Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Belfast Festival, Ulster Museum and Frankenweenie

This weekend we decided to lay off events and just try to complete more Take Back Belfast challenges as part of Belfast Festival.  One of challenges was at the Dickens exhibition at the Ulster Museum so off we set to see what we could find.

First stop though was the Black Bear Cafe on Stranmillis for breakfast which
was lovely.  We had pancakes with scrambled eggs, bacon and mixed berries. Nom.

Then we crossed the road over to the Ulster Museum where we had a look round the Art exhibitions.  My son and I love to wander around the museum and by far the exhibition we most enjoyed is the Royal Ulster Academy Exhibition.  There is such a broad mix of artworks, from craft to portraits, sculpture to paintings both traditional and contemporary.

This rat lady was a favourite of my sons but I found her a little disturbing.  My own favourite item was the sculpture which oozes love, comfort and the safety of partnerships. Of course, the nudity ensured my son avoided it.


We also enjoyed the nautical Kenneth Shoesmith Exhibition and a gallery of beautiful old Italian paintings of which the Carrickfergus Madonna (pictured) was one.  These paintings are simply stunning and need to be seen to be believed.  Some of them look like they were painted yesterday.

The Ulster Covenant exhibition was interesting but there wasn't a lot for Dylan to look at so he got bored very quickly. I did however particularly enjoy this Ulster propaganda.

After watching a Brazilian dancer in the foyer, we set off to find the Dickens exhibition , since this was the reason we were there.

We were disappointed in the Dickens exhibition.  There was lots of information but none of it was child friendly.  We could not see the original materials from the Charles Dickens Museum in London as there were trestle tables seemingly abandoned in front of the cabinets.  We found the answer to our Take Back Belfast challenge and left.

Next stop was the amazing Magpie Collective in the Naughton Gallery at Queen's which opened on Thursday night.  It is a beautiful exhibition consisting of a blanket of flowers made from plastic bottles held up by magpies.  Dylan was allowed to take a flower home, an is determined to make a blanket for himself.

We took a few more photos of Belfast Festival Anthology plaques, wrote some haikus and then decided we'd had enough.  We were cold and wet and it didn't seem like the rain was going to stop so we decided to go to see Frankenweenie instead.  It's a lovely wee film, full of nostalgia and creepiness.  I loved that it was shot in black and white, though Dylan did express the opinion that 'it would have been better coloured in'.  A homage to Frankenstein, there are many other horror films alluded to such as Dracula, Wickerman and Gremlins.  Some of the characters are modeled on classic horror actors Boris Karloff and Vincent Price.
The dog is gorgeous and has some really lovely moments, such as when it drinks water and it spurts out from his sewn up skin.  I don't think the film is perfect, but we enjoyed it on a stormy Saturday afternoon.

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Saturday, 27 October 2012

Macbeth at the Lyric Theatre

Everyone knows elements of Macbeth, whether it's Macbeth's famous words "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" or the weird sisters' mantra "Double, double toil and trouble". 

Any production team on Macbeth must feel the weight of theatre history on their shoulders. With so many different productions there is a need to be distinct, to add something to the Reception of the Macbeth story. 

The first thing that struck me when I entered the theatre is the magnificent set for this story. Diana Ennis has captured the mood perfectly.  The set is steeped in suffocating darkness, the weight of pebbles on the upper layer crushing the signs of normality below.  It is dramatic, epic and courageous, a portent of the production to follow.

I loved Lynne Parker's take on the weird sisters.  They are completely integrated into the society around them, having domestic lives as well as going mysteriously about their supernatural lives.  Their furtive glances and artful ability to slip into the shadows is creepy.  The witches are all powerful, always around Macbeth, whether in his mind, putting words into his mouth, within the domestic characters surrounding him or as apparitions.        

Stuart Graham as Macbeth is strong, and he is adept at removing his ties to reality bit by bit.  His descent into madness is realised with true fear and incomprehension.  His partnership with Lady Macbeth never seems quite passionate enough.  "Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it." says Lady Macbeth.  I was a little disappointed in this portrayal which was too subtle a depiction of what I see as a tenacious and manipulative character.  Even before her descent into guilt, I never quite believed that she was the powerful woman of ambition that she is written to be.   
Paul Mallon makes an interesting McDuff.  At first I couldn't understand his seemingly underwhelming response to the news of the massacre of  his family.  But the stiff way he holds his body and the hang of his head was not unemotional but rather his body was filled with restrained anger.  The power and emotion he mustered into in a yell of pure revenge when he killed Macbeth ensured I felt his pain and then some.
Banquo is especially brilliant as a particularly devilish apparition, challenging Macbeth without saying a word, a testament to Michael Condron's skill as an actor.  
Two moments jarred with my overall experience.  The apparation which appears from a trapdoor on the stage adds misplaced humour which does not fit with the overall sense of hysteria Macbeth is feeling. The modern costumes and use of torches fits well with the production but I felt that the addition of army style radios was a step too far into modernity.

All round I thought this was a fantastic and interesting production and one that adds to the reception of the myth of Macbeth.  The production felt particularly rooted in Ireland, and indeed in Northern Ireland.  The blackness of the set, crunching of pebbles and strategically distributed haze would not feel out of place on Belfast's Black Mountain.  It's not too fantastic to believe that you could meet one of the weird sisters walking through our streets.  The retention of the actors' Belfast accents and the simpleness of their dress gives more than just a nod to their Belfast birthplace.

Macbeth runs until 24th November at the Lyric Belfast.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Falling Song at The MAC Belfast

So this review is going to be difficult, mostly because I am a wee bit scared of contemporary dance, even if it is termed 'dance theatre'.  I find it beautiful to watch but I'm always on the hunt for a story, a reason, a point.  Tonight's show was at the MAC Belfast as part of Belfast Festival at Queen's.

The Falling Song seemed to be about, well, falling.  A child who climbs a high tree and falls, a couple falling in love and falling out of love again, apples falling from a tree, catching people who are falling over, an ice dancer who needs the support of his bar to stop him falling and ambitious Icarus falling from the clouds.  Despite the childlike excitement of some of the scenes and moments of real humour, I felt there was an undertone to the proceedings that always hinted at suicide - falling off a cliff or having to be protected from a fall. The setting of  ropes around trees made me think of gallows, or suicide by hanging. Perhaps this is based on awareness of my own mental heath issues but I always felt the falling into depression undertone, no matter how lighthearted the performance got. 

Ballyholme Primary School choir were excellent.  Well organised and rehearsed, they added a child-like simplicity to proceedings. I enjoyed the live music which was at times loud, brash and pumping, reflecting the emotion of the characters but also uncomplicated and transparent when the characters were reflective and supportive. The piece flowed really well, the scenes just the right length and the dancers were lithe and beautiful (with particular mention for Jesse Kovarsky who stole the show for Matthew and me...).  

The end for me was a puzzle. I'm not sure if the characters realised they had a choice whether to let themselves fall; that having each other while falling was better than having no-one; or if they all actually killed themselves.  

Needless to say, I'm glad I found a story line and I'm delighted that I'm now a little less scared of contemporary dance.



Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Elephant Angel

The Elephant Angel is billed as a heart-warming new opera for audiences of all ages.  It was written by composer Gareth Williams and novelist Bernard MacLaverty.  It is based on a true story, and tells the tale of a lady zookeeper who takes a baby elephant home with her each night during the Belfast Blitz, looking after it and keeping it safe with the help of the children who live near by.

Despite my love of epic stories, loud music and fantastic costumes, I'm not an opera fan.  I generally can't hear the singers because the music is too loud and I hate not understanding the story.  So this opera suited me down to the ground.  It is for kids so it's less than an hour long, it's sung in English and best of all I already knew the story.

The story of the real Elephant Angel, North Belfast's Denise Austin is here for anyone who wants to read it.

I was pleasantly surprised by the performance.  The set was simple which meant that Sheila the elephant stood out.  She was put together beautifully and I thought the person playing her moved her limbs well.  The fiery lighting in the scene directly after the Air raid was gorgeous, and I loved the orange tinted glow of the children's faces.

Armagh composer, Gareth Williams' music is simple, well suited to the age group and with many lovely moments.  I particularly liked a scene in the school playground where the music was able to be at the forefront of the sound.  Strong characters, a sad story and a lovely setting meant that my 13th Belfast Festival event was not unlucky at all.

Looking forward to Festival event number 14 tomorrow - the Falling Song at The MAC Belfast.


Monday, 22 October 2012

Silent by Fishamble

I wasn't going to write a blog post tonight.  I'm tired. I have a show to see every night this week.  I thought I'd go to bed early, maybe read a bit, muck around on Twitter and get some rest.

But tonight I went to see a show at the Waterfront as part of Belfast Festival at Queen's.  It blew me away.  Absolutely amazing.  My first thought was how can I put into words what I just witnessed?  It's not possible.  I feel like I've been through a washing machine of emotion.

Silent is the touching and challenging story of homeless McGoldrig, who once had splendid things. But he has lost it all – including his mind. He now dives into the wonderful wounds of this past through the romantic world of Rudolph Valentino.

It's a hard sell - it's a play about depression, heartbreak, marriage breakup, suicide, death, loss, guilt, homelessness and vulnerability.  But despite this, Pat Kinevane takes us on a splendid rollercoaster of a journey, full of laughter, friendship and dancing.  Speaking directly to individual people in the audience made his performance all the more real. Each person in the audience was made to feel like his only friend, his hope, his confidante.  At his lowest ebb, he asked in a tiny voice "Patricia, are you there?" and Patricia from the audience answered in a shaking voice, "Yes".  Never before have I been so glad that the audience was there.  It felt like we were the only thing keeping him on the stage, like he really needed us to stop him falling off the edge of the world.

When the end came, the audience rose to their feet in a wave of support for this broken man.  The spell Kinevane had woven was extinguished and I realised I was sobbing.  For this broken man who had disgusted me, made me laugh, made me cry and made me pity him.  Most of all though, I wanted to be that small shaking voice who reached out from the audience and answered "Yes, I'm here".

You need to see this show. If you see one show during Festival, it's this one.

I'll babysit for you. Go.

Book here.  Now. It's only on until Wednesday.






Belfast Festival First weekend

Belfast Festival is here again and as usual I have booked far too much and spent a fortune.  The festival opened on Friday and our first event was Fifty Fanfares at Victoria Square.  The trumpet, cornet and trombone players were strategically located at the various levels of Victoria Square and played a newly composed piece of music by Michael Alcorn.  To be honest this should have been right up my street. As a brass band lover and an ex horn player I loved the idea behind this.  However it just didn't work.  It didn't start on time, it wasn't well rehearsed, there were hardly any fanfares and it was far too 'modern' for my parents who I had brought with me.  Because it didn't start at the time advertised we missed the end to get to our dinner reservation, so maybe it got better.  We were all really disappointed.   

After dinner in Frankie and Benny's (not good), we went to hear the Ulster Orchestra's Opening concert at the Waterfront Hall.  Entitled Planetary Motions this was something I'd been looking forward to for a while.  The programme began with John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine which was stunning.  It's a piece I've always loved and the Ulster Orchestra played it beautifully. Joann Falletta is a mesmerizing Maestro, perfectly turned out and clearly enjoying her control of the music.  Next up was Michael McHale playing Gershwin's Piano Concerto.  I'm not a fan of Gershwin or the piano, but this local boy sure does know how to play.  On that note, this story is the reason I hate pianos: Sparky and the Magic Piano

After the interval it was time for Holst's The Planets Suite, one of my favourite pieces of classical music and this was the first time I heard it live. The visuals by D-Fuse were nice but I think the lights should have been dimmed a little more to give the full effect.  I enjoyed the concert a lot and I'll definitely be back for some non-piano based music :-) 

On Saturday we decided to find free stuff to do, so we downloaded the Take Back Belfast app and set off to see what there was to see.  We popped into the Naughton Gallery at Queen's to have a look at Tom Binns Design.  His work is beautiful with some really amazing necklaces, though they look too heavy to actually wear. Dylan was delighted with the shark teeth necklace and also by one made of weapons. While looking at the necklaces an artist from the Magpie Collective asked us to come in to see what they were putting together.  They were making a blanket of flowers out of plastic bottles and asked us to help.  I am so looking forward to seeing the installation when it's complete on Thursday.

For Take Back Belfast we have to complete various challenges.  So we were on the lookout for the Belfast Festival Anthology red plaques.  Dylan wanted to find all 50 but we do have 2 weeks to complete it.  We had a quick look into the White Room but the next show wasn't for a while so we moved on to the Crescent Arts Centre for a coffee and to have a look at the Nina Panagopoulou exhibition. We also swapped a book at the Pass it On bookshelf.

After lunch our next stop was The First Presbyterian Church on Rosemary street were Néle Azevedo had a single ice sculpture set up in front of the pulpit.  This was stunning.  As the ice melted from the man, the puddle below him grew.  The puddle was microphoned so every drip echoed around the church.  It's possibly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  And also very sad to see and hear the man crying real tears as he disappeared.  Dylan was allowed to help to put a new sculpture up when he finally melted completely.  I love the shape of this church and the windows are stunning.  Many important Belfast families worshipped here and it's great to see walking tours being brought inside.  It was lovely to meet local Belfast historian Raymond O'Regan and chat about the church's beautiful stained glass windows.

After this is was time to go home to get ready for dinner at Salt in St Anne's Square with my sister. We ordered from the pre-theatre menu and then went off to the MAC to see Huzzies by Tinderbox.  The show is about a girl from Belfast who wants to escape from her dysfunctional family and forms a band. There were some really beautiful moments in it, and Katie's (of Katie and the Carnival) songs were fab though I think there could have been more.  We finished off the night with a few glasses (bottles...) of wine at the MAC and then the Duke of York.

Our First Festival weekend continued on Sunday, though slowly, due to a pounding headache.  We decided to take it easy, and headed down to Custom House Square for the highlight of Néle Azevedo's installation.  She asked volunteers to place 1517 ice sculptures on the steps of the Custom House, each commemorating each life lost in the Titanic disaster.  We placed a few sculptures then stood back to watch them melt.  Knowing that each one of these crying melting disappearing figures represented a life lost, added an extra dimension to the solitary figure from the day before.     

After coffee Dylan and I took my parents to the MAC to have a look at the exhibitions as they hadn't been before.  My Dad loved the Red Cross exhibition and I the Roxy Walsh one.  Everyone had a go in the 15 second film Festival booth and then we went upstairs for a look at Joanna Billing's installations.  On the way home we stopped at the Old Museum building to take a photo of the red plaque for our Take Back Belfast challenge.

Over the next couple of days, I'm seeing Fishamble's production of Silent in the Waterfront Hall, Elephant Angel in the Grand Opera House, The Falling Song at the MAC and Macbeth at the Lyric.


Thursday, 18 October 2012

Pvt. Wars at the Baby Grand

Last night I went to see PVT. Wars at the Grand Opera House.  Produced by up and coming new theatre company Pintsized Productions, directed by Terry Keeley and written by James McLure, the play stars 3 of NI's best young actors - Martin McCann, Chris Robinson and Gerard McCabe.  

The 3 characters Silvio, Natwick and Gately are Vietnam veterans, scarred by their experiences both physically and mentally.  They are all voluntary admitted psychiatric patients in a veteran's hospital and while the war is barely mentioned, the experiences the men went through ensures the ghost of war is always present.

McLure is a talented playwright.  His use of comedy is measured, well placed and timed to perfection. One particular scene where Silvio tries to teach Gatley how to pick up a girl has the audience in stitches.  Despite the laughter though, our knowledge of Silvio's extreme injury ensures that there is an undercurrent of despair to this scene that only serves to highlight the characters' pain. McLure reinforces the point numerous times in the play that the men could leave anytime, but the outside world terrifies them. There doesn't seem to be a way out for them.  Even when it appears Silvio might leave, a letter comes which destroys his chances of getting away.  The hopelessness portrayed in this scene is particularly vivid.

The characters are well developed, but stereotypical.  Natwick is a privileged posh, cultured man, Silvio is a macho swaggering Italian-American and Gately an innocent country boy.  The three men however have the war and their mental problems in common.  Natwick is neurotic, suicidal but not brave enough to kill himself, Gately spends the whole play obsessively trying to fix a radio and Silvio shows clear psychotic tendencies and a fixation on flashing women. It is clear as we head to the end of the play that actually the only thing keeping these three men grounded is their uneasy friendship, despite their obvious differences. 
This show is a credit to the abilities of all three actors.  The hilarity of the pranks, the sex jokes and the comic misunderstandings is always underpinned by sadness and despair.  We may laugh but we never forget that these are three fragile damaged souls. 

Gerard McCabe's innocent Gately is the anchor of the play. Without him you feel the other characters could not be friends however uneasy that friendship might be.  He both begins and ends the play and his reflection on the sunrise in the last scene just adds to the anguish of the veterans' situation.  

Chris Robinson plays Natwick's depression to perfection.  He is terrified to stay in the world but equally terrified to leave it through suicide. One scene where Natwick attempts to make Silvio like him is particularly good and highlights the actors' impeccable comic timing. 

Martin McCann, who has not been on a theatre stage for 6 years, encapsulated Silvio's character precisely. Of all the characters, Silvio is the most dangerous. It can't be easy to play a psychotic character and still make the audience want to take you home and protect you!            

The play was written not long after the Vietnam war and the public were aware of the difficulties veterans' had returning to society.  Today we still have young men and women returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We still hear stories of veterans being made homeless, of high suicide rates and not enough help being available.  The stigma attached to living with a mental illness does not help and still exists today.  It's clear that the central messages of McLure's play are still relevant.  

PVT. Wars continues at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 20th October. Please go along and support this young company.  Click here to book.