Monday, 19 November 2012

Penny Arcade at Outburst Arts Festival

Described by Outburst Queer Arts Festival as a 'one woman queer revolution' and a 'bona fide cultural icon', Penny Arcade had a lot to live up to. As a specially devised show for Outburst, 'The Woman who Knew Too Much' samples work from Arcade's past performances.

After a glowing introduction by Cian Smyth, Arcade bounded into the room through the audience, her personality shining as she danced her way to the stage. She proceeded what was to be a whirlwind introduction to her world. Her crazy existence was replicated on the Black Box stage, her performance chaotic from the outset. Despite the disarray, which made me nervous at times, she settled into what would become a beautiful and charming performance.

She told stories of her own life, interspersed with monologues of people such as her aunt in Soho, a homeless girl suffering from Aids and drag queen Dame Margo Howard Howard. These characters were at times amusing, at times heartbreaking and acted as an illustration of the times Arcade lived through; times of gay liberation, the cultural Renaissance of the sixties and the NEA Culture Wars of the nineties. Associations with cultural icons such as Quentin Crisp and Andy Warhol are discussed in the rundown of her rollercoaster life, as are her dealings with prostitution, rape and drugs.

Peppered with references to Northern Ireland, Arcade grounded herself well to the locality. In particular a reference to veteran gay rights campaigner P.A. Mag Lochlainn who died last week was met with a loud cheer from the audience. She thanked all the barmen and technicans by name which was a lovely touch. 

Penny Arcade was courageous, honest and enlightening, nostalgic and enchanting. She believes that if you tell the truth in Ireland and are funny then it's hard to go wrong. And she was right.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Enquirer at Belfast Festival

My last theatre event of Belfast Festival was Enquirer by the National Theatre of Scotland. Despite my disinterest in journalism, my hack friends had been telling me how brilliant the show was, and so off I went to an unused office in Fountain Street, to see what the fuss was about. We were ushered in and told to have a look around.  The office was set up as real newspaper office complete with overflowing bins, newspaper bundles and a lifesize cardboard cutout of a blonde to throw darts at. There was a conference room, an editor's office and a particularly novel room inside a filing cabinet. Actors read articles on their computers, counted money and ambled around the room mumbling to themselves.

When the time came to begin, we surrounded the actors as they began their story. As a promenade piece the set and direction worked well.  As a small person, it is always relatively difficult to get into a spot at the front where I can see, especially if you are continually moving around.  However the strategic placement of newspaper bundles at different heights allowed some audience members to sit at times, and the placing of actors sitting on top of filing cabinets and desks and moving through the audience meant that even the shorter people were able to follow what was happening.

Prompted by the recent phone hacking scandals and set against the background of the Leveson inquiry, the show focuses on the morality of the newspaper world. The script is based on interviews with a number of journalists, some of whom were very honest about the failings of the industry and others who claimed innocence. This contradiction is one which is obvious throughout.  While one editor denies all knowledge of any married editor even having an affair, another admits to having a book in which all payments to sources were written down.

The play also highlights the public passion for reading fluffy news. Editors will not prioritise really important news pieces such as the massacre in East Timor if it's 'a big news day' in London, such as a Royal wedding.  This piece is really the only time in the show that I actually felt anything for one of the characters. The rest of the time I spent wondering how these neurotic, caffeine fueled, coarse people managed to get away with being so horrible.  Even as a poor journalist recounted a persisting  nightmare in which she viciously murdered Bryan Ferry, I couldn't help but think she probably deserved the nightmares.        

But morality is not the only focus for this play, there is also the belief that online news is a real threat to printed newspapers and I thought the final image of all 6 actors buried in shredded newspaper was particularly strong.  One journalist pointed out that she had more followers on Twitter reading her writing than she had reading her column in the newspaper.  It certainly gave me the impression that where the phone hacking scandals had caused arguments and regret, they only changed a long accepted way of working; it is actually the digital age that will cause the end of the industry altogether.

All in all I enjoyed the play, but I was not blown away by it as others were. I thought the setting was perfect, the promenade nature of the performance suited the subject and the acting was strong.  The lighting suited the piece well and stage management deserve a gold star for moving around so much shredded paper. However, I did not feel any connection with the characters. I had very little sympathy for them or even understanding of them and still have no interest in journalism.  



Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Minsk 2011 at the Lyric Belfast

Minsk 2011, a reply to Kathy Acker by Belarus Free Theatre almost wasn't part of the Belfast Festival. As this article explains, the Belarusian authorities attempted to derange the company's production in Northern Ireland.  I, for one, am pleased that the event was able to continue as planned.

I don't purport to be a political animal and I know next to nothing about Belarusian politics.  It was interesting to discover then that Belarus is Europe's last dictatorship and that Belarus Free Theatre is banned within it's own country, and has been forced underground.     

The show begins with people stepping forward to a microphone, but before they are able to speak, they are pulled away by a group of thugs.  Eventually they don't even go to the microphone, just look at it.  One is accosted for simply looking at his watch, another for clapping.  These episodes, representing Belarusian censorship, set the scene for the stories which are to follow, highlighting the distrustful secretive atmosphere which exists for the people living in Minsk.    

We are thrown into a variety of scenes which focus on attitudes to sexuality in Minsk.  The show itself is frantic and filled with important messages, themes of violence, repression, despair and abuse sitting alongside messages of hope, a sense of home, family and the need for freedom.  
The audience is assaulted by the frankness of the language, spat out with such force that at times you don't actually need to read the English subtitles to understand what the actors meant. The audience is shocked by the treatment of women, of gay men, of people meeting in groups of more than 3 people.  The audience is saddened at the scene of a bomb in a station where blood is soaked up by sugar, and by the cheap alcohol which neuters the public against the regime.  

The production ends positively, with a Belarusian song and stories of how much each actor loves their home, how they have children and parents there, how they are still attached to their homeland. We are reminded that it is not the country that is at fault, but it's dictator.

This play has sharp teeth, it's anger is palpable.  It fights to be understood and deserves a place to be heard.  I'm glad that the company made it to the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast Festival.  On reading about the harassment and arrests these young actors have gone through just to be part of Belarus Free Theatre, we're lucky to have had them here at all. 



Monday, 5 November 2012

Tron Theatre's Ulysses

Ulysses was the first show I picked from the Belfast Festival brochure, and was at The MAC Belfast.  I haven't read Joyce's original. I have however studied Homer's Odyssey in depth, and love it so much I read it over and over again.

Joyce's Ulysses mimics Homer's Odyssey, and this play is based on Joyce's Ulysses.  I could have read Ulysses, or looked up Wikipedia to see what Joyce's story was about, but I decided not to.  I thought it might be much more interesting to watch a play which is effectively the reception of a reception of the famed epic.

With zero knowledge of Joyce's Ulysses, and given it's 'I started it but I couldn't finish it' reputation, I knew this was going to make for an interesting experience.  Actually the only thing I did know about Ulysses is that Dervla Kirwin's Jewish ancestor is in it! (Who Do You Think You Are?)

Ulysses has 18 chapters which correspond, often oddly, to episodes in Homer's Odyssey.  To say that I followed every parallel would be a lie, but I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to relate a lot of the scenes back to the original.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes relating to the Lotus Eaters (Martha's letters), Nausicaa (Gerty's immodesty) and Circe (Bella's Brothel), though there were many gasps to be heard from the audience in the latter scene...

The set conjured up the many different settings of Bloom's Odyssey around Dublin and the lighting beautifully accented it.  The actors were all strong playing over 80 characters and I thought all in all this was a well put together production, particularly for such a complex story.  I did feel at times that some of the audience was a little lost, but I guess that was to be expected. I freely admit to having been a little lost at times too.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Ghosts of Drumglass

On Monday I went to see Ghosts of Drumglass by Kabosh, a site specific theatrical experience in Drumglass Park, known to most as Cranmore Park. Given that I often walk through Cranmore Park on my way home and my kids play there, I was looking forward to seeing what scariness Kabosh would come up with.  

So the story goes that the Musgrave family died with the passing of the last remaining child, Henry. From a family of 11, no descendants were produced to carry on the blood line. In the darkness of the park, the ghosts of the past threaten to fragment the peace of the present that eludes them. The ancient trees of Drumglass surrender the secrets of the Musgrave family to those who trace the steps of the dead. 

When we first arrived we were split into two groups and led into the toilets, first the ladies then the gents.  With hidden performers banging inside the cubicles, blood dripping from doors, incense and sinks filled with horrible things, we knew we were in for an interesting experience.  We were led around the park by Jimmy Doran, playing Mr Musgrave and by some volunteer guides.  The soundscape was excellent, particularly in the playground scenes.  Children's voices and strange shrieking poured from the play area, while swings swung of their own accord, toy animals moved and roundabouts spun.  I think this was the most effective part of the play and it was suitably spooky.  The start of the play seemed to take a while to get going. I found it a little difficult to follow Musgrave's setting of the scene, possibly because it was quite long-winded.  More likely it was because I was a bit nervous that a hand was going to grab me from the plughole of the sink I was standing against...                 

Ghosts of Drumglass was a really nice, accessible fun way way to spend a Monday night.  Jimmy Doran and Michael Liebmann were great as the main characters and the supporting cast were suitably creepy.  It's a show that doesn't take itself too seriously and the image of Jimmy having a conversation with a talking teddy bear will stay with me for a long time.

I don't know how they were doing 4 shows a night. It was absolutely freezing - if anyone has earned a stiff drink or five, it's this cast and crew.