Saturday, February 27, 2016

Going to the theatre … at a cinema: National Theatre’s "As You Like It" at Odyssey Cinemas

Multiplex cinemas are branching out beyond films. Their large screens and comfy chairs allow new audiences to experience vast theatrical and operatic productions that would never be able to travel outside capital city venues.

Last week I watched the National Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in Odyssey Cinemas in Titanic Quarter. Hundreds of people in the London theatre were joined by thousands sitting around the UK and beyond in cinemas at the end of a live satellite feed.

The point of view is a little different from the experience in a theatre. It’s like the difference between attending a sporting event and choosing where to focus your gaze and sitting at home following the action through the lens of the TV director. Five or six cameras dotted around the theatre along with a sweeping jib vary the viewing angles. Close-ups are rare. Frequently the picture drops back to a full stage view, letting the height of the set fill the cinema screen.

While you don’t have a glossy theatre programme in your hand, a photocopied leaflet details the cast and gives you an idea about how they relate to each other. For Shakespeare with his ridiculous number of characters, that’s quite important.

Any night of the week you could walk into at least a couple of Belfast theatres and find good quality drama on stage. There’s an active theatre scene in Derry too, and many indigenous productions tour around council-owned and privately run venues outside of the main cities.

But there’s nowhere that you could expect to see a set like the one designed by Lizzie Clachan with its busy (both in terms of activity and splashes of colour) low ceilinged office environment magically transformed after the first few scenes into a dark forest of tables for the remainder of the play. It’s mesmerising and beautiful to watch.

While there were a few times I’d like to have been able to see what was happening elsewhere on the stage, on balance it was a better view (and a nicer seat) than I’d have had in the National Theatre itself. I sat in the back row of the 'gods' for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time from where I could see all the action but none of the facial expressions, so getting a little closer to the action is appreciated.

This version of As You Like It transposes the early political and family machinations to a family business. It took me a while to pick out the key characters from the enormous cast during the wordy opening scenes. An ill-balanced wresting match is surreally engineered around a scene (the head locks were unlikely to be stage directions written by the great bard) before it’s time for cat pyjamas and furry animal slippers.

Once in the forest, a cappella singing adds music to Shakespeare’s verse, a chorus suspended up in the trees tweet like birds – and wail on occasion – while clowns and shepherds add to the humour of cross-dressing, a herd of (human) sheep, and unrequited love. The stars of the show were Rosalie Craig (playing Rosalind) and Patsy Ferran (Celia) … and the Norn Iron lad who lost his accent when he began to sing.

Unlike a New York Met Opera live stream of Turandot – a more traditional performance to compare with NI Opera’s interpretation during Belfast International Arts Festival – that I caught in different Belfast cinema last month where the video was noticeably ahead of the audio (a fault of the feed rather than the cinema) the sound from the National Theatre was beautifully mixed (probably 5.1 rather than just stereo).

As You Like It was just one of a whole series of shows being screened in Odyssey Cinemas over coming weeks and months. The National Theatre’s Hangmen (written by Martin McDonagh of The Pillowman fame) is being shown on Thursday 3 March at 7pm along with Royal Opera House shows Boris Godunov (21 March), Giselle (6 April), Frankenstein (18 May) and Royal Shakespeare Company performances of Hamlet (8 June), Cymbeline (28 September) and King Lear (12 October).

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Love or Money - forging a new relationship while fighting to save a business & a career (C21 Theatre)

Waiting for last night’s performance to begin, musak wafted over the heads of the audience in the Lyric’s Naughton Studio. A soulful version of “Do you really want to hurt me? Do you really want to make me cry?” set an appropriate mood for Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Love or Money. (ABBA’s Money Money Money or Bach’s Air on the G String would also have been appropriate additions to the playlist.)

After a messy divorce, corporate lawyer Eilish (played by Roisin Gallagher) has swiped right on her 'Big Fish' dating app and met businessman Conor (Michael Condron). The nervy, fumbling chit chat after their first date along with jokes that fall flat quickly have the audience giggling with schadenfreude as we revel in the pair’s discomfort.
“In Iceland they put bankers in jail; here they run around sabotaging businesses.”

The walls of Eilish’s modern apartment spin round to create work environments and we are introduced to the world of corporate lawyers examining paperwork to find the loopholes that will allow big banks to maximise their return from the failing businesses they once supported.

Michael Liebmann plays Eilish’s boss Alec. His part is written and acted as a slimy, self-centred, impossible-to-like villain with an insufferable worldview. After her marriage and difficult departure from a larger firm, Alec hired Eilish knowing that she was “divorced, no kids and totally focussed”. He’s full of management clichés – “do not be the chess piece, be the chess player” – and his ruthless ambition seemingly overrides any remaining humanity.
“I sell underwear and the bottom’s falling out of the market.”

Donning a duncher and brown overalls, Michael Liebmann is transformed into Travis, a warehouse worker in Conor’s business with his own line in stand-up and witty repartee. This everyman character perceives the financial insecurity of the firm which sells lingerie and racy accessories. (While the opportunities for humour around the product lines could have been endless, the jokes are kept to a minimum and the script steers well clear of descending into Carry On smut.)

The big reveal occurs as the work lives of Eilish and Conor collide into their personal bliss and the continued success of their respective careers appears to rely on their professional combat. When the consequences of Eilish’s day-to-day work are laid out on the couch before her, she is forced to rethink her priorities and decide between the two men who dominate her life.

If Love or Money has a weakness it is that its binary analysis sets up the finance industry and its legal teams as totally beyond redemption. Yet the underdeveloped character of Travis – who has first hand knowledge of traditional Northern Ireland techniques of intimidation to thwart legal action – is allowed to remain a soft and acceptable reaction to mis-selling loans and poor product sales.

Roisin Gallagher and Michael Condron are a particularly loveable couple on-stage and bring Rosemary Jenkinson’s witty script to life. Towards the end, their unrushed delivery and sense of timing introduces a subtle element of doubt as to whether Conor has been “all aboard the truth train” or has been taking Eilish for a ride. I interviewed the playwright in a preview post last week.

Full of laughs, pathos and pity, Love or Money is a left-wing rom com from C21 Theatre Company that champions the underdog and shines a light on the murky world of how big banks treat their soon to be former clients.

Love or Money runs in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 27 February before touring Ballymena (29 February), Newtownards (2 March), Newtownabbey (3), Cushendall (4), Limavady (5), Newry (8), Derry (9), Armagh (10), Downpatrick (11) and Lisburn (12). Details on C21’s website. Suitable for ages 16+.

Photos by Ciara McCarrie

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Ada.Ada.Ada - an illuminating history of the complex woman behind the first complex computer programme

Domineered by her mother, and inheriting her father’s capacity to take reckless risks, Ada Lovelace pioneered what would become known as computer programming a hundred years before Alan Turing and Bletchley Park found an urgent reason to exploit the theory.

Ordered instructions, looping and conditional branching were supported by Charles Babbage’s as yet unbuilt Analytical Engine with its ‘store’ (memory), ‘mill’ (processor) and ‘printer’ (display).

Ada wrote a complex programme – on paper – to compute Bernoulli numbers in 1843 that would have accurately (perhaps after debugging!) churned out figures which were computationally intensive and prone to human error. [In 2008 it took the software package Mathematica nearly 6 days to calculate the 10 millionth Bernoulli number.]

When Babbage – 24 years her senior – moved away from his simpler Difference Engine to create the design for the all-purpose Analytical Engine, it was his colleague Ada Lovelace who recognised that it “doesn’t occupy mere common ground with calculating machines”.

Zoe Philpott combines the roles of history of science lecturer and enthusiast and Ada Lovelace in the one woman show Ada.Ada.Ada. Her dress – made by Kat Behague – is fitted with 4,400 addressable LEDs under the front of the overskirt and across the bodice and the patterns displayed tie in with the story. In tonight’s performance as part of NI Science Festival, Conway’s Game of Life seemed to make an appearance early on and towards the end lighting designer Charles Yarnold/Matt Haskins’ flames were particularly alarming! The bustle could disguise a mainframe computer never mind a battery pack or two.

At times the delivery of Ada’s lines seemed faltering and hesitant with a reliance on the book of letters held in Philpott’s gloved hand. But the insight into Ada’s short life and detail of her observations as well as roping in the audience to demonstrate how the Analytical Engine worked carried the hour long performance to conclusion.

It’s a tale of family breakup, a mother who invested heavily in her daughter’s education (suppressing the creative influence of her absent father (the poet Lord Bryon) and pushing the child towards mathematics and science. It’s amazing to realise that Ada attended salons that put gentlemen greats like Faraday, Darwin and Dickens in contact with her intellect.

While Ada’s brain and imagination were stimulated by the fields of analysis and maths, she still had time for an affair (aged fifteen) with her tutor as well as addictions to opium and gambling that suggest she was her father’s daughter after all. They’ll not tell you that in Computer Science lectures!

Ultimately it’s a story about a talented woman whose contribution to computing was so very nearly omitted from history. And a wake up call for today’s tech industry that is still overwhelming male (and even more overwhelmingly led by men) on top of the diminishing numbers of women enrolling in tech courses in tertiary education.

Find about more about Ada.Ada.Ada on the show’s website and Twitter feed, and look out for events celebrating women in computing on Ada Lovelace Day later this year on Tuesday 11 October.

Images - Ada The Show

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Lots more events in NI Science Festival which runs until 28 February. Free tickets still available for the Turing Lecture: The Internet of Me in Belfast City Hall on Thursday tea time.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Bone Tomahawk (18) - a funny, intelligent but brutal twist on the traditional Western (QFT until 25 Feb)

First sound: a stereoscopic buzzing fly.

First sight: a throat being cut.

To borrow from the dialogue between two characters a few minutes into the film: “It’s ominous.”

In some ways Bone Tomahawk’s plot could have been that of a typical Western movie. Shots fired in a sleepy town. People abducted. Posse assembled. Horses ridden. More shots fired. The end.

But writer and debut director S. Craig Zahler weaves in an element of horror to the proceedings that adds to the attrition rate and makes sure you’ll feel the pain of some of those characters who don’t make it alive to the end of the film. (Like the recently released and BAFTA-nominated The Survivalist, Bone Tomahawk was backed by UK film funder The Fyzz Facility.)

But the sleepy town is the badly named Bright Hope (population 268) where new ways of tackling old problems aren’t overly appreciated and even the bar’s pianist gets tired after playing two songs. The women are largely invisible – though clearly are the most adaptable to change – while the men largely fail to disguise their lack of emotional intelligence.

The town has a Sheriff, a Deputy and a ‘backup Deputy’ … and a problem. While bullets fly, arrows seem to be the most deadly weapon. Overnight, a wounded prisoner, the Deputy and the town’s doctor Mrs Samantha O’Dwyer (played by Lili Simmons) are abducted. The distinctive arrows left behind by the attacker suggests the involvement of a particular cave-dwelling [American] ‘Indian tribe’ (nicknamed the Troglodytes) with no name and no language and a fondness for decorating with skulls.

Only a reality TV show could select these four men to rescue a maiden: the handlebar moustached Sheriff (Kurt Russell) whose specialism is shooting people in the leg; his overly talkative white-bearded backup Deputy ‘Old Man’ Chicory (Richard Jenkins); the mysterious bachelor womaniser Brooder (Matthew Fox) with his cream suit, white horse, and stubble that never grows; and the badly injured Mr O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) who is “uncommonly hasty” and grunts as he hobbles along on a crutch.

The two hour film splits into the set-up, the journey and the destination, with most laughs packed into the first section, and the terror left to the final twenty five minutes.
“Is it possible for you to close that aperture?”

Backup Deputy’s whimsical nonsense questions and stories keep spirits up and distract from the dangerous quest. With a long journey over tough terrain and a certain amount of crawling, there are echoes of The Revenant as Mr O’Dwyer battles his crippling injury (with the help of ‘a tincture of opium’). Thankfully Bone Tomhawk is a much better film as well as thirty minutes shorter. Frankly there are also echoes of Tolkien trilogies with fewer orcs.
“Mr Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of ‘manifest destiny’.”

The quaint speech patterns of the 1890s dialogue are playful. Backstory is kept to a minimum. Sporadic use of a string quartet accompanies some of the speechless homage to Walkabout. While there is much use of a telescope, the director never gives in to letting the camera look down the lens. This is a film with big landscapes, wide shots, and close-ups that you could count on one hand.

When action happens, it’s fast and furious and pretty graphic. The 18 certificate is justified by a couple of minutes of violence and the appearance of giblets. The Troglodytes like fresh meat, though if they’d had been in the edit suite I hope they’d have trimmed some fat off the journey scenes and shortened the film’s length.

As one of the characters might have said:
“It’s the opinion of the backup deputy film reviewer that Bone Tomahawk is a funny, intelligent but brutal twist on the traditional Western and blessed with an abrupt ending.”

Bone Tomahawk will be screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 19 and Thursday 25 February.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Preview: Love or Money (C21 Theatre) with playwright Rosemary Jenkinson

C21 Theatre Company is back on stage in ten days time with Rosemary Jenkinson’s new satirical play Love or Money. It promises to be “a comedy about banks, bras and going bust”. The Belfast playwright told me about the plot:

“The new play is about Eilish who is a corporate lawyer. She goes online dating and meets a businessman called Connor. She has a very difficult relationship with her incredibly demanding boss and the play – Love or Money – pivots on the tension between these two sides of her life.”

Last year’s news was peppered with individuals and small companies pursuing banks in court: Taggart Brothers vs Ulster Bank as well as action taken by a businessman against the Clydesdale Bank.

A friend who is a corporate lawyer in the financial industry – “and very discreet” Rosemary avows – inspired the concept and the ethical issues behind the play. “How do you work for institutions who go up against individuals?” asks the playwright. “I’d have a sympathy for the normal human being who is being pursued.”

While businesses and lawyers aren’t the lightest of subjects, Rosemary assures audiences that they will find comedy in the relationships, as well as laugh out loud moments of visual humour, particularly with the unusual props from Connor’s “unconventional” business.

Some writers attend every performance of their work, passing notes and tweaking the script. Others leave it in the hands of the director. Rosemary plans to sit through the first couple of performances and perhaps then catch it one more time “when it has bedded in and the actors are much more comfortable”. She adds: “I like to see it a few times but absolutely not obsessively. You have to move on.”

Rosemary has been writing plays for more than a decade. Stitched Up (which also starred Roisin Gallagher) was produced by C21 Theatre last spring. It focussed on the crisis in the NHS. Before that Planet Belfast (Tinderbox) examined politics, conception and GM crops. Her first play to be produced on stage was The Bonefire back in 2006, a drama about Loyalist culture.

The playwright admits to having finished and unfinished plays littering her office. “Some things don’t work. You do ten pages and the tone isn’t right and you withdraw. No point flogging a dead horse.”

Is it satisfying to write something that isn’t produced?
“It’s upsetting, but while you’re writing you have optimism and confidence. You have to physiologically fool yourself that it’s going to be great and fill yourself with constant reassurance when writing the first draft of anything.”

Modern dramatists are of course constrained by budgets as well as their imaginations when writing plays. While Rosemary would enjoy the opportunity and scope to write for a larger cast she “loves small shows”.

“Chamber pieces with two or three pieces can have tremendous power. You’re never going to see that on TV or film. It means theatre has that uniqueness that an actor – by their own spellbinding qualities – can totally pull in an audience. While it’s a drawback, I also really like it because it allows your writing to fly on its own accord and not use the tricks of people coming in and out. It’s probably a better spotlight on your writing.”

Directed by Stephen Kelly and starring Michael Condron, Roisin Gallagher and Marty Maguire, Love or Money is now well into its rehearsals. You can catch performances in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre between Tuesday 23 and Saturday 27 February before it goes on tour through Ballymena (29 February), Newtownabbey (3 March), Cushendall (4), Limavady (5), Newry (8), Armagh (10), Downpatrick (11) and Lisburn (12).

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Start Making Sense … of elections, politics, budgets, photos & change #ImagineBelfast

Imagine! Belfast’s Festival of Ideas and Politics is back. Running throughout the week of St Patrick’s Day in March, the theme is “Start Making Sense” and the programme is double the size of last year’s inaugural festival.
Over 80 (mostly free) events will be taking place in over 25 venues across the city, and organisers hope to welcome everybody from the avowedly non-political to dedicated political observers, and youthful idealists to seasoned cynics in a festival-for-all.

The aim is to stimulate a discussion on new ideas, big questions and activism in order to try to understand the range of global and local challenges that confront us all.

Founder and festival director Peter O’Neill says that “the festival provides a unique opportunity for people to have their say on some of the big issues of our time in a fun, dynamic way”.
"We want to encourage participation from people not normally involved in political debate and stimulate a discussion on new ideas and activism. There’s something for everyone in our programme – most of the events are free and spread across the city. So join us in making sense of our politics and culture."

Expect discussions, talks, workshops, theatre, comedy, exhibitions, quizzes and tours. Daytime and evening. You’ll find the programme brochures in venues, cafes, libraries, doctor surgeries, and window sills across the city, as well as online!

It Is Nothing New is an exhibition by John Baucher on the theme of immigration and runs during the festival. Photographs taken from the viewpoint of the sitter show them holding mementos, artefacts and even photographs that reflect the journey their families have undertaken. Humanising the issue and opening up debate around the challenges of immigration, the exhibition also asks viewers to imagine what they would take with them if they were to leave their home. Framewerk Gallery, 10 Upper Newtownards Road. Launches 7pm on Monday 14 February and then open Tuesday 15 to Saturday 19 from 10.30am to 6pm. Free.

Monday 14 March

Making Sense of Elections – Baffled by the STV electoral system? Don’t know your transfers from your exclusions? Quizzical about quotas and why the process seems to take so long. Demystify the process and join in our two hour interactive workshop where we’ll cast votes, verify the ballots and run a multi-stage count, argue over questionable ballots and declare the winners. Duncairn Centre for Arts and Culture, 10am-noon. Free.

Imaginative Randomocracy – After screening a short film showing how imaginative randomocracy could be implemented in NI, Prof John Garry will discuss its merits and run an imagination-based democratic task to illustrate the process in practice. QUB Old Staff Common Room, 5.30pm-7.30pm. Free.

Tuesday 15 March

I Only Smoke in War Zones – US comedian and documentary filmmaker Jennifer Rawlings’ one woman show with “true stories from the battlefield, both home and abroad”. She frequently performs her stand-up in front of US troops stationed around the world. While touring Bosnia she made the film Forgotten Voices: Women in Bosnia, telling stories of women in the aftermath of war. St Mary’s University College, 12.30pm-2pm. Free.

How Technology is Changing Your Life – A panel of speakers will discuss the opportunities and threats to our society of the exponential rate of growth of technologies and gadgets. Will it lead to an era of abundance or undermine the fragile social, political and economic recovery we are nurturing. FabLab Belfast, 5 Churchill Street, 7pm-9pm. Free.

The Rising – Humour, song and dance as the tumultuous days of the 1916 Rising are relived through the eyes of two friendly adversaries in vaudeville style. The MAC, 8pm-10.30pm. Tickets £12/£10.

Wednesday 16 March

Open Government For the Common Good – Frustrated with government and want to see more transparency, accountability and citizen engagement? Alongside a keynote address from Michael Harris (Guerrilla Wire), NI Open Government Network will facilitate discussions about open data, anti-corruption, civic participation and other issues under the ‘open government’ umbrella. Belfast City Hall, 10am-1pm. Free.

What About A Politics Of Kindness? – Historian, author and playwright Philip Orr will talk about the life and work of 18th century Francis Hutcheson (father of the Scottish Enlightenment) and how his distinctive philosophy has relevance today. QUB Lanyon Building, 12.30pm-2pm. Free.

Everything You Wanted To Know About Economics But Were Afraid To Ask – An interactive discussion hosted by Prof John Barry to “lift the veil” behind economics and shine a light on the hidden truths behind our taken-for-granted views on economics. QUB Canada Room, 7pm-9pm. Free.

Tenx9 on Change – The monthly storytelling evening is tying in with the Imagine Festival. Nine people with up to ten minutes each to tell a true story from their lives about ‘change’. Get in touch with Tenx9 if you’d like to volunteer to tell your story. The Black Box, 7.30pm-9pm. Free.

Thursday 17 March

Owen Jones: The Politics of Hope – The journalist, commentator and author (Chavs, The Establishment) is back in Belfast to discuss the politics of hope and how to build societies that run in the interests of working people. The Black Box, 7.30pm-9pm. Tickets £12/£8.

‘Saint Patrick Was a Prod!’ – Local comedian Neil Dougan reclaims the patron saint for God and Ulster in a sparkling and irreverent late night sermon. The Black Box, 10pm-11.30pm. £8/£6.

Friday 18 March

How Would You Spend Your Council’s Money? – Participative budgeting gives ordinary people the power and opportunity to allocate part of a public budget. Used in Scotland, it hasn’t yet taken root in Northern Ireland. A mock budgeting exercise based on Belfast City Council’s budget will help explain the concepts and demonstrate the value of the technique to council officials. The MAC, 10am-1pm. Free.

Towards A People Powered Politics – NESTA’s chief executive Geoff Mulgan will talk about how politics could evolve to make the most of the population’s collective intelligence with examples from around the world that show promise and could challenge our current understanding of how politics needs to be organised. QUB Great Hall, 5pm-7pm. Free.

Fact of Fiction? – Join FactCheck NI for a table quiz that will test whether you can separate fact from fiction in Northern Ireland. Social media can make people and places accountable. Social media can also be used for propaganda. Find out what digital fact checking is all about and some techniques to discern a whopper from the truth. Oh Yeah Music Centre, 5.30pm-7.30pm. Free.

The Great Big Politics Quiz – Join Amnesty for the mother of all quizzes, with quiz masters from the corridors of power politics. Come as individuals or ready formed teams for a night of political geekiness to win a fantastic trove of prizes and raise money for Amnesty International’s work to document and end human rights violations against the people of Syria. The Black Box, 7.45pm, £8-late.

Saturday 19 March

Deporting Patrick – After years of sponging off the system, spreading unrest and converting people left, right and centre, is it not time to deport Ireland’s best know interloper. A provocation by Kabosh Theatre Company. Oh Yeah Music Centre, 3pm-5pm. Free.

Electoral Dysfunction – Infinite Jest brings together a host of local comedians to propose an alternative manifesto for a better Northern Ireland, world and universe. Biting satirical stand-up to give power to the people … or install a benevolent dictatorship. The Black Box, 3.30-6pm. Tickets £3.

Tost – Communities and cultural identities clash due to differences in understanding and interpretation. How does language influence the world and inform our experiences and identities? Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre explore the silence between two words. The MAC, 8pm-10pm. Tickets £12/£10.

Sunday 20 March

One Starry Night – Round off the festival with an evening of star-gazing with telescopes, hot chocolate, blankets, and dreams in a surprise Belfast City Centre location. Register on Imagine Belfast website. 6.30pm-8.30pm. Free.

Rams - frosty Icelandic farmland folly breeds sheepish black comedy (QFT 12-18 Feb)

Two bachelor brothers, estranged for forty years, live on adjacent sheep farms in the north of Iceland. Gummi and Kiddi’s frosty relationship is echoed by the harsh winter and the bitter wind that blows across the landscape.

While their love for each other has vanished, it’s their shared affection for sheep that pitches them against each other in best of breed shows. [Only one can bleat the rest of the competition.] Disaster strikes when a suspected case of scrapie is confirmed and the whole valley’s flocks are culled. The farmers face their worst fear with varying degrees of upset and resignation.

Kiddi (played by Theodór Júlíusson) won’t cooperate and turns back to drink. [Three sheeps to the wind?] Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) at first seems to steel himself to losing what one local describes as “mankind’s saviour and joy”. He cleans out his barn ready for the day the livestock ban is lifted. But having reared and protected his award-winning special breed herd, it’s hard to let go of the beasts.

At times the Icelandic moors look like the Glens of Antrim (with added lava trails). But with the snow comes an utter bleakness. Can the brothers’ cold war thaw? Is there a flicker of warmth left underneath their woolly jumpers? Can even one of them hollow out a space in his heart for the other?

Rams could have been turned into an absurd black comedy. But instead writer and director Grímur Hákonarson keeps the film in a low gear and allows the audience to race ahead. There are a handful of laugh out loud moments – often as a reaction to Gummi’s violent reactions – as well as moments of pathos that stop just short of bringing a tear to your eye. Music is used sparingly with a rumbling pipe organ often setting a troubled tone.

This film has got death, new life, family breakdown and a sheep in the baaaath. (If sheepdogs could win Oscar awards, Rams would be in the running for a golden statue.) In the end it’s more Shorn Identity than Rams locking horns.

Rams opens in the Queen’s Film Theatre [the independent cinema that only has eyes for ewe] on Friday 12 February and runs until Thursday 18. And keeping the sheepish theme, they screened the documentary Addicted To Sheep last weekend, and on Saturday 13 the QFT’s Jameson Film Club will be showing The Silence of the Lambs (8.45pm).

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Review - The Truth Commissioner - can he deliver truth, healing and closure?

The Truth Commissioner had its world première screening in front of a paying audience in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Monday 1 February as part of their Made in Britain season. The adaptation of David Park’s award winning book (reviewed) examines some of the complexity of the legacy issues Northern Ireland has yet to fully grasp.

Henry Stanfield is a serial peace-builder, a career diplomat who flies in to heal wounds and build bridges in conflicted regions of the world. And the Prime Minister has appointed him as Truth Commissioner for Northern Ireland. Aside from his formal role to listen to testimony from families, perpetrators and witnesses, Roger Allam (The Thick of It) portrays an aloof, lonely, loveless widower, struggling to repair his relationship with his daughter (who thought she had escaped him when she moved to Northern Ireland). His flesh is weak, his judgement is poor, his heart is often in nearly the right place: he’s a walking liability.

Connor Roche (played by Ciaran Flynn) was suspected of being a police informer and disappeared when the IRA discovered. His sister Maria Roche (Simone Kirby) and her mother seize the opportunity of the commission to discover the truth behind her brother’s disappearance.
We all want the truth, but what’s it going to cost?
James Fenton (Ian McElhinney) is a retired RUC officer, reluctant to be called to testify about his dealings with Connor. Sinn Féin’s Francis Gilmore (Sean McGinley) is an Executive minister, someone the British and Irish governments feel they can work with, but has a past that is catching up with him as rapidly as harder line colleagues want him to leave the stage. Finally, Michael Madden (Barry Ward) has been tracked down in Boston. With no family in Ireland and a minor role in Connor’s abduction, he’s the appointed fall guy to take the blame and protect more important people’s careers.

A moody Belfast provides the backdrop for the story, with the dark hills standing over the city’s stone buildings and modern glass architecture. (Derry’s newly renovated Guildhall provides the inside set for the Truth Commission chamber.)

There’s a clear liturgy as each new case is introduced at the commission. Families paint a pen picture of their relative, witnesses explain their involvement with the victim, and time is given for answers and reflection. We see a range of emotions and reactions through glimpses into other cases before Connor Roche’s family are called forward.

Through Madden’s flashbacks the audience build up a sense of Connor Roche’s fate. Snatches of news reports make clear that the commission’s work covers all sides of the Troubles.

Everyone involved has secrets. Each witness has someone standing over their shoulder shaping their story and covering up the truth. A shadowly MI5 spook is pulling strings while republican apparatchiks run rings around him.
Why would […] lie?

He thought he was telling the truth.
Truth doesn’t necessarily follow from honest testimony. Justice and healing don’t necessarily follow on from truth. Closure doesn’t require truth.

Based loosely but not entirely on the South African model, this film’s value isn’t as an advert for a truth commission in Northern Ireland. As a fictionalised worked example, The Truth Commissioner exposes enough flaws in the approach to undermine its applicability. (Though the film’s director and at least one of its producer were still keen on the idea of a truth commission when they answered my questions at the QFT’s Q&A after the screening.)

However, The Truth Commissioner is a significant reminder that for all the promises in A Fresh Start and the Secretary of State’s reassurances that political agreement around how to tackle legacy issue is “closer than its ever been”, no set of structures – neither Historical Investigations Unit nor Information Recovery bodies – will ever expose the whole truth unless the people involved choose to accept the responsibility to tell their story wholeheartedly.

With a single case at the heart of the film, there’s an element of stereotyping of republicans, security forces and even families of victims. The blurred bridge between fiction and real life makes it difficult for NI minds not to speculate in the darkened cinema: fictional politicians from real political parties; a fictional murder but with heavy real life parallels with informers and the disappeared.

The sedate pace of the film is at times underwhelming, rescued by the atmospheric background music and the tension created by the large screen. It’s a deliberate holding back, with director Declan Recks allowing events – even the most explosive ones – to be observed at a distance, with close-ups reserved for key moments.

There’s imagery aplenty (with empty swings reminding viewers of missing children) and nearly too much mirrored experience across the lives of the main characters. The original sequence of events in the novel has been altered and some of the book’s characters and backstories simplified to fit the 99 minute film. Given David Park’s deliberate distance from the production – no involvement with the script and only one visit to the set – it’s testament to the quality of his writing and imagination that so many details from his novel along with whole chunks of dialogue made it unscathed into Eoin O’Callaghan’s screenplay and the edited film.

The Truth Commissioner will be screened during Dublin International Film Festival on Sunday 21 February, and will be back in the Queen’s Film Theatre and cinemas across Ireland from Friday 26 February. BBC Northern Ireland will broadcast the film on BBC Two NI over the coming months too.

Cross-posted from Alan in Belfast.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Archbishop of Canterbury reflecting on religiously-justified violence during his Belfast lecture

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was back in Belfast tonight to deliver the Church of Ireland’s annual theological lecture at Queen’s University, reflecting on the nature of religiously-justified violence and particularly on the nature of the conflict by (or so-called ISIS). He suggested that the elimination of this type of conflict would require building a new “narrative of beauty” based on love, hospitality and human flourishing.

Earlier he had met First Minister Arlene Foster (an Anglican and member of the Church of Ireland) and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (definitely not an Anglican). Before the lecture, he’d also spent time meeting students in The Hub, the Church of Ireland and Methodist Chaplaincy on Elmwood Avenue.

You can read the full transcript of the speech on the Archbishop’s website.

In an hour-long address, the Archbishop spoke about just war and the need for underlying objectives to support future military operations. He emphasised the need to be focussed on building peace and stable communities to which people can quickly return.

In Parliament at the beginning of December, the House of Commons voted to extend military operations in the Levant and Mesopotamia into Syria, in addition to the air campaign that was already going on in Iraq. And I spoke in the House of Lords at the same time on that debate and supported the extension.
But I’ve since been reflecting on that and thinking hard about it with my colleagues, and what I want to say this evening is a continuation in that debate that’s going on within myself and within the Church about the legitimacy of armed action and intervention. What I would say is that where an action is developed as a quasi-policing intervention against a group that is committing great crimes under international law, and where the objective is peace building and the resumption of stable communities to which refugees and IDPs can return, then, within the Christian tradition, I would suggest that it is justifiable.

He noted that religion is often used as the hook to describe a [much more complicated] conflict and after a while the pretext of being about religion becomes the reality.

Religion is most often not the principal cause of a conflict. But if you say to a group of young men, “You are ethnically disadvantaged by 19th-century struggles, further set back and marginalised through the colonial period, economically and educationally discriminated against because of the education system, economically part of a globalising, commercial process…” –  you’ve lost them, as much as I’ve lost you, halfway through that sentence. If you say, “You’re this faith and therefore you’re good and they’re that faith and therefore they’re bad," it’s pretty straightforward. And if you use the hook of religion for long enough, as a pretext, sooner or later it begins to become the reality. This is what we’re seeing.

Several times he touched on social media. In an age of 140 character statements it wasn’t possibly to adequately and completely react to an atrocity: condemning violence is not good enough, you must have something positive to contribute.

We need, therefore, to name and develop truth, as part of the theological narrative of reconciliation, not merely to condemn violence. I’m often asked, if there’s some terrible event, to say something in 140 characters on Twitter or a couple of sentences on Facebook that adequately and completely describes a bomb explosion that has killed 200 people. It’s absurd. How do we name truth? Condemning violence by itself is not good enough; there must be something positive that we can say. 

Truth is seen in practise, it’s seen at community level. In England we have something called the Near Neighbours programme – funded largely by government, led largely by the Church of England – in which different faith communities are brought together to encounter and work together for the benefit of their local community. You will be doing very similar things in different contexts here.
In those actions we create community. We integrate people when the demonic nature of Daesh and other groups is seen in the disintegration they seek. As was said recently: “Friendship is a counter-terrorism strategy.” We need to be honest and name truly history and global relationships – naming things well, identifying past failures. In the work that I’ve done overseas, travelling in many parts of the world with Muslim majorities, it’s often pointed out to me that only one Muslim country was not colonised by the Western powers in the 19th century: Saudi Arabia. By 1920, the world’s principal ruler of Muslims was King George V.

Daesh have used social media as a tool to build long term relationships (with a billion dollar budget). He compared this with issuing government press releases and pondered the opportunities for the well off to fund better online communications to counter Daesh.

Calling for a better understanding of theological hospitality, he suggested that when the refugee crisis was viewed through social media it tended to create presence without relationship, a situation where we see all and know no one. Solidarity requires more.

In addition to these questions of identity, we must reassert solidarity theologically, which has been vastly expanded in its potential scope by the development of information networks, and deeply undermined through our response to the refugee crisis in the short term, and through social media in the long term.

The refugee crisis and social media bring presence without relationships. We see all and know no-one. Through the smartphone in my hand I can go anywhere in the world. I can see stories that I would never have dreamed of and that my grandfather, or my father, would never have imagined he could every find out about - and if he did, they would have been sterilised through weeks for the news to travel and through it being in print without photographs. But now it’s here, in my hand, and yet I don’t know the person, I have no relationships, and it is rare that I weep. And so when we have all of this coming at us out of a screen, or through the news, of refugees, as we see across Europe today, threatened we retreat, rather than finding the sign of the Spirit of God at work, as with Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10.

Solidarity is lived out in the essential human dignity of every individual in creation and in salvation, and its demands increase in inverse proportion to the weakness of the person with whom we show solidarity.

He spoke about the loss of theological nuance, modern fundamentalism and dualism (quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), and the wisdom of looking to history to recognise the impact of artificial boundaries, the consequences of previous wars. There is a need to recognise our “collusion” and lack of intellectual challenge [that has contributed to developing conflicts].

Justice is the twin sister of peace – there is a role for religious communities in helping society to be just by naming injustices in foreign policy now and in history, especially, in the Middle East, Palestine, with Christian fundamentalist perceptions of Israel (which must not collude with a monopoly over grievances). We must demonstrate how to use proper, democratic methods of expressing disagreement. We must affirm, as Christians, actions which are just and wise. Often we only criticise.

A fresh and ideological approach to international relations will empower a younger generation with visions and dreams of new identity. We can acknowledge our unintentional collusion and lack of internal challenge, we can be honest about such issues as financing.

On refugees he spoke of the need for generosity along with the incentive and aim of enabling return, and suggested it was a priority to revive local economies with micro finance and macro economic rebuilding (which the UK government is supporting) and to remove the need to hazard crossing the Mediterranean. He reiterated his earlier message that “any extension of bombing needs to be part of establishing safe havens to avoid refugees fleeing the whole region”.

The supply of refugees should further be restricted by a focused and deliberate effort to renew and revive local economies, especially in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. All ground taken should be part of that effort which must involve micro-finance as well as large scale macro-economic rebuilding. The UK Government is already doing this on a vast scale and putting large sums in. The God-given gift of work and an economy brings social dignity in a powerful way and eliminates the need to hazard the Mediterranean.

The hospitality that we offer to refugees should be more generous, but always with a clear strategy, incentive and aim of enabling return. To empty the Middle East of Christians removes diversity and sows trouble for the future.

The Church has responsibilities:
“We must lead in prayer, in love, in hospitality, seeking human flourishing, in leading hope, through religions communities who stabilise and serve.”

An interesting observation challenged western commerce systems that are impossible to engage with without using interest (usury).

We see, economically, a global trade system that was set up so it is impossible to engage in it without using interest, or usury. Since World War Two, American culture and products are pervasive and dominant. People like them. Postmodernity has become the global philosophy, with its abandonment of the concepts of absolute truth.

To be rescued by the ‘good Samaritan’ would have been a scandal and a disgrace. The Archbishop suggested if the UK was to show unconditional love it would involve: praying for each other; for commitments of love across faith; and for common action and shared grief.

And it is easy to call for Government action. The Church has its own responsibilities. We must lead in prayer, in love, in hospitality, in seeking human flourishing, in gracious and courageous action that demonstrates the beauty and hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, through religious communities that stabilise and serve. In this struggle, our lives must respond to the Spirit’s call and equipping.

Amongst the rich arguments and challenges, a number of soundbites jumped out a number of lines jumped out as soundbites.
“When you see a mosque, a religious community, do you see it through a counter-terrorism lens or as a potential partner for schooling?”

Speaking about radicalisation:
“Young people need role models not manifestos.”

Though the quote of the night had to be his quip that ...
“… one needs to remember that the symbol of a bishop is a crook ... and the symbol of an archbishop is a double cross!"
Having steered clear of commenting on Northern Ireland issues, he was drawn into the debate - though gave tactful answers - during a Q&A session.

Credit: main photo - QUB Church of Ireland & Methodist Chaplaincy

Friday, February 05, 2016

The Survivalist - extreme behaviour in extreme times (QFT until 18 February)

The opening titles of The Survivalist graphically set up the background to the fundamental changes that have devastatingly changed society: the collision of population growth and plummeting oil production. It’s a world that has had no option but to embrace vegan diets (large animals have been hunted to extinction), heat from wood rather than electricity, and survival of the fittest.

Martin McCann plays the titular Survivalist who has been living in a wooden shack in a clearing in a Northern Ireland forest for seven years. The forest supplies fuel, the stove provides warmth and a place to cook. He’s planted lines of crops in front of his hovel, though his choice of organic fertilizer is unusual (and frankly an unforgettable cinematic image).

Tin cans hang from trees as early warning signals of approaching foes. Everyone who visits is assumed to be an enemy and his paranoia is turned all the way up to eleven. It’s a case of shoot first ask later.

Mother and daughter Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré) and Milja (Mia Goth) approach the house one day. They’ve walked up from Monaghan and seek refuge. Desperate for shelter, after the initial rebuff the mother offers her daughter to the Survivalist for sex in return for lodging. They pair stay and help cultivate the land. However, they’re not the only people in the forest, and when their food supply is disrupted and diminished, drastic decisions have to be made.

It’s a shocking scenario. How extreme would circumstances have to be for a mother to prostitute her daughter? (Not so far fetched in today’s world when families are faced with brutal conflict and the high risk of death.) There’s no question that the mother might offer herself rather than her teenage daughter. In what kind of a world are welcome and hospitality exchanged for sexual depravity?

After a screening in the QFT, someone quipped “it’s all about the seed”. And that neatly sums up the post-event world that writer and director Stephen Fingleton has created. Power is wielded by those with something to offer. And the only resources left are the basic ones. It’s clear that Fingleton has done his research and made the environment as realistic as possible: nature is blooming while people are dying.

The Survivalist is not a zombie apocalypse film. Nor is it a filmic version of BBC’s Survivors with a community fighting back against a virulent strain of influenza. Fingleton’s world is much more isolationist and sophisticated.

There is no musical score, unless you count a few notes on a harmonica. Instead there’s the sound of breathing and the wind rustling through the forest added in post-production. No 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound: the majority of the film uses a mono feed through the front centre speaker to heighten the audience’s sense of sound. There’s not much dialogue: even when the shack’s occupancy increases, there’s not that much to talk about. But despite the stripped down sound design, Jamie Roden’s post-production mix is as beautiful as Damien Elliott’s camerawork.

Everyone looks weary. The cast’s emaciated bodies reflect the low-carb diet of mushrooms. Martin McCann looks like he’s been living in the forest. (While the cast did forgo showers during the filming, they didn’t go to quite the lengths of The Revenant cast and crew.) Olwen Fouéré’s long white witch-like hair belies a woman who is losing grip on her own destiny.

Trust is in short supply. Loyalties are complex. Affection may be a cypher for survival. The decision to take a life or save a life is more likely to be based on selfish reasoning than the urge to prolong life.

Ultimately the moniker ‘The Survivalist’ may belong to the young and virile who can make harsh choices and take opportunities when they arise. An elongated crane shot changes the perspective of the power play between the three characters, signalling the pivot point in the film’s narrative. Mia Goth depicts a young woman who is more in control that she lets others believe and can emotionally detach to boost her lifespan. Perhaps this is more like “Little Red Riding Hood in reverse” as the film’s director has suggested?

The Survivalist (18) is not for the fainthearted. But it’s a story and a set of circumstances that continues to haunt my imagination long after the credits rolled and the lights came up. 105 minutes of original cinema from a Northern Ireland writer and director who has been nominated for a the Outstanding Debut BAFTA. If he continues to question what we take for granted, his future films will be worth viewing too.

Queen’s Film Theatre is exclusively screening The Survivalist from Friday 5 February, a week ahead of its UK cinema and on-demand release.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Educating Rita … Educating Frank (Lyric Theatre until 5 March)

Rita White works in a hair salon and is fed up with the inane drivel that passes for conversation. She aspires to break free from superficial nonsense and chooses to enrol on an Open University course in English Literature to allow her to grapple with life’s more important issues. University lecturer and lethargic poet Frank agrees to tutor Rita after hours for the OU in order to subsidise his considerable bar bills.
“I’ve been realising for ages that I was out of step”

Piles of books on the floor overflow from the bookcases that line most of the walls of Frank’s generously sized office. He finds Rita to be a breath of fresh air as his protégé struggles into the room for her weekly tutorials. She isn’t fluent in the language of academics. Her original and often frank viewpoints are as fresh and valid as they are useless for passing an examination. If Frank is successful as a teacher, he will destroy the object of his fascination. Despite both characters’ enduring household dramas, momentary flickers of lust and sexual tension are brushed away by the education-thirsty Rita.
“Possessing a hungry mind is not in itself a guarantee of success”

Kerri Quinn thrives in the role of Rita, slowly evolving the thirty year old hairdresser’s mannerisms, accent and delivery as Rita’s confidence and study technique grows. At the start the contents of Rita’s furry pencil case are as flamboyant as her dress sense. But gradual costume changes between scenes – not to mention increasingly sober stationery – add further layers to her character’s development. There’s a lot of comedy in the script, and like an air-traffic controller guiding planes onto the Heathrow runway, Kerri lands the lines safely.

Every five or ten minutes the play races onto the next scene and we’re back in the office to get feedback on Rita’s latest essay. While she wants to learn, can she be taught? Will her husband give her the space to change? And will Frank ever return to his poetry?

Michael James Ford has mastered the art of bumbling around Frank’s office and being browbeaten by Rita’s staccato tongue.

After the interval the play accelerates towards its conclusion, with major changes affecting the lives of each character. The bookcases’ own special effect is another symbolic reminder of what’s going on inside Frank’s world. There’s a level of attention to detail across the whole production, down to sound designer Philip Stewart’s miccing of the manual typewriter, the radio clips used to anchor the action in 1980/1, and the meaningful selection of music to introduce each scene.

On Wednesday night the audience gleefully applauded each scene change as well as a number of set piece speeches within the play. Somehow Frank’s descent in melancholy doesn’t earn the full sympathy of the audience and the final scene lacks the assurance of the rest of the play.

In moving Educating Rita away from its Liverpool roots and getting Oisin Kearney to Belfastise Willy Russell’s original script, the Lyric took a risk. But it’s a risk that paid off for director Emma Jordan with a performance that entertains as well as examines the choices that education offers.

Educating Rita runs in the Lyric Theatre eight times a week until 5 March and is well worth catching.

Production shots by Stephan Hill

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Rev Frank Sellar – PCI’s moderator-designate & a “gospel radical” on 1916, outreach and his year ahead

Speaking this morning, moderator-designate of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland Rev Frank Sellar reflected on Tuesday night’s vote at which he won the nominations of eighteen of the denomination’s nineteen presbyteries.

“I’m really humbled and honoured and appreciative to the Presbyterian Church throughout Ireland for entrusting this role to me. As someone who has received God’s great love for Christ I will be able to share it north and south of the border.”

Frank’s hopes for the coming year include extending what he describes as the three privileges of his calling as a minister: “to pray with and for people; to pastor people often at the most fragile moments of life; and to proclaim the gospel in all its fullness”. He’ll continue to do that, but with a wider than usual set of people. And Frank is keen that groups and organisations that mightn’t normally invite a moderator will approach him during his year of office that begins with the week of General Assembly in June.

Currently minister of Bloomfield Presbyterian in East Belfast on the corner of Cyprus Avenue and Beersbridge Road, Frank sees that the people he is “fortunate to pastor also have significant front line roles” in society. He aims to “encourage, enable, strengthen and enliven people for their ministry” in areas he could never be directly involved in himself.

“If the church is not for its non-members, it’s not fulfilling its mandate.”

Frank also led the Adelaide Road congregation in the heart of Dublin city centre for 17 years. The church building was renovated to better serve the local community, offering childcare provision, and working with refugees and asylum seekers as well as offering practical assistance to the unemployed.

Asked more generally about the church’s response to refugees, Frank was delighted by the work of the International Friendship Centre on the Lisburn Road which “works with people from 30 different countries” and gives “vital” support.

“It is not them who benefits from us so much as us benefiting from them” was how Frank described families from overseas in his own congregation. Having asked Frank on Sunday about the week ahead, one man in his congregation promised that “I will be praying and fasting for you”. This was an example of bringing “the light of Christ from other parts of the world and contributing to our society here”.

Asked about the continued lack of resolution around victims and legacy issues, the moderator-designate said he while he was “glad that A Fresh Start has broken the deadlock” but was “disappointed that legacy issues remain”. He expected the denomination to “continue to work publicly and behind the scenes” to bring about agreement.

While Frank accepted that the label of “conservative evangelical” was a good description of his style of faith, he would prefer to be seen as a “gospel radical”.

Asked for his opinion on the court appeal that was beginning half a mile away across Belfast, Frank commended Peter Tatchell for “being big enough to acknowledge his change of opinion” on the matter of the decorated cake that Ashers Bakery refused to supply.

News stories over the last year have sometimes been accompanied with the suggestion that Christian rights are being corroded in Northern Ireland. The East Belfast minister explained:

“I have a dog, I love my labra-doodle and it’s a privilege to be able to have a dog. I’d hate for someone to tell me I was unable to enjoy a pet. But with every privilege comes responsibility. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing but there are responsibilities.”

Should members of the clergy be allowed to be gay?

“Some of the people I admire most and respect most are same-sex attracted. And it’s vital that people hear that. There is no place for homophobia …”

He named Vaughan Roberts – Church of England cleric and director of Proclamation Trust – and Ed Shaw as clergy he admired. For Frank it was important to note that these figures he admired “have chosen to place their sexuality under the authority of the Lord Jesus and live under the parameters the Bible sets”. He repeated that “it is vital to say that as people so often make the simplistic assumption that Christians hate those in the LGBT community” and affirmed his belief (aligned with PCI General Assembly’s agreed policy) that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Frank was heartened by the strong attendance at the denomination’s recent conference looking at significant historical events in 1916. The Rising and Somme “impacted society and shaped our consciousness”. While “inevitably the majority of our members are pro-union, there are many north and south who are pro-republican”. He was “hugely impressed” by the conference contribution of Minister Heather Humphries TD (who worships in a Presbyterian congregation in Monahan) and is responsible for the Irish Government’s commemoration. The 1916 Rising was in Frank’s opinion a “significant event that’s worth commemorating” though he distinguished commemoration from celebration.

Taking over as moderator in June, Frank sees it as a “privilege” to represent the church at Somme memorial events which will have a poignancy given that two of his great-uncles were killed in the First World War.

Also - Belfast Telegraph and News Letter coverage.