Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Carol - longing and not belonging in 1950s New York (QFT Fri 27/10-Thu 10/12)

Therese (played by Rooney Mara) spends her days as a clerk behind a counter in a Manhattan department store selling expensive toys to people who can afford them. She’d much prefer to be working as a photographer. When one glamorous customer leaves her gloves behind, Therese’s kindness coupled with a big dollop of serendipity rewards her with a meet-up and a dangerous life-changing journey.

The eponymous Carol (Cate Blanchett) mixes together elegance, confidence, frostiness, sensuality and anxiety. Her marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) has unravelled and even though her relationship with good friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) is over, Carol’s continued air of “promiscuity” sets off a bitter custody battle to decide which parent is most morally upright and suited to look after their daughter Rindy.
“I always spend New Year’s alone – in crowds.”

Despite the Christmas backdrop for the first two thirds of the film, the mood is morose throughout. Rare moments of wild abandon and happiness are quickly crushed by events. Neither Carol nor Therese feel comfortable fitting into society’s expectations of womanhood.

Ambiguity rules throughout the film. Is Therese the first younger woman to be pursued by Carol? How naïve is Therese and how manipulative is Carol? The final scene is a Mona Lisa masterpiece in holding a shot long after every other director would have shouted “cut”, leaving audiences searching for the hint of a facial expression that would provide a definite conclusion.

Nothing is rushed in Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt. Twenty minutes into the film I’d no idea where the plot would go. There’s a lot of looking yearningly out of car windows. Yet with long moody stretches without dialogue and shots that linger on opulent interiors, the story lures you into its world of 1950’s America and a crisis of changing moralities.
“You like certain people and you don’t like certain other people. You don’t know what attracts you to them.”

The film occasionally loses its subtly: a gun is signposted a little too obviously and now and again a line of dialogue feels clumsily planted whenever circumstance had already spoken louder than words. Shot on Super 16mm film, close-ups are rare and the colour palette is muted.

As the plot unfolds, the societal tensions and perceptions around same sex attraction become more and more obvious. Therese’s boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) offers boring respectability while Carol offers excitement and desire. Even when unsure about the consequences, Therese has a propensity to say ‘Yes’. Can either Richard or Carol win her heart?

Carol opens in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Friday 27 November and runs until Thursday 10 December. It’s also being screened in some of the other local cinema chains.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

All Through The House - dark comedy with a dysfunctional family at Christmas (Crescent Arts 4-19 Dec)

Update - read the opening night review.

All Through The House is an alternative offering this Christmas in the Crescent Arts Centre on University Road. Playwright Judith King describes it as a “dark comedy about a dysfunctional family coming together for Christmas dinner” with “slightly disastrous consequences”.

If you want an alternative to panto yet want to avoid deadly serious theatre then All Through The House might be for you. Yet look underneath the surface and you’ll find a more complex structure and meaning, a trademark of Tinderbox’s work (Lally the Scut being a great recent example). Contemporary Northern Ireland and clashes of culture aplenty.
“I hope that people recognise that a truthfulness about their own awkward family scenarios in it. This family are a blended family. The heart of the family are a divorced couple called Arthur and Carol Moore. They’ve decided to come together for Christmas dinner – the first time they’ve seen each other in five years – for the sake of their slightly neurotic adult daughter Ruth.

“Arthur is going to bring his new partner, the woman he left his wife for, and she’s going to bring her daughter who used to be their daughter’s best friend. So already you’ve got quite a tangled web. And then into that scenarios comes Carol’s drop dead gorgeous work colleague and all hell slightly breaks loose.”

Judith has “always wanted to write” and has previous started to compose film scripts. But she admits finding theatre “way more fun”. Neither Tinderbox nor Judith set out to write a Christmas show. “No one was more surprised than me ending up writing a Christmas play. It wasn’t really my intention” she says.

Her flair for comedy had been obvious at Swing State Cabaret, an evening of new satirical material by Tinderbox young writers, about and on the eve of the US Presidential election. What started our as an awkward dinner developed into the idea of a Christmas with “two very different families with two very different ways of celebrating Christmas coming together in a car crash situation … too juicy material to let go of”.

Hanna Slattne is the dramaturg at Tinderbox and first worked with Judith in their Young Writers programme back in 2009.
“Then she came through our Graduate Scheme in 2012 where we looked at satire – which is where this comedy’s satire flame was lit. And then out of that she got an opportunity to commission and started to develop this play with us and then after the successful Pick’n’Mix reading of the first half as a work in progress we commissioned her to finish this. So it’s been a long but a very brilliant journey to see someone grow … she’s worked really hard and this is a very, very good script. I’m so proud of it.”

A dramaturg acts as a coach in their ongoing relationship with the writer. Hanna explains:
“I know about theatre. I’m not the writer and I’m not a writer. But I do know how theatre works and functions and I also know what support writers coming to this challenge for the first time might need. It’s about having an ongoing artistic discussion all the way through.”

Judith acknowledges that “over the course of writing this I’ve gone wildly off piste in certain drafts”. But Hanna asks the right questions and brings it back into shape.

In a recent blog post, director Patrick J O’Reilly says:
“All Through The House beautifully captures the complex grey area between love and hate in couples and family life and that has been my prime source of inspiration throughout the rehearsal process. By removing clichés and stripping bare the emotional core so brilliantly crafted in Judith’s play we are making a visceral piece of work that is proving to be both humorous as it is touching, which in my opinion is the very best kind of theatre we can make.”

Judith has at the first week of rehearsals with the talented cast (Victoria Armstrong, Bernadette Brown, Maria Connolly, Mary Jordan, Stephen Beggs and Shaun Blaney).
“I think the way Patrick and the cast are working has been so enjoyable to watch. They’ve been up there, scripts down, and bringing so much humour to it. So it’s been really interesting to see how they’re lifting the script from what’s on the page.”

Does watching the rehearsal process change how she sees her play?
“Not as much as you would think. This is the first time I’ve done this but it was slightly like watching someone else’s play, in a good way. I was able to sit back … I don’t feel married to it being one particular way. And [the casts’] instincts are all really good. So even if it’s different from how I imagined it, it’s usually better, so I’m grateful to them!”

All Through The House opens in the Crescent Arts Centre on Friday 4 December and runs through until Saturday 19 December. Suitable for ages 14+. Tickets priced at £14 (£10 concession).

Update - read the opening night review.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Is Christianity holding Northern Ireland back? Listen back to #thebigdebateni

Around 400 people filled the Stormont Hotel’s ballroom tonight to hear Michael Nugent and David Robertson debate the question “Is Christianity holding Northern Ireland back?

The event was organised by local churches. 150 tickets were distributed by atheist and humanist groups, 150 by the local churches and the remaining 150 were available online on a first come first served basis. You can now listen back to the full evening.

The format gave the two speakers ten minutes each to make their case before they spent twenty minutes interrogating each other. Then the audience got to have their say and pose questions and respond to what they had heard.

Michael Nugent (@MickNugent) chairs the advocacy group Atheist Ireland and was first to speak.

Does religion hold NI back? Yes. Because religion holds everything back. And particularly when it’s entangled with politics. He suggested that sectarian was institutionalised in the Good Friday Agreement/Belfast Agreement and later quoted Caleb Foundation’s Wallace Thompson who said “All legislation should reflect Biblical reality”.

Nugent argued that “religion corrupts our sense of reality”. The more implausible the claim, the higher the barrier to believe it. Yet with religion it is the reverse. In fact, religion wants us to believe implausible and untestable claims.

Faith can be a problem in the secular world too, in communism and the free market. Eventually with secular faith it bumps into reality – the free market proves not to work – but religious faith and claims about the afterlife remain untestable.

Religion also corrupts our sense of morality.

David Robertson (@TheWeeFlea) is director of Solas Centre for Public Christianity and is Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. started by admitting that he didn’t recognise his religion in Michael’s introductory speech.

The state tells us how to educate our children what we should believe. Christianity can prevent the state becoming a form of fascism, of corporate control.

He argued that Christianity plays a large role in social action. Where were the atheist food banks? If you remove religion from society, would atheists move in to fill the gap? He suggested that atheists take over Christian schools ‘cuckoo like’ and impose their atheist views. He didn’t want Christianity removed from society … it changes society.

Robert admitted that not all religion is good. And not all Christians are good. Some were stupid. But how can you be for tolerance but also want to remove or eradicate religion from society.

The interrogation was good natured, though full of unpicking questions as well as much arguing with alleged false assumptions behind questions.

While the section taking questions from the audience attempted to wrestle the debate back towards the topic of Northern Ireland, most of the interaction was David Robertson (who defended himself against allegations of being smug and lacking grace).

During the questions, the chair of Atheist NI mentioned that they have a food drop (in conjunction with FareShare) at their meeting this Sunday morning at 11am in The MAC.

David Robertson saw merit in some of the writings of Pope Benedict XVI (though he’d got Mary “wrong”) and described him as a “Christian brother”. At one point there was agreement on stage with a shared view that people who don’t want to bake cakes should not be prosecuted.

By the end of the evening there had been more heat (and hot air) than light. Views from outside Northern Ireland bring welcome fresh insight and less predictable responses to familiar questions. Yet trying to play Top Trumps with atheism and Christianity overall reinforces beliefs and prejudices rather than builds bridges. The kind of sentiment monitoring that accompanies national political leader debates might have usefully shown how the sections of the audience reacted to the arguments being proffered on stage.

Michael Nugent and David Robertson will be reunited with William Crawley and taking calls on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback this afternoon.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Scorch - Exploring gender, uncertainty and where the law meets teenage naivety (The MAC until 21 Nov)

During the hour long performance of Scorch, Kes recounts her experience growing up as a boyish yet “debonair” eight year old with a collection of natty waistcoats, embedded as a teenager in the masculine world of gaming, yet with “boobs … that just pop up overnight” and don’t fit her body image.
“Everyone thinks I fancy Ryan Gosling. But no. I want to be Ryan Gosling.”

Ciaran Bagnall’s translucent stalactites hang over the circular stage surrounded by amphitheatre seating (last used for Villa and Discurso in the Chilean trilogy season of plays). Like any young person, Kes is interrupted by alerts and beeps as new messages arrive on new computer … and the overhead lights glow blue. Carl Kennedy’s sound design includes a playful riff on the Skype ring tone that the Ulster Orchestra should add to their concert repertoire.

A single-handed show performed in the round could be an lonely experience for an actor, but as Amy McAllister moves around the room, she slowly befriends the audience who form the rest of the support group she attends.

It’s a place where Kes can feel “free – like online – except in a real room with [bad] coffee”.

Over a period of years we listen to her explore her gender and make the leap from online friendships to real world relationships. Yet when Kes falls in love with Jules, her hood and hat are not the only source of disguise and confusion. Going with the flow, naïve Kes neither feels the need nor is comfortable raising the subject of her internal conflict.
“A girl can’t be charged with raping another girl.”

A court summons for sexual assault and fraud shocks the audience that has relaxed into the story of discovery and growing confidence. Was Jules deceived? Is there any chance Kes was grooming Jules for sex? What started out as romantic has broken laws and hurt people. “Do we have to fill out a questionnaire before going into a bar?” asks a friend.

Amy McAllister delivers the lines with a rhythm and a fragility that brings Scorch to life. (She was recently on stage in the Lyric Theatre’s The Shadow of a Gunman playing the 23-year old patriot Minnie Powell with fidgety feet and expressive eyebrows that got her into trouble.) It’s an outwardly simple yet engaging piece of theatre that marries a strong performance with an effective set and interrogates our understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation.
“Made into a tragic character … played in a game at maximum difficulty.”

The brilliance of Stacey Gregg’s script and Prime Cut’s production is that there are no attempts to produce neat endings, no moralising, and no campaigning. (The play is inspired by three or more real world transgender examples.) Tuesday night’s audience left the theatre and stood leaning on the first floor railings in the MAC talking about the issues and wondering where right and wrong lay.

Well worth getting along to The MAC to see Scorch before the run – and Outburst Arts Festival – ends on Saturday 21 November.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Güeros - hop into the back of a car and explore 1999 Mexico City (QFT 20-25 Nov)

Güeros a bold project for new director Alonso Ruiz Palacios and hopefully the first in a line of imaginative feature length productions that throw off the shackles of tradition and expected form.

It’s 1999. Teenage Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) is too much of a handful for his mother who sends her pale-faced “undercooked” son off to live in Mexico City with an older and darker-skinned brother who is meant to be at college.

There are student protests, but Fede (nicknamed Sombra and played by Tenoch Huerta) is not participating. Instead he’s “on strike from the strike” and hanging out with Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) in his high-rise concrete apartment with no electricity other than what he steals via a child living in the flat below.

Once they escape their sofa, the trio drive around in a beat up car, but never quite have the speed or energy to escape orbit around their tiny world. Even their quest to find enigmatic folk musician Epigmenio Cruz (said to have influenced Bob Dylan) fails to engender excitement.

Everyone on-screen is disaffected. Purposelessness is everywhere. Even the student protest movement that has taken over the local college spends days arguing with itself over direction.

Student activist and Latin American Studies student Ana (Ilse Salas) adds a female voice to the film when she rekindles her friendship with Sombra and joins the trio. But Ana does little to shake off the all pervasive lethargy. We’re treated to drug-addled hallucinations, panic attacks, fixations with different types of breakfast, stolen carrots, poverty, a trip to the zoo and the recklessness of dropping objects from tall structures on top of unsuspecting passers-by.

The three act, 4:3 ratio black and white film makes up for its low budget by throwing innovation at the sound scape and the creative visual feel of the 106 minute long road trip.

The traffic jams and blocked roads mean that no one in Güeros is going anywhere fast. The film frustratingly drags towards the end, but that’s partly its intention. If the cycle of despair didn’t rub off on the audience, we wouldn’t have properly experienced life in this unfashionable and untouristy region of Mexico City!

You can catch Güeros in the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 20 and Wednesday 25 November.

[The film’s title Güeros refers to a slang term for fair-skinned/blond-haired Mexicans.]

Friday, November 06, 2015

He Named Me Malala: the story of parental influence and a teenage activist with a voice for the voiceless (QFT until 12 Nov)

The extent to which parents shape the lives and values of their children is one of the themes that the documentary film He Named Me Malala explores over ninety minutes.
“It is better to live like a lion for one day than to live like a slave for 100 years”

Narrated animation tells the ancient Pashtun story of Malalai of Maiwand. Ziauddin Yousafzai named his baby daughter after the Pashtun heroine who was killed for speaking out. Her very name embodies a sense of destiny, but it was just one part of the jigsaw of values laid out for Malala by her parents.

Ziauddin taught Malala to raise her voice and rebel against customs and traditions. He demonstrated overcoming adversity (he’s a powerful and influential public speaker despite having a stammer) and showed how to stand up for what is right to the girl who at the age of 15 would be shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to suggests that girls needed to go to school.

There are remarkable scenes (which invade Malala’s privacy) captured in the ambulance and in hospital immediately after the shooting. Through interviews at the family’s new home in the UK, following Malala on trips abroad and using archive footage the film’s audience piece together the timeline leading up to the attack, and the Yousafzai family’s life since the attack on 9 October 2012.

Ziauddin set up and ran a school for girls. He felt it would be “sinful” not to speak out about the Taliban’s suppression of female education. When schools came under attack, Malala and her family became refugees in their own country, displaced from home in the Swat Valley.

Under a pseudonym, Malala wrote a blog about education in Pakistan for the BBC Urdu service. But it wasn’t enough. When Ziauddin gave his daughter the opportunity to speak out in her own name and she grasped the chance. He knew the risks but never expected the Taliban to try to kill a child.
“There is a moment when you have to choose to be silent or to step up”

Did her father make this choice for her? “No”, she says.
“My father only gave me the name Malalai. He didn’t make me Malalai. I chose this life.”
She dismisses any need for anger even though nerve damage has affected one side of her face: “Islam teaches us humanity, equality, forgiveness”.

Malala carries physical scars from the attack. She introduces cinema goers to her friends on the bus who were also injured in the shooting. The girl who has honorary degrees and has been on the front of TIME magazine has an incredibly private side and teasing (and being teased by) her two younger brothers, worries about only getting 61% in Physics and is incredibly bashful about even talking about cultural taboos like asking a boy out. She finds it “quite difficult to tell [her fellow school] girls who I really am”.

Yet in an instant she switches from watching Minions on a tablet to answering questions on the phone about the threats to her life if she returned to Pakistan. In conversation with world leaders the spirited girl takes the opportunity to pointedly question US President Obama about drone strikes encouraging extremism, and while visiting Nigeria to highlight the school girls abducted by Boko Haram she fearlessly told Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to take responsibility and “listen to his people”.

It’s an extraordinary juxtaposition. A profound world leader who we watch studying for her GCSEs, mixing rockstars and homework. Conservative, shy and reserved … yet given a microphone and put in front of a crowd, through clear delivery, pace and a waving finger she is a professional orator with a message she wants to impart.

The (joint) winner of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, Malala is aware that her own story is not unique. And the millions of girls deprived of education drives her to share her story for their benefit.

Speaking about Living Well with Gender and Power at last Friday night’s gala celebration of Corrymeela’s 50th anniversary, the US Peace Institute’s Kathleen Kuehnast referred to this film:
In this regard, most of us have heard of the remarkable courage of Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist for girls’ education.

This month a movie on her life comes out: He Named Me Malala. The “He” in the title refers to her father, and this is important as we often do not tell the story of Malala’s father and his persistence as well as courage to defy all of the social norms pertaining to fathers and men in a highly conservative area of Pakistan.

Men need to be a part of the change on gender equality, and not be kept apart in a separate silo.
As a father with a young daughter I found the film challenging as I learnt how Ziauddin’s actions had threatened Malala’s life. Was the education of girls in Pakistan more important than his own daughter’s safety? What kind of a father was he? By the end of the film I realised I was more and more convinced that he’s a good role model worth examining further.

He Named Me Malala opens tonight at the Queen’s Film Theatre and runs until Thursday 12 November.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

The Flood - are their relationships more destructive than Hurricane Sandy? (Lyric Theatre until 8 Nov)

Daniel McCabe’s play The Flood brings us into the living room of a New York apartment during Hurricane Sandy. A few blocks away residents have been evacuated. But Aidan and Eve are sticking it out, hosting a dinner party for Mary and Charlie.

Recently having spent a day shifting books and building bookcases, I appreciate the shelves of books in Ciaran Bagnall’s apartment set (that sits on the stage at a jaunty angle). The book spines all face inwards which creates an interesting visual effect.

Two large wooden-framed windows look down onto a busy street. The couples eat their chilli around a table. A couch offers comfort at the other side of the room. Phil Moffa’s sound design allows the wind to howl throughout the eighty minute performance.

Each relationship is strained, but it’s difficult to believe that these couples were ever really in love. Stereotypical Derry man, hard-drinking and sweary Aidan (played by John Duddy) got lost in the pub while out buying last minute supplies. He takes the piss out of Eve’s need for duct tape – a prudent requirement borne out of her experience of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

A week ago Charlie (James Russell) found his brother Martin after a suicide attempt. Martin’s now in hospital and Charlie is preoccupied and morose, increasingly tetchy with his Australian girlfriend Mary (Sarah Stephens) who is about to take a role in a “market research-driven network television” sitcom. Mary has questionable common sense: who wears a crop top and jeans half way up your calves when going out for dinner in the middle of a storm?

There’s no interval and no let up as the waves of depression batter the apartment. Aidan knows stuff about Charlie that Mary doesn’t know, and Charlie doesn’t know Aidan knows. And given the opportunity, Eve will psychoanalyse everyone except herself. They’ll tear each other apart long before the storm.

Eve’s the strongest character with her dancing eyes and pointy elbows. When Kimberlee Walker is not on stage, her warmth is greatly missed. The script burdens Aidan with long monologues, delivered in an accent that’s neither west coast nor Derry. Sarah’s delivery of Mary’s ballad about the 2011 Queensland Floods could have been a highlight of the last ten minutes of the play but the singing lacks passion and becomes a mere plot device to turn the page into the final act.
“Sometimes there’s more honour in carrying something than dragging it out into the light.”
Secrets and deception are a theme running through The Flood. One moment of risk with a secret shared late in the play informs the audience but fails to develop the plot.

Northern Ireland knows about flooding and dysfunctional relationships, but hurricanes are outside our local experience. Maybe that’s why this play left me feeling cold, and detached from the cast and the plot. Tragedy lacks the entertainment factor of comedy, but it can leave you enthralled ... if it works hard enough. Overall I was disappointed with The Flood. Amongst the bedlam in Lower East Side there was little sense of self discovery and certainly no redemption. The human storm was not diverted from its path. A shorter punchier script with a more dramatic ending (probably involving defenestration) would have been an improvement.

The Flood runs in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 8 November.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

NI Opera's Turandot: spectacular music and theatre (and less brutal than I'd imagined)

Cardboard boxes were stacked the full height of the Grand Opera House stage. Lines of fluorescent tube lighting hung low above the sweat shop floor, itself covered with a grid of 35 cardboard boxes, each with a baby doll lying neatly on top. Blue uniformed workers wore facemasks, presumably to protect them from harmful chemicals in the factory.

From the outset Turandot had scale, made possible by the co-production between Northern Ireland Opera, Théâtre Du Capitole and Staatstheater Nuremberg.

It was a few minutes before anyone sang, but the oppression was palpable. And then a besuited figure appeared high up amongst the boxes, watching over the scene below. Power, control, fear, compliance, systemic intimidation, the cheapness of life, the fruitlessness of work: it was all there in front of our eyes.

Being opera, the subtlety dial was turned down to zero and everything was being to extreme. When a knife was pulled out of a suit pocket, it was both large and already dripping in blood, suggesting regular use. A bit of onstage vomiting added to the grittiness.

The Ulster Orchestra with a turbo-boosted brass section thundered through Puccini’s score in the pit below the stage. If I closed my eyes the music was heavenly; when I opened them I realised I was watching hell.

The chorus was enormous with thirty or forty workers/singers on stage at anyone time. They filled the width and depth of the stage – standing and lying – and created a wall of sound that could compete with the orchestra.

Despite having a really good seat in the circle, like Salome, I found it very difficult to distinguish the words being sung on stage. The paper programme had a two page synopsis of the three act story, but with no interval there was no time to catch up and read ahead once the performance started. But snatched phrases, the on stage acting and the sense of emotion still gave me a real sense of what was going on, even if I was left light on detail about the riddles that Calaf needed to answer to claim the hand of Turandot, and the counter challenge he set her when he solved the riddles but she was unwilling to commit.

The beauty of the vocal harmonies from Ping, Pang and Pong – three internal security apparatchiks – was at odds with the increase in the level of terror and bullying heralded by the threesome’s presence on stage. Hanging cardboard signs round people’s necks added to the humiliation though also helped signpost the plot to the audience.

At one point, a children’s chorus from St Anne’s Cathedral Choir sang beautifully over the heads of the audience from up in the gods, their sweet voices wafting down over the less virtuous action.

This production of Turandot was packed full with memorable imagery. The overalls were a very uncommon shade of blue but it toned perfectly with the brown boxes. It’ll be the only time in my life I see someone set fire to the frame of bicycle and then stand over it warming their hands!

Around 200 Chinese lanterns gently floated up and down above the chorus of workers: mesmerising albeit fairly pumpkin-eqsue given the Halloween weekend of the performance. Two harnessed aerialists descend on ropes from the ceiling and were freed though their significance was lost on me.

Less beautiful but equally stark was the image of Ping, Pang and Pong wanting to “sing songs of love until the morning” yet gurning about the endless cycle of executions they had to oversee … while they changed into white wedding dresses and high heels, brought on stage by a limp woman with bloodied knickers and red tape over her mouth. Pulling tulips from her costume gave a sense of deflowering without the implied violence needing to be enacted. Did I mention the maidens wrapped in cling film brought on to tempt the Calaf?

“Can you not let me die without another young man’s death weighing on my conscience” sang Turandot’s father, the Emperor. He was at his wit’s end and wearing an oversized nappy. Pulling off her wig, the bald Turandot looked not unlike the dolls being manufactured around her.

Normally sung out of context from the rest of the opera we now expect Nessun Dorma to sound like a passionate anthem. In the midst of all of this on-stage misery it took on a much more melancholic tone.

Stripped of their dignity and their blue overalls and left standing in their utilitarian underwear (there’s nothing racy about Turandot), the bruises and evidence of relentless abuse were exposed.

The final scenes after the wig came off left a bald Turandot looking forlorn and very like the hairless plastic dolls she was pulling the limbs off. There was no happy ending.

I attended the final performance on Sunday 1 November. I’d heard a range of opinion beforehand. As the curtain came down on the one hour forty five minute performance, I honestly left the theatre and reflected that it had been a lot less brutal that I’d been advised. Maybe I’ve a high threshold, but much of the more gruesome and twisted abuse was indirect and disguised through symbolism.

Was it uncomfortable to watch? Yes. But a nightmare that warns society not to let the powerful take advantage of the poor does not need to be sugar-coated. It’ll be a long time before the Grand Opera House stage is graced with so many performers.

As an opera you didn’t even need a programme, never mind a foreign language, to pick up the gist of a story and sense what was going on. Contemporary themes echoed from the stage in abundance: poor working conditions, tyrannical management methods and people enslaved in roles performing tasks they can no longer stomach. Long may NI Opera use storytelling to powerfully stir up issues and plant them in local heads. And long may their (paltry) funding pay for – not staff but – performers and musicians and technicians to tell big stories that stretch our minds.

Rather than being blood curdling, Calixto’s Turandot was almost where horror met pantomime. The set and lighting design was superb; the music, cast, scale and sense of drama was spectacular. A stunning end to Belfast International Arts Festival from NI Opera.

You can catch my interview with NI Opera’s artistic director Oliver Mears on NvTv.