Tuesday, November 24, 2015

All Through The House - dark comedy with a dysfunctional family at Christmas (Crescent Arts 4-19 Dec)

All Through The House is an alternative offering this Christmas in the Crescent Arts Centre on University Road. Playwright Judith King describes it as a “dark comedy about a dysfunctional family coming together for Christmas dinner” with “slightly disastrous consequences”.

If you want an alternative to panto yet want to avoid deadly serious theatre then All Through The House might be for you. Yet look underneath the surface and you’ll find a more complex structure and meaning, a trademark of Tinderbox’s work (Lally the Scut being a great recent example). Contemporary Northern Ireland and clashes of culture aplenty.
“I hope that people recognise that a truthfulness about their own awkward family scenarios in it. This family are a blended family. The heart of the family are a divorced couple called Arthur and Carol Moore. They’ve decided to come together for Christmas dinner – the first time they’ve seen each other in five years – for the sake of their slightly neurotic adult daughter Ruth.

“Arthur is going to bring his new partner, the woman he left his wife for, and she’s going to bring her daughter who used to be their daughter’s best friend. So already you’ve got quite a tangled web. And then into that scenarios comes Carol’s drop dead gorgeous work colleague and all hell slightly breaks loose.”

Judith has “always wanted to write” and has previous started to compose film scripts. But she admits finding theatre “way more fun”. Neither Tinderbox nor Judith set out to write a Christmas show. “No one was more surprised than me ending up writing a Christmas play. It wasn’t really my intention” she says.

Her flair for comedy had been obvious at Swing State Cabaret, an evening of new satirical material by Tinderbox young writers, about and on the eve of the US Presidential election. What started our as an awkward dinner developed into the idea of a Christmas with “two very different families with two very different ways of celebrating Christmas coming together in a car crash situation … too juicy material to let go of”.

Hanna Slattne is the dramaturg at Tinderbox and first worked with Judith in their Young Writers programme back in 2009.
“Then she came through our Graduate Scheme in 2012 where we looked at satire – which is where this comedy’s satire flame was lit. And then out of that she got an opportunity to commission and started to develop this play with us and then after the successful Pick’n’Mix reading of the first half as a work in progress we commissioned her to finish this. So it’s been a long but a very brilliant journey to see someone grow … she’s worked really hard and this is a very, very good script. I’m so proud of it.”

A dramaturg acts as a coach in their ongoing relationship with the writer. Hanna explains:
“I know about theatre. I’m not the writer and I’m not a writer. But I do know how theatre works and functions and I also know what support writers coming to this challenge for the first time might need. It’s about having an ongoing artistic discussion all the way through.”

Judith acknowledges that “over the course of writing this I’ve gone wildly off piste in certain drafts”. But Hanna asks the right questions and brings it back into shape.

In a recent blog post, director Patrick J O’Reilly says:
“All Through The House beautifully captures the complex grey area between love and hate in couples and family life and that has been my prime source of inspiration throughout the rehearsal process. By removing clichés and stripping bare the emotional core so brilliantly crafted in Judith’s play we are making a visceral piece of work that is proving to be both humorous as it is touching, which in my opinion is the very best kind of theatre we can make.”

Judith has at the first week of rehearsals with the talented cast (Victoria Armstrong, Bernadette Brown, Maria Connolly, Mary Jordan, Stephen Beggs and Shaun Blaney).
“I think the way Patrick and the cast are working has been so enjoyable to watch. They’ve been up there, scripts down, and bringing so much humour to it. So it’s been really interesting to see how they’re lifting the script from what’s on the page.”

Does watching the rehearsal process change how she sees her play?
“Not as much as you would think. This is the first time I’ve done this but it was slightly like watching someone else’s play, in a good way. I was able to sit back … I don’t feel married to it being one particular way. And [the casts’] instincts are all really good. So even if it’s different from how I imagined it, it’s usually better, so I’m grateful to them!”

All Through The House opens in the Crescent Arts Centre on Friday 4 December and runs through until Saturday 19 December. Suitable for ages 14+. Tickets priced at £14 (£10 concession).

Friday, November 20, 2015

Is Christianity holding Northern Ireland back? Listen back to #thebigdebateni

Around 400 people filled the Stormont Hotel’s ballroom tonight to hear Michael Nugent and David Robertson debate the question “Is Christianity holding Northern Ireland back?

The event was organised by local churches. 150 tickets were distributed by atheist and humanist groups, 150 by the local churches and the remaining 150 were available online on a first come first served basis. You can now listen back to the full evening.

The format gave the two speakers ten minutes each to make their case before they spent twenty minutes interrogating each other. Then the audience got to have their say and pose questions and respond to what they had heard.

Michael Nugent (@MickNugent) chairs the advocacy group Atheist Ireland and was first to speak.

Does religion hold NI back? Yes. Because religion holds everything back. And particularly when it’s entangled with politics. He suggested that sectarian was institutionalised in the Good Friday Agreement/Belfast Agreement and later quoted Caleb Foundation’s Wallace Thompson who said “All legislation should reflect Biblical reality”.

Nugent argued that “religion corrupts our sense of reality”. The more implausible the claim, the higher the barrier to believe it. Yet with religion it is the reverse. In fact, religion wants us to believe implausible and untestable claims.

Faith can be a problem in the secular world too, in communism and the free market. Eventually with secular faith it bumps into reality – the free market proves not to work – but religious faith and claims about the afterlife remain untestable.

Religion also corrupts our sense of morality.

David Robertson (@TheWeeFlea) is director of Solas Centre for Public Christianity and is Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. started by admitting that he didn’t recognise his religion in Michael’s introductory speech.

The state tells us how to educate our children what we should believe. Christianity can prevent the state becoming a form of fascism, of corporate control.

He argued that Christianity plays a large role in social action. Where were the atheist food banks? If you remove religion from society, would atheists move in to fill the gap? He suggested that atheists take over Christian schools ‘cuckoo like’ and impose their atheist views. He didn’t want Christianity removed from society … it changes society.

Robert admitted that not all religion is good. And not all Christians are good. Some were stupid. But how can you be for tolerance but also want to remove or eradicate religion from society.

The interrogation was good natured, though full of unpicking questions as well as much arguing with alleged false assumptions behind questions.

While the section taking questions from the audience attempted to wrestle the debate back towards the topic of Northern Ireland, most of the interaction was David Robertson (who defended himself against allegations of being smug and lacking grace).

During the questions, the chair of Atheist NI mentioned that they have a food drop (in conjunction with FareShare) at their meeting this Sunday morning at 11am in The MAC.

David Robertson saw merit in some of the writings of Pope Benedict XVI (though he’d got Mary “wrong”) and described him as a “Christian brother”. At one point there was agreement on stage with a shared view that people who don’t want to bake cakes should not be prosecuted.

By the end of the evening there had been more heat (and hot air) than light. Views from outside Northern Ireland bring welcome fresh insight and less predictable responses to familiar questions. Yet trying to play Top Trumps with atheism and Christianity overall reinforces beliefs and prejudices rather than builds bridges. The kind of sentiment monitoring that accompanies national political leader debates might have usefully shown how the sections of the audience reacted to the arguments being proffered on stage.

Michael Nugent and David Robertson will be reunited with William Crawley and taking calls on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback this afternoon.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Scorch - Exploring gender, uncertainty and where the law meets teenage naivety (The MAC until 21 Nov)

During the hour long performance of Scorch, Kes recounts her experience growing up as a boyish yet “debonair” eight year old with a collection of natty waistcoats, embedded as a teenager in the masculine world of gaming, yet with “boobs … that just pop up overnight” and don’t fit her body image.
“Everyone thinks I fancy Ryan Gosling. But no. I want to be Ryan Gosling.”

Ciaran Bagnall’s translucent stalactites hang over the circular stage surrounded by amphitheatre seating (last used for Villa and Discurso in the Chilean trilogy season of plays). Like any young person, Kes is interrupted by alerts and beeps as new messages arrive on new computer … and the overhead lights glow blue. Carl Kennedy’s sound design includes a playful riff on the Skype ring tone that the Ulster Orchestra should add to their concert repertoire.

A single-handed show performed in the round could be an lonely experience for an actor, but as Amy McAllister moves around the room, she slowly befriends the audience who form the rest of the support group she attends.

It’s a place where Kes can feel “free – like online – except in a real room with [bad] coffee”.

Over a period of years we listen to her explore her gender and make the leap from online friendships to real world relationships. Yet when Kes falls in love with Jules, her hood and hat are not the only source of disguise and confusion. Going with the flow, naïve Kes neither feels the need nor is comfortable raising the subject of her internal conflict.
“A girl can’t be charged with raping another girl.”

A court summons for sexual assault and fraud shocks the audience that has relaxed into the story of discovery and growing confidence. Was Jules deceived? Is there any chance Kes was grooming Jules for sex? What started out as romantic has broken laws and hurt people. “Do we have to fill out a questionnaire before going into a bar?” asks a friend.

Amy McAllister delivers the lines with a rhythm and a fragility that brings Scorch to life. (She was recently on stage in the Lyric Theatre’s The Shadow of a Gunman playing the 23-year old patriot Minnie Powell with fidgety feet and expressive eyebrows that got her into trouble.) It’s an outwardly simple yet engaging piece of theatre that marries a strong performance with an effective set and interrogates our understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation.
“Made into a tragic character … played in a game at maximum difficulty.”

The brilliance of Stacey Gregg’s script and Prime Cut’s production is that there are no attempts to produce neat endings, no moralising, and no campaigning. (The play is inspired by three or more real world transgender examples.) Tuesday night’s audience left the theatre and stood leaning on the first floor railings in the MAC talking about the issues and wondering where right and wrong lay.

Well worth getting along to The MAC to see Scorch before the run – and Outburst Arts Festival – ends on Saturday 21 November.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Güeros - hop into the back of a car and explore 1999 Mexico City (QFT 20-25 Nov)

Güeros a bold project for new director Alonso Ruiz Palacios and hopefully the first in a line of imaginative feature length productions that throw off the shackles of tradition and expected form.

It’s 1999. Teenage Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) is too much of a handful for his mother who sends her pale-faced “undercooked” son off to live in Mexico City with an older and darker-skinned brother who is meant to be at college.

There are student protests, but Fede (nicknamed Sombra and played by Tenoch Huerta) is not participating. Instead he’s “on strike from the strike” and hanging out with Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) in his high-rise concrete apartment with no electricity other than what he steals via a child living in the flat below.

Once they escape their sofa, the trio drive around in a beat up car, but never quite have the speed or energy to escape orbit around their tiny world. Even their quest to find enigmatic folk musician Epigmenio Cruz (said to have influenced Bob Dylan) fails to engender excitement.

Everyone on-screen is disaffected. Purposelessness is everywhere. Even the student protest movement that has taken over the local college spends days arguing with itself over direction.

Student activist and Latin American Studies student Ana (Ilse Salas) adds a female voice to the film when she rekindles her friendship with Sombra and joins the trio. But Ana does little to shake off the all pervasive lethargy. We’re treated to drug-addled hallucinations, panic attacks, fixations with different types of breakfast, stolen carrots, poverty, a trip to the zoo and the recklessness of dropping objects from tall structures on top of unsuspecting passers-by.

The three act, 4:3 ratio black and white film makes up for its low budget by throwing innovation at the sound scape and the creative visual feel of the 106 minute long road trip.

The traffic jams and blocked roads mean that no one in Güeros is going anywhere fast. The film frustratingly drags towards the end, but that’s partly its intention. If the cycle of despair didn’t rub off on the audience, we wouldn’t have properly experienced life in this unfashionable and untouristy region of Mexico City!

You can catch Güeros in the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 20 and Wednesday 25 November.

[The film’s title Güeros refers to a slang term for fair-skinned/blond-haired Mexicans.]

Friday, November 06, 2015

He Named Me Malala: the story of parental influence and a teenage activist with a voice for the voiceless (QFT until 12 Nov)

The extent to which parents shape the lives and values of their children is one of the themes that the documentary film He Named Me Malala explores over ninety minutes.
“It is better to live like a lion for one day than to live like a slave for 100 years”

Narrated animation tells the ancient Pashtun story of Malalai of Maiwand. Ziauddin Yousafzai named his baby daughter after the Pashtun heroine who was killed for speaking out. Her very name embodies a sense of destiny, but it was just one part of the jigsaw of values laid out for Malala by her parents.

Ziauddin taught Malala to raise her voice and rebel against customs and traditions. He demonstrated overcoming adversity (he’s a powerful and influential public speaker despite having a stammer) and showed how to stand up for what is right to the girl who at the age of 15 would be shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to suggests that girls needed to go to school.

There are remarkable scenes (which invade Malala’s privacy) captured in the ambulance and in hospital immediately after the shooting. Through interviews at the family’s new home in the UK, following Malala on trips abroad and using archive footage the film’s audience piece together the timeline leading up to the attack, and the Yousafzai family’s life since the attack on 9 October 2012.

Ziauddin set up and ran a school for girls. He felt it would be “sinful” not to speak out about the Taliban’s suppression of female education. When schools came under attack, Malala and her family became refugees in their own country, displaced from home in the Swat Valley.

Under a pseudonym, Malala wrote a blog about education in Pakistan for the BBC Urdu service. But it wasn’t enough. When Ziauddin gave his daughter the opportunity to speak out in her own name and she grasped the chance. He knew the risks but never expected the Taliban to try to kill a child.
“There is a moment when you have to choose to be silent or to step up”

Did her father make this choice for her? “No”, she says.
“My father only gave me the name Malalai. He didn’t make me Malalai. I chose this life.”
She dismisses any need for anger even though nerve damage has affected one side of her face: “Islam teaches us humanity, equality, forgiveness”.

Malala carries physical scars from the attack. She introduces cinema goers to her friends on the bus who were also injured in the shooting. The girl who has honorary degrees and has been on the front of TIME magazine has an incredibly private side and teasing (and being teased by) her two younger brothers, worries about only getting 61% in Physics and is incredibly bashful about even talking about cultural taboos like asking a boy out. She finds it “quite difficult to tell [her fellow school] girls who I really am”.

Yet in an instant she switches from watching Minions on a tablet to answering questions on the phone about the threats to her life if she returned to Pakistan. In conversation with world leaders the spirited girl takes the opportunity to pointedly question US President Obama about drone strikes encouraging extremism, and while visiting Nigeria to highlight the school girls abducted by Boko Haram she fearlessly told Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to take responsibility and “listen to his people”.

It’s an extraordinary juxtaposition. A profound world leader who we watch studying for her GCSEs, mixing rockstars and homework. Conservative, shy and reserved … yet given a microphone and put in front of a crowd, through clear delivery, pace and a waving finger she is a professional orator with a message she wants to impart.

The (joint) winner of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, Malala is aware that her own story is not unique. And the millions of girls deprived of education drives her to share her story for their benefit.

Speaking about Living Well with Gender and Power at last Friday night’s gala celebration of Corrymeela’s 50th anniversary, the US Peace Institute’s Kathleen Kuehnast referred to this film:
In this regard, most of us have heard of the remarkable courage of Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist for girls’ education.

This month a movie on her life comes out: He Named Me Malala. The “He” in the title refers to her father, and this is important as we often do not tell the story of Malala’s father and his persistence as well as courage to defy all of the social norms pertaining to fathers and men in a highly conservative area of Pakistan.

Men need to be a part of the change on gender equality, and not be kept apart in a separate silo.
As a father with a young daughter I found the film challenging as I learnt how Ziauddin’s actions had threatened Malala’s life. Was the education of girls in Pakistan more important than his own daughter’s safety? What kind of a father was he? By the end of the film I realised I was more and more convinced that he’s a good role model worth examining further.

He Named Me Malala opens tonight at the Queen’s Film Theatre and runs until Thursday 12 November.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

The Flood - are their relationships more destructive than Hurricane Sandy? (Lyric Theatre until 8 Nov)

Daniel McCabe’s play The Flood brings us into the living room of a New York apartment during Hurricane Sandy. A few blocks away residents have been evacuated. But Aidan and Eve are sticking it out, hosting a dinner party for Mary and Charlie.

Recently having spent a day shifting books and building bookcases, I appreciate the shelves of books in Ciaran Bagnall’s apartment set (that sits on the stage at a jaunty angle). The book spines all face inwards which creates an interesting visual effect.

Two large wooden-framed windows look down onto a busy street. The couples eat their chilli around a table. A couch offers comfort at the other side of the room. Phil Moffa’s sound design allows the wind to howl throughout the eighty minute performance.

Each relationship is strained, but it’s difficult to believe that these couples were ever really in love. Stereotypical Derry man, hard-drinking and sweary Aidan (played by John Duddy) got lost in the pub while out buying last minute supplies. He takes the piss out of Eve’s need for duct tape – a prudent requirement borne out of her experience of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

A week ago Charlie (James Russell) found his brother Martin after a suicide attempt. Martin’s now in hospital and Charlie is preoccupied and morose, increasingly tetchy with his Australian girlfriend Mary (Sarah Stephens) who is about to take a role in a “market research-driven network television” sitcom. Mary has questionable common sense: who wears a crop top and jeans half way up your calves when going out for dinner in the middle of a storm?

There’s no interval and no let up as the waves of depression batter the apartment. Aidan knows stuff about Charlie that Mary doesn’t know, and Charlie doesn’t know Aidan knows. And given the opportunity, Eve will psychoanalyse everyone except herself. They’ll tear each other apart long before the storm.

Eve’s the strongest character with her dancing eyes and pointy elbows. When Kimberlee Walker is not on stage, her warmth is greatly missed. The script burdens Aidan with long monologues, delivered in an accent that’s neither west coast nor Derry. Sarah’s delivery of Mary’s ballad about the 2011 Queensland Floods could have been a highlight of the last ten minutes of the play but the singing lacks passion and becomes a mere plot device to turn the page into the final act.
“Sometimes there’s more honour in carrying something than dragging it out into the light.”
Secrets and deception are a theme running through The Flood. One moment of risk with a secret shared late in the play informs the audience but fails to develop the plot.

Northern Ireland knows about flooding and dysfunctional relationships, but hurricanes are outside our local experience. Maybe that’s why this play left me feeling cold, and detached from the cast and the plot. Tragedy lacks the entertainment factor of comedy, but it can leave you enthralled ... if it works hard enough. Overall I was disappointed with The Flood. Amongst the bedlam in Lower East Side there was little sense of self discovery and certainly no redemption. The human storm was not diverted from its path. A shorter punchier script with a more dramatic ending (probably involving defenestration) would have been an improvement.

The Flood runs in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 8 November.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

NI Opera's Turandot: spectacular music and theatre (and less brutal than I'd imagined)

Cardboard boxes were stacked the full height of the Grand Opera House stage. Lines of fluorescent tube lighting hung low above the sweat shop floor, itself covered with a grid of 35 cardboard boxes, each with a baby doll lying neatly on top. Blue uniformed workers wore facemasks, presumably to protect them from harmful chemicals in the factory.

From the outset Turandot had scale, made possible by the co-production between Northern Ireland Opera, Théâtre Du Capitole and Staatstheater Nuremberg.

It was a few minutes before anyone sang, but the oppression was palpable. And then a besuited figure appeared high up amongst the boxes, watching over the scene below. Power, control, fear, compliance, systemic intimidation, the cheapness of life, the fruitlessness of work: it was all there in front of our eyes.

Being opera, the subtlety dial was turned down to zero and everything was being to extreme. When a knife was pulled out of a suit pocket, it was both large and already dripping in blood, suggesting regular use. A bit of onstage vomiting added to the grittiness.

The Ulster Orchestra with a turbo-boosted brass section thundered through Puccini’s score in the pit below the stage. If I closed my eyes the music was heavenly; when I opened them I realised I was watching hell.

The chorus was enormous with thirty or forty workers/singers on stage at anyone time. They filled the width and depth of the stage – standing and lying – and created a wall of sound that could compete with the orchestra.

Despite having a really good seat in the circle, like Salome, I found it very difficult to distinguish the words being sung on stage. The paper programme had a two page synopsis of the three act story, but with no interval there was no time to catch up and read ahead once the performance started. But snatched phrases, the on stage acting and the sense of emotion still gave me a real sense of what was going on, even if I was left light on detail about the riddles that Calaf needed to answer to claim the hand of Turandot, and the counter challenge he set her when he solved the riddles but she was unwilling to commit.

The beauty of the vocal harmonies from Ping, Pang and Pong – three internal security apparatchiks – was at odds with the increase in the level of terror and bullying heralded by the threesome’s presence on stage. Hanging cardboard signs round people’s necks added to the humiliation though also helped signpost the plot to the audience.

At one point, a children’s chorus from St Anne’s Cathedral Choir sang beautifully over the heads of the audience from up in the gods, their sweet voices wafting down over the less virtuous action.

This production of Turandot was packed full with memorable imagery. The overalls were a very uncommon shade of blue but it toned perfectly with the brown boxes. It’ll be the only time in my life I see someone set fire to the frame of bicycle and then stand over it warming their hands!

Around 200 Chinese lanterns gently floated up and down above the chorus of workers: mesmerising albeit fairly pumpkin-eqsue given the Halloween weekend of the performance. Two harnessed aerialists descend on ropes from the ceiling and were freed though their significance was lost on me.

Less beautiful but equally stark was the image of Ping, Pang and Pong wanting to “sing songs of love until the morning” yet gurning about the endless cycle of executions they had to oversee … while they changed into white wedding dresses and high heels, brought on stage by a limp woman with bloodied knickers and red tape over her mouth. Pulling tulips from her costume gave a sense of deflowering without the implied violence needing to be enacted. Did I mention the maidens wrapped in cling film brought on to tempt the Calaf?

“Can you not let me die without another young man’s death weighing on my conscience” sang Turandot’s father, the Emperor. He was at his wit’s end and wearing an oversized nappy. Pulling off her wig, the bald Turandot looked not unlike the dolls being manufactured around her.

Normally sung out of context from the rest of the opera we now expect Nessun Dorma to sound like a passionate anthem. In the midst of all of this on-stage misery it took on a much more melancholic tone.

Stripped of their dignity and their blue overalls and left standing in their utilitarian underwear (there’s nothing racy about Turandot), the bruises and evidence of relentless abuse were exposed.

The final scenes after the wig came off left a bald Turandot looking forlorn and very like the hairless plastic dolls she was pulling the limbs off. There was no happy ending.

I attended the final performance on Sunday 1 November. I’d heard a range of opinion beforehand. As the curtain came down on the one hour forty five minute performance, I honestly left the theatre and reflected that it had been a lot less brutal that I’d been advised. Maybe I’ve a high threshold, but much of the more gruesome and twisted abuse was indirect and disguised through symbolism.

Was it uncomfortable to watch? Yes. But a nightmare that warns society not to let the powerful take advantage of the poor does not need to be sugar-coated. It’ll be a long time before the Grand Opera House stage is graced with so many performers.

As an opera you didn’t even need a programme, never mind a foreign language, to pick up the gist of a story and sense what was going on. Contemporary themes echoed from the stage in abundance: poor working conditions, tyrannical management methods and people enslaved in roles performing tasks they can no longer stomach. Long may NI Opera use storytelling to powerfully stir up issues and plant them in local heads. And long may their (paltry) funding pay for – not staff but – performers and musicians and technicians to tell big stories that stretch our minds.

Rather than being blood curdling, Calixto’s Turandot was almost where horror met pantomime. The set and lighting design was superb; the music, cast, scale and sense of drama was spectacular. A stunning end to Belfast International Arts Festival from NI Opera.

You can catch my interview with NI Opera’s artistic director Oliver Mears on NvTv.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Wolf and Peter: the one where a character with a deadly past gets to have a future #BelFest

David Bolger’s The Wolf and Peter takes Prokofiev’s traditional tale and turns it on its head, relaying it through the eyes of the Wolf.

There’s a Peter and the Wolf-sized gap in my childhood. So doing my research before the show I asked my daughter what the story was. “The Wolf eats the Duck, Peter kills the Wolf, and the Duck is still alive inside him.” She left out the Huntsmen, the Cat and the Bird.

Tonight’s performance by CoisCéim mixed visual humour and slapstick with lots of contemporary dance, stylised and at times remarkable synchronised. True to the original, each character has a different style of music and motif – the wolf beat boxes and break dances – and some of Prokofiev’s themes are still recognisable.
Early one morning, Peter opened the gate and walked out into the big green meadow.

Monica Frawley’s set places a coppice of stylised tall thin tree trunks in the centre of the stage. Vivid blocks of colour light up the otherwise dark stage.

Much of the dance performance has the feel of a silent movie, with brilliant live accompaniment coming from the talented fingers of Conor Linehan who plays an upright piano on stage for most of the fifty minute show. (Conor also has the most fabulous mad scientist hair.) There were a few non-standard sounds coming out of the piano, reminiscent of PianOrquestra, a 2013 festival production. And it’s good to see another festival show with snow!

While the single section of dialogue after twenty five minutes helped me clarify which character was which, it jarred against the otherwise nearly wordless performance. Unacquainted with the original tale, the appearance and actions of the Grandfather – dressed up as a grandfather clock – still bamboozle me, though the slippers were a lovely touch.

There’s a hint of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth film in the Duck’s death scene as the red lighting foretells the demise of the flat-footed character. But any feeling of peril amongst children in the audience is quickly eradicated as parts of the costume are comically hurled over the piano.

Wednesday evening’s show was very informal, with spontaneous applause erupting at various points and the chittering of youngsters analysing the performance.

Wojciech Grudziński, Ivonne Kalter, Jonathan Mitchell, Emma O’Kane and Mateusz Szczerek confidently inhabit the multiple characters they play and the music blends so well with the choreography.

The titular inversion is the clue that the Duck is not going to end up victorious over the Wolf. In fact to paraphrase a local politician, audiences go home from The Wolf and Peter realising that people with a past can also have a future … once they’ve been tamed. The inclusion of this allegory in the festival programme is perhaps coincidentally yet unwittingly timely given the current political deadlock in Northern Ireland.

The Wolf and Peter runs in the MAC until Friday 30 October. Suitable for ages 6 and over … though good luck answering the “What’s Peter doing now?” questions if you don’t know the story.

RIP Duck.

In conversation with NI Opera’s Oliver Mears ahead of Turandot (30 Oct-1 Nov) #BelFest

Oliver Mears is the artistic director at Northern Ireland Opera. The company’s co-production of Turandot is being performed in the Grand Opera House at the end of the week as part of Belfast International Arts Festival.

I interviewed Oliver recently on NvTv and he explained that his first proper encounter with opera came at the age of 22 when as a student he attended a performance of the little known Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk. The combination of “the powerful opera, strong production, the music and the staging” had “an electrifying effect” on the young director who soon switched from theatre productions to work on operas.

Recognising “the thrill of hearing this extraordinary moving music in combination with the drama”, he agrees with Wagner that opera is “the total artform”. But it’s an artform that tends not to be part of the school curriculum, and one that can be alienating through lack of familiarity. Oliver benefitted from student discounts to see shows and sees a need to break down preconceptions and introduce young audiences to what can be viewed as the purview of an older demographic.

So far NI Opera productions have been sung in English, rather than the Italian, German or French.
Opera has an image problem and one of the parts of the image problem is that opera is sung in a language that I don’t understand therefore I’m not going to give it the time of day. And as soon as you sing it in English, one of those barriers is down. Particularly in comedy it’s really important that people can understand the humour as it’s happening rather than looking up at surtitles.

Oliver notes that “we’re conditioned and programmed these days to look at screens”. While surtitles [translated text that appears on a screen above the heads of the cast] can really help with understanding, “one of the drawbacks is that you are magnetically drawn to that screen” and if the words anticipate or lag behind the action, there’s a disconnect.

Big stages, big characters, big flouncy costumes, lots of drama, emotions everywhere … pantomime and opera are quite similar. Both presenting spectacular stories with a moral.

Opera’s not all about huge productions on large stages. During the Irish Opera, NI Opera took a brand new piece Love Golf Love Opera to the streets of Newcastle. Composed by Brian Irvine (Belfast music laureate) and written by Owen McCafferty, the 25 minute production was witty and contemporary.

Germany has 80 opera houses. The UK has 6 or 7 full time companies. But Northern Ireland is still on the operatic map with Heather Harper singing professionally between 1954 and 1995, and Bangor singers like Giselle Allen and Bruno Caproni carving out international careers. NI Opera’s Young Artist programme takes a handful of Irish singers each year and gives them opportunities to sing at recitals and taster events, participate in masterclasses, and understudy lead roles in productions.

In February’s Salome, NI Opera trapped John the Baptist in an oil tank on an American Deep South drug baron’s ranch rather than in Herod’s palace two thousand years ago. There was a mild hullabaloo in the media over the dance of the seven veils.

There’s a tendency for many opera productions to be staged in contemporary settings with a little controversy thrown in for good measure.
I think the controversy is incidental really. What is important is that another one of the barriers associated with opera – that this is about other people – is broken down …

[It’s] important that people can look at what’s on stage and they can relate to it. As soon as you put people in period costume it becomes about escapism … I’m always very reluctant to do that and all of our productions do have this modern slant to make it that much more engaging and that much more immediate and for there to be resonances and echoes with people’s own lives. And suddenly opera does become about you and me rather than people who existed thousands of years ago …

Working with partners like the Ulster Orchestra and the Grand Opera House, and collaborating with other companies makes it possible to tackle large ambitious works.

Puccini’s Turandot could be staged as a Chinese fairy tale. In a collaboration between NI Opera and the State Theatre of Nuremberg and Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, director Calixto Bieito has re-sited it in a Chinese sweat shop, the kind of slave labour factory which manufactures the hi-tech electronics we so like to buy. Consumerism meets capitalism meets slave labour under totalitarian rule. That makes the production “topical, relevant and political” says Oliver Mears. [See Steven Hadley’s earlier introduction to Turandot over on Slugger O’Toole.]

Calixto Bieito has been described as “the Quentin Tarantino of Opera”. With a three night run to close Belfast International Arts Festival, Turandot will anything but “soothing and anaesthetising”.
What Calixto has done in his production is make it very, very about now, and very, very political, and in some ways, very, very angry about the way in which we do depend on these things for the quality of our lives. What are the human costs? That’s what he explores.

Turandot promises to be a huge spectacle with a huge chorus and a large number of principal singers. It starts with a Chinese emperor and his daughter who have unlimited power and control over a vast number of enslaved people. But there are costs to this power and political corruption.

Amongst the “luxurious, almost decadent, orchestral textures and almost unlimited melodies which tumble over one another all the way through the opera” the best known song is Nessun Dorma, made famous by Luciano Pavarotti and the BBC’s coverage of the Italia 90 World Cup. Of course, it’ll be sung in English in this production.
So many operas are about the difficulties that people face when they love each other, and what society does to that love, and how that love can be compromised by social conditions.
Compare the €45 million annual budget of Nuremberg Opera (in German terms, a relatively small opera company) with NI Opera’s £500,000.
In the context of the NI arts scene, what we get is extremely generous and we make no complaints about what we get. But it does mean that we are – to some extent – not able to do what other companies can do.

This leads NI Opera to innovate and brings about creative partnerships like their recently announced link up with Deanes restaurants.

Would Oliver Mears prefer to be on stage performing rather than directing?
When I was young I did a bit of acting at school and at university. I would always get terrible stage fright when I did it and didn’t really enjoy being in the limelight. I much more enjoy the process and discipline of directing, and also the excitement of programming and running a company and setting the direction and strategy … It staggers me everyday when I see what singers accomplish, but it’s not for me!

Turandot is being performed at the Grand Opera House between Friday 30 October and Sunday 1 November. The three performances are nearly sold out, but some seats are still available. Tickets £19-42.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

‘Em 2 Balloons starting up their own theatre company and putting on a Christmas comedy sketch show

Two actors without work over Christmas wondering who’s going to play Santa for the kids …

It could be the start of a Christmas production in any number of regional theatres across Northern Ireland. But it’s the position that actors Ciáran Nolan (Man in the Moon, Mistletoe and Crime) and Gerard Jordan (The Fall, Game of Thrones) have found themselves in this year and it has given them the impetus to widen their experience and set up their own company – The Balloon Factory – to produce a seasonal comedy sketch show.

The pair first worked together more than ten years ago on BBC NI’s Pulling Moves and their paths have kept crossing ever since. Playwright Mick Draine (Lemonade Sandwich) is fashioning the script while Brassneck’s Tony Devlin is on board as director.

Raking over the Troubles and being overtly political isn’t their focus. They see themselves as “a different generation bringing our kind of comedy” onto the stage – along with new writers – though they admit you can never completely remove politics from local humour.

‘Em 2 Balloons opens for a week at the end of November in West Belfast’s Roddys Club before ten performances in The Errigle Inn and some other nights out on the road.

With intimate community venues and audiences that demand to be entertained, they promise that ‘Em 2 Balloons will be about characters audiences will recognise, the comedy, the costumes and a bit of Christmas cheer rather than projectors and fancy sets.

I met up with Gerald and Ciaran the morning after Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín reiterated her strategy to cut funding to established arts organisations in order to reinvest closer to working class communities.

To these two actors, there’s nothing novel with this approach: it’s normal for them to take theatre into Ardoyne Youth Club and bring the kids back to the Lyric to see some of their previous productions.

Similar to the practice of companies like Brassneck who regularly première their work in social clubs, ‘Em 2 Balloons is playing in community venues and not traditional theatre spaces. And the ambitious new company has sought private funding to back their show and aren’t reliant on public funding.

If you want easy good fun comedy for Christmas with great Belfast characters and plenty of banter, check out The Balloon Factory’s Facebook page and get your tickets booked.
  • Roddy McCorley’s Social Club 25-29 November
  • The Errigle Inn 1-10 and 13 December
  • Craic Theatre Coalisland 11 December
  • St Canice GAC, Dungiven 12 December
  • King’s Head, Belfast 17 December
  • St Enda’s CLG 18 December

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Hallo - Martin Zimmermann, the incredible geometry man #BelFest

Few shows have the audience smiling before the cast are even on stage. But Martin Zimmermann manages it in his (nearly) solo show Hallo.

Boxes on stage have a life of their own as the wiry performer inhabits the set and animates his surroundings. Every prop is reconfigurable, reusable and can be reappear or disappear in an unexpected way. Nothing is at it seems. The show is totally full of surprises.

Panels slide magically across the stage. Zimmermanm jumps in and out of doors, one time agitated, the next laughing manically. For a minute or two we stare in wonder at an enormous moving parallelogram, admiring the shapes of light thrown onto the shifting scene as the performer clambers over it.

Muttering along with the odd “Hallo” are accompanied by piano music that adds shade and emotion to the performance.

The motorisation is invisible, the level of control is exact. The delight of Hallo is the precision with which ‘accidents’ have been planned to happen as parts of the staging are ‘damaged’ and one scene transforms into the next. The attention to detail is extraordinary. It feels like the performance is made up on the hoof ... yet it's planned to within an inch of its life.

Even the appearance of the stage hand (Roger Studer) introduces mystery and humour as this invisible character develops its personality and confidence on stage.

Hallo is beautiful and the most unexpected highlight of the festival. Both performances at Belfast International Arts Festival are now over, but if you ever have the chance to see Hallo or Martin Zimmermann, drive long and far to see a show.

Production photos by Augustin Rebetez

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Suitcase (Spring Lane/Chatterbox): keeping secrets, sharing memories, valuing people #BelFest

It began when theatre critic and playwright Jane Coyle spotted a suitcase in a Vienna museum with an address painted onto it. The few personal belongings of an Austrian Jew would have been carried inside it to a concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia. And so Jane’s imagination and storytelling began. Who might that have been? How was the suitcase recovered? Could it have been found in Belfast?

Staged in Belfast Synagogue on the Somerton Road by Spring Lane and Chatterbox Productions, The Suitcase rotates between three areas of the set and three timelines. Sophie Moriarty (played by Mary Moulds) and Galina Moriarty (Rosie Barry) are a mother and daughter clearing out grandfather Leo’s house. An unfamiliar ragdoll and a suitcase are uncovered. Through letters and diaries they are drawn into a journey of family discovery about secrets and stories that had been kept from them over decades.

Seán O’Hare is cast as Leo Edelmann and remains seated at one side of the stage in his arm chair for the duration of the performance. While he settled to live in Belfast and met his wife there, his childhood was spent in Berlin. With failing health he is tying up some of his life’s loose ends and writing to the family of Galina Stein in Vienna. It may be his last opportunity to tell them what “he kept all bottled up inside” about “my beloved Galina”, the talented dancer he met during the Second World War.

Finally Galina Stein (Hannah Coyle) occupies the raised rear section of the set. A seamstress and a dancer, she recalls the build-up of anti-Semitism in Vienna and her experience of being forcefully transited out of the city with her mother.

The audience are left dangling for around two-thirds of the play waiting to discover the connection that links Leo and Galina. And when the moment of revelation comes it is very quickly followed by the jeopardy that cuts the friendship short. While the long wait left me a little impatient, Eilise McNicholas packed the ending full of lasting emotion.

The play has significantly matured and developed since its first rehearsed reading back in January in the Red Barn Gallery as part of Holocaust Memorial Day. The four-handed play split between three sectors necessitates a lot of monologues, the words are often broken up by Rosie Barry’s violin playing (often tying in with sound designer Rachel Cullen’s beautifully textured stereo soundscape). Historical facts are deftly scattered throughout the script, leaving The Suitcase more drama than historical documentary. There’s no attempt to introduce German or Austrian accents.

The themes of The Suitcase are very contemporary. The plight and treatment of refugees is still topical, as is the manner in which a city like Belfast welcomes them into our community and celebrates their contribution. There are echoes of the Disappeared.

Multi-layered identities are also explored, with second generation Northern Irish Galina’s strong feeling of Jewishness owed to her close bond and shared love of music with her grandfather, even though her own mother had abandoned many of the religious traditions and practices.

By not speaking of his wartime experiences, Leo felt that he “failed in [his] duty to bear witness” to his family. Sophie too had picked up some stories about her parents but hadn’t thought to pass them onto her daughter Galina.

Memory and the pursuit of truth is never far away from the political agendas as those most heavily involved in The Troubles grow old and the opportunity to hear their story diminish. Our local baggage may not have addresses etched onto them, but the memories and actions are often kept secret from wider family, never mind the public at large.

Jane’s play opens up local issues, reminding us that the lessons of World War Two have not been fully learnt. The Suitcase sold out its three night run at Belfast Festival (12-14 October). Worth catching when it is next staged.

The Merchant of Venice - religious intolerance & bridging loans (Baby Grand until Saturday 24 by C21 Theatre)

Did anyone not study The Merchant of Venice at school? It’s one of the most accessible Shakespeare plays, and one of the few that I’m at all familiar with. For anyone needing a quick reminder, there are two overlapping subplots. Firstly there’s what would today be a reality show concept to find a husband for Portia (played by Colette Lennon). Her father left instructions about how to judge the suitor who deserved his daughter’s hand and a share of her inheritance. A lot revolves around whether they choose a gold box, a silver box or a dull iron box … Noel Edmonds would be in his element.

The second subplot revolves around an unlikely suitor Bassanio (Adrian Cooke) who asks a friend Antionio (Adam Dougal) for money to finance his wooing of Portia. It’s a fine bromance: since Antonio’s capital is tied up in ships that are still out at sea, he approaches the Banker a money lender, Shylock (Nick Hardin), for a bridging loan of three thousand ducats.

C21 Theatre Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice transports the action to the post-depression wild living of the Roaring Twenties of post-WW1 America. The extended speechless introduction introduces the period and many of the suitably costumed characters interact in the public square. We see Antonio spit as he passes Shylock in the street.
“My mercthandice makes me nat saad”

While the set is formed from plain white boxes, the costumes and hats are authentic for the 1920s and American twang is consistently used across the seventy minute performance.

There is a lot of comedy in the portrayal of the suitors (Mark Claney) who fly in sail in from around the world and select the wrong box. The disguises of Portia and her maid Nerissa (Megan Armitage) include impossibly long moustaches and pinstripe suits.

The play’s pivotal moment of peril comes when Antonio’s ships don’t arrive in port and he can’t pay back Shylock. His interest free loan came with a forfeit for non-payment: one pound of flesh. It is left to a court to decide his fate.

The production balances staying on the right side of frivolous - Colette Lennon’s eyebrows and shrugs add to the levity - while making clear the rampant anti-Semitism. You can’t take your eyes off Nick Hardin’s Shylock: he may have been vengeful and polishing his sharp knife, but the abuse he took from the so-called Christian society was shocking.

Does good triumph over evil? The Christians (and the biased judiciary) certainly throw their weight around and gang up on “the Jew” … the former practically win the lottery, while the latter “inhumane wretch” loses everything including his wealth, his daughter and his faith (forced to convert to Christianity).

There are anachronisms aplenty including the lilt of American accents in a Venetian courtroom! Prolonged scene changes lift the production’s foot off the accelerator and slow down the pace and I fear that I’ll be humming the Maple Leaf Rag for the rest of the day.

Arthur Webb has gone a great job paring down Shakespeare’s text and directing this production. The school’s audience at today’s audience seemed to love it (and didn’t fidget) as the cast brought the characters to life. No one will be rushing to a pay day lender after the show. But they’ll be on the lookout for religious intolerance.

You can catch The Merchant of Venice in the Baby Grand (Grand Opera House) until Saturday 24th.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mydidae - a couple come clean with each other as they confront their demons (MAC until 25 Oct) #BelFest

You know that situation when you’re brushing your teeth in the bathroom and someone else in the house budges in to wash their hands right at the point you’re about to spit out the toothpaste? Or flushes the loo and thus scalds you a couple of metres away in the shower? The bathroom can be a really busy room.

Mydidae is set in a generously proportioned bathroom. Marian (played by Julie Maxwell) and David (Matt Forsythe) are getting ready for another day. She’s wearing headphones and practicing her French conversation. He’s fretting about an important pitch meeting in work, already on the phone to a colleague talking tactics while finding time to criticise Marian’s dental hygiene technique. Affection is mixed in with the needling and barbed comments.
“We just need to get through today.”

The anniversary of the loss of their child means it’s no ordinary day; but they each plan to deal with it very differently. Every trip into the bathroom to shave or pee offers fresh insight their insecurities and their lack of communication. While Marian reads David like a book, it’s only after a glass or two of wine that she overcomes her guardedness and lays into him.

That evening, David’s romantic act of contrition – was he genuinely trying to reconnect or did he delve deep into the book of gestures blokes might offer to prevent digging a deeper hole? – lands the couple in hot water. This longest scene of the play begins with Marian’s at first light-heartened interrogation of David before the conversation turns more serious and he reacts violently. And Marian’s response is extraordinary (and messed up).

Few plays examine the effect on parents of a miscarriage or an infant’s death. Jack Thorne’s script for Mydidae is ambiguous about the precise nature of the loss. Sitting in the bath stripped – emotionally and physically – of comfort blankets and distractions, the couple’s level of resilience is laid bare. Can they bend or will they break?

Long periods of near silence accompany Marian or David as they bumble about the bathroom on their own. There’s perhaps a bit too much picking up socks, folding them and putting them back into a basket in the corner of the bathroom. With a cast of two, the script uses phone calls as a device to allow the characters to speak while in the room on their own.

The small roll of toilet paper adds to the jeopardy of the play … particularly with the cast using so many squares at a time. And no one ever flushes the loo. (I suspect that’s down to plumbing and the noise of a cistern refilling rather than ecology.)

Julie Maxwell and Matt Forsythe are an entirely credible couple, and they unselfconsciously inhabit the bathroom as if it was their own. Given the duo’s disposition and the absence of foreplay, Marian and David’s nakedness is rather matter of fact, and neither sexual nor pornographic. Yet the confined situation of sitting across a bath (which sensibly has its taps in the middle) from each other offers less hiding space than a dinner table would and puts pressure on David until he can bear it no more.

It’s a challenging and memorable play, and clearly connected deeply with some in the audience who sit like flies on the bathroom wall. Eighteen hours later, snippets of heart-breaking dialogue still rattle through my head.

That said, I found the play lumpy. The level of emotion rises and falls like the tide rather than building to a peak. Partly that reflects the reality of coping with grief: work and mundane chores interrupt the anguish. The wobbling dramatic tension leaves the final scene dangling and the audience are unsure whether or not the performance is over.

Ciaran Bagnall demonstrates his usual spatial genius with mirrors casting sharp blocks of light onto the set. The set is a great advert for the quality of bathroom and fittings that Beggs and Partner can supply.

The cast, new director Rhiann Jeffrey and Prime Cut should be proud of this production; in particular Julie Maxwell who coolly flits between emotions with alarming ease. The play is daring (for Belfast) and captures the fear and fraught feelings that inhabit Jack Thorne’s excellent script which well worth a read even if you can’t get to see the play.

Mydidae runs in the MAC as part of Belfast International Arts Festival until 25 October.