Friday, April 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 23, 2015

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

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

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

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

So what 15 things do you need to know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s it like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence #bff15

I’ve joked people before that you could close your eyes and flick through the Belfast Film Festival programme and tear out pages to decide which films you’re going to see, and you wouldn’t find a bad one.

Having missed I Am Belfast on Thursday evening, I headed along to the QFT tonight, confident that I’d catch Mark Cousin’s other film in the festival. Admittedly the title A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence was a little flowery even for Cousins, and the subtitles were translating Scandinavian dialogue which was unexpected, but I suspended disbelief and settled back into my seat.

Of course, the film’s the third in a trilogy by Swedish director Roy Andersson about “what it means to be a human being”. I’d got mixed up and bought a ticket for the wrong film! [Cousins’s 6 Desires will be screened in the Beanbag Cinema on Friday evening.]

Before getting to the plot, the cinematography deserves comment.

Modern film grammar is thrown out the window. There are no establishing shots followed by close-ups. Instead the lens lingers for the entire duration of each scene from a fixed position, framed as if a classical photograph, with the lines of pavements and where a wall meets the ceiling reaching out towards the corner of the shot. Often rooms will have a door open or a window leading out to another view, with noteworthy action taking place at a distance.

While some locations are revisited throughout the 50-shot film, camera angles are varied … as if the pigeons don’t always sit on the same branch to witness homo sapiens' mad existence.

The colour palette is consistently dominated by pale greens, beiges and off-whites. Nearly every man has a dodgy haircut or combover. Nearly every character has a white powdered face, as if emphasising their closeness to death.

The background music and sound effects from a scene often leaks into the next couple of vignettes, subtly carrying the previous mood and action forward. The music is perhaps the most upbeat element of the film, even when it’s associated with death.

No scene is rushed, and amongst the unhurried and often repetitive action, there is time and space for the audience to develop their own musings about the significance of the scene and how it all fits together. I’d certainly love a second viewing to better track how the main cast are first introduced.

Beginning with three “meetings with death”, characters are introduced slowly, with some recurring as the multi-threaded – and frankly sometimes unthreaded – narrative is woven over 100 minutes.

Two salesmen, Jonathan and Sam, try to sell their three novelty joke products to businesses in Gothenburg. [If Uncle One Tooth masks had been on sale after tonight’s screening, I’d have bought one!] Jonathan is emotional and cries, while Sam is impatient and frustrated. Both live in secure accommodation and Jonathan carries the memory of an inhumane incident that troubles his soul.

A Pigeon Sat has a Pythonesque feel with the 18th century King Charles XII of Sweden riding into a modern-day bar on his way to a devastating war with the Russians. In a single long take, hundreds of soldiers on horseback and infantry carrying pikes continue to march past the window while the King dismounts his steed and sips a refreshing sparkling water.

There are a few moments of laugh out loud comedy – that pass in an instant – in what is otherwise a depressing film. Humanity’s lack of empathy is portrayed through endless phone conversations that never get beyond “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine”, completely overlooking the true state of the person on the other end.
“Is it right using people only for your own pleasure?”

A couple of scenes of torture cement Andersson’s assessment of homo sapiens. Wars begat widows. Science begats animal experimentation and cruelty. Heavy industry begats slaves and death. Modern living begats poor relationships. Life begats death.

While nowhere near as dark as The Seventh Seal, Roy Andersson has definitely inherited Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish sense of the absurd and surreal narrative. Andersson’s interview with the Guardian last summer sheds some light on this film and his approach.

An audience sat on their plush QFT seats and reflected on existence … A Pigeon Sat is a film with more questions than answers more scenes that story, and yet a set of reflections that I reckon will live on and trouble me for weeks to come.

Note to self (1): read festival programme more carefully;

Note to self (2): disregard note (1) and select films at random;

Note to self (3): strike up interesting conversations with other members of the audience afterwards at the bar! Always worth it.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Lally The Scut (Tinderbox Theatre at The MAC until 2 May): tragedy mixed with moments of pantomime and horror.

History repeats itself on a hillside outside a village. Twenty years after Lally was rescued from down a well amidst a swathe of publicity, her son is trapped down the well and is being fed iced fingers lowered down on a fishing line. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, so suspicion and reluctance delay efforts to dig down and rescue the child.

The views of family members (Carol Moore, Michael Condron, Maria Connolly), local councillors (Alan McKee, Vincent Higgins) and construction workers are voiced, along with the reflections of Owen, a world-renowned and well-travelled journalist (Frank McCusker) from the area who gets some of the best dialogue, and the external opinion of his bouncy air-head assistant Gav (Richard Clements).
[Owen] I can’t remember anywhere as insular, bovine and quite, quite joyously repressive as this.

As a play, Lally The Scut probes the dysfunctional legacy that remains in post-conflict Northern Ireland for those of us “born lookin’ round corners”. The rural community is in transition and volatile. Can the townland ever shake off its past?

Up on the hill, digging starts, but the rural community is “in transition” and “volatile” and the groups represented by the golf-playing Community Liaison Officer’s glove puppets (“Colin the Continuity IRA dissident” and “Real IRA Rory”) may not be keen on other people unearthing what they buried during previous digs.

Roisin Gallagher waddles around the stage as pregnant Lally, in a white dress that has been physically and metaphorically sullied by the hillside mud. She endures whatever pain is necessary to keep her son’s rescue on track.

Despite the cast of twelve, between Abbie Spallen’s writing and Michael Duke’s direction, each character is well drawn and interesting, and their mannerisms and traits consistently acted.

Complex characters have secrets in their past. There’s ambiguity and perhaps some have an excuse for their behaviour: did the child who stole other children’s lunches do so because he wasn’t well fed at home? The ex-combatant Fork the Cat (Miche Doherty) is all workshopped out and nearly crosses the line between performance art and torture. Engineering manager (Gerard McCabe) has to manage the risk to the child and the rescuers, with the risk to his reputation.
[Owen] Civilisation comes with a price ... You have to be aware of your global and historical positioning ... People, viewers can become tired ... Especially when there’s the perception that you’re ...

[Lally] Trash.

[Owen] Regional.

Abbie Spallen is like an angry prophetess shouting at us through the dialogue about much of what’s rotten in our society ... starting with the fact that the child at the centre of this drama is never named.
[Owen] The longer it takes the more time we have to find a story.

Revelation is gradual and an incredible number of modern tropes are woven into the story: pop songs, cyberbullying, choosing to be offended.

There are no sacred cows unwilling to be sacrificed: family, church, media and politicians all get chopped off at the knees by the playwright’s satirical pen as she amplifies the failings of society.

Can you make a fast buck out of a child’s fate? What drives media interest in a story and how they prioritise one tragedy over another? To what extend can the church be corrupt, looking for something in return for their blessing? A republican political group is rebranding its rhetoric (“a time of adjustment”) without decommissioning its ability to intimidate. There’s even discomfort in the stalls as fingers are pointed at the audience and we become the unpure throng gathered in the village square.
[Gav] It is lovely and green.

[Owen] So is conjunctivitis.

The less-than-beautiful set could only have been designed by Ciaran Bagnall with stepped grass and muddy levels that thankfully look nothing like Teletubbies. Background sound effects keep the audience connected with the out-of-sight digging, and towards the end a grainy ‘live’ video feed links up the audience and the core cast with the rescue attempt.
[Owen] The good journalist, the diligent entity will find the real story! The story of the story.

Ultimately, Lally The Scut demonstrates that history repeats itself and generation after generation bite the hand that feeds (or rescues) them. The media, church and politicians – not to mention a rogue mother-in-law – repeat past behaviours to try to get the same rewards. And Northern Ireland is perhaps doomed to find itself stuck down a dark well every 20 years.

It’s incredibly well written, and the language is extreme throughout, to the extent that you stop noticing the swearing. Fragments of phrases echo throughout the play which is full of rural vernacular and playful delivery. Well worth picking up a copy of the script for £3 at the venue.

Lally the Scut is a complex, multi-layered play that shocks, challenges and blackly entertains. Tragedy mixed with moments of pantomime and horror. Abbie Spallen shares her dark and sinister imagination (terrorist puppets and that mincer!) and twelve capable actors drag the audience through the stinking mud of institutions and society to disturb us into addressing the rot. I can think of no good reason not to see Tinderbox NI’s production in The MAC between now and the 2 May. Tickets between £12 and £25.

Production photos by Ciaran Bagnall.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Danny Morrison’s "West Belfast": a coming of age novel set against the backdrop of a city in conflict

I grew up hearing Danny Morrison’s name on the radio at breakfast time as Sinn Féin’s Director of Publicity. More recently I’ve known him as chair of Féile an Phobail and spotted his attendance at many of the festival’s events in St Mary’s and the annual West Belfast Talks Back debate. But I’d never realised he was an author until his book (re)launch earlier this year at the end of January.

Spread over a decade, West Belfast is a coming of age story of John O’Neill growing up around the Falls against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, heightening tensions and the start of the Troubles. As well as watching John fall in love, move jobs, and explore the world, readers follow John as he deals with his inner tension, at first distancing himself from what was going on in his community before deciding to become involved.
A strange sort of a fella … I used to think he couldn’t open his mouth. Very quiet. But he’s grown up now … Good looking and kind. Maybe a bit too serious.
That’s how John’s girlfriend Angela described him early on in their relationship. It’s the age of Saturday night dances and cozying up to the sound of the Beatles.

After his first experiences of discrimination in a low wage job at an Ormeau Road engineering firm, John got work as a galley-boy on ships out of Belfast, before shifting to bigger trans-Atlantic vessels and becoming a trade union official. Returning to Belfast between crossings, John noticed the changes in his area:
They were no longer the British Army but were now called “the Brits”. Confrontations were regular and people complained that the soldiers were worse than the RUC, assaulting young people and firing tear gas into streets at any pretext.
John began smuggling weapons from Montreal back to Liverpool and onto Belfast, and quickly became more involved with the IRA.

While the story is told through a republican lens, the novel doesn’t overly glorify violence or set the IRA up as heroes. Instead the author finds humanity and dignity in unexpected places and allows for the complexity of characters’ motives adapting as the situation around them changes.

The book describes a familiar slip from innocence into activism, personal tragedy, and portrays the chaos of fast-moving events like the Divis Street riots. The chapter that relives the experience of “The Hooded Men”, tortured and thrown out of an army helicopter that the men didn’t know was hovering just above the ground, is a gruelling read.

Angela’s tale is gentler and provides a good counterbalance to John’s descent into violence. Yet her life too is affected by the changing vibe in Belfast and necessitates a rapid flit to England before eventually returning home to be reacquainted with old friends.

Early on the text is thick with landmarks and street names, nearly trying too hard to root the narrative in its real location. The storytelling adopts a mixture of styles and the plot switches between characters, even spending a chapter inside the mind of an IRA sniper at work.

It was a couple of years before Danny Morrison told anyone that he’d started to write a novel. Soon after West Belfast was published in 1989 he was arrested and imprisoned. (The conviction was overturned in 2008.) “He wasn’t around to do much publicity” novelist and playwright Ronan Bennett explained at the launch of the novel’s new 2015 edition.

Originally typed up on his 512k Amstrad computer, when Danny came back to republish his first novel it didn’t exist in digital format. So he scanned it in, fixed the spellings, and realised that back in the 1980s he had often used three words rather than one. So although this latest edition has the same story, same characters, the same beginning, middle and end, the text has been tightened up and apparently some of the more embarrassing sex scenes have been removed.

While not strictly history, Danny Morrison’s novel captures the spirit and some of the events of a time not long before I was born. At times an uncomfortable read, over two hundred pages it develops a sense of people and place that will long stick in my mind. If you’re looking for a book that clearly identifies the goodies and the baddies, move along the shelf. But if you’re keen to explore the complexity of conflict and how it shapes lives, West Belfast opens an insider’s window into Irish republicanism.

West Belfast is published by Elsinor Press, priced £10 and available from Amazon, Sinn Féin’s Falls Road bookshop or direct the author’s website.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Pillowman (Lyric Theatre, 24 March-19 April): "We like executing writers ... it sends out a signal"

Martin McDonagh is a master story-teller and his play The Pillowman is not only based around a powerful story arc, but contains a series of grisly fairy tales in the form of short stories that are read out during the performance.
I’ve never done any anti-police thing, any anti-state thing …

Katurian (played by Peter Campion) has been blindfolded and taken to a concrete curved-walled interrogation room. The door is heavy and riveted; the only window is grilled and three metres or more above the tiled floor.

The writer of hundreds of infrequently published short stories is initially not sure why he has been brought in to help the two policemen who question him.

Ariel (Gary Lydon) wears braces and plays bad cop, with a reputation for using torture to extract confessions. The more experienced and more senior Tupolski (David McSavage) is the better mannered good cop – or perhaps less-bad-but-still-sinister cop – dressed in his sharp grey suit. But can either be trusted? And what baggage to they bring to the investigation?
I’m a high ranking police officer in a totalitarian regime …

McDonagh’s trademark rapid-fire repetition of dialogue and ping pong between characters along with a magnificent use of pauses create confusion, tension and give the performance injections of pace despite its limited cast and restricted set. Yet the menace is laced with humour and comedy genius.
We like executing writers … it sends out a signal.

Katurian (and McDonagh by extension) is a modern day Grimm, writing short stories that involve children or adults being mistreated, often violently. The police are concerned that his fiction now resembles a recent series of read-life child murders. At times you’ll wonder whether Katurian or the interrogators are the bigger storytellers!

They’ve searched his house, gathered up his stories, and brought his older brother Michal (Michael Ford-Fitzgerald) to the next door cell. Michal’s experience of childhood abuse and learning disabilities make him a vulnerable and sometimes hard-to-read figure in the play.

A couple of times between scenes, Owen MacCárthaigh’s magical set morphs to allow short stories narrated by Katurian and be illustrated by a subsidiary cast on an elevated platform behind him. These tales offer autobiographical insight into Katurian and Michal’s life and deeds.

The stories within the story are so well fashioned. Katurian/McDonagh’s story of The Little Green Pig that enjoys being “a little bit peculiar” would make a great children’s story book or even a radio Thought For The Day.
They’re not going to kill my stories, they’re all that I’ve got.

A suitably fairy tale ending befits the dark and macabre themes throughout the play.

The Pillowman is inappropriate in so many ways. If the actors on stage are racist and mock disability that reflects the nature of their characters. But a lot of the audience giggle along to the stories, maybe occasionally pausing to think through the wrongness of their response. In the theatre environment, the audience would be cold-hearted not to have empathy but they don’t express anger, speak up or storm out. We are carried along by the storytelling, and aren’t as far removed from the on-stage characters as we might hope.

The power of storytelling is somewhat lost in today’s world of sound bites.

Few broadcast news reports have the time to stick with a prolonged narrative and instead quickly cut away to a synopsis, analysis or an alternative opinion. Newspaper articles get ever shorter as interaction research shows that readers engage with the first few paragraphs and the final ones before skimming the rest of the text (if they even bother).

Yet children love the repetition of a well-crafted, oft-rehearsed story being repeatedly read to them at bedtime. And as I’ve discovered, as they grow older, they start to enjoy less well-crafted and made-up-on-the-hoof parody stories involving favourite characters that play with words and stretch their imaginations.

Some of the most effective sermons are those in which the preacher tells a Biblical story, amplifying it, asking what might have been going on in the heads of the characters, looking at the interactions, painting a rich three dimension picture of the plain words on the page and activating it in the minds of the congregation before making some points or challenges.

The Pillowman illustrates the power of storytelling, the challenges to the freedom or a writer, as well as the consequences if your motivation is misinterpreted or your words are taken as justification for awful action.

Is The Pillowman the product of a warped mind, or a prophet? Is there a responsibility attached to the creation and sharing of tales?

The Pillowman’s cast totally live up to the quality of the script. Peter Campion is never off the stage for the two and a half hour performance and is completely believable as an author, a brother, and a wide-eyed young man running out of time. The language is very strong throughout, and the themes are raw.

After ten years, 2015 is the first time that the play has been performed in Ireland. Having passed through Galway, Dublin and Cork, it’s worth catching The Pillowman at the Lyric Theatre until 16 April.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Courtroom drama ... performed in an actual courtroom: Dave Duggan's DENIZEN - a dissident republican addresses the court

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole

The word ‘denizen’ conjures up the notion of a citizen, yet perhaps one with fewer rights or living somewhere that isn’t home.

It’s also the title of Dave Duggan’s new play, a courtroom drama written in verse which opens in the north west this weekend and will be performed in two courthouses.

Interviewed last week, the playwright told me:
The conceit in the play is that the judges have given Denizen an hour to speak to the court of public opinion. … [Denizen] is a dissident republican with a long tradition of being involved in militant anti-state activity, in the militant republican tradition, and he’s arrived at this point where he’s about to appear in court again. It’s not his first time.

In an unusual and gesture – only available in theatre! – the judges have given him an hour to step outside the confines of facing the judges into a public space in the courts to speak to the audience, the citizens.
Dave added:
He a fictional theatrical character and he interrogates himself, the guards interrogate him, and he presents his case, his past and present, and he pushes himself into the future with a set of options.
The playwright reckons “there’s a sense of singularity and isolation implied” in the word ‘Denizen’ and as an artist with a reputation for playing with words - who else could construct and use the word "de-chastellained"! - he admits that it trips off the tongue in a neat way: “denizen … dissident”.

I first came across Dave Duggan at last year’s Belfast Festival. His science-fictional play Makaronik wove together English, Irish and Empirish (TALK TALK UNDERSTAND MOST). This time, his play is in verse!
When I came to write this I had a sense that the matters that Denizen engages with and the gesture he makes, they are larger than life. To do it in a naturalistic style I felt wouldn’t carry it theatrically. So it’s in iambic pentameter, terza rima, ballad style, there’s singing in it, but it’s in verse.

One of the pleasures of theatre is relishing language. I like words … how we use them … the possibilities of them … the way they run into each other, infect each other, cross-pollinate with each other. Much of that is present in Denizen.
To quote Denizen:
I speak in verse because my heart is pure.
My actions chill you daily, provoke fear.
But the verse, the beat, the pure note rises.
Let me tempt you with a few surprises.
Before you stands a local, wanted man.
But not by you. Not wanted. Abhorred?
As dog turds on a peace bridge are abhorred.
Avoided. Yuk! Walked round. Scraped off your shoe.
Do not bring me into your cosy home.
I am the pariah part of yourself.
Dave Duggan strongly believes that theatre is about “pleasure-making, engaging and entertaining”.
For me the pleasures of theatre, particularly in a world where so much of the images we get are on screens, laptops, phones, televisions, films … so the challenge to – and opportunity for – theatre makers is to do something that is consciously theatrical in a way that people think “this is something different … I’ve seen something refreshing and new”.

Why choose the subject of the last dissident republican?
The subjects tend to choose me. I’m soaking up what’s going on in my life and my world, matters arising and this matter arises for me. What is it about this choice of violence? Why do people choose violence to find a way to create social change?
The character Denizen says that “what he wants is regime change” and reflects on examples of regime change across the world as he explains his own actions at home.
Forced regime changes, and the lies, proceed
Daily, under cover of denials
Each night on broadcast news, across the globe.
So why not my desire for regime change?
By brute force, if that be necessary?
I am a midge on the sturdy white bull
Of war and violence. The state's white bull,
Proud and fierce, calling us to give homage.
Ultimately, the play asks whether a future can be built without violence, by the state or its citizens?

Many people won’t have been in a court room unless on jury service. Dave Duggan describes the work as “site responsive” rather than “site specific” and he’s glad that years of discussion with Courts NI mean that audiences will get to see it in Bishop Street Courthouse and Strabane Courthouse.

Denizen is played by Diarmuid de Faoite (Corp agus Anam) while Orla Mulland (The Fall) and John Duddy (boxer turned actor) play the main guards. The rest of the chorus of guards who challenge Denizen are played by local actors. The Hive Studio provide the audio-visuals, allowing the audience to see the imagery in Denizen’s head.

The script has been published and there's also a good piece on Culture Northern Ireland about the play.

Currently rehearsing in unit B15, Denizen is produced by Creggan Enterprises Limited in association with The Hive Studio and opens in Derry’s Ráth Mór Centre on Monday 30 and Tuesday 31 March (£5), before moving to Bishop Street Courthouse between Monday 6 and Wednesday 8 April (£10/£7) and Strabane Courthouse on Saturday 11 April (£10). Follow the links to the ticket sites. Derry tickets are also available from the Pennywise shop in the Ráth Mór Centre.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Tim Ward's take on what Daniel and Joseph could teach us about Ashers & that cake: Don't panic ...

The inside half of our folded church announcement bulletin often reprints a weekly column from someone connected with Evangelical Alliance. Truth be told, I often find the attitude of the articles quite irritating. But while my heart sank when I realised the subject of this week's essay was that cake, my spirits rose when I realised the less predictable tack that Tim Ward was taking with his message.

The first few paragraphs set out the ground work for EA's UK-wide audience ...
It’s a storm in a cake tin. Or actually it’s not, because the cake in question wasn’t baked. A while ago a campaigner for same-sex marriage, Gareth Lee, asked a bakery in Northern Ireland to make him a cake to support his cause with an iced topping that featured a slogan in favour of gay marriage, along with a picture of the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie. Confused about how a couple of puppets get dragged into this? Ask Google.

Ashers, the bakery in question, is run by a family of Christians, and they declined the business. Mr Lee, supported by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, is taking legal action against the bakery, and the case will come before a Belfast court later this month. This week a lawyer acting for the bakery published a legal opinion warning that if the case goes against the bakery then in the future all sorts of people could be legally required to act against their conscience: a Muslim printer could be forced to print cartoons of Muhammed, an atheist web designer could be forced to build a website for six-day creationists.

My, this is complicated. And because it involves individual conscience, it’s quite hard to make a comment without causing offence to someone somewhere. Of course, this case is simply the newsworthy tip of a very large everyday iceberg. Many Christians will encounter related issues in their working life – a financial advisor, say, required to regard a same-sex couple as married.
... before the twist ...
I just want to make two simple observations. The first is that the Bible tells us of a number of people who look like they’re in thoroughly morally compromised situations, but yet serve God faithfully. Daniel was a senior civil servant in Babylon, an empire that had not exactly established a reputation for justice and moral probity. Joseph was second-in-command to Pharaoh in Egypt, and married to the daughter of a pagan priest. Both men must have constantly found themselves in positions that might be regarded as morally compromised.

The second observation is that the world of Daniel and Joseph has been the norm in most places through history - except for Europe, North America and few other places, and that for just a few 100 years. Those of us brought up in these cultures often have a knee-jerk reaction to think that something has recently gone horribly wrong – that something is happening that threatens the possibility of faithful Christian living, when the unconverted world around us decides rather suddenly to act in line with its principles and ditch the assumption that biblical morality is the norm for all.

How do these observations help Christians? They don’t immediately solve all the questions we’re suddenly faced with. They don’t automatically tell us whether the Ashers have any biblical basis for expecting the law of the land to protect their consciences in this matter. But I suspect that Daniel and Joseph are effectively telling us something pretty helpful: don’t panic. The world does what it does. It will likely change its mind again one day. And while all that goes on, we can still be utterly faithful to God in the midst of what often feels like moral compromise. After all, even the son of God could take a human nature, be born, live and die in the mess of this world, without for a moment compromising who he was and is as the holy God.

Tim Ward is associate director of the Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Training Course

Finally someone with something fresh to say on the subject. I'm not sure I entirely agree with the piece, but it was refreshing and not as simplistic as the cookie-cutter arguments that the local media are full of this week.

As a postscript, I notice a comment under the original post on EA's website:
Is doing something you do not agree with hurting you or others? Jesus said if made to carry a Roman soldiers cloak [it was law for a solider to ask anyone to carry it a mile, to carry it another.

So maybe this bakery should have thought about making them two cakes, one they asked for and another free one. A plain one of course.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Imp (Jude Quinn) - Bouffon theatre in Belfast - a playful creature, or something more sinister?

Superficially, the Imp is a Bouffon artist clowning around on stage on four limbs in a tight black body suit with extra lumps and bumps. The Imp is at first playful. While Bouffon creatures are often asexual, this Imp is definitely male.

The audience's first sight of the Imp – for those paying attention to the stage and not chatting away to their friends – is a white hand that crawls onto the stage before walking off again. Soon the full Imp is moving around, introducing his “Je Suis …” placard to the packed audience in the MAC.

Jude Quinn trained for the Bouffon style of comedy at the L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. He remains silent for the hour long performance, other than the noise of his suit against the floor and some heavy breathing. The routine is full of slow movements and controlled gestures, many of which are rewarded with audience giggles. Jude's eyebrows and chin deserve their own dressing room given the level of performance they give.

You can smell the fear as the bare-footed grotesque Imp walks off the stage and up the steps into the stalls. Audience members who’ve settled into their chosen seats are moved around with hand-signals, nods, raised eyebrows and a few comical false-starts.

Tension is carefully managed throughout the performance with a level of trust maintained between performance and watcher, though for some individuals this becomes pretty stretched as their belongings and eventually their whole selves become part of the on-stage action.

Bouffon ridicules and challenges normally respected figures and practices – religion, taste and decency – and The Imp certainly explores all of these right up to and perhaps beyond your point of discomfort. Any misgivings that the Imp will turn out to be a hilarious gimp-suited Mr Bean are quickly dispelled.

The “Je Suis ...” chalk sign contemporises the performance and provides the chapter markings as the phrase is modified between scenes. While the Imp is imaginary, the domination and torture that the multi-layered act explore are very real. Snapshot the action and you’ll even spot the recreation of an Abu Ghraib thumbs-up photo.

There's more than a nod to Edgar Allen Poe's The Imp of the Perverse as the Imp displays his own mischievousness and leads people into mischief. Through wordless direction, some audience members are encouraged to step outside their comfort zone and play along with his plans. Individual self-interest is conquered and the Imp masters and dominates all those in his reach.

With the final victim audience member on stage and a good rapport built up, the Imp flicks the balance of power and in an instant the humiliation is complete. The performance ends with the Imp miming along to Pulp’s Common People, a further reminder that in this messed up world we’re no better than the rogue and perverse Imp that’s been entertaining us for the last hour.
Laugh along with the common people
Laugh along even though they're laughing at you and the stupid things that you do.
Because you think that poor is cool.
I want to live with common people …

While the Imp appeared at the MAC for just one night back at the end of February, Jude Quinn together with his director Gemma Mae Halligan and their physical theatre company Amadan have created a monster that will hopefully return to local stages as well as further afield venues to provoke and terrorise more audiences. Over time the poignancy of the Je Suis … Charlie Hebdo motif will fade, but I'm sure the playful-yet-sinister Imp will find a way of getting his way with new audiences.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Kajaki: The True Story - a war film with a neutral stance on everything except military incompetence & human bravery

Kajaki: The True Story is a gruesome yet gripping retelling of a real-life incident in September 2006 near Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.

Soldiers from 3 Para are living primitively on a ridge high above the dam. A sign at the entrance sums up the conditions: “Please leave all morale here”. The boredom of their round-the-clock observation routine is broken with banter and the arrival of new supplies which don’t include much needed radio batteries. The film paints a bleak picture of the men’s physical and technical isolation, not to mention their frustration with the poor level support they receive.

Three soldiers set off down the hill to position themselves closer – within sniper range – to what they suspect is an illegal checkpoint. While crossing a dried out riverbed, one steps on a landmine and part of his leg is blown off.

We watch a tourniquet being tightened around the raw flesh that looks like minced meat in a butchers. Morphine is injected to dull the pain. Local US security contracts guarding the engineers who are repairing the dam lend them working radios as they try to organise air evacuation for their injured colleague.

But there’s more than one mine in the area, though no one’s sure why the Russians planted them. British military incompetence is compounded when a Chinook – without a winch – is sent to the minefield. Dust swirls. The vast helicopter leaves without its injured cargo, but in the maelstrom as it takes off, rocks are dislodged onto the booby-trapped riverbed and there are further casualties.

In the dangerous terrain, some soldiers are left to apply tourniquets to themselves. Dressings and medicines run low. The medic must face conquer his panic and make a dangerous journey to apply his skills to the next batch of injured, ignoring the wise advice:
Never walk into a room you don’t know how to get out of.
The pace slows down in the final quarter of the film. The audience, like the soldiers, are impatiently waiting for evacuation. Wounded men struggle to keep themselves and their colleagues from drifting into unconscious and death. The heat, lack of meds and massive blood loss all take their toll.

Other than a beautiful song that accompanies the credits, the soundtrack is as barren as the sandy, lifeless landscape. The dialogue is peppered with strong language, soldiers’ taunting, inappropriate humour, and compassion wrapped up in insult. The ensemble cast are a convincing military unit. There were laugh out loud moments, even for the four of us previewing the film mid-morning in a deserted cinema complex. But Kajaki is far removed from the tone set in BBC Three’s Bluestone 42, a comedy drama about a bomb disposal unit serving in Afghanistan. While the film makes no attempt to hide the guts and gore, the explosions are kept at a strangely restrained volume and the bangs and booms are well signposted with gentle hints that avoid scaring the audience unnecessarily.

Kajaki takes a remarkably neutral view of conflict. I’m not a fan of war films, but this one turns the normal narrative on its head. For director Paul Katis and writer Tom Williams, the real enemy is the incompetent system rather than the foes they target and fight (and we barely see). Kajaki offers 108 minutes of fighting against the landmine legacy of someone else’s conflict.

There is no glorification of war, just a celebration of bravery and resilience while confusion and panic reins in the barren isolated situation. If anything the sense of peril is increased because the storyline is real and I found the most emotional part of the film the eventual evacuation and the end credits with their haunting "All of my life" lyrics written and performed by Phoebe Katis and photos of the actors matched up with photos of the soldiers. The music acts like a calming bridge from conflict and casualty back into the real world and the cinema car park.

For some there will be painful echoes of scenes from 1972's Bloody Friday in Belfast. For others there will be discomfort with the British Army being portrayed as heroes. But for all there should be the questions of why land mines were ever a good solution, and why it was appropriate for troops to still be in the region.

Kajaki is showing exclusively in Omniplex cinemas across Ireland from Friday 13 March.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Gift: an enchanting piece of immersive theatre by Cahoots, the masters of illusion & storytelling #bcf15

It’s like being in a fairy tale. Once you’ve found the empty shop unit right at the back of Castle Court’s first floor (behind the food court, opposite Argos), you enter a plush waiting room and before long you’re being led through a door – that appears out of nowhere – into a circular space with enough chairs and pillows to allow forty people at a time to see Charles Way’s enchanting piece of immersive theatre, The Gift.

It’s a story about what we offer each other – as much about presence as presents – and the wonderful gifts we can make the most of and can give to others by using our resources of time and money well. It’s also a tale that examines how a young child’s understanding of the world around them changes and matures as they grow up, and what we feel is important along the way.

The audience drift through a series of recollections from Mary’s childhood and youth. Played by Clare McMahon, Mary is a delicate child and recognised as a talented pianist who works hard to perfect her forte, whereas her older brother Keith (Niall Murphy) just picks up an instrument and teaches himself.

Their father (James Doran) is a largely absent sailor (one of “those who keep moving”), and their “stand in the one place” mother Noreen (Maggie Cronin) is joined by neighbour Ellie (Julia Dearden) in bringing up the children and steering them through their teens and into their twenties. Other characters are played by Keith Singleton (who makes a bubbly priest) and Jude Quinn.

While Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney always sprinkles some magic dust over his productions, The Gift is the most intimate piece of theatre I’ve seen him direct.

You’re never sitting or standing more than a couple of metres from a member of the cast.

The unexpected feeling of movement in the first room is only the start as the actors and the audience move through a series of interlinked spaces – including the family house, a wooded outdoor scene and a concert hall dressing room – before coming full circle back round to the beginning. While my nose stopped working twenty or so years ago, some of the children at tonight’s show explained to me afterwards how certain rooms stank and how you could smell the trees and the fusty house.

Garth McConaghie has been working his audio magic too with rich tracks of ambient noise accompanying each scene, off-stage dialogue and recollections of conversations. The variety of spatial sound sources and moody lighting mean you spend sixty minutes not realising you’re walking around an otherwise deserted retail space.

The script doesn’t feel like it’s been written specifically for a young audience but the more junior attendees tonight assured me that by the end it all made sense. As children we don’t always understand the full context of what the adults in a room are saying, and the opening scene captures this idea well. There will be empathy with the childish arguments and sibling jealousy, and the darker moments are lightened with jokes and a spot of dancing at a wake!

Between the acting, the live music and the quality of the set and staging, The Gift is an entrancing production that I strongly recommend.

Since it’s part of the Belfast Children’s Festival you should feel free to bring your own or borrow somebody else’s child to accompany you! With such limited capacity at each performance, book early as The Gift is sure to sell out quickly. Daily shows in Unit 70 at the back of Castlecourt’s upper mall from 6 until 13 March.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of Belfast Children’s Festival great programme (PDF). Narrow in the Lyric looks like another quirky show not to be missed this weekend.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reassemble for Purpose - contemporary art at Platform Arts

A couple of weeks ago it was contemporary dance; today at lunchtime it turned out to be contemporary art. It could be some time before I develop an expert appreciation about either of these artforms!

Above the Poundstretcher at the end of Belfast’s Queen Street, Platform Arts hosts studio space for member artists. Up on the top storey, four artists are exhibiting across the 3000 square foot floor.

Their theme is Reassemble for Purpose, engaging with ideas of reconstruction and the potential of transformation with each artist taking a very different approach within their individual disciplines.

Visitors to the gallery walk through Clodagh Lavelle’s tent-like corridor on the way into the main exhibition space.

Reminiscent of a set for a late 1970s/early 1980s science fiction drama, the yellow fabric catches the side of your body as you enter before opening out a less claustrophobic and more airy mesh of fabric and string, giving views of the other artists’ work.

Rachael Campbell-Palmer is obviously in to her concrete and has taken a mold of the top of a column and created new concrete casts which sit abstractly on the floor, several metres lower than the original, and upside down!

A graduate of QUB’s Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC), Helena Hamilton has lit the far wall of the gallery with fluorescent tubes. However once you’ve walked across to inspect the visual bait, you’ll discover the work’s audio trap.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember Budgie Butlins, a previous work by Catherine Roberts back in September 2010. The window of Paragon Studios Project Space (PS2/PS Squared) gallery allowed passers-by to gaze into an artificial bird-safe caravan park with its model landscape filled with holidaying budgies.

In Captive Landscapes, Catherine has recreated an animal enclosure (without any live animals this time) showing off how “grim” they can be, stuffed full of human elements: a plastic barrel, a tyre hanging from a rope, a bucket of slop, part of a chain-sawed tree and a wire fence. Even the carrot is unnaturally sliced with a knife. The artist describes it as the “disconnection between the audience and the animal meant to live here”.

Walking around the exhibition alone my initial reaction was one of bafflement. What did this all mean? Why was this art? Where was the monkey (or whatever animal was supposed to be in the enclosure)? How did any of this make the world better?

Catherine’s explanation helped make sense of some of it. Though truth be told, what I like to think of as my rational, scientific inner self clearly fails to fully ‘get’ the inspiration and purpose of some artistic expression. But that shouldn’t necessarily lessen its value to others who may instead be wondering why there’s any need for a NI Science Festival!

The Reassemble For Purpose exhibition runs until 28 February and Platform Arts is open Wednesday-Friday between noon and 6pm and Saturday 11am – 4pm. If the door bell doesn’t summon someone down to let you in, give them a ring on the more reliable phone (028) 9031 1301.

All photos mine except Helena Hamilton's of her light+sound work.