intelligence chiefs blame Harry for putting possible civilian collateral damage ahead of the prisoner's continued detention.

The narrative thrives on ambiguity. Where do junior agent June’s (Tuppence Middleton) loyalties lie? Could Harry do a deal with a terrorist to flush out a rat from amongst his colleagues? Is there anyone Harry can trust? Can anyone trust Harry?

With two people on the loose, the film criss-crosses UK locations and the German capital (with the Isle Of Man ably standing in for the south coast of England) as MI5 search for Harry who they hope will lead them to Qasim. Kit Harrington plays Will Holloway, a decommissioned agent that Harry – and then MI5 – reaches out to; his Game of Thrones sword swapped for a firearm that fits into the back pocket of his jeans.

There's a nod to deceased stalwarts of the BBC One series and some familiar old faces reappear. While Harry believes most ex-agents can be categorised as "the drunk, the mad and the dead" it's a relief to see that over the 86 television episodes some people retired alive from Harry's wider team.

It's classic Spooks, wrapped up like a feature length end of series episode. Characters you've just grown to like are sacrificed with a pull of the screenwriter's trigger. The fanciful MI5 teeters on the edge due to one botched job, completely overshadowing the hundreds or thousands of other operations and threats they manage. The instability of state organisations is vastly overplayed and nearly stretches the plot beyond a reasonable level of infeasibility.

The audience can be thankful that there are fewer long, pointless chase sequences than Bond or Bourne. Running short distances is cheaper to shoot when the franchise's brand appeal is unknown and money is tight. Product placement is restricted to a white cat and black 4x4 vehicles favoured by police and security services.

Spooks has successfully transitioned from television to the big screen. The familiar grey vistas of the London skyline and concrete building are there, though the film budget extends to helicopter shots, trips to Berlin, and CGI explosions.

Where the film is less successful is the director's insistence on placing the Houses of Parliament, St Paul's Cathedral, The Shard or the London Eye in the background of every shot in London. And for some reason the pain-in-your-chest tension so familiar to fans of the ten television series is completely absent from the cinema experience. Maybe watching the 11am screening in an otherwise empty cinema changed the mood!

All in all, if you're a fan of the show, Spooks: The Greater Good is well worth a trip to your local cinema.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Saddle up for the gun-toting Little Sure Shot appearing in The MAC until Annie Oakley is run out of town on 10 May

Little Sure Shot is a rags to riches story of gunfire and feminism, based around the real life of Annie Mosey. From the age of five, Annie (played by Verity Kirk) goes hunting in the woods with her father and he teaches her how to hold a gun. After his death she realises that she could “provide the bread and meat to feed” her family, but her mother (Paksie Vernon) won’t allow it.
“Guns are not for girls … it’s shameful Annie.”

After a spell in the poor house learning to sew and be lady like, she skivvies for an abusive family before escaping and finally taking up arms to feed her family by selling game to the local grocer Mr Katzenburger. From there, it’s on to shooting competitions, falling in love, and the unstable world of show business under the stage name of Annie Oakley.
“Falling in love in the Wild West is a lot like falling in the Mississippi River: it’s a lot easier getting in than getting out!”

The action takes place in a simple circular arena surrounded by flag-laden posts from a big top. The dark outside rim of Hayley Grindle’s set allows musical instruments to be hung up and gives space for the cast to rearrange their costumes between characters. Andy Clark, David Leopold and Andrew Whitehead fulfil nine roles between them.

In the last 12 months at least half the plays I’ve seen in Belfast have included a firearm being discharged. Little Sure Shot beats them all in terms of the number of shots fired, but the sound effect is distinctly unalarming, a disappointingly limp low volume pop that emanates from the top left speaker rather than from the area on the stage where the gun was fired.

The five actors sing and strum country and western and assorted Americana throughout the two act show. Guitar, banjo, double bass, fiddle, harmonica and snare drum played live on top of some backing tracks and accompanied by five part singing. I’ve never seen someone skip while holding a guitar before!

The energy builds and wanes throughout the show. After the interval, the cast inject some oomph back into the audience with a routine of corny puns. The humour continues, with hoots of laughter for George the Poodle, and the audience encouraged to cheer along to Annie’s exhibition shooting and show routines. Some enthusiastic souls in the front row even started to heckle the answers to on-stage questions!

Pitched at children from 7 years and up, the kids attending Tuesday night’s performance really seemed to enjoy it. The show doesn’t shy away from the rougher aspects of Annie’s life, but deals with them sensitively. As an adult in the audience, Little Sure Shot was well executed but it didn’t hit my emotional bullseye … but then, I wasn’t the target.

Will I Am’s (predicted) verdict: Bang! Bang! Bang!

Little Sure Shot runs from 7pm-9pm until 10 May in The MAC. Tickets from £10 child/£15 adult.

Photos - Little Sure Shot Photography ®FarrowsCreative

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Dutiful Wife (Off The Rails): turning a lapse of judgement into something a politician's spouse must get through #cqaf15

The Dutiful Wife is a short but explosive piece of contemporary dance theatre by Off The Rails that examines whether a political spouse can hold it together in public while anxiety and unease grows inside?

Can a politician’s wife rationalise her husband’s political rhetoric about integrity, loyalty and trust with reports of his unzipped trousers?

While NI politicians aren’t always the most charismatic, there’s still a familiar feel to the glad-handing and cheap platitudes handed out by the dancers as they welcome the audience entering the theatre space in The MAC as part of the Cathedral Arts Quarter Festival. [CQAF programme preview]

Two male dancers represent the campaigning politician who is “blessed with my wonderful wife” and promises voters that “the values we live by are faith, family and fortune”.

Three female dancers are at first glam and giddy as they nod along with commitment to their partner’s speeches and his references to trust and honour. There’s no escape as the cast maintain eye contact with everyone sitting around the walls of the studio.
“I married the smartest, toughest, sweetest man I know ... he’s deeply, deeply committed to his family, his God, and most importantly to you his people.”

The women’s frenetic verbal repetition of key parts of his stump speech (like the emphasise on stories of financial hardship from the early days of their relationship) contrasts with sharp physical ticks that portray a growing inner dissonance and turmoil being suppressed.
“ ... aggressively courting a 25 year old woman ...”

Suddenly-produced photographic evidence of infidelity is immediately dismissed as “just rumours” while the revealing snaps are frantically snatched out of audience members’ hands and destroyed. We watch as the political giant privately admits his “lapse in judgement” to his wife and uses the political ‘we’, abusively insisting that “we need to get through this” since “think what we could lose?”

Physically he crowds his wife, giving her little room to express anger or rejection. Advisors soon take over as the campaign machine attempts to recover from the politically damaging indiscretion:
“All you’ve got to do is stand there and smile ... you’ve done it before ... it’ll all be over before you know ... you’re a credit to the campaign ... you’re not doing it for him, you’re doing it for the children.”

At a press conference attended by a now-upstanding audience, the politician – at first with little shame – sticks to his carefully crafted excuses before journalists’ questions strip away his dignity, leaving his unravelling wife to pull herself together again and step forward to thank everyone for their attendance and support.

Dancers Paula O’Reilly, Oona Doherty and Lucia Kickham supply huge commitment, strength and energy to their roles as they collaborate to convey their duty and their internal wretching. They physically throw themselves at other members of the cast, walking up and down over each other as they ride the emotional rollercoaster.

Stevie Prickett and Stephen Clarke embody the very model of a modern major politician. They put the ‘I’ into ‘We’, physically and verbally squashing opportunities for dissent and retaking control of their wobbling personal narrative.

The clearly-delivered dialogue is taken from real political speeches and memoirs. Eileen McClory’s accessible choreography with small intimate gestures alongside big dramatic movements allows the audience to get inside the story and wrestle with the betrayal without having to wrestle with the meaning of the dance moves and their significance to the plot.

Low level lighting creates some memorable shadows while backing music amplifies the twisted emotion of the actions on the floor without becoming a distraction.

While Northern Ireland’s political class is not totally immune to sex scandals, there are sadly many other failures of leadership and integrity. A performance of The Dutiful Wife should really grace The Great Hall in Parliament Buildings as a reminder to politicians and spouses not to rely on undeserved loyalty in the advent of misadventure.

An unfunded dance company, Off The Rails are hoping that crowdfunding together with ticket sales will offset the cost of the production.

Universal themes delivered with physical and verbal oomph make The Dutiful Wife a delightful show to see. The last two performances are on Sunday 3 May at 3pm and 6pm. Catch it if you can

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

Friday, May 01, 2015

After Dresden (by Philip Orr) in Belvoir Players Studio Theatre (until Saturday 2)

Our individual and community capacity for empathy seems fundamental to how we deal with the past.

For Reverend Ray Davey, his work as padre/chaplain to British Prisoners of War in Saxony (near the city of Dresden) fed into his decision to open the Corrymeela Community up in Ballycastle in 1965, before Northern Ireland’s own Troubles erupted. Together with visits to the Iona and Italian Agape communities, his experience of camp guards and local residents in Germany, and his reflections on the Allied bombing raids in February 1945 that turned the German city into a firestorm drove his passion to “embrace difference, heal division and enable reconciliation”.

Philip Orr’s play After Dresden opened last night in a short run by the Belvoir Players. It contrasts the fictional O’Hara family’s reaction to a young man’s death in the Troubles with the wartime memories of Rev Tom Moore (based on Ray Davey’s exercise book diaries written in Germany).

As padre, Tom Moore has a degree of freedom to travel between prison camps in the region. He is unexpectedly befriended by Frau Klein in the village of Hohnstein who invites him into her house – “We German’s aren’t all evil you know” and learns about her attitudes towards her homeland and Herr Hitler. Her son died fighting on the Eastern Front at Stalingrad, and now her husband has been drafted.

She explains that when her pastor says “let us pray for our village” “many of us remember the prisoners in our prayers each Sunday”.
“It is not easy to pray for the defeat of the country we love.”
Frau Klein’s acts of invisible resistance include illicit listening to BBC radio broadcasts which inform her about the concentration camp at Auschwitz (denied by local Nazis) and encourage her that the war is near an end. Yet she fears that Russians will soon arrive in the area and knows that their acts of revenge on Germans will be brutal.

One of the play’s crucial moments comes as the padre and a British Major PoW listen to and watch the waves of Allied bombers flying over nearby Dresden. One man’s compassion for the inevitable casualties amongst civilians, refugees and the British PoWs he visits in the city is sharply juxtaposed with the other’s jubilation that the RAF are bringing “the fires of hell” down on the enemy. It is estimated that 22-25,000 people died in the raids, with 6.5 square kilometres of the city destroyed in the fires. The most sickening line of the play is:
“As raids go, it’s a Rembrandt.”
Vincent Vyce’s simple and bijou set provides two ‘rooms’ on an wooden-slatted oval floor along with an elevated garden bench. The stand out performances of the evening come from Aidan Hughes (playing the young Tom Moore); Austin Branagh (older Tom Moore) with his excellent eyebrows and sense of timing; Helina King who so confidently inhabits the role and accent of Frau Klein; and Gwen Scott (Siobhan O’Hara) who plays the sister of the murdered man and spent time in the Corrymeela-like "The Rock" community.

While a fictional script – albeit heavily based upon Ray Davey’s diaries – the play manages to steer away from a happy ending with all the loose ends tied up.   

Trevor Gill’s direction brings about some beautiful moments, particularly one scene where a monologue is seamlessly split between the old and young Tom Moore actors. Some of the minor parts don’t spend enough time on stage to make a big impact or round out their characters. Still, it’s a tight play that succeeds in remembering the bombing of Dresden, the life of Ray Davey and the formation of the Corrymeela Community in a manner that does so without a neat ending and without shying away from the complexity of conflict.

Four years ago at a public reading of an earlier draft of the play, I commented:
Philip Orr’s play constructs a moving and believable war time vignette, drawing the audience into the friendship that develops in Frau Klein’s front room. As we look through a window into the German house, the play helps us see our local conflict reflected in the glass. Can we learn how to understand our society’s pain through other’s experiences in even greater conflicts?
My 2011 interview with Philip Orr (which includes scenes from the original read through, not the Belvoir Players version!) explains more of the background to the play’s background and themes.

After Dresden continues in the Belvoir Players Studio Theatre until Saturday 2 May. Update – Friday night’s performance is sold out and will be followed by a post-show discussion with playwright Philip Orr, director Trevor Gill, Gladys Ganiel [read Gladys’ preview on Slugger O’Toole ... and her review] and UU’s Duncan Morrow. Some tickets (£9) are still available for Saturday evening.

Photos via Brian O'Neill.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (30 April-10 May): music, theatre, dance, talks and cultural sunshine

The sun is shining, the marquee is up, and the 16th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival is ready to rock’n’roll, dance, talk, entertain and challenge in venues across the city of Belfast until the 10 May.

This year’s CQAF programme has a particularly strong list of theatrical performances.

What lengths will some people go to in order to pull themselves out of dire straits? Lanciatore – The Juggling Man is a credit crunch-hit Medieval Italy street performer trying to negotiate loan sharks, card games, priests, prostitutes and bailiffs to get his family out of the red.

Based on Paul Kennedy’s dark comic script, Rawlife Theatre Company directors Martin McSharry and Patrick J O'Reilly are joined by a fantastic local cast – Roisin Gallagher, Terrance Keely, Michael Liebmann, Julie McCann, Jo Donnelly and Claire Connor – in Belfast Circus School at 8pm between Thursday 7 May and Sunday 10 May. Tickets £12.50. Don’t miss it. PS: After CQAF finishes it's back on Friday 15, Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 May at 8pm in the same venue.

Check out the promo video for Lanciatore and get your tickets booked!
Posted by Rawlife Theatre Company on Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Dutiful Wife is a new piece of high energy immersive dance theatre looking at the role of ‘the wife’ in politics through the initial highs and later public humiliation of ‘Stepford Wives’ who often suffer the immense personal pain when a charismatic crowd-wooing male politician goes off the moral rails.

An innovative and well-scheduled piece in the run up to Thursday 7th's election, The Dutiful Wife is the brainchild of choreographer Eileen McClory (interviewed below) and performed by Off The Rails Dance company in The MAC on Friday 1 and Saturday 2 May (8.30pm) and Sunday 3 May (3pm and 6pm). Tickets £10. As an unfunded company, they're also crowdfunding support for the costs of performances.

Prepare to be individually admitted to a hospital bed and using eye masks and headphones experience being Reassembled, Slightly Askew. Novel storytelling based on writer Shannon Yee’s experience of falling critically ill with a rare brain infection and her journey through rehabilitation and living with an acquired brain injury. Running in The MAC at 11am, 2pm and 4.30pm and 7pm between 30 April and 5 May. Tickets £10. SOLD OUT.

Three Strikes sees Belfast’s “shiniest and best lubricated” theatre company Shot Glass as they bring three short comic plays out of the theatre and into the pub. The Dark Horse at 8pm on Monday 4 and Tuesday 5 May. Tickets £5.

Other highlights from this year’s bulging CQAF programme

Saturday 2 May

Dramatisation of George Orwell’s social inequality classic Down and Out in Paris and London. Join the characters as they go from “a sepia tinted view of poverty in Paris to the more black and white existence in and around London” in 101 The Redeemer (101 Donegall Street) at 8pm. Tickets £10.

Sunday 3 May

Queen of the psychological thriller Val McDermid will speak about how her crime writing means she’s Killing People for Fun and Profit in The Black Box at 2pm. Tickets £8.

Described as “whimsical and witty, weird and wacky”, The Kiss of the Chicken King is a multi-media performance monologue as Jimmy sits in his rundown 1980s bedsit and escapes from jingoism and Thatcherism into his fantasy and imagination. The Black Box Green Room at 3pm. Tickets £5.

Join New York-based post-religious Reverend Billy and & The Stop Shopping Choir in The Black Box Green Room at 7pm as the “planet criers, gospel shouters and punk disrupters” pursue “the mysterious catalyst that ignites collect knowledge and collective will”. Tickets £6.

Lucy Porter wonders “whether she’d rather be a bewhiskered Victorian explorer, a 1920s Hollywood starlet or Hatshepsut the Egyptian Pharaoh in Me Time in The Black Box at 8pm. Tickets £10.

Monday 4 May

Having moved from Australia to London, comedian Bec Hill wrote a show about how she had never won an award. But the whole premise was ruined when the show won one at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe! The comic, animator and comic creator brings her new show In…Ellipsis to McHugh’s at 8pm. Tickets £8.

Join Kitty (Áine Ryan) for a dark and devastating evening as she sits alone in her kitchen mourning the loss of her brother while her father lies dying in the room next door and she waits for her late (time challenged, not dead!) boyfriend to pick her up for an evening out. Shocking and witty. Kitty in the Lane is in The Black Box Green Room at 7.30pm. Tickets £6.

Wednesday 6 May

Martin Rowson was the first in a long list of cartoonist and caricaturists who’ve failed to be satisfied with the image they’ve captured of me! He’ll being romping through “a 32,000 year old history of visual satire … the power of giving and taking offence” in a timely lunchtime talk in The Black Box at 1pm. Tickets £6.

Expect comedy as well as social and political commentary when Andrew Maxwell takes to the stage of the Festival Marquee at 8pm. Tickets £12/£10.

Thursday 7 May

Owen McCafferty’s play Mojo Mickybo is back to tell another generation about two boys growing up in 1970s Belfast, one from ‘up the road’ and the other fro ‘over the bridge’. 101 The Redeemer (101 Donegall Street) at 8pm. Tickets £8.

Saturday 9 May

Join your host John Lindsay for a morning of 1970s and 1980s classic Saturday morning children’s TV in the Belfast Film Festival’s Bean Bag Cinema at 10am. Tickets £4.

Sunday 10 May

When your only visitors are squirrels and getting rid of them becomes an obsession then maybe it’s time to look at what’s really going on. Phoenix Nights’ Janice Connolly brings Barbara Nice and hew show Squirrel Proof to The Black Box at 2pm. Tickets £7.

The Hackney Colliery Band is east London’s unique take on the brass band and having played at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, they’re now bringing their acoustic mix of “funk, hip-hop and high-octane rock” to Aether & Echo at 8pm. Tickets £8.

This year Open Source is no longer constrained by four walls and will run its free hour-long sessions around The Big Table on Lower Garfield Street (outside PLACE and Aether & Echo) for a weekend of activity looking at “The Love Economy – Cooperative Alternatives to Free Market Economics”. Their website now lists the full programme of volunteer-led events.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Catch David Park in conversation with Bernard MacLaverty at Linen Hall Writers on Writers Festival

The Linen Hall Writers on Writers Festival is running from 13-16 May with discussions and workshops on all manner of writers and writing topics.

One highlight that jumps out from the programme is the In Conversation with Bernard MacLaverty & David Park on Wednesday 13 May at 6pm. (Tickets are free, but advance booking advised.)

I grew up with MacLaverty books on the shelves at home, and read Cal numerous times as a teenager (though there are lots more novels Lamb, Grace Notes, The Anatomy School and short stories to choose from).

David Park's novel The Truth Commissioner was the first book anyone sent me as a blogger and the plot's challenges about the cost of truth are still apt for a Northern Ireland that has failed to start any process to deal with its past. A film adaptation is currently filming in Belfast.

Check the Events section of the Linen Hall Library for other festival events.

Those Who Show Up ... Politics is far too important to be left to politicians

This month’s Presbyterian Herald magazine has an article in it written by a politically interested blogger! [If you’re not one of the 13,000 subscribers, you can download a PDF copy of the full issue for £1.]

I’ve reproduced my election-themed article below along with some extra comments that aren’t constrained by the word count that fits on a printed page.

As I see it … Politics is far too important to be left to politicians.

Walking into a polling station, collecting a ballot paper, and making a mark with the pencil tied to the desk is one way you can live out your faith and make a difference.

Christians are spread right across the political spectrum. While they may agree on creeds, their notions on what a fair economy, justice, welfare and equality look like differ wildly. There is ‘no one size fits all’ party or set of policies that all of Christendom can adopt.

Christian supporters will be on both sides of the same-sex marriage and Irish President age referendums on 22nd May, in some cases coming to very different conclusions about how to apply biblical principles and the example of Jesus.

As a cohort, politicians have lost a lot of respect through expenses scandals, cash for access, and ‘yah-boo’ politics of weekly question times that ridicule opponents rather than championing good policies. Politics can look dirty and unappealing.

But these are not reasons for people of faith to step away from politics.

Fewer and fewer people are bothering to vote across the island of Ireland. The turnout for European, Dáil, Westminster, Northern Ireland Assembly, local government elections and recent referendums is declining.

At most recent constituency elections in Ireland, more people stayed at home and didn’t vote than put a cross or a 1 in the box for the candidate who topped the poll and won the seat.

If everyone who didn’t show up to vote was assumed to have cast their vote for ‘None of the Above’ then nearly every poll on the island would be won by disinterest and disengagement.

The Bible doesn’t call us to disengage from the world. We’re to be salt and light.
“We need Elijahs shouting from the desert, as well as Obadiahs working in the palace. Both are crucial.”

This is how Portadown–born Andy Flannagan phrases it in his new book Those Who Show Up (published by Muddy Pearl). He reasons that Christians need not limit themselves to faith-based vehicles but should consider becoming directly involved in decision-making processes.

Since the book of Acts, Christians have been stepping forward in society to campaign for change: slavery, cancelling debt, standing up for those with no rights or no voice.

Long before UK Prime Minister David Cameron used the phrase ‘Big Society’, churches and Christians knew that they played an important role in wider society: volunteering in foodbanks and homework clubs, feeding the homeless, running international meeting points and helping prison visitors. Christians also choose to invest in secular organisations and initiatives that serve people.

Yet while individuals working at a grassroots level can make a huge difference to their communities, the framework of legislation and tone of government is set by a small number of people that we are invited to elect to represent us.

Not voting, leaves the decision to other people. It abdicates our responsibility to wrestle with competing policies and the difficult evaluation of personalities and parties about whom we’ll never totally agree or support.

Not voting is taking your hands off the steering wheel and hoping that someone else will navigate the bends in the road.

And who are these politicians? They’re people like us. A surprising number carry Christian faith with them onto the campaign trail and into the voting lobbies of their parliaments. Their approach to issues is infused with faith.

Andy Flannagan argues that more Christians need to follow the example of Joseph, Daniel, Esther and Mordecai who governed wisely in alien lands. Who better to stand up against oppression? Who better to speak up at difficult moments knowing that your primary allegiance is not to an earthly flag or kingdom?
“Showing up is not just about voting. It’s not just about making a mark on a ballot paper, but leaving your mark on society.” (Andy Flannagan)

Could you make a difference in the often mundane work of your local community association or residents group? Could you become involved with a political party and shape its policies and activities at a local level?

And in the meantime while you consider how to apply your faith to the decision-making processes, can you vote in May and start to leave your mark on society?

- - -

I’ve found Those Who Stand Up a very challenging when read in the context of Northern Ireland politics.

Andy Flannagan heads up Christians on the Left (a Labour-leaning group) and co-directs the cross-spectrum Christians in Politics organisation along with his Tory and Lib Dem counterparts. While he doesn’t mention UKIP or the Greens – nor Plaid Cymru or the SNP – somehow the Great Britain political scene feels much cleaner and less messy than the politics where I’m living.

I find it difficult enough to find a candidate or a party to vote for in some elections never mind select a party with which to more wholeheartedly align. [Full disclosure – I spoiled my ballot paper on one occasion and would do so again.] A party would need to line up with enough of my convictions and importantly not run contrary to other convictions that I deem more important than others.

And that’s before processing the historical and cultural baggage that comes with Northern Irish political parties: unionist, nationalist, or other.

Difficult to get my mind around …

Friday, April 24, 2015

6 Desires: DH Lawrence & Sardinia ... #bff15

I’m normally a fan of Mark Cousins’ quickly-shot flâneurial observational films that merge his own imagination, a character and a place. But 6 Desires: DH Lawrence & Sardinia fell flat.

Maybe it’s because I entered the Beanbag Cinema as a Philistine with little knowledge about DH Lawrence’s work (though I’ve more than a passing awareness of how his namesake DHL deliver parcels). Maybe because I thought I was going to see it last Saturday night and ended up at Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence instead. Maybe it was because it was a wet Friday evening at the end of a long week and my eyelids were heavy.

The first half hour is promising. The opening shots on board a ferry berthing in Sardinia paint a magical scene. Cousins’ trademark punctuated commentary is full of rhetorical questions aimed at the author he refers to as Bert (H for Herbert) with such familiarity. The potential monotony of Cousins’ narration is removed with Jarvis Cocker voicing quotes and readings from Bert. (Though I’m pretty sure the playful opening credits which introduces every character in the film – including “sheep” – reads “Jarvis Crocker”.)

Another customary hallmark is present: Cousin’s hand carrying around laminated pictures of the subjects and photos of associated artefacts. An empty frame is held up, overlaying scenery as Cousins imagines standing viewing what Lawrence and his wife Frieda might have seen back in 1921 when he made the journey that inspired Sea and Sardinia.

And then there are the links back from present day architecture and buildings to clips from cinema past … and ancient.
“Life is right here, the on-going moment”

As the camera journeys around Sardinia, six desires are examined: Bert’s desire to escape from England and his desire for sun and bodies; the filmmakers’ desires to be with Bert; a fifth desire that I missed; and Bert’s desire for form.

While a minor step up from the shirt pocket-sized Flip camera Cousins was using a few years ago, the well-framed shots are still fixed focus, with little shake and mercifully absent of zoom. But as the camera pans or captures the rush of hedges out the car window, the consumer quality becomes apparent.

Along with some choral pieces, Aaron Kelly’s discordant score adds a sustained melancholic synth vibe to the background of 6 Desires. At times the sound dips sharply to make way for the next piece of commentary, before ratcheting back up, as if mixed with a mouse rather than fingers on faders.

There’s a beautiful sequence half way through the film when flashes of footage we’ve already seen are replayed: revising and reinforcing the story like a summary at the end of a lecture. But instead of stopping, the film continues on.

Recognising the masculinity of the story so far, it shifts away from Cousins’ narration about Bert to allow sound recordist Gillian Moreton’s voice to take over the story and introduce another local subject, Sardinian writer Grazia Deledda who won a Nobel Prize for Literature. But the change of pitch isn’t accompanied by a change of pace, and the pulse of 6 Desires weakens.

As the lights came on in the Beanbag Cinema, some Belfast Film Festival goers chatted about how inspiring and good the film had been. I picked up my empty box of popcorn and desired another screening of Here Be Dragons (exploring the political, cultural and cinematic landscape of Albania), which still remains at the top of my list of favourite Mark Cousins films [You can watch it for free online.]

While I didn’t become a fan of Sardinia or DH Lawrence, 6 Desires and last night’s première of The Monday Club are both reminders that effective cinema requires strong ideas, boldness and a good script. Equipment, a huge cast, planning and time are less of a priority.

Mark Cousins makes his brand of documentary films look simple, leaving the significant craft and judgement embedded within them unacknowledged. It should give us all a nudge to go out and try to create something.

The Monday Club - a film that remembers Belfast fondly & celebrates the character of its people #bff15

An old man sits alone in the pub. Danny is comforted by his pint, and a miniature conifer plant in a pot he eccentrically brought with him in a paper bag and intermittently feeds with a few drops of whisky from a glass. But most of all he’s cheered by his yarns and reminiscences of absent friends.

Along with his colourful shipyard colleagues, Danny used to “put the world to rights in a drunken stupor” at the start of the working week in what became known as The Monday Club.

Brian Mulholland’s 70 minute film was premièred tonight as part of the Belfast Film Festival and began with a quote from CS Lewis:
Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: "What! You too?”

Danny imparts memorable incidents from his past and that of his colleagues in-between sips of the black stuff. The narrative switches between long monologues from Danny in the pub to other people telling his old drinking buddies’ stories. Gradually the audience build up a picture of the common threads that bound together this group and made the men and their families tick.

Carl Best’s camerawork and editing lets the heads do the talking with few distractions. Minimal shot changes and a tight focus on faces – sharp eyebrows and soft mouths – allow the audience to concentrate on the emotion and pathos.
A window cleaner never judges as one day the window might become a mirror.

There’s more than a drop of Belfast wit and wisdom in the contributions. The Movie House audience giggled along with some of Danny’s wisecracks and particularly enjoyed the tale of Stevie’s shovel-enhanced toilet break.

The pace varies, and at one point the dialogue felt unnecessarily rushed. With the lack of conversation, it can all get a bit flowery (eg “her feline-shaped eyes that cut right through you”).

That said, overall it’s a really well scripted film. Spoken word is interlaced with verse and Katie Richardson/Goldie Fawn’s beautiful songs light up the latter stages of film. (Earlier on, music through the medium of vinyl was said to be a reflective “black mirror”.)

The Monday Club ends with an unforeseen and moving twist that is delivered convincingly by Derek Halligan (playing Danny). The film could easily be adapted and become successful on stage.

Right from the start, there are recognisable images of Belfast. While most of the yarns reveal the pain that travels with families, through generations – hurts, secrets and sorrow – The Monday Club is a film that remembers Belfast fondly and celebrates the character of its people.

Speaking after the cheering had subsided at the end of tonight’s première, director Brian Mulholland referred to the simple “For Belfast” end credit and said:
“I love this city. It has its flaws, but don’t we all.”

The Monday Club is a triumph and belies the tiny production budget. Normally associated with the quarterly Film Devour short film screenings, director Brian Mulholland and first-time producer Corrine Heaney along with everyone who helped Stay Beautiful Films should be very proud of their long-form creation and its passionate celebration of life and community.

PS: The painted toenails that appear in a bath deserve their own entry in the end credits!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Belfast Bikes launch on Monday - what do you need to know?

It’s been 25 years or more since I last rode a bicycle when I was a teenager. Cycling proficiency is a dim memory of riding along a road painted onto the tarmac playground with an arm stuck out to indicate I was about to turn.

It doesn’t take long to walk across Belfast. Yet the ten minutes from the Waterfront Hall to the Cathedral Quarter could be halved if who wheels took the strain. And in dry weather, biking across to the Odyssey would be preferable to the windy walk over the bridges.

Yesterday at lunchtime and I trialled the new Coca Cola Zero Belfast Bikes and discovered the joy of simultaneously sticking my arm out to change lane, looking over your shoulder, steering straight ahead and keeping on this side of the grave … all at the same time.

So what 15 things do you need to know?

1. 300 bikes will be available from 6am on Monday morning (27 April) at 30 docking stations across the city centre. Later phases may widen the reach of the scheme.

2. Registration is online. Visitors to Belfast can pay £5 to access the bikes for 3 days. A yearly subscription is £20 and you’ll be sent a smart card you can swipe at one of the terminals to identify yourself.

3. On Sunday at noon, expect to see a grand peloton of Belfast Bikes streaming out of the City Hall gates and cycling around the block. Customers who’ve already paid up for the year have received invitations to participate.

4. You can hire a bike between 6am and midnight. It’s as simple as

Swipe your annual card or tap in your mobile number along with the number of the bike you want to hire at the solar-powered rental terminals beside the bike stations and it’ll be unlocked within seconds.

You can also use the nextbike app (iOS or Android) to hire a bike. It’ll show you bike stations near you along with the number of bikes available to hire. Select the bike, tap the buttons and the bike will be released. The Belfast Bikes website also allows you to rent/return a bike within the My Account pages.

If the terminal is down and you don’t have access to the smartphone app there’s a phone number on the back of the bikes 034 3357 1551 you can ring from your mobile to hire them.

5. Once you’ve registered, the first 30 minutes is free. Then it’s 50p for the next half hour and a further £1 for each hour up to 4 hours. After that it gets really expensive to have exclusive access to a specific bike. The scheme is set up to encourage you to make short journeys around the city centre: take a bike, ride somewhere, dock it, and when you’re leaving, hire another bike to make the journey back.

6. To leave a bike back, you wheel it into an empty bike rack (a disc on the left hand side of the front wheel slots into the bike rack's clip) and the light on the rack turns green and the bike is locked in place. If there isn't an empty slot, the terminal will show you the nearest bike rack with a space, or you can use the combination lock to secure the bike somewhere near to the bike rack and use the app or phone number to register it as returned.

What’s it like?

Jeff from Belfast Times and I set off from the City Hall at lunchtime on Wednesday to pay our respects to the Big Fish, navigate the Bin Lane (aka, the bike lane on Upper Arthur Street that is so often blocked by bins or delivery vehicles) and return to the bike station in front of Donegall Square North. You can watch part of our adventure in Geoff’s video.

7. The bikes are sturdy. These are not lightweight racers. They’ve got 3 gears and having pedalled furiously for a while I finally figured out how to rotate the gear selector on the right handlebar to get into 2nd gear and cycling became a lot less effort! The bike has lights that activate when you pedal and you can adjust the height of the seat saddle.

8. There’s room on the front for a small bag. You might be able to tie a bag onto the back.

9. Belfast city centre is mercifully flat so you shouldn't get wheely tyred, and lunchtime traffic is quite light

10. From walking and driving around this area of Belfast I thought I knew the streets like the back of my hand. But it was very different riding on two wheels surrounded by faster moving cars and buses, and needing to read signs and look for markings I’d never had to pay attention to before.

11. It’s very confusing where you can cycle and where you can’t. Belfast is full of bus lanes, bus-only streets, streets that have been partially pedestrianised and national bike routes. You’re not allowed to cycle on the footpath. But can you cycle down between Chichester Street between the High Court and Laganside Courts? Can you turn right off Victoria Street at the Albert Clock and take a short cut up the bus lane that runs in front of McHughs? And when you cross the road (using the Toucan crossing with its bike light) at Queens Bridge, can why are there no obvious cycle markings on the other side of the road when you reach the Beacon of Hope?

12. The Bin Lane on Upper Arthur Street was clear when we cycled through, though on the way to the City Hall it wasn't!

13. The Belfast Bikes Welcome Park has some reminders about bike safety and the cycling-related sections of the Highway Code are worth a scan. But if you’re planning to cycle certain routes frequently, it would be good to take your first ride when it’s not too busy and you’re not in a rush to get your bearings and figure out a plan.

14. With an influx of inexperienced cyclists like myself on the roads over the next weeks and months, hopefully drivers will realise that they need to treat these amateurs with care. Otherwise, increasing the number of cyclists on the streets of Belfast will increase the number of accidents.

15. My backside is sore. Maybe that’ll ease with further cycling. I’m certainly looking forward to being able to scoot across town faster than on foot and a lot cheaper than in the car. Maybe it’ll even count as exercise …

Monday, April 20, 2015

Eat Your Children: chasing the lost unicorn of Irish citizen protest #bff15

“We’re not Ireland, we will resist” (Greek austerity protest chant)
Has Ireland lost its protest mojo?

Flatmates Treasa O’Brien and Mary Jane O’Leary bailed out of Ireland to study in London and Barcelona. Partly motivated by the Greek chant and surprised by the contrast behind high profile citizen action in countries like Spain and the lack of news reaching them from Ireland, the friends came back to their homeland and toured around in a white Transit van to make a film as they searched for the lost unicorn of Irish citizen protest.

The crowdfunded film’s title – Eat Your Children – comes from Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay of 1729 [full text] in which he suggested that the solution to Ireland’s poverty would be for Irish people to rear their young to be sold off to the Aristocracy as food. With the debt repayments now extended from 20 to 40 years, today’s school children in Ireland will be paying off bond holders when they’re 50.

I spoke to the film’s co-directors after last night’s screening at the Belfast Film Festival.

An early scene sets the tone and trajectory of the documentary with journalist Vincent Browne furiously asking questions (and getting few answers) at a financial press conference. The film is designed to be “a provocation”.

Why are Irish people bailing out European banks? Why does “the good child of Europe” meekly accept its debt repayment punishment with only sporadic protests agreed in advance with the Garda rather than a culture of organised or popular resistance?

In the County Mayo village of Ballina we’re introduced to a typical Irish scene: a small crown standing around watching another small crowd protesting, this time about the building of a Shell oil pipeline. “It’s going to go ahead anyway, so what’s the point protesting” suggests one observer who reckons Shell is bigger and more powerful than the protesters.

At the Electric Picnic festival, Derry’s Eamonn McCann calls for revolution while the ever-eloquent Fintan O’Toole challenges the “lie” that only the “delinquent” countries on the edge of Europe are causing the problem and need to bear the punishment. O’Toole suggests that the Irish manner of resistance is to physically and physiologically avoid it, ignoring the problem by emigrating someplace else.

Sociologist Tom Boland reckons that “a mix of consumerism and capitalism makes people ill-inclined to protest”. The Catholic Church and Irish trade unions both get poor report cards from interviewees, with the former too embedded in the state to take a stand, and the latter defused by the Croke Park Agreement which sacrificed national strikes and industrial action for no further public sector pay cuts.

Watching Eat Your Children in the QFT last night, I became conscious of how poorly the Irish financial story has been reported in Northern Ireland. [Ed – or how poorly you’ve been listening?] The facts of negotiations and deals along with some commentary on emigration has been relayed, but there has been little discussion about the impact on communities, industry and little comparison with other European regions facing similar pressures. Instead there’s a simple and popular narrative explaining that Ireland swallowed its unpalatable medicine and made sharp cuts quickly allowing it to rapidly, if painfully, turn around and reach a better place.

A visit to Derry briefly investigates Ireland’s biggest civil rights movement. Nell McCafferty talks about “not marching for a United Ireland but for the rights of full British citizens”. Another interviewee suggests the movement was later “usurped by nationalists” and explains that today, anyone dissenting in the north west tends to be labelled as “anti-peace process” so people stay at home rather than stand up for their rights.

The quality of the filming and footage spliced together to make Eat Your Children varies greatly over the course of the 78 minute film. Interview sound quality improves as the pair zig zag across the island, although at times the film’s soundtrack threatens to overshadow faint snatches of dialogue.

Treasa and Mary Jane fall into the oft-ignored category of chalk activists, carrying sticks of coloured calcium sulphate wherever they go, allowing them to sketch out chapter names on pavements and walls to give the film its structure.

Being a road trip, there are many shots looking out the Transit van’s windscreen as Mary Jane and Treasa hurtle up rural roads towards their next destination. In one great sequence we listen to a description of resistance while watching a large black dog standing on the tarmacked road in the dead of night, holding its ground and blocking the van’s progress. Ireland’s dogs may offer more resistance than its people.

While anti-austerity protests are few and far between, the filmmakers find some signs of hope to challenge “Ireland’s dying culture of protest”: single issue protests around reproductive rights, La Senza, fracking and water charges. Finally, they uncover a weekly community march after Mass in Ballyhea (north Cork) with a group of ordinary residents believing that they can be “a small pebble in the shoe of the ECB”.

Eat Your Children will be a popular film with activists, students and wannabe protesters. It’s firmly in People Before Profit territory, though more grounded than the now-defunct-and-never-effective local Occupy movements.

While Ireland continues to make its “level of adjustment”, many citizens will continue to look the other way. Perhaps Treasa and Mary Jane needed to hook up with the Orange Order (with a history of protest sites at Garvaghy Road and Twaddell) or loyalist flag protesters who have a record of civil disobedience, dissension and resistance, and an ability to block roads! [Ed – Yet neither organisation use these tactics to highlight the effect of austerity on working class communities?]

The filmmakers themselves are not back living or working in Ireland full time, but it sounds like the themes and location will feature in future work.

There’s a free screening of Eat Your Children in Killarney Cinema at 8.45pm on Thursday 23 April. You can follow the film’s progress on Facebook and if you wish to set up a screening in your festival or community, email eatyourchildrenfilm AT gmail DOT com.

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.