Sunday, 17 March 2013

Hang in There at Culturlann - Review

After taking her life, Colleen finds herself in the company of Póla, a seasoned occupant of "the other side" whose questions force her to take a closer look at her past life in a bid to find peace in her new surroundings. When one door closes... when will the other one open? Hang in there is a short play exploring one possibility of what could be waiting for us after life.

Bronagh Diamond's short play 'Hang in There' was produced during Féile an Earraigh at the Cultúrlann on the Falls Road and features Danielle Magennis as Colleen and Cathy Brennan-Bradley as Póla.  The play opens in darkness with a simple set consisting of just a bed, a chair, a door and a cardboard box.  Oh and a rope hanging ominously from the lighting grid. 

Colleen has has taken her own life and finds herself in an unknown place and is frightened.  An odd woman with a clipboard wants to ask her questions about her family, about her life, about why she hanged herself.  Colleen is an educated girl, with a job and a loving family, but her life has not gone the way she expected. It seems that all the opportunities she was promised as a child, such as seeing the world and having an amazing career were not true.  I like that Bronagh made this character intelligent, educated and not an obvious candidate for suicide.  It serves to dispel the myth that those who are suicidal must be mentally ill, have terrible lives or no prospects.  Anyone can feel hopeless and despairing, and there are many reasons why someone may feel suicidal. Póla acts as a counsellor and a guide.  She advises Colleen that she can't move on through the door until she looks back at her life and accepts peace.  This character draws information out of Colleen and adds both much needed humour and context to proceedings.  

This play does not preach to those considering suicide, it doesn't say you will go to hell if you take your life but it does try to highlight the pain of the people left behind.  Where Colleen can move on through the door, the people left behind will never move on. While Colleen's problems have ended, they've just been passed on to her family. A play dealing with such emotional issues was never going to be an easy watch, but humour was used to good effect and helped to lift the story out of complete despair.               

I would like to see the writer develop the story a little further, perhaps by giving the audience more insight into Colleen's life.  The strongest points in the story are when we see the mother's pain and are told about the effect on her little brother when he finds her body.  A particularly nice moment when Colleen and Póla are looking through photos accompanied by music could be enhanced by using projection to show the audience what they are looking at.  This would help the audience to make more of a connection with the character.    

Credit must be given for producing such a brave play especially in the heart of West Belfast where suicide rates are so high.  Suicide rates in NI have doubled in the past 15 years, with a sharp rise in North and West Belfast. There are not many people who have not been touched by suicide, and mental health is still a taboo issue. Perhaps with a little bit of funding to tour around communities, this play would help to raise awareness and help to force the subject of suicide into the open.

If you are in urgent need of help please call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000 or the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.


Saturday, 9 March 2013

Otello at the Grand Opera House

Opera North ran three operas this week at the Grand Opera House. 2013 is Giuseppe Verde's anniversary year and Opera North are celebrating with their production of Otello.  For the first time, I actually had company for the opera, and it was lovely. 

The opera is based on Shakespeare's great tragedy Othello, a story of malice, jealousy, torment and madness. The tragedy of the story is breathtaking and this production certainly broke a few hearts.  With half price tickets available as part of the Backin Belfast campaign,  the theatre was full of people who had not attended an opera before, the cheaper seats providing a less risky night out.  This did mean though that there was quite a bit of annoying whispering and people eating popcorn. 

I enjoyed the performances immensely, the lead playing his part with just enough frantic jealousy.  The scenes of violence within the piece were well choreographed and I truly feared that Elena Kelessidi as Desdemona would get hurt as Otello pushed her around.   Otello's entrance to the bedroom in Act 4 was terrifying and the tension was built up beautifully by some very good acting though it seemed at times that Ronald Swann was having to push his voice.

Kelessidi's voice grated a little at the start but the vulnerability with which she played the part was palpable.  Her pleading innocence in the prayer scene in particular brought a tear to the eye.
As for evil Iago, his manipulation of events was played by David Kempster with callous intent, the performer clearly enjoying his dual personality.  

Despite lacking a bit of energy in the opening scene, the chorus was generally very strong, and passionate.   As always the orchestra, conducted by Richard Farnes, blew me away.

Depicted in a garrison, the set was cold and menacing reflecting perhaps Otello's descent into mad jealousy and was put to good use.  There were plenty of places for Otello to hide and listen to conversations without being seen.  Lighting wise, I thought it a bit predictable and would have liked to have seen the lighting used more creatively. 

The surtitle screens were a bit low down to be read from the Upper Circle, I but found that I barely needed them.  Despite being sung in Italian, my knowledge of the story and the performers' expression kept me on course the whole way through.

Overall, a great night out.  I only wish the Backin Belfast discount was available all the time, to allow more people to see such amazing productions.

My love affair with opera continues...



Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Planet Belfast at the MAC REVIEW

Given the amount of money I seem to spend on theatre tickets, I thought I'd have to miss out on this show by Tinderbox.  However every time I opened my facebook profile, someone had posted a photo of Tara Lynne O'Neill on the phone and peering through what looked like fishing line.

Other production shots shimmered with lights and projections and at last, just a few nights before it closed, I bit the bullet and booked a ticket.

Not knowing what the show as actually about stood me in good stead, as a story about a Green politician in Northern Ireland wouldn't really have attracted me.  However I'm glad I booked something I wouldn't usually have attended, as otherwise I would have missed out on what was a really strong show.

Abigail McGibbon played Alice, a Green party MLA who is confident and ballsy, opinionated and volatile. These traits do not make her a likable character and she certainly didn't seem the maternal type despite her impatience to be a mother.  Her husband Martin, played by Paul Kennedy is hiding in the sidelines of her success. He is given a job solely so his employer, Danny from the victim support centre can get her to attend his event.  He is on the wrong end of her short temper on many occasions and when he commits adultery, I guiltily thought she deserved it. I really enjoyed the chemistry between these two actors.  The scenes of closeness always had a hint of restraint about them, normal in this kind of relationship where one partner is always watching for a mood swing or violence.

Conor Grimes as Danny, from victim support, was a revelation.  I think I expected a 'Grimes and McKee' type performance but what we got was a straight-faced character, played with a hint of lunatic. Claire, played by Tara Lynne O'Neill is the beautiful blast from the past who encourages Alice's emasculated and bullied husband into an 'almost affair'.  As with Martin's employer, the only reason why he is picked out for special attention is because he is an easy route to Alice.

The show has a lot to say about our local politicians and their inability to look beyond the small things, and highlights the enhancement and perpetuation of our victim status in NI.  However the thing that works best about this script is that at no point did I actually like any of the characters, but somehow I still cared.  The relationships between a violent bully, an ex-paramilitary/ victim, a feeble husband and a manipulative bitch should not make for a touching story.  It's testament to Rosemary Jenkinson's characterisation that each of these relationships has something to offer the audience. Despite their faults we all recognise ourselves or our family on the stage.  A minor annoyance was that some of the dialogue jarred a little and seemed unnatural coming from a Belfast mouth, but it was only a minor thing that didn't detract at all from the script.  A dark Belfast humour is present throughout and for someone who never laughs out loud at theatre shows, the script made even me let out a few guilty guffaws. For the most part I enjoyed the more naturalistic way the characters' conversed, at times talking over one another, or answering simply with a laugh as they would in real life.

I can't sign off without mention of the set by Ciaran Bagnall.  Beautiful and different, it gave the whole piece a futuristic science-fiction feel which only added to the production.  I would really like to borrow it for the backdrop to my wedding renewal ceremony, if anyone from Tinderbox is reading!



The Seafarer at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Thursday night saw the opening of The Seafarer at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.  Of the whole season brochure, this was the production I had picked out as the one I most wanted to see.  Co-produced by Perth Theatre and Lyric Belfast, the production is directed by Rachel O'Riordan and is both a Scottish and Northern Irish Premiere.

Gary McCann's set is beautifully intricate, every shabby detail carefully placed to give the overall effect of a deteriorated, ramshackle hovel.  The setting reflects the characters' own battered lives, filled with difficult memories, troublesome relationships, gambling and alcoholism.  The actors all portray very different characters, which both compliment and repel each other. Richard, the older brother played by Ciaran McIntyre, is a domineering old man, easily aggravated and wily.  His younger brother Sharky, played by Louis Dempsey is trying to dry out, and while staying with Richard has become his skivvy.  The dynamic between these characters is both tender and tense with Richard and Sharky highly frustrated with each other at various points.  Ivan is an old friend of the brothers, a seemingly simple man, with a friendly nature, despite his alcoholism.  In a particularly strong cast, it is Sean O'Callaghan as Ivan who shines as this endearing rogue.

Tony Flynn's Nicky is a comic character, the Del Boy of the piece.  He is invited for a game of cards by Ivan, much to Sharky's disgust.  Given that Nicky has seemingly stolen Sharky's wife, kids and car, the dynamic between these two characters is unsurprisingly tense. Nicky brings along Mr Lockhart played by Benny Young, whose devilish scheme to bring Sharky to a terrible fate is the night's main event.  As Mr Lockhart's Mephistophelian plan becomes clear, the four men Richard and Sharky, Ivan and Nicky fall back on their friendships despite the stories, hard lessons and violence which have come to light during the card game.

Kevin Treacey's lighting is perfectly rendered as the bright daylight fades naturally and night comes in.  When Lockhart's intentions become obvious, his threatening behaviour towards Sharky is highlighted by the ominous, shadowy and forbidding lighting.  It makes for a subtle lighting design, with a big part to play in the audience perception that something very very bad has come to this particular Christmas card game.

Despite a story which deals with supremely difficult themes, there are many laughs to be had.  From Ivan's spectacular fall in the kitchen, to Nicky's sunglasses and Richard's treatment of Sharky, this story is optimistic and life affirming rather than hopeless and despairing.  Much credit to director Rachel O'Riordan who has coaxed out of these five gifted actors fine performances which are instinctively natural.  She ensures Conor McPherson's script is brought to lustrous life in all it's understated but dramatic splendor.

The Seafarer continues at the Lyric Theatre until 23rd March.  Click to book here.