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.