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.

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.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Official Secrets – one whistleblower’s failed attempt to stop the Iraq war (in cinemas from Friday 18 October)

Keira Knightly starts in the true story of Katharine Gun, a GCHQ staffer who in January 2003 leaked an NSA memo requesting UK help for intelligence that would put the smaller, non-permanent members of the UN Security Council under pressure to vote for a resolution that would allow the invasion of Iraq. Arrested in March, and charged under Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act in November, the prosecution declined to offer evidence when her case came to court in February 2004.

“Just because you’re the prime minister doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts,” says Gun early on in Official Secrets, a sober film directed by Gavin Hood which makes little attempt to glamorise or hype up the account of a failed attempt to stop a war. Gun is clear that “I work for the British people. I do not gather intelligence so the government can lie to the British people.”

With a performance that carries much of the film, Knightly holds such emotion in her face as her character lives through the consequences of her action on her own freedom and her that of her husband (Yasar played by Adam Bakri) whose immigration status is under threat. Despite the huge cast around the central figure of Gun, the co-workers, journalists, lawyers and intelligence sources are well-defined, and introduced very naturally and without fuss into the 112-minute narrative.

Matt Smith plays The Observer journalist (Martin Bright) who eventually published a story about the leak once its veracity had been stood up. Conleth Hill captures the cautious yet hungry for a story approach of editor Roger Alton, while Rhys Ifans is more than flamboyant as the paper’s US correspondent Ed Vulliamy.

Ralph Fiennes picks up the role of Ben Emmerson, the QC who worked with Liberty to defend Gun. The collapsing relationship between Emmerson and his friend and former colleague who had become Director of Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald (played by Jeremy Northam) is well crafted. Though this major tiff begs a question that surrounds much of the film: how much of it is true, and which aspects are fictionalised?

As the story of one person taking on the establishment and calling out disinformation and propaganda – in this case the false claims being made by figures like Tony Blair and Colin Powell to justify a war in Iraq – chimes with modern worries about the reckless abandonment of truthfulness at the top of some western governments.

The story is thankfully procedural rather than having been written as a political thriller. The rush through traffic to the Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre in some ways adds unnecessary drama to a film that is more about telling the story of a brave civil servant than providing thrills and spills. Watch out for the nostalgic use of a Zip drive!

Official Secrets will do well on the small screen. There’s little in the production that absolutely demands a cinematic experience. However, the uninterrupted nature of a couple of hours in the picture house gives time for alarm bells to ring and left me wondering what pushes someone over the edge to become a whistleblower, particularly having recently finished reading Edward Snowden’s memoire Permanent Record and the leak that might yet precipitate an impeachment hearing for President Trump.

You can find Official Secrets in most local cinemas in UK and Ireland from Friday 18 October.

100 Keyboards – fusing music, physics and physical movement into orchestral pandemonium (The MAC until Saturday 19 October) #BIAF19

Over a hundred small battery-operated keyboards radiate out in concentric circles around a small lamp. The artist Asuna tiptoes in his red sock soles through the instruments, turning some on, jamming short lollypop sticks into them to sustain particular notes. The audience sit on cushions, chairs or stand right round the 100 Keyboards orchestra.

At first it’s the same note on the handful of keyboards, before a second and third note emerge, forming a seventh chord. Interdisciplinarity is one of Belfast International Arts Festival’s themes for 2019. Hiroaki Umeda’s Accumulated Layout and Media earlier in the week – another partnership with the Japan-UK Season of Culture – fused together sound, visuals, coding and movement. 100 Keyboards is part physics, part maths, part music, and part dance as the nimble artist continuously circles his one-man orchestra building up the bespoke piece he’s playing.

Each electronic keyboard, playing its relatively pure continuous tone, emits a wave of sound. Yet the positioning of the instruments – most of the time there’s a mirror image keyboard on the other side of the lamp, and sometimes to both sides too – means that these similar waves will overlap, collide and interacting, creating a superimposed Moiré effect.

Sitting on a cushion on The MAC floor, I slowly sway from side to side, my head and as my ears move, certainly tones suddenly stand out from the massively distributed chord, then fade back into the melee.

Asuna only stops to shed another layer of clothing. It’s a sweaty business as he hunches over his musical laboratory playing with sine waves. Sometimes the insertion of a single stick to hold down a key on a keyboard changes the whole soundscape, breaking whatever settled pattern had been in place.

With thirty or forty different models of keyboard in front of him, Asuna reaches to a different place to find the on switch and control the volume. One or two naughtily play a demo tune as soon as they’re switched on before complying with the master’s instruction.

The purity of a seventh chord has long since gone and the controlled cacophony reminds me of a peel of bells, with one clang still decaying when the next bell is struck and cuts through. There’s movement in this sustained chord.

Forty minutes in and what began as quite a quiet and meditative performance is becoming more oppressive. I wonder if I’m hearing the sound of cars driving around north or west Belfast blaring their horns in celebration of the Brexit deal … before remembering that that’s not likely. Soon, there’s the sound of a woman’s voice singing out a pure high frequency note above other lower voices. By the 50-minute point it could be that organist has had a heart attack, and his fingers remain jammed on the manual, with lots of stops pulled out, and the sound is reverberating around a stone cathedral.

The last keyboards are switched on to complete the pandemonium. There’s a whiff of accordion about the mix now as Asuna begins to remove some of the hundreds of lollypop sticks, one at a time, sometimes pausing to completely switch off an instrument. With a handful gone, the sound has already changed. Walking around the electronic orchestra, suddenly I can detect a real pulsing, with a particular frequency surging twice a second, as regular as clockwork. I adjust my position and it’s gone.

Admittedly my patience wears a bit thin as Asuna dithers over which sticks to remove on which keyboards. But when we’re down to a handful of instruments, there’s a real peace about the performance. It’s no longer a thought experiment to imagine what I’m hearing. It’s a hunt to detect whether this will be the last note. But no. As the conductor releases each instrument, there’s another quieter one remaining behind until the final key is released dead on the 100 minute mark and there is complete silence … and then enthusiastic applause from the audience as Asuna throughs the sticks left in his pocket up in the air in a sudden burst of emotion.

Like nothing else you’ll experience this year at Belfast International Arts Festival. Over an hour devoted to listening, letting your imagination run riot as one chord plays out in a surround sound masterpiece.

100 Keyboards continues in The MAC each evening at 7.45pm until Saturday 19 October.

Check out my preview of other picks from the rich 2019 Belfast International Arts Festival programme which runs until 3 November.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold – a rather charming and delicioso trip back down memory lane

Dora is sent to stay in Los Angeles where she stays with childhood friend Diego and starts mainstream school when her parents embark on a jungle adventure without her. But when she and three schoolmates are swiped on a trip to a museum, they end up trekking through Peru to try to find her radio-silent parents and the lost Inca treasures of Parapata.

Dora’s shift from rural to urban places her outside her comfort zone and she discovers that high school is as much of a jungle as her old forest playground. Isabela Moner effortlessly picks up the role of teenage Dora from infant Madelyn Miranda. Moner adeptly acts out the mannerisms so familiar to exhausted parents reading the templated three-stage adventures to their children.

Nickelodeon and Paramount have conspired to make a 102-minute-long children’s live-action adventure based on the Dora the Explorer franchise that works for adults. There’s a knowing self-awareness that winks at the older audience as the winning Dora overfills her backpack, reads maps, solves puzzles, suffers from light-fingered Swiper, and earnestly sings about digging a hole to poo in.

Jeff Wahlberg is super-awkward as teenage Deigo until he relaxes with ‘Miss wannabe popular’ Sammy (Madeleine Madden) and nerdy Randy (Nicholas Coombe). A mostly bootless Boots makes mischief while a hallucinogenic cartoon scene adds to the sense of ridiculousness.

I’ve no idea how the film works with younger audiences, but as a one-off cinematic treat – please, no sequels — it’s a rather charming and delicioso trip back down memory lane to simpler times.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

£17m shot in arm to make The Odyssey into a family-friendly leisure destination

The Odyssey venue will be redeveloped over the coming months.

Right on the stroke of the Brexit announcement this morning, Guy Hollis from Matagorda 2 announced his £17m intention to “bring The Odyssey in line with some of the best one site leisure destinations in the world”.

The focus is on providing a family entertainment destination with nine or ten restaurants and a single bar, sitting alongside direct access to the SSE Arena on both ground and first floors. The front door will double in width, creating a more obvious entrance. The existing mezzanine level will be gutted. Cineworld will take over the cinema. Hollywood Bowl will refit the current facility to offer 20 lanes of ten-pin bowling.

The Odyssey’s makeover will be complete by June 2020, tying in with W5’s existing £4.5m plans to transform its second and fourth floor science galleries.

New temporary entrances will allow the cinema and W5 to remain open during the work, with the bowling alley staying open until Christmas. The last remnant of Belfast’s IMAX cinema will probably disappear during the refit unless Cineworld’s success with the high-resolution tall-screen format in Dublin brings it back.

The grand opening will coincide with The Odyssey’s 20th anniversary. On a flight back from London, someone involved with the original plans told me how the site would attract families from as far away as Ballymena – just 30 minutes away and without any need to drive through the city centre – with somewhere to come at the weekends.

But the wind off the lough was as cold and uninviting as the mix of clubs and dowdy eateries that ended up competing with the dazzling Victoria Square and its upmarket boutiques and American food outlets.

Hopefully this investment will increase the warmth of the welcome and the footfall in this corner of Titanic Quarter.

Two Door Cinema Club – bringing a slice of North Down rock and roll to The Telegraph building on a school night #BIAF19

There was drama aplenty at The Telegraph building last night, the scene of Two Door Cinema Club’s gig that marked the end of their UK and Ireland tour.

The old print hall structure rises theatrically like a purpose built urbex set, with the old floor levels still visible in the walls of the box-like venue now held together by the steel roof-level beams. A blue office door remains suspended seven or so metres above ground level, leaving you wondering who or what lay behind it.

Teenie support band The Wha play to a small audience of hardened fans before indie rock Pillow Queens take to the stage with a short smart introspective set that included their new single Brothers which has a stronger finish than the opening bars predict.

Support acts are kept humble, clearing away their own drum kit and amps while the main act’s techs wearing black pukka jackets (they clearly got the memo about the temperature in The Telegraph) carry the striking red mic stands onto the stage and take the dust covers off a drum kit that makes the support acts’ one look like a toy.

The gap before Two Door Cinema Club is longer than Pillow Queens’ set. There’s time for two nearby couples – who’ve left their kids at home to sneak out on a school night and see if the Ward Park atmosphere can be matched in Donegall Street – to talk about politics, film, theatre and some of the surrounding youngsters’ sartorial choices with the weird guy scribbling on a notepad.

The sound level has been very pleasant up to now. But when, up in his elevated perch, Benjamin Thompson hits the snare drum for the first time – and given his unusual posture, boy can he drive a stick with force into the skin of his extensive percussive kit – the sound wave hits your chest. The faders have finally been turned up to concert setting.

The moving heads in the lighting rig have been reset, retiring the narrow beams that shone down on the support acts, and bringing out the big guns. A voice booms out “Programme Ready … Error Try Again”. Smoke machines bellow out haze to act as a canvas for the impressive light show that is about to begin, making up for the lack of touring set and projections which wouldn’t have fitted the venue and is probably on a ship heading to the US for the next leg of the tour.

Two Door Cinema Club take their positions on stage for the opening number, Talk. Alex Trimble saunters on stage, wearing a blue suit with a mustard polo neck underneath. He strikes one of his nonchalant poses. His affected aloofness is a trademark of the band. There’s more than a whiff of the Pet Shop Boys about his demeanour. When he takes a swill from a large glass of white wine, I’m reminded that the band hail from Bangor. This truly is North Down rock and roll.

The majority of the audience are students in their late teens and early twenties. Some can hold their drink better than others. One woman rises above the crowd, sitting on someone’s shoulders, but has neither the balance nor the dance moves to be forgiven for blocking people’s sight lines of the stage.

“It’s the soundtrack of my childhood,” bemoaned my 14-year-old when I mentioned I was heading out the door to Two Door Cinema Club without them. Given the majority of youths singing along with the older songs like What You Know – though they don’t even have to ask to get the crowd to join in with the lyrically-repetitive Do You Want It All – I’d guess many of those around me had been avid listeners to the band on heavy rotation on Cool FM’s late show. It was noticeable that the more recent material like Satellite was further from the lips of all but the uber-fans when they played a selection of singles from False Alarm.

I last saw TDCC – as the cool people refer to them – at Glastonbury … watching on-demand on iPlayer while ironing one night. The only steam last night was condensation from people’s breath. Couples cuddle, less out of romance, and more out of necessity to keep warm.

The theatre continues as one young woman drops to the ground before the second song is finished. Another nearby lad spends the evening slowly sliding down towards the concrete below him before being nursed upright by his girlfriend. He never did vomit, but the anticipation is etched into the faces of everyone standing nearby, particularly when he managed to “find a quiet place that we could go” on the floor without anyone noticing during Eat That Up, It’s Good For You.

The three front men speak even less than the support acts. They’re here to play not build rapport with the audience. But we’re told that it’s “fucking awesome to be back in Belfast” where the band “cut their teeth playing every pub and club”. And they’re delighted that audiences still come out to see them.

The brick and concrete walls challenge the acoustics. The lyrics are mushy. Jacob Berry’s keyboards are often lost in the wash. But the strobing lights synchronised with the beating drums put on a sensory show. The band’s indie-pop-dance-punk mix is familiar and comforting, like getting your fingers around a cup of warm tea on a cold evening.

Two Door Cinema Club wrap up with the crowd-pleasing Sun and the Belfast audience have shown their love and stayed to the end. There’s no messing about with the ritual of an encore. Twenty songs in 90 minutes and it’s all over five minutes before the 11pm curfew.

Appearing in the Belfast International Arts Festival programme as well as gig listings, the gig attracts old and young, spending the evening cheek by jowl in the all-standing venue. We’ve warmed up, our ears are ringing with the catchy riffs, and we’ve had an evening in the company of the local band named after the lead guitarist’s mispronunciation of the Tudor Cinema in Comber. And no one’s mentioned Brexit. Bliss.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Hiroaki Umeda: Accumulated Layout and Median – technically complex, physically disciplined, visually mesmerising – opening #BIAF19

Belfast International Arts Festival kicked off its programme with Hiroaki Umeda’s avant-garde fusion of light, projection, sound and solo choreography. His delayed travel plans from Japan due to Typhoon Hagibis and a cancelled connecting flight added to the sense of theatre. But as the rectangular light went up and Accumulated Layout began, all was calm.

Gentle movements, first fingers, then wrist, built up to more violent action as the light source and intensity switched. Yet his feet mostly remained still, as if nailed down inside the oblong box of light cast on the floor. A deep heartbeat pounded from powerful speaker stacks, white noise appearing like white horses breaking over the crest of a wave.

The dancer orientates his body with the line of light, controlling not only his actions but the shape of his shadow. An arm can be moved, but the shadow remains intact. Umeda demonstrates a remarkable sense of timing and control as he synchronised switching his actions with the sudden shifts of light, and that intensity of performance is only enhanced after the interval when Umeda is set against a larger and dynamic computer-generated backdrop in Median.

What starts as a white cursor blinked at the top of the backdrop behind him, turns into a stream of short lines, that expand and rotate. Straight lines become shapes, cellular structures. Scale is played with, as is perspective. At times he walks off stage and the shifting black and white shapes continue to dance and mesmerise. As scale of the patterns shrinks, the black dancing human becomes caught in the matrix of information and movement, a cog in a giant machine.

From a technical standpoint, the projection system fills the stage from behind, leaving the performer free of pattern and a blank canvas for extra side projectors to paint on him. It’s a beautiful effect.

Technically complex, physically disciplined, and visually mesmerising, you can catch the double bill of Accumulated Layout and Median again on Wednesday 16 October at 7.45pm at The MAC as part of Japan-UK Season of Culture in partnership with Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and the British Council NI. Note that the performance contains strobe lighting effects and is not recommended for anyone who is photosensitive.

Check out my preview of other picks from the rich 2019 Belfast International Arts Festival programme which runs until 3 November.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Playboy of the Western World – the lawless shebeen where a good story may earn you attention until your currency is spent (Lyric Theatre until Saturday 2 November)

When a young lad bursts into a border community shebeen and blurts out that he’s killed his father, the regulars are cool with his confession, the women flock around him, and he is awarding the title of ‘playboy’. God’s name is rarely off the lips of the lawless villagers, but their faith is barely skin deep in this play which has problems with a drunken bar-owning father, a murdered father, a mostly ignored priestly father, never mind a father in heaven.

John Millington Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World provoked civil unrest when it was first performed in Dublin in January 1907. The notion that good Catholics could condone murder was shocking and offensively ridiculous. With today’s looser sensibilities, it’s frankly hard to see what provoked such a strong reaction. Mentioning women’s undergarments was apparently scandalous back then, though this version plays with that idea and embraces a general lack of support.

The deeper suggestion that nationalist sentiment and violence was being glamorised and celebrated in 1907 without much regard for the consequence has a vague resonance in 2019 as we wobble towards increased political instability across the island. However, Playboy fails to become a companion piece to the counterfactual The Alternative which has much sharper things to say about modern Ireland in other Lyric Theatre performance space.

Director Oonagh Murphy has shifted the Playboy action further north from its original Mayo setting, and away from the early 1900s to the 1980s judging by the packets of bacon fries consumed in the bar (both on stage and during the interval in the Lyric’s foyer). Given the time period, it’s odd that the acceptance of violence isn’t really linked to anything tangible (nor to the Troubles in this Ulster setting).

Pegeen Mike has the measure of the locals in her father’s bar, and Eloïse Stevenson looks most at home in the first act as the barmaid falls for the charms of Michael Shea’s Christy Mahon who at first quietly oozes sex appeal even when bathing his bloody toes, before stepping up the role the locals have created to become the flamboyant freak show shock jock with the bloody story everyone wants to hear.

Michael Condron delivers a suitably weedy Shawn Keogh who is the most loyal to Catholicism, but lacks any backbone. That Pegeen could ever agree to betrothal emphasises just how desperate she must be to escape her situation. Condron along with Jo Donnelly and Tony Flynn deliver the most comedic moments, while Holly Hannaway, Hazel Clifford and Megan McDonnell provide screechy teenage energy in Synge’s thinly drawn characters who reward Christy with gifts like Wise Men visiting a young Saviour.

Aoibhéann McCann’s permed and feisty Widow Quin cuts a dash in the pub, and when Old Mahon (Frankie McCafferty) staggers into the mayhem, her actions reinforce the impression that it’s the man spreading. liberated women who make the big decisions in this community.

The second act fight scene is well choreographed by Paula O’Reilly: Shea and McCafferty will be getting calls from local wrestling clubs to join up!

There’s an odd stiffness in the acting, perhaps a consequence of the pronounced delivery of the Hiberno-English dialogue, tending to be barked like some form of performance poetry rather than naturalistic conversation.

Pegeen’s final lament at losing her ‘shifted’ playboy would have be stronger if she had rushed out the door after him instead of turning to speak to the audience in what felt like an unnecessary act of fourth wall breaking.

The play feels like we’re watching the performance of a Shakespearen tragedy with the original script dropped into an ill-suited modern setting. The figures of speech don’t quite fit the date or the location. And the new setting doesn’t quite fit the script. (Referring to a gas superser as ‘the hearth’ is a bit of a stretch.)

Overall, while competently staged, the sense of satire has been lost. Synge’s story feels out of place, poorly anchored in the audience’s 2019, or the shebeen’s 1980s. Molly O’Cathain’s wingless set gives Pegeen a neat bedroom above the bar. The opera version of Playboy would have great fun exploiting the upper room and contrasting movement above with action below. However, the lack of pantomime in the play left this set innovation rather unexploited.

The Playboy of the Western World is a Lyric Theatre and Dublin Theatre Festival co-production in association with the Belfast International Arts Festival. It runs in the Lyric until Saturday 2 November.

Photo credit: Mark Stedman

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Gemini Man – good special effects, but the plot needs lifesaving surgery (in cinemas from 10 October)

The premise of Gemini Man is hopeful. An American sniper executes his 72nd victim. His suspicionometer is turned up to eleven so he soon discovers that at 51, the natural retirement age for an assassin, he’s become the next target of shady US government agencies. But he needs his accomplices to help him realise that he is being pursued by someone with very familiar skills.

Will Smith is on steady ground playing Henry Brogan as an action hero, as capable of jumping on a scrambler bike and racing through narrow streets as he is picking up and accurately firing any gun to hand. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Danny, an surveillance agent who joins him on the run and proves handy in a gun fight, but is suffocated in protection and only occasionally allowed to exercise her brain. Meanwhile Clive Owen is the evil Clay Verris, whose rogue private army will have to be conveniently shut down by the end of the film.

The dialogue is both clichéd and clunky: “If you get on this boat you’re leaving behind everything and everyone you’ve ever known”. The camerawork is full of long-running shots and facial close-ups ideal for the 3D version of Gemini Man, shot by director Ang Lee in supersmooth 120fps (though you’ll not find many cinemas capable of showing that cut) but giving the film a strange feel in 2D.

The special effects are good, but the ending is much too neat. For a film that’s been in development for 20 years waiting for the de-aging technology to catch up, I can’t help wish that they’d waited another five years to figure out a better plot. The first half of the film could be saved, but the final hour needs a major organ transplant to replace parts of the story and locations (eg, Hungarian catacombs) that just don’t work. And the hand-wavy explanations of human cloning are farcical.

Gemini Man opened in UK and Irish cinemas on Thursday 10 October. Will Smith’s name on the poster will be the only thing keeping this film at cinemas next weekend.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Engine – liberating artists to tell stories (Tinderbox in Brian Friel Theatre until Saturday 12 October)

Tinderbox Theatre puts play at the heart of its work, trying to free artists up from the boundaries of role, loosening the constraints of rules, and through this sense of liberation, create theatre work is often hard to describe as it transcends traditional categorisation.

Its Engine programme has worked with 20 artists over the last two weeks playing with an idea and devising a show which was performed tonight and will be back on stage tomorrow evening due to popular demand.

The story is about the death of man and the gathering of his friends and family, against the backdrop of what happens to the border on 31 October 2019. The border is physical, a thick white elastic tape that stretches diagonally across the otherwise setless stage. It can be pulled and bent into shapes, creating rooms, walls and coastlines. Around it and up against it, groups of performers travel towards an office in Belfast where all will be revealed …

The first week was spent developing their language of spatial dramaturgy, and working up tools and techniques alongside directors Carlos García Estévez and Paige Allerton from Manifesto Poetico, a 20 years old theatre research laboratory working with the abstraction of space, spirit of imagination, and essence of the collective as they tell stories.

The second week moved into the creation phase, and it’s clear from the characterisations that the cast and creatives had great fun. An Argentinian carries a brick from Berlin above his head like a trophy from another border. Another group navigate passport patrol at the border in the wellyboots. Breeda Riley reports live – and loud – from the Drogheda border for television news, while a detective in a belted overcoat stomps around (with comical live musical sound effects) piecing together clues about the deceased man’s life and times before it all goes slightly Cambridge Analytica and a bit Die Hard.

It’s a blast. A neat story, well told. Short and to the point. Manipulating space. At least as physical as it is verbal. With concepts that would never have been thought off if a playwright had submitted a script and told the director to stick to it. Building networks of artists who will continue to collaborate in the future.

You can catch the extra performance of Engine in the Brian Friel Theatre (go in through the door for the Queen’s Film Theatre and keep walking straight ahead) on Saturday evening, 12 October, at 7.30pm.

The First Protestant – thoughtful, unorthodox but effective examination of Martin Luther (Splódar Theatre Company in Crescent Arts Centre until Friday 11 October)

Gerry Farrell’s two-handed play The First Protestant gets under the skin, or more accurately, under the psyche, of the 16th century theologian Martin Luther. The imagined set-up is that an anxious and burdened Luther is sitting in the office of a psychoanalyst.

It’s 1517. As the first act unfolds, we witness intense conversations as The Analyst tries to uncover the motivations and causes of Luther’s struggles, discovering a ‘Father complex’ with his own father Hans, the Holy Father (Pope Leo X) and his heavenly Father, neatly summing up Luther’s main stressors. Later, a messianic martyr complex is diagnosed as Luther hurtles towards confrontation with church and civil authorities.

The agnostic analyst unpicks Luther’s life, teasing out biographical details and theological thinking that paint a rounded picture of the monk and priest who would reject aspects of Catholic practice and teaching. At times the exchanges are jovial and funny, at times they are edgy and angry.

Farrell’s script is tight, and director Prin Duignan backs up the power of the words with simple movement across the simple two chair, table, bookcase and lectern set.

Wearing a black cassock, Michael Roper brings to life the overwrought priest who is struggling with his increasingly realisation that he must speak out and declare “sola fide, sola scriptura”. Roper captures the sense of exasperation, not to mention the impatience with his thoroughly agnostic therapist.

After the interval, Luther returns a few years later having published his Ninety-five Theses and been excommunicated from the Catholic church following his refusal to renounce his writings at the Diet of Worms. Roper’s performance then contrasts the assured and upright Luther confidently articulating his beliefs at Worms with the old man whose mind is sharper than his twisted body.

Opposite Luther sits The Analyst, performed by playwright Gerry Farrell. While initially offering a fairly stereotyped depiction of a psychoanalyst rushing through the gears, picking up on the slightest remark to form some suppositions about his client, Farrell later pulls back and the relationship’s balance shifts as the characters grow used each other.

Farrell and Roper are well balanced, never upstaging each other as the narrative emphasises further important aspects to Luther’s writings and the repercussions. Condemning indulgences has an economic effect on those raising money to pay off loans. Yet Luther is less ‘down’ on people paying to see relics, like those owned by Prince Frederick III who keeps him safe.

“Haven’t you become quite the politician?” asks The Analyst as he begins to unearth the deadly consequences of Luther’s teachings. Now in the 1940s, they meet one last time. What about the slaughter of a hundred thousand peasants? The accusation that Luther could be “speaking out of both sides of your mouth” – having incited the peasants to rebel before siding loyally with the those in authority – brought to mind other more recent though less theological unexplained Protestantism hypocrisy (specifically, Willie Frazer’s assistance in arming loyalist paramilitaries and his later work to support victims and condemning IRA attacks).
“The world will know me as the First Protestant, but I’d prefer to be known as a dedicated follower of the teachings of St Augustine.”
The Analyst notes Luther’s swing from uncertainty and unworthiness to certainty and self-righteousness. But what about the anti-Semitic rhetoric? Luther decries “Jews and their lies”, accusing them of manipulating Scripture, of being murderous and wicked, before suggesting that synagogues should be burnt, and homes smashed, and Jews forced into labour. The ending unsettling yet apt.

Farrell’s writing explores a wider range of Luther’s writings and beliefs than some other events that marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. There are some funny though indulgent knowing nods to the 21st century in the second act’s dialogue (“everyone goes around with their heads in a pamphlet, no one talks anymore unless about your latest post” and “the German banks will always get their money back”).

The First Protestant is a thoughtful play which both entertains and educates, offering an unorthodox yet quite effective way of re-examining Luther’s impact on religion, politics and the world.

You’ve another chance to catch The First Protestant on Friday 11 October at 8pm in the Crescent Arts Centre before Splódar Theatre Compamny’s tour continues to The Playhouse Theatre, Derry (Saturday 19 October) and Factory Performance Space, Sligo (Saturday 16 November).

Thursday, October 10, 2019

1010OI – an audio walking tour offering fresh voices and perspectives on homelessness (Three’s Theatre Company until Sunday 13 October)

Today, 10 October, is World Homeless Awareness Day. 1010OI is the fourth such audio walking tour I’ve covered in recent years. This time it’s the Simon Community and Outside In streetwear company who have partnered with audio-specialist Three’s Theatre Company to tell the story of people who have been homeless.

Selecting to join the ‘Dinosaur’ tour over the ‘Ice Cream’ one is the last choice I have to make. Each of us in the small group of walkers pops on our headphones and hits play at the same time, before strolling across St Anne’s Square and up towards the Albert Clock. My tour left the warmth of The MAC at 6pm, as the glow from golden hour was beginning to dim. The wind off the Lagan cooled the streets.

“It just happened …” is how the story begins as the male voice in my ears describes his Dad’s landlord giving them a month to move out of their rented flat. There’s a mention of someone’s job in the Royal Mail as we pass by the distinctive sorting office. He talks about the blue windows of Centenary House, the Salvation Army hostel on the corner of Victoria Street and Albert Square.

As we continue, our guide helps us safely navigate the pedestrian crossings. Sound effects sitting under the narration blend with the sound of actual ambulances in the distance. We pause at Cornmarket and gaze across at the Spirit of Belfast public art and there’s a busker in our ears. The immersion is powerful. “Everybody has somewhere to be” seems very true true as I look into the earnest faces walking towards me. I begin to wonder if any of them have been homeless, or if I’ll lose my home one day.

Belfast is well-suited to theatrical tours. Many of the city centre pavements are wide enough to accommodate a bunch of headphone-wearing flâneuses, pausing on corners while they hit the next cue on their journey. The alleyways are atmospheric. And active listening seems to free my eyes up to watch the people and begin to imagine.

It’s a story of dealing with no fixed home, low self-worth, the lure of drugs, the lack of support from ‘the system’, the strategy to choose a spot in which to sleep rough, the verbal and physical abuse from passers-by, and steps taken to change the path being travelled.

My ‘dinosaur’ story was an amalgamation of three people’s interviews, written by Colm G Doran and voiced by Brendan Quinn. The other group were listening to two people’s stories fused together by Gina Donnelly and spoken by Adele Gribbon.

“You don’t know me; talk to me; ask me; look me in the fucking eye,” the man inside my head implores. He’s gentle, never preachy or judgemental. The story circles back as it concludes, the two ends not quite meeting, but with a sense that there is hope, relationships are being restored, security has been re-established.

1010OI gathers inside The MAC. Tours continue several times a day until Sunday 13 October.

The Alternative – where does the power lie, who knows best, will anyone ask let alone listen? (Fishamble’s A Play For Ireland at Lyric Theatre until Sunday 13 October)

Set in an alternative reality where the third Home Rule Bill passed and Ireland remained part of United Kingdom but is now on the cusp of an in/out referendum, The Alternative casts its satirical spell over media, politics and the insecurities and secrets that destroy relationships.

Richard has returned to work a week after his wife’s death to produce the final debate on the eve of the referendum poll. BBC Dublin is hosting the final confrontation between the prime minister (originally from Dublin) and the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Richard’s deputy is put out that he’s muscling in when she’s been covering for him so well. His presenter has an eye on a big job with a commercial competitor.

Oisín Kearney and Michael Patrick capture the frenetic conversations that can precede a live broadcast. The incessant checking. The ever-changing running orders as new snippets of information change scripts. The overly cynical insider conversations with crude shortcuts that are bantered around an office steeped in politics, that would never be shared so gratuitously on air.

Into this pressure cooker walks Richard’s daughter, Grainne. She’s stopped taking the medication that prevents her hallucinating and seeing people and places that are not real. She’s run out of patience waiting for an important conversation with her father.

Maree Kearns’ split level set design provides an upper deck for the private familial drama, overlooking the live broadcast theatre in the public shiny floor studio down below. Saileóg O’Halloran’s costumes pick up on the garish blocks of single colour clothes worn by campaigning politicians. The green crown broach decorating the PM’s bright red dress is a nice touch.

Humorous interstitial videos remind viewers (and the theatre audience) about the history that has brought the island to this important decision point. The audience gasp in shock at some of the familiar Irish players with unexpected contributions to this very British history. Voxpops and news reports show how opinion is divided, and how passions run high on the streets outside the debate.

Given the counterfactual starting point of this play, and Grainne’s glimpses into alternative realities, it’s perhaps not asking a lot for the audience to suspend further disbelief that a TV debate of such national importance could be staffed by such a small team with such undisciplined lines of control, and derailed by the unfolding chaotic incidents.

The pacey production team dialogue on the studio floor sharply contrasts with the family debate, losing some of the show’s energy each time the action ascends the stairs. But director Jim Culleton manages to stitch these two paces together, and incorporates the live camera work without fuss. The atmosphere is authentic: it’s very like the afternoon I sat in the same Lyric Theatre space for a recording of a UTV election debate.

Lorcan Cranitch presents a believably exasperated father figure, struggling to cope with the situations he faces in the realm of home and work. His capable prodigy Hannah is played by Rachel O’Byrne with business-like confidence that falters when dragged into her boss’s family matters. John is hosting Ireland Decides. There’s a touch of Stephen Nolan as he ignores the direction in his earpiece and goes for good TV rather than a fair debate. Rory Nolan creates John as a slick and creepy boychild, a definite villain of the piece.

Karen Ardiff’s Prime Minister is feisty and committed to Remain, while her affable opponent (Arthur Riordan) sways in the breeze, grabbing straws out of the air as he strings together arguments to back up his Leave ideology. The pair are far too polite and considerate to each other during the debate to be realistic. But they parrot familiar lines about taking back control, insular worldviews and bananas with scary conviction.

The Alternative examines the power of the media to shape the theatre of politics, the power of politicians to mix facts with belief to stir up irrational emotion, the power exerted by men to override – and overpower – women in their circle of influence, and the power of a single voice to bring a fresh perspective to a debate.

The young woman labelled as being schizophrenic is perhaps the most rational person on the stage. Grainne is the only person to see more than one option while everyone else flails around trying to implement their single way of solving whatever problem is facing them. She’s also the only person not be asked for an opinion. Maeve Fitzgerald instils a sense of fragility in the character, along with a lucidity as she works through the alternative meanings of the bombshell statement that closes the first act.

Kearney and Patrick won Fishamble’s 30th anniversary competition to write A Play For Ireland. (You can read/listen to my interview with Michael Patrick in an earlier blog post.) Their playful counterfactual uses referendum concepts and lexicon – familiar from both Scotland’s indyref and the EU vote – to open up a conversation about who knows what is best for the people of Ireland, whether those who represent us actually listen to our views before making decisions, and ultimately where power lies in a society swayed by soundbite.

Well worth tracking down one of the remaining tickets for this impressive production before The Alternative finishes its run in the Lyric Theatre on Sunday 13 October.