Monday, August 29, 2016

Mount Stewart Conversations: a festival fusing debate, culture & food (17+18 September)

National Trust’s Mount Stewart site is opening its doors for a weekend festival of debate, ideas, storytelling, art, music and food in September. Mount Stewart Conversations will take place on Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 and its curated programme of talks and discussion, along with musical and artistic performances and a smorgasbord of fine food will focus on Europe.

The verbal line up already includes prizewinning author Anne Applebaum, commentators David Aaronovitch and Fintan O’Toole; journalist Sarah Helm; historians John Bew, Robert Gerwarth, Margaret MacMillan, Adrian Tinniswood and Diane Urquhart; chief executive of Volunteer Now Wendy Osborne; and former British government negotiator Jonathan Powell. More names will be announced over the coming weeks.

Complementing the debate and discussion with the audience will be a programme of intercultural arts (including acts from the roster of local charity Beyond Skin): local songster Iain Archer, Eurovision entrant Molly Sterling, Orchestre des Refugies et Amis, Anglo-Columbian duo Bitch 'n' Monk, dangerous harpist Ursula Burns, a Ukulele and Charango workshop, the acrobatic Lords of Strut, your chance to join in some Ugandan dance, and the Campervan of Dreams.

The festival will show off the recently restored neo-classical house and its diverse planted gardens. In July, three miles of new walking trails through the demesne were opened, the first phase in a project that should open up 20 miles of paths.

Explaining the background to the event, Jon Kerr (National Trust manager at Mount Stewart) said:
“Mount Stewart is no ordinary country estate. For hundreds of years, this has been Ireland’s secret retreat for royals, leaders of state, influencers and aristocracy. For generations this has been a powerhouse of great thinking, art, music, talks and deliberation, and this energy lives on today.

“The idea is that we will bring an eclectic range of people together for conversations on a central topic. This year we have chosen to focus on Europe, so there will certainly be plenty of topical debates. We are also keen that visitors get really involved in those conversations, so that will be central to the ethos of the weekend.

“This is a truly unique festival weekend that brings Mount Stewart’s history to life in a completely new way. We will have a huge menu of debates, stories, music and arts to select from as well as great local food and drink. On each night we will also have a headline musical performance to finish the day off in style.”
Mount Stewart Conversations runs from 11am until 9pm on Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 September. Day passes (£30) and weekend passes (£50) can be booked online. There are also volunteering opportunities if you’d like to join the team helping at the event.

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Julieta - a sumptuous story of separation (QFT until 8 September)

I’m generally suspicious about the use of narration or an enormous flashback after a quick introduction in a film or play. While it’s forgivable in a movie as good as The Princess Bride, it often seems to cover up weaknesses in the plot. (And don’t get me started on wordy captions – the Star Wars opening crawler – that provide the context the screenwriter and director couldn’t fit into the action.)

Yet the extended flashback device works well for Pedro Almodóvar’s new film Julieta. The titular author (played by Emma Suárez) bumps into a younger acquaintance on a street in Madrid and discovers that her estranged daughter Antía is alive and has a family. This revelation leads Julieta to pull the eject handle on plans to relocate to Portugal with her partner and instead she moves back to her old apartment block and starts writing up her side of the story in a long letter to her daughter.

And so we go back to key moments and meet key people in her life. There’s death and life as the younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) meets two men on an overnight train journey. A menacing housekeeper (played brilliantly by Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma) interferes with the truth while Julieta’s beau Xoan (Daniel Grao) is less than candid about his relationship with sculptor Ava. Though Julieta too knows about unconventional couplings when she makes a rare visit to see her parents from whom she’s practically estranged.

Ava’s bronze and terracotta statues are designed to be heavy, resilient against the wind. Julieta needs the same inner strength to stand up to the gales of life, absence and death that blow against her as her daughter grows up and finds her way in the world.

The film’s poster refers to the moment in the film when the ‘young’ Julieta morphs into the ‘old’ one and the actors swap. With the change in actor and timeframe, the opening scenes feel a little disconnected from the flashback, almost fictional rather than autobiographical. At times, the rich colour and backdrops distract from the plot and the subtitles. Watch out for how the quality of bookcases vary across Julieta’s life.

The placement of the cast against walls and furniture is exquisite and the framing of shots is beautiful throughout the film. [And the Oscar for best flocked wallpaper goes to …. Julieta.]

Late in the film, one line of the script jumps out:
“We all get what we deserve.”

Laying aside whether this is ever true, the statement signposted a completely different conclusion to the profoundly disappointing one that was projected onto the screen at the end of the 100 minute film. [My version would add 10 seconds with a tractor coming round the corner, an airbag inflating and a black screen.]

You can catch the sumptuous and stylish story of separation in the Queen’s Film Theatre where Julieta is being screened until 8 September.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Bubbacue expands its menu and opening hours

Do you like your BBQ meat slow smoked?

A few months back when Bubbacue closed their Callender Street doors, gutted their unit and then reopened, some of the original raw charm of the meatery seemed to have slipped out into the builders skip. It was quite a culture shock for regular customers.

While the taste was kept, the brick walls are no longer exposed, the rather necessary rolls of kitchen roll were absent from the tables and - at the start - the four (shades) of (brown) sauce in bottles waiting to be squirted over the fries were no longer to hand.

The queue no longer stranded hungry souls out on the street and takeaway customers didn’t have to loiter over the shoulders of those sitting in.

But the new shinier Bubbacue has bedded in and, to the credit of those running it, they have tweaked and adapted to meet customer demand and showed off their new offering to a gaggle of folk on Tuesday evening.

The bottles of sauce were back on the tables in nicely carved holders and there were even options for any vegetarians who can be dragged into the meaty environment.

While your meat can still come in a bap, you can now choose to ditch the bready carbohydrate and have it in a bowl or on top of salad. The pulled pork, brisket beef, BBQ chicken and spicy sausage have been joined by Halloumi cheese (coated in panko breadcrumbs and fried).

Mashed potato and Cajun rice have been added to the selection of hot sides, along with my new favourite macaroni and cheese. And there are now options for beans, potato salad, couscous and rocket on the side.

The Bubbacue ‘ethos’ statements around the restaurant and on their website may be a little cheesy, but they do sum up well the philosophy:
  • Made by hands, eaten with fingers.
  • From scratch everyday
  • Freshly smoked overnight
  • No half measures

Bubbacue is licensed and selling their Bubbabrew alongside their own brew Iced Tea and a range of soft drinks. Opening hours have extended too. The shutters are no longer down on Monday lunchtimes. Instead, the slow smoked meat (and fried cheese) is available from 11.30am until 8pm Monday-Saturday and 1-6pm on Sunday.

And while the menu and the opening hours have expanded, and outside catering is an option, there are no plans to expand the business and open a second restaurant. Callender Street is home of the slow smoked BBQ meat for now.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Thinking About Thoughts - listen in to three tormented souls on a silent retreat

Three people have booked into a ten day silent retreat. Into this sparse and isolated environment, each brings their own insecurities and baggage. As an audience we listen into the clamour of inner thoughts as they unpack and process their lives.

Dressed appropriately for the sessions of yoga and contemplation, the three actors in Thinking About Thoughts take their places on the stage. A spotlight falls on one and the theatre goers hear their thoughts through wireless headphones. The spotlight moves and the inner conversation shifts. Introductions over, all three characters are illuminated and each listener can flick between the three channels to eavesdrop on the conversation inside the single head of their choice. (Small green/blue/red lights on the headphones indicate to other people around you which voice you’re listening to.)
“I hate my body yet I still put it out there for other people to judge.”

Green (played by Anna Leckey) is suffering a bad bout of smart phone separation anxiety and gradually unpacks her craving for the validation of others as she practices her sculptural yoga positions. For a while Red (Mathieu Lovelace) psychopathically imagines harming the other participants on the retreat before panicking over how he is being perceived by others. Blue (Edward Richards) is the least relational of the three but is burnt up by a sense of haste and his addiction to being busy.

The most inane moment takes on a magnified significance in the cerebral silent retreat! At one point Green obsesses about how to eat an apple in a sexy way while Red tries to hold in a fart while crawling on the floor under Green to retrieve his fallen apple. Glances and movements spark your curiosity and lead your finger up to the right earpiece to quickly switch channel and catch what’s going on.

It’s like watching three soap operas simultaneously, with your finger riding the remote control to jockey between channels and knit together your personalised version of events. The word-heavy script delivered wirelessly sketches out a depth to the characters that draws you in. For a while I felt anxiety about missing plot lines and guilt for not paying attention to a character, particularly when hearing a snatch of other audience members chuckling without having heard something funny.

The three noiseless actors stretch, lie, sit, walk, and fiddle with their invisible phones over the hour long performance. The audio delivered to the headphones is very crisp and there’s a beautiful stereo effect as a bee buzzes past at one point.

By the end of the ten days of solitude, the three are driven to very different conclusions as they battle to address their inner demons. Social media, body image, productivity, relationships, avocados and the wisdom of using an alarm clock on a silent retreat are all explored in this inventive and gentle piece of theatre. Very real and modern issues examined in a way that doesn’t provide all the answers, but certainly resonate with the audience’s own experiences and hangups. Appropriately, the performance in the darkened theatre space finished with a mindfulness exercise narrated by Bridgeen Rea.

Thinking About Thoughts is a well written and well performed piece of modern theatre. For the majority of the audience, the technology enhances rather than distracts. Anna Leckey is the founder of Threes Theatre Company. A recent graduate of London South Bank University, she’s now back living in Drumbeg, and it’s good to see that Lisburn & Castlereagh Council were supporting the production which premièred last night in the Island Arts Centre.

Well worth catching one of the upcoming performances of Thinking About Thoughts in The Black Box on Monday 22 and Tuesday 23 August at 8pm.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Childhood of a Leader - raising a monster (QFT 19-25 August)

The Childhood of a Leader depicts a series of episodes in the childhood of a young boy who is growing up in a big house in a French village towards the end of the First World War. Collectively the ‘tantrums’ demonstrate the rising manipulative nature of the child.

Tom Sweet plays the long-locked boy (only once named as Prescott) who is repeatedly mistaken for a girl. Mumbling his lines for a Christmas performance, the audience are thrown the clue that he may have a Messiah complex.
“Why would you want to hurt anyone?”

The child gets a kick out of throwing stones at people leaving the nearby church. At first he seems to be a vulnerable soul, but soon you’ll wonder whether his bed wetting is more about attention seeking than fear. Over nearly two hours, you’ll watch his stubborn personality develop along with his grasp of the inappropriate and a brutal ability to calculate how to dispense with those who get in his way.

His German mother (played by Bérénice Bejo) speaks four languages but still employs a local woman Ada (Stacy Martin) to school him in French. Bejo portrays an anaemic wife who is ill at ease with her husband and a mother more comfortable running a house and hiring and firing, than bringing up a child.

While the residence’s cook is firmly wound round his little finger, Ada proves to have stricter boundaries to her friendship with the little tyrant. Yet both characters suffer the same fate. 

His father is Irish-American, a US diplomat who spends a lot of time away in Paris working on the Treaty of Versailles. Liam Cunningham plays an at first clean cut character whose sinister side is later revealed when we discover he can follow up his threats with violence.

While the two parents – one absent geographically, the other mentally – together weave the beginnings of a pattern of dysfunctionality, their less wholesome traits don’t feel sufficiently weighty to create the monster who occupies the child’s bedroom upstairs.

Writer/director Brady Corbet serves up a number of plot points that feel under-cooked, either red herrings or very broad hints at inappropriate behaviour or relationships (eg, the father caught talking to Ada) in the house. The version of this film running in the QFT subtitles the conversations in French, though at times the English is indistinct.

There’s a consistently dark mood across the film. The musical score is heavy and somewhat reliant on ominous-sounding low tonal strings. Every scene is darkly lit. The war together with the related power struggles in the father’s work overshadow talk at the dinner table. And on top of that, at times Liam Cunningham’s dialogue sounds like it has been dubbed over by Liam Neeson and may break out into “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you” at any moment.

Spiralling camerawork near the end suggests that world affairs and the family are spinning out of control. But the very final shots are much more disorientating and hard to read. Also perplexing is the issue of which – if any – historical fascist leader the boy is supposed to grow up to become?

The Childhood of a Leader is not a feel good film. But it is a curious, slow-moving inspection of a disturbing family life that isn’t so far removed from ordinary households to be unfamiliar. The film is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre between 19 and 25 August.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

CLOSER - an elaborately planned formal theatrical garden (Crescent Arts Centre until 13 August)

Dan is an obituary writer (“it’s a living”) who chivalrously accompanies Alice to hospital after a road accident and flirts with her as she awaits medical attention. Dr Larry passes by and quickly dismisses her injuries as unremarkable. A year later Dan has written a book about Alice’s past life, and Anna is shooting publicity portraits. Dan flirts with her too. Later he unwittingly introduces Anna to Larry and they hit if off.

And that’s only the start of Closer, a twelve scene play full of twists and turns, driven by elaborate coincidences, character flaws, mistaken notions of love, lust, jealously, belonging and truth, and a generous seasoning of playwright licence.

The internet chatroom scene provides much comedy – through its staging and facial expressions as much as the dialogue – and the cast’s delivery of Patrick Marber’s well written verbal retorts generate chuckles throughout. However, the tragedy of the perpetually breaking down relationships rob the play of any sense of farce.

Jonathan Blakeley plays Dan who is a cad and a bounder: by the end of the play it is hard to fathom how at least three women could ever have fallen for the failed novelist’s absent charms. Lee Thomas (who also directed the play) combines smugness with sleaze to bring revengeful Larry to life.

Alice is the most vulnerable character and Katriona Perrett successfully combines being bubbly, brave, brazen and needy in her warm portrayal of the young woman who tries to keep control by suppressing her truth. Gemma Leader inflates Anna with a flattering air of confidence and assurance before gently puncturing this image when she allows herself to be messed around by Dan and Larry.

The staging is minimalist and the scene changes rapid yet elegantly choreographed. Strobe lighting is effectively though somewhat inconsistently used to signify the boundary between some early scenes before being dropped later in the play.

Patrick Marber’s 1997 play Closer is like an elaborately planned formal theatrical garden, with the many delicately sized scenes bursting with symmetry. Facts and context are withheld until you need to know. Along with the sparse scenery this leaves the audience’s imaginations straining to figure out what’s going on until the missing nugget of information is dropped into the conversation. Guess correctly, and it’s terribly satisfying.

Marber’s exploration of libido and questioning of whether the truth really can set any of this hurting quartet free is beginning to date in this age of Tinder. Yet it’s worth swiping right to see this confident production. With explicit and naturalistic language throughout, yet set in a fabricated and totally unnatural series of circumstances, Closer is raw and incredibly well executed.

Closer is the inaugural show by new theatre group London Irish Productions and you can catch this polished production is being performed in the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast until 13 August.

The Idol (QFT 12-18 August)

The Idol opens with a sequence that’s right out of an episode of Homeland or a Bourne movie: a chase in and out of buildings, across rooftops and through crowded markets … except it’s a gang of four kids. They’re already entrepreneurs, learning that everything has a price in the squeezed economy of Gaza.

This is a film of two halves. Mohammed Assaf (played by Qais Atallah) dreams of being in a band with his older sister Nour (Hiba Atallah, who is the star of this section of the movie) and his two school friends. Sweet feel-good music accompanies the foursome as they ride through the dirt streets on their bicycles until they reach the razorwire fence.

Despite being warned that “you’re aiming too high, you’ll be disappointed”, they listen to Nour and are spurred on by her mantra that “we’ll be big and change the world”. Skilled negotiators, enthusiastic, able to generate cash and driven to improve, all they need is practice! Like all bands, there are romantic and creative differences that challenge the status quo. But it’s a renal medical side plot that provides the emotional crisis that brings the curtain down on the ‘early years’.

Jumping forward in time, we’re now in a busier, much more populated Gaza, with bombed buildings lying in ruins and power cuts interfering with life. This time with his mother’s sage words – “To succeed you have to be open to failure” – Mohammed (now played by Tawfeek Barhom) dips his toe back into musical waters, entering local and regional TV talent shows. Figures from the first half are neatly reconnected with as the plot heads towards its well-documented finale.

Real life footage of Mohammed Assaf’s actual success in Arab Idol is blended in with foreign news footage commenting on the Gaza singing phenomenon and a small number of close up shots of the actor playing Mohammed. The continual swapping between real and reconstructed footage distracts and it’s a pity the director wasn’t able to completely switch to using the real Mohammed Assaf for the final fifteen minutes of the film (or alternatively kept the actuality for during the credits).

While some scenes feel contrived, all too conveniently bringing characters from the first half back into the later action, the script incorporates many of the unlikely happenstances that propelled Mohammed across the Gaza/Egypt border and onto the hit TV programme where he gains the tongue-in-cheek nickname of “The Rocket”.

What the film does well is gently highlight the difficult conditions in Gaza, the disparate political factions, the relatively impervious border as well as the cultural norms that made it difficult for young Nour to perform in public. 

Even discounting the absence of Bollywood, The Idol is less slick and glamorous than Slumdog Millionaire. But there’s still something very sweet about this tale.

In this part of the world we like stories about wee lads battling against the odds and making a splash. Mohammed Assaf was certainly “big” and may well “change the world” in his UN ambassador role and diplomatic passport (that gets him into most countries, but not Gaza without permission).

The Idol is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 18 August.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Born to be Blue - a second jazz biopic (QFT until Thursday 11 August)

Barely three months after the last semi-fictional jazz trumpeter biopic was projected onto the Queen’s Film Theatre screen, along comes another. Back in April, my review of Miles Ahead finished saying:

It’s a portrait of a talented musician who lived life with a wild abandon and who tried to control everybody around him while exhibiting a complete lack of self control. The virtuoso quality of his playing doesn’t redeem his violence, philandering, wife beating and drug taking. And none of those add to the enjoyment of the film …

The music really is very good though. But not enough to redeem the movie.

There are certainly similarities with Born to be Blue, which examines a period in Chet Baker’s life around 1966 as he recovered from being beaten up, losing his front teeth and having to learn to play the trumpet again while wearing dentures or else face life without jazz.

But Born to be Blue is a better film.

At the beginning of the movie, smooth talking yet insecure Baker (played brilliant by Ethan Hawke) is starring in an autobiographical film, recreating destructive scenes from his past. While claiming to be clean, his addiction to drugs is never far away.

Baker leads a much less glamorous lifestyle than fellow jazzman Miles Davis who describes him as “a great white hope”, introducing an aspect of racial stereotyping to the film that suggests Baker shouldn’t be a great jazz player. Heaped on top of that prejudice is his tendency to sing as well as play that makes him stand out from his contemporaries.

The philandering and wife beating of Davis’ story is absent; however the destructive personality is present right until the end of the film. Carmen Ejogo plays Jane, an actor from the failed biopic who becomes his counsellor, nurse and lover. She’s a synthetic character that merges together several women in his life. Her character swings from dispensing tough love to putting her life on hold and being taken in by Baker. The scenes back at his family home fill in some much-needed depth to the trumpeter’s backstory.

Like Miles Ahead, the music in Born to be Blue eclipses the talents of the cast. While the omnipresent soundtrack has the mild warm crackle of a record player, none of Baker’s original recordings seem to be included.

The film projected onto the big screens in cinemas contrasts with the performance of athletes in the Rio Olympics that are flickering on the small screens in living rooms. We know that taking drugs negates the celebration of sporting prowess, yet there’s an uncomfortable sense that it’s apparently okay that Baker made his best music while injecting himself with heroin.

All in all, Born to be Blue is a better film than Miles Ahead. Certainly easier to watch I enjoyed it much more than expected. Yet it wouldn’t have been nearly so good if I hadn’t sat through the story of Miles Davis and been introduced to the US jazz scene in the 1960s.

For 97 minutes of great jazz woven around writer and director Robert Budreau’s fabricated tale of a very real and failed man, head along to the Queen’s Film Theatre and catch Born to be Blue before Thursday 11 August.