Thursday, 27 February 2014

Verdi's Macbeth by NI Opera

Given how much I loved The Flying Dutchman I was expecting great things from NI Opera's Macbeth.
It had many virtues which I absolutely loved.

The American Horror Story style witches straight out of a Victorian lunatic asylum were excellent and their movement was suitably creepy to ensure some audience members visibly recoiled when they first came on stage.

A stunning backdrop with a striking image by Alan McMahon which nodded to the iconic visual of Cosette from Les Miserables and which I would quite like on my bedroom wall.

The set was beautiful and though stark and cold for the scenes with the witches, was soon warmed up with banqueting tables, banners and flaming torches for the scenes in Macbeth's castle.  The raked stage worked well to ensure a feeling of claustrophobia, though I felt that this effect was lost a little by the performances.

Lady Macbeth's shelves of shoes made lots of the female audience members jealous but was a well placed reference to her determination to rise to the top and look good doing it. A press photographer taking photos at important moments in the Macbeth's lives pointed to the modern day cult of celebrity and I thought this was a nice touch.

A large curtain with images of the village people who had gone missing was poignant and sad and very much reminded me of the notice boards of missing people which spring up during a natural disaster or civil war.

I loved the gang of hoods with their covered faces and hard man stances. They very much reminded me of Belfast's own spides or indeed Tartans.  

While all these elements by themselves worked well and were striking, I felt that perhaps there were too many styles for the audience to take in.  The darkness of the story and the sense of foreboding which should have been present was not visible as the audience tried to keep up with the varying themes.

I felt that the performers lacked any real belief in the story they were telling and I made little connection with most of the characters with the exception of MacDuff. Andrew Rees has an engaging personal acting style and I really felt his words as he sang about his children being killed by the tyrant Macbeth.  It seemed that Lady Macbeth was played for laughs rather than being the conniving and reckless bitch I wanted her to be.
If I'm being honest a few simple things really annoyed me about the production which should have been easily fixed.  A screen provided on the stage to show the horrors that Macbeth had committed was much too small for anyone to see and given the amount of room on the stage, could have been better used.  Having a stage crew member carry said screen off mid-scene in full light completely broke my sense of disbelief and it seemed like this had been thrown in at the last minute.  While having crew on stage is acceptable for small theatre shows, I feel for a production which is so focussed on slick scenes and expensive sets, this was an oversight which should not have happened.  

Overall, I did enjoy the show.  The Ulster Orchestra as always, were amazing and I always enjoy the visual spectacle of opera but I wanted to be shocked and angry at the Macbeth's behaviour, instead I was amused.

That's not so bad, is it?


Image credit: Patrick Redmond

Friday, 21 February 2014

On the Brink 1914-16: Politics of Conflict

On the Brink - Lecture by Prof. Richard Grayson at the Braid
In recent weeks, an interim programme for On the Brink 1914-16: Politics of Conflict was delivered in venues in Larne, Ballymena and Coleraine. Mid-Antrim Museum Service with Causeway Museum Service delivered this programme using feedback obtained from twenty five local community groups residing across the eight participating local authorities of Ballymena, Ballymoney, Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Larne, Limavady, Moyle and Newtownabbey.  The core programme for the On the Brink 1914-16 project will commence in April with anticipated funding from Heritage Lottery Fund.  

Drawing on community feedback, the Interim programme was aimed at building contextual knowledge of this 1914-16 period in the community as well as offering research skill development opportunities. 

On February 6th in Drumalis, Larne, speakers including Dr. Fearghal McGarry and Philip Orr gave talks on inclusive remembrance of this period. Dr. Chris Manson gave an illustrated talk on the post-war contexts in which War Memorials were planned, erected and unveiled across the island of Ireland. Exploration of the latter is an important focus for the core On the Brink 1914-16 project because it aims to deliver a Volunteer Tour Guide Initiative known as ‘Remembering 1914-16’ which will reveal local histories of WWI using sites such as War Memorials. Event speakers at Drumalis then participated in a panel discussion chaired by Johnston McMaster, former Director of the Education for Reconciliation programme at the Irish School of Ecumenics.

On February 12th and 13th, Professor Richard Grayson, Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, London delivered sessions at both Mid-Antrim Museum at The Braid, Ballymena and Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart. These were practical sessions which introduced participants to a five step WWI military history research methodology which Grayson has also shared with the Community Relations Council.To demonstrate these steps, Grayson drew case studies from his book Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War as well as from his own family’s service in WWI.

On the back of Grayson’s sessions, six workshops funded by the Community Relations Council will now be rolled out enabling participants to implement this five step research methodology. These sessions will provide guidance and hands on experience in using research sources including the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, local newspapers and on-line War Diaries. 

Many people from all backgrounds had ancestors who fought in the First World World, some of whom unfortunately never made it back home. The Community Relations Council is delighted that people will be able to explore the meaning of the First World War in their own areas. By understanding further how the War affected their families and their areas we hope it might help people think about what future they want for themselves and their children to make sure conflict like this or more locally does not happen again." 
Peter Osborne, Chair of the Community Relations Council

These CRC funded WWI research skills workshops are limited to 10 places and will run on the following dates from 7pm to 9pm:

Cullybackey Community Development House, March 3th
Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart March 4th
Dunanney Centre, Rathcoole (Newtownabbey) March 5th
Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart March 11th
Ceres House, Ballykelly (Limavady) March 12th
Willowbank Business Park, Larne March 13th

For further information on securing a workshop place, please contact Mid-Antrim Museum Service on or Causeway Museum Service on

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Coming Up at Belfast Children's Festival

Young at Art presents the BELFAST CHILDREN’S FESTIVAL 7th – 14th March 2014

8 days, 18 venues, 107 events, 12 exhibitions

Belfast Children’s Festival has a jam-packed programme for the 16th annual Festival.

For eight days in March, Belfast will be home to one of the largest programmes of arts and creativity for children in the UK and Ireland.

Artists will be visiting from countries all over Europe, including France, Spain, Sweden and Germany, to perform for NI audiences.

Highlights of the international programme include:

Sienta La Cabeza, a group from Barcelona who combine fantasy hair and make-up with a funky musical groove.

Winners of the Prix D’Assistej 2013, the Carrasco Dance Company with the powerful Bartolomeo.

Winner of the Best Small Show at Feten 2013, A Mano.

Once again the association of Theatre for Young Audiences NI (TYA NI) will present a vibrant programme of theatre for all ages. Audiences will be inspired by all that is happening right here in Northern Ireland with contributions from Cahoots NI, Replay Theatre Company, Maiden Voyage Dance, Banyan Theatre Company and Barnstorm Theatre Company.

There will also be the opportunity to catch previews of new performances in development, including work by Jude Quinn and Pop Art Productions.

There will be musical performances in association with Moving on Music from from Petunia and the Vipers and Nico and Martin, and a strong programme of events encouraging interactive participation, including Baby Chill, set within an out of this world inflatable and super soft atmospheric space for parents and babies aged 0-18 months, and Big Ears, a unique exploration of music , sound and technology with the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queens University.

Young at Art are also pleased to launch The Office of Important Art, an open space based in CastleCourt Shopping Centre. It will be a free, drop-in space every day during the festival where families of all ages can come, relax and try out different activities. No booking is necessary.

This year’s festival contains a stronger-than-ever visual arts programme, highlighting suitable exhibitions all over the city. Young at Art is currently working with many of Belfast’s galleries and studio groups to increase the number of families visiting the wealth of exhibitions and studio tours the city has to offer. Free visual arts tours will be available as part of this year’s programme.

Book now at: or call the Box Office on 028 9024 3042.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Coming Up: About A Goth by Staged Assault

'It's a very sunny day, the worst kind of weather for a goth, so I lurk in the shadows contemplating the great tragedies of my life. The burden of my intelligence, for example. Loneliness.
I am an only child.
Unless you count Lizzie, my sister, but I don't, since she is so clearly a moron.'

Meet Nick, a 17 year old cloak clothed gay goth, cursed with an annoying sister, the world's most cheerful parents and a part-time voluntary job at the local care home. He spends his time listening to Marilyn Manson, yearning for oblivion and designing coffins to present to Ikea's managing director. That is until tragedy strikes, changing Nick's views on life, and death, forever.


Starring Robert Killalay and directed by Helen Donnelly, this tender solo comedy from award winning playwright Tom Wells is guaranteed to warm even the blackest of hearts.

AboutA Goth is a 70 minute comedy written by Tom Wells (Critics Circle’s Most Promising Playwright, Evening Standard nominee), performed by Robert Killalay and directed by Helen Donnelly.

After a sell out performance in October, it is returning for one night only on Sunday 2nd March at 8.30pm at the Black Box Theatre, Belfast.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Coming up: NI Opera's Macbeth

Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy, retold by one of the world’s greatest opera composers, comes to Belfast this week at the Grand Opera House.

Following a critically-acclaimed production of The Flying Dutchman in early 2013, NI Opera makes a welcome return with a new production of Verdi’s masterpiece, Macbeth.

Shakespeare’s tale of murder, madness and all-consuming lust for power inspired Verdi to write some of his finest, most gloriously gripping music, and Macbeth is as popular today as it was when it premiered in 1847.

In this spectacular new production, Director Oliver Mears and Designer Annemarie Woods take a fresh approach to this famous story. With the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Chalmers, a superb Irish and international cast and a chorus drawn from across Ireland, this will be an unmissable event for fans of Shakespeare and Verdi alike.

Sung in English.

Macbeth: Bruno Caproni / Paul Carey Jones (February 22)
Lady Macbeth: Rachel Nicholls / Miriam Murphy (February 22)
Macduff: Andrew Rees
Banco: John Molloy
Lady in Waiting: Doreen Curran
Malcolm: Aaron Cawley
Doctor: Nathan Morrison
Assassin: Christopher Cull

Read my reviews of previous NI Opera productions:  The Flying Dutchman and Noye's Fludde
Read other Opera reviews: Elephant AngelThe Magic Flute and Otello
Read my review of Macbeth at the Lyric Theatre in 2012: Macbeth

Macbeth runs from Friday 21st - Sunday 23rd February at the Grand Opera House.  Click here to book tickets.

New to Opera? It's ok to attend in jeans! Read here.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Noel Coward's Brief Encounter - Wireless Mystery Theatre: Review

One doesn't really know what to expect when attending a Wireless Mystery Theatre performance. From War of the Worlds during Belfast Children's Festival, Scream Tea in White's Tavern or A Christmas Carol in the Ulster Hall, their work is always varied and sometimes unexpected.

Last night I went to the preview of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter.  A classic of cinema, Brief Encounter is repeatedly voted the most-loved romance on screen, a tale of two lovers whose love can never be expressed.  An innocent meeting of a married man (Stephen Beggs) and a married woman (Mary Lindsay) turns into a love affair which threatens to destroy their marriages, friendships and lives.  The story starts at the end, so to speak, as Laura feels faint in the bustling train station and wishes her friend is dead because she won't stop talking.  As the jigsaw is put back together, we find out why Laura feels the way she does, just who the mystery Doctor is she was saying goodbye to and why it was all so overwhelming.

Wireless Mystery Theatre use sound to great effect in this show.   Using surround sound technology, trains rattle through the theatre, making the audience feel very much like they're right in the middle of the action. The effect of this is that we have to listen all the more intently to what is happening between the characters. For me, this just enhanced the secretive nature of the affair, feeling like I was eavesdropping on a couple and hearing their deepest desires.

Mary Lindsay is particularly suited to playing Laura Jesson.  Her face spoke a thousand words as the guilt tore her apart and she fought with her inner, barely acknowledged desires. Stephen Beggs' Dr Harvey is dashing and handsome in his suit and hat and at times a little insistent.  We never see Dr Harvey's wife and so all our thoughts are with Laura and her turmoil.

Despite some first night technical hitches, the performances induced a few tears from a couple of unnamed audience members, overwrought by the emotional difficulty of the unplanned romantic interlude and it's final goodbye. Indeed it was heard to be said how easy it would be for something like this to happen, a testament to Coward's writing engaging even the most restrained audience members with Laura's predicament.

For me, by far the most poignant part of the play is when Laura's husband Fred (Mark Claney) says 'You've been a long way away... Thank you for coming back to me'. Despite his blandness and apparent disinterest, he has noticed the whole time that Laura's mind was on something else.

Brief Encounter runs until Saturday 15th February in the Baby Grand.
Click here to book tickets.


Sunday, 9 February 2014

Philadelphia, Here I Come! at the Lyric Theatre: Review

Eleven years ago I saw Adrian Dunbar's Philadelphia, Here I Come! at the Millennium Forum in Derry.  At the time I had been working in the arts for about a year and had seen a handful of small shows at the Old Museum Arts Centre.
As a child we didn't go to the theatre, I didn't read plays and I certainly hadn't heard of Brian Friel. I went off for a night in Derry and my first Friel experience.  The show may have been amazing but I couldn't see it, I didn't understand it, I couldn't find a context in which it was relevant to me.  In fact I'd forgotten I'd even seen it until very recently.  I wracked my brain trying to remember the story, the characters, anything about the show that I could talk about if I was asked.  But all I can remember is my first time in Derry, the bar in the Everglades and how long it took to get home.

To all my thespian friends out there, I know this shocks you. Over the past few days I've been told 'It's the most amazing play ever written' and 'he's the best playwright who ever lived'.  In the back of my head I was wondering what I'd missed.

Last night I went to see Philadelphia, Here I Come!, the Lyric's 50th Anniversary production, directed by Andrew Flynn.  It started quietly, Stella McCusker's voice barely audible from the back of the theatre. On a beautiful set, the actors drew me in to Friels' relatively simple story of a young man with no reason to stay in the small village of Ballybeg.  His father barely speaks to him, the girl he loves has married someone else and the monotony is killing him.

Small moments of melancholy are brought alive by the lighting design, Kate appearing ghostly under blue light as he remembers their moments together and his silly mistake in losing her.  Throughout the production, tiny areas of script are highlighted through the physical design. Subtle changes in lighting density darken the mood, the lamp in the bedroom highlights Gar's private space and soft lights pick out the table as a symbol of home. These are sometimes barely noticeable but just enough to draw the audience in to the overall feeling of melancholy and loneliness.  The clock ticks time down on the wall as Gar's time to depart comes closer, the audience drawn in to the countdown until his new life in Philadelphia.

But for me it is the words which jumped out from the stage, the poetic pain of a broken heart, the hopeless sadness of having nothing to look forward to, the inability to feign happiness in a world to which you don't belong.

The discord between Gar's two personalities, Gar Private and Gar Public is pronounced.  Gar Private is excitable, forward thinking and dismissive of Gar Public's sadness. He should look to the future, not to the past. He needs to move forward and stop thinking about home. Gavin Drea gave an outstanding performance as Gar Private, at times humorous and irreverent, his timing was impeccable and he trailed my emotions through the wringer a number of times throughout the performance. I especially thought the pacing between the two Gars worked really well.
When Gar Public was perked up by Gar Private, he never quite got just as excited, as is the norm in real life. Reality never quite matches the fantasy. When Gar Private was pulled down to earth by Gar Public, he matched his sadness. The equilibrium between the two sides of his personality pronounced the melancholy and loneliness and it was at these moments when I could feel my heart breaking.

The relevance of the Gar character/s to my own personality is pronounced. As part of me pushes myself forward, another part of me pulls back.  I fought to leave my background, my closed minded views and my birth culture. But as with Gar Public, I am always drawn to home, to responsibility and to a sense of safeness.  Taking a risk is difficult and scary.  Everyone needs their Gar Private to get them through the fight of leaving something safe behind. This applies to all of us, whether it's leaving the parental home, breaking up with a partner, applying for a new job or changing religion.  

I've spent some time thinking about whether Gar actually leaves home for Philadelphia or stays in Ballybeg and I'm guessing it's subjective.  I don't think he does, but then I tend not to take risks, I like to play it safe, my need for security and concern for those left behind would win over. Other people would say he does go.  Those people are willing to take risks, to go along with the adventurous part of their personality which propels them forward to try new things.    

Mark Phelan's programme note points out the impact of emigration from Ireland and now also immigration to Ireland.  He suggests that "plays like this are classics because their continuing relevance transcends both time and space".  An audience anywhere is "easily able to identify their own Ballybeg".  I would take this programme note further and suggest that Friel's play is not just about physical location or emigration from it. It's about mental emigration from one view to another, it's about growing older and forming your own opinion, it's about breaking away from your family's customs and culture and finding your own. I would suggest that this is why Friel's masterpiece is such a relevant play in this time and space in Northern Ireland today. It's also why I simply didn't get it when I saw it all those years ago.  I hadn't broken away from my culture or background, I hadn't gone to university, I hadn't gone on the journey of self discovery which I've been on for the past 11 years.

The poetic, dark humour of Friels' story, his deep understanding of human nature and the direct relevance of his writing to me and my journey has hit me in the heart and I don't think it will ever let go.

Philadelphia, Here I Come! runs until 8th March on the Danske Bank stage of the Lyric Theatre. Click here to read more.

Don't forget Friels' lesser performed play Molly Sweeney opens this week in the Naughton Studio and also runs until 8th March. Click here for more info.