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.