Wednesday, October 28, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP Duck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Hallo - Martin Zimmermann, the incredible geometry man #BelFest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production photos by Augustin Rebetez

Friday, October 23, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Lobster - nipping away at society's rules about love and relationships and being alone (QFT 23/10-5/11)

Society is so full of rules. We conform to an enormous range of expected behaviours and patterns to fit in and be ‘normal’. Only travel and a knowledge of history helps us realise that there is diversity within these customs … and so many of us travel little and eschew learning about the past.

Imagine a society where being alone is frowned on. Not so hard to imagine is it? Imagine structures and facilities to not-so-gently encourage those lacking companions to avail of one last opportunity to find that special someone before being permanently turned into an animal.

David (played by a moustached Colin Farrell) checks into a ‘hotel’ with his dog. He’s got just 45 days to find a date. Everyone is a solo diner until they graduate to the segregated area for new couples and eventually a yacht moored off the coast to finally test nascent relationships before reintroduction to ‘the city’. Daily exercises, training sessions (that seek to persuade that two are better than one) and dances are interspersed with free time to pursue solo sports.

Whenever the klaxon sounds, everyone grabs their tranquilizer gun and heads to the woods to capture loners who symbolically carry their baggage on their backs and are hiding outside the system.

Olivia Colman plays the harsh hotel manager who dispenses sadistic punishments and delivers deadpan lines that are rewarded with audience tittering:
“A wolf and a penguin can never live together.”

After an hour, David turns the table on himself but finds that his new community has self-imposed and harshly policed rules too. Freed from being forced to find love does not liberate him to find lasting friendship. Scrape away the surface and every system – or clash of systems – has its weaknesses, resistance and back channels. Power corrupts …

The opening scenes of The Lobster are quite disorientating. Then the narration kicks in and it becomes even more disorientating. At times this commentary looks ahead and gives away information about characters you’ll not learn for another half hour. It’s all part of the bewildering dystopian science fiction land that you’ll spend a good two hours enjoying enduring watching.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos is not afraid to linger in a scene, keeping the camera steady and allowing unseen characters to speak. And then at the last minute he may throw in a wide shot to ‘establish’ what you’ve been imagining before quickly moving on to the next scene. Unfortunately the second half loses too much of the pace and urgency of the first.

The hotel uniform enforces a consistent look (they could be participating in fascism or in a concentration camp, either metaphor works) while the residents frantically look for common characteristics and flaws in their peers that might show a potential fit for partnership, rather than interlocking complementarianism. The compulsion to be liked and pair off develops a creepiness. Like modern society there is a twisted sexualisation.

But perhaps most disturbing is the ability for people trapped in these systems to rationalise horrifying practices, at once both human and inhumane.

If it all goes wrong, David wants to be morphed into lobster. Can he find a way of leaving the darkness and heading back into the light? Or will pursuit of love catch him like a pincer and draw blood?

With a great soundtrack, a quality cast and lush Irish scenery The Lobster is a film that may make you cling tightly to someone as you leave the cinema, thankful that you’re not exiting into a dystopian world yet afraid that the film’s satire isn’t stretched too far from reality.

The Lobster is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 23 October until Thursday 5 November.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

To Break - a Wild West performance where nothing is as it seems (MAC 20-21 Oct) #BelFest

To Break is an enchanting piece of international performance theatre. Without words, but not without a sumptuous sound track and background sounds. When Robbert & Frank / Frank & Robbert go searching for material, they look for heavy pieces of wood, chunky stuff that they can balance and roll and heave around.

Each heavy prop that is conveyed onto the stage introduces a new facet to the overall Wild West tableau. Some are multifunctional: reused and repurposed. Even the backdrop has a twist.

Pregnant pauses allow the audience to imagine what will happen next … but never correctly! While starting simply, the complexity of the action builds up until a trolley full of contraptions is wheeled on stage. Donald Rumsfeld even makes an appearance.
“The time has come to break the window of opportunity …”

While rarely leaning too far over the line into clowning, the pair of Belgiam performers quietly send up acrobats, dancers and strong men with their balancing, transitioning from pose to pose, and acts of precision and control while bearing hefty weights. Not to mention their habit of staring out into the soul of the audience members.

And it keeps alive a tradition started two years ago at Pending Vote of Belfast Festival shows in which it snows! Sixty minutes of visual alchemy … and their cute trees are on sale after the show.

To Break has one more performance left on Wednesday 21 October at the MAC as part of Belfast International Arts Festival.

Preview – The Kitchen – Cooking up a sweet sensation at the Grand Opera House (Wed 21/Thu 22) #BelFest

The Kitchen promises mass catering on an industrial scale in what the show’s director described to me yesterday as “a multi-sensory production”.

Roysten Abel explained that five years ago he paid a visit to Jalaludin Rumi’s tomb in Konya.
After paying respects at his tomb I was taken to his kitchen. First there were two pots, huge pots, where the food would be cooked and just above that was a raised platform and Rumi sat there with his dervishes and meditators while the food was being cooked. On the left hand side there were shoes. This was where the novices would be asked to sit and wait – without any food or water – until Rumi said they could join him.

The novices could be left baking for days in the middle of the cooking and dancing.

While Wednesday and Thursday night’s audiences in the Grand Opera House may feel like novices, they’ll not be left for days, and they will be fed the payasam that is being cooked up in front of them.

It was years later when Roysten started working with drummers – their particular drums are “copper pots with hide on them – that it reminded him of Rumi’s kitchen and the recipe for the culinary show started to form.
The Kitchen is an experience where you go through not just the emotions but the sound and smell and finally the taste altogether as a narrative.

Come along to this week’s performances at the Belfast International Arts Festival and you’ll experience the varying smells of the cooking as the different ingredients are added to the two huge pots in the centre of the stage, along with “a sonic narrative” from the drums that are beaten in the towering set. And tied in with expect to witness the emotional family narrative between the husband and wife who are all the time cooking the payasam.

Food and family ... what’s not to like?! The Kitchen has toured through Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Asia, and this is its UK and Irish première. Tickets from £12-£24. Approaching the festival’s midpoint, there are still lots of goodies in the programme waiting to be sampled ...

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (Grand Opera House until Sat 17 Oct) #BelFest

Shows celebrating mathematics should be a mandatory part of every year’s Belfast Festival programme. It can’t all be left to the NI Science Festival. And a play featuring a dog in the Grand Opera House should be another compulsory performance in the running order.*

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time ticks all those boxes this year with a (sold out run) for Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s superb novel.
“I’m going to find out who killed Wellington.”

Starting with Mrs Shears’ (dead) dog in the middle of the floor with a garden fork sticking out of it, we learn about 15 year old Christopher’s difference and his literalness combined with outright honesty that get him into trouble. The relationship with Siobhan – his mentor in school who narrates from Christopher’s record of his investigation into the canine death – is the calmest and most patient of the adults in his life. It’s a shame that Mrs Alexander, an older neighbour living in No 41, doesn’t get more scenes in which to demonstrate her problem-solving attitude (let’s have tea outside if you won’t come in).

Much imagery from the book is transferred straight into the play. Through the use of sound, images, movement and lighting the audience experience the overwhelming multisensory input that confuses Christopher, slows him down and causes extreme anxiety. With black and white predominantly used throughout the performance, the appearance of any strong colour is incredibly significant and usually a sign of heightened fear or tension.

There’s a darkness in some of the scenes after the interval that is carefully balanced with moments of comedy.

So many promises made to Christopher by adults are broken. It is heart-breaking. Yet by the end of the play, we see the birth of aspiration in a boy who is coming of age, and the gift of achievement and well deserved recognition (even if he’s nonplussed by his own success!).

As someone who went to the theatre as a child and spent most of the time looking at the lights, the look of the show is extraordinary. Spotlights normally throw rounded shapes onto a stage. The Curious Incident pulls off crisp right angled corners that are perfectly positioned on the black box graph-paper stage through the use of projectors pointing down from the roof that are aligned perfectly with the set.

Projectors are overused in modern theatre. There’s barely a play staged in Belfast that doesn’t have one or more projectors bouncing imagery off the scenery to augment the set. But Curious Incident gets a wild card and shows what can be achieved with a relatively simple-looking boxed in set and the mind of a Christopher. The white outline of rooms, houses and even railway carriages are created in an instant and then wiped away.

The main props are simple white boxes that are placed very precisely on the stage. (One box was left at a jaunty angle for a while that ruined the aesthetic for anyone in the audience with OCD tendencies!)

One small niggle: any maths student will tell you the teacher docks marks if you don't draw the axes on top of the thick major gridlines on the graph paper. Maths savant Christopher would know that too. Somehow the set designer didn’t manage to follow that rule and has the axes plotted midway through the squares.

The view from the back row up in the ‘gods’ in the Grand Opera House was spectacular and while I couldn’t make out the facial expressions of any of the cast, I had a great overview of the choreography. The downsides of the cheap seats were the sweetie paper fissling of hundreds of people in the theatre sitting between me and the unamplified voices on the stage. So when the schoolchild in front continued to slurp her straw at the bottom of the long ago emptied bottle of juice it was sorely tempting to drop my ice cream tub on top of her and say “oops”.

The breaking of the fourth wall to tell the audience that we were watching a play written by Christopher – a play within a play – jarred with the immersive theatre up to that point. However, the postponed mathematical explanation was worth the wait and as someone who was a bit of a maths geek and spent many an hour reading mathematical dictionaries as a child, it was quite emotional to hear Christopher so clearly and completely lecturing the departing audience about a topic close to his heart.

There’s just one seat left in the Circle [E19] for Saturday evening’s performance in the Grand Opera House. The touring version of Curious Incident is nearly at the end of its run. If you have the chance to see the play in London or New York, grasp the opportunity. It’s a fresh and novel staging whose technically brilliance is not let down by the quality of the 14 energetic cast members.

*On-stage peeing – or pretend peeing – is also a new meme for Belfast theatre, with the next performance expected during Mydidae later in the Belfast Festival.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Shh! We Have A Plan - beautiful theatre for 4+ from Cahoots (Lyric Theatre until 18 Oct & then on tour)

“He’s real!” the girl in the row behind whispered in disbelief at the beginning of Wednesday evening’s show as a previously still figure resting against a tree came to life. The start of a low volume commentary that ran the duration of the 45 minute performance as she and her friend tried to unpack the magic that was unfolding on the stage.

Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney’s beautiful adaptation of Chris Haughton’s classic children’s book Shh! We Have A Plan creates a delicate enchanting environment that entices children in the audience – young and old – to suspend their disbelief and draws them into the forest scene.

Three tall woolly-hatted adventurers in their blue jump suits and knitted ganzies make their way through a dark misty forest. They seek out stunning wildlife, but have a tendency to want to take it home. Then on a tall tree that sits in the middle of a mound, they spy the most attractive bird. To what lengths won’t they go to capture their new object of desire?

Completely without words the actors are like synchronised swimmers (mostly) out of water, moving in sympathy with each other and with the calming forest soundtrack and bass beat. Puppetry, mime and magic: full of graceful choreography and sleights of hand that interact with the illusions. Garth McConaghie’s music builds up a series of simple leitmotifs that help signpost to the young audience the start of each new attempt to capture a creature.

Ultimately the three characters are set free upon realising that when they stop trying so hard to do the wrong thing, the object of their desires – and much, much, more – falls right into their hands. But wait, what’s that up there …

Touring across the island, you can catch Shh! We Have A Plan in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 18 October, after which the adventurers will be calling at Roscommon (Wednesday 21), Longford (Thursday 22), Castlebar (Sunday 25), Omagh (Wednesday 28) and Sligo (Saturday 31). More details on Cahoots NI’s website.

Take you inner four year old to see it!

Chivalry is Dead: two knights to remember - armoured aerobics and mechanoid drum machines #BelFest

Dressed in suits of armour Alexander Deutinger and Alexander Gottfarb stood against the back wall of the Upstairs MAC theatre space last night while the audience filed into the bank seating. Slowly the two knights began to move. Rocking to one side. Lifting a foot. Shuffling forward.

Fluorescent tubes and plain white overhead spotlights glinted off the tarnish armour. Throughout the wordless performance the only sounds were the amplified noises of the knights, and some giggling from the audience. Condenser microphones hung from the ceiling. Floor mics picked up their stamping. And mics inside their suits allowed every sound of creaking metal to reverberate around the stage. These warriors wouldn’t sneak inconspicuously into the kitchen for a cookie in the middle of the night. Nor would they have an easy time going through airport security!

With tubby chest plates and one knight’s helmet adorned with a foppish feather that flounced around, the dancers settled into patterns of movement and rhythms, turning themselves into mechanoid drum machines as they performed their increasingly vigorous armoured aerobics.

There’s an amazing level of self control in Chivalry is Dead as the dancers manage their cumbersome movements on stage. At the back of the theatre, there’s also a huge level of control demonstrated by the sound engineer who prevents even the hint of feedback emerging while delaying and looping the metallic sounds and allowing them to swirl round the auditorium and build up to a huge crescendo at the end of the performance.

While donning a suit of plate armour to go into hand to hand battle was left behind in the Middle Ages – though the protection gear worn by bomb disposal teams (Ammunition Technical Officers) still has much in common – the concept of “knights” lives on in modern society. Knighthoods are awarded, various membership organisations (secretive and otherwise) adopt the term as a rank in their hierarchy.

What does a knight in a suit of armour look like when transplanted into today’s frenetic activities? At a practical level chivalrous behaviour associated with knights may now just be an outworking of normal politeness, but a man holding a door open for a woman can also be perceived as sexist. As western society tries to strip away old-fashioned ideas of chauvinism and dump the worst excesses of patriarchy, is chivalry dead? Will the do-gooders willing to blast everything out of their way to make the world a better place cease to exist in video games and action movies?

Or are some of Léon Gautier's Ten Commandments of Chivalry still as relevant as ever in 2015?
  • Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
  • Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.
  • Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.
  • Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.

Whether a metallic workout or a challenge to 21 century living, it’s a fascinating performance and when the show was over many in the audience stood huddled in groups outside the theatre collectively processing what they had seen and heard and felt.

Chivalry is Dead jumped off the page of the Belfast International Arts Festival programme as the most unusual act in this year’s three week line-up. Without the festival there’s little chance this imaginative work would have be seen in Northern Ireland.

There’s another chance to see it tonight (Thursday 15 October) in the MAC. And lots of other recommendations about Belfast Festival performances and events in a previous post.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Night Alive - bags, boxes, blood & bodies (Lyric Theatre until 31 Oct as part of Belfast Festival) #BelFest

Belfast International Arts Festival opened not in a concert hall but instead with a play written and directed by Conor McPherson. And it put actor Adrian Dunbar back on the Lyric stage in his underpants as his career began* many years ago.

The Night Alive begins with an empty downstairs studio flat in Dublin. Two beds, a table, a kitchen in the back corner, brown curtains hanging over the grimy windows, and clothes scattered over every surface of the floor … except where there are already bags, boxes, probably cockroaches, and perhaps even a dead body or two.

It’s where middle-aged Tommy is living – estranged from his wife – renting the room from Uncle Maurice (Frank Grimes) who lives upstairs. And like his life, the dwelling is a mess.

A naïve reading of the play’s setup is that Tommy (played by Adrian Dunbar) is a nice guy who likes to rescue lost causes. Take his wee mate Doc – short for Brian! – as an example. Played by Laurence Kinlan, Doc is a bit slow on the uptake and Tommy keeps an eye out for him, throwing him some work and sometimes letting him kip over on the spare bed.

Coming home late one night Tommy is in the right place at the right time to stumble upon a bloodied Aimee (Kate Stanley Brennan) – he later discovers she’s a prostitute – who’s been beaten up. He brings her back to the flat, helps her clean up, and cares for her while she recuperates from the violent ordeal. Out of this random encounter spins chaos like a vacuum cleaner stuck on reverse, squirting dust and pain into Tommy’s world.

More likely, Tommy’s ideas about sexual gratification and not going all the way parallel the extent of his feelings of responsibility to those he assists and mimic the limits of how far he’ll actually go to help the quarry whom he targets with his brand of support. It was probably no accident that lonely Tommy was walking through the red light zone with his bag of chips. But before he had time to get his wallet out, fate introduced him to Aimee and his help gene took over. While he uses Doc on some of his shed-clearing jobs, his unwillingness to pay him in cash perhaps shows who is getting most benefit out of the relationship.

The first 50 minutes of the play run at a frantic pace. The cast fire their earthy dialogue at each other, well used to its rhythm after a long run in Dublin. It’s as if Adrian Dunbar is on Speed as he whizzes around the flat. Uncle Maurice sounds scary and grumpy but has a warm heart, sometimes fortified by a wee drink.
You know we've got to find a way / To bring some lovin' here today

The strains of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On aptly sums up the situation. They’re a forlorn bunch, and everyone could do with some comfort and dependable companionship.

The mood changes when a pale-suited Kenneth (Ian-Lloyd Anderson) walks into the flat and a silent menace hovers over the characters as the play heads towards its ambiguous conclusion after a few too many false endings.

Aimee’s character is short changed and the playwright thwarts talented Kate Stanley Brennan’s chances to round out the damsel-in-distress figure into the intriguing tortured soul that she must be underneath all the bruises. Instead Tommy is allowed to retain the focus as good battles evil and he decides whether there could be life outside the confines of his filthy flat, or whether it’s true that “You can’t save everybody”.

One scene flows into another as one set of characters walk out a door and the next scene’s complement of cast walk in another. There’s no guarantee how Tommy will be dressed or what he’ll be doing anytime he comes back out of the bathroom. There are visual gags aplenty along with some beautiful musical sequences that effortlessly show off Adrian Dunbar’s singing and dancing abilities. Friday night’s audience hollered and giggled at the scripted shenanigans.

The play is a co-production between the Lyric and Dublin Theatre Festival, one of an increasing number of north-south collaborations that is creating and sharing good theatre in a more sustainable fashion.

The Night Alive is a joy to watch: funny, painful, shocking, and delivered with really confident acting that lights up the script in the island’s dingiest flat. It’s one of my favourite pieces of Belfast theatre this year and runs in the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast International Arts Festival until Saturday 31 October.

To find other picks from Belfast Festival, check out my preview post.

* Apparently there’s photographic evidence up on the walls of the Lyric of Adrian Dunbar’s first state of undress, while the latest escapade is now indelibly etched into the minds of The Night Alive audiences!

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Táin - madcap mythology and masked mayhem from Commedia of Errors

Cu Chulainn stands up to bravely defend stinky Ulster and its prized bull from the rampaging armies of Connacht who are heading north. Under direction from cackling Queen Medb and her bumbling assistants, the marauding Connacht challengers must solve riddles, win duels, abide by the local customs as well as persevere and perspire if they are to have any chance of success.

Performed in the intimate setting of the Belfast Barge, The Táin’s audience are very close to the action and end up with vital roles in this Commedia of Errors production. The Commedia dell’Arte tradition is nearly five hundred years old and has influenced opera, Shakespeare and even improvised comedy. But it’s the likeness to pantomime that was most apparent at last night’s performance.

The Táin is a retelling of an early Irish legend. The success of this show isn’t based on how reverently the ancient mythology is translated to stage, but is instead a factor of the creative dialogue and wordplay, the banter with the audience and the madcap physical tomfoolery that races the story towards the interval and beyond.

There are anachronisms aplenty and the fact that the cast and audience frequently acknowledge that they’re in a play – complete with “theatrical magic” – makes it all the more amusing.

Brendan Quinn’s hunched-over grand-gestured performance as the hapless Amadan made him my favourite of the evening. Jack Darell bounces off and onto the stage as the super-confident close-shaven Cu Chulainn, with acrobatic fight sequences and optimism beyond his years.

Julie Kinsella’s Queen Medb is a likeable yet devious leader who teaches us lessons about how to choose your cannon fodder warriors and how to win even if the battle might be lost.

As well as writing, directing and performing in the two hour work, Benjamin Gould created many of the intricate masks worn by the cast. The carved and curved visors conceal the forehead, eyebrows and cheeks, so each actor’s eyes and mouths work overtime as they juggle three or four roles. Teenagers in the audience loved the show.

It’s an unusual branch of theatre but very effective. And combined with such a fun and refreshing script, The Táin is a show that deserves another longer run and I look forward to seeing more from Commedia of Errors in the future. You can catch The Táin in Coleraine’s Riverside Theatre on Friday 9 and back in The Belfast Barge on Saturday 10 October.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Preview - The Merchant of Venice (C21 Theatre, Baby Grand 20-24 October + NI tour)

The Merchant of Venice is the only work by Shakespeare that I can remember studying at school. [Third Form with Mr Duffy?] It’s part of the current GSCE syllabus and it’s the play that Arthur Webb has chosen as he returns to direct Shakespeare for the third time with C21 Theatre Company.

The issues in the good versus evil ‘comedy’ are contemporary: moneylenders; people up to their necks in debt they cannot repay; a contest to the win the hand of a beautiful woman (which sounds like a format that could be sold to today’s TV broadcasters); religious intolerance; along with fears over justice.

I caught up with director Arthur Webb in the company’s South Belfast rehearsal space last week and he explained that the two main themes of his production are “love and hate”.
“The love that Portia has for Bassanio is amazing yet she has to go through the will her father left her to find all these suitors who are coming in from every part of the world to marry her. And Bassanio has no money so he has to get money to be a relevant suitor. But is he in love with her? Or is he just an opportunist? There’s another passionate love between Jessica and Lorenzo: she runs away with a Christian …

The “hate that Antonio has for a Jew [Shylock]” is echoed by other characters in the play too. Arthur suggests:
“... if this play was written today by a contemporary writer there’d be rioting outside the theatre.”
C21 steered away from setting the Merchant of Venice in modern times, but instead chose 1920s post-WW1 America where people who had been “suppressed, depressed, anxious, worried, sad ... suddenly they go wild” in the Roaring Twenties with its more entrepreneurial spirit tinged with feelings of anger and demand for revenge.

The themes, the characters and the stories are why Arthur thinks Shakespeare’s drama is still so strong today.

In the spirit of Morecambe and Wise’s “all of the right notes but not necessarily in the right order”, one of his tricks to adapt old texts for modern day audiences is to do “a little bit of juxtaposing and taking a half line here and a half line there” as well as repeating lines or swapping them between characters to make the play as engaging as possible for audiences.

Full of characters that audiences should be able to identify with – including Antonio the entrepreneurial loner – The Merchant of Venice is a seventy minute production and is touring Northern Ireland from today (Ballymena, Coleraine, Strabane, Armagh, Downpatrick) before a week long run in the Baby Grand (Grand Opera House) from Tuesday 20 to Saturday 24 October (tickets £8.50–£13).