Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Habsburg Tragedies – The Belfast Ensemble – Lyric Theatre (12-15 April)

The Belfast Ensemble are really putting themselves on the artistic map with their sumptuous and sensual production of The Habsburg Tragedies in the Lyric Theatre by Conor Mitchell.

The first half shone a light Mitchell’s verse cycle about Catherine of Aragon which previewed last year in The MAC under the apt but hard to market name of The C**t of Queen Catherine (reviewed last April).

Now called The Moot Virginity of Catherine of Aragon, the audience watch the titular character pace around the room in which she is trapped. She is incarcerated, but not silent. Wearing an immaculate white pant-suit, Catherine, perhaps best known as Henry VIII’s first wife, rehearses the stages of her life and loves. Behind her, hugging the edge of the stage sit a seven piece orchestra who accompany her spoken words.

Abigail McGibbon’s acting is breathtaking and absorbing as she captures the tormented soul. Conor Mitchell’s piano playing, hand movements and nods to the other players compete for attention as his meticulousness and fine tuning of the performance become apparent.

The lighting invites interest too. Simon Bird’s artistry is beyond what you would reasonably expect for a show of this scale. Razor sharp lines cast from far above light the very edge of the stage. Precision fog sending rivulets of cotton wool clouds across the stage were another virtuoso stroke of genius.

The second, shorter act – The Final Confession of Juana ‘the Mad’ – switches to the less well-known story of Catherine’s sister. Again, locked up for a long time, Juana and her daughter Catalina act out a court room scene, using bottles of dead creatures preserved in coloured-formaldehyde as the other characters in their drama.

Again the lines are spoken, but this time very tightly syncopated with the music, with little room for hesitation or lapses in concentration. Jo Donnelly and Stella McCusker parry back and forth as Catalina facilitates Juana’s extended confession. Many of the same themes are explored – blood, virginity, power, disappointment, Europe – against the intricate accompaniment.

The brilliance of the lighting is turned up another notch in the second half, with some experimentation with colour and even darkness. Less nasally-challenged audience members told me how the smell of incense also added to the atmosphere.

At times I became distracted from the plot. But it really didn’t matter. The sheer level of multi-sensory performance squeezed into the show means that sitting through the show is exhilarating, incredibly satisfying and makes it very tempting to keep going back to experience more.

The emerging Belfast Ensemble have proved beyond doubt that their combined expertise and imagination can create beautiful art that is engaging and extremely rich. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Red (Prime Cut and Lyric Theatre until 23 April)

“What do you see?”
It’s a recurring question throughout the performance of Red in the Lyric Theatre. The plot tracks the relationship between abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (played by Patrick O’Kane) and his new assistant Ken (Thomas Finnegan). More than that it examines the motivation, ego and insecurity of the master creator who is all too aware that his ambition and significance are being truncated by the inevitable changing of the guard as the next wave of pop art painters bite on the heels of the current big thing.

Commissioned to paint a number of his trademark large format canvasses for a new high end Four Seasons restaurant, we watch Rothko size up and adjust the unwieldy artworks which hang from pulleys on equally unwieldy wooden easels on castors.

While the script has much to say about Matisse, Picasso and Pollock (of whom considerable animosity is expressed), and is dripping with artistic quotes and anecdotes at the start, John Logan’s fine play goes beyond providing a beginner’s guide to the abstract art world of the mid-twentieth century.

There’s a level of questioning that so obviously holds up a mirror to the impetus behind of whole (rarefied) world of creative and performing arts and the ways in which the public are expected to consume it.
“Not all art has to be psycho-drama”
Unlike much theatre, Red doesn’t just shift between the top two gears, but gives director Emma Jordan the full range of emotion, temper and pace to work with during the ninety minute, no interval performance. The two actors are joined on stage by a continuous soundtrack for much of the play, leading to a tense battle between Rothko’s classical tastes and his assistant’s jazz.
“The point is always the tragedy”
The tragedy of Rothko permeates each scene, building up like the layers of crimson tones on his canvasses. O’Kane becomes the doubting artist who cannot reach out and touch another human.

Ken’s own tragic family backstory is conveniently introduced late on and doesn’t quite affix properly to other layers that have been daubed on the plot. At first Ken is the over-dressed dogsbody to the paint splattered Rothko. But by the final scenes, two years have passed and the tables have turned and the young artist demonstrates a learned confidence as the dress styles swap and Ken’s opinion starts to unsettle his besuited boss. Finnegan manages this transition well and complements his senior on stage partner.

The set and lighting could only be from the imaginative hand of Ciaran Bagnall. As the curtain goes up at the start, the audience realise that they are flies on one wall of the painter’s studio. Yet no matter how firmly the two actor’s stare through that wall, they never catch the eye of an audience member. The diffused light falling on the canvass ceiling creates a beautiful effect as do the never-accidental shadows.
“Without movement paintings are what? / Dead?”
O’Kane and Finnegan’s focussed performance and control of energy and pace continues throughout the entire show. Choreographed scene changes carried out by cast members are now de rigueur in modern theatre – Three Sisters is a good example – but movement director Dylan Quinn has given it a sense of class and equipped the actors with motions whose scale matches the large artworks being shifted.

Red wouldn’t have been complete without a live-painting scene – though their fervent slap dash undercoating reminded me of a couple of East Belfast painters who once used a similar frenetic and messy technique on the interior walls of house.
“One day the black will swallow the red”
The cast and director of this production of Red deliver performances that the incredibly ambitious script deserves. Prime Cut Productions and the Lyric Theatre’s Red runs in the Lyric until 23 April.

Monday, April 03, 2017

The White Helmets (Tuesday 4 April, The Better World Fringe at Belfast Film Festival)

When car bombs are exploding around your city and the Russian air force are dropping munitions from above, who is responsible for helping to rescue people trapped under the rubble? Volunteers in the Syrian Civil Defence – better known as the White Helmets – fulfil that role in their towns and cities.

Since 2013, over 3,000 brave and independent volunteers working in 120 centres across Syria have so far rescued 80,000 people. Over 150 White Helmets have lost their lives in the civil war. Many more have been injured.

When they hear jet aircraft approaching, these are the kind of guys who rush outside into the street to look up and see where the bombs are dropping rather than heading into a basement bunker. Clouds of dust linger above collapsed buildings. There are shrieks of panic in the streets everywhere they go. Listening equipment helps locate the living under the mounds of heavy concrete.

“Better to rescue a soul than to take one” says a member of the Aleppo White Helmet team. As first responders, they leave their political leanings behind them. Every life is precious. “It’s our duty to save them.”

The White Helmets documentary – which won the Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject) in February 2017 – tells the story of the civil defence team in the city of Aleppo.

These are not retired soldiers or career fire fighters. Over the course of 40 minutes we meet a former builder, a former blacksmith and a former tailor who now volunteer full time in their rescue roles.

Footage from helmet cameras shows the men rushing in where angels would fear to tread. “Our job depends on speed and accuracy” explains one rescuer, echoing the probable mantra of the pilots flying overhead. Yet the airborne bombs seem to fall all too often on civilian targets rather than military ones.

As well as encountering death on a daily basis as they race across the city in their truck to each new devastating scene, we watch the rescuers face up to the trauma of their own family and loved ones being caught up in attacks. While away in Turkey receiving vital training courses on techniques and equipment, several rescuers face anxious waits as the status of missing family members is tracked down.

“I’m willing to sacrifice by soul for the sake of the people” says one White Helmet. Tragically, while we watch archive footage of ten day old baby Mahmud being pulled alive from the rubble, his rescuer Khaled Omar Harrah died in an airstrike in August 2016, leaving behind his wife and two daughters.

Director Orlando Van Einsiedel captures the intense esprit de corps shown by the team as they perform their sacred, humanitarian duty. “To save a life is to save all of humanity.” Mixing together interviews with bodycam footage this short documentary explores the motivation of a brave team of rescue workers in Aleppo. It’s sobering viewing. Yet it’s full of hope amongst the suffering.

The White Helmets will be screened as part of the Belfast Film Festival in The MAC at 7pm on Tuesday 4 April as part of The Better World Film Fringe organised by CADA (the Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies in Northern Ireland).

The film will be followed by a panel discussion chaired by Peter Anderson (NI’s head of Concern Worldwide) and featuring contributions from Noelle Fitzpatrick (Trócaire's Syria humanitarian officer), Anna Nolan (director of The Syria Campaign) and Declan Lawn (writer, broadcaster and BBC TV documentary maker).

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Belfast Flm Festival 2017 - kids, shorts, documentaries, Syria, North Korea, Bulgaria and beyond

Every year something clashes with the Belfast Film Festival and curtails the range of fine films that I can savour. This year I’m off taking a team of men in their twenties from churches across Britain and Ireland to visit refugee projects on Sicily and Lampedusa.

Here are some recommendations of movies to catch in my absence!

Sunday 2 April

The World of Us “boils down the complexities of adult life to their inception and poignantly delivers them through the waning innocence of its young stars” in this film that sees a new childhood friendship stretched whenever the summer holidays end and they return to school. Queen’s Film Theatre at 6.30pm.

Mimosas is billed as a “Eastern western”, following a caravan transporting the body if a sheik to his remote resting place in the wildnerness of the Moroccan desert. A test of will, faith and endurance with a dusting of fear. Queens Film Theatre at 9pm.

Monday 3 April

Liberation Day – A thoughtful yet comedic documentary following the arrival of Slovenian cult band Laibach in North Korea and the process of threading alternative rock’n’roll lyrics through the eye of the censor’s needle. Beanbag Cinema at 6.30pm.

A Man Called Ove promises to be a quirky, funny, bittersweet and Swedish film. A boisterous new family get off to a bad start when they move in next door to angry old Ove. But understanding breeds friendship. Queen’s Film Theatre at 8.30pm.

Tuesday 4 April

White Helmets follows a group of volunteer first responders who rescue victims of the civil war in Syria. Searching for survivors amongst the wreckage of flattened buildings, since 2013 the White Helmets have saved nearly 80,000 lives. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things to help save others. Organised by CADA (Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies in NI) and followed by a panel discussion about the situation in Syria. The MAC at 7pm.

Aquarius – An ageing music critic stages a sit in to prevent redevelopment of her apartment block. Pledging to leave only upon death, this thriller follows her cold war with the developers. Queen’s Film Theatre at 8.30pm.

Wednesday 5 April

Film Devour Short Film Festival will once again pack its Hill Street venue with people and fantastic sub-15 minute shorts that are made in or connected to this island. Always a treat. The Black Box at 7pm. Arrive early to get a seat.

Thursday 6 April

The Good Postman is a documentary set in eastern Bulgaria, bordering Turkey. In a sleepy hamlet sitting amid orchards and a patchwork of farmlands the local postie watches refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and wonders what it means to be European in his increasingly closed-off and distrustful town. Beanbag Cinema at 6.30pm.

The Peacemaker follows the work of Padraig I’Malley as he uses “unorthodox methods and dogged determination” in his work to resolve some of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Followed for five years by filmmaker James Demo, this documentary contrasts a day job of restoring broken connections with a personal struggle with alcohol, and scarred relationships with those he loves. Movie House Dublin Road at 7pm.

Saturday 8 April

Join the Banterflix team as they look back at their Belfast Film Festival highlights and record the latest episode of their movie review podcast in the Hudson Bar between 11am and noon.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Importance of Being Earnest (Bruiser Theatre at The MAC until 15 April)

Bruiser Theatre Company have boldly reinterpreted The Importance of Being Earnest, placing the playwright Oscar Wilde as constant onlooker to his own farce with its themes of confused identities, social rituals and triviality.

Seven performers with identikit cream outfits climb about the Escher-like staircases before resting on their chaise-longues in dark eyries overlooking the central ground-level stage. Some of Wilde’s already lyrical dialogue is set to music and the voices of the cast punctuate the script with their musical commentary on the action. Matthew Reeve accompanies from a piano at the side of the stage. Whenever a character is required on the main stage, the relevant Wilde clone slips down the stairs, and dons a simple accessory to take on their new role.

Ernest (played by Joseph O’Malley) leads a double life, split between his country residence where he looks after his ward Cecily Cardew and the city where he lets his hair down. Two names, two identities, and the seeds are quickly sown for later confusion. Algy (Joseph Derrington) interrogates his friend and explores their individual duplicities, before being interrupted by the arrival of Ernest’s sweetheart Gwendolyn (Samuel Townsend) and her hostile mother Lady Bracknell (Ross Anderson-Doherty).

The set is dark, the costumes cream and the mellow lighting adds to the sepia feel of the production. The stage is quickly and simply redressed after the interval to move the action to the country and appearance of Cecily (Chris Robinson), her governess Miss Prism (Richard Croxford) and the local vicar (Karl O’Neill). The farcical encounters flow in the longer second half until a series of revelations bring the final act to its eponymous conclusion.
“More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read.”

So many of the sayings attributed to Wilde in everyday parlance come from this play. It’s full – and fool – of sage advice, truisms and smartass adages.

With a pre-existing lack of strong female stage roles, performing The Importance of Being Earnest with an all male cast was always going to raise questions about Bruiser Theatre Company’s decision. Artistically, director Lisa May’s gamble pays off.

The courting scenes between Ernest and Gwendolyn felt like I was watching two plays at once. In one a light-footed and feminine Gwendolyn (portrayed incredibly consistently by Townsend throughout with a beautiful falsetto voice) was dancing around her beau; in the other two gay men were performing a mating ritual.

All the while, the mini-Wilde’s were sitting up high looking down on the action. The additional layer of confusion adds richness to the original text rather than dragging it down, and while it is never allowed to dominate the action, enough contemporary questions are fired off alongside the original cultural commentary to warrant the single gendered casting.

Anderson-Doherty’s pragmatically stubborn and no nonsense Lady Bracknell avoids the temptation to become a pantomime dame, yet creates a rounded character that cannot be ignored amongst the ensemble cast.

Bruiser have thrown a lot at this production. The music accentuates the absurd. The set has hidden gimmicks. A slow motion sequence garners extra laughs. The lighting cue list must be laborious to follow given the constantly changing focus of activity. Occasionally it all becomes exhausting to watch, particularly the stand-up-sit-down near-slapstick sequence in the third act

Full of laughs due to the absurdity and surreal sequences, Bruiser’s The Importance of Being Earnest lifts the late nineteenth century play into the twenty first century, adding musical pizazz, some ambiguity and plenty of entertainment into this confident production.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs at The MAC in Belfast until Saturday 15 April.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Imagine! Belfast Festival of Politics and Ideas (20-26 March 2017) #imaginebelfast

The Imagine! Belfast Festival of Politics and Ideas is back for its third year. “It’s going to be great. The best festival ever!” was what one snowy Washington DC St Patrick’s Day celebrant didn’t report back to us after one two many Irish Champagnes.

In the ultra-climate, post-freedom, alt-gender, super-truth, pre-culture, trans-surveillance, info-reality, neo-Brexit society that we now live in what could be better than a non-partisan festival with an eclectic mix of talks, comedy, music, film, theatre, workshops, tours and exhibitions to encourage people to discuss and debate.

There’s even a competition asking for submissions of short poems on a political theme: limerick, haiku, iambic pentameter … you decide! The vast majority of events are free.

In partnership with Stratagem, Slugger’s own sold out event on Thursday night will pitch 7 Ways to Make Northern Ireland Great Again.

Between Tuesday 21 and Saturday 25 March, John McCann’s new play Famla will be performed by Tinderbox Theatre Company in The MAC. A haunting, hilarious and heart-breaking story of hidden secrets and hidden truths.

Some highlights from the programme of events that stretch over 7 days in 35 venues with 300 speakers and performers. Unless mentioned, events are free though you may need to follow the links to register if venue space is constrained.

Monday 20 March

Nat O’Connor explores the question of Could Northern Ireland become an independent member state of the EU? in the UU’s Belfast Campus between 12.30 and 2pm.

A Musical Journey presented by Beyond Skin in The Black Box from 7.30pm until 10pm. Expect music, rhythm and definitely drums from different cultures and backgrounds as band members and musicians celebrate identities and address stereotypes. Access All Areas is the follow up to the Music Unite project. £5.

Tuesday 21 March

Tuesday is Dialogue Day, with ten venues across the city hosting civic conversations over a cup of tea or coffee (buy your own!) between 10am and noon. The theme this year is ‘Surviving or thriving in turbulent times’. Check the programme for venues in case you turn up in Stormont House canteen and are disappointed it’s not participating this year!

Between 5pm and 6.30pm, the same venue will discuss Modern Medical Ethics: Moral Support or Professional Challenge as Duncan Wilson delves into the emerging field of bioethics and ponders how the changing political context and interdisciplinary input from law, philosophy and social sciences is helping or hindering the medical profession.

Why We Need Feminist Economics sees Katrine Marçal use wit and her considerable analysis to unpack the themes of her book Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? which challenges the gender-blind nature of mainstream economics. The hive Community Space on Grosvenor Road between 7.30pm and 9pm.

Wednesday 22 March

Students or Consumers? Has education become a business? Are students now consumers? Does the pressure on universities to balance their books now suppress their supply of education for the public good? QUB Students’ Union from 2pm until 4pm.

Where do young people access news – and does it matter for how they see the world? Online news outlets rely on algorithms to personalise our news feeds and we tend to live in like-minded social media bubbles. Social media is now a main source of news for young people. A panel will ponder how important stories and issues around immigration, international aid and refugees can be understood in those environments? UU Belfast campus between 3pm and 4.30pm.

Brexit and the Border: So What? has been organised by the Open University with a panel encompassing academia, media, economics and farming ready to discuss the impact – if any – on peace, politics and trade. Ulster Museum (Belfast Room) between 6.30pm and 7.30pm.

Thursday 23 March

As a teenager, I read far too much Tolkien with its myriad of ancient and made-up languages. So one day during a school summer I invented my own. It had some simple tenses, a grammar structure, and a book of vocabulary. All typed out with a manual typewriter on A4 sheets. Later in life I was told that this wasn’t a normal thing for a teenager to do. And it may explain why I loved Dave Duggan’s 2014 play Makaronik of which 10% of the script was performed in the made-up Empirish language. But it turns out I’m not alone. Researchers from the UU will converge on their Belfast campus between 10am and noon to host a hands-on workshop called Inventing a Language is a Lot of Fun where they’ll explore the universal properties of human language and create an alien language that can still be spoken by human actors. See you there!

Imagine if the Peace Walls Came Down? Not so implausible given that that’s the commitment by 2023 in the NI Executive’s TBUC/Together Building a United Community strategy. This workshop in the UU Belfast campus will conduct a thought experiment and imagine the consequences for local communities, services, planning, security and more of taking the walls down. 5.30pm to 6.30pm.

Friday 24 March

Democracy Day takes over The MAC with a slew of events organised by Building Change Trust that assesses How Healthy is Democracy in Northern Ireland? and looks at welfare reform, participation and deliberation, open policy making, civic activism, a citizen jury, a fake news quiz, citizen assemblies, digital tools for democracy from Iceland, Estonia and Scotland before putting Democracy on Trial.

Then head over to the Conor Lecture Theatre in the UU Belfast campus to hear Bill Adair, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning US fact-checking platform PolitiFact deliver a much-anticipated lecture entitled Are We Living in a Post-Truth Democracy?

Saturday 25 March

Between 2pm and 5pm at QUB’s Sonic Arts Research Centre Franziska Schroeder will give you a speedy introduction to using a microphone and an audio recorder to allow you to interview the public about how they think their lives might change post-Brexit. Then you’ll be helped to edit the audio into a short piece that will be played back at the end of the practical Sounding Out on Brexit workshop. All free.

Why is Elvis in your Toast? The Open University’s Patrick Wright explores pareidolia and how seeing images in objects can be a result of historical influences as well as our innate fears and anxieties. Between 6,30pm and 7.30pm in the Crescent Arts Centre.

Sunday 26 March

2017 marks five hundred years since Martin Luther nailed his Nine Five Theses to the door of his Wittenberg church and set in train the Protestant Reformation. Join a panel in the UU Belfast Campus between 3pm and 5pm who will be Reflecting on the Reformation and discussing whether this was really about religion or was a forerunner of Brexit showing disillusionment of the periphery with the perceived corruption of the cosmopolitan centre!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Personal Shopper: a remote and melancholic search for outfits, souls and the film’s meaning (QFT until 23 March)

While I sat in the cinema previewing Personal Shopper, politicians were meeting up in Stormont, searching for meaning and haunted by the ghosts of the past in a long drawn-out process. Much like the character of Maureen played by Kristen Stewart around whom the film revolves.

She’s a tortured and empty woman, dissatisfied with her hollow job sourcing clothes for rich clients while grieving the recent death of her brother with whom she shares a medical condition and is desperate to renew a spiritual connection.

Maureen dresses in baggy jumpers while ferrying thousands of pounds worth of haute couture garments and jewellery around in branded bags on her moped. Other than a brief moment of cowering when she detects a ghost, Stewart’s emotional dial is stuck on ‘glum’ throughout the film.

Writer/director Olivier Assayas takes his film on a meandering and melancholic odyssey through abandoned country houses, Parisian couturiers and a client’s high end apartment as Maureen carries out her twin searches for outfits and her brother’s soul. It’s lonely and remote work: many of the locations are desserted, Maureen’s client Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) is always distant or distracted, and even her boyfriend works overseas in Oman.

The backstory is revealed at a leisurely pace over 105 minutes. Unfortunately, the film feels at least half an hour longer. There’s a lot of spiritual mumbo jumbo including a novel but frustratingly prolonged episode of being haunted by text message and a nearly comical invisible man sequence that is rudely interrupted by a violent disturbance.

The soundtrack is relatively unobtrusive except for its very obvious signposting of imminent terror and moody chamber string sequences that unexpectedly accompany the revving of Maureen’s moped every time it scoots through the streets of Paris. The fade to white ending – a total contrast to the unusual slow fade to black that signifies the end of many previous scenes – is a total cop out that just adds to the wool shop-sized list of loose ends the audience is meant to leave the cinema mulling over.

In the end, the talks up at Stormont may be easier to understand and deliver more comfort and meaning than Personal Shopper which at worst is a vehicle for needless titillation at Stewart’s body and at best is a poorly executed ghost hunt that successfully sought to avoid being classified as horror.

Personal Shopper – which should perhaps have been titled ‘Shopping for a Ghost’ – is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 17 to Thursday 23 March.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Review: Certain Women – a lingering celebration of the downcast, downtrodden & disheartened (QFT until 9 March)

Certain Women tells a triptych of stories, all set in rural Montana and based on short stories by Maile Meloy.

While a couple of brief scenes link together some of the characters, the three stories are largely independent. Yet they all share the same feeling of women and – despite the title – men battling injustice and loneliness.

Lawyer Laura (played by Laura Dern) has a client (Jared Harris) who can’t sue for proper damages after an injury in his workplace because he accidentally settled for a nominal amount. His dissatisfaction escalates, and in a sequence that falls just shy of black humour, Laura finds herself becoming a hostage negotiator.

Ryan (James Le Gros) is (mostly talking about) building a new family home. Driving home the couple stop off with an old friend and Gina (Michelle Williams) wangles a deal to use some unused stones. The elderly man is clearly confused, and Ryan is less than supportive of his wife’s attitude.

A worker on a pony ranch (Lily Gladstone) stumbles into a one-sided friendship with a out of town lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who is teaching a night class. Both feel trapped in their daily routines; but only one of them has the financial means to try to escape.

While I began to chuckle out loud at a couple of unexpected situations, I was halted in my guffaw by the feeling of overwhelming emptiness of depression created by director Kelly Reichardt.

There’s no element of feel good in this 107 minute film. Certain Women is primarily a celebration of the downcast, the downtrodden, the disheartened and the disappointed. But it’s beautifully filmed and the character studies are finely observed. Shots linger. The camera is often fixed, and kept in the shadow. The background noise of each location is allowed to fill the long gaps between dialogue.

There’s never a sense that the audience are being led through a well-signposted story. Instead, we’re all kept on tender hooks trying to figure our what will be important, which characters will endure, what the story line will be. And of course, the ultimate revelation is that the plot is less important than the example, emotion and experience of these three women and those close to them in reflecting everyday life.

Certain Women is undeniably an unusual film. But like Moonlight, it lingers long in my mind, retelling its stories. Screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre from 3 until 9 March.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

“Save our Neighbours” – high energy musical Glasgow Girls highlights Scottish asylum campaign (The MAC until 25 Feb)

No sooner has one piece of political theatre left The MAC – Entitled is touring through Bangor, Newry and Derry this week – than another bounces onto the main stage of the Belfast venue.
“Your asylum request has been refused … Your removal must be enforced”

When a fellow pupil failed to turn up at a Glasgow school one morning in 2005 – detained with her family in a dawn raid by the UK Border Agency and sent back to England to await deportation – her school mates set about raising public awareness and challenging the asylum system.

Their Glasgow Girls campaign reached the Scottish Parliament with the Green Party triggering a debate that voiced concern about how children in Scotland were being treated when families are removed for deportation.

This high-energy musical theatre production centres around the seven girls and their bilingual language support teacher Mr Girvan. Songs are accompanied by a pumping backing track and live fiddle and guitar. The fighting spirit of the city of Glasgow is celebrated – despite the early lyric “There’s bits of the city that are really shitty” – along with the broad welcome that asylum seekers received upon dispersal up to Scotland.
“It’s no their war; It’s no their sin”
Musical styles are varied with electronic grime, reggae-dub, folk-rock and the Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell conjured up as a glittering Elvis. The recreation of the debate in the Scottish Parliament which led to the promise that dawn raids and detention would not be used in cases involving families with children in Scotland is one of the most powerful scenes of the production.

The set consists of a playground climbing frame that provides performers with a couple of different levels and steps. The performers are individually micced and the sound design makes good use of echo and reverb to enhance the dialogue and singing. The choreography is very precise and director Cora Bissett has kept a good pace to the show while still allowing some intimate and emotional moments to flourish.

In-between the singing and dancing there’s quite a lot of audience education about the asylum system. The script doesn’t shy away from discussing anti-asylum sentiment, allowing some “I fear that they’re over hear to live for free” voices to be heard and largely rebutted. An older woman Noreen acts as the common (wo)man, not afraid to break the fourth wall to let the audience into her world of neighbourhood watch and offers a commentary on the less than successful campaign.

It’s a testament to the show that the unfinished nature of the campaign and the lack of fulsome political follow-through is core to the second half and a happy ending was not concocted. Instead Glasgow Girls finishes with a powerful call to action to “save our neighbours” no matter where we are.

I overheard one teenage lad leaving the theatre last night exclaiming “that was amazing!” to others in a youthful group who had attended the opening night.

Glasgow Girls is a wake-up call to the harsh outworking of UK asylum policy and the show’s revival and tour by Pachamama Productions is timely given the continued political and media focus on migration and asylum. It plays in The MAC until 25 February.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

NI Science Festival - space, stories, food safety, cognitive computing, astrophysics and quantum biology #nisf17

NI Science Festival is in its third year and still has a week to run. The programme is packed full of surprises and treats.

Reassembled, Slightly Askew runs at The MAC until 26 February as part of the festival and takes the audience inside the head of a patient with a life-threatening brain injury. You can read my preview of the show and interview with the playwright (who wrote about her acquired brain injury) over on the Culture Northern Ireland website.

Tuesday 21 February

Professor Dame Ann Dowling will deliver the the 16th Sir Bernard Crossland Annual Lecture in which she will discuss the role of universities in stimulating growth through the people they educate and through their research and enterprise activities. REGISTRATION CLOSED

Poetry meets science in the Black Box at 6.30pm tonight as MATRIX (the NI Science Industry Panel) teams up with the John Hewitt Society to curate an evening of talks and science themed poetry, culminating in a world record attempt for the most haiku tweeted at a single event.

Wednesday 22 February

Mew to TQ: Lighthouse Technology takes place at 2pm in W5. The Titanic Foundation and Commissioner for Irish Lights preview the 10 tonne, 7 metre tall, 130 year old Mew Island optic that will be coming to Titanic Quarter this summer. The talk will explore the science and the innovation related to lighthouse technology: illustrating that the Fresnel lens was a major scientific breakthrough, the pinnacle of lighthouse lens size, and the energy sources used to provide the light. See the event listing for details on how to book your free place.

The monthly Tenx9 storytelling event partners with the NI Science Festival for a second year to present an evening of true stories about “The final frontier”. Black Box at 7pm. Free entry; first come first served. Tenx9 is always a treat.

The Horizon strand of programming on BBC Two has been recently been repeating landmark editions of the long-running series which brings cutting-edge of science and technology to life and applies it to our everyday lives. Horizon's editor Steve Crabtree will curate a journey through the archives in Scanning The Horizon: The Health of a Nation, pulling out key moments of health discoveries and disease outbreaks. Through unique access to clips from the Horizon vaults, the Queen's Film Theatre audience can watch how medicine has evolved over the last five decades. Free but booking essential.

Thursday 23 February

Belfast City Hall will once again host the annual Turing Lecture, this year delivered by IBM Research's VP & Chief Science Officer of Cognitive Computing, Dr Guruduth S. Banavar. Beneficial AI for the Advancement of Humankind will explore cognitive computing, the technology breakthroughs that are enabling this trend, practical applications for the real-world, and ethical considerations guiding the development and deployment of the technology for the benefit of humankind. Get ahead of the curve and understand how cognitive systems will create new partnerships between people and machines to augment and scale human expertise in every industry, from healthcare to financial services to education. Free but registration required. From 5.30pm.

Friday 24 February

Dr Andrew Cannavan led the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Food Safety Assessment Team in Fukushima after the nuclear disaster and works closely with the Queen’s University Institute for Global Food Security. He'll deliver the Jack Pearce Memorial Lecture at 6.30pm in the QUB David Keir building, and will discuss his own experiences, emergency preparedness and responses to nuclear incidents. Free but registration required.

Saturday 25 February

Dr Niamh Shaw is a performer, scientist and engineer who is passionate about awakening people's curiosity. She attended the International Space University’s annual Space Studies Programme in 2015 in association with NASA and she was selected for the Crew 173 Mars analog mission (earlier this year in the Utah desert!) Niamh will explain about her plan to get into space within the next eight years and what it will take to become the first Irish Astronaut. Armagh Planetarium at 1pm or 3pm. £2. Booking essential - details in the event listing.

Sunday 26 February

St George's Market will be animated between 11am and 3.30pm with Busking Physicists use everyday objects to open up a new world of curiosity and understanding with their tricks and sights. The team from the Institute of Physics invite market shoppers to step into a realm of invisible forces and remarkable matter and to join in their unstoppably infectious physics fun!

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell will be in conversation with fellow physicist Jim Al-Khalili at 2pm in the Whitla Hall. The inspirational Belfast born giant of astrophysics is best known for her discovery of pulsars (rotating neutron stars that appear to ‘pulse’ since the beam of light they emit can only be seen when it faces the Earth). Her observation, made together with her supervisor Antony Hewish (he got the Nobel Prize, she didn't) is considered to be one of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the twentieth century. Tickets £6.

And Jim Al-Khalili returns to the Whitla Hall stage at 4pm to deliver a lecture introducing the field of Quantum Biology and examining the impact of recent research and what this means for our understanding of what life really is. John Stewart Bell (a QUB graduate) discovered Bell’s Theorem and his work on non-locality resolved a long standing dispute involving Albert Einstein and showed that Einstein’s views on quantum mechanics were incorrect. This first annual John Bell lecture honouring and recognises Bell’s contribution to the field of quantum physics. Tickets £6.

Logan (Wolverine III) - three men and a little lady meets Green Room

I haven’t seen any of the previous X-Men films on a cinema screen, and have mostly been working away at something else while catching some of them on TV. So going into the Movie House on Dublin Road last night to preview Logan, I had a passing familiarity with the Marvel Comics backstory, but certainly couldn’t have picked Wolverine out of a crowd and didn’t realise this was the last of a trilogy of films tracking his origin and adventures.

Hugh Jackman plays the mutant Wolverine whose sharp talons are quickly seen in action in an opening sequence with dialogue that mostly consists of roars and arghs as blood squirts out of severed arteries and body parts fly through the air in a garage forecourt. And carelessly, Logan – Wolverine’s name on his Social Security documents now that he’s living and working in Civvy Street– doesn’t even check to see if the wheel nuts had been loosened by the eviscerated gang before driving away in his Chrysler limousine!

Apparently there have been no new mutants for 25 years. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is living in an enormous overturned water tank with sunlight streaming in through holes in its rusty shell. It’s a beautiful set, and the jaundiced colouration echoes the sandy ground outside. Stephen Merchant plays the always sarcastic albino Caliban who tends to Charles and has an enhanced sense of smell but is vulnerable to extreme photosensitivity.

The motley crew of three become four when they pick up a taciturn young girl who combines her inner sharpness with powerful gymnastics to fillet anyone standing in her way. Laura (played by Dafne Keen) is the star of the film. Her steely and otherworldly on-screen presence is mesmerising. And when she breaks her silence, her voice and delivery is worth the wait.

The dialogue is perfunctory: “Wolverine – you’re the only one who can help me!” is an accurate yet clichéd call to arms. The soundtrack occasionally celebrates the onscreen carnage before reverting back to minor chord dirges. But this isn’t a film about words or music.

Over two hours and fifteen minutes the audience watch Wolverine go on a journey of self discovery, chased from New Mexico to North Dakota with nowhere to lay his head, with kidnappings, fights, more fights and a very creepy Richard E Grant playing Dr Zander Rice. There’s some playful humour but even during the occasional mellow lull in the skirmishes your stomach is churning, ready for the next sequence of choreographed conflict.

Logan is marginally less violent than Green Room, another sinister film featuring actor Patrick Stewart. A lot of deaths, and some new beginnings and the possibility that history will repeat itself. You can catch Logan at Movie House Cinemas and the Odeon from Tuesday 28 February, with the first screenings at 22.23!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Ardnaglass on the Air - rural living brings hilarity to the airwaves (C21 Theatre, Lyric + NI tour)

Take one ramshackle shed with a Yagi antenna in the corner of a busy farmyard. Add a muck-covered pig farmer who lives with his mum and a local barmaid who dreams of escaping her drunken husband for the bright lights of London. Throw in a one hour long community radio show which celebrates the quaint and quirky ways of rural living. And sit down and relax to enjoy an hour and a quarter of solid entertainment from C21 Theatre’s latest production, Ardnaglass on the Air.

Margaret Mary-Rose O’Boyle isn’t afraid of uttering a string of jaw-dropping double entendres that are nearly as dirty as her co-presenter’s overalls. Jo Donnelly gently steers her character between an impetuous tottering flirt to empathetic friend, and manages to give definition to the peaks and troughs of emotion that might otherwise have become a blur of excitement.

Sitting behind the mixing desk – do pirate stations really use DJ mixers to control their mics? – Marty Maguire drives the desk and guides the listeners through the local news, adverts, live breaking stories and a weather forecast that emphasises the latter rather than the former. Yet as the one act play heads towards its conclusion, Hugh Francis O’Donnell’s vulnerability emerges.

Convention is thrown out the window barn door. While some curious extra excuses for movement around the studio have been invented, presenting a radio show is a very sedentary pursuit. (Hugo Duncan is the one exception to this rule.) The big gestures of theatre aren’t available. But Stephen Kelly’s direction has created a rich palette of gestures and facial expressions that construct an intimate performance in the diminutive set. Casting a real-life couple adds a frisson of sexual tension to the on-air chemistry and certainly helps add a touch of realism to the scowls and disappointing glares when things go wrong on air.

As a townie, I feared that I was sitting laughing at a whimsical piss-take that was unfairly caricaturing culchie living. But rural dwellers up in the big smoke for the show confirmed afterwards that they recognised much about their friends and neighbours in the Jimmy Kerr’s script.

Ardnaglass on the Air is a hoot. It’s outrageously funny, full of vernacular and very entertaining. The only pothole in its farmyard is the ending which Jimmy Kerr has had to adapt from previous three-handed versions of the play. Instead of going out with a set-crushing bang or a surprise entrance it instead slows right down and fades out rather than keeping the energy up right the way to the pips.

You can catch Ardnaglass on the Air in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 18 February before it tours through Armagh, Coalisland, Newtownabbey, Cushendall, Newry, Limavady, Lisburn, Downpatrick and finishes in Jimmy’s home village of Moneyglass.

Review: Moonlight - seeking the stability of identity and security (QFT until 2 March)

Moonlight is a film in three acts. Each with a different actor portraying Chiron as a boy, a teenager and finally an adult.
“You don’t talk much but you darned well can eat!”

Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) befriend an uncommunicative youngster (played by a young talent Alex Hibbert) who stands aloof from his peers. The pair offer a positive parental influence and their home is a safe shelter while Chiron’s birth mother (Naomie Harris) neglects him and works as a health worker by day while selling sex by night. But the moral balance of Moonlight is always more complicated: the sensitive and caring Juan is the local drug dealer and supplier to the boys’ mother.

As Chiron grows up (now played by Ashton Sanders) the homophobic bullying he experiences becomes more pronounced and physical. A tender moment of self-discovery is followed by a violent confrontation that turns his life upside down and takes the remainder of the film in an unexpected direction.

Writer and director Barry Jenkins allows Chiron to remain a man of few words throughout. The transitions between actors are well signposted even though the visual similarity between the first two actors is more difficult to swallow when the incredibly muscular third Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) appears on screen, perhaps emphasising the complete change of lifestyle.

Jump cuts are out and instead the camera slowly pans around locations – perhaps as much a financial decision as a stylistic one given the low budget of the film.

Moonlight won’t provoke many laughs; nor will it generate tears. Instead it’s a fascinating, well-paced character study of a young black man coming to terms with his identity and his need for security. The lifestyle of the third instantiation of Chiron has more than a few echoes of Juan. Ambiguities and contradictions are everywhere.

While tackling homophobia, neglect and abuse, Moonlight also celebrates kindness, patience, acceptance and refuge. Broken relationships are healed – in a way that La La Land sadly couldn’t manage – and although a few too many quality characters are discarded as the years pass, there’s a character development arc and layers of meaning and questions that engaged and drew me in to this 111 minute film, leaving me wishing there was a fourth act.

Moonlight is screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until polling day, Thursday 2 March.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Looking Deadly: shape shifting actors inject life into a town’s rival funeral firms

The body of well known republican Tom McCarthy reposes in Lynch’s funeral home. Jane (played by Niamh McGrath) inherited the business from her father but local competition from Cost Less Coffins up the street means her finances are not healthy and the bank manager will soon be knocking on the door if the stress doesn’t invite the Grim Reaper to visit first. Rob (Keith Singleton) is her loyal yet under-appreciated mortician.

Looking Deadly is a black comedy directed by Amy Conroy that sets two funeral home businesses at each other throats while an array of quirky townspeople look on at the shabby dealings between the undertakers. There are no deathly silences but instead the theatre is filled with laugh out loud moments as the two actors shape shift between characters across the minimal black stage and set.

With a switch of the lights and spin of the coffin, the talented pair physically transform into Mick (the Michael O’Leary of the funeral home sector) and his hunched over son Seaneen. The death of local Doctor Mulhuddart provides the crisis point in the plot that finally stretches relationships to breaking point.

It’s a real treat. McGrath and Singleton deliver fifty five minutes of madcap physical and tongue-twisting verbal comedy together with synchronised gestures and beautiful accents that can’t fail to make you laugh.

Looking Deadly was performed in The MAC on Thursday 9 and Friday 10. Well worth catching the floral tributes along with the show as it tours Monaghan, Newry, Belmullet, Newbridge, Nenagh, Sligo and Carrick-on-Shannon.