Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The University of Wonder and Imagination – a magical journey through time and space – Cahoots NI as part of #BIAL20

Different Northern Ireland theatre companies have different traits that often pop up in their work. Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney infuses his company’s work with magic, surprises, slick stage management, and a great control of light and sound. And in these socially distanced times, he’s managed not to let go of his secret ingredients to create an experience that goes far beyond what would be expected online through the sometimes tired medium of Zoom.

The University of Wonder and Imagination plays to deliberately small audiences – six remote devices/families at a time – involving everyone in the journey through time and space. The show relies on a variety of close magic, predictions and wonder as we zoom around the underground rooms of the underground teaching bunker, with a feeling of control over our destiny, where we go, and what we do.

Sean Kearns inducts every new cohort into the performance, while Lata Sharma floats around Armagh’s Robinson Library (neatly grounding the show for Northern Ireland audiences) and gets us to note down various numbers and shapes for use later on. Then it’s up to magic-fingered mathematically-savvy Caolan McBride to wow us with his numbers, musical astronomer Philippa O’Hara to send us off around the solar system at the speed of light, and Hugh W Brown to finish the show with some pleasant thoughts about a mid-term break somewhere sunny.

The usual approach to online theatre, particularly performances that are aimed at entertaining families and children, is to be incredibly high-energy and include lots of actions. Cahoots NI manage to avoid the need for a sugar rush frenzy, replacing it with intrigue, wonder and amazement. The cast don’t try to be larger than life or shouty. Instead, rich costumes that stand out against the often sometimes physical backdrops (not everything is green screened) help bring the characters to life. And the small numbers in each show mean there’s lots of name-checking and unmuting families to pick numbers and direct the next part of the show.

Looking through a screen undoubtedly takes away from the intimacy of breathing the same air as on-stage performers. The spine-tingling moments of a show like Secrets of Space can’t quite be reproduced over the interwebs. But Cahoots have made a wise decision to go with a bespoke magical variety show rather than one that overly relies on plot. Intelligent choices given the constraints of the medium. Where they stand out from other companies and have created something that can play to homes around the world from their Belfast base is the high production values (acted in a studio environment with good internet and reliable sound, not cast’s bedrooms) and the investment in real-time visual effects (the joins between live and prerecorded segments are pretty seamless unless you know where to look) and Garth McConaghie’s backing track that captures another sense.

Northern Ireland has proved quite pioneering in pushing the innovation cycle in the emerging market for Zoom theatre. With this show, Cahoots take another step up the ladder with something that is very transferable to any English-speaking market, with no flicking between windows or rooms, yet several shows overlapping in behind-the-scenes to get more bums on seats.

The University of Wonder and Imagination is playing this week as part of Belfast International Arts Festival before touring living rooms in Ireland and beyond. Tickets are charged at £20 per screen (which a whole family can sit behind) and there is still some availability. Sit down, relax and be amazed at what is possible which technicians, magicians and actors let their minds run wild with ambition.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Singing Struggle and Agreement - discussing and singing the Good Friday Agreement! #BIAF20

Culture, in its many varied forms, can provide a window through which to view society, and also a mirror to reflect back what we might not have noticed about ourselves. We often connect emotionally with pieces of music. Songs become sporting team anthems. Music can be a passionate cry of celebration or bellow of despair.

One Sunday morning last November, I received an email from a mutual friend saying that a former NIO official had set part of the Belfast Agreement to music. But it hadn’t been sung on the island on which it was negotiated or voted upon. Did I know anyone who might tackle it?

It was clearly kind of quirky, unexpected and potentially thought-provoking event that Peter O’Neill at the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics in March was indeed bound to support. I would build a panel around remembering the talks leading up to the Agreement, and Spark Opera volunteered to take on the music.

Then imminent lockdown made rehearsals impossible and the event was shelved.

But much like on off on off Northern Ireland peace talks, the event has revived and regrouped with the help of Belfast International Arts Festival in partnership with Spark Opera and Slugger O’Toole. We’d big plans for 90-strong socially distanced audiences to enjoy the even more distanced singers in the cavernous St Anne’s Cathedral. That too was stymied. The word ‘struggle’ in the event title began to take on additional layers of meaning.

Yet, festivals – and the arts community in general – are incredibly resilient. Tonight, the festival streamed our event. You can still go back to watch and hear the 25 singers (recorded on Saturday spread out across Fisherwick Presbyterian’s pews) perform a variety of songs of struggle, and one of agreement (its Northern Irish and Irish première), and listen to the panel (recorded yesterday). Can you tell the whole show was filmed by me using iPhones?!

Clare Salters set the opening preamble of the Belfast Agreement to music, subtitling her piece “p E A C E in 4/4 time”, a musical cryptogram referring to piano (soft) and the first four rising notes of the piece. The Agreement’s opening Declaration of Support is more human and less legal than the chapters that follow. It’s a verbatim piece, so all of the words in the right order, including tricky lists of cross border institutions that have got to be held in tension with each other, musically and in real life.

The musical programme includes five other pieces that shout out against tyranny, oppression, attack, and explore identity and solidarity. Spark Opera’s Hearth Chorus were joined by NI Opera’s Associate Artists and a couple of guests under the baton of Keith McAlister. Present to film the pieces – the sound engineer and me the only audience – it was moving to witness live music on that scale after so many months when buskers seemed to be all that remained.

Woven through the music is a panel discussion. Mark Devenport recalls the months he spent reporting from the car park outside Castle Buildings and the moment when Stephen Grimason arrived with a first full copy of the Agreement. Monica McWilliams tells the story from inside the negotiations, the narrow corridors, and the TV used to watch politicians negotiating on the airwaves outside the window. And there’s a story of David Ervine becoming Tarzan to quickly exit from a CNN interview conducted up a tree. We hear from composer Clare Salters, and Spark Opera’s Kate Guelke gives the music context and also reflects on how a political agreement shaped her life.

The event was free but Belfast International Arts Festival welcome donations!

Elsewhere in the festival programme, you’ll find some cutting edge online theatre – Macbeth and The University of Wonder & Imagination – alongside a very rich programme of free interviews and talks (including Stuart Maconie, Jenni Murray and Lennie Goodings). You’ll also find music, films, and you can book a slot to visit the RUA Annual Exhibition in the Ulster Museum. Full programme available on the Belfast International Arts Festival website.

cross-posted from Slugger O’Toole


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Memories of Murder – like a particularly corrupt episode of Line of Duty with added comedy entrances (QFT until Sun 26 Sep)

When sales of an author’s book take off, a light is often shone on their back catalogue and some older words are reissued to a willing audience of readers. So too with films.

Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite (recently re-released in foreboding black and white) has encouraged distribution of a 4K restoration of his older film Memories of Murder.

Monday night’s screening in Queen’s Film Theatre was full (in the sense of socially distanced seating full, but still busier than most Monday night’s in a Belfast cinema) as people sat down to savour this threat.

The family at the heart of Parasite start out as well-meaning entrepreneurs and become cold hearted leeches sucking the life out of their well-to-do host family’s property. Similar character journeys crop up in this earlier work, along with the darkly comic moments that invade very serious scenes.

It’s October 1986, and local police detectives Park (Song Kang-ho) and Cho (Kim Roi-ha) demonstrate their inept and corrupt techniques as they use baseless assumptions and bewildering predictions in their attempts to investigate the rape and murder of several women in their district.

Into this fray comes Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), a colleague from South Korea’s capital Seoul, whose textbook mantra is that “documents never lie”. But as the body count increases and the police run out of suspects to torture confessions out of, there’s a curious transition as the upright Seo is led by his heart while Park becomes more attentive to the evidence.

Meanwhile Kwon (Go Seo-hee), a female officer who is ordered to make tea and perform menial tasks, gets little thanks when she makes breakthroughs in the case.

There’s no shortage of serial killer films and TV series, and like most, women are certainly not at the heart of this one). Everyone will relish the comical entrances made by cast members while fans of Parasite will enjoy the rainy scenes and recognise Bong’s use of jump-scares.

Ultimately this is a story of women and families let down by incompetence, malpractice and a rush to get results. More than 15 years after the film’s release, the real case upon which Bong and co-writer Shim Sung-bo based their film was finally solved.

Bong’s characters are flawed in unexpected ways. His ability to sprinkle comedy over the darkest of scenes is unnerving to watch. I can only hope that some of the rest of his back catalogue will make its way to western cinema screens before too long.

Memories of Murder is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre until Sunday 26 September.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Rocks – newcomers impress in a great portrayal of loss, isolation and friendship (QFT until 1 October)

Rocks charts the reactions of an East London teenage girl friendship group as one of their own adjusts to the sudden absence of her mother from their single parent family and the sudden need to take on caring responsibilities for her kid brother.

Bukky Bakray plays Shola, the steely young woman nicknamed ‘Rocks’, who is at the heart of the story. She shows talent as a make-up artist, but at the rate she is burning through schoolfriends after the loss of her mother, electricity and then the security of her home, the other meaning of make up becomes crucial to her survival. Little Emmanuel (D'angelou Osei Kissiedu) is a loveable, dinosaur-obsessed daydreamer, dragged around along with his class pet, and mostly unaware of the seriousness of their situation.

There’s an authenticity to the dialogue and interactions between the youths that’s explained (in a recorded discussion shown after last night’s QFT screening) by the long months of workshopping and on set improvisation with the impressive ensemble, most of whom are starring in their debut feature. Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson’s screenplay has been homed and polished, as has the film’s foundational soundtrack that is ever present yet never in the way.

An early moment dips into the inner-city school’s careers class where anyone with hifalutin aspirations is quickly advised to have a more realistic plan B. Rocks proves that she’s capable and resourceful, even if she makes bad decisions when caught in tight spots. The tension and eventual explosion of anger between Rocks and stalwart best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali) is really well drawn by director Sarah Gavron, and the sense that Rocks’ problems are in a different league to the issues troubling her friends is subtly underlined throughout the 93-minute film.

The film paints a profound picture of increasing isolation and diminishing hope as Rocks defers seeking help. A school art lesson on cubism and Picasso injects interesting points about identity. After the first few scenes, Rocks’ mother is no longer visible. Yet her presence, or the gap her absence causes, is felt all the way through as we wonder whether she will have even half the support Rocks can muster to work through her mental health problems.

The sharp-tongued multi-cultural gang of girls can cut someone in two with a sharp phrase, yet are fiercely loyal to one of their own as they figure out if and how they can help. Short snippets of mobile phone footage – even some vertical video thrown in, which works surprisingly well given the physical height of the cinema screen – and lots of banter grounds the vibe. Rooftop picnic scenes with vistas over London remind us that this fictional story is happening in real life but mostly not being talked about.

Other films like The Florida Project and Moonlight achieve a level of authenticity, but for a low budget film with a teenage cast, Rocks really delivers a stunning peek into other people’s lives without labouring the point or taking audiences on a guilt-trip.

You can watch Rocks in Queen’s Film Theatre until 1 October.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

La Haine – novel angles to view a familiar story of community tension and state brutality (QFT until Thursday 24 September)

“Hatred breeds hatred” says Hubert, a black boxer played by Hubert Koundé who deals in drugs and warns his friends that not all cops are bad. Vinz (Vincent Cassel) is outwardly aggressive, promising to use a service weapon he found to avenge the death of a man attacked and hospitalised by the police. Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) is a Muslim lad, boasting about things he hasn’t done, mildly hot-headed until there is actual conflict at which point he becomes a shy voice of calm.

Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz and first released in 1995, La Haine (‘Hate’) spends a day in the life of this almost clueless trio, learning about life in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, a 40 minute rail ride north west from the centre of Paris. The kind of young guys who don’t own up to their farts, pull the ‘your mother’ or ‘your sister’ card to escalate an argument, and can barely hotwire a car never mind drive one. Vinz might be carrying a gun, but would be really ever pull the trigger?

When the film was released in 1995, The Independent reported that the then French Prime Minister Alain Juppe organised a special screening for the cabinet: attendance was mandatory. I wonder was there facilitated discussion afterwards led by residents of the area, or was there just loud tutting and the empty silence of a penny failing to drop?

La Haine demonstrates what happens when the state gangs up on a community, labelling everyone as a bad egg, pushing them into economic and housing distress until the pressure escapes and the scale of crime ratchets up towards the top end of the scale. Scenes of rioting, armoured vehicles, communities looting their local shops and burning out their own area. A TV news report of conflict elsewhere in Europe in the background of one scene hints that the story is universal. It’s certainly frighteningly familiar.

The French equivalent of Del Boy (nicknamed ‘Walmart’) lives in a high rise flat full of boxed up electronic goods he can no longer sell after his wheels were torched. At times, there’s almost a comical Trainspotting-esque note to the dialogue. Banal asides and lengthy anecdotes punctuate the group’s constant movement. They generate ‘so what?’ responses from the on-screen characters and the cinema audiences, underscoring the futility of the situation.

The choice of filming in black and white emphasises just how much colour is at play in this fictional story built around a real incident in 1993. It highlights the greyness of the police. The unusual camera angles hint that Kassovitz wants the audience to look at the situation from novel perspectives to step into the lives of the oppressed and disrespected. There’s no doubt that there’s fault on all sides: but it’s clear why the cycle of violence is being perpetuated.

Twenty-five years on, the anniversary re-release of La Haine stands up to the test of time. It’s visually clever, with a use of slang that must have delighted the subtitlers. Les Misérables is still being screened for another couple of days (until Thursday 17 September) in Queen’s Film Theatre. It’s a like a modern sequel to La Haine, in colour with far more anger, and a lot more focus on the behaviour of the police. Both films peek under the lid of the pressure cooker of community tensions, poor housing, joblessness and disrespect and ask where the power lies, and from where the solution will come.

La Haine finishes its run in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Thursday 24 September. If you enjoyed this review, why not buy me a tea ...

Monday, September 14, 2020

Bill & Ted Face the Music – a better adventure for being less pale, stale and male (UK and Irish cinemas from 16 September)

Bumbling bandmates Bill and Ted’s adventures have been occurring since the late 1980s. If you weren’t well through school in 1989 when the first film came out, here’s what you missed.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was to blame for school children overusing the words ‘dude’, ‘excellent’ and bodacious. Theodore ‘Ted’ Logan (Keanu Reeves) and William ‘Bill’ Preston (Alex Winter) have been identified as ‘The Great Ones’ by future inhabitants of the world who send Rufus (George Carlin) back to help the teenagers engage in a spot of time travel and counteract the words of the opening song that say “you can’t change the course of your own destiny”. They play historical Pokémon, collecting (white) American and European figures from the past to help them get a much-needed high score in their end-of-year history presentation.

Two years later, the sequel returned to San Dimas, California where a big band contest was on the cards along with a double wedding with two 15th century English brides (who were willing trafficked into the future it that’s ever moral or possible). But neither the Wyld Stallyns band nor love follow a straight path when a couple of automaton imposters get in the way. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Adventure is as grim as the reaper (played by William Sadler in scenes that start out with a very The Seventh Seal feel) who accompanies them on their journey back to modern day life.

So is the threequel bodacious or bogus?

Bill & Ted Face the Music is so much less pale, stale and male. Gone are most of the tonally awful attitudes towards women and sex. Gone too are the youthful zest and naïve ignorance that propelled the energy of at least the first episode. Reeves and Winter play world-weary fathers whose mojo is flagging and who are thoroughly unprepared to take up the latest Eurovision-style challenge to unite the world in song … in 77 minutes time.

But fear not, this is 2020 and women are allowed to think and speak and even act out of their own initiative. For the second time, the princesses/wives have been swapped out, this time for younger models, Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays. But they do at least get some more screentime.

The stars of the new film are the Great Ones’ daughters Thea (Samara Weaving from last year’s fabulous gorefest Ready or Not) and Billie (Brigette Lundy-Pain) who get to play greatest musicians of all time Pokémon and round up a diverse group of historical figures to play the ultimate anthem to save the world. Lundy-Pain has the mannerisms of teenage Ted off pat while the young pair mimic the talking in unison and finishing each other’s sentences so familiar from the first two incarnations of Bill & Ted.

William Sadler is back as the grim Reaper, and there are numerous nods to George Carlin who played the lads’ guide Rufus in the original film and died in 2008. Throw in a persistent and then penitent robot killer and you have a literal bus load of cast to transport to the end of the film. The soundtrack is still heavily influenced by electric guitars, though a lot less metal, and you’d be loath to turn the playlist of this soundtrack up to 11 in the car on the way home from the cinema. and the ending is enormously abrupt, as if they ran out of money or script pages or edit time.

Bill & Ted Face the Music isn’t the most excellent episode in the franchise: that plaudit rests securely with the original. But it’s a big improvement on the second outing, and the more thoughtful scenes – like Bill and Ted meeting their geriatric selves – will please old fans while the two families’ mad time-travelling capers will lift the fatigue of COVID-atrophied cinemagoers. We are in need of a good dose of goofy fluff to distract us from the doom and gloom of living through a pandemic, and Bill & Ted have come to the rescue for one last time.

Already out in the US, Bill & Ted Face the Music will be screened in UK and Irish cinemas from 16 September. If you enjoyed this review, why not buy me a tea ...

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Les Misérables – incendiary policing stirs up fire in the modern hearth of Victor Hugo’s novel (QFT until 17 September)

The morning after French victory in the 2018 World Cup and newly transferred to the station, Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) spends his first day in the back of the patrol car being shown the sights Montfermeil (the location of Thénardiers' inn from Victor Hugo’s eponymous novel) by ‘Pink Pig’ Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) from the Street Crimes Unit.

Les Misérables depicts a style of policing where searches are arbitrary, and the legal basis somewhat spurious. Leaders in the local community are played off each other. This is policing without accountability and without any respect for the citizens supposedly being protected.

It’s a male tale. In one of just a few brief scenes in which women speak, it is established that Chris’ unorthodox methods are tolerated by his senior colleagues due to his legacy of getting results.

A missing circus animal sends the squad on a search for a young boy (Issa Perica) and the subsequent arrest goes ‘sour’. But when Chris realises that their ‘situation’ has been filmed from above, he goes into overdrive to cover their tracks. Along the lines of Spiral, but even more cowboy and out of control.

The early scenes gently and expertly introduce the modus operandi of the large cast of characters, each baring their imperfections like the proud scars of war. The sound of the estate provides the rich soundtrack.

The storytelling comes with a sense of intimacy. Les Misérables is personal. Director Ladj Ly grew up in Les Bosquets and documented police action and was a strong voice during the 2005 riots during where he witnessed an act of police brutality. So it’s no accident that his son, Al-Hassan Ly, appears as Buzz, the youngster who owns the drone that captures the fictional event at the film’s point of no return.

The final scene returns to the same streets and witnesses the violent consequences for all those who were complicit in the previous day’s actions and coverup. Rather than seeing the elimination of all that was bad, it demonstrates how a new generation can simply perpetuate the same behaviours of their elders.

Having stepped into the squad car along with Stéphane and seen the wrongdoing with our eyes, audiences are implicitly asked what it will take for the rules of the game to change and not just the players. The closing shot pauses to wonder if Issa has witnessed anything worthy of trust in the behaviour of Stéphane. It’s a harsh lesson from Ly that rings as true in Northern Ireland as the eastern suburbs of Paris.

Les Misérables is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre until 17 September. If you enjoyed this review, why not buy me a tea ...

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Babyteeth – well drawn characters raise film above just being another terminally ill tale (QFT until 10 September)

Every eighteen months or so, cinema seems to return to the subject of a sick young person. In Babyteeth, 16 year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen who played Beth in Little Women) is in remission when cancer returns. With a psychiatrist in need of therapy for a father (Ben Mendelsohn) and an overly-medicated mother (Essie Davis) who hasn’t quite got over her first love, into Milla’s precarious life steps Moses (Toby Wallace), a twenty-something junkie who brings her hope and headache in equal measure.

“This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine” states Milla’s mum, summing up the two-hour film where health, time and wellbeing are also in short supply,

The narrative arc for a coming of age story about a white middle-class terminally ill teenage virgin is a well-trodden path. The more predictable moments are all there, but what makes Babyteeth stand out from the crowd is the quality of the characterisation. Milla’s purposeful wanderlust and desire for control is balanced by her dysfunctional parents and their catastrophic mental health and unravelling relationship issues. These are well drawn and complex people who draw the viewer in, wanting to find out more about what makes them tick.

There are unexpected details and lots of surprises that point to the theatrical background of the script. Screenwriter (Rita Kalnejais) and debut feature director (Shannon Murphy) know how to quickly establish scenes and create edge-of-seat moments. The strong soundtrack, used sparingly rather than continuously, hooks into the emotional baggage the characters cart around with them.

Late on, a party cleverly brings together most of the cast, though rather than neatly tying off the loose ends, it leaves them awkwardly ragged and ultimately serves only as a device to empty the house. The denouement is at first disturbing (one cinemagoer walked out of my screening) and then disappointing, until the final beach scene recovers Babyteeth’s sense of perspective.

Ultimately, the creative team replace what could have been a templated story about finding a will to live with a story of letting go, being free and helping other people towards a promised land somewhat freer of the drugs that hold them back. While parts of Babyteeth are incredibly sad – you will cry, but socially distanced seating gives you privacy! – there’s plenty of comedy as the self-absorbed figures panic while Milla sets her affairs, and everyone else’s, in order.

Babyteeth continues at Queen’s Film Theatre until 10 September. Shannon Murphy and Eliza Scanlen are definitely ones to watch in the future. If you enjoyed this review, why not buy me a tea ...

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Flash Gordon – 4K restoration can’t improve the cult space opera’s dated sensibility

A scared woman clings onto the winsome blonde hero. A mad scientist sleeps in his white coat. And then the action launches into space and through the Imperial Vortex to a set of worlds where conveniently everyone speaks English and important buttons are labelled in English. Welcome to Flash Gordon, an old-fashioned piece of cave dweller science fiction where women show off their midriffs and men engage in hand-to-hand combat all the while the moon drifts towards Earth like a giant wrecking ball.

It’s been more than a couple of decades since I watched Flash Gordon on television. I caught the new 4K restoration, 40 years on from the film’s original release, in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Monday evening. While the print has been cleaned up and the special effects are good for their day, Queen’s soundtrack is dated and nearly as disappointing as the gender attitudes that are stuck in the past. The guile and agency of the scantily clad female characters are consistently underestimated by the menfolk throughout the film as Princess Aura (Ornella Mutim playing the sultry emperor’s daughter) and Dale Arden (Melody Anderson as a travel agent who goes on a galactic journey) break free of the expectation that they’ll roll over and be subservient sex slaves. A group of women at the other end of my socially distanced row found their scenes hilarious. But it is the men are ultimately deemed to be the heroes: becoming co-first minister of Mongo was never an option for Dale.

While there’s no doubt that Flash Gordon is a space opera, I do wonder why no one has translated it into an actual sung opera? The botched execution and Flash (Sam J Jones) rising from the dead is perfect plot fodder. The power struggles between colourfully dressed warring factions – hawkmen and tree-dwellers in scenes that could have been straight out of The Wizard of Oz – would work well. Then there’s the contest between Flash Gordon and Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) on a tilting platform with retractable spikes that is straight out of the Gladiators TV show. The ambitious, bald, big eyebrowed emperor Ming the Merciless (played by Max von Sydow) is could have started in Turandot. Brian Blessed’s Prince Vultan could become a baritone jester. And there’s even a curtain call at the end. Though on second thoughts, Gordon’s jet ski escape from the floating Disney castle planet is perhaps more worthy of a Bond film stunt than inclusion in an opera.

While the influence of Flash Gordon on George Lucas’ Star Wars (he seems to have tried to licence Flash to make a film in the 1970s) is undeniable, the cult status the movie attracts is hard to justify in 2020.The first half hour is nearly fun; the next 80 minutes stretch any accumulated charm tiresomely thin, no matter how beautifully the Blu-ray edition is rendered. Five years later Mike Hodges would go on to direct Morons from Outer Space. The lure of Smith and Jones seemingly convinced my parents to make a rare family visit in 1985 to the cinema to see it: I wonder has it aged any better?

 If you enjoyed this review, why not buy me a tea ...

Tenet – ambitious, epic, head-melter of a time-twisting action film (UK/Irish cinemas from Wednesday 26 August)

Right from the start, Christopher Nolan demonstrates his mastery of cinema to create a big screen experience. Releasing a film roughly every three years, Tenet ticks many of the boxes you’d expect for a film from Nolan: complex timelines that will reveal more upon repeat viewing; extraordinary set piece fight scenes and chase sequences; sets that defy normal cinematic scale and budgets; a musical score that is particularly fine-tuned to the on-screen action (in this case, with some instruments being played in reverse and in the hands of Ludwig Göransson rather than regular Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer); and demonstrations of the fog of war.

It would be difficult to supply a large enough spoiler to ruin your enjoyment of Tenet. Central to the film is the notion of inverted entropy that (roughly translated) means some objects and people seem to be travelling backwards in time from the future and posing a greater threat to civilisation that a potential nuclear holocaust. As one character explains in a somewhat clunky piece of narration: “Don't try to understand it. Feel it.”

The action falls into five half hour chunks. We’re quickly introduced to the nameless ‘protagonist’ played by John David Washington who handles the action sequences with gusto though is made to deliver witty oneliners that are totally at odds with the character and the mood of those scenes.

Tenet will hardly pass the Bechdel Test. The second of only two significant female characters appears after 30 minutes. Elizabeth Debicki (playing Kat) brings emotion and elegance to a film that is otherwise packed with muscle and mental gymnastics. On the hour, Kenneth Branagh turns up as her controlling and abusive husband, a Russian oligarch who is in cahoots with a future force keen to upset the current world order.

Ninety minutes in and Tenet would pass for a great Bourne film, albeit with extra time travel seasoning. However, Nolan wants more, and chapter four lays on thick lashings of scientific explanation that widen the audience’s appreciation as we finally occupy the inverted world and of setting up the bewildering closing action sequence that will have fans of the film drawing diagrams and fighting over timeline explanations for months to come. But rest assured, other than this final act of cinematic brinkmanship, the plot isn’t as exhausting to follow as Inception, and you’ll pick up some clues to later revelations along the way.

Tenet revels in obscurity. Much of the opening dialogue is muffled by background noise. I longer for subtitles at various points during the movie. Your chest will tighten as one of the loudest, bassiest and most claustrophobic soundscapes I’ve endured booms out from the surround sound system, and is well worth the trip to the cinema. The element of time travel obfuscates the plot: even after a five-minute on-screen briefing of what will follow, the final action scene is a bewildering synthesis of red and blue teams attacking the same nuclear storage facility in different temporal directions. Sometimes focus is pulled to muddy details that as a cinemagoer you think you should be taking in and analysing. And several characters are set up with lingering shots that cast doubt on their loyalty only to be totally absent from the big reveal at the end.

Rest assured, Nolan is a master storyteller. Dunkirk is his magnum opus in terms of scale. Memento is probably the most accessible of his timeline-defying stories, Inception the most contorted. Tenet combines what he has learned over 30+ years of filmmaking to create a headmelter of a movie that dreams big and then delivers. Every chapter of the film contains novel stunts and situations. The catamarans are sleek, the jumbo jet is real! The globetrotting – Kiev, Oslo, Mumbai, Italy and more are visited – is more logical and joined up than a Bond film.

Overall Tenet is a superb way to show off Christopher Nolan’s talent. The complexity means you have to engage your brain to keep up, thus Tenet can’t merely be judged as mindless entertainment. Still, it sets the bar impossibly high for No Time To Die which is now slated for release in November. But in a sense, Tenet is competing in a higher league. It’s trying to be art. And while the ambition and the sense of scale is there, the clever story perhaps disguises the areas in which the director has room for improvement.

Ultimately, the narrative device – a Mum driven to save her barely seen child while everyone else strives to save the world – doesn’t quite work and the film consequently lacks a sense of humanity. How many more films do we need to remind us of man’s inhumanity to man. And why so very male? Could future Nolan not reach through a wormhole in three years’ time and produce something of equal technical brilliance but substantially more thoughtful, more diverse and less reliant on a plot device that he has truly conquered? Only time will tell.

Tenet is released in UK and Irish cinemas on Wednesday 26 August before its US release on 3 September. Locally, it’s in Queen’s Film Theatre, Movie House, Omniplex, Odeon, Strand Arts Centre and more. If you enjoyed this review, why not buy me a tea ...

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Jack and the Beanstalk – is the emergence of online panto the green shoots of theatre reawakening or a stretch too far? (Cre8 Theatre and Buglight Theatre)

Pantomime on a Saturday morning in July? Oh no there isn’t! Oh yes there was! Cre8 Theatre and Buglight Theatre staged their online Jack and the Beanstalk last weekend to the delight of a mixed-age audience.

Pantomime is normally the preserve of winding down for Christmas. It’s a family affair with parents or grandparents bring youngsters on a rite of passage visit to the theatre. Outside of some shows in Belfast Children’s Festival, it’s the most boisterous and highly interactive family entertainment you’ll find on stage. Pantomime in July is a stretch, but with so many traditions being torn up, why not?

While there are plenty of Zoom puns and a computer antivirus scanner that knowingly nods towards the pandemic, the ‘C word’ is never uttered and the story stays in the make-believe world of pantomime.

Dazey Cow was the first character to burst on stage on screen. The high energy hostess and narrator played by Althea Burey calmed down the excited kids and reminded us about the housekeeping rules to keep on mute but expect to be asked to take part. There was a song with actions to learn too. Everyone has a theme tune and something to keep the audience on its toes: my idea of hell, but the rest of the audience seemed much less inhibited! And I still ended up in the spotlight on-screen wearing my brussels sprout shirt and doing the actions at one point …

The story – adapted from Cre8 Theatre’s December 2019 production at the Braid Arts Centre in Ballymena – revolves around a Giant (Richard Galloway) who wants to lock everyone up, starting with people in Zoom rooms. The role of pantomime dame is filled by Christopher Grant playing cleaning obsessive Ms Pinch complete with beauty spot and plenty of witty repartee. Her son, Great Craic Jack (Harri Pitches) needs income, a job and motivation. But does the Butcher (Galloway) who pays peanuts magic beans have ulterior moo-tives? Can the beanstalk be felled in time? Can Dazey Cow be saved from the Butcher? Can work shy Great Craic Jack save Virtual Vlogger Jill (Holly Greig) from the Giant’s lockdown and also get rich and famous?

Lasting less than an hour, the cast of five really work the small screen environment. Good facial expressions, big hats, leaning into the camera (Galloway’s close-up stares are brilliant), playing with perspective in the virtual green-screen backdrops (including some neat videos). Greig delivers the least shouty performance as the damsel in distress, proving that there is room for tenderness and not everything online has to be manic. But with so much energy and so little feedback, I wonder if the actors find it more exhausting than exhilarating?

While there was no need to choreograph any big dance numbers, there was incredible precision in how a performer could lie back and appear to be in bed, or turn to face the (invisible green screened) stairs behind them at the right angle to shout up to someone in a bedroom. And wrapping an arm around the beanstalk (spoiler: probably achieved with a well-placed green armband) was another moment that hinted at the level of planning and practice.

Other producers of Zoom shows will be looking at the use of live filters (like the ones on Snapchat that add horns in realtime) and wondering what magic beans were added to the video workflow to make that happen. (Though despite advanced technical trickery and my inner nerd, I still find physical effects to be the most engaging.)

Written by Sarah Lyle (who co-directs with Keeley Lane), Jack and the Beanstalk is a solid piece of online interactive family theatre. It’s great to see live theatre, even if it’s from a distance. And it’s encouraging to see people experimenting with form and adapting to limitations and innovating.

If theatres remain dark over Christmas, this may be an alternative and quite classy format for panto, albeit with limited audiences and very limited opportunities for performers and creatives. However, it is ultimately a pale imitation of the collective experience of anticipation, joy and yelling that can be found when a large audience is in the same room as the performers who can feed off their reaction and create a frisson of energy that Giant Pandemic has stolen.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Military Wives – a warm and pleasing middle section slightly let down by the overture and finale (digital download from 29 June, DVD/Blu-ray from 6 July)

Military Wives tells a fictionalised version of the real story of the formation of a choir made up of partners and spouses on a UK army base story. You may have watched The Choir: Military Wives in which Gareth Malone nurtured the original group and brought them to the Festival of Remembrance in London in November 2011.

If you can bear with this filmic version of Military Wives beyond the irritating overture as the premise and the necessary antagonism are established (they lay it on just a bit too thick) then you are rewarded with a beautiful middle section. The set-up is that with the company of soldiers posted overseas in Afghanistan, it is important that the families left behind on base are kept busy. On top of coffee mornings and knitting circles, a choir is suggested.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Kate, a stiff colonel’s wife who is grieving the loss of her son and meddles in the organisation of activities that should fall to Lisa (Sharon Horgan), whose husband is newly promoted and she’s still adapting to the expectation that she’s now a leader too. Horgan revels in the physical comedy and emotional rattiness of her character.

Along the way there are some very ropey rehearsals – Lara Rossi’s deep and loud vocals deserve special mention, as does the impromptu rendition of Only You under a stone bridge which sounded superb) – as well as lots of insecurity and bumps to the group’s self-confidence.

The aftermath of Lisa’s daughter’s wild night out (smartly played by India Ria Amarteifio) and an inevitable tragedy that hits the base bring a pathos to the piece that rescues what could have just been a film about some very amateur singers. Instead, the narrative becomes one of how communities can support each other.

With the real choir’s haunting performance of Wherever You Are in the Royal Albert Hall still vivid in British viewers’ memories, the film’s alternative song is high concept and lyrically strong, but melodically too weak to hit the necessary crescendo to end the 112 minute film. For local audiences, a stronger finish would have cut the story just as the signers walked out towards the stage, and certainly culled the unnatural chit chat afterwards.

Sandwiched in-between the stale crusts, Military Wives has a warm-hearted tale that’s well acted and well told. Appearing in local cinemas in the days immediately before screens went dark due to lockdown, Military Wives will be available for digital download from 29 June, and on DVD and Blu-ray from 6 July.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Lucid – dreaming up success at the end of Tinderbox’s 2020 Play Machine programme

Tinderbox Theatre Company never aspires to be ‘normal’, and this year’s Ignition production at the end of its Play Machine programme certainly surprises and astounds. Artistic director Patrick J O’Reilly’s works with what any cast and creatives bring to their rehearsal room. And even without a physical space to collaboratively occupy in this period of extended lockdown, this weekend’s online showing of Lucid demonstrates his ability to inspire others to create and invent.

Confined to their homes, the 11 artists who had taken part in the six-months of Play Machine run by Tinderbox out of the Crescent Arts Centre are having a frustrating time rehearsing over Zoom. But a somewhat left-field suggestion from the director to meet up in a dream, where they’ll be free from social distancing constraints, takes the tale of Mr Ruffle’s Truffles in a whole new direction.

Isaac Gibson’s troubling soundscape enhances the creepiness and sense of distress that lingers throughout our window into the cast’s surreal rehearsal escapades, while Conor O'Donnell’s video editing gives the piece real pace and overcomes the smorgasbord of self-filmed clips he stitches together.

The opening act describes the less-than-ideal rehearsal process, and walks a fine line between honest appraisal and complete piss take as the young actors talk excitedly about playing supernumerary villagers in the ever-name-morphing production about Sir Ruffalot and his Truffles.

Once you lean into the handbrake turn into ‘lucid dreaming’ – an interesting metaphor for the Play Machine cast wrestling back control of their final production from the hands of the coronavirus nightmare – the real acting begins and O’Reilly fades from the picture and the cast take over. Mr Ruffles haunts their every action, Harry Styles is suitably disrespected, and general craziness ensues as the cast try to break free of the shackles of isolation. It’s dynamic, physical, absurd and never humdrum. For those not living alone, goodness knows what family members thought as they were asked to film people sliding down the stairs or acting out their nightmares.

I’m left wondering what a stage version of the Ruffle/Truffles production might have looked like? No doubt it would have been equally dark, equally zany, and equally unpredictable. As theatre adapts to closed venues and necessary distancing, these 11 artists – Vicky Allen, Aoife Browne, Jonny Cameron, Conor Cupples, Rory Gillan, Orla Graham, Joe Loane, Faith McCune, Calum McElwee, Seon Simpson, Fergus Wachala-Kelly – will have learnt things about themselves, theatre and filmmaking in the final weeks of Play Machine that weren’t envisaged as part of the curriculum back at the start.

I think I’ll avoid too much cheese before bedtime tonight in case Mr Ruffle creeps into my subconscious. But I will look forward to seeing where these talented artists next turn up.

Caricatures by Fergus Wachala-Kelly.

Monday, June 08, 2020

The Machine Stops – the humans may be slaves to technology in E M Forster’s classic tale, but Big Telly prove again that they are masters of Zoom theatre

E M Forster’s The Machine Stops is a science fiction novella first published in 1909. 111 years later, it reads like a short story from 2020 that fell through a wormhole into the past. In it, people live indoors and are content to be discouraged from venturing out onto the unsafe surface of the Earth. In their underground bunkers, they are consumed by instant messaging and instant delivery of services, and prefer recycled ideas and thinking (which they don’t perceive as stale) over personal experience of the unknown. They have learned to defer to the Machine and the ever-present Book of rules and regulations.

Big Telly Theatre and its artistic director Zoe Seaton are making a name for themselves with their innovative Zoom theatre productions during lockdown. The format is not that new, but the skill with which Big Telly are adapting and stretching the conferencing solution surely pushes them to the forefront of this socially distanced form of theatre.

Their adaptation of The Machine Stops sets up two parallel narratives. Kuno (played by Gary Crossan) invites his isolating mother to travel across the world to visit him. There are things he wants to explain that he cannot divulge through the Machine’s communication device. Vashti (Anna Healy) is at first reluctant to leave the security of her room. We are introduced to the Committee, the pious guardians of the Machine and the Book’s policies for living and maintaining order. All the while, the Operator (Nicky Harley) mediates between the audience, the Machine and its Committee. Jonny Cameron, Emily Lamey, Rosie McClelland, Niamh McEnhill and Christina Nelson complete the ensemble.

You can read Forster’s 12,000-word short story in a little over an hour. This theatrical production has a similar run time and doesn’t over-labour the parallels between Forster’s vision and the present day. Inciting revolution to rise up against the Machine is a neat participatory device, though the time carved out to introduce the Committee somewhat detracts from a longer examination of the off-on-off relationship between mother and son.

Big Telly’s last production, Operation Elsewhere, thrived on the company’s love of high energy, madcap shenanigans. The Machine Stops could have been an earnest production consumed by the grey of Forster’s tale of humans becoming slaves to technology. Yet Seaton’s adaptation finds space for colour and humour with props being ‘passed’ between cast members and a tea-pouring ceremony that could have been borrowed from Alice in Wonderland.

McClelland, Nelson, McEnhill and Cameron portray officiousness and privilege with ludicrous believability, while Harley transitions (along with the audience) from compliance to non-compliance. Crossan and Healy are convincing as Kuno and Vashti, a family like many others with wildly differing worldviews.

The Machine Stops is visually much more ambitious that Operation Elsewhere, with a clever sense of depth achieved in some scenes by inserting layers of David Morgan’s beautiful steampunk props (and some repurposed household furniture and fittings) in-between the cameras, actors and green-screened backdrops. It’s a sign of Big Telly’s increasing confidence with Zoom. Kuno’s chamber even plays with perspective in a way that might open up the possibility of much-needed movement in future works (if cast members’ spare rooms allow). I know it’s theatre and not film, but watching it on a screen means that comparisons are hard to ignore, and the consistent use of medium close-up shots – which often mirroring the pose of audience members (if you sneak a quick peek at the gallery view) – means that over the hour-long performance, the fun props can only go so far to distract from the lack of on-screen physicality and interaction.

Staring at the screen is tiring. Video conference theatre lacks the escapism and immersion of leaving your day behind and sitting in the stalls of a theatre (or the plush chairs in a darkened cinema screen). The mechanics of the production absorb a lot of audience energy that otherwise should have been devoted to absorbing the plot, the dialogue and the themes.

With an audience normally trapped in an auditorium until the interval or the final curtain, only the boldest – and there are always a few in every show – will pick up their phone mid-performance to check their messages. Knowing that the audience are watching from the comfort of their own home – though the setting doesn’t add much intimacy – perhaps on a laptop screen rather than a big television, this production works hard to keep the audience’s attention focussed on the story they want to tell. As lockdown continues and future productions embrace video conferencing, the periodic checkpoints that require the audience to hold household items up to the screen or (as in The Machine Stops) join in a revolution (which creates a lovely moment of interaction) may become tiresome. Yet they may also be unavoidable.

With all that said, the feeling of peril that the whole performance could collapse with one wrong click of a mute button or the selection of the wrong virtual backdrop gives shows a deliciously dangerous edge that is rarely felt in a physical theatre. While The Machine Stops again has Zoom wrangler Sinead Owens on hand to smooth over any technical lumpy moments, Seaton admitted that Zoom performances were ‘terrifying’ during the Meet the Makers Q&A that followed Sunday’s matinee performance. Although the cast and crew in a more traditional situation may also be flying by the seat of their pants without the paying public realising.

Forster’s prediction of how technology could destroy the human soul is great material from which to have crafted a lockdown show. The compliance culture being encouraged by governments and public health experts has practically issued us with a five step ‘Book’ of what we can and cannot do. Many of us are incredibly attuned to social media sentiment and share – online and offline – what other people post rather than engaging with the issues of the day ourselves. Yet shouldn’t we be more like Kuno and seek to jump out of the fast current and explore what’s up on the surface first-hand before jumping to conclusions?

Many other theatre companies have gone into hibernation or branched out into recording solo skits and monologues or screening archive recordings of old shows. Under the circumstances, all these options are quite valid, but Big Telly are to be applauded for tearing up the rule book and instead adapting their experience of games and outdoor theatre to find ways to keep making live theatre, to keep taking risks – technical and dramaturgical – to discover what works and what doesn’t in pandemic storytelling. Under the circumstances, this production of The Machine Stops keeps true to most of the original story and delivers engaging performances that test out the constraints of Zoom as a medium. Neither are perfect, but in lockdown conditions, both far exceed the alternative of nothing.

Keep an eye on the Big Telly’s website for any future performances of The Machine Stops and other works in production. The Machine Stops is produced in partnership with The Riverside Theatre and Ulster University, and in association with The Marketplace Theatre Armagh, The Portico of Ards, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and Ards and North Down Borough Council.