Sunday, September 30, 2018

Rigoletto - a feast for the eyes and ears (NI Opera in Grand Opera House until 6 October)

For the non-expert operagoer, Rigoletto is blessed with a straightforward plot when compared with some other works. A good choice for NI Opera’s director Walter Sutcliffe in his second year in charge.

The titular character of this soap opera is a court jester, a recent widower who is unimpressed with his Duke’s handsy way with women and serial adultery. Along the way the jester is cursed. His daughter Gilda falls for a student who woos her but (spoiler alert!) turns out to the Duke, and despite witnessing his womanising ways she tragically intervenes in a vengeful plot to kill her true love, completing the curse on her father.

Men dominate both the opera, in terms of the robust male chorus, and the women who are written as objects of affection with little agency of their own. The inappropriate imbalance is not disguised and the audience will notice a string of scenes that build on this theme.

The Ulster Orchestra play Giuseppe Verdi’s dark and muted score with wind and brass over low register strings. Space is made for Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto, which is sung in its original Italian with English surtitles on too-small screens hung to each side of the stage.

Nadine Koutcher plays Gilda as an ingénue dressed at first in fluffy pyjamas, and later in a jumper stolen from Sara Lund’s The Killing wardrobe. Her fine soprano voice rises to hit the top notes in Act III’s quartet Bella figlia dell’amore. Baritone Sebastian Cantana plays her hunchback father, the jester who neither smiles nor tells jokes, but carries the plot as he acts out his hopes and fears. Fleur Barron put in an excellent performance as Maddalena, an assassin’s sister and bait for his targets.

Davide Giusti found his feet in the role of the vain and brash Duke by the end of the first Act and delivers the catchy misogynist canzone La donna è mobile (“Woman is flighty / Like a feather in the wind / she changes her words / and her thoughts! / Always miserable / is he who trusts her / he who confides in her / his unwary heart!”) in an understated fashion that underscores that this is belief and not just his boast. Northern Ireland singers dominate the chorus and some of the smaller named parts, demonstrating that NI Opera’s talent development programme is delivering results.

The scale and consistency of the creative design is beyond most local theatre productions. Kaspar Glamer’s clever set fills the height of the Grand Opera House, with each side revolving to spit out and then swallow up bedrooms, kitchens, forests and bars. Along with Wolfgang Goebbel’s low-slung lighting design, the staging of NI Opera’s Rigoletto is as moody as the storyline, though at times the heads of the cast remain in shadow, denying the audience of facial expression.

Rigoletto is a feast for the eyes and ears. While it lacks the grotesque spectacle of 2015’s Turandot and the humour of February’s The Threepenny Opera, Rigoletto is one of the most accessible works that NI Opera have produced in recent years. It plays on alternate nights this week in the Grand Opera House. There’s a free but bookable talk in the Baby Grand before some performances.

Production photos: Patrick Redmond

Friday, September 28, 2018

Under the Hawthorne Tree (Cahoots NI at The MAC until 7 October)

In retrospect it’s pretty shocking to realise that I emerged from primary and secondary education in Northern Ireland without being taught any Irish history. A mention of the Belfast Blitz and a factoid that Cromwell had travelled through Lisburn were the only real local insights imparted by the time I opted out of history lessons at the end of third year. A visit to the Doagh Famine Village in the summer of 2011 was the first time I’d encountered the Great Famine in any detail.

Cahoots NI has adapted Marita Conlon-McKenna’s 1990 children’s novel Under the Hawthorne Tree and brought it to life on stage in an eight-handed musical tale that follows the journey of three siblings who try to escape the disease and death that engulfs their town when the potato blight in the late 1840s.

It’s an aptly dark tale of bravery in the face of danger, stamina overcoming weakness, and an expedition of hope as Eily, Michael and Peggy trudge towards distant relatives who live far away on the coast.

Repeated elements of Carlos Pons Guerra’s choreography establish the children’s young ages despite the use of adult actors. Maeve Smyth thrives in her role as the protective eldest daughter, the one who keeps hold of common sense. Together with Philippa O’Hara and Terence Keeley, the main cast’s harmony singing is superb, accompanied by a live band who sit around the circular raised stage.

Cahoots’ trademark magic is more subtle than usual, but nevertheless can be seen in the prop-tastic trapdoors and in James McFetridge’s sculpted lighting that allows characters to appear on stage out of nowhere. Words and music penetrate the auditorium with clarity and Garth McConaghie’s hummable score shifts from Irish trad to gospel to lament as each scene requires.

Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney has created a show whose message will be understood and should be heard right across Ireland … and beyond as the 170 year old story has much resonance with contemporary migration journeys.

Under the Hawthorn Tree is a fitting piece of theatre that illuminates an important part of Irish history. While the subject matter is serious, the 65 minute performance has pace and moments of levity that will keep youthful audiences engaged without being overwhelmed by facts and education. There are daytime performances for schools and weekend shows for families in The MAC until 7 October.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Belfast International Arts Festival – previewing some of the theatre and talks on offer from 16 October – 3 November #BelFest2018


One month from today, Belfast International Arts Festival will be back for 2018 with 125 events from 12 countries, including 12 premières and running over 19 days from 16 October until 3 November.

I’ve picked out some of my speech and theatre highlights from the programme which is filled to the brim with quality music, theatre, dance, talks, tours and more from home and abroad.

Marie Jones’ new play Dear Arabella will open the festival with its world premiere in the Lyric Theatre on Tuesday 16 October, running until 10 November. It intertwines three women and their tales of love, regret and loss to create a poignant play with a simple act of kindness at its heart. [review]

Originally performed by Field Day Theatre Company in 1986, Double Cross takes on a new relevance in this era of heightened nationalism and so-called fake news as two real-life Irishmen are pitched against each other in a WW2 propaganda battle (British Minister for Information Brendan Bracken and Nazi broadcaster Willian ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ Joyce). Lyric Theatre from Wednesday 10 until Saturday 27 October. [review]

The artist behind VerseChorusVerse, Tony Wright, will perform excerpts from his new book Chapter & Verse(ChorusVerse) at The MAC on Wednesday 7 November. [review] 

Dominic Grieve QC MP refuses to accept a hard Brexit and will deliver Amnesty International’s annual lecture to discuss the future of human rights post-Brexit. In Human Rights: Brexit, the Border and Beyond, he’ll explain why the UK should stay fully committed to its international human rights obligations and why this important for people in Northern Ireland. Journalist Steven McCafferty will host a Q&A after the lecture. Thursday 18 October Postponed until Thursday 8 November at the Ulster University Belfast campus.

Stroke Odysseys is a colourful, original, and perhaps cathartic, music and dance show that integrates the lives, experiences and performances of stroke survivors with a professional cast. The MAC on Thursday 18 October at 8pm.

For two nights only, Josette Bushell-Mingo will mix story and songs by Nina Simone as she draws out parallels from the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement in the US with persisting inequality in today’s society and questions how far we’ve really come. Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone features a live band and what promises to be a strong, searing and soulful piece of theatre. The MAC on Friday 19 and Saturday 20 October.

Former Irish President Mary Robinson will discuss her book Climate Justice with journalist Frank McDonald. Her foundation works to secure global justice for often-forgotten people who are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Monday 22 October at Ulster University Belfast campus.

Twenty years after the SAS shot dead three members of the IRA in Gibraltar, Hugh Stoddart’s new play Gibraltar Strait will be performed by Brassneck Theatre in the MAC from Tuesday 23 until Saturday 27 October. The powerful and balance verbatim account was written a year after the events using eyewitness testimonies and oral recordings, described by the Independent on Sunday as an example of theatre being able to “revitalise an event suspended between news and history”.

CANCELLED - Complex identities are not unfamiliar to this part of the world. Facing the Sea, for Tears to Turn into Laughter uses movement, music and chanting to explore the pain of exile and the impossibility of return. Live piano and singing accompany choreographer Radhouane el Meddeb’s story of a man, both Tunisian and French, created in the aftermath of the revolution in Tunisia that kicked off the Arab Spring. The MAC on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 October.

Big Telly Theatre Company are producing “a gloriously absurd expedition into the world of strange” with an darkly humoured evening of circus Freak Show written by Zoe Seaton and Nicky Harley. Marvel at the Portrush Giantess and the Brainless Brothers as the fairground attractions grind their axes in a rare roadshow of revenge. The MAC from Wednesday 31 October until Saturday 3 November.

The New Playwright’s Showcase returns to the Lyric again, this year with the performances split across three evenings of double-bills of rehearsed readings of new work showcasing the talents of new and upcoming writers. Thursday 1, Friday 2 and Saturday 3 November.

The award-winning Open Arts Community Choir will fill the Great Hall in Parliament Buildings, Stormont with vibrant song and testimony from choir members as they celebrate 18 years of music. The choir is made up of people with and without disabilities and were gold medallists at the European Choir Games. Expect to hear fresh interpretation s of classical standards as well as choral arrangements folk, pop and folk classics. Something Inside So Strong on Friday 2 November.

The festival closes with all-male comedy ballet company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo who will mix tutus with testosterone, in an evening of fun and flawless dance feathered with false eyelashes and prima ballerina attitude as they perform a series of sassy spoofs and homages to classical ballet. Friday 2 and Saturday 3 November at Grand Opera House.