Friday, December 14, 2018

Christmas Myths – factchecking the Advent story

I can live without a lot of the trappings of Christmas. Every year I come down with a bad case of tinsellitis. The commercial fuss is overbearing. The enforced fun quickly becomes unappealing.

The reason for the season seems distant until a moment every December when something about the Christmas story catches me unawares. One year it was the genuinely candlelit nine lessons and carols at Westbourne Presbyterian where a power cut had taken out the lighting circuit leaving the congregation to light up the service with their voices and readings. Another time it was a Friday lunchtime in the foyer of a local broadcaster and hearing the gathered staff gustily sing the words of carols first drummed into me at primary school.

There’s something about the words of carols, the act of communal singing, listening to the Bible readings or watching them being acted out that draws me back from my Grinch-like attitude to the wonder of the Christmas story.

But how well do the lyrics of the much-loved seasonal songs represent the biblical narratives of the birth of Christ? How accurate are the sentimentalised versions of the first Christmas we dress up as nativity stories every year?

Fact checking organisations are busy all year round validating claims made by politicians, press and public. I’m involved behind-the-scenes at the FactCheckNI organisation, but I don’t think that we, or our Irish equivalent, has ever been asked to fact check Christmas. Perhaps that’s just as well, as some of the portrayals wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny.

How much of what we say and sing at Christmas is rooted in the documentary testimony, the handful of chapters in Matthew and Luke’s gospels that depict events around Jesus’ birth?

The Christian church celebrates Christ’s birth on 25 December and marks the visit of the Magi 12 days later on Epiphany. At that time of year, the overnight low temperature around Bethlehem dips below 7°C. Shepherding is a hardy profession, but it’s unlikely that shepherds would sleep outside guarding their sheep. This behaviour belongs to a warmer season. That, along with calculations about Zechariah’s temple service, his son John the Baptist’s birth month and Jesus’s gestation, point towards Jesus’ birthday being in September rather than coinciding with the Roman Winter Solstice.

Oddly, the dubious month was the only aspect of Christmas that I remember being debunked by primary school teachers. Everything else was wholly unquestioned.

The lyrics of a well-sung carol say “We three kings of Orient are / bearing gifts we traverse afar”. Despite being neither named nor numbered, Matthew 2’s “wise men from the east” or Magi are traditionally named Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. While the Gospel writer refers to three symbolic gifts of gold (kingship), frankincense (priesthood) and myrrh (death), there’s no record of how many people brought the gifts, nor that they were kings.

In John Calvin’s commentary on Matthew, he was particularly vehement about the “childish error” of “Papists” in “supposing that they were three in number”. He went on to describe the notion “that those men were kings” as “the most ridiculous contrivance” based on a geographically-ignorant understanding of the prophecy about the kings of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba found in Psalm 72. Calvin adds: “they have changed the south and west into the east!”

Matthew’s use of the word Magi suggests that the Gentile visitors were Persian priest-astrologers who could interpret the stars rather than monarchs.

The First Nowell, a beautiful Cornish carol, is just one seasonal example of how the visits of shepherds and wise men are conflated. While Richard Curtis worked a lobster into a memorable nativity scene in the film Love Actually, it’s less shocking to us to see both shepherds and wise men standing over the new born Jesus in school and church nativity plays. Yet that fuses together the distinct infancy narratives from two of the four Gospels, stories with relatively little crossover.

Matthew 2 says that the Magi came to Jerusalem “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem” triggered by seeing “his star when it rose”. When they didn’t return from Bethlehem to report the Messiah’s location to Herod, “he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi”.

So Matthew’s wise men are portrayed as visiting a toddler at least a year old, rather than a baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem. Luke’s shepherds would have been long gone.

And where did they visit? Did Joseph lead a last minute donkey dash around the hostelries of Bethlehem to find a room for Mary in the throes of labour? Luke 2 describes Mary travelling to Bethlehem while “expecting a child”. The phrasing of verse 6 is gentle rather than frantic: “while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born”. This doesn’t sound like labour was imminent at the time of travel.

And what about the stable? Anyone who has swept away straw that’s fallen out of a bale of hay brought into church for a nativity play knows that the Messiah was born surrounded by cows, sheep and a donkey. The second verse of Once in Royal David’s City reinforces the idea that “his shelter was a stable”.

Luke tells us that Mary “brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn”.

That’s the King James Version. Other English translations use ‘guest room’ instead of ‘inn’, using the same Greek work as the ‘upper room’ in Luke 22 rather than the ‘hotel’ from the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. So the humorous and popular role of innkeeper may be sadly superfluous to strictly accurate nativity plays!

One of the first Christmas Carols many of us learn is Away in a Manger. (The words are often attributed to Martin Luther; however, one or more 19th century American lyricists are probably responsible.)

“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Do we really believe that baby Jesus wouldn’t have cried when woken up by a bellowing cow?

We might also question the imagery in the words “the stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay”. The idea of an open stable seems to follow from the mention of “a manger”.

Archaeological excavations in the region have found first century homes with an upper room or floor used for guests, while the main family lived downstairs. Since Joseph and Mary had to go to his birthplace because of the census, it’s inconceivable in this middle eastern culture that Joseph would not stay with family. Yet it’s quite believable that they weren’t the first relatives to arrive, and that the census put great pressure on the family’s hospitality, so instead of being upstairs with the more honoured guests they were taken into the heart of the family and household animals downstairs.

Animals were often brought indoors. They were significant items of property for a poor family, and were safer kept close to family, as well as being a useful source of central heating – so homes had feeding troughs inside. Plenty of Irish babies have been put to bed in a drawer when no cot was available. A feeding trough would have been similarly convenient.

I don’t mean to be a killjoy! Matthew and Luke tell the nativity stories differently, relating to different audiences, and Mark and John don’t dwell on the birth narratives at all. There can be truth and meaning in our mythology and even in our misunderstandings and fresh understandings, which makes it all the harder for us to discard the shiny wrapping paper that we have allowed to envelop the narratives of Matthew and Luke.

Demythologising the story of Jesus’ birth doesn’t have to demystify or destroy it. If anything it makes the gift of God becoming flesh more than 2,000 years ago all the more wondrous in the retelling, reliving, rediscovering and uncovering as Word becomes flesh still today.

From his fresh perspective, Anglican theologian Ian Paul comments on the more likely place of Jesus’ birth: “In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy. He is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention.”

Jesus is welcomed as ‘one of us’ rather than kept as a mere guest or foreigner. A fresh challenge to us this Christmas to make sure we’ll make space for him at the heart of our lives and homes.

This article appeared in the December/January edition of the Presbyterian Herald magazine.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

If You Can Find Me – experimental showcase of fine NI Opera Studio voices (touring Belfast, Newry and Derry in January)

Over 60 minutes, 12 songs from six of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals are threaded together in If You Can Find Me to tell a story of innocence, servitude and love in the costume store of a theatre.

Tenor Ross Scanlon enters the cloistered backstage world as a singing poet who has destroyed his back catalogue and is quickly besotted with a young maid Ella Harkins (Rebecca Murphy). She has grown up behind the curtain, but before her suitor can whisk her out into the real world, he must first unpick her relationship with older servant Wilson (Elaine McDaid), working under the beady eye of the basque and stockinged Mrs Montag (Margaret Bridge).

Red mist descends to give the show a suitably operatic finale, and the costume dummies finally come into their own. (The horse’s head prop remains unexplained!)

The Sondheim mashup – Evening Primrose, Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, Anyone Can Whistle and Merrily We Roll Along – features less well-known tunes, many from theatre or backstage-themed shows. The fun localisation of I’m Still Here found favour with the audience, while the curated playlist and interstitial dialogue by dramaturg Judith Wiemers drew together an intriguing storyline.

Murphy excels as the enchanting maid. Her duet with wide-eyed Scanlon, Take Me to the World, finally shows off the considerable dynamic range of her beautiful soprano voice, and out-powers the tenor at key moments, perhaps a hint at the show’s conclusion. The pair’s chemistry is well portrayed. Mezzo-soprano Bridge delivers a sultry performance as the boss, while McDaid owns her ladder-top One More Kiss. Keith McAlister’s fingers rarely cease playing throughout the hour, sustaining the pace and mood.

The concept of If You Can Find Me scores highly, but the staging in the venue fails. The titular opening number starts out in the Lyric Theatre bar, though some of the power and gusto is lost when singers move further back under the high atrium. Everyone shifts into the Naughton Studio for the remainder of the performance, but the unraked seating leaves the audience bobbing back and forward like parents at a school performance trying to catch a glimpse of the performers. The majority of the show is played at ground level over the full length of the space, some parts with the cast seated, so unless you sit in the front row, several songs become radio edits and a lot of the direction that Kate Guelke had rehearsed goes unseen. The more constrained stages in the rest of the tour may fix a lot of these problems.

While not as strong as Hidden Extras, NI Opera Studio’s continued experimentation with storytelling succeeds in showcasing the young singing talent on the island, and giving a chance for singers to develop their acting skills under a range of directors. It’s good to see Jessica Hackett from October’s Studio performance among the cast announced for NI Opera’s next Sondheim project, Sweeney Todd, in February.

There are further opportunities in January to see If You Can Find Me in The Black Box, Belfast (as part of Out To Lunch Festival at 1pm on Wednesday 16), Newry Chamber Music at Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, Newry (Thursday 17 at 8pm) and Nerve Centre, Derry (Friday 18 at 8pm).

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Michelle & Arlene: Ulster Says Snow – they‘re broke and in Brazil not Northern Ireland! (Accidental Theatre until 13 December)

Early episodes of the enduring Michelle & Arlene satire focussed on the pair of political leaders finding ways of resolving the political stalemate that has removed Northern Ireland’s government rug from beneath the public’s feet. But even playwright Rosemary Jenkinson has had to abandon that possibility and move on to other political imperatives with her latest set of adventures.

Michelle & Arlene: Ulster Says Snow opens with the Secretary of State imposing a second, more drastic cut in MLA salaries, which sees the DUP leader and her Sinn Féin northern counterpart scratching around to make a living. Could her charity CD Arlene Sings Christmas be a festive hit to boost the Fermanagh & South Tyrone MLA’s financial coffers? A more likely possibility opens up when a Brazilian trade visit sparks a fund-raising gala.

Maria Connolly steps back into the shoes of Arlene Foster, with a reddy/orange dress, a crown broach, a scowl and something suitable in her Union Flag suitcase ready for Copacabana Beach. Mary-Frances Doherty has straightened out Michelle O’Neill’s long blond wig, carries a ready supply of miniatures in her travel bag – to get the pair half cut, like their pay – and, despite the bonhomie, never wastes an opportunity to tease or get one up on her unionist rival.

Director Richard Lavery breaks up the scenes with fun interstitial videos. The stylised performances of Connolly and Doherty are by now as familiar as they are ridiculous. The actors have probably spent more time together than the politicians they are lampooning!

Cyril the intern is introduced as a new foil for Foster, while O’Neill has developed quite a womance with Mary Lou. The ABBA/Waterloo cover (“My, my, at Mary Lou Arlene did surrender”) is a musical highpoint in the one act show that squeezes in a few Christmas numbers and some of Arlene’s ‘greatest’ hits.

With the effort of finding a political agreement for every citizen replaced with a focus on improving the bank balances of the two leaders who put us in this situation (and could click their fingers and get us out of it), even with Brexit hanging over proceedings the jeopardy is reduced and along with it some of the easy mirth of the earlier episodes.

Since Jenkinson has claimed she’ll keep making these plays as long as the deadlock remains – and the plot tends to get all the more ludicrous as time goes on – perhaps the next step is to take them up into the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings?

Michelle & Arlene: Ulster Says Snow continues at Accidental Theatre in Belfast’s Shaftesbury Square with performances on Friday 7 and Thursday 13 October.

The Crack in Everything - 6 young lives cut short, the human cost continues as do the questions (Brian Friel Theatre until 8 December)

I feel slightly ashamed that I’m not already familiar with these stories. Maybe the thickness of the Lost Lives book is testament to the impossibility of holding any significant proportion of Troubles-related deaths in your head at the one time. Yet close family and friends of each person listed will continue to grieve and mourn their loss and will often still be asking questions about the circumstances of their death.

The Crack in Everything explains that not all the deaths were even recorded or categorised as being part of the conflict. Take Damien Harkin. A British Army lorry took a wrong turning, lost control driving down an unfamiliar and unsuitable hill, mounted the pavement, striking and killing an innocent eight-year-old boy who walked around the corner. His death was treated as a traffic accident.

Jo Egan’s play holds up the stories of six children who were killed, five in the early 1970s and one in 1981. Another eight-year-old was up a ladder cleaning the window of the family shop in Claudy when the blast from the first of three IRA bombs caught Kathryn Eakin and knocked her down to the ground.

Three 14-year-old girls: Annette McGavigan fatally wounded when the army fired into a crowd of bystanders at a riot in the Bogside; Kathleen Feeney killed by an IRA sniper who was firing at an army checkpoint; Julie Livingstone died from her injuries sustained from a plastic bullet.

Or 16-year-old Henry Cunningham killed when UVF gunmen shot at the van from a footbridge. Security forces arrived on the scene before any alert was raised in an attack that reeks of foreknowledge and collusion.

Six actors stand on a stepped stage jutting out of a set that looks like that remnants of a bombed building. The amber glow of street lights floods the theatre as the audience take their seats. Projections from Conan McIvor paint graffiti onto a concrete wall. The audience spontaneously – and somewhat unusually for theatre – applaud the end of each family’s story as a photograph of the youngster appears at three windows behind the cast.

The cast mix and match roles between stories, playing siblings, parents and friends. Their intercut dialogue flows quickly and is delivered straight to the audience, full of rich local vernacular which captures the sense of place. We’re told about the smell of gas, the sound of blast bombs, the visual effect of a petrol station up in flames. The format is dense, but the content compelling.

Afterwards I realise that professional actors Colette Lennon Dougal, Damien Hasson and Micheál McDaid have been joined by Sarah Feeney-Morrison, Maria McGavigan and Marjorie Leslie who have close links to the families of three of the children. It only adds to the already thick poignancy of the testimony, based on conversations with the victims’ families.

Garth McConaghie’s soundtrack accents key moments in each drama while John Comiskey’s shady lighting is a constant reminder of the sorrow that surrounds the stories being told, and the trauma that continues to haunt those left behind. There’s a lot of sadness and resilience, much guilt and bitterness, some forgiveness, and very little closure.

On top of the tragedy of young lives cut short, Jo Egan’s script highlights the shared theme of unanswered questions. Inquiries held before police investigations were complete, sometimes without families being informed, and without legal representation. An initial IRA denial that was later replaced with an offer to pay for the funeral and eventually a public apology. British Army investigations that lacked substance. Lacklustre detective work resulting in nothing being passed to the DPP and so no prosecutions to even consider. Long waits for Historical Enquiries Team reports.

For some families, faith sustains; for others, faith has been lost; and for one in particular, faith leaders have let them down by withholding the truth.

Most of those children would today be in their mid-fifties or early-sixties if they had lived. It was a privilege to hear their stories, yet distressing to realise that without the Derry Playhouse Theatre and Peace Building Academy (at which Jo Egan was the first International Theatre Artist in Residence) I mightn’t have been introduced to these heart-breaking reminders of the continued human cost of the conflict.

The Crack in Everything runs in the Brian Friel Theatre (walk through to the back of Queen’s Film Theatre to find it) until Saturday 8 December. Tickets are free, but booking is essential.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

It’s a Wonderful Wee Christmas – a festive comedy with a serious message about mental health (Theatre at the Mill until 31 December)

Transplanting It’s a Wonderful Life from New York to New Mossley, writers and actors Caroline Curran and Julie Maxwell step into the shoes of a hard-working Credit Union manager whose life has got on top of him.

In It’s a Wonderful Wee Christmas, the man who has been so loyal to his community, and always goes the extra mile to help those around him, has forgotten to take care of himself. Angel-in-training Clara Crackingbody intervenes to remind Geordie Bailey about how he managed to get through past difficulties and points him towards those who have always walked with him and could do so once again.

Jimmy Doran quickly establishes Geordie as warm and empathetic as he tirelessly works through the long queue of Christmas Eve customers withdrawing cash for the holidays. Abi McGibbon plays Mary, his wife and teammate for life, and adds much hilarity in a number of other comic roles.

Julie Maxwell and Paddy Buchanan play the younger Geordie and Mary, and despite the differences between the couples in stature and appearance, the acting and direction sells the pretence. Caroline Curran takes the part of the angel, with a penchant for karaoke and some unorthodox techniques to bring Geordie to his senses.

The audience fissle with noisy sweet wrappers and gregariously giggle through the opening scenes, before the mood changes and they sit in silence as the frivolity melts away and the seriousness of the situation is exposed. Curran’s natural physicality and face-pulling were well exercised as she wordlessly acted during quieter scenes, while Maxwell has fun with a minor role with her mild-mannered conversation with strangers and attack dog menacing of her boyfriend.

While the cast of five are all strong and work well as an ensemble, if theatre performances had a player of the match, the award would have to go to Jimmy Doran for his relatable portrayal of someone in crisis experiencing an emotional breakdown.

A lot of details from the original film has been kept and embedded in this version. The Credit Union set is simple yet provides a number of built-in stages while the row of front doors are rather wonderful to watch as they descend from the fly tower. Conleth White’s precise lighting is very sympathetic to the play’s changing mood and gives the show the kind of classy look that normally comes with a much higher ticket price.

It’s a Wonderful Wee Christmas runs at the Theatre at the Mill until 31 December. It’s probably the only festive show on a local stage that could save lives by shining a spotlight on mental health and encouraging people to talk to those they love. But theatre is a great way of bringing a subject to life and planting ideas in people’s minds. For that, and the funny bits in-between, this show deserves applause.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

The Old Man & the Gun – vintage Robert Redford in piece of beautifully slow cinema (from 7 December)

Sit back and relax. You’re in safe hands. Robert Redford won’t let you down.

The Old Man & the Gun is the 82 year old actor’s last film, a fond farewell that is as charming and cheerful as its title character, an ageing gentleman who carries a gun but never fires it when robbing banks.

While based on the true-life activity of serial bank robber Forrest Tucker, the also film manages to verbally and visually reference Redford’s back catalogue of movies. Redford gives the geriatric heist artist Tucker a distinctive swagger as he enters each new bank branch with nail polish disguising his finger prints.

While withdrawing money from banks is his way of life, there’s a loneliness about Tucker, even as the leader of his serial geriatric heist gang (Danny Glover and Tom Waits). Something sparks with a widow he meets while making a getaway, and the audience are left for a while to guess whether this is real or just another con.

The Old Man & the Gun is slow cinema. Beautifully slow cinema that strikes the delicate balance between relaxed storytelling and suspense. David Lowery’s screenplay (based on David Grann’s article in the New Yorker) consistently conceals enough detail about the plot to keep your mind busy evaluating the options during the on-screen downtime, and somehow the serial geriatric heist artist ingratiates rather than imitates. (The audience are never troubled into worrying about the victims of his crimes.)

Nothing is over-acted. While Redford is the centre of attention, Sissy Spacek’s performance as his new squeeze brings a lovely warmth to the screen. There’s a lovely cameo from Elisabeth Moss and Casey Affleck plays the restless, tousle-haired Detective John Hunt who cracks open the multi-state spate of robberies before the Feds frustratingly trample all over his investigation.

The slow pace of the film is greatly enhanced by a great blues and jazz soundtrack which make some of the most lethargic scenes feel like you’ve been stood up in a hotel bar in the happiest way possible.

With a couple of mentions of Christmas, The Old Man & the Gun is the perfect antidote to anyone who feels rushed and hassled by the festive seasons. Sit back, relax and enjoy an hour and a half of sepia-tinged vintage Robert Redford. And stay for the credits to marvel at Jade Healy’s role as Wallpaper Whisperer!

In cinemas including Movie House and Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 7 December.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Alice: The Musical – dropping down a rabbit hole to explore a surreal Wonderland (Lyric Theatre until 5 January)

It’s been a strong year of performance at the Lyric in their 50th anniversary year, and they’re finishing it off with a revival of Paul Boyd’s rocky and crowd-pleasing Alice: The Musical, twenty years after its Lyric première.

Back in May, Ruby Campbell was clinging on to the death-defying heights of the verdant set of Lovers: Winners and Losers. Tonight as Alice, she dropped through a rabbit hole into Wonderland to hand back a lost glove to The White Rabbit and bring some logical order to the madness of the Queen of Hearts’ kingdom.

Battling to escape this puzzling new world, she encounters familiar characters from Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Charlotte McCurry (Bella in last year’s Beauty and the Beast) musically narrates key moments and transitions as the wiry The Cheshire Cat, perched up high to one side of the set.

Ruby Campbell’s voice adeptly switches from Alice’s gentler numbers to belting out power ballads. Allison Harding brings much-feared and temperamental Queen of Hearts to life, showing off her alto voice and tapdancing skills, while Christina Nelson provides comic relief among the stalls and up on stage.

Rea Campbell-Hill and Adam Dougal warm the audience up as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but it’s the knockout charisma of Mark Dugdale as the flamboyant flamenco Caterpillar who inspires the Lyric audience to spontaneously clap along and stamp their feet as the energy of the performance combines with the music, lyrics and Deborah Maguire’s brisk choreography to create a special moment for young and old.

The Lyric’s main auditorium is most effective when it’s hosting spoken theatre and its hard surfaces and PA system tend not to lend themselves to layering amplified voices over thumping music tracks. At times Paul Boyd’s clever lyrics and the cast’s harmonies were drowned out; though so too were any distracting noises from young children. Hopefully the balance can be improved during the run.

Stuart Marshall’s set slowly reveals its layers and the chunky props serve the story well. Pedants will notice that the red book that Alice carries shrinks and grows during the performance even though the dimensional aspects of the story are quickly dropped from the narrative. Maths buffs may also spot a likely typo in one projected equation.

Cat suits and red leather dresses are clearly de jour in Belfast theatre shows for children this year. Thankfully also in vogue are intelligent lyrics, stylish scores, and entire casts who can sing in tune.
“I wanted an adventure / a story of my own / the grass is always greener / when it’s growing far from home”

While I’m not yet certain which characters were playing Michel Barnier, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, I’m pretty sure there’s a reading of Alice: The Musical that sees the UK having jumped down a Brexit hole and struggling to find a way through the nonsensical and illogical negotiations and repercussions. If only NI politicians were as easy to reassure as the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party: tea is indeed the answer to everything!

Alice: The Musical is a stylish production with a big sound, a surreal story and a lot of laughs. It runs in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 6 January.

Photo credit: Melissa Gordon