Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Light Between Oceans - a long and windy masterclass in emotional blackmail

In the film The Light Between Oceans, WW1 veteran Tom Sherbourne seeks work as a relief lighthouse keeper off the coast of Western Australia to replace an incumbent who ultimately doesn’t return to work.

Local girl Isobel lost two brothers in the war. The remote, rugged, chiselled Janus Rock location attracts Tom. But it’s his remote and rugged, chiselled chin that catches Isobel’s eye and she quickly woos him and soon has a rock on her finger.

Two traumatic miscarriages inside two years take their emotional toll on the couple. Yet when the ocean offers up a baby (and a dead man) in a wooden rowing boat that drifts towards the beach, Isobel convinces Tom to suppress the incident in his lighthouse log and take the chance to save a life. The couple keep the child as if it was their own.

Yet one family’s blessing is another family’s grief and Tom’s guilt leaves a trail, allowing the ethical dilemma to begin to be explored. No number of good choices and virtuous motivations can make amends for the original crime.

Alicia Vikander shows a mastery of the role of steely sea siren, luring the silent lighthouse keeper onto the moral rocks. Her grief is convincing and her emotional range is superb, so much wider than the introvert played by Michael Fassbender who is caught in the darkness between the rotating beams of light he operates. In the second half of the film, Rachel Weisz plays the mother of the washed up baby, a role that is superficial and far too shallow.

Running at 133 minutes long, the film is constructed of four half hour episodes followed by a fifteen minute epilogue. The scenery is bleak, the wind constantly howls, and the music is designed to hug at your heart strings and open up your tear ducts. Yet Derek Cianfrance’s masterclass in emotional blackmail was ultimately desensitising and the slow-paced melodramatic film failed to cast its spell over this audience member.

The Light Between Oceans is still being screened in many local cinemas.

Doctor Strange – full of chuckles but comic book tale fails to re-orientate to the big screen

“People used to think I was funny.”

“Did they work for you?”

Once Doctor Stephen Strange’s over-confident and over-accessorised ego has been massaged by a near-fatal car accident, he runs out of medical options and heads to the mystical east and Kathmandu to prove his once girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) wrong when she said “Some things just can’t be fixed”.

And so Benedict Cumberbatch encounters the winking ‘Ancient One’ (a rather attractive, bald Tilda Swinton” who introduces him to the precarious path of re-orientating his spirit to better heal his body. He goes from cockiness through training to discovery, revelation, doubt and adaptation, all the while retaining his existing ability to bend the rules to suit his purpose as the infant warrior finds himself rapidly over-promoted in a war-torn world.

Falling into infinite Mandlebrot fractal multiverses, some CGI sequences in Doctor Strange worked better (the mini-hands) than others (the neon ones). Michael Giacchino’s music score – like his ‘chosen’ relic – wouldn’t be out of place in a Superman movie, though the pitchbend when the surgeon begins to doubt is beautiful, if short.
“It’s too late, nothing can stop them”

“We have to run”

Sadly, this gravity defying, perspective bending, mystical tale is never graduates beyond its comic heritage. The light-hearted tone throughout renders the dialogue flippant and it jars on screen in a way it wouldn’t on the page of a Marvel magazine.

The time bending ending is Doctor Who-esque with the Little Prince acting out 50 Shades of Death on his very own Asteroid 325 and could have come straight from the pen of Russell T Davies. Director Scott Derrickson has created a new franchise that is sure to be popular at the box office and full of chuckles but only offers a mostly harmless form of meaningless entertainment.

Monday, November 21, 2016

NI Opera’s Don Giovanni - a murderous predator runs amok in a watertight performance

When the curtain rises, I’m never quite sure what set to expect at an NI Opera production. Salome was based in a deep south drug baron’s ranch; Turandot in a Chinese sweat shop producing baby dolls.

For this weekend’s performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the sleazy lothario and serial abuser (played by Henk Neven) was pitched on board a cruise ship, and the women and men caught up in the debauchery of the occupant of cabin 666 were trapped at sea with no escape.

Donna Anna (Hye-Youn Lee) avowed revenge against the person responsible for murdering her father. Another passenger Donna Elvira (Rachel Kelly) became reacquainted with the lover who abandoned her. Below decks, waitress Zerlina (Aoife Miskelly) was pregnant and about to get married when she entered the magnetic sights of predator Don Giovanni to be his next “little recreation”.

John Molloy played Leporella who was Don Giovanni’s servant (or steward). His early scene set the comedic tone that bubbled under the more serious depravity. Illustrating the scale of his boss’s lust using a scrapbook of mug shots and flags was a fabulously pantomime-esque device. And the Trump-like wig that was used in the Don Giovanni-Leporella swap scene was more contemporary than the original spring 2015 Danish production could have imagined.

Being an opera, the action came thick and fast with a murder and blood on the ship’s floor within the first ten minutes. Scenes cleverly switched between a promiscuous corridor of cabins at the front of the stage and the enormous space behind which doubled up as a sun lounge, ball room, and bar amongst other locations. The production’s sense of comedy extended to Annemarie Woods’ set which gradually exposes new and ever more elaborate revelations until its finally watery end. And the inclusion of a comedy dancing biscuit – or was it a clam – was both baffling and hilarious.

The principals were well matched with no one performer overpowering the many duets. Aoife Miskelly probably delivered the most consistently interesting performance. The musical mix between orchestra and cast was much better balanced than previous productions I’ve reviewed, with the Ulster Orchestra delivering a well-defined and fast-moving score that accompanied rather than dominated. While diction was good, vibrato and the muddiness that results from the depth of stage meant that, even though the performance used an English translation, considerable chunks might as well have been sung in Italian. For sake of accessibility – a key tenet of NI Opera’s philosophy – surtitles must surely be built into the set and staging of future large-scale performances.

The one weakness of the staging was the lighting which – other than the sun-soaked deck side scene – was gloomy and left many performers singing key scenes in each other’s shadow, particularly with the peculiar side lighting that dominated the front-of-stage corridor scenes. The Grand Opera House’s policy of allowing late admissions to the auditorium (five or ten minutes after the performance had begun) was disruptive and the ushers’ torches would have been less distracting and helped the production if they’d been trained on the stage rather than pointed at the already seated audience.

While I loved the gruesome re-imagining of Turandot with its huge set and large scale cast, Don Giovanni wins my vote for favourite NI Opera production. Creatively, Oliver Mears demonstrated a control of music and staging that delivered an entertaining and watertight performance. NI’s loss will be the Royal Opera House’s gain when he moves to become their Director of Opera early next year.

Photo credit: Robert Workman 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Bastard Amber - a celebration of understated strength & control (Liz Roche Company at Lyric Theatre)

“The stage is any bare place close to a wall”

The set was crisp and unfussy. A rectangle of sturdy wooden beams hung over the dance floor, with small phrases in white text occasionally projected against them. Three rows of vertical translucent screens were raised and lowered to different heights to change the audience’s perspective. To one side sat the band (fiddle, bass guitar, electric guitar and drums/percussion). To the other a small dais with nautical objects and empty bird cages. The lighting was similarly subdued, quite possibly using the eponymous Bastard Amber gel that casts a warm light.

Now when I gush in a review about the set and the lighting it’s often a sign that the human performance was less notable. Nothing could be further from the truth with Liz Roche Company’s mesmerising seventy minute Bastard Amber on the Lyric Belfast stage last night.

Inspired by W.B. Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium the eight dancers made their highly choreographed performance look easy under the golden light. With the full ensemble on stage, they could move with smooth precision even while whirling around in seemingly chaotic motion, yet never colliding or looking where they were going.

Gender and age was of no consequence or barrier to the moves. Dancers could become as weightless as a bird gracefully perched mummy-no-hands-style on the shoulder of a colleague. Seemingly every ten minutes another beautiful tableau would be created: a dancer lying prostrate on the floor wrapped in silver and gold tinfoil, wriggling like a wave. Liz Roche’s choreography formed and deformed shapes. A circle of eight effortlessly careered around, loosing one dancer into the middle without breaking step or losing its fluid movement.

Ray Harman’s music was often tonal, sometimes discordant, with live looping of riffs and falsetto harmonies layered over the top to create hypnotic sequences that enhanced the dance and evoked the feel of Yeats. Catherine Fay’s finely tailored costumes – elegant tops and light trousers used a Moroccan colour scheme that blended into the light and the foil props.

The final sequence was performed against a setting sun. The pursuit of perfection included three pairs of dancers mirroring each other’s movements before the ensemble built up flat shapes with their hands, arms and heads, meticulous yet apparently effortless tessellation.
“… Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” (Yeats)

As a two left footed and eleventh-hour observer of the local dance scene, I’m often encouraged to “just feel the dance”. It’s mentally exhausting to sit and watch dance shows, trying to figure out the storyline or the reason for the sequence of emotions being portrayed. Theatre has a plot. Even foreign-language opera has characters and clues that allow a narrative to be pieced together. But dance is so much more abstract. A show’s title or a one sentence blurb is sometimes the only clue to the inspiration. The skill is often hidden: the easier a move looks, the more talent is being concealed.

After last night’s show, someone described it as “exquisite”. Bastard Amber’s combination of live music, skilled movement, the set and lighting created a superb spectacle that celebrated understated strength and control.

Bastard Amber was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin Dance Festival and Kilkenny Arts Festival. It’s tour will shortly visit Letterkenny (Tuesday 29 November) and Limerick (Friday 2 December).

Photo credits: Luca Truffarelli

Thursday, November 17, 2016

C.S. Lewis Festival (Friday 18-Tuesday 22 November)

In a city which has more festivals than weeks of the year, it’s the turn of the C.S. Lewis festival which runs in and around east Belfast between Friday 18 and Tuesday 22 November.

The diversity of Clive Staples Lewis’ life and interests – academic, author, theologian, soldier – gives the festival scope to dip into WW1 as well as celebrate his faith, literature and its many adaptations. Some highlights below. The full programme (PDF) is available on the East Side Arts website.

Friday 18 November

Jon Kennedy will answer the question: How Saintly Was C.S. Lewis? (Spoiler alert: not terribly!) 2pm in Belmont Tower (Belmont Road). Free.

Saturday 19 November

Maria Connolly will perform her story White Witch which explains how Jadis, the evil Queen of Narnia, came to earn her title. Original music played live by Ursula Burns. The programme suggests it’s suitable for daughters of Eve and sons of Adam aged 8+ and their parents! 2pm in Linen Hall Library. £5 adult / £2 child.

Walking on Water: Faith, Art and Risk. An evening of words, music and discussion with singer/songwriter Jamie Neish, cleric and poet Steve Stockman and novelist Jan Carson. They’ll explore how faith and religious experience has influenced their artistic practice. 8pm in Canteen Kitchen Café (Belmont Road). £8 (food can be booked for extra)

Sunday 20 November

St Mark’s Dundela are holding an open service at 10.30am with parish communion and a celebration of the life and witness of C.S. Lewis. It’s the church in which Lewis was baptised. Holywood Road. Everyone welcome.

The C.S. Lewis Nearly True Tour blends the historical fact and hysterical fiction to explore C.S. Lewis during this one hour walking tour with a difference. Fake facts and true stories to shed light on the history of Lewis. Leaving Campbell College at 12.30pm, 2.30pm or 4.30pm. £5 per person or £18 for family of four. Dress for the weather.

Willowfield Parish Church are also holding a special evening service to celebrate the life and witness of C.S. Lewis. They’ll use imagery from The Chronicles of Narnia along with prophetic Biblical writings during the service. 5.30pm. My Lady’s Road. Free.

Monday 21 November

The Inklings (including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis) met in an Oxford pub. The Monday Club sees Danny sitting alone in the pub in which he used to “put the world to rights in a drunken stupor” with six other shipyard colleagues. A locally made film (review) which remembers Belfast fondly and celebrates the character of its people. Followed by Q&A with director Brian Mulholland and actor Derek Halligan. 7pm in Strand Arts Centre. £5.

This House believes that God is about as real as Narnia. That’s the topic up for debate on Monday 21 November in Union College Chapel behind Queen’s University. C.S. Lewis was president of the Oxford Socratic Society which debated religious and philosophical topics. Rev Chris Hudson, Jennifer Sturgeon, Shane McKee and David Capener, chaired by William Crawley. 7.30pm. £8 (£4 student).

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Luck Just Kissed You Hello - masculinity explored under the shadow of death (Outburst Festival)

Around a hospital waiting room table sit twin sons (one gay, one transgender) along with a substitute son of a dying man. They’re arguing about who deserves to deliver Big Ted’s eulogy and what they should say. The fractious debate is as much about their own insecurities as the old man’s lasting legacy on their lives and loves.
“You’re remembering it wrong; take the tin foil off your windows.”

Into this emotional and pressurised environment Gary, Mark and Sullivan bring their differing recollections of a particularly traumatic childhood experience. As they piece together the jigsaw of memories, the emerging picture threatens to undermine their long-held impressions of each other and their father.

Carl Kennedy’s sound design for Luck Just Kissed You Hello manages to keep the sound of intensive care constantly in the background without becoming obtrusive. Low frequency rumbles and John Crudden’s flickering lighting introduces flash back sequences that introduce some variation to the three-in-a-prison-cell plot. (Very effective embedding of lights in a prop for a later scene.)

Writer Amy Convoy plays Mark (who left home many years ago as Laura) who is faced with the dilemma of whether to sign an organ donation form as his father’s daughter and stated next of kin. At first he sees little reason to betray his own identity and to betray his memory of his father who lies nearby in a coma.

The weaving together of different characters’ dialogue works effectively and the early parts of the hospital room conversation emphasises the closeness of the twins with its verbal table tennis rallies, unison delivery of lines and finishing of each other’s sentences. Director Caitriona McLaughlin has created space for some laughs alongside the angst. The choreography blurs and perhaps becomes too repetitive, no longer distinctive, as the play enters its final half hour.

Will O’Connell plays the business man brother whose birthright has been usurped by his twin’s swap from Laura to Mark. The tension of death exposes fears and vulnerabilities amongst family as much as it binds people together. While the muscular Sullivan has stepped into the role of son vacated by the absent twins, he is unsettled by the emergence of skeletons buried beneath his own marital bliss.

Ultimately the play only brings about a fulsome resolution for its central character. This is Mark’s story. In the end Gary and Sullivan are ancillary members of the cast, with an equal share of the lines, but no inherited closure in what might well have been a contrived and saccharine solution. The final monologue contains an ambiguous – nearly outrageous – phrase (“I am his only legacy”) which I still can’t quite resolve and made me want to heckle at the time.

Confronting queer mental health issues, family friction and betrayal, Luck Just Kissed You Hello is a production that explores different models of masculinity and is well worth seeing at the Lyric Theatre (Tuesday 15 and Wednesday 16 November as part of Outburst Queer Arts Festival) before it continues its tour of Donegal, Limerick and Dùn Laoghaire.

Images: Hot For Theatre

The Innocents – faith waivers as new life emerges in a post-WW2 Polish convent (QFT 18-24 Nov)

A junior doctor working in Poland steps into the breach to medically care for a group of nuns living in a convent at the end of WW2. Persecuted by Germans, repeatedly raped by Russians, one novice eventually asks for help and introduces a communist French Red Cross worker to the multiple pregnancies being hidden within the thick stone walls.

Lou de Laâge plays the junior doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (based loosely on the experiences of Madeleine Pauliac working in Poland) who must secretly break her organisation’s rules of medical engagement to intervene while the nuns disguise their impending motherhood while continuing to lead lives of poverty, chastity and obedience. Agata Buzek plays Sister Maria who acts as the main go-between and speaker of French, perhaps the wisest and most resourceful in the holy order.

There are many inescapable parallels set up between the religious and medical vocations. Just as the nuns attempt to hide new life from the outside world, Madeleine tries to conceal her extracurricular work from her gruff colleague and bed-warmer. Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) must be obeyed and not questioned, just as the chief of the medical mission blindly follows orders. But those who know best are not always acting in the best interests of the most vulnerable.

The suffering of women during and after conflict is often underreported. The Innocents tells one such story, warts and all. The countryside is snowy and desolate, the convent dull and grey, the habits black and white. The absence of colour and the minimal musical scoring allows director Anne Fontaine to keep the focus on the warmth of the women who dominate the 115 minute storyline.

The nature and outworking of faith is explored along with the role of obedience, obligation, fulfilment and happiness. It’s a story of building and losing trust – alas through shared traumatic experiences – and of overcoming shame and roadblocks in order to search for ways to adapt faith to new circumstances.

There is hope and new life, but also unexpected darkness and needless death. An unexpectedly rich and thoughtful film.

The Innocents is being shown in the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 18 and Thursday 24 November.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Outburst Queer Arts Festival 2016 - theatre, talk and film (until 19 Nov)

Every year Outburst Queer Arts Festival throws up some surprises. 2014’s play Damage by Patrick J O’Reilly still rattles around my brain. This preview is finally being posted mid way through their tenth festival which runs until 19 November and has a theme of ‘Home’.

Other People – Tuesday 15 November at 8.30pm in Queen’s Film Theatre – Chris Kelly’s film based on his own experience sees comedy writer David (played by Jesse Plemons) who returns home to care for his mother. His conservative father refuses to acknowledge his sexuality, leaving David a stranger in his childhood home.

Luck Just Kissed You Hello – Tuesday 15 and Wednesday 16 November in Lyric Theatre – Another coming home performance. Change is all around. Leaving home as Laura, but returning as Mark for the imminent death of his father. Sitting in the shadow of his hospital bed, two siblings remember their father’s looming presence in their childhood. But their memory is challenged by a friend who has a different impression of what was happening.

There’s a Bishop in my Bedroom – Wednesday 16 November at 7.30pm in The Barracks – If the quality of Richard O’Leary’s renditions at Tenx9 is anything to go by, his storytelling about sex education in a Catholic secondary school in 1970s Cork and falling in love with a Bishop in 1990s Belfast is sure to engage and challenge.

Multiple Maniacs – Friday 18 November at 9.30pm in Queen’s Film Theatre – While the main John Waters event has long since sold out, a restored print of what’s described as his “most outrageous and transgressive film” is being given a rare screening. A treat for fans of Waters, though probably quite shocking for everyone else!

Shoot the Sissy – Saturday 19 November at 4pm in Black Box – Performance artist Nando Messias responds to the shootings in Orlando and asks “Do queer lives matter?” in this “beautiful freak show … of carnivalesque contortion and florid fantasy”.

Full programme on the Outburst Arts website.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Tim McGarry Goes Over the Top - a funny yet at times tender exploration of 1916 and 2016

“If we don’t learn our history we might forget why we hate each other”

Can we laugh at history? In a town that celebrates the Titanic, its construction and ambition though not its sinking, can it not be appropriate to smirk at the absolute absurdity of events, even when they were deadly? On an island that builds mythology around history and struggles to distinguish truth from fable, don’t we owe it to ourselves to unwrap the events of the past and better understand them in any way we can?

Tim McGarry has been doing just that in his Goes Over the Top stand-up show that has toured Northern Ireland this year.

In amongst much material covering contemporary events ran a thread of historical reflection at events across the island and in the trenches of northern Europe during 1916. The same hand gestures and passionate delivery that were applied to jokes about the Royal Family or the First and deputy First Ministers were employed when McGarry cast his biting wit over historical remembrances.

As evidenced by the three series of Radio Ulster’s The Long and the Short of It with Tim McGarry examining historical events alongside “vertically challenged Orangeman and historian” David Hume, the comedian can hold his own in a debate over history.

I was in the audience for the 11 November show in Belfast Waterfront Studio, and the Remembrance Day date added a tender poignancy to some of McGarry’s material. While it was never going to be complete or thorough, the overview of events felt more truthful and less one-sided than some other performances I’ve witnessed this year.

While no doubt a result of my lack of appetite for history, McGarry’s descriptions of the scale of the losses at of the first day of fighting at the Somme struck home along with his explanations of the relative size of gun-running to arm the Ulster and Irish volunteers prior to war breaking out.

Aside from the history, we laughed at Nama, Panorama, Charles and Camilla, corgis, the main five parties, the PSNI and national anthems. With a skilled sense of timing and the patience to pause and wait for a laugh to erupt in one corner of the audience and ripple around the room, McGarry is a much more confident (and experienced) performer than his Ballymena warm-up Paddy McGaughey.

There are just two more dates on Tim McGarry’s (1916) Goes Over the Top tour: Friday 25 November at 8pm in The Burnavon in Cookstown and Saturday 26 at 7.30 in The Old Courthouse in Antrim.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Hey You! (Accidental Theatre until 11 November)

Hey You! is one of those shows that starts before you’ve realised, before you’ve even taken your seat.

On stage, bestselling self-help author Brad Peelawn is a full-on, uber-confident snake oil salesman who wants the audience to buy into his testosterone-fuelled solution to epidemic of male obesity. Actor Aaron Hickland totally disguises his Loughinisland roots behind a thick American drawl that challenges the “junk food jihadis” in the audience with questions that don’t really need answered and soon has us chanting slogans and entering into the hype.

When the mask slips, Brad reverts to a broken and hesitant unsure shell of his bouncy public persona, needing to hype himself up to become the salesman. The pace slows to a crawl as he realises that he too needs help and motivation, yet he knows the self-actualising advice he pedals is shallow and of no lasting succour.

The show alternates between these two extremes, ending – somewhat disappointingly, though perhaps realistically – in a depressed mood. Emily Foran’s direction frees Brad from being caged up on the stage, and allows him to get down amongst the great unwashed in the audience.
“I’ve been Brad Peelawn. You’ve been inspired.”

There’s no missing the wry wit of Joseph Nawaz in his forty minute play. His keen observations of human behaviour infuse the script and create a very believable, albeit slimy, Brad. The ‘net evaluation’ prop is beautifully far fetched and no man will wear corduroy with confidence ever again.

At first the sales pitch is absurd. But it aptly sums up much of the marketing that bombards our eyes and ears. While the women’s magazine market is perched on a foundation of quick diets and body shape analysis, society’s obsession with a model of masculinity expressed in adage, fashion, sex and sport is not really that different. If we let our guard down, our psyche seems to soak in the cheap superficial counsel of Brad and his peers, undermining our wellbeing while pretending to be fixing us.

Before he moves on to pitch his crazy advice to sponges in another city, you can catch Brad Peelawn one more time in Hey You! tonight in Accidental Theatre* at 8pm. (The venue’s book bar opens at 7.30pm).

*Wellington Buildings, Wellington Street, BT1 6HT opposite the entrance to the Northern Bank Danske Bank vault and between Made in Belfast and Patisserie Valerie.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Bag for Life - reckless revenge triggered by a chance encounter (Lyric Theatre until 13 November)

A chance encounter in a supermarket bumps Karen up against the simmering trauma caused by a tragedy in her family’s past and triggers a campaign of rage and revenge. Through physical, physiological and phacebook Facebook stalking, a woman who outwardly appears ‘normal’ becomes consumed by her mission to undermine the security and stability that her brother’s killer has built up around himself. All the while she recklessly risks her own family’s security and stability.

In Bag for Life, Karen’s outlook is very black and white. Dressed like a summery bride, Julie Addy spends 75 minutes perched barefoot on top of a small plinth in the middle of the black and white stage, trapped in her virtual cell of anguish. Her eyes wide open and hands gesticulating, she leans forward on her platform and throws a scullery full of emotions at Colin Bateman’s script as the mother and wife becomes unearthed and loses contact with reality. It’s only as the play reaches its breath-taking dénouement that the virginal white set is finally sullied with colour.

Black and white images are nearly continuously projected onto small white blocks suspended around the stage. Looping video, sophisticated cues and a confident actor allow other filmed characters to walk into shot and briefly interact with the three dimensional Karen. The wickedly dark humour in Bateman’s monologue is enhanced by visual references thrown up on the screens … yet the script seems strong enough that it would survive without the gimmick of projection should the bulb ever pop or a pared down production be considered.

With director Kieran Griffiths turning up the emotional intensity to eleven right from the start of the no-interval performance, the unvaried angsty and shouty tone lacks colour and variation as Karen’s insane plan is enacted. At times the sound effect of heavy rain threatened to drown out Addy’s micced up voice.

Commissioned as a legacy project for the Derry/Londonderry 2013 UK City of Culture and premièred earlier this year in The Playhouse, the play asks whether “the men of violence whose time has been and gone and have settled into civil and civilian life” really have it easier than the survivors and families of victims.
“You never know when a bag for life will come in handy.”
The play’s title works at many different levels and the production exposes the unaddressed prevalence of mental health issues that remain long after conflict withers. It reminds us that for some revenge is more attractive than forgiveness. It allows us to laugh heartily at jokes and asides as a way of coping with the distressing tale that is unravelling on stage.

In my review of Lucy Caldwell’s Three Sisters it turns out that I prematurely noted that it included “the best (and only) use of ‘flibbertigibbet’ on stage in Belfast this year”. You can now hear the word used on both stages at the Lyric every evening until this weekend!

Bag For Life challenges the view that it’s safe to delay addressing the legacy of conflict, safe to impede the exposure of truth, and safe to defer addressing the mental health scars that run deep through Northern Ireland society. You can catch a performance of one of the most visually arresting plays of the year in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 13 November. The production will tour Northern Ireland in 2017.

Production shot via The Playhouse

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Democracy without decency - looking back at the race for the White House

This article first appeared in the November issue of the Presbyterian Herald. You can purchase the PDF edition for £1 to read other articles that remember the Somme, ask whether there's a place for nationalism in our churches and reflect on a congregation that has deliberately embraced change as well as peruse the Letters page!

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The election campaign has been a bruising affair for the candidates after 18 months of canvassing. It has also called into question the morals and behaviour of the candidates. The conduct of some of their supporters has been dubious too.

Politics and religion are intertwined throughout history and across the world. People who take their faith seriously – Christian or otherwise – will seek to live out their beliefs and make the world a better place by applying their convictions through the political structures that govern most societies.

While only a handful of readers of the Presbyterian Herald will have had a vote in the US election, there’s a general fascination with the race and its result. And perhaps by focussing on the external we can learn lessons that can be applied to elections and political machinations on this island.

Both leading candidates claim a Christian background. When we think about the US, the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ often comes to mind though it does not appear in that form in their constitution. Instead Thomas Jefferson – founding father and later President – explained in 1802 that the First Amendment meant Congress should “‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State”. So there is no state-established church in the US. But it does not preclude a religious dimension to the political realm.

As a child Trump was baptised in First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, a congregation in the New York borough of Queens. He describes himself as Presbyterian. Jerry Falwell Jr is the son of the late televangelist. In January he explained his decision to endorse Donald Trump, saying, “When you go into the voting booth, you’re not electing a Sunday school teacher. You’re not electing somebody that agrees with you … Jesus said render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. And that means be a good citizen and choose who would be the best leader for the country.”

It wouldn’t be terribly Presbyterian for a congregation to consistently withhold their United Appeal contribution for 18 years. Giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s cuts two ways and one wonders what Falwell now feels in light of Trump’s long term avoidance of federal income tax.

Preacher and author Max Lucado seeks the decency which society appreciates, applauds, teaches and seeks to develop. In the Washington Post he asked, “why isn’t decency doing better in the presidential race?” and called on the presidential candidates to ensure that their words live up to the role of being “the face of America”. After all, Luke 6:45 reminds us that “the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart”.

So what kind of (world) leaders should we desire? No one is without sin. And clay feet are a common feature of Biblical heroes.

King David was a murderer and an adulterer. Although he repented, his sin still ripped his family and his nation apart. It’s popular to compare ‘The Donald’ with King David as a way of justifying his moral turpitude. Ultimately the account of David’s life and legacy in the Bible teaches us more about God’s faithfulness than David’s fitness to govern.

Trump admits having had extra-marital affairs and has recently revised his position on forgiveness from “I am not sure I have [anything to forgive]” (July 2015) to “will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won’t have to be asking for much forgiveness” (June 2016). At the time of writing, he has “pledged to be a better man” after lewdly boasting of his power to abuse women. By now we will know whether the electorate accepted his promise.

Nehemiah certainly set a precedent for building walls, though he was seeking to protect a minority who remained in Jerusalem and were under attack. And it only took 52 days, by hand. Trump’s ‘great wall’ along the country’s southern border will require around 1,000 miles of concrete at an estimated cost to Mexico of $10-25 billion.

Trump has described Mexican immigrants as “rapists” who “are bringing drugs” to the US. Having previously told Fox News that the US should accept Syrian refugees due to the “unbelievable humanitarian problem” in Syria, he told a rally in New Hampshire that “If I win, they’re going back”, adding, “ listen, they could be ISIS”. What does Trump understand by ‘loving your neighbour’ and ‘loving your enemy’?

The prophet Nathan boldly pointed his finger at King David. Perhaps that was in the back of Gradye Parsons’ mind last October when – as the then stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – he took the unusual step of writing an open letter that challenged the Republican candidate’s statements about refugees and immigrants and shared PC(USA)’s well-established policies.

“Presbyterians profess a faith in Christ, whose parents were forced to flee with him to Egypt when he was an infant to save him from King Herod. Knowing our Lord was once a refugee, faithful Presbyterians have been writing church policy urging the welcome of refugees and demanding higher annual admissions into the United States since the refugee crisis of World War II … Our relationship with people of faith and communities in these countries gives us knowledge of the root causes of the flight of refugees and further cements a commitment to welcome …

“We have challenged our government when it neglects to acknowledge the refugee status of those fleeing persecution … I also respect that we came uninvited to a land already occupied by people. This creates a sense of humility about my citizenship that shapes my views on those who seek a place here.”

Parsons stopped well short of Pope Francis’ comment in February while flying home from a visit to Mexico that: “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian”. While “[giving Trump] the benefit of the doubt” the pontiff added, “this man is not Christian if he said it this way”.

While Hillary Clinton quoted John Wesley’s maxim, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can” during her Democratic National Convention acceptance speech, she has spoken little about her faith during this campaign. Back in January in a town hall meeting in Knoxville, Iowa, she opened up about her beliefs in an answer to a question from the floor.

“I am a person of faith. I am a Christian. I am a Methodist. I have been raised Methodist. I feel very grateful for the instructions and support I received starting in my family but through my church, and I think that any of us who are Christian have a constant conversation in our own heads about what we are called to do and how we are asked to do it."

She went on to state that, “the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbour as yourself” and observed that the Sermon on the Mount “sure does seem to favour the poor and the merciful and those who in worldly terms don’t have a lot but who have the spirit that God recognizes as being at the core of love and salvation.”

“There is so much more in the Bible about taking care of the poor, visiting the prisoners, taking in the stranger, creating opportunities for others to be lifted up, to find faith themselves that I think there are many different ways of exercising your faith.”

Clinton has been dogged by the private email server scandal, distrust of an emerging oligarchy, and distractions around the mission and activity of the charitable Clinton Foundation. And that’s on top of the well-publicised and unforgotten misdemeanours and scandals that surrounded her husband Bill, and her own actions to defend him, before and during his period as US President.

Confidence in the currency of ‘Clinton truth’ is definitely low. And not helped by secrecy around the candidate’s health scare in the run-up to the first presidential debate.

Clinton finished her answer to the question in Iowa by expressing her sorrow and disappointment that “Christianity, which has such great love at its core, is sometimes used to condemn so quickly and judge so harshly”.

The good news of the gospel, especially for the poor and vulnerable, should surely prevail over ideological politics.

Virtue should allow one leader of a superpower to look a peer in the eye and powerfully challenge their attitudes and behaviour.

Truth should overpower falsehood.

“When good people run things, everyone is glad; but when the ruler is bad, everyone groans” (Proverbs 29:2, The Message)

Yet perhaps before we are guilty of looking at the speck of sawdust in candidates’ eyes we should pay attention to the plank in our own eyes? Back to David and Psalm 51. King David when confronted with his sin didn’t squirm or brazenly deny. In humble leadership of the Shepherd King he confessed and begged forgiveness and a fresh start.

For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgement … Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. (Psalm 51:3-4,10-13)

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Accidental Theatre: US Election hangout + Hey You! + final two scratch nights

I feel like I have a physical connection to Accidental Theatre’s current premises up on the fourth floor of Wellington Buildings. Back in the summed of 1993, along with another student, I stood on top of desks and fitted some of the diffusers in the ceiling lights that are still there. While Ronnie the doorman no longer guards the ground floor foyer, the rounded square lift buttons still wobble more than they depress.

After two years, the theatre space is moving out and moving elsewhere. But they’ve some special treats before they slip away into the night at the end of November and break the spell of my reminiscences.

Accidental Theatre are marking the US Presidential Election – no one seems keen to hold their breath over the other 435 House of Representative races or the 34 Senate seats that will be filled – with an all night election special starting at 9pm on Tuesday 8 November promising multi-screen coverage from news channels, the all night book bar* with caffeinated specials, a quiet nap room with pillows and blankets and breakfast between 7-9am. Tickets prices £3-£10 depend on when you arrive and how long you plan to stay!

As part of Belfast Comedy Festival, audiences got an all too quick introduction to sagging testosterone snake oil salesman Brad Peelawn with his attacks on futile male dieting in the high metabolic satire Hey You! Written by Joe Nawaz and directed by Emily Foran, Aaron Hickland will be stepping back into the over-polished shoes of Brad three nights this week.

“In a world full of snake oil charmers, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know exactly how best to make a futile gesture with your money.”

Wednesday 9, Thursday 10 and Friday 11 November at 8pm. Tickets from £6. The book bar* opens at 7.30pm.

*Every second hand book purchased comes with a free drink that corresponds to the coloured sticker on the book. If the book’s too heavy to take home, there’s a bin to recycle the dead tree. Oddly, no one leaves their free drink behind.

Later on in the month there will be two final scratch nights in the old venue, with three different performances on Friday 18 (Curious Doings, Maggie Cronin, Marina Hampton) and Friday 25 November (Jimmy Kerr, Joe Nawaz, Caitlin Magnall-Kearns).

Blackout: a striking and sophisticated look at youth offending through theatre and testimony

Davey Anderson’s Blackout tells the story of one young man’s pressures and choices. James comes round in a cell with a foggy memory of what has led him to this situation. Over thirty or so minutes the five actors reveal enough of the causes and consequences of James’ actions to allow the audience to piece together his history and start to wonder about his future.

The production lives up to its ambition with fight scenes that are very physical, choreography at a level you’d expect in much larger productions, good use of audio effects and scenes using slowed up action more akin to a TV drama than a stage show.

The young ensemble cast are recent graduates. Séan Basil Crawford takes a lead as the skin-headed James, supported by Adele Gribbon, Conor Hinds, Catriona McFeely and Michael Patrick.

The cast and creative team spent time listening to the young residents in Hydebank Wood College as well as the women prisoners on the same site. In the Q&A that follows every show, some current and former inmates relate to the drug and alcohol induced rage in the fictional story and explain how a single incident abruptly changed the direction of each of their young lives.

Their testimony picks up the loose threads of the end of the performance and weaves them back into real life. Through the questions asked on Saturday evening we heard about the loss of family and freedom, coping strategies within custody as well as the value of education within Hydebank and the value of the support available to prepare inmates for life on the outside upon release.

Blackout is a striking and sophisticated production by the creative learning team led by Philip Crawford at the Lyric Theatre. It is now embarking on its second tour of schools across Northern Ireland. It’s an engaging use of theatre combined with actuality to put young and older audiences into other people’s shoes and ask what we would do in the same circumstances.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Train to Busan – first class South Korean rabid transport thriller (QFT 4-10 Nov)

On her birthday, the daughter of an estranged couple begs her father to take her to see her Mum in Busan, South Korea’s second largest city. Disturbances across the city are visible out the window of the KTX101 bullet train as it readies to depart. Just before the doors close, someone staggers on board, bloodied and fitting on the floor of the vestibule between carriages.

Train to Busan could merely have been a horror/zombie film about a group of characters unable to escape the growing rabid presence on board their speeding metal tube. The placatory tannoy announcements and political messaging speak to real life reactions to the South Korean experience of managing the Mers virus outbreak in 2015.

While little Su-an (played by Kim Su-an) wants to help people, her father Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) – described as a “blood sucking” fund manager behind his back – advises her: “You don’t have to be good. At a time like this you only have to look after yourself.” Spread out over the carriages are many of the different human reactions to threat: those who are selfish, ruthless, altruistic, panic, and those who seek to protect others.

The jerky choreography of the zombies is stylised and consistent throughout the movie. The stunts are eye catching, particularly when hundreds of bodies fall in unison through windows. The ‘chase’ sequence up from carriage 9 to 13 is a welcome relief and varies the pace and stress levels until you realise that director Yeon Sang-ho has no notion of stopping the film before packing in yet more twists and turns (and an epic human brake) to torment his audience with.

There’s not much room for humour in this two hour film that tightens your chest like someone wringing out a wet towel. Having seen Green Room, and Under the Shadow frankly I’m more and more convinced that I should file horror and zombie films alongside my hatred for roller coasters. Think I’ll stick to the milder 28 Weeks Later or The Survivalist.

Train to Busan is a first class intercity bloodfest that is speeding its way through Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 4 and Thursday 10 November. I recommend you get the bus home rather than the train!

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Queen of Katwe: escaping the orbit of underachievement … through chess

Queen of Katwe begins in 2007 in the Katwe region of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Phiona (played by Madina Nalwanga) lives in a rented corrugated iron hut and along with her brother she sells maize on the street to raise cash for her widowed mother (Lupita Nyong'o). Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) runs soccer and chess clubs for a Christian Ministry working in Katwe. Introduced to the board game, Phiona is drawn in and progresses quickly as she develops her intuitive style of play.

Director Mira Nair guides the audience through the clash of cultures and values as persistent Katende overcomes classist obstacles to enrol his best players in a school’s championship. Success leads to more competitions and further obstructions to navigate around. The lessons Phiona learns to improve her play also apply to her life at large: avoid passive play and don’t surrender your King easily.

Partially filmed in Katwe itself, the vibrancy of life is captured along with some beautifully imagery of the low tech environment. The glassy skyscrapers and verdant forests of other films are replaced with equally beautiful huts and log piles. The slow and cerebral game of chess is well presented, with pacey sequences during championships and light education about the rules.

Watching this film 48 hours after attending the DUP conference to blog about it on Slugger O’Toole, my mind was busy comparing and contrasting the on-screen action with the discussion about Northern Ireland. Underachievement breeds underachievement without ambition, opportunity and intervention.

The experience of success changed Phiona, unsettling her as her dreams seemed out of her grasp when she returned home to life in Katwe. But why should she be “denied the glory of victory” just because of where she was born. Coach Katende believed in the kids of Katwe and fought for their rights to excel and be recognised. His wife was bought into his decision to sacrifice financial reward in the commercial sector to stick with his chess club.
“I call it Queening. In chess, the small one can become the big one. That's why I like it!”
Phiona’s older sister tried to take another route out of poverty, and is a ‘prodigal son’ figure in the film. Their mother has drive, determination and a vision (albeit a vision that she’s talked into believing). Phiona is both talented and stubborn and the film follows her slow pawn-like march forward until she reaches the far side of the board and becomes a Queen.

This could so easily have been an international film shown only to limited audiences in art house cinemas. I must admit that when the Disney logo appeared on screen at the start of the film I feared that I was about to sit through two hours of schmaltz. But the Disneyisation of the story seems to have been limited to the flashbacks, unsubtle storm clouds and boppy soundtrack and the fast cuts at the start that made be dizzy and wish that I’d sat further back in the Movie House screen.

Queen of Katwe is an underdog movie with enough grit to keep it real, without turning into a tear-jerker or overegging Phiona’s success. I know one hard to please eleven and a half year old who was glued to the story for the whole two hours. Well worth catching over this half term week before it completely disappears from local cineplex screens (Omniplex and Moviehouse).