Friday, April 28, 2017

Have I No Mouth: an uncomfortable insight - perhaps an intrusion - into one family’s grief

Right from the start, Have I No Mouth is an disquieting show to watch. A smooth-talking humanist psychotherapist leads the Lyric Theatre audience through a mindfulness exercise to ensure we’re relaxed.

If that isn’t enough to raise your blood pressure, the show is based around a series of conversations between a mother and her son about the death of her husband as well as the death of her baby many years before. With an over-polite therapist gently guiding the discussion with injections that begin “I wonder if it would be helpful if you shared what …”

While many parts of the 70 minute show are fixed, there is room in the chat for mother and son to go off script and genuinely explore their grief through discussion of objects that symbolise intimate moments in their family life.
“Will I tell you? / No. / Well I’m going to …”

Mother and son bicker. She answers questions the therapist intends for her son. She asks her son questions and then answers them before he can. Gently we watch two people reveal what they are afraid of and tussle with different attitudes to sentimentality. We feel the tension as they outline competing and contradictory memories of the same event.

It nearly feels inappropriate to name the performers, given that they are real people revealing their feelings and the inner workings of their family in front of a therapist. But this is a stage show from Brokentalkers (in association with Project Arts Centre) that won an award at the Edinburgh Festival and is now on its second national tour.

Feidlim Cannon plays is the son, and is on tour with his mother Ann (a Reiki master and spiritual healer) and the psychotherapist Erich Keller who worked as a consultant in early development workshops and became part of the show.

Erich initially sits to one side of the stage and runs out of dialogue about half way through the show. That’s not to say that his role in the therapy is over; instead he becomes much more intimately involved in Ann and Fiedlam’s memories as flashbacks bring to life painful moments from the family’s past.

There’s a lot going on in the show: a tribute video, balloons, a child’s game, and some unexpected camera work. It also added another new way of making it snow in the Lyric’s Naughton Studio theatre to my ever expanding list.

I can’t say that Have I No Mouth was a pleasurable trip to the theatre. What starts out as a therapy session turns into an explosion of a son’s pent up anger and emotion. The ending is a mix of humiliation and catharsis, quite upsetting to watch, and a far cry from the show’s new age beginning.

It’s an unusual piece of theatre, but it’s not brave or dangerous. The performers are close relatives and are in good relationship, even if Ann doesn’t like to hear Feidlim swear. A lot of time has passed and the grief is not as raw as it once might have been. Everything is under control.

The concept reminds me of Jo Berry’s series of public conversations with Patrick Magee, the ‘Brighton Bomber’ who murdered her father. Their conversations have quite an edge to them. Blood has been shed rather than shared. (You can listen back to one from June 2015 when they were joined by Ann Travers up at the Xchange Summer School in Derry.)

Instead Have I No Mouth is an uncomfortable insight – perhaps an intrusion – into one family’s grief. Uncomfortable because at times we’re laughing out loud at someone else’s misery, including the death of an infant (in front of his mother) and the medical misdiagnosis that prematurely ended the life of a husband and father.

Have I No Mouth continues its Irish tour with performances scheduled in Cork, Dublin and Bray in early May.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Faerie Thorn: Big Telly find a darker mythology in North Coast mythology (The MAC +tour)

Take three stories from Jane Talbot’s book of north coast mythology, add a pinch of Big Telly Theatre Company tomfoolery, prime it with a mischievous and madcap cast, decorate with a big soundtrack, lights, masks and puppets … and you’ve got The Faerie Thorn which is touring this island and beyond for the next month and a half.

Parts of the original fables are narrated from the side of the stage, preserving Talbot’s beautiful prose. Five actors bring to life the dark and bewitching tales with thirty year old Big Telly’s trademark injection of humour as the audience gather around the hawthorn tree that sits in a farmer’s field.

We’re introduced to Man Donaghy (played by Seamus O’Hara), the gangly farmer and one of the Big People. He doesn’t know a good wife when he is blessed with one.

Colette Lennon plays Wife Donaghy who feeds and tends to the enchanted tree, and is possibly the only truly good character on the stage. But her fertility displeases her partner who delivers her into the hands of the sweary King of the Faerie Thorn.

Nicky Harley injects sass into New Wife Donaghy, a “knows-everything-woman”. But she displeases the Little People and Man Donaghy pays a heavy price when he tries to tidy up his marital affairs.

The characters keep coming with Shelly Atkinson adding her droll charm and voices to a variety of roles along with Rory Corconan. We meet trolls dealing with the everyday kitchen problems of getting peas all over their frozen hearts. (Harley also deserves a plaudit for her masterful posture as a manspreading troll.)

And after the interval we dive into Murlough Bay with missing fishermen, the ugly-masked Merrows Men, Bright Blue and lots of clowning, screeching and a skinning scene that wouldn’t be amiss in recent horror film release Raw.

The wooden stage designed by Maree Kearns has hidden depths and there’s an extraordinary attention to detail with large scale puppets, live foley sound effects, and more costume changes than an episode of Strictly Come Dancing. The choreography is tight too with long co-ordinated sequences adding to the eerie feel.

Lennon’s lilting singing voice captivates throughout the show, and a gospel lament about some sea creatures stealing souls showcases the musical talents of the rest of the cast. Garth McConaghie’s soundtrack runs continuously, at one point layering one song over another, providing the atmospheric background for every scene, and often adding to the humour as well as the chilling of spines.

The cast are clearly still putting their own stamp to the show with each passing performance, and while some laugh out loud moments are evocative of Big Telly shows like Puckoon and Gulliver, The Faerie Thorn is less reliant on pure situational comedy and buries a darker humour within the enigmatic tales and the far-fetched imagination of Shelly Atkinson and Zoë Seaton who adapted Talbot’s novel.

There’s a richness in the dialogue that’s matched by the richness in the costumes, the masks, the gags, the soundtrack, the effects, the set, the props and the lighting. Big Telly clearly still don’t believe that “less is more”. And with this show telling three stories, that’s triple the number of ideas that have been thrown into the creative mix.

At times the sheer volume of creativity that blasts out from the stage becomes distracting, but who’s to say that you have to fully understand everything that’s happening in a single evening.

The Faerie Thorn runs at The MAC in Belfast until Saturday 29 April before touring Dublin, Newry, Cushendall, Enniskillen, Derry, Antrim, Monaghan, Armagh, Lisburn, Newtownards, Bellaghy, Waterford, Dundalk, Omagh, the Outer Hebrides and Western Isles, Oxford and Clapham. Be sure not to disrespect the Little People or harm their tree!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Raw – a triumph of prosthetic make-up over good taste and fleshy desires

I’m never going to be a good judge of horror. It’s not my taste in cinema. But new release Raw – the product of French director and screenwriter Julia Ducournau’s gory imagination – strangely falls between stools: I neither found it a breathtakingly scary horror flick, nor was it incredibly clever with a nimble plot that shone light on some facet of life.

The daughter of two vets, young Justine (played by Garance Marillier) was raised a vegetarian and avoided developing a taste for meat until she enrolled at the veterinary college that her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) already attended.

The anxious fresher is perturbed by the histrionic initiation ceremonies that overshadow her first week in college. Senior students are seen to pass on the hazing rituals they experienced, with teaching staff clearly aware but not intervening. Rabah Nait Oufella plays Justine’s gay-with-benefits room mate.

But this isn’t a film about student bullying and institutional blindness. Not is it an examination of youthful anxiety. Nor a treatise on fluid sexual identity. Instead it’s a fantasy horror built around cannibalism.
“You taste like curry”

Justine’s involuntary consumption of raw meat triggers both a physical and a mental reaction, and the film documents the cultivation of her new sense of taste and fleshy desires.

Throw in some sibling rivalry, a pissing contest, live cattle in a lecture theatre, animal dissection, and the realisation that some of the worst disorders might be inherited.
“An animal that has tasted human flesh isn’t safe.”

When the soundtrack fills with dance music, you know that no matter the sinking feeling in your gut, there’s nothing to be frightened by. But when the string quartet and piano emerges in the sound mix, it’s time to swallow hard and accept the next gory course being served up on-screen. Watch out for a waxing incident that will certainly make you involuntarily cross your legs.

The most bloody reveal near the end is unexpectedly funny. Not really laughing in a nervous sense of relief. Yet not exactly biting wit (if you excuse the pun), and certainly not enough to make it a black comedy. The final couple of scenes bring the film to a gentle if unsatisfactory conclusion that wraps up the story a little too cleanly.

Ultimately, Raw’s horror is served pretty rare, with the blood still dropping. While it’s good fodder for chewing over, it’s not terribly filling and left me hungry and certainly not queasy. Issues of identity and image are hinted at but nipped in the bud before they can blossom. If there is deeper meaning amongst the gore, it passed me by and left me marvelling instead at the prosthetic make-up.

Raw is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 28 April, as well as many other local cinemas.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review - The Promise - Terry George’s epic new film about the Armenian genocide chimes with twenty first century conflicts and displacement

The Promise documents the displacement and genocide of Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. It’s a shocking piece of European history that director Terry George beautifully captures in his new epic film.

Michael Boghosian (played by Oscar Isaac) travels from his rural village to the bustling city of Constantinople and lives with relatives while he pursues his dream of studying to become a doctor. He meets fellow Armenian, a family tutor and artist Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) who lives with American journalist Chris Meyers (Christian Bale).

Michael’s somewhat idyllic existence – only complicated by his betrothal to a young woman back in his village – is shaken up by the upsurge in anti-Armenian sentiment and the attacks on property and arrest of community leaders.

A protracted love triangle illuminates the conflict’s human impact on the Boghosian family. This is woven around universal scenes of mass displacement, slave labour, battles, massacre and escape by sea that explain the vast scale of the genocide.
“I made a promise: I can’t go back on that.”
There’s a curious mix of sentimentality, romantic scenes (that seem cheesy due to the lack on on-screen chemistry) and cinematic coincidences that are balanced with the unfolding series of atrocities and an action-hero journey full with stunts, shooting and explosions. The end result mostly maintains its equilibrium, though the hand of history rests a little too firmly on the final scene.

The audience heart strings are evenly tugged in three directions – Michael’s relations and relationships, the Armenian people as a whole, and a specific group of orphans – yet the final string is never pulled quite so tightly as the first two.

As well as not spotting Tom Hollander’s brief appearance, you’ll leave the cinema without knowing the Ana’s surname. While she gets one of the key lines of dialogue – “Our revenge will be to survive” – she never gets to move the plot forward by her actions. That is left in the hands of men, chiefly Michael, his Turkish student friend Emre (played by Marwan Kenzari) and the cream-suited Chris whose reportage cleverly provides cinema audiences with additional examples of the state’s brutal actions.

Conversations around The Promise will mention other iconic films like Hotel Rwanda, Schindler’s List and it certainly has a splash of Titanic about it. Thankfully The Promise is more than a one-dimensional tale seeking to make its lead characters into heroes. Terry George has returned to the theme of genocide and explores the complexity of propaganda, state lies to cover up killing – “war, or the evacuation of the Armenian people to a safer location?” – conscripted soldiers, church-sponsored NGOs assisting the most vulnerable, trust and cross-community sacrifice.

The 134 minute run time doesn’t feel overly long. The craftsmanship underpinning the film is obvious and contributes to the serious feeling of the production. The editing avoids rapid cutting yet doesn’t leave shots to linger for a second longer than they need to. Golden sunshine floods wide shots of countryside. Eastern Orthodox choral laments are effectively used to signpost moments of terror. The foley work will win awards. The Fez rental bill must nearly rival the hire false moustache budget.

The Belfast preview of The Promise was held on 24 April, the annual day of commemoration for the 1.5 million Armenian people killed in the sustained genocide that peaked in 1915. The Turkish government – of the state that succeeded the Ottoman Empire – continue to deny that genocide took place

The mention of Aleppo as a place of refuge for Armenians fleeing their homes reminds modern day viewers that one hundred years after the on-screen atrocities, ethnic and religious cleansing and killing still carries on across the world. So too does the displacement of people, forced out from homes and areas that no longer feel safe to live in.

The Promise will be screened in Movie House cinemas from Friday 28 April.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Habsburg Tragedies – The Belfast Ensemble – Lyric Theatre (12-15 April)

The Belfast Ensemble are really putting themselves on the artistic map with their sumptuous and sensual production of The Habsburg Tragedies in the Lyric Theatre by Conor Mitchell.

The first half shone a light Mitchell’s verse cycle about Catherine of Aragon which previewed last year in The MAC under the apt but hard to market name of The C**t of Queen Catherine (reviewed last April).

Now called The Moot Virginity of Catherine of Aragon, the audience watch the titular character pace around the room in which she is trapped. She is incarcerated, but not silent. Wearing an immaculate white pant-suit, Catherine, perhaps best known as Henry VIII’s first wife, rehearses the stages of her life and loves. Behind her, hugging the edge of the stage sit a seven piece orchestra who accompany her spoken words.

Abigail McGibbon’s acting is breathtaking and absorbing as she captures the tormented soul. Conor Mitchell’s piano playing, hand movements and nods to the other players compete for attention as his meticulousness and fine tuning of the performance become apparent.

The lighting invites interest too. Simon Bird’s artistry is beyond what you would reasonably expect for a show of this scale. Razor sharp lines cast from far above light the very edge of the stage. Precision fog sending rivulets of cotton wool clouds across the stage were another virtuoso stroke of genius.

The second, shorter act – The Final Confession of Juana ‘the Mad’ – switches to the less well-known story of Catherine’s sister. Again, locked up for a long time, Juana and her daughter Catalina act out a court room scene, using bottles of dead creatures preserved in coloured-formaldehyde as the other characters in their drama.

Again the lines are spoken, but this time very tightly syncopated with the music, with little room for hesitation or lapses in concentration. Jo Donnelly and Stella McCusker parry back and forth as Catalina facilitates Juana’s extended confession. Many of the same themes are explored – blood, virginity, power, disappointment, Europe – against the intricate accompaniment.

The brilliance of the lighting is turned up another notch in the second half, with some experimentation with colour and even darkness. Less nasally-challenged audience members told me how the smell of incense also added to the atmosphere.

At times I became distracted from the plot. But it really didn’t matter. The sheer level of multi-sensory performance squeezed into the show means that sitting through the show is exhilarating, incredibly satisfying and makes it very tempting to keep going back to experience more.

The emerging Belfast Ensemble have proved beyond doubt that their combined expertise and imagination can create beautiful art that is engaging and extremely rich. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Red (Prime Cut and Lyric Theatre until 23 April)

“What do you see?”
It’s a recurring question throughout the performance of Red in the Lyric Theatre. The plot tracks the relationship between abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (played by Patrick O’Kane) and his new assistant Ken (Thomas Finnegan). More than that it examines the motivation, ego and insecurity of the master creator who is all too aware that his ambition and significance are being truncated by the inevitable changing of the guard as the next wave of pop art painters bite on the heels of the current big thing.

Commissioned to paint a number of his trademark large format canvasses for a new high end Four Seasons restaurant, we watch Rothko size up and adjust the unwieldy artworks which hang from pulleys on equally unwieldy wooden easels on castors.

While the script has much to say about Matisse, Picasso and Pollock (of whom considerable animosity is expressed), and is dripping with artistic quotes and anecdotes at the start, John Logan’s fine play goes beyond providing a beginner’s guide to the abstract art world of the mid-twentieth century.

There’s a level of questioning that so obviously holds up a mirror to the impetus behind of whole (rarefied) world of creative and performing arts and the ways in which the public are expected to consume it.
“Not all art has to be psycho-drama”
Unlike much theatre, Red doesn’t just shift between the top two gears, but gives director Emma Jordan the full range of emotion, temper and pace to work with during the ninety minute, no interval performance. The two actors are joined on stage by a continuous soundtrack for much of the play, leading to a tense battle between Rothko’s classical tastes and his assistant’s jazz.
“The point is always the tragedy”
The tragedy of Rothko permeates each scene, building up like the layers of crimson tones on his canvasses. O’Kane becomes the doubting artist who cannot reach out and touch another human.

Ken’s own tragic family backstory is conveniently introduced late on and doesn’t quite affix properly to other layers that have been daubed on the plot. At first Ken is the over-dressed dogsbody to the paint splattered Rothko. But by the final scenes, two years have passed and the tables have turned and the young artist demonstrates a learned confidence as the dress styles swap and Ken’s opinion starts to unsettle his besuited boss. Finnegan manages this transition well and complements his senior on stage partner.

The set and lighting could only be from the imaginative hand of Ciaran Bagnall. As the curtain goes up at the start, the audience realise that they are flies on one wall of the painter’s studio. Yet no matter how firmly the two actor’s stare through that wall, they never catch the eye of an audience member. The diffused light falling on the canvass ceiling creates a beautiful effect as do the never-accidental shadows.
“Without movement paintings are what? / Dead?”
O’Kane and Finnegan’s focussed performance and control of energy and pace continues throughout the entire show. Choreographed scene changes carried out by cast members are now de rigueur in modern theatre – Three Sisters is a good example – but movement director Dylan Quinn has given it a sense of class and equipped the actors with motions whose scale matches the large artworks being shifted.

Red wouldn’t have been complete without a live-painting scene – though their fervent slap dash undercoating reminded me of a couple of East Belfast painters who once used a similar frenetic and messy technique on the interior walls of house.
“One day the black will swallow the red”
The cast and director of this production of Red deliver performances that the incredibly ambitious script deserves. Prime Cut Productions and the Lyric Theatre’s Red runs in the Lyric until 23 April.

Monday, April 03, 2017

The White Helmets (Tuesday 4 April, The Better World Fringe at Belfast Film Festival)

When car bombs are exploding around your city and the Russian air force are dropping munitions from above, who is responsible for helping to rescue people trapped under the rubble? Volunteers in the Syrian Civil Defence – better known as the White Helmets – fulfil that role in their towns and cities.

Since 2013, over 3,000 brave and independent volunteers working in 120 centres across Syria have so far rescued 80,000 people. Over 150 White Helmets have lost their lives in the civil war. Many more have been injured.

When they hear jet aircraft approaching, these are the kind of guys who rush outside into the street to look up and see where the bombs are dropping rather than heading into a basement bunker. Clouds of dust linger above collapsed buildings. There are shrieks of panic in the streets everywhere they go. Listening equipment helps locate the living under the mounds of heavy concrete.

“Better to rescue a soul than to take one” says a member of the Aleppo White Helmet team. As first responders, they leave their political leanings behind them. Every life is precious. “It’s our duty to save them.”

The White Helmets documentary – which won the Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject) in February 2017 – tells the story of the civil defence team in the city of Aleppo.

These are not retired soldiers or career fire fighters. Over the course of 40 minutes we meet a former builder, a former blacksmith and a former tailor who now volunteer full time in their rescue roles.

Footage from helmet cameras shows the men rushing in where angels would fear to tread. “Our job depends on speed and accuracy” explains one rescuer, echoing the probable mantra of the pilots flying overhead. Yet the airborne bombs seem to fall all too often on civilian targets rather than military ones.

As well as encountering death on a daily basis as they race across the city in their truck to each new devastating scene, we watch the rescuers face up to the trauma of their own family and loved ones being caught up in attacks. While away in Turkey receiving vital training courses on techniques and equipment, several rescuers face anxious waits as the status of missing family members is tracked down.

“I’m willing to sacrifice by soul for the sake of the people” says one White Helmet. Tragically, while we watch archive footage of ten day old baby Mahmud being pulled alive from the rubble, his rescuer Khaled Omar Harrah died in an airstrike in August 2016, leaving behind his wife and two daughters.

Director Orlando Van Einsiedel captures the intense esprit de corps shown by the team as they perform their sacred, humanitarian duty. “To save a life is to save all of humanity.” Mixing together interviews with bodycam footage this short documentary explores the motivation of a brave team of rescue workers in Aleppo. It’s sobering viewing. Yet it’s full of hope amongst the suffering.

The White Helmets will be screened as part of the Belfast Film Festival in The MAC at 7pm on Tuesday 4 April as part of The Better World Film Fringe organised by CADA (the Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies in Northern Ireland).

The film will be followed by a panel discussion chaired by Peter Anderson (NI’s head of Concern Worldwide) and featuring contributions from Noelle Fitzpatrick (Trócaire's Syria humanitarian officer), Anna Nolan (director of The Syria Campaign) and Declan Lawn (writer, broadcaster and BBC TV documentary maker).

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Belfast Flm Festival 2017 - kids, shorts, documentaries, Syria, North Korea, Bulgaria and beyond

Every year something clashes with the Belfast Film Festival and curtails the range of fine films that I can savour. This year I’m off taking a team of men in their twenties from churches across Britain and Ireland to visit refugee projects on Sicily and Lampedusa.

Here are some recommendations of movies to catch in my absence!

Sunday 2 April

The World of Us “boils down the complexities of adult life to their inception and poignantly delivers them through the waning innocence of its young stars” in this film that sees a new childhood friendship stretched whenever the summer holidays end and they return to school. Queen’s Film Theatre at 6.30pm.

Mimosas is billed as a “Eastern western”, following a caravan transporting the body if a sheik to his remote resting place in the wildnerness of the Moroccan desert. A test of will, faith and endurance with a dusting of fear. Queens Film Theatre at 9pm.

Monday 3 April

Liberation Day – A thoughtful yet comedic documentary following the arrival of Slovenian cult band Laibach in North Korea and the process of threading alternative rock’n’roll lyrics through the eye of the censor’s needle. Beanbag Cinema at 6.30pm.

A Man Called Ove promises to be a quirky, funny, bittersweet and Swedish film. A boisterous new family get off to a bad start when they move in next door to angry old Ove. But understanding breeds friendship. Queen’s Film Theatre at 8.30pm.

Tuesday 4 April

White Helmets follows a group of volunteer first responders who rescue victims of the civil war in Syria. Searching for survivors amongst the wreckage of flattened buildings, since 2013 the White Helmets have saved nearly 80,000 lives. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things to help save others. Organised by CADA (Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies in NI) and followed by a panel discussion about the situation in Syria. The MAC at 7pm.

Aquarius – An ageing music critic stages a sit in to prevent redevelopment of her apartment block. Pledging to leave only upon death, this thriller follows her cold war with the developers. Queen’s Film Theatre at 8.30pm.

Wednesday 5 April

Film Devour Short Film Festival will once again pack its Hill Street venue with people and fantastic sub-15 minute shorts that are made in or connected to this island. Always a treat. The Black Box at 7pm. Arrive early to get a seat.

Thursday 6 April

The Good Postman is a documentary set in eastern Bulgaria, bordering Turkey. In a sleepy hamlet sitting amid orchards and a patchwork of farmlands the local postie watches refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and wonders what it means to be European in his increasingly closed-off and distrustful town. Beanbag Cinema at 6.30pm.

The Peacemaker follows the work of Padraig I’Malley as he uses “unorthodox methods and dogged determination” in his work to resolve some of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Followed for five years by filmmaker James Demo, this documentary contrasts a day job of restoring broken connections with a personal struggle with alcohol, and scarred relationships with those he loves. Movie House Dublin Road at 7pm.

Saturday 8 April

Join the Banterflix team as they look back at their Belfast Film Festival highlights and record the latest episode of their movie review podcast in the Hudson Bar between 11am and noon.