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 (TrĂ³caire'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.