Saturday, October 21, 2017

Celui Qui Tombe (He Who Falls) - a physical theatre treat and allegory for our time #belfest

There’s a chance I may run out of superlative in this review.

Every now and again a show comes along that exceeds expectations, even though it has been built up as spectacular by everyone who has mentioned it in the months prior to seeing it.

Celui Qui Tombe (He Who Falls) is perhaps the most unexpected and magnificent piece of theatre I’ve seen in a long, long time. If it even is theatre. Part circus, part dance, part narrative, the cast show off their gymnastic, athletic, choral and acting ability over the 60 minute piece of awesome physical theatre.

The safety curtain in the Grand Opera House rose and in the gloom behind a rectangular wooden platform descended. As it gently tipped forward, six people could be discerned. The platform was suspended on steel cable from four winches high up in the custom lighting rig above the stage.

The platform tipped further forward and some of the figures struggled to keep a grip and began to slide down the wooden structure. Beethoven blasted out, creating a sense of calm amongst the chaotic scene.

When the magic carpet reached the level of the ground, the music stopped, the cast froze, and a man with a limp walked forward from his control desk at the back to the stage and nonchalantly released the cables.

Soon the platform began to spin anticlockwise and the three women and three men had to adapt to the centrifugal force that threatened to push them off the platform. At first we saw them ‘learning’ to lean in towards the middle. Then they crowded in and huddled up as a bunch, before experimenting with moving across the centre of the platform.

Before long the platform and the performers was spinning in the other direction – in the Q&A afterwards, the cast admitted that some nights dizziness is harder to avoid than others – before the they had to delicately balance on its centre point and the cast began to drop on to the floor, swing from it and dodge it as it flew from side to side across the otherwise set-free stage.

Each new scene challenged the cast and surprised the audience. Frank Sinatra’s I’ll Do It My Way blasted out while the figures on stage were learning that cooperation was vital to their survival. Partnerships were formed and then cruelly split apart by other people crashing through their embraces.

There was love and affection. There was cause and effect. A rogue exploration of the other side of the platform could literally tip and balance and jeopardise the stability of the five others. Sometimes the hazard could be ducked and dodged, other times the characters had to go with the flow or hang on for dear life.

Perhaps the most magical moment comes when the backing music is ditched and the cast begin to sing while a couple dangle beneath the raised platform and others stand on top. A genius moment to sing a madrigal with the high soprano notes flying over the deeper male voices.

Director and designer Yoann Bourgeois says that the six performers are “a kind of mankind in miniature ... they react to the physical constraints without initiating movement themselves, and it’s from this tussle between their mass and force that the situation is born”.

It was understandable when the audience gasped as bodies seemed to be helplessly sliding towards the edge of the platform. Less understandable when people talked loudly about what they were seeing and let their mobile phone ringtones compete with the official accompaniment. And then there were the latecomers, fifteen minutes after the show began and the unstoppable urge of some to hold up their phones to film the spectacle.

Celui Qui Tombe is produced by Centre Chorégraphique National de Grenoble in France. The effortless sliding, running, falling and hanging was all the more amazing given the admission that this two night run as part of Belfast International Arts Festival were the first shows for two of the six performers.

In a political situation that is locally dominated by an uncertain stalemate, nationally overshadowed by the unknown variables of Brexit, and internationally overshadowed by tension between the US and North Korea and global terrorism, Celui Qui Tombe illustrates how hard it is to keep control and how much easier it is if we work together.

A physical theatre allegory for our time. Jump at any chance you have to see this show in the future.

- - -

Belfast International Arts Festival runs until 28 October. Poppies: Weeping Window outside the Ulster Museum are well worth a visit, and a series of talks about WW1 and the theme of remembrance continue after the festival closes. The powerful Gardens Speak experience closes on Sunday 22 October.

Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Lives in Translation opens in the old B&Q store on Boucher Road next week, while Owen McCafferty’s Fire Below (War on Words) continues its run in the Lyric Theatre and they’re still Dancing at the Disco at the End of the World in Riddel’s Warehouse.

Meanwhile the programme of talks continues, with In Praise of Forgetting on Thursday evening with David Reiff.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Soldier Still (Junk Ensemble) - shedding the damaged skin of the traumatic military #BelFest

Soldier Still explores violence and trauma through the mode of dance. Junk Ensemble’s latest production ran for two nights in The MAC as part of Belfast International Arts Festival.

The piece is based on testimony from former soldiers from both sides of the Irish border as well as civilians and a child survivor from the Bosnian conflict. I spoke to the sibling choreographers, Megan and Jessica Kennedy, for a preview piece published on Culture Northern Ireland.
When I think about PTSD, talking therapies come to mind long before dance. Yet sibling choreographers Megan and Jessica Kennedy found researchers like Dr Bessel van der Kolk, whose scholarship shows that therapies which use the body can be more successful than traditional talking treatments.

First World War soldiers suffered from what was then called ‘shell shock’ and the trauma was often physically visible in their bodies through tremors and their inability to walk.

'We experience trauma through our body and we need to let go of trauma through our body,' explains Jessica, ahead of the forthcoming performance Soldier Still as part of Belfast International Arts Festival. 'We’re looking at alternative therapies that a minority of soldiers have employed, but have had higher success rates than yoga, meditation and even talking therapy.'

For a non-dancer like me who sometimes struggles to understand dance performances, Soldier Still is remarkable accessible. Short snippets of dialogue taken from the research interviews stop the audience having to guess everything from the movements. Dancers pick up some of these moments, including abuse in the parade ground and the after-effect of an artillery shell exploding nearby.

The often silent on stage presence of Dr Tom Clonan, a former Captain in the Irish Defence Forces, is a uniformed representation of the military machine that is “inherently destructive” and sees abuse and trauma but often does not intervene in a positive manner.

The total immersion of life into the military is quickly established with the putting on of the uniform, and later the shedding of this damaged skin like a metamorphosing caterpillar is captured in a beautiful solo sequence by Julie Koenig. (Though it leaves a question about female nudity versus the impact if it had been a man floating in my mind.)

At times the four professional dancers move as if they are in formation on a parade ground, with one falling out of step, but then being pulled back into the conformity. One person habitually bears enormous weights – Lucia Kickham carries one of the male dancers around the stage on her back – even when their character has left the army.

The threads of each character are woven together and leave the impression that it as probably as hard to shake off military service (with your constant preparedness to kill) as it is recovering from the trauma that results from being innocently involved in conflict.

It’s clear to see why Soldier Still picked up Best Design Award at the Dublin Fringe Festival. The set, lighting, sound, and costumes all combine to strongly support the choreography and intermittent dialogue.

The rivulets of coloured paint running down the back wall of the stage add intrigue and detail to the overall staging, as well as creating a flag in the shallow well underneath that emphasises nationhood and serving a country.

Soldier Still is an intelligent, thought-provoking production, which succeeded in meshing a non-performer in with the professional troupe in a way that added rather than subtracted.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bad Day For The Cut - introducing NI 'farmer noir' with a body count that nearly matches the certificate

A man lives in a farmhouse with his mother and enjoys a pint in his local. He has caring responsibilities but would rather not be tied to the land. Sound familiar? Seen that before recently?

Despite the similarities with God’s Own Country, instead of turning into a film about love bursting out on the Yorkshire fells, the elderly mother (played by Stella McCusker) is brutally executed near the start of Bad Day For The Cut, triggering the violent revenge of her son Donal (Nigel O'Neill).

Young guys are sent to finish him off and Donal forms an unlikely alliance with Bartosz (Józef Pawlowski), the more clueless of the two. Between his self defence and mechanical digger, the middle-aged farmer easily disposes of the other more deadly attacker.
“He tried to kill me but it’s all sorted now.”

Bartosz joins the bereaved farmer and the unlikely pair travel through Belfast and up and down the Antrim coast in a converted campervan – Donal has a passion for restoring old vehicles – searching for clues as they track down the villainous boss at the top of the criminal tree that seems so set on eliminating his family.

Country and western tracks play in the background when they’re driving along. There is something of the wild west about the killing spree that follows, with a wry touch of humour in the way bodies are hauled along the floor and jingly music to hilarify some of the fight scenes.

While clearly an amateur militia man, the farmer certainly knows how to wield a shovel, has a good eye for improvising instruments of torture from household objects, and carries a double-barrelled shotgun for so much of the film it’s a relief when he finally fires it.

We witness Donal’s capacity to fend off varying degrees of mediocre gangsterism as the storyline works its way up the chain of command (through countless familiar faces from local theatre and television). Bartosz sticks around in the hope of finding and releasing his sister (Anna Próchniak) who is working in a brothel high up in Obel Tower for reach top dog Frankie (Susan Lynch) and her suave handyman Trevor (Stuart Graham).
From early on in the film it’s clear that Donal’s Mum must have taken some secrets to the grave to explain her being targeted. Yet the real confusion in the film stems from the overcomplicated array of villains that begin to litter the ninety nine minute plot and some odd editing that unwittingly misdirects viewers by showing a roadsign that explains a destination before cutting to a completely different location with another group of characters, and allows people with no transport to travel long distances at night.

Nigel O’Neill combines being gruff with being menacing and yet also naïve as he seeks revenge. Susan Lynch makes a great supervillain, bringing a sense of evil purpose to the role along with her snowy white blouses that disguise her blood-soiled heart. Józef Pawlowski and Anna Próchniak’s subplot adds a richness to the storyline and lifts it away from the terrorism roots that start to grow into the traditional bedrock of NI cinema.

This is Chris Baugh’s debut feature as a director, co-written with producer Brendan Mullin. It’s very watchable, has a satisfactory ending and bodes well for further productions that they bring to the silver screen.

Bad Day For The Cut is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 20–Thursday 26 October, and courtesy of Film Hub NI it will be touring through Ballyclare, Portrush, Omagh, Dungannon, Fermanagh, Newcastle, Derry and Mullaghbawn, though hopefully not in the blood strewn camper van. The film will also be available on demand from iTunes from 23 October but it deserves to be seen on the big screen.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Fire Below (A War of Words): class warfare on the decking (Lyric Theatre until 28 October) #belfest

Rosemary and Gerry are out on the patio decking waiting for their neighbours Maggie and Tom to come round and help them guzzle a crate of New Zealand wine that she ordered online. A civilised cross-community middle class evening of putting the world to rights with the strain of opera music in the background and some not so casual racism while Gerry waits for the Eleventh Night bonfire to be lit in the field at the bottom of the garden.

Owen McCafferty’s new play Fire Below (A War of Words) holds a mirror up to the letsgetalongerist middle class behaviour of pretending that everything is all jolly nice and there’s nothing to disagree about that can’t be disagreed about in an agreeable fashion.

That is until an overseas conflict comes up in conversation and acts as a proxy for the local one that has up until now been swept under the decking. It all kicks off, harsh words and bitter silences are exchanged, and the limit of neighbourly offence is measured by experiment.

Gerry is as drôle as he is irascible, sipping wine and hiding behind dark sunglasses and the plumes of smoke from his e-cigarette. Mostly the ex-Catholic sits on the fence, neither liking nor disliking anything or anyone … unless someone hits a topic that is dear to him.

Actor Frankie McCafferty is clearly in his element as Gerry and has the audience roaring with laughter as he uses Owen McCafferty’s script to spit out moment after moment of comic genius.

Rosemary (played by Cara Kelly) ignores the excesses of Gerry’s humour. She bats away his hare-brained schemes and rarely sits down, preferring to buzz around filling up wine glasses and offering nibbles.
[Rosemary] “… I would care if I thought they were dancing around the bonfire thinking we were Fenian bastards – I’d care then – if they’re just doing what they do because they are who they are then no I don’t care.”

Tom (Ruairi Conaghan) is learning Irish as a Protestant and practices it with Rosemary next door. Lacking Gerry’s easy sense of humour he exposes himself as an ass early on and is the character you just can’t warm to.

On the other hand, Maggie is the revelation of the piece. Ali White brings depth and effervescence to the character which probably has the least lines in the play. She allows the wine to slowly dishevel Maggie’s appearance, before bursting back to life towards the end of the one act no interval play to tell a story about her mother and then justify her position on the divisive contentious issue that breaks the party up. It’s like a much more subtle version of her performance as Veronique in the magical God of Carnage a couple of years ago.

Paula McCafferty’s set allows the decking to extend beyond the natural front of the Lyric stage, perhaps symbolically linking the middle class characters on stage with the supposedly middle class characters in the stalls. Six frameless windows hang behind the decking reflecting the onstage action and allowing the audience to imagine seeing themselves in the action. However, I found them visually distracting when they also gave a glimpse of (a projection of) swaying trees and the bonfire.

For once the theatrical middle-classplaining about loyalist culture and motivations is perhaps justified. It’s an illustration of how shallow this behaviour looks and is.

Playwright Owen McCafferty gets away with it, but there is a nagging feeling that he is deliberately ignoring the reality that Northern Ireland is no longer made up of binary communities: Protestant and Catholic, unionist and nationalist. What’s missing – though I bet it’s not a sequel – is the awkward evening when the Alliance/Green-voting neighbours on the other side come round and everyone tiptoes around the cultural landmines once again.

The fascination with the bonfire at the bottom of the garden provides the reason for the cast to constantly look out at the audience (although the mirrored set would have allowed them to stand at any angle). Director Jimmy Fay creates some lovely lines on stage with the four characters and has great fun with the awkward silences. The extended dance routine is performed with guts and gusto, as is the rather tuneful impromptu rendition of The Sash.

Owen McCafferty beautifully plays different pairs of characters off against each other, exposing marital tensions and unlikely alliances. Fluent Irish speakers – and anyone with programme to hand which includes the translations into English – will realise that some of Rosemary’s quips in Irish to Tom along with her one extended violent outburst confirm what you might already suspect about the closeness of the two neighbours.

The final scene which pretends that nothing untoward has happened and allows the couples to return to share an earlier racist motif initially felt like an awkward end to the play. On reflection, perhaps that is exactly as should be. It’s not a neat ending; instead it’s a rather frayed and disappointing conclusion because these characters are stuck in their rut and unwilling to change.

Yet the eponymous ‘fire below’ has been lit in the patio’s fire pit. The couple’s clichéd sociability and animosity is exposed for the shallow excuse for a relationship that it is as they tiptoe over the truth of their differences. And the audience have no excuse not to learn from this moral tale seen reflected in the stage’s mirror.

Fire Below (A War of Words) plays in the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast International Arts Festival until 28 October after which it transfers to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin 7-18 November.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Dancing at the Disco at the End of the World – new world, old rules (until 27 October) #BelFest

Replay Theatre Company conjures up a post-apocalyptic world in which only people under the age of ten have survived a deadly virus outbreak. With a chance to start again and rebuild society, will they repeat the sins and mistakes of the past? Or will they reform and create a more utopian world?
“Keep together … Keep safe … Do as I say.”
For Dancing at the Disco at the End of the World, Riddel’s Warehouse has once again been transformed into a multi-level performance venue. Order is quickly established as the audience arrive and are curtly directed to their seats. Amazingly nearly everyone obeys the command to power down and not just silence their mobile phones. While the man in a beige jumpsuit barking the instructions was carrying an improvised truncheon made out of an iron bar which did give him some clout, I make a mental note that my fellow audience members are not the kind of people who are going to rebel against their revolutionary overlords.

As we are chaperoned across the floors and up and down the stairs we pick up the vocabulary of the new society. Electronic goods and books are ‘stash’ and must be collected, bagged and destroyed to prevent further infection. These ‘seekers’ protect their skin from contact with stash and live in the ‘Homeplace’ where regular ‘burnings’ are used to rid the world of contamination. ‘Controllers’ set the rules. Every society has controllers …
“The job of a seeker is to serve the Homeplace.”

Playwright John McCann has a sense for language and dialect and has developed a Homeplace catechism that the seekers recite upon challenge. Original thinking and even remembering the past are not just discouraged but forbidden. Bruises (hopefully from make-up rather than rehearsals!) remind us that life is tough in this new world. Susan Scott’s costumes have a scavenged look, combining the uniform of asbestos workers with desert fatigues!

We meet two dissenters who live outside of Homeplace in ‘the place beyond’. They live under the threat of being found by the zealous seekers. While Manus (Miche Doherty) carries injuries that confine him to their bunker, Skye (Diona Doherty) runs a one person resistance movement, confusing and attacking the enemy. She understands what’s going on with the “bitter wee boys barracking themselves up in Homeplace playing God”. Chris Grant and Daniel Kelly are seekers, and the cool and authoritative Emer McDaid exerts control over the pair as their tutor.

Mary McGurk plays the role of a new seeker. She journeys through the system as an ingénue, learning about both sides of the conflicted land before having to face up to her own choice about what and who she believes. We watch the seeds of distrust and conflict being sewn inside Homeplace, and see the outworking of clashes between the righteous seekers and the dissenters.

The penultimate scene is like a special episode of Eastenders: full of hysteria, blood and family revelations. However, this outpouring of emotion and distress overshadows the final big reveal delivering a slightly anticlimactic ending to a thoughtful and energetic evening of science fiction theatre.

Promenade performances are quite rare. Good use is made of warehouse space, though as the 90+ minute show goes on, competition hots up to be in the half of the audience who will get a seat in each new scene! Much of the ground floor fabric of the old warehouse is covered in polythene sheeting. Set designer Ciaran Bagnall has abandoned the Meccano of his youth and embraced scaffolding to create a playground of runways and bars over which the seekers can climb and run and spin.

Familiar patterns of behaviour pervade this vision of the post-viral future. The undertone of gender discrimination and men doing what men always seem to do even when there’s a chance to start again is accurate albeit depressing. There’s a nuanced exploration of whether people blindly follow an oppressive regime or whether they pretend to play along but are more aware than they let on about their overlords, in this case the aptly named controllers.

Dancing at the Disco can definitely be seen as an allegory for Northern Ireland politics with a younger generation potentially able to seize control in the vacuum left by the so-called adults. Are these the sort of mistakes that they would make and repeat if they got hold of power?

Replay specialise in theatre for young audiences and I’d love to see and hear how their younger audiences evaluate this vision of a society emerging from the hands of the young few who remained after the virus.

A technological armageddon. The resilience of luddites. A road to a new hell paved with good intentions as human patters of behaviour survive annihilation by a virus. With a superb venue, a good ensemble cast and a thoughtful script, Dancing at the Disco at the End of the World is a new piece of theatre that seems sure to rattle around my head for days to come. It runs in Riddel’s Warehouse as part of Belfast International Arts Festival until 27 October.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Can’t Pay Won’t Pay - enslaved workers steal themselves and face up to austerity (Lyric until 15 October) #belfest

Suspend your disbelief for 75 minutes (and the interval) and step into Don McCamphill’s imaginary parallel universe of west Belfast where left-wing theories are being lived out in the Kennedy Centre where the financially marginalised shoppers are claiming the contents of supermarket shelves as their own without payment as a protest against high prices. And this popular uprising might be spreading to public transport too.

Adapted from Dario Fo’s original Italian 1974 play Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga! into Irish as Ní Thig Linn Íoc! Ní Iocfaidh Muid! (Can’t Pay Won’t Pay!), the cast of five bring to life a fantastical world of phantom pregnancies, hirsute clone policemen and a wardrobe to hide in that could have been borrowed from Narnia. There’s simultaneous English translation through headsets at every performance.

Aíne (played by Aoife Ni Ardghail) has been struggling to manage the household finances. With barely two pennies to rub together, not every bill has been paid but Jonty (Tony Devlin) doesn’t realise just how dark the fiscal clouds are that gather over their flat.

Margherita (Eleanor O’Brien) and Cricky (Jamie Hallahan) are Aíne and Jonty’s mates and partners in crime. They’d do anything for their friends, and don’t stop for long to consider the ramifications of the deceitful japes they get caught up in.

Ni Ardghail plays Aíne as a quick-witted and quick-worded woman whose imagination runs faster than a car freewheeling down Craigantlet hill. She could talk Margherita into anything. O’Brien quietly steals scenes with her comic contractions and labour drama. True to form Devlin breaks into song at every opportunity. Multi-roled Jack Walsh exploits his minimal costume changes for laughs as he switches characters, appearing more than once in many scenes.

With a simple set consisting of a kitchen island unit, a sofa, a door, a window and the aforementioned wardrobe, director Brid Ó Gallchoir allows the cast to chew the linoleum by doing laps around the kitchen as they mull over the moral and pecuniary dilemmas they face. The audience sit on all four sides of the stage. Physical tricks add to the subtle mirth and sense of the extraordinary alongside the critique of capitalism and the radical left socialist response.

Aisling Ghéar celebrated their twentieth anniversary of producing Irish language theatre this year. With this performance, the company once again show that they are not afraid to produce original work that stands out in the busy local theatre scene.

Listening to the play in translation through headphones ever so slightly disconnects the acting from the dialogue – at times, it’s like watching a perceptibly out of sync video – and while most of the humour comes across, the loss of immediacy decreases its power.

While the play avoids going full farce until the final scene, it is full of surprises and crazy ideas that grow legs. Can’t Pay Won’t Pay is a gentler-than-expected cry against the state, against banks, against politics and against the strong arm of the law encouraging the “enslaved masses to stand up” as the cast sing at the show’s conclusion.

Can’t Pay Won’t Pay! continues at the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast International Arts Festival until Sunday 15 October.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Snowman: sinister Scandi-noir thriller (in English) that warms up slowly (from 13 October)

While author Jo Nesbø allegedly has a cameo appearance with a dog, I couldn’t spot any sign of Aled Jones in this new Scandi-noir investigative thriller based on one of the many Harry Hole page-turning novels.

The Snowman begins by casually laying out a series of family scenes like crime files being flung onto a table. Only the age of the vehicles gives away the different timeframes on display.

We see a distressed young boy whose abusive ‘uncle’ walks out of a house in rural Norway: soon the young lad is orphaned. Next a woman is followed home and the next morning a snowman has been built and is wearing her scarf, looking sinisterly up at the first floor bedroom windows (rather than looking out across the road) and she is missing. There are further disappearances and the predator begins to tip off a police detective before carrying out his crimes and leaving a snowman calling card.

Inspector Harry Hole (played by Michael Fassbender) has a new partner in work, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson). She’s a keen investigator, on top of the new-yet-clunky technology being rolled out by the Norwegian police force, whereas Hole is a depressed soul who is on the lookout for a good murder to scrutinise with his old fashioned methods.

Particularly in the first half, the film’s pace seems to be move at the speed of permafrost thawing. At one point I wondered if the film would exceed the Blade Runner 2049 run time and last all day. For certain scenes, the book – which I’m a few chapters into – is actually faster to read than the movie is to watch.

The loose chronology and lack of breadcrumbs create an ambiguous canvas upon which director Tomas Alfredson paints the blended plot and scatters his collection of disposable characters. The relationship between the two cops is one of mistrust. The closest Hole has to a friend is his ex-partner (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) who has custody of their child. Inevitably the professional and the personal collide before the credits roll.

While it’s not uncommon to pretend that everywhere in the world speaks English and ignore indigenous languages – who can forget Sean Connery as the Russian submarine captain with a Scottish accent in The Hunt for Red October? – it felt unusual for a myriad of English accents to be used and the only snatches of spoken Norwegian kept to chatter in the background. Maybe the subtitled Saturday night series on BBC Four have spoilt audiences and taught us to enjoy languages other than English, but I found the linguistic nature of The Snowman distractingly false and commercial.

Devices, physical and cinematic, are the bedrock of the film. The clunky police computer is lugged around from scene to scene, eventually failing the most basic fingerprint security test and proving why twelve hourly synchronisation is not sufficient, but still providing a clue which leads to the discovery of the (most) evil character. While horrific in places, the film pulls back from ever firmly stepping into horror. Norwegian scenery is stunning and beautifully captured in the bluey grey tones of the film.

Michael Fassbender plays the moody inspector with a cryptic nonchalance, the kind of chap so nonplussed with life that he’ll use a stack of LPs as a pillow while listening to a record through expensive headphones. Across the cast, he delivers the most depth of performance as his own demon-infested backstory is revealed.

Rebecca Ferguson keeps her headstrong character’s cards close to her chest as she hides a personal connection to the case, a connection which finally connects together the loose threads that have been left dangling all the way through. As well as Fassbender and Fergus, the Irish acting fraternity has also slipped Adrian Dunbar (Line of Duty) into the cast. His brief appearance along with that of Toby Jones (The Play What I Wrote) momentarily took my mind off the movie and reminded me of more enjoyable ways to spend a couple of hours.

I imagine that the dramaturgical diagrams and charts behind the plot of Milo Rau’s play Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun are complicated, but The Snowman must have had many walls covered with cards and string in order to map out the different layers of the story. Yet there are still loose ends (and red herrings) like the dry rot workman and the cigarette butts whose on screen presence feel more significant than they turn out to be. And I’m never convinced by an injection whose needle barely has to prick someone’s skin before the person keels over.

While The Snowman is definitely a much more sophisticated film than some of the juvenile fare that has recently been screened in cinemas (Stratton, American Assassin, and Kingsman - The Golden Circle come to mind), for me its admirable complexity and craft weren’t sufficient to overcome my dissatisfaction.

Fans of the series of books may enjoy how the familiar characters leap off the page and onto the screen, but for me the disconnected paperback method of telling the story was unsuited to the two hours of screen-based storytelling. And it certainly wasn’t helped by the all too familiar return to the trope of a serial killer targeting women (though the only gratuitous torso in this film belongs to Michael Fassbender) and the repeated use of torture tools to sever bits of victims’ anatomy.

The Snowman will be in cinemas from Friday 13 October, including the Movie House and Omniplex chains.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Gardens Speak – unearthing Syrian stories from beyond the grave #BelFest (until 22 October)

I'm slowly walking back up Belfast’s Botanic Avenue at about a third of pace I would usually strike. There is earth under some of my fingernails. A to do list of a thousand and one things no longer seem so urgent. I’m preoccupied with the live of one young man who died near the beginning of the Syrian uprising.

As part of Gardens Speak I’ve been lying flat on a bed of cold moist earth, listening to Balil tell his story ‘from the grave’. I’ve used my hands to scrape away the loose soil. In the dark and quiet I’ve lain down and listened to the story of his return from sheltering as a refugee in Lebanon to his home city of Homs when he heard that change was possible. I’ve listened to his involvement in the grassroots protests, and heard about the bomb that fell in an airstrike and took his life, and discovered about his burial in the family’s back garden. His story was just one of ten that are shared in the installation.
Across Syria, many gardens conceal the dead bodies of activists and protesters who adorned the streets during the early periods of the uprising. These domestic burials play out a continuing collaboration between the living and the dead. The dead protect the living by not exposing them to further danger at the hands of the regime. The living protect the dead by conserving their identities, telling their stories, and not allowing their deaths to become instruments to the regime.

Artist Tania El Khoury told the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner:
“These burials are often an act of resistance. Funerals in Syria often lead to more deaths: there have been incidents of the shelling of cemeteries while funerals are taking place, and in some instances before the burial can take place the families are asked to sign documents exonerating the Assad regime of their loved one’s death. The lack of liberation follows people even into death.”

The narratives of the deceased have been constructed into the oral histories featured in the production with the help of family and friends, along with audio that has been found that marks their final moments.

There is power in one story, one life, being singled out from the deadly statistics that mask the individual tragedies in conflict situations. Hearing about the earlier fate of Balil’s brothers and the impact of continued conflict on his children adds to the sense of grief.

Lying with my head pressed to the earth, there were echoes of Northern Ireland’s civil rights protests and some Troubles’ deaths.

Having a chance to quietly sit and respond to Balil’s story was very moving and for me anchors the impact of Tania El Khoury’s interactive sound installation which forms part of this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival. More information on the creation of the piece and its future touring dates and locations on the artist’s website.

Gardens Speak runs five times a day in 12-13 Shaftesbury Square until 22 October. Booking is essential and latecomers cannot be admitted.

Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Lives in Translation is also part of the festival programme. It brings to life the reality of navigating the asylum process through translation and translators. 

Spamalot - joyous, professional and great fun (Ulster Operatic in Grand Opera House until 14 October)

There’s nothing amateur about Ulster Operatic’s production of Spamalot which opened last night in the Grand Opera House in Belfast. It’s a joyous affair, with a cast who are in good voice and capable of putting in the high energy performance that is required to keep Eric Idle’s thin plot on the move.

The first half is nearly perfect. This is out of season pantomime with big songs, a self awareness of the lack of seriousness of the show, a grand set and lots of opportunity for the ensemble to crowd onto the stage and inject colour into the musical numbers.

There are references aplenty to other material in the Python canon with an oversized can of Spam proudly carried across the stage, fish slapping (I mean, fisch schlapping), a pointing finger and a familiar foot as well as quick visual puns to amuse fans.

You don’t need to be a nerdy fan of Monty Python to enjoy the Spamalot musical. You don’t even need to have much more than an awareness of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. This is shallow entertainment at its best and it succeeds in entertaining with last night’s audience and even me – it’s difficult to make me laugh out loud at the best of times – roaring at the mayhem, tomfoolery and clever use of language on stage.

After the interval and whistling along to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” the original script wobbles as the motley crew of despairing knights on a quest search for a shrubbery and are then challenged to stage a musical. “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway”, a song about the need to have some Jews in your production if it is to succeed, feels very out of place in 2017 (and was replaced in the 2010 West End revival and UK tour).

“His Name is Lancelot” brings the oomph back up to the level necessary to steer the show comfortably towards its joyously reprise-heavy finale. Some (rude or rushed) patrons left their seats early thinking the performance was over and missed the final number. Don’t make that mistake.

It’s a male-heavy vehicle that showcases the vocal talents of the men gathered up by Ulster Operatic. Colin Boyd plays a chiselled King Arthur with a commanding voice that befits the role of monarch. His Patsy (Jordan Walsh) not only has comic timing and pulls great faces, but must be bruised given the constant brush offs and jostling he has to endure throughout the show. Good to see some familiar faces from BSPA popping up on stage too.

The Lady of the Lake has a glittery wardrobe and a sparkling voice. Ciara Mackey confidently throws in a bit of scat on top of gospel an big band, belting out musical numbers with glee and using big gestures to make her character’s presence felt on stage amongst the knights. As her character laments after the interval, it’s a shame she doesn’t spend more time on stage.

With a ten piece orchestra, the big band sound booms out from the orchestra pit and they seem to revel in the genre-busting musical score which often leaps around styles mid-song. “The Song That Goes Like This” with the Lade of the Lake and Sir Galahad (Ross David Chambers) is probably the pinnacle of the show’s music with the two singers battling the ever key-shifting orchestra led by Wilson Shields.

The cast numbers just shy of forty and it was not uncommon for thirty people to be on stage at once for a song and dance number like “I Am Not Dead Yet”. Whether cheerleading as the Laker Girls or dancing in the ensemble, Brooke Allen’s choreography tests out the cast and throws in a few more complicated moves (like tumbling over someone else’s bent back) where skill levels permit.

Director Neil Keery has allowed a handful of localisations to ground the script in local places, people and issues, and every one of these modifications garners laughs and applause.

Spamalot is kitsch, entertaining nonsense that’s performed professionally and a joy to watch. Ulster Operatic’s production runs in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 14 October. Grab your coconut shells (like I did back in 2007) and canter down to the theatre … you’ll not be disappointed.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun - bleak, honest and questioning (Lyric until 7 October) #BelFest

The contents of a home are strewn across a somewhat overgrown semicircle of waste ground. Sitting behind a desk in the back corner of the stage, Consolate Sipérius confirms that her house in Burundi was “surrounded and plundered” by Tutsi militia. Somehow she escaped their murder spree, was adopted by European parents and is now living in Belgium and working as an actor. This sets the scene for the play Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun that opens this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival.
“This is a world without compassion.”
Into this mess steps a well coiffured and elegant woman played by Ursina Lardi. Her hour and a half monologue begins by questioning how we perceive conflict and migration in Europe. She stands behind a lectern amidst the contents of Consolate’s house which gives her utterances a sense of authority, or “whitesplaining” as one director/producer in the audience suggested.

Her questions wobble across a tightrope spanning pertinence and impertinence. I started to inwardly judge fellow audience members who were, perhaps, nervously laughing at her more outlandish observations.

Lardi then takes us back to when the fictional newly qualified young Swiss teacher was recruited to the ‘Teachers in Conflict’ NGO and sent to do good work in the Central Africa region that includes Burundi, Rwanda and what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. An enormous can of worms is opened and over an hour they crawl across the stage as she unpicks the role of NGOs in situations of conflict and displacement.

She undermines her own caring credentials: is it white privilege to be able to block out the sound of genocide on the other shore of the lake with classical music? In tribal conflicts, is it ethical to be “pampering those who had committed atrocities” and are now living in refugee camps?

A recurring device used by Rau is to critique the theatre industry alongside the conflict industry. Directors are “arseholes”. Consolate is simply representing the latest in a long line of vulnerable minorities to be elevated to a prominent position based on the zeitgeist. (Later we discover the full extent of her acting career.)

The play’s crucial observation – and the reason for its title – is that at the end of each stage of a conflict, “all that matters is who has the machine gun”. NGOs cannot, or fail to, predict what will happen next. Are their best efforts based on the current situation really good enough? By unwitting ignorance or design are NGOs complicit in collaborating with evil actors in conflicts? Lardi shocks the audience with her own humiliating act of collaboration and self-preservation.

Writer/director Milo Rau has crafted an appropriately bleak and multi-layered narrative that exerts incredible control as it nimbly walks across the moral ambiguity that litters the uneven stage along with the contents of Consolate’s home. Video close-ups of the actors are deftly used to augment the narrative and gently add complexity to the script.

Ursina Lardi’s face will continue to look out from the screen long after she has left the stage. Her questions – whether worthy or warped – will haunt. It would have been interesting to hear a panel of NGOs react to the play and it’s questioning message after the performance.

The UK and Irish première of Schaubühne’s Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun did not disappoint. The quality and depth of performance and production that was displayed when An Enemy of the People came to Belfast Festival back in 2014 was repeated.

The final performance of Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun which opens this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival is in the Lyric Theatre on Saturday 7 October. This new work is a confident and thought-provoking piece of theatre that is both contemporary in its design and its theme. Outside the festival, you’ll rarely see such a piece of international theatre on this island.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Pause & Effect - a beautiful fusion of dance & theatre (Maiden Voyage Dance)

“Embrace your inner eight year old” said Maiden Voyage’s artistic director Nicola Curry when I arrived. My friends and family will realise that wouldn’t be much of a stretch! And it was clear from the start that the primary school audience sitting in their colourful uniforms in The MAC were entranced by the on stage actions of Red, Yellow, Green and Blue, more properly, Hannah Rogerson, Vasiliki Stasinaki, David Ogle and Ryan O’Neill.

Pause & Effect is a dance performance pitched at families and young children. Foam blocks are used to construct the set and props, and deconstructed with the touch of a toe or the fling of a arm into the stacked up edifice.

The shout of “pause” arrests the performance and gives time to think before the next action. (It also makes some of the cast deliberately wobble unsteadily provoking laughs.) Willie Drennan’s foot-tapping soundtrack drives the pace and – unprovoked – the children begin to clap along with the strong rhythm at today’s matinee.

Time is a constant theme of the movement. The transformation of one object to a pile of bricks creates new possibilities: with space to imagine, the chaos can actually become the beginning of a river. As an adult I can see identities and protective shells being constructed and torn down. As a child, I’d probably see that too as the actions and reactions are pretty universal.

Pause & Effect is choreographed by Eleesha Drennan who has created a beautiful fusion of dance and theatre in a slapstick world of partnership and creativity. The movements are fluid (and disguise the technical complexity of the dancing) and there are always several things going on even when one dancer is soloing at the front of the stage, so no one can get bored.

The ending is nearly tear-inducingly perfect with a sweet scene that captivated young and old and is enhanced by Joe Fletcher’s lighting. With a back catalogue of work that includes Quartet for 15 Chairs, Maiden Voyage Dance are continuing to produce work that can serve as a high quality introduction to movement and dance as well as entertaining and enjoyable shows.

Pause & Effect is being performed in the MAC until 7 October [SOLD OUT] before it tours Theatre at The Mill (Newtownabbey), Island Arts Centre (Lisburn) and The Market Place Theatre (Armagh).

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The Doppler Effect - a mesmerising showcase of The Belfast Ensemble (Lyric Theatre until 8 October)

The Belfast Ensemble put themselves on the artistic map earlier this year with what I described at the time as “their sumptuous and sensual production” of The Habsburg Tragedies in the Lyric Theatre. By combining the talents of a range of creatives, each of whom is at the top of their technical or artistic game, the new group proved in April that they can create multi-sensory performances that are exhilarating, satisfying, rich and very beautiful.

Their new show – The Doppler Effect – continues to thrill. Described on the programme as “an experiment for actors, instruments and lights”, the immersive production turns much of musical theatre on its head. The audience stand or sit around four sides of a gauze cube that cocoons the musical quartet directed by composer Conor Mitchell. Viola, cello and clarinet produce a very mellow sound and the musicians sit on podiums of different heights in corners of the central space.
“Frequency, prevalence, beat, constancy, rhythm, repetition, …”
While the music comes from the centre, the voice booms out from speakers around the perimeter of the theatre, behind the audience. At first Abigail McGibbon speaks only words, then switches to a mesmerising poetic style as she tells the story of a woman’s loss, a missing love and loneliness.

Although actor Francis Mezza is positioned behind the screens, Simon Bird beams down shafts of light on top, superimposing him into Gavin Peden’s video imagery. As the pictures of rush hour traffic and a night club are projected onto all sides of the cube, the simply-clothed male actor moves inside, responding to the monologue, and we gradually realise that there’s another layer of symbolism in this artistic metaphor, and the woman could be a city or a country, and her loss and hope could echo our collective desire to hold onto peace in this land.
“The promise of a cure for the broken city that is stuck in time”
The music switches from pizzicato to chords and double octaves to arpeggios, changing intensity while keeping to the same rhythm over the thirty minute performance.

Any one aspect of this show could hold my attention. I got lost in the music and then the words and then the movement and the imagery. There is a lot going on, but it’s all complementary and well balanced and no particular discipline is allowed to dominate.

Moving around the performance space, you spot silhouettes of the players against the screens. Images bleed through to the other side, creating interesting motifs. Motion changes what is observed as you move around relative to the source. It’s high concept but manages to stay accessible and enjoyable to experience.

The Doppler Effect is genre-busting: musical theatre accompanied by dance, some narrative and some of the best visuals I’ve seen in a theatre. The genius of The Belfast Ensemble is that together the artists produce high quality, imaginative work that is riddled with enough layers of meaning that you are left wanting to hit rewind and go back to the beginning to breathe it all in again.

To have pulled off such a mature and settled show on their opening night is to the credit of the artists involved. For this showcase of local imagination to receive no funding heaps shame upon the vision of arts funding bodies who should expect this work to travel internationally.

You can catch The Doppler Effect in the Lyric Theatre until 8 October with a mixture of evening performances and matinees. It’s a real treat to witness and be part of.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Daphne - a morose vision of modern life and a film worth watching (QFT from 6 October)

Daphne holds up a mirror to a morose vision of modern life: morose but probably quite accurate.

She’s a questioning 31 year old (going on 20 something) who is wallowing in meaninglessness. The eponymous character is also a contradiction: smokes (nicotine and weed) and drinks to excess yet works in a restaurant putting together plates of delicious food, goes jogging and wanders the streets to get home each night from hollow hook-ups.
“Internet dating is consumerism masquerading as love”

The unfolding story suggests that twin traumas (her Mum’s health and a violent attack she witnesses) are pertinent to her state of mind and a slow self-evaluation of behaviour.

We watch Daphne flit between joyless encounters with men like a butterfly. Her self esteem is shredded finer than the herbs she sprinkles over plates heading out to customer tables. Her brain is infused with the works of philosopher Slavoj Žižek to the same extent her liver is a sponge full of white wine.

Pale-faced Emily Beecham’s distinctive ginger hair glows out from every shot. She plays a rounded character with stacks of soul that is not merely on screen to be pitied. A homeless man is fed, a victim comforted, a work colleague encouraged to go home to his wife rather than start an affair. Beecham has a flair for humour, with the beginnings of a tragicomedy set delivered to a fellow passenger on a London bus.

A number of men make positive interventions in her life. Work boss Joe (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor most recently seen in Maze) keeps an eye on her. David the bouncer (Nathaniel Martello-White) disrupts the pattern of her normal dating rules. Even the takeaway delivery guy worries about her health.

We know that local actor Ryan McParland is handy with a knife from his role in the play Summertime, and he pops in the door of a corner shop as a lousy robber just as Daphne tries to buy some painkillers.

Director Peter Mackie Burns’ observational style jars when he introduces an overly artsy “can we just sit here for a while?” scene about fifteen minutes from the end, echoing a therapy session with victim support. It sits oddly in a film that is ambling towards a conclusion. Though the ending is nearly as abrupt as Daphne’s style of flirting. The final pages of Nico Mensinga’s script may have been thrown out in order to maximise the ambiguity.

Daphne is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre from 6-12 October. It’s a fabulous film, eighty eight minutes long and beautifully shot, interesting to watch and without pretension. Emily Beecham deserves a long career with great parts after this film. And Peter Mackie Burns is definitely a director to watch out for after proving that despite the odd quirky scene he can hold an audience’s gaze on a character.

The Mountain Between Us - new bonds forged in a snowy escape (from 6 October)

A bride-to-be photo journalist needs to get to Denver by the next morning walk up the aisle. A neurosurgeon needs to travel to the same city to operate on a very young patient. A storm grounds commercial flights. And so the jeopardy is created and the first domino stood up in a long chain that will see Alex (played by Kate Winslet) lead Ben (Idris Elba) onto a small charter flight which doesn’t make it through the storm and crash lands on a snowy mountain.

“You might want to strap in”
Two headstrong people are flung together into a cold but beautiful environment with a handful of snacks and the pilot’s photogenic dog. The film’s title hints at both the physical object between the protagonists and civilisation, but also the distance between their personalities.

The Mountain Between Us becomes a character study of these two intelligent professionals. So often Alex leads and Ben follows, yet she is injured and needs his help. Ben’s inner Bear Grylls quickly comes to the fore with his first aid and ability to keep them warm by burning the remaining aviation fuel. His emotional intelligence is low.

Ben’s smothering reliance on logic rubs up against Alex’s desire to follow her gut instinct. He wants to stay with the wreckage, but with no one knowing that where to search for the missing plane, she believes that despite her injured leg their best plan is to head down the mountain rather than run out of food while not being rescued.

This character study could have remained intense and avoided a romantic interlude. But from the moment Ben uttered “the heart’s nothing but a muscle” it was inevitable that the screenwriters and director would explore the possibility of intimacy. (Charles Martin’s book upon which the plot is based is described as a romance-disaster novel.)

It’s not a film that bothers to tug on your heartstrings. Very few scenes are played for emotion except the snow slide in one scene that is scarier than anything you’ll find in IT.

Essays could be written and charts drawn about the plot points, the switch of leader late on in the film, and the contrast between one person about to begin a marriage and the other whose relationship has reached a conclusion.

Like the pair’s shuffling through the snow, the film leads its viewers through the story at a gentle pace. An hour in, he makes a positive discovery while she has a ‘Titanic’ moment and drives the second half of the film.

The film’s major problem is that it doesn’t know when to end. At best, it is 10 seconds too long and could have cut to black before the final and unnecessary resolution. But in truth the final quarter of an hour could also have been jettisoned and left on a mountain peak as the introduction of new characters kills the isolated vibe that had built up.

The Mountain Between Us is all about what is not said. Winslet captures well her character’s inner determination to survive and her attempts to make Ben open up about his past. In turn, Elba keeps up an emotional distance throughout the first half and we watch the actors’ thawing their characters’ inner defences as they reach lower altitudes.

But the star of the show must be their ever-present canine companion who pulls faces for the camera and emotes on demand. Despite two dogs being used for filming, the on-screen mutt never shows any sign of getting gaunt while the human pair forage for food.

The Mountain Between Us is a solidly good film: the story works, the acting is good, and you’ll go home from the cinema and not suffer any recurring nightmares. It’s not hard work to watch and it’s not at all challenging. It settles for being a movie about regret, resentment and reliance with a snowball or two of blame and self-discovery thrown in for good measure. Screened in Movie House Cinemas from Friday 6 October.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle – vulgar follow-up in which country and western meets a laddish Bond

I watched the original Kingsman film on a place, heading towards either Tel Aviv or Bahrain. On the low-res airline seat screen wearing cheap headphones it was an amusing way to pass a couple of hours.

Kingman is a private intelligence service disguised as a high-end Savile Row tailors. More secret, suave and sophisticated than the Bond franchise, and possibly even more stereotype-filled and culturally conservative. But definitely even less believable.

The quirky original movie has been rebooted – quite violently twenty five minutes into the film – and the umbrella-wielding militia are back on the streets in Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

This time they have joined forces with their ostentatious Kentucky cousins (wait for it, the ‘Statesman’ organisation) to face down Poppy, an aptly-named drug baroness with a taste for freshly butchered burgers and over-the-top automaton dogs with their engineering on the outside in a weird Pompidou-style of steam punk.

Poppy (played by Julianne Moore) runs The Golden Circle, a well equipped rival organisation that is blackmailing the world (well, the US president) in return for an antidote to a bad strain of drugs that is paralysing the world.

Young Eggsy was a new Kingsman recruit in the first film and Taron Egerton gets to take the lead role in this difficult second album. But also rebooted is Harry (the original agent Galahad played by Colin Firth) who is back from the dead with an eye-patch, amnesia and an elaborate high-tech explanation for his resurrection.

The best aspects of the look and feel of the first film are revived with a series of set piece fights, punctuated by changes of location and sponsorship opportunities, like the ‘revolutionary’ new Mont Blanc Skyway cable car which leads up to the Bond villain-esque snowy mountain top base. Umbrella combat is now joined by equally ludicrous lassoing.
“There’s no time for emotion in this scenario”

Sadly while they may be Kingsmen and Statesmen, they are hardly gentlemen. The regurgitation of ‘orifice’ humour and the intimate insertion of a tracking device causes two sets of relational problems: one between the audience and the vulgar laddish director Matthew Vaughn; and the other between Eggsy and his ‘princess’ (Hanna Alström) back in blighty.

Merlin the gadget man (Mark Strong) steps out into the field to display his sartorially elegant selflessness and belt out a better tune than Elton John (who seems to have been kidnapped and forced to appear in this movie and abandon whatever gravitas he had left).

Double agents, drones, a cure for constipation (there are more butt jokes than female characters with backstory), pug dogs, and a final fight scene that is more barndance than brawl. Yee-haw.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is what happens when country and western meets Bond. You’ll leave the cinema whistling Take Me Home, Country Road, and it’ll be a good distraction from the flaccid and misogynist mess that you have sat through for 141 minutes. Male characters die in remarkable ways: women fall dead or are blown up by remote men.

There’s a chance to make Halle Berry’s Ginger Ale character into a lead if those in charge care enough about their creation to do a handbrake turn and switch direction away from the current unsophisticated nonsense and rectal gags.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle continues to be screened in lots of cinemas.