Saturday, November 16, 2019

GAA Maad – purposefully haphazard experimental storytelling #Outburst19

The title sums it up: GAA Maad. Áine and Vickey are mad about the GAA. Mad about the sport. Mad keen on their county team. Mad at the way the hierarchy has tended to relegate women to near invisibility. Mad with other diversity challenges too.

Vickey Curtis is loud and ebullient, a spoken word artist who fell in love with the GAA and her beloved Dublin before she fell in love with a woman. While visual artist and set designer Áine O’Hara – self describing as “arty, queer and into the GAA” – sits and calmly explains the history of the GAA (who knew that hurlers’ families used to get compensation if they died on the pitch?), Vickey overlays her own ornamental commentary.

They point out that the Ladies Gaelic Football Association was only founded in 1974, though ‘laydees’ have been playing for the guts of a century. The men’s game is still firmly in the closet, while women’s sides seem free to express their natural diversity. There are running jokes about the Brits … and Áine’s ever-the-bridesmaid Mayo.

Dramaturgically, GAA Maad is all over the place. The slither of a thread holding together the different scenes is at best tenuous, at worst snapped. The ending appears from nowhere without much warning. The stage entrances and exits are haphazard, with Vickey wandering around the Black Box Green Room carrying a tower of labelled IKEA archive boxes which contain the show’s props, yelling comments at Áine up on stage.

Yet this breaking of the rules and flinging out of convention brings a real warmth to the storytelling. Perhaps a good sign that the DUETS initiative by Irish Theatre Institute, Fishamble: The New Play Company and Dublin Fringe Festival is willing to take risks and experiment with form.

It feels very real, naturalistic rather than polished. Purposefully haphazard. The chattiness is deliberate and early on, Áine discusses her fibromyalgia while Vickie later describes being beaten up, both issues somewhat tangential to the sporting theme, but very relevant to the audience understanding that these two women are not fake. Urban and rural, butch and femme, opposites attract. The pair genuinely support Dublin and Mayo. They love the game, though differ on whether the GAA should be marching in Dublin Pride.

The flimsy feel is underpinned with some thought-out production values. Director Niamh Mc Cann insists that the projected imagery is deliberately brief, flashed up on screen for a few seconds at a time, just long enough to sustain a roar of audience laughter before being blacked out.

Everyone in the audience is given a handout. We sing along to support the doomed notion that “there’s always next year for Mayo”. I leave the show wearing my miniature Mayo flag, chosen on the way into the venue over the dark and sky blue Dublin flag because I instinctively wanted to support the underdog. But I also leave it embellished – as with the recent performance of Spliced – with a new understanding of the nuances of the GAA behemoth, and the origins of the Mayo curse. Now to find out whether Lisburn is in Down or Antrim …

GAA Maad was performed on the closing day of the 2019 Outburst Arts Festival.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Irishman – “it’s what it is” – Scorsese rewards loyal fans with a mob-handed epic

Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran sits alone in a nursing home and reminisces how petty crime led him into the vice like grip of the mob, jumping from swindling customers as he drove around making deliveries of raw beef from his meat wagon, to become the violent enforcer responsible for the dead bodies that needed a hearse.

It’s a strange tale, slowly told, that takes in familiar world events – the Cuban missile crisis, the election and assassination of President Kennedy – and the growth in size of television sets through the eyes of the Frank (Robert De Niro), his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the president of the powerful Teamster union for whom Frank becomes the mob’s liaison.

While Martin Scorsese was able to get the old gang back together for his epic yet gratuitously bladder-extending three-hour 20-minute mob confessional feature, he forgot to include some lines for women. His daughter Peggy (young Lucy Gallina, older Peggy Sheeran) looks on as she grows up, judging her father and ultimately putting distance between their lives after one particular murder hits close to her heart. It’s finely acted, but accompanied by just a handful of words.

Digital de-aging and commanding acting allow the surprisingly spritely principal cast to play their younger selves without distraction. 209 long minutes that could have been a dour TV mini-series allow the story to be told as an episodic slow burn. Shot on 35mm film, it adopts a televisual widescreen aspect ratio, filling the height of the cinema theatre’s screen, and working well for Netflix who picked up the distribution rights (available online from 27 November, just four weeks after cinematic release).

Adapting Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, Scorsese does nothing to glamorise the violence, or redeem the gangsters. Captions indicate the truncated lives of minor characters. Life, or rather death, and loss catch up with everyone. There’s a slight sadness as some people’s final days are spent in penitentiary, though never showing any penance. But it’s never touching.

The Irishman is faultless in many respects. Robbie Robertson’s soundtrack supports the action. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography captures the greys and browns of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. I can only assume that screenwriter Steven Zaillian and film editor Thelma Schoonmaker were under strict orders not to trim harshly.

Yet The Irishman fails to become a great movie. The story is just compelling enough to keep you seated for the mammoth duration and not forfeit the considerable investment of time. “It’s what it is” is how one piece of action is foretold. And that describes the film. Having lasted right through, no one at my public screening bothered to stay to watch the credits. Their loyalty to Scorsese was simply paid by their presence, but the film hadn’t earned any additional affection.

You can catch The Irishman in local cinemas for the next couple of weeks before Scorsese’s shark jumps to Netflix.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Last Christmas – like its subject, this film deserves a second chance (cinemas from Friday 15 November)

Take some strained family relationships, throw in a bit of disadvantage, some seasonal songs, an attractive young woman in an elf suit, the chance of love, and a sprinkling of snow … it’s the must have list of ingredients for any number of Christmas movies that hoped to become all-time classics. And stepping into the queue for plaudits is Last Christmas.

It’s the story of Kate (Emilia Clarke) who fits in auditions for musical theatre roles around long shifts in a kitsch Christmas decoration shop. Originally from Yugoslavia, her family settled in London. Gurny sister Marta (Lydia Leonard) is climbing the career ladder as a lawyer. Her father (Boris Isakovic) drives his minicab to all hours of the morning to avoid her somewhat paranoid mother (Emma Thompson).
“I’m busy. You’re weird. Goodbye.”
Unlucky in work, health and love, Kate becomes transfixed with the radiant figure of Tom (Henry Golding) who hangs around outside the shop. He helps her look up and see past her own ego and baggage to instead care for the people around her.

Michelle Yeoh creates a fabulous boss. Thompson (who wrote the story with her husband) revels in her Balkan accent and sensibility. Quaint back alleyways add a magic sparkle to a London that is normally crushingly busy at December.

The cast are very recognisable, the rich soundtrack is a George Michael tribute album (15 tracks squeezed in), and the only thing missing is Richard Curtis’ name from the credits! And there’s the challenge. Can the film overcome its foibles, plot holes and romcom saccharine to justify its ambition to be a hit?

There is much that could be disliked about Last Christmas. Some of the set pieces are incredibly well edited, but it feels like they’ve been dropped into the rest of the narrative. The homeless plot line is laid on pretty thick. The overly intense flirting between ‘Santa’ and the ‘Boy’ are – I think – knowingly cringeworthy, though somewhat rescued by a cute cabbage tree at the end.

For some people the plot twist will be incredibly obvious, though I’ll own up and say that – like other people in my row at the preview screening – I was completely taken in, having imagined a totally different twist and ignored the mounting pile clues that I was tripping over.

Last Christmas never manages to pull off the slickness of Love Actually. Switching the auditioning table around in the second half adds another layer to the tale, but the references to Brexit are apt yet unnecessary and the commentary on racism would have stood up without this extra context. At times it tries too hard; at other times it doesn’t try hard enough.

Yet, Clarke and Golding have chemistry. His smile is winning, her elf boots are divine, and her accident-prone clumsiness had me gasping out loud. (Sorry to the folk in the row in front for that breach of cinema etiquette.)

Despite a heavy sprinkling of schmaltz and snow, director Paul Feig just about turns Last Christmas into a surprisingly touching tale. Woke and awake to the times we are all living in, the film captures the Christmas spirit and had more than one tear rolling down my cheeks by the time the credits rolled. Which for festive fare in the cinema at this time of year is success. Frivolous fantasy, but good enough to qualify as a film we might all grow fond of.

Last Christmas is released in UK and Irish cinemas including Movie House from Friday 15 November.

This Sh*t Happens All the Time – deeply personal story of love, menace and taking back control (Outburst Arts Festival) #outburst19

I recently wrote about the joy of rehearsed readings of new theatre scripts, and the imaginative freedom their lack of set brings.

Last night’s sold out performance of This Sh*t Happens All the Time as part of Outburst Arts Festival was no exception. Nicky Harley brought to life Amanda Verlaque’s autobiographical monologue about a young woman going up to university in Belfast, falling in love, and receiving a death threat for her trouble.
“He said he’d kill me.”

It’s the early 1990s, and while I was happily learning to code Modula 2 in the QUB Drill Hall and eating sausage rolls in the Beech Room, the central character of this play was rolling with the verbal punches as she dodged slurs about her sexuality and tried to avoid getting a hiding.

Harley stands behind her lectern with the confidence of a newly announced Doctor Who, dressed with a magnificently collared dark suit, a polka dot blouse and a cowboy cravat. It’s a crisp costume that tells the audience she has something to say that we need to hear.

She guides us into Amanda’s world, and we chuckle at her “ill-configured gaydar” and observation that “a short haircut and a pair of dungarees does not a dyke make”. We play along with term after term of tentative flirting with an older female student before a lusty dinner in Smokey Joe’s – I remember those chips fondly – and new love blossoms … chilled only by the emergence of a third, sinister figure in what was intended only to be a strict ménage à deux.

It’s a tale about what seems too good to be true, a short story about jealousy and menace, about the abusive power of a man to shake a young woman’s confidence in everything she wants to achieve at university, about the silence that accompanies not being able to report a homophobic crime that won’t be recognised by the criminal justice system for another couple of decades.

Harley brings the soaring ending to life, owning the reversal of power, the switch from vulnerability to assert her control over the bully. The reaction of the young student’s tutor seals the story. Victory, but at such a price.

That this tale should have happened in order to be told now is appalling and a shame on a that generation. That this tale is still happening in the lives of other women is equally appalling and shame upon our generation. That violence against lesbians is still an issue is just one reason for Outburst Queer Arts Festival to speak out and speak loud at this time of year.

Directed by Paula McFetridge, This Sh*t Happens All the Time was written by Amanda Verlaque and performed by Nicky Harley in The Black Box. Check out my previous post to see my picks from the full Outburst programme which runs until Saturday 16 November.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Abomination: a DUP Opera (Lyric Theatre until Sunday 10 November by the Belfast Ensemble as part of Outburst Arts Festival)

People queueing to pick up their tickets from the box office were heard talking about this being their first visit to the Lyric Theatre. There to watch a brand-new opera, Abomination: a DUP Opera by the creative and talented Belfast Ensemble, that is political in every sense.

The golden thread through the 70-minute performance is formed by Iris Robinson’s June 2008 interviews with Stephen Nolan on his BBC Radio Ulster programme. She described homosexuality as “an abomination” in the same week a gay man was beaten in a homophobic attack.

“I’m asking you again, Iris, to share your understanding of homosexuals with us, not your condemnation” says Nolan. Voiced, rather than sung, by an unflustered Tony Flynn, the presenter’s precision questions certainly stand the test of time and forensically zero in on Robinson’s verbal gymnastics. “I don’t need a lecture from you, Stephen, the Bible is very clear” she retorts when Nolan challenges the tone of her language.

Projections onto he back wall and floor are used to establish the time frame and identify key figures. Conor Mitchell’s libretto uses verbatim words – spoken and written – by Robinson as well as many other DUP representatives discussing homosexuality over the last forty years. It’s almost liturgical. Nothing is added, and at intervals the phrases being sung are visually highlighted in contemporary newspaper reporting to emphasise that nothing has been twisted or taken out of context.

“Peter will not marry Paul in Northern Ireland” explained Jim Wells to the Belfast Telegraph in April 2017. An early, shorter version of Abomination was performed as part of the same festival last year in concert form with the final work now programmed into Outburst Arts Festival long before the notion of Westminster legislation to allow same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland or the notion of a general election.

Standing on the shoulders of the operatic greats, the melodies switch from tragic minor keys to major motifs for the darkest of language (“the curse of God”) counterpointing what many in the audience would hear as hate-filled speech with uplifting, mellifluous phrases. Down below in the pit, Tom Brady conducts the sparky 13-piece orchestra, whose dissonant brass accompanies the word “repulsed”.

It’s amazing that 11 years ago a modern politician could go on the airwaves and speak about “a very lovely psychiatrist who works with me in my office … he tries to help homosexuals”. While shocking in language, tone and intent, the Nolan/Robinson interviews perhaps marked a political turning point which encouraged more moderate unionist voices to speak out and change their own rhetoric and engagement.

Soprano Rebecca Caine’s grey suit and wig are loosely styled on the central anti-hero, but none of the rest of the cast visually imitate the well-known politicians or radio presenter. This isn’t played as a farce. While her diction is crystal clear, her poise and expression hint that not all is well in the life of Robinson.

Dressed in similarly grey suits – a reminder of how many party representatives spoke with one voice over the decades – the performers stand in the visible wings waiting to step onto the stripped-back monochrome staging. Jeffrey Donaldson appears in the form of mezzo Dawn Burns, accessorised with a Boudician union flag shield and trident.

They Are Poofs, a moment full of uproar and joy in the concert version – based Sammy on Wilson’s comments in June 1992 after gay rights activists requested the use of Belfast City Hall when he said “They are poofs. I don't care if they are ratepayers. As far as I am concerned, they are perverts” – is far more subdued in this performance, yet the use of loudhailers quietly emphasises the total lack of listening by the cloth-eared party.

Stunningly lit, alternating between from above, the side and below, Mary Tumelty throws lots of shade and at times turns the cast into LS Lowry-esque stick figures moving in silhouette across the stage.

Large, brightly coloured props decorate the stage. One DUP flunky (played by Matthew Cavan) slowly dresses in sparkling orange platform boots and his trademark outrageous wig, perhaps a reminder that there’s more welcome for diversity among the party faithful than any public representative is yet willing to admit. Baritone Christopher Cull and tenor John Porter complete the solid DUP voices, joined by gutsy chorus of James Cooper, Tara Greene, Caolan Keaveney, Helenna Howie and Connlaodh McDonagh. Away from the arias, the performers combine to surge up to meet Mitchell’s soaring refrains and create some powerful moments of vocal glory.

Robinson’s affair with the local butcher’s son (portrayed beautifully in a wordless dance by angelic Richard Chappell while red, white and blue balloons gently sway in the far corner of the stage) reminds audiences that the politicians comments were made at a fulcrum of personal crisis, vulnerability and self-destruction, though that excuse isn’t available for the decades of other speeches and comments that are featured from Paisley (senior and junior), McCrea, Wilson, Shannon, Donaldson, Wells. Also wordless is the brief appearance of a tiered cake with two well-known puppets sitting on top, providing social context.

As one audience member commented afterwards, to wrap a dinosaur artform around dinosaur politicians is a beautiful thing. Abomination is no hatchet job. If anything, it is all the more powerful for being restrained. Arlene Foster’s comments in June 2018 that “we must respectfully engage and listen to each other's viewpoints” even offer hope, albeit tinged with incredulous scepticism. The countermelody of Jesus Loves Me has been retained from last year and adds a musical twist to the final moments.

Abomination is a powerful reminder to public representatives about the lasting import and impact of their utterances. But more importantly, it’s a cutting edge example of how to take a social issue and translate it into a compelling art-form, with high production values and great performances across the cast, orchestra and creatives.

While no doubt a difficult piece for anyone quoted to contemplate sitting through, it’s also a challenge for many in and connected with the LGBT community who carry the hurt and isolation from years of often unchallenged political rhetoric.

Composed, designed and directed by Conor Mitchell, Abomination’s sold out run in the Lyric Theatre as part of Outburst Arts Festival finishes on Sunday 10 November. A powerful addition to the Belfast Ensemble’s repertoire of original musical theatre, it will surely resurface across Europe, where the politics and themes will resonate.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

After the Wedding – clashing couples, culture, truth and identity in a flawed yet watchable remake (QFT until Thursday 7 November)

Successful media tycoon Theresa (Julianne Moore) organising her stepdaughter’s wedding, selling her business, and planning a philanthropic investment in an Indian orphanage. When Michelle Williams’s character Isabel is dragged to New York to finalise the deal, her already tangled life is further upset in this clash of couples, culture, truth and identity.

Bart Freundlich’s film After the Wedding remakes Susanne Bier’s 2006 Danish original and recasts the protagonists as women. Nothing is terribly subtle with a fallen tree blocking a path and broken eggs in a disturbed nest offering an early foretelling of what is to come. Later fireworks shine light into darkness. We’re soon tripping over the metaphors littering the cinema screen.

A whole sequence of revelations drop with near clockwise precision. Yet while the accompanying bursts of raw emotion offer up impressive acting, they failed to move me in a story that’s intentionally designed to pull at everyone’s heart strings.

Moore gently disguises Theresa’s motivation for putting her affairs in order, while Williams works her way through the palette of how to be conflicted. They can both convey pages of script with a single glance, though Williams is nearly too young to make the storyline add up.

Theresa’s husband Oscar’s linen jacket (worn along with a permanent frown by Billy Crudup) almost creases with nervousness as he comes face-to-face with an old friend. Yet it’s the newly-wed daughter (Abby Quinn) who comes the most interesting character as she tries to understand what’s just happened to her family tree. Quinn also gets the last word, performing her own song over the closing credits.

From a cinematographical standpoint, the drone footage of the earthy Delhi scenes (the opening shot is magnificent, spoiled only by a continuity error three shots later) and the sumptuous New York environs are pretty on the eye. But ethically, the scenes of need in India not only contrast with the opulence of well-to-do US, but also with the money invested in making the film that pleasures an audience without challenging them to live any differently.

While flawed, After the Wedding is worth a trip to the cinema to try and unpack how so much of the film can work so well yet fail to connect with its audience. Unfortunately, the Danish original doesn’t seem to be available to view on demand to see if it delivered a more convincing melodrama.

After the Wedding will be screened in Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 7 November.

Lyric Theatre’s New Playwrights Showcase – Funny Story (Clare Monnelly) and Bug Eyed (Ross Wylie) #BIAF19

Rehearsed readings of new work are fabulous occasions. Theatres should probably charge more for them than full productions. There is a rich variety of form, with freedom to experiment. There are none of the constraints of having to work around the set, hit particular cues to sync up with lights and sound. Instead, standing behind lecterns, actors dresses in black can inhabit previously unseen characters and bring their stories to life. Your imagination fills in everything else, often leaving striking memories lingering for years that cannot be forgotten.

With brand new work being heard in public for the first time, the ending is unknown, and the process of watching the play, or the scenes from a work in progress, requires much more active – and rewarding – listening than attending a well-known work. Any scrappiness in the text or design is as much a sign of potential as weakness. This is what the audience sign up to for the privilege of sneaking a look at early works.

Back for the third year as part of Belfast International Arts Festival, the Lyric’s New Playwrights Showcase has produced readings of six writers’ work, two at a time, over three evenings. The playwrights have been working with the Lyric’s literary manager Rebecca Mairs over six months.

The showcases are always a treat, and I’m always distraught when I can’t make it to all of the shows. Hopefully, Clare McMahon’s Gap Year and Sarah Gordon’s Road will be back on stage as a full production in the coming months and years, along with Rían Smith’s Broken Light and Annie Keegan’s Bodysnatching.

Friday night’s showcase began with Clare Monnelly’s study in bodily autonomy. Funny Story is a genuinely hilarious 55-minute performance quickly built up to its “unexpecting” reveal as a couple in their 30s found themselves plunged into a tumultuous evening of grappling with questions about starting a family. In the middle of this immaculate confusion, they circle around how to articulate their previously unvoiced fears, unearth insecurities with an increasingly sense of wild abandon, all the while rotating through different emotions like a fruit machine whose handle has been pulled.

Writer Monnelly plays 32-year-old Kate opposite Richard Clements who steps into the shoes of her slightly older boyfriend Jason, while Laura Hughes stands in the middle like a heavenly referee. With a touch of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett about Hughes’ intonation, she yells “pause!” at intervals to keep things get out of hand, before her dilemma-posing presence is revealed to the confounded couple, bringing a further level of honesty to proceedings. Kudos to Monnelly for her Olivier Award winning retching.

While the accelerated action is quite science fiction, the playful exploration of relationships and how well we know our partners, and how easily we avoid difficult topics is universal. The writing is smart and the dialogue is sparky. The phased reveal is well executed, and director Patrick J O’Reilly never allows the hysteria to get out of control. It’s sufficiently mad and engrossing that a Radio 4 audience could be entertained by it on a Saturday afternoon. And if it translates into a stage play, I’ll certainly be back to see how the narrator/overseer role is squeezed into the apartment set.

After the interval, the action switched to Ross Wylie’s Bug Eyed. The writer plays office worker, Bug, who is on still buzzing after a particularly intoxicating weekend of chemsex partying in the grubbier parts of Glasgow while celebrating the royal wedding. The enunciation of his stuttered lines helps create a fabulously well sketched character, while Patrick McBrearty throws himself into the multiple roles and mannerisms of office boss Gary, Bug’s mother, father, ex partner’s friend Kate, and many more.

Words fly out of Wylie’s mouth at such a fast pace that it feels they may be about to trip over each other. It certainly captures the sense of being as high as an over-stimulated kite. Yet Bug is always the anti-hero, a little disgusted at his own behaviour, always in avoidance, and quite unpleasant to know. My sympathy in the audience was firmly with McBrearty’s family of characters, who constantly have to weave through the chaotic wake behind self-centred and somewhat destructive Bug.

Dramaturgically, the unhurried disclosure of the motivation for some of Bug’s excesses are maturely scripted, while the flashback-laden timeline is secure enough that the “hour 48” signposts seem unnecessary. Some of the stylistic ‘footnote’ interruptions could be further trimmed. The shadow of Trainspotting inevitably looms over this original story of sweat, lube, smoke and death in Glasgow. The act of glamorising drug use carries with it the responsibility to work extra hard to make a wider point. As a life spinning out of control, Bug Eyed is well formed and good craic to listen to. But I do wonder where Bug’s journey will ultimately take him

The final two readings will be performed in the Lyric Theatre at 7pm on Saturday 2 November.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Spliced – bruisingly honest reflection on the tribal worst of team sports and a challenge for quicker transformation (Chalk It Down Productions at An Cultúrlann until Wed 30 Oct) #BIAF19

Whether you’re steeped in GAA games, rugby, football, road-racing, netball, cricket, racquet sports, running or a complete lazy lump like me, the concept of being fully committed to a culture, the collective ambition of the team, and the shared pursuit is recognisable and universal.

Spliced is writer/actor Timmy Creed’s love letter to hurling. As a child, a teen and young adult he worked his way up the ranks and grew in experience, scored points, won medals and felt like a man.

There’s a physicality and fitness on display as the performer wields his ash hurl and bounces the sliotar off any available wall. Creed could give Belfast International Arts Festival’s closing dance artist Oona Doherty a run for her money when it comes to bouncing off walls. His level of fitness, never mind hand and eye coordination, is impressive to watch.

Simply lit with low-level spots that cast an army of giant shadows aping Creed’s every move on the white wall behind him, the show relies on one performer’s energy to fill the empty space. Slowly, Creed strips down the layers that his GAA activities and management have wrapped around him, choking his mental wellbeing. The soundscape and projection garbles as the values he thought were fundamental to Gaelic games are distorted.

There’s poetry and music in the rhythm of his recital of the 200+ GAA clubs in Cork. There’s a sickness in his recollection of the expected wilder activity – sex, drugs and alcohol – that came with “turning into a robot” and being a full part of the elite tribe.

Another location and a further sport confirm that Creed can bring other activities to life as convincingly as hurling. Broken and questioning, looking at life through “a new lens”, we listen to his reasoning as he figures out whether he can ever return to his beloved Bishopstown GAA, a source of love, loyalty and belonging, but also a mistress that sacrifices the individual for the cause of the tribe.

Spliced throws up a number of questions – including the one in the script: “how amateur is the sport?” – which could equally apply to many different pursuits.

The ending is deliberately low key. The switch from physical to cerebral is a hard shift, and while the audience are with Creed, the change of pace creates a few false endings. Creed may find that there’s more in common between the stage and the pitch than he hoped. The supposed salvation found in using theatre to challenge his old sporting orthodoxy is not immune from mental illness, poor coaching and destructive behaviour.

Spliced becomes a blur of good and evil. It’s got tension, passion, and real heart. Timmy Creed is certainly an artist to watch. You can catch Spliced back in An Cultúrlann on Wednesday 30 October at 8pm as part of Belfast International Arts Festival.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Staging Schiele – one hundred years on, Egon Schiele’s self-portraits resonate with modern dating rituals in this gaunt tale (Shobana Jeyasingh at The MAC as part of #BIAF19)

A young man writhes around on the floor in a state of partial undress taking pictures of himself with a mirror that is clearly representing a smartphone. It’s an early scene from Staging Schiele which brings the naked self-portraiture of Austrian painter Egon Schiele (1880-1918) up-to-date and off the canvas and onto the dance floor. As Schiele, Dane Hurst works the angles, and ponders the aesthetic of his shots while the audience check out his nude-coloured spandex shorts.

Re-entering the stage, Schiele is now physically intertwined with a woman, sharing a garment. Intricate yet jarring movements follow as they fail to separate themselves. Clothes are soon forgotten as they tangle and entangle.

Another woman appears, then a third, dropping into the orbit of this vain artist. It’s as if he’s trying them out, flirting with their bodies. But the power doesn’t all lie in his gaze as the women gauge the competition, with angular gestures and touches, as the slight figures leap up into Hurst’s arms as if feathers in the wind. They slip in and out of the barred set as slickly as Hurst slides them across the stage floor. Played by Catarina Carvalho, Sunbee Han and Estela Merlos, the women’s figures suggests they are models, their sensual touch extending their relationship to that of lovers.

The discordant soundtrack features notes from a piano that seems to have lost its middle octaves, with superposed oohs, and the German words from a couple of Schiele’s poems spoken, sung and whispered, with the occasional euphoric groan and the word ‘stop’ to conclude each scene. One word that cuts through the accompaniment is ‘liebe’, yet it’s clear that self-love is about the only real love on show.

Having hotfooted it from covering the DUP conference for Slugger O’Toole to The MAC to catch the show, there were moments suggestive of a jilted lover, spurned after an initial intoxication, that seemed to mirror the current state of the relationship between the Conservative Party and the DUP. Though no one in Staging Schiele seemed to be left with an engagement ring worth £1 billion …

Shobana Jeyasingh reminds us that one hundred years after his death, Schiele’s penchant for painting himself naked has become common place amongst teens who engage in the trade of nude selfies as part of sick modern mating rituals. Lusty gazes overlap like the woman completing for Schiele’s attention, and there’s seemingly a plethora of vulnerable imagery to weigh up before forming a shallow relationship.

While there’s beauty in the skill and precision of the cast’s interactions, and a supportive set (Ben Cullen Williams) and beams of light (Adam Carrée), as if through prison windows, to complement the dancing, the soundtrack could have been copied from a Guantanamo Bay mixtape that’s becomes a distraction during the second half of the 50-minute performance.

Part of Belfast International Arts Festival which continues until Sunday 3 November. You can read up about my picks from the festival programme.

To Da Bone – it’s dance Jim, but not as we know it – (La)Horde in Grand Opera House until Sat 26 Oct as part of #BIAF19

Each year festival director Richard Wakely brings something to Belfast International Arts Festival that is outside our expectations. This year, (La)Horde’s To Da Bone dance performance is vying to be that ‘extra’ piece.

Jumpstyle is not hip hop. It’s not street dance. It’s not contemporary dance.

It feels like Daft Punk meets dance. Very creative, very focussed, very eye-opening.

It can be danced to a techno beat. But its power and beauty is not diminished by dialling back the wattage and letting the bodies make the music.

Six high energy steps. Simple enough, until you realise the significant energy being expended, the sound of the impact on the floor, the height of the knees and limbs, the movement of the arms. Forwards. Backwards. Sideways. Never looking where they’re going. Never colliding.

The troupe explain during the hour-long show that the movement began in bedrooms, with individuals learning the dance from YouTube videos, practising in front of webcams in the privacy of their rooms, sharing with other underground enthusiasts online.

(La)Horde brought 11 dancers together – ten from across Europe, and one from Canada – and built To Da Bone around them. One was a plumber, another a welder, a teacher, a telecom technician. Now they’re also dancers.

The single woman placed on stage is a deliberate visual admission that jumpstyle has far to go in terms of gender equality. Her presence also nods to many other diversity challenges that the relatively young dance movement will tackle over the coming years. Yet the range of substyles within the genre, the native languages spoken, and the original training of the performers suggests that there is an intrinsic welcome to all.

There is no formal set other than the dancers and the harsh white light beaming down from above their heads. Eleven people fill the stage with colourful shell suit tops, jeans (which don’t rip despite the athletic actions) and flamboyant trainers.

The show starts with the formation of a phalanx. Attitude drips off each performer as they strut out from the bare wings and take their place. Then the movement starts. And for the next ten or more minutes, they become one, never breaking step, never slowing down, never ceasing moving.

Projecting the live feed from a video camera on stage ticks an oft-filled box on the modern theatre bingo sheet. Yet the splendour of how To Da Bone’s projector screen is rigged and (so exquisitely) derigged, the precision of the seemingly haphazard shots, and the outwardly spontaneous interaction of the cast with the camera is both stunning and neatly echoes the spread of jumpstyle across the world.

One final section with a techno Riverdance-like straight chain shows off the upper body power as dancers leapt in and out of the line with the precision of Batman. Members of the Aisling School of Irish Dance tried out the moves for a festival promo video, and their teacher has promised to carry on using the technique at their weekly lessons.

To Da Bone may be painful for the performers on stage, but it’s a powerful experience for the audience. The communal movement touched my emotional chords; the virtual connectedness now translated into a collective troupe spoke powerfully into Europe’s current political turmoil, while the exhaustion and deliberate “evaporation of aggression” seemed contemporary and healthy.

You might not see yourself as a dance enthusiast, but believe me, that’s not a barrier to appreciating the marvel that is To Da Bone as 11 people amaze and astound up on stage.

There’s one more performance of To Da Bone at the Grand Opera House on Saturday evening at 8pm, preceded by Staging Schiele in The MAC at 6pm.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Before – affecting tale of schism and lost parenthood (Fishamble in The MAC until 25 Oct) #BIAF19

Beginning with a monologue before bursting in song and dance, Pat Kinevane explores what it’s like as a father to be cut off from access to your child. There’s anger, reflection, longing, and stacks of hope, as his character Pontius wanders around Clerys shopping emporium in Dublin to find a present for a 21-year-old daughter. As time ticks down on the store’s closing day, he counts the minutes and hours until he is going to finally see after 17 long years.

Before is Kinevane’s fourth solo show with Fishamble, following on from Forgotten, (Olivier award winning) Silent and Underneath. He’s a confident solo performer, dressed in black with bare arms waving, and a fulsome set of expressions on his face, as he animates the 80-minute show. The pain Pontius carries is tangible, expressed through twists and frowns and wind milling limbs, whispers and screams.

The set and costumes are black, with a hint of grey, and occasional white props add to the feeling of exclusion and rejection. Kinevane synchronises his dialogue – delivered in his beautiful lilting Cork accent – with a rich atmospheric soundtrack (recorded by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra) and increasingly less professional and quite personal tannoy announcements that boom across the department store.

What starts as gentle swearing ramps up in tone to match Pontius’ deep sadness and annoyance at his familial estrangement. There’s great use of shadow as Kinevane paces around the bare stage, and one scene lit only by the blinding light emitted from two Android tablets. Jim Culleton’s direction creates symmetry and movement while the writer/performer throws in a quick rumba and even a tap dance to this fantastical tale of lost parenthood.

Named after the great hand-washer, we learn about Pontious’ upbringing. We discover why this rural farmer has left his cows and dog behind to venture into the bustling city centre. We learn why he hates musicals – he may even sing about it – yet they help him understand his life. We get caught up in his rage and his sadness floods the stage. The ending’s twist hit me unawares, a real emotional punch that rather shockingly concludes the story, a reminder that parents going living through this issue don’t always find a happy resolution.

Before is a story of being deliberately wronged and finding the state taking sides in a schism. It’s an affecting story that is often spellbinding, exuberant, full of structural and performance surprises, and showcases the huge talent of Pat Kinevane.

The final performance of Before at Belfast International Arts Festival is on Friday 25 October in The MAC. Check out my preview of other picks from the rich 2019 Belfast International Arts Festival programme which runs until 3 November.

Photo credit: Patrick Redmond and Maria Falconer

The Worst Café in the World – serving up forgotten memories in a fun-filled, shabby pop-up venue (Big Telly as part of #BIAF19)

Big Telly’s pop-up Cathedral Quarter venue reeked of shabby chic as I filed in and found a seat. The tiling is grim, the staff uniforms grubby: it truly could be The Worst Café in the World.

The creative team have established an intimate venue and the three well-established performers sparkle, very comfortable working among the audience, manoeuvring around them and revelling in the danger of the unexpected, ad-libbing around their comments. Some serious shade is thrown across the crowded diner as the staff interact.

The starters whet your appetite as the staff respond to your orders. Be careful what you ask for as Kevin (Keith Singleton) can certainly serve up a strip cheese, while you’re guaranteed to trigger some other surreal delights by Nina (Nicky Harley) and Maisie (Christina Nelson) as you learn to live with your choices. Vittoria Cafolla collaborated on the smart and sassy writing.


The revolving door into the unseen kitchen allows us to overhear the fraught conversations between the hardworking front-of-house team. There are many unexpected entrances and exits. Ryan Dawson Laight’s set is full of surprises and reused elements. Eleven speakers allow Garth MacConaghie’s soundscape to leak out of all kinds of nooks and crannies. Improvised lights cast spotlight key moments and cast beautiful shadows. Large scale effects are injected into the miniature venue.

The show’s menu metaphor continues with the sharing platter’s collective memories of supposedly Kodak moments that can so quickly turn into family nightmares. Beyond the initial silliness, director Zoe Seaton gradually darkens the mood as The Worst Café explores the concept of what happens if you make the management of memories transactional. Who would you delete from your recall? With resource in ‘The Cloud’ at a premium, which recollections will you keep and which will you dispose to the giant wastebasket forever.

But the dystopian vision is only beginning. The suggestion of a memory amnesty, with everyone in NI giving up memories of the Troubles, is pretty disturbing. This potent notion is somewhat left hanging, unresolved. But the thought sticks with you as we watch the tight catering team deal with their own forgetfulness.

As a piece of site-specific theatre, Big Telly’s The Worst Café in the World is full of surprises, entertains throughout, and leaves a memorable taste in the audience’s mouth that will keep them reflecting long after they escape the venue.

The Worst Café in the World is part of Belfast International Arts Festival and supported by Cathedral Quarter Trust. It’s a popular eaterie and all tables have been booked until Sunday 27 October, by which time the café team fully expect to have been chased out of Belfast by angry Scores on the Door inspectors. But they have plans to pop up in Armagh, Ballycastle, Lisburn and Newtownards in March.

Photo credit: Peter Nash

Monday, October 21, 2019

Dog DLA Afternoon – a bank heist goes south as a loyalist faction declares independence from Lisburn (Grand Opera House until Saturday 2 November)

Two comrades from the Dundonald Liberation Army, fighting for independence from Lisburn [spit] Council, bite off more than they can chew when they mistakenly hold up the wrong sort of bank. Sadie is a different type of volunteer, handing out donated tins and household supplies at the food bank. Her heavily pregnant niece is doing the books in the back office and doesn’t need the shock that awaits her when she steps in to find Aunt Sadie tied up as a hostage.

Welcome to Dog DLA Afternoon, inspired by Sidney Lumet’s 1975 Dog Day Afternoon starring Al Pacino, though I’m not sure many of us in the audience could have made the connection. The tense hostage situation results in a lot of shouting before the interval, but Stephen G Large can certainly write comedy, and there’s a tirade of punchlines as the show begins, with director Tony Devlin ensuring that one peel of audience laughter has hardly died away before the next begins.

The brigadier – Davy ‘the Venezuelan’ Taylor – is tough, tattooed and not afraid to wave his gun about. Matthew McElhinney manages his character’s internal stockroom full of secrets and gets a warm “awhhh” from the surprisingly woke audience when Davy admits that he has to “wear a balaclava every day of my life” to hide his true identity.

Under Davy’s command is old mate John ‘Crazy Horse’ McCracken, played by Matthew Forsythe, a weedy fellow who understands that the tooled-up pair are on a mission to raise funds to bring a shipment of guns from Labia. Sexual jokes abound, most of them situationally funnier than they are crass, though the (what seems like a nearly inevitable) gay storyline and gags about ‘trannies’ are less secure parts of the script that at times veer very close to being disrespectful rather than satirical.

Antoinette Morelli takes no prisoners as Sadie, with a commanding on-stage presence while Karen Hawthorne plays her niece – very convincing in labour – as well as a policewoman and a negotiating envoy with an offer to build a wall around Dundonald to keep out the Lisburnians. Unfortunately, both women spend much of the second half off-stage talking through a megaphone as the men’s lonely peril ramps up and the Facebook-obsessed PSNI up the pressure.

Ivan Little pops up with video news reports – some work better than others – while gangsta rap booms out during the interval. The self-reflective moments don’t have quite enough pathos to make up for the lost energy, but in general the Dundonald Liberation Army translates from Facebook to the stage a lot better than Belfast Girls made the transition.

You can catch the madness that is Dog DLA Afternoon in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 2 November. There’s a shopping trolley outside the Baby Grand entrance if you’re attending and would like to make a tinned donation to a local food bank.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Outburst Queer Arts Festival 2019 – previewing some of the operatic, theatrical and cinematic treats in this year’s programme (8-16 November) #outburst19

In my opinion, the Outburst Queer Arts Festival punches above its weight. Now in its 13th year, the week-long festival has matured into a teenager, yet not lost any of its youthful charm. Over the last couple of runs it has presented some of the most memorable, satisfying and often challenging performances of the year. No one who attended Damage could ever forget the third person in that relationship! Quartered: Belfast, A Love Story set the standard for theatrical audio tours in the city, while Tactics for Time Travel in a Toilet produced experimental work in an immersive set.

Running across Belfast between Friday 8 and Saturday 16 November, this year’s festival opens with the Belfast Ensemble’s Abomination: A DUP Opera on the Lyric Theatre’s main stage between Thursday 7 and Sunday 10 November. Staged last year in a concert form, the work has been expanded and now lasts a full hour with a quartet of singers, some drag, and a libretto composed entirely of verbatim historical comments by DUP members on gay rights, trans lives and marriage equality, challenging politicians about the power of their words and what sometimes becomes the legitimisation of hate speech under a banner of freedom of speech. [reviewed]

International perspectives often help understand local experiences. A double bill of performances from Lebanon and Egypt will take to the Brian Friel Theatre stage on Saturday 9 November at 11.30am: Dima Mikhayel Matta’s This is Not a Memorised Script, This is a Well-Rehearsed Story is a personal reflection on relationships, childhood and prejudice in Beirut while Ismail Fayed’s What the Nadim Knew: By Sunset, By the Nile, We Sat and Sang uses the music from a 1955 concert to tell the story of a singer and actress in a clashing and contested period of Arab history.

Last year’s festival included a series of rehearsed readings on the Sunday afternoon. Among those performances was Stacey Gregg’s Hatchet Jinny, a mixed-media memoir, exploring her own identity by starting with her no-nonsense grandmother who had a perchance for breaking apart furniture when her patience was tried. Experience the updated version in Ulster Sports Club on Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 November.

That same Sunday afternoon, Amanda Verlaque’s showcased a draft of The Party. This year’s she back with a different play in development. This Sh*t Happens All the Time is an intimate one woman play performed by Nicky Harley about two women in love, a jealous and threatening ex-boyfriend, queer baiting and asks what still needs to change in society with incidents of hate crime on the rise. The Black Box Green Room on Monday 11 November.

A 1971 BBC documentary about love across the religious divide is the starting point for Trouble, a new film directed by Mariah Garnett which tells a story of a woman reuniting with her estranged father. The debut film comes straight from its premiere at London Film Festival and will show in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Tuesday 12 November.

GAA Maad by Vickey Curtis and Áine O’Hara fuses a passion for sport with queer politics and identity. Two big-hearted fans are searching for Sam in this play whose dramaturgical development has been supported by Fishamblke abnd Dublin Fringe Festival. The Black Box Green Room on Saturday 16 November.

Video installation Far From the Reach of the Sun runs from Friday 8 to Friday 29 November in the Ulster University Belfast campus. Set in a near future where a government-approved drug can alter your sexuality, Kevin Gaffney’s film reflects on the church and medical profession’s history of interfering with the lives of LGBTQ+ people.