Thursday, June 06, 2024

The Dead Don’t Hurt – Viggo Mortensen’s impressive tussle between romance and western (cinemas across UK and Ireland from Friday 7 June)

Shots are fired in a hostelry. Tick. An officer of the law is shot in a dusty town square, falling to the ground and lying face-down motionless. Tick. Someone rides off into the distance on a horse. Tick. The goat joins the townsfolk to watch an innocent man incapable of defending himself being hung. Tick …

The Dead Don’t Hurt initially has all the hallmarks of a western. Until Viggo Mortensen – who is writer, director, actor and composer – splices up the story and stitches it back together in a series of flashbacks and flash forwards, part romance, part western. (The delicate touch of film editor Peder Pedersen should take a lot of the credit for the success of this bold storytelling.) It’s almost like long hair being platted, weaving together the different strands to form a recognisable, neatly constructed pattern of beauty.

Soon we’re seeing a young French-Canadian girl who is fascinated with Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) and grows up into an independent spirited woman Vivienne (Vicky Krieps) who falls in (love) with a Danish immigrant carpenter Olsen (Viggo Mortensen). They set up home on the outskirts of a town in the state of Nevada. She grows flowers and gets a job in the local saloon. The romance builds. “You’re more handy with every passing day” … right up to the moment Olsen decides to go off to fight in the Civil War.

Then the western aspect takes back control. Solly McLeod plays Weston Jeffries, the violent and untamed son of a local businessman. The mayor is crooked. The local judge administers justice through the medium of preaching.

For the period of the war, Olsen is off-screen, fittingly because this is a portrait of Vivienne and a vehicle that shows off Krieps’ character acting. Before and after – that’s not a spoiler given the open five minutes of the film – he’s a man of few words and unsentimental. The couple can almost converse by facial expression. Her smile melts his heart. His loyalty is tested. Violence begets violence. And the western urges finally overcome the film’s romantic notions.

While the runtime is long, the teasing out of the key moments in Vivienne and Olsen’s lives is fulfilling. The Dead Don’t Hurt is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre, The Avenue and Cineworld Belfast from Friday 7 June.


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Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Docs Ireland – a 6 day, 108 film, celebration of documentary filmmaking (18-23 June) #docsireland6

Coming up in a few weeks time will be 108 films packed into six days of Docs Ireland, a festival of international documentary film. Local talent from this island will be celebrated along with worldwide examples from a whole range of styles of documentary filmmaking.

Tuesday 18 June

The Flats // The opening night film promises to be a treat. Alessandra Celesia directed The Bookseller of Belfast, a 2012 film centred around John Clancy, a north Belfast man of letters who ran a second-hand bookshop in Smithfield and built a community around his passion for words. Celesia is a fabulous storyteller who can elevate the mundane to the memorable. Twelve years on, the filmmaker is the New Lodge, telling the story of tower-block dwellers whose lives continue to be impacted by how the Troubles devastated their neighbourhood. I’ll be there to find out if the Jolene featured in The Flats is the same Jolene who served up John’s fries in his local greasy spoon.

Wednesday 19 June

Two shorts by acclaimed broadcaster, documentary maker and musician David Hammond are being shown at noon at QUB: the playful Dusty Bluebells and Something to Write Home About (a meditation presented by Seamus Heaney). Another Hammond-directed film The Magic Fiddle is being screened on Friday 21 at noon in the Ulster Museum.

Thursday 20 June

I See a Darkness // A film essay that probes the historical relationship between photography, cinema and science using the lives and work of Irish chrono-photographer Lucien Bell, MIT professor and atomic test photographer Harold E Edgerton, and oceanographer/conservationalist Jacques Cousteau.

Home Invasion // An offbeat essay about the history of the doorbell.

Once Upon a Time in a Forest // Each generation lives with the consequences of it’s ancestor’s actions. A modern fairy tale in the enchanting embrace of a Finnish forest.

Saturday 22 June

Anatomy of the Cut // If you’re interested in non-fiction storytelling and the art of editing documentaries together, join a handful of editors in conversation with Mick Mahon (Gaza; I, Dolours; Nothing Compares) in the Black Box at lunchtime.

Hollywoodgate // Filmmaker Ibrahim Nash’at spent a year observing the Taliban as they took over the Hollywood Gate complex (claimed to be a former Kabul CIA base) in the immediate aftermath of the US withgrawal from Afghanistan.

Sunday 23 June

The Ban // Roisin Agnew’s new film about British government’s ban on the voices of Sinn Féin and Irish republican and loyalist paramilitry representatives being used on televison and radio. Did the threat of terrorism justify censorship?

No Other Land // The festival closes with a film that follows a Palestinian activist who records the destruction of his region in the West Bank, with the help of an Israeli journalist who befriends him. Their across the divide friendship turns out to be unsettled and exposes divisions of security, freedom and living conditions.

Ahead of the main festival, it might also be worth catching The Moon Beneath the Water (Wednesday 12 June), a poetic trip full of magic realism through time and nature around Erto, one of the two villages in the Italian Alps that survived the Vajont Dam disaster on 9 October 1963. The landslide and flood killed almost 2,000 people, and destroyed five villages in the Piave valley, yet Erto and nearby Casso only sustained minor damage.

The full programme can be explored on the Docs Ireland website (and downloaded as a PDF).

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Hoard – a soul-chilling coming-of-age debut about grief and neglect from Luna Carmoon (Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 6 June)

Within 24 hours of watching the film Hoard, I had filled the recycling bin to the brim and was making a plan to deal with the plastic Ikea boxes overloaded with USB cables of varying shapes and sizes. It’s a deeply-affecting film that’s hard to shake off.

The first half hour of Luna Carmoon’s directorial debut is a haunting depiction of a single mum Cynthia and her daughter Maria living in a house that is beyond cluttered. Cynthia’s compulsion to hoard means she heads out at night to hoke through other people’s bins to find wonderful curiosities. As a result, Maria is perpetually tired in school, having spent the previous evening being wheeled around the neighbourhood in a shopping trolley along with the collectables. No teacher ever thinks to stop and ask why she’s tired before scolding her.

Cynthia believes that her treasures are a sign of her devotion towards Maria. Vivid performances from Hayley Squires and Lily-Beau Leach firmly establish the bond between mother and daughter. Little baby rats and the sometimes-illusive household ferret add warmth to the squalor. Every aspect of their lives is obsessive: with a family song or rhyme for every occasion, long duration screams, and vivid imaginations. Hoard is a vision of what happens when someone loses control, with the devastating consequences playing out for those close to them.

Nanu Segal’s stunning cinematography makes a playful scene under a blanket feel like something straight out of Macbeth. Everything screams of the cast having a blast filming the scenes. While Maria’s homelife is distressing, much more upsetting is a man exposing himself to the young girl as she walks home one night. That moment allows the audience to begin to build a hierarchy of neglect and abuse that will be updated in the remaining ninety minutes.

The transition from young Maria to adolescent Maria (Saura Lightfoot Leon) is beautifully handled. Now living in care, we watch the vulnerable teenager adapt to how her foster mum Michelle (Samantha Spiro) runs a household. Watch out for mirroring in the costume palettes. An extended visit by a former foster child Michael (Joseph Quinn) disrupts and thoroughly disturbs as Maria finds ways to reconnect with her birth mother while growing up into adulthood.

Over two hours long, Hoard slightly overstays its welcome. The brilliance of the taut opening setup contrasts with the sprawling analysis of grief and self-harm. But it’s a coming-of-age film that will chill your soul and preoccupy your thinking for days to come.

Hoard is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 6 June.


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Chronicles of Long Kesh – a harrowing dip into painful history (GBL Productions at Grand Opera House until Saturday 8 June)

Belfast is awash with harrowing theatre at the moment. Over in the Lyric, Keith Singleton leads a cast who are delivering stellar performances in Prime Cut’s The Pillowman. Tonight, it was the turn of the Grand Opera House with a restaging of Martin Lynch’s 2009 play Chronicles of Long Kesh.

Over two and half hours we’re reminded of the violent events on the streets of this place, carried out by – and in the name of – paramilitaries and state forces, as well as examples of the violent events inside prison, specifically the Maze Long Kesh, again carried out by paramilitaries and officers.

At the start, Oscar is the Commanding Officer in his compound. Marty Maguire revisits this showman with his great voice and staggering falsetto, bringing to life the upbeat character who drills the other men on the wing. The contrast between the beginning and the moment Oscar loses his mojo is stark.

Toot was interned – wrong place, wrong time, though he’s no saint – the first time he ends up behind bars. Gerard McCabe has great fun with this soft-headed clampit who has a fixation with seagulls and provides much of the light in an otherwise shady story. Shaun Blaney’s Eamon is drawn further and further into the republican movement, eventually ending up as a ‘blanket man’ and considers volunteering for the hunger strike. He also teaches Toot to read.

Jo Donnelly excels as the loyalist supremo Thumper, a man who misses the boat on getting an education and ultimately fritters away the opportunities that might have turned his life around. Bob Dylan-loving loyalist Hank is played by Warren McCook. But the real drama is always over in the republican compounds.

Lisa May co-directs Chronicles and her stylised frozen action choreography along with James McFetridge’s focussed lighting allows prison officer Freddie to step forward and provide the context – for much is needed as we speed through history – of who the characters are and what’s happening inside and outside the prison. Like all the characters, Jimmy Doran’s Freddie life is affected by what happens at work. The darkness of the black set and props echoes the depression that falls over the inmates and their officers.

A long first act reaches its crescendo with the beginning of the first hunger strike. After the interval, the drama switched from stage to the stalls, with phone calls galore, someone answering a call from their taxi firm, taking a photograph with their phone’s flash on, and constant loud side conversations with deep voices that distracted from key moments on stage. Lots of shushing from those seated around them was ignored: in fact, this all came from a group who had moved forward to empty seats at the interval and were joking about having been shushed on the way out. If only the Grand Opera House had a slammer to throw them in …

The second act is caught in a conundrum. Early on, a lot of Tamla Motown music is used – all performed with beautiful a cappella harmonies by the cast with only the beat of a stick on the wooden set to accompany them – to inject pace back into the performances. But the oppressive events inside and outside the prison mean that even music can’t lift everyone’s mood in the audience.

The cast’s rendition of Long Time Coming after the republican inmates hear about the death of Bobby Sands is a beautiful moment of theatre, absent of romanticism, but thick with grief, loss, pain and pity.

While Martin Lynch’s play doesn’t teach us anything new about the Troubles or the prison system, and it defiantly ignores victims to focus on the experience of the perpetrators – most of whom also qualify as victims in one sense or another – it does creatively mark a passage of history that should not be forgotten. Like the heavy black boxes that form the set, the constant sense of separation that rains down on the prisoners and officer Freddie can shift around but can never leave the stage.

Chronicles of Long Kesh continues its run at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 8 June before continuing its NI tour. 

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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Wizard of Oz – a production that successfully throws the kitchen sink at recreating the magic of the classic film (Grand Opera House until Sunday 26 May)

Wow! It’s loud. It’s brash. And that’s not just the explosive first beat from the ten-piece orchestra in the pit. While there was a book (1900), a stage musical (1902) and several films (1939 being the famous one, but there’s even an 1908 silent version) long before Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams got their teeth into this musical adaptation (2011), Curve’s touring production of The Wizard of Oz will be familiar to anyone to life the classic film that starred 17 year old Judy Garland as Dorothy.

The set remains sparse for the opening scenes in rural Kansas. A large LED video wall at the rear of the stage whisks the audience through locations as we’re introduced to Hunk, Hickory, Zeke, Professor Marvel, Aunt Em, Uncle Henry and Dorothy … not forgetting little Toto the dog. Watch out for a familiar looking face cycling across the stage before applying the green make-up of the Wicked Witch of the West.

After the storm, the action builds up a somewhat relentless pace that blows the story along the yellow-brick road – whose giant arrows on dollies must look spectacular from the up in the Circle and the Gods – picking up the Scarecrow (Benjamin Yates), the Tin Man (Femi Akinfolarin with great choreography in his first ‘stiff’ scene) and the Cowardly Lion (Nic Greenshields) en route to the Emerald City and the interval.

While Aviva Tulley has the shortest bio in the programme, she exhibits the most beautiful singing voice and delivers a vibrant performance as Dorothy. Wherever Dorothy goes, Toto follows, and Abigail Matthews is a continuous presence on stage animating the puppet which interacts with cast members, nuzzling, gesturing, and at one point, even talking. The fact that Toto even has his own follow-spot in a later scene is a sign of how important this non-human character and his talented puppeteer are to the story.

Craig Revel Horwood’s love of musical theatre and his performing flair merge to create a fun but fierce Wicked Witch of the West. Other than one “fab-u-lous” that’s craftily thrown into the dialogue as a giant wink to his role as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing, he’s very definitely on stage as the witch rather than a camped-up pantomime version of himself.

The video wall is driven by Unreal Engine software which allows animations in the backdrop to be cued at will, like the release of balloons when the actors hit a mark rather than the whole show having to be tied to the timings of a pre-rendered animation. The video design is well integrated into the action – the sideways rain makes it feel like the whole stage is caught in a storm – though there is a tendency for complex objects in the mid-to-near view like the spinning windmill to become noticeably jerky which sometimes tarnishes the magic as we fly through certain scenes and these objects get larger.

While there’s an old-fashioned feel to the steampunk props and costumes – love the bright culottes worn by the yellow brick road Munchkins! – someone takes an anachronistic selfie and good witch Glinda (Emily Bull) has a rather smart remote control to tame her Wicked cousin. Bull can certainly hit the high notes in Already Home, although her low energy entrances onto the stage atop a pink electric scooter lack the pizazz of the rest of the show.

Director Nikolai Foster successfully marries a lot of technology – and the associated production risk – alongside great performances, a riot of colour in the costumes, powerful live music from the pit, and a confident grip of what The Wizard of Oz stands for in the minds and memories of the audience. That, and throwing in “a couple of la-de-das” for good measure!

A modern retelling might cast Glinda as a manipulative ‘good’ witch who coerces a child into a needless and dangerous journey to see a charlatan pretending to be a wizard in a bid to murder her ‘wicked’ rival. Instead, this production feels like it’s related to Doctor Who, willing characters to find their inner steel and go on a journey of self-discovery to find out that they are enough and their good can overcome other’s evil.

If you tap your heels together three times and click on the Grand Opera House website, you could find yourself in one of the remaining seats for this run that continues in Belfast until Sunday 26 May before spending next week in Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Slow – a dancer and a sign language interpreter spark chemistry in this confident second feature from director Marija Kavtaradzė (Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 24 May)

A choreographer and dancer catches the eye of a sign language interpreter who is assisting a class she’s running with deaf students who are rehearsing a routine to perform at a summer camp. Elena (played by Greta Grinevičiūtė) is muscular, expressive and sensual. Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas) is tall, shy and hesitant right until he suddenly becomes impulsive and asks her out for a walk.

Lithuanian director and screenwriter Marija Kavtaradzė confidently relays their gentle and easy-going courtship, with the couple becoming incredibly relaxed as they spend time with each other. The tempo is unlike Elena’s usual frenetic and more promiscuous yet ultimately disappointing hookups. And right when it’s all becoming serious, Dovydas reveals that he’s asexual, spinning Slow in a totally different direction as Elena grapples with a man that she connects with not wanting or needing the relationship to be sexual. There are many boundaries to be negotiated.

“I can’t be the person you need.”

Over 108 minutes, Kavtaradzė explores what it means for Dovydas to be asexual. His inner confidence is continuously held in tension with his vulnerability, always waiting for the moment that a partner will walk out feeling terminally dissatisfied. Slow also examines the balance between what Elena is giving up and what she might gain, though the dance teacher spends longer listing her regrets than her blessings as she struggles to redefine what her new ‘normal’ might look like.

The theme of living differently and denying or being denied aspects of life that others find ‘normal’ is also seen through the lens of Elena’s childhood friend who is now a nun (Laima Akstinaitė) as well as the deaf/sign language elements of the film. The scenes with deaf students allow movement and dance to come to fore, showcasing Grinevičiūtė’s talent.

Routinely expressive with his hands and face, Donvydas’ clumsy combination of dad- and disco-dancing is very amateur until a beautiful scene in a bar where he stands at a distance from Elena, mirroring her gestures as she turns him into an elegant performer. And watch out for the choreographed hanging up the washing. The chemistry between the two leads can be electric.

Kavtaradzė doesn’t offer any easy answers in this fresh and compelling romantic story. If your screening is anything like the preview I attended, you’ll walk out of the cinema into the bright light of the foyer with questions rattling around your head that will cause vivid conversations with strangers to begin.

Slow is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 24 May.


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Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Pillowman – a playwright asks where responsibility rests for inciting harm (Prime Cut and Lyric Theatre until 15 June)

Two brothers find themselves in police custody. While Michal (David Murphy) is soon confessing under duress to a number of very serious crimes, his one-year younger sibling, barefoot Katurian, is still unsure why he and his life’s work of 400 short stories are sitting in a cell. But living in a totalitarian state, he knows it’s not good news.

Keith Singleton is a gifted storyteller, and brilliantly cast as Katurian in Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. Showing visible signs of agitation and clearly nervous of the two police interrogators, when Katurian is asked to read out one of his stories to Tupolski and Ariel, the author becomes consumed by the tale and soon the characters have been given voices as if he was telling a bedtime story to his brother. The transformation is beautiful.

While Ariel (Steven Calvert) is quick to anger and uses violence to get quick results, Tupolski (Abigail McGibbon) is also quietly brutal with her approach. By the end of the play, their personas have neatly almost swapped. McGibbon is particularly well-suited to the role of senior detective – both police were originally written as male – who reveals her character to be delightfully passive aggressive and the queen of understatement.

The first scenes take place in Ciarán Bagnall’s shallow custody set, a dark stone bunker where the only colour comes from the vivid green police uniform. While many of Katurian’s stories are relayed orally, some are acted out, and much of the set lifts to open up the stage for the appearance of the brothers’ parents (Rosie McClelland and Jude Quinn with exquisitely synchronised movenents), ‘Little Jesus’ and another character vital to the climax (played brilliantly by a stomping and skipping Amelia Skillen and a bubbly and confidently signing Erin Barry).

The Pillowman is brought to you by the number ‘2’. Two brothers, two police detectives, two custody cells. The duality extends to the seven years of good treatment followed by the seven years of torture: almost biblical in its structure. Yet while all this might be expected to engender a simple sense of binary good and evil, McDonagh’s play is awash with greyness where nothing and no one can be easily pinned down.

The playwright didn’t constrain himself to a single, overriding idea when writing The Pillowman. He looks at assisted dying, and puts the toe into totalitarian, free speech state censorship, police brutality … subjects which all still have contemporary resonance 21 years after the play’s first production. At times the dialogue is shocking and disrespectful: profoundly racist and ableist language is deliberately included, both to highlight how closed societies ‘other’ anyone who shows distinctive appearance or behaviour, and also to challenge the audience, some of whom begin to realise that they’re guffawing at quite inappropriate humour while the rest of us are quietly judging.

McDonagh’s chunky script looms large – and long – on the stage. At times it’s hard to listen to Katurian without feeling like you’re hearing McDonagh doing the talking. There’s a lot of thinking about legacy – “it’s about what you leave behind … they’re not going to kill my stories” – and whether the enduring written word is more important than relationships and human interaction.

But the enduring theme explores the responsibility of authors and playwrights. Journalists often talk about the responsibility of telling other people’s stories with authenticity, forethought and a duty of care towards any vulnerability or likely backlash. Katurian asserts that “the first – or only – duty of a storyteller is to tell a story”. But is that true? Or enough? Does imagination need to be tempered by responsibility not to incite violence or cause harm? Can fiction – knowingly or unwittingly – become future fact? Can art be divorced from reality given that reality so often influences and inspires the creation of the art?

Brothers Grimm had nothing on the dark and brutal storytelling of McDonagh. Chopping off a finger as an act of thran stubbornness is mild when compared with the vivid imagination behind The Pillowman, replete with stories about abusive adults and children meeting violent ends. Nine years after seeing Decadent Theatre Company’s production in the Lyric Theatre, I still find the titular story that’s related before the interval incredibly upsetting, a tale about a creature who travels back in time to confront children about the traumatic lives they will go on to lead, and then comfort them with an alternative ending. The concept is morally elegant, but the final twist in this short story racks up the pain.

Emma Jordan’s masterful direction richly mines the dark material, takes total control of the mood (aided by Carl Kennedy’s sinister sound design), and lifts the actors’ performances to fully convey this troubling tale.

The play explains that years of childhood torture have had an effect on Michal’s development. On stage, Michal veers between demonstrating poor insight, reduced ability to process complex information and emotional distress, to suddenly showing an almost savant ability to critique Katurian’s behaviour and weaknesses. Having avoided giving Michal any obvious mannerisms or stereotypical ticks, and not having cast an actor with a visible or declared learning disability, the character of Michal is perhaps the least well defined of the otherwise assured production.

Press night included a show stop before the interval due to an audience member’s ill health. The cast and crew restarted the scene very smoothly after an early extended interval, quite a technical and performative achievement.

The Pillowman is a Lyric Theatre and Prime Cut co-production that runs until 15 June. With strong themes throughout and an age advisory of 16+, if you’ve experience of a young death in your family circle, the play may be quite upsetting.

Photo credit: Melissa Gordon

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Saturday, May 11, 2024

Riot Symphony: The Sun Still Shines – the obligation of protest through the medium of symphony (Belfast Ensemble with Ulster Orchestra)

The penultimate concert in the Ulster Orchestra’s 2023/24 season was given over to a new work composed by Conor Mitchell and produced by the Belfast Ensemble. Sandwiched between Star Wars-themed May the Fourth Be With You concert and the season finale of Mahler’s Second Symphony (Friday 24 May in the Waterfront Hall with Belfast Philharmonic Choir), the orchestra were collaborating for a third time with the composer and musical theatre maker.

The most recent exiting-Covid collaboration with the Ulster Orchestra – MASS, part of the 2021 Outburst Queer Arts Festival – seated the players in the middle of the old Belfast Telegraph print room while the audience could stand or move around the edge to observe the music being performed and the wraparound visual projections. A little like the vibe of Belfast Ensemble’s earlier Doppler Effect, but on a giant scale.

For the audience, the Riot Symphony is much more sedentary, performed as a concert in the Ulster Hall. The 45-minute piece begins with a delicate and playful exposition of the motif. Before long, the pedal division of the organ is thundering under the woodwind section of the orchestra.

Gavin Peden’s video design is projected onto a gauze that stretches across most of the width of the stage, dropping from the lighting bar in the ceiling down to the floor. What begins as cars tootling past in recognisable Belfast locations switches are overhead surveillance as the music becomes more frenzied. Soon carousel of portraits of Putin’s face are filling the screen and nearly whipping attention away from the intricate musical score.

The libretto is taken from leaflets published by the White Rose Movement which called for active opposition to Nazi activities. Three of the writers were beheaded: Sophie Scholl was just 21 years old and her last words – “The sun still shines” – are picked up by the concert’s subtitle. Sung by soprano Rebecca Murphy and tenor Michael Bell, the English translation is conveniently projected along with the original German text.


Nothing is more shameful to a civilised nation than to allow itself to be ‘governed’ by an irresponsible clique of sovereigns who have given themselves over to dark urges.


Each man wishes to be acquitted of his complicity – everyone does so, then lies back down to sleep with a calm, clear conscience. But he may not acquit himself. Everyone is guilty, guilty, guilty!


Seeing the need to protest but sitting tight was neither an option for the White Rose authors nor Mitchell. As is the habit of Belfast Ensemble, no single medium takes absolute priority. So while the concert wouldn’t exist without the score, the orchestra and the Northern Irish singing talent, the video work has its own contribution to the storytelling. Imagery of a youngster with a bucket and spade building a sandcastle somehow infantilises powerful political and military leaders exercising their power. But even before the tide comes in to naturally reset the beach landscape, a toy sword appears to divide the kingdom before a small foot stomps on the remaining edifice. Weapons of mass destruction and the totalitarian jackboots of a wean … are we all capable of dividing and conquering?

The central motif repeats, forwards, backwards, and even set against itself. The notion of Sophie Scholl’s protest is joined by the notion of protest at home in Belfast. The orchestra continue playing under A Pussy Riot song – Putin Lights Up the Fires – which was released as a single at the point the bands members’ trial drew to a close following their protest outside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

While at times the video messaging was repetitive and unsubtle, it was used to good effect to illuminate the libretto and could have had a stronger impact signposting the different strands that were drawn together in the finale that musically seemed to catch the audience by surprise given its abruptness.

Punk and hiphop may be the populist forms of musical protest. But both in the programme notes and the pre-show discussion, Mitchell emphasises that classical music has a history of political protest. Riot Symphony demonstrates that this holds true today. A repeat performance might reinforce the musical structure and help spot the Ukrainian national anthem which was signposted as being woven into the final moments of the symphony.

Photo credit: Ronan McKernan

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Friday, May 10, 2024

La Chimera – hidden people, buried objects and a gang of Italian tomb raiders (Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 10 May)

Arthur is tall, young English man who wears a uniform of crumpled cream suit. He has the gift of divining where rich Etruscans were buried along with precious possessions that can be dug up and sold on the Italian black market. This archaeologist-cum-graverobber is also gifted with an air of arrogance and a heavy heart that is grieving for his dead girlfriend Beniamina.

In La Chimera, director Alice Rohrwacher (Happy As Lazzaro) paints 1980s Tuscany as quaint and somewhat ramshackle. Arthur – played by a sombre and often irritable Josh O’Connor – lives in a rough shack in the side of a hill. His girlfriend’s mother, Flora (Isabella Rossellini), lives in a leaking residence that was once grand, almost a mausoleum for the living, fussed over and bullied by a gaggle of daughters.

Cross-dressing at a tractor festival becomes a visual metaphor for the tomb raiders operating in plain sight even while everyone in the small town knows how the gang make a living. Arthur takes a shine to Flora’s live in slave Italia (Carol Duarte) – ostensibly working as a maid in return for impractical singing lessons – who is hiding a couple of secrets of her own.

The audience watch as the gang go about their work without much sense of haste. The great magician keeps finding new places to dig, all the while troubled by memories of the absent Beniamina. A third act discovery finally precipitates the crisis that can draw the drama to an end.

That the team plundering the ancient graves should cram into such a small getaway car – their rivals also use an undersized vehicle – creates a sense of surrealism. A couple of musical interludes are used to ask whether the graverobbers are heroic outlaws who deserve cultural posterity. The film switches between at least three aspect ratios to signal whether a scene features Arthur day dreaming (1.33:1), the characters are going about their normal business (1.66:1), or the gang are dealing with Etruscan treasure (the widest 1.85:1) It’s subtle but effective. Watch out for the rounded corners of the framing, and the almost comical speeded up scenes of the police in pursuit of the gang.

Rohrwacher combines lots of unexpected elements to boost a somewhat sedate story into an imaginative playground. You may hover on the fence wondering whether Arthur deserves some comeuppance for his misdeeds, but you’ll be firmly rooting for Italia as she scrapes around the make ends meet while the gang dig up their pay packets from the ground.

La Chimera is being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 10 May.


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Tuesday, May 07, 2024

Women on the Verge of HRT – unseen and unheard no more (GBL Productions at Grand Opera House until Saturday 11)

The spirit of Daniel O’Donnell is strong as Ciarán O’Brien steps on stage, singing with a familiar Donegall brogue, tilts his head down towards the audience and holds the eye of people in the front row. Like the two lead characters in Women on the Verge of HRT, the boisterous Grand Opera House audience are out for the night and wanting to have a good time.

In the case of Vera (played by Katie Tumelty), she’s hoping for reassurance that hitting fifty with a divorce under her belt won’t forever brand her as over the hill. Meanwhile Anna (Jo Donnelly) is coming to terms with her sexless – although not entirely loveless – marriage. Avoiding a long overnight bus trip back home to Belfast and more shifts in Poundstretcher, the pair are staying over in a quiet hotel.

Marie Jones weaves a Celtic tale about Aisling and banshees in with Vera and Anna’s night of discovery and adventure as they adapt to changing circumstances and changing bodies. Tumelty excels as the sharp-tongued and sultry Vera, practically purring each time the concierge arrives with another magical tray of drinks. Anna is a gift for Donnelly’s skilled physical comedy, throwing shade, wincing, stomping around and flopping out on the hotel’s twin beds. The pair make Vera and Anna’s friendship very believable and relatable.

Representation can be a power asset to theatre, and right from the first moment Anna reaches into her bag and pulls out a neck fan, the audience enjoy seeing themselves and their family and friends in the mirror that Marie Jones’ two-hour story holds up.

For the Daniel diehards, the play is never more than 15 minutes away from another quick burst of a melody that the audience will gently croon along to. As well as charming the crowd with Daniel’s dulcet tones, O’Brien is versatile with his characterisation of current and former husbands, numerous local menfolk, and even a new wife.

The second act ties the story together with a rather hard-to-swallow double Bobby Ewing conceit. It’s probably best that the action rushes through without pausing to dissect the consequences of the dream plot device. First staged in 1995, the play has been lightly updated to add mentions of the ubiquitous Alexa, yet some quite outdated references remain to Crimplene frocks.

Gregor Donnelly’s mossy set serves the storytelling well, though the stagehand hiding at the back to make it spin deserves a proper round of applause and a box of painkillers. (Some of the smaller spins are probably unnecessary.) Director Matthew McElhinney thankfully avoids the temptation to add video to the production, allowing the action to crack on at a good pace, with Donnelly and Tumelty creating a real sense of playfulness.

Women on the Verge of HRT is a hoot, and it’s running at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 11 May.

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Sunday, May 05, 2024

The Worst Café in the World – à la carte comedy theatre (Big Telly at CQAF until Monday 6 May) #cqaf24

Big Telly (Granny Jackson’s Dead) have revived The Worst Café in the World with an updated à la carte reimagining of the original set menu extravaganza.

Shown to a table, as soon as you sit down and are offered a glass of water, you get a strong sense that everything on the food and drink menus will trigger an unexpected result. In fact, over time, part of the pleasure is in trying to imagine what skit will result from ordering particular items.

There are verbal gags aplenty, and moments when one waiter will shout an instruction – like an American footballer calling a play – and the other waiters will immediately join in these collegiate servings, as well as times when the chef will hand out props and trigger a Sharing Platter: a full one or two-minute performance for the whole café to enjoy. Big Telly are working with other partner organisations: at my sitting, NI Opera’s soprano Mary McCabe dazzled us with a gorgeous song.

While the sense of an overarching story arc is missing from this Worst Café iteration, the more casual dining experience with an ever-changing set of customers – you’ll typically stay for thirty minutes – allows you to sample a menu of simple comedy morsels and more elaborate and involved set pieces from the cast of four.

Ordering a Small Plate of Angry Scottish Wasp was one of my favourite dishes. Though a side of Trump, and a Club Sandwich washed down with some Young People Whine is good too.

This is the theatrical version of close magic. The cast have to be comfortable moving around the space, engaging and improvising with the audience, and have rapid recall for the routines that must follow a whole menu full of trigger words. Kudos to Big Telly for indoctrinating training more local actors (Cat Barter, Kealan McAllister, Vicky Allen and Michael Johnston) up in their style of madcap comedy drama. And hats off to the two chefs – stage managers Keeley Ball and Rhiannon Morgan – who keep the energy up with their curated sequence of chef selected routines.

You can book a seat at Big Telly’s pop-up café online. It’s running as part of Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival until 8pm on Monday 6 May. They’ve also just finished a run in Philadelphia and New York (where it won an innovative theatre award).

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Saturday, May 04, 2024

Cailíní – a kitchen gathering of kindred spirits becomes a beautifully uncomfortable sister act (ABLAZE Productions at Lyric Theatre)

Noun. Young, unmarried women.

A handful of siblings gather in the old home kitchen. Not everyone is expected. Not everyone is welcome. And if there’s tension in the air when they arrive, an hour or two later, the mercury’s still rising as one by one they flee the cauldron of conflict.

There’s the older sister Katherine (played by Lily Kate Hearns) who felt she was taken for granted bringing up her younger siblings and now works in London. There’s a younger sister Úna (Íde Simpson) who feels she’s now being taken advantage of caring for the youngest one and her alcohol saturated father. There’s another one, Clodagh (Megan Doherty) who escaped with a handsome lad Eamonn (Séan McDermott) who’s been hanging around the family for a decade but wasn’t always her boyfriend.

Then there’s the youngest Annie (Éabha Hayes) who can’t escape as she’s still another year to complete at school. And just when you think everyone is accounted for, there’s another older half-sister Mairead (Juliet Hill) who turns out to be universally disliked because that’s the rule even though not everyone can remember why. All the while, an unseen, unheard and, for a long time, unexplained father lurks upstairs casting a dark shadow over the household.

Cailíní explores the strength of the bonds between the sisters: anything can be shared, but secrets are still kept. The play shies away from trite notions of happy families and instead explores just how raw and fractious relationships could become between one’s kin.

Over 80 minutes, there are some laugh out loud moments, and more than a few jaw dropping scenes where you’ll stare at the stage and roll your eyes in amazement. A smart speaker manages to completely steal two scenes. But mostly, your gut will be churning with the waves of discomfort that waft off the conversations that take place on Emmett Brady Dunne’s set which features a large kitchen and a small garden to one side with steps and a wooden bench.

Conor Bustos’ lighting design steers the audience’s focus between the two spaces – one scene nicely picks out snippets of animated dialogue from both – and throws in some great side lighting. An overture of answering machine messages lays the foundation for Mahon clan who are about to flood through the door. Later, a not-so-private text message opens up a new front of distrust.

Written as a final year degree project at Trinity College Dublin, the quality of Íde Simpson (an alumnus of Fighting Words NI) and Beth Strahan’s storytelling and their manipulation of characters across the threads of the plot impress. While there are a few moments when the voices in the kitchen seem to be raised more loudly than necessary – almost hysterical without sufficient cause – overall, the balance of dark, brooding menace and malice is very well executed. Beth Strahan’s direction enjoys allowing deafening silences to develop in the highly strung household. Audiences are kept on the back foot with a drip-drip revelation of pertinent details that will eventually fill out most of the backstory of the six characters in this intense, raging, family melodrama. Though you need to pay attention at all times as some of the key moments (particular a later interaction between Eamonn and Úna) are quite fleeting.

The quality of the production bodes well for the future careers of the cast and creatives. It’s great to see new work of this scale being performed in Belfast; particularly when so few theatrical productions, large or small, tour north/south.

If you like your drama dark and foreboding, then check to see if any seats have become available in the final four sold-out performances of ABLAZE Production’s Cailíní that finishes its run at the Lyric Theatre on Sunday 6 May.

Photo credits: Martina Perone and Connie McGowan (bottom two promotional images not reflective of the set or costumes in the Belfast production)

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Friday, May 03, 2024

Mary Ann, The Forgotten Sister – emotionally charged promenade theatre about a woman of substance (Kabosh Theatre)

The weather forecast for last Saturday suggested that the rain clouds would pass quickly and the second half of the morning would be dry. It’s testament to the quality of the writing and the performances that Mary Ann, The Forgotten Sister thoroughly engaged even when the weather disobeyed the forecast and lashed down on the 20 or so audience members gathering in Clifton Street Cemetery.

Young Maria walked down in period costume to greet us and we followed her black umbrella past the largest famine graveyard in Ireland and around the corner to the resting place of Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866). The stone bearing Mary Ann’s name labours her connection to brother Henry Joy McCracken (1767-1798) who was later buried in the same grave, rather than celebrating her own legacy. Yet over the next 80 minutes, Clare McMahon’s play asserted and convincingly argued that Mary Ann is no mere accessory to history.

This is the story of a woman’s whose public service was driven by a profound sense of social n and is spurred on by the deaths of siblings. Calla Hughes played her young niece Maria – Henry’s child born out of wedlock but reared by his two spinster sisters – who guided us through her life. We got to hear from Mary Ann herself when we reached the dry warmth and welcome of Clifton House, the site of the poor house that one of Mary Ann’s many committees sought to support and improve.

Carol Moore played Mary Ann as a feisty, forthright and no-nonsense woman of foresight. No shrinking violet, but someone who sought to convince and challenge through conversation rather than direct action and big rallies.

Maria Connolly took on the role of sister Margaret (amongst many other characters), bursting into song with Hughes who delivered some of the funniest lines of McMahon’s superb writing. The use of song –from folk artist Jane Cassidy – created the gaps necessary to reposition the audience for each new indoor scene. A few audience members even got to deliver a line or two as bit characters in the story.

I came away from the performance with a strong understanding of Mary Ann’s motivations, an appreciation of the width of her interests and successful campaigning, and an admiration of her tenacity. Few other 89-year-olds would have been out leafletting in 1856 never mind 2024.

A palpable sense of sorrow runs through much of the production. Mary Ann dealt with the loss of her siblings by throwing herself into her causes. She was a woman of complexity, with a strong sense of faith pervading her approach to infant education, a stubbornness to get around the barriers put up by men whose hands rested on the purse strings, and an ever-developing sense of injustice as new issues and information came to light. Mary Ann sounds like she epitomises the best of Belfast, with more than just niece Maria picking up her values.

Site specific promenade theatre is tricky to write and produce. But Kabosh Theatre, playwright Clare McMahon and director Paula McFetridge succeed in connecting the places with the people and creating an emotionally charged 80 minutes of historical theatre. Mary Ann McCracken will be forgotten no more. I’m off to read her biography.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

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Thursday, May 02, 2024

I’ve Always Liked the Name Marcus – sticking out while trying to fit in (Tinderbox Theatre at the MAC until Sunday 5 May) #cqaf24

Meet Marcus. Growing up, he’s been told to “hide, fit in, blend in, don’t make too much fuss” … while being perceived as exotic and different. You’ll have opinions about his heritage, his culture, his height, and what he represents. Everyone seems to know exactly which labels to hang on him. Everyone, except Marcus who is discombobulated by the constant need to be pigeonholed.

After a low key – and maybe even deliberately – shaky start, the hour-long, largely autobiographical performance by Matthew Sharpe riffs through a series of personas that Marcus has adopted. The child going into ‘big school’ and being bullied for his height, skin colour and early pubescent hairiness. The basketball player: being 5’11” aged 12 has some advantages on the court. The wannabe rapper. The actor auditioning for a part as a slave. The young lad with no information about his Jamaican relatives.

Sharpe embraces the physicality of Patrick J. O’Reilly’s direction, throwing himself into the moves of the different versions of himself. He recreates the frenzy of a school canteen with voices and phrases shooting out in all directions. There’s a sense of risk in air as he demonstrates some freestyle rap based on audience suggestions. And this is an actor who can shoot a basketball under pressure.

The commentary on racism in I’ve Always Liked the Name Marcus is fresh, coming from Sharpe’s biracial perspective. The counterfactual moments imagining how he could, or should, have reacted to situations of conflict and discomfort are very comical. The honesty throughout – though particularly towards the end when he describes a journalist insisting that he must have an opinion on Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd – is endearing and gives the performance authenticity.

Everything is transparent and Matthew even changes costume out in the open. A mesh screen brings to life novel vertical video versions of Marcus with whom the live actor interacts. And we can peep through it to a basketball court tucked in behind. Eoin Robinson’s bold video design is neatly integrated into the storytelling, although the script projection in later scenes works less well.

Throughout most of the show, a computer desktop remains projected with four folders visible, all along hinting at the reason the production was created. After a false ending complete with scrolling end credits, Marcus/Matthew returns to explore the genesis of writing and performing this show, adding his perspective on the profiled nature of the Arts Council NI funding opportunity, yet another example of individuals, and maybe even an organisation, feeling the need to judge his skin one way or the other.

I’ve Always Liked the Name Marcus is a strong reminder about systemic bias, about lazy stereotyping, and about the complexity of promoting diversity. It’s good to see Tinderbox Theatre continuing to experiment with styles of storytelling and performance. You can catch Matthew Sharpe sticking out while trying to fit in on stage at The MAC until Sunday 5 May as part of Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

Photo credit: James Ward

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