Wednesday, August 16, 1995

West Belfast Festiva (incl. debut of Women on The Verge of HRT)

In the grounds of Lamh Dearg GAA club, which lie a short, steep ride by Black Taxi into the hills that rise above West Belfast, there is a small encampment of two Big Tops, some trapeze equipment, a small stage and a village of one and two person tents, all bound up by a long, winding bamboo curtain. In the morning sunshine, droopy eyed figures wander round with roll ups and huge bowls of coffee, while others are already hard at work testing the sound systems, lugging video, cameras about, erecting rigging and . . . slicing courgettes.

This is the home of Caravane, an unorthodox addition to the programme of events ranging from trips to the zoo for local children, to concerts by Shane McGowan and Mano Negra, to graveyard visits and political debates making up West Belfast's largest ever Feile An Phobail.

Caravane was set up in 1989, by a number of community leaders who wanted to offer a focus point for communal celebration to the people of France's vast underprivileged suburbs. Their method is a simple one. During the day, they work with local children, organising sack races, games of football, or instructing in basic photographic and video techniques. At night, they turn their attention to the older population, hosting huge, musical parties with French, Algerian or Spanish food.

"We felt that West Belfast had many parallels with the places we work around France, where people suffer because of their race or religion," says Patrick Didier of the company. As if to prove his point, same of the founding members of Caravane, including the organiser of the West Belfast visit, Madani Kherfi, were refused visas for Great Britain just days before the visit. All of those refused permission to take part in the festival carried Algerian passports.

According to Ysmina Kheifi (sister of Madani) her brother keeps his Algerian passport, as a protest about, among other things. French activities in Algeria during the war of independence there. West Belfast Festival contained a number of similar examples of the past leaping out to assail the present.

Dotted around the area in almost greater numbers than the banners proclaiming "Release All Prisoners" and "All Party talks Now" were posters advertising Michael Jackson's latest release, a stiff image of a stone bust of the singer with the album's one word title running along the lower edge: History. It seemed an apt image for thus festival, for one very striking feature - perhaps even more striking than the efforts that had been made to create events that covered a wide image of interests was the sense that history was a live issue, something that fed into every aspect of community life, from music, to film, theatre and even sport.

WHILE members of Caravane spoke about the legacy of the French campaign in Algeria, for others the Spanish Civil War became once more a hotly debated issue. Elsewhere, the Transatlantic Theatre Company were delivering (without much finesse it has to be said) a theatrical lesson in the life of Roger Casement; the Famine was the subject of a debate and an exhibition; while in the first P.J. McGrory memorial Lecture Clodach McGrory spoke on the suggestion that "those who forget the past may be condemned to relive it".

This particular warning seemed an necessary here was enlarged by the inclusion of the inaugural West Belfast Film Festival, a week long event featuring a mini festival of films relating to Ireland, ranging from The Quiet Man to Hidden Agenda, as well as a retrospective of the work of Constant in Costa Gavras, various discussions led by film makers and a programme of short films.

The film festival's biggest coup, however, was undoubtedly in securing the first Irish screening of Ken Loach's Land and Freedom. The film is set in northern Spain in the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War, and follows the uncertain political consciousness of one English Communist who, leaves to fight Fascism, but soon finds himself sniping at comrades as the blacks and white at the conflict disappear in a welter of infighting, Land and Freedom's writer Jack Lee, who was in Belfast for the screening, said that the film had been shot an about half its original budget, necessitating a substantial paring of the original script. Whether or not the short fall in funding is responsible, the film came across as somewhat stalled, bogged down in loose camera work and meandering dialogue.

THE Film Festival also turned up a fascinating seminar with a panel including Dubbeljoint Production's, Pam Brighton, Head of the Irish Film Board, Lelia Doolan and Shoot to Kill producer, Peter Kosminsky - and which seemed, accidently, to address the purpose and significance of the week's festivities.

Although a proportion of the session was taken up by expressions of distress concerning the casting of Brad Pitt in the role of Bobby Sands for a forthcoming hunger strike movie, discussion soon settled on the issue of producing cinematic images of the North, and apparently more importantly for many of the young film makers present finding the money to do so.

As a theatre director, Pam Brighton had a pertinent comment to make to those keen to pursue a career in film making. People, she suggested, tended to worry too much about reaching large audiences, and too often assumed that cinema was the best way to do this. This was, she suggested, a mistake. People should not be afraid of working on a small scale, or of beginning at least by speaking directly to their own community.

Her point seemed well made by the achievements of her own company in seeking out an audience for its work away from the mainstream. This year, Dubbeljoint premiered Marie Jones's Women on the Verge of HRT, the story of two women for whom a tea party held by Daniel O'Donnell becomes a potent memento mori.

Brighton must hope that the play will emulate the success of the cam pan festival show from last year. A Night in November, Jones's tale of the Pauline conversion of a Unionist soccer fan into a supporter of the Republic's team, also began life in the West Belfast Festival, nestling among local five a side football tournaments and fancy dress contests. It has now, according to Brighton, been seen by around 30,000 people.

REVIEW: Mens Rea (Green on Red Gallery, Dublin)

The main pleasure of Spectacle Theatre Company's new production is its location, in the two interlinked rooms of the Green on Red Gallery in Fitzwilliam Square. Theatre companies too seldom seem to seek out unexpected venues, and setting is often permitted to remain a dumb element in a production.

The stage for Meris Rea, a small, low catwalk, with a ladder at one end and a minute platform at the other, is crammed into the gallery space with just enough room for two rows of seats. The audience is kept hard by the stage, forced to encounter this angular meditation on seeing and believing, familial relationships and memory in a very direct, intimate fashion.

But while the odd location suggests a taste for the unexpected, the drama does not live up to such hold inventiveness. The piece - directed by Karen Egan, played by Mary O'Driscoll and Derdriu Ring and "devised by the company" - is at present unwieldy, shapeless and dull. Its greatest problem, however, is a fatal dependence on recycled ideas.

The piece's opening line: "When my father died, it was like a whole library had burnt down," is "devised" from a text by Laurie Anderson; Mary O'Driscoll's talking cat seems to come fairly undigested from Nick Park's Creature Comforts; one section features Ring flipping into Rowena Banks's perpetulant child character from the TV series Absolutely and a speck of verbal play about the language of legal contracts is hugely reminiscent of some patter from A Night At the Opera. All of these, reference points turned up in just the first few minutes.

It would be nice to think that his busy intertextuality indicates that members of Spectacle Theatre Company are the Quentin Tarantinos of fringe theatre, but this hardly seems the case. The stepping stone references - if indeed they are references - do not suggest a path, so much as lead the audience to the middle of the river only to abandon it.

Thursday, August 10, 1995

REVIEW: Women on the Verge of HRT (West Belfast Festival, Belfast)

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    MARIE JONES'S position as the Queen of Hiberno High Concept is assured with Women on the Verge of HRT, which received its premiere at the West Belfast Festival last night. Her plot is a model of instant appealing succinctness.

    Vera (Marie Jones herself, and Anna (Eileen Pollock) are two women "the wrong side of 40" whose visit to one of Daniel O'Donnell's celebrated tea parties sparks a meditation on love, sex, ageing and men. Vera's marriage has ended, and she stands unsteadily on the eponymous verge, a female Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of biology. Her friend, Anna, by contrast appears to have come to terms with "the change".

    When the pair meet Fergal (Dan Gordon), their hotel waiter, he lures them out to watch the dawn rise from a remote hilltop. As the darkness dwindles, Fergal transforms himself from an amateur magician to a full blown Ariel, using his magic wand to help the women summon up the betes noires of their lives.

    Jones's script mixes gritty repartee with songs and theatrical pyrotechnics to produce a richly textured comedy with a dark, dark heart.

    Pam Brighton's direction leaves ample room for authoritative performances from all three actors. Jones's Vera has plenty of time to show off her sparkling, brutal intelligence, a weapon which spares nobody, least of all herself, while Pollock offers glimpses of the reality of her character, like a bullfighter teasing a bull, slowly luring the audience on to the picas of her sobs. Gordon energetically plays a gallery of rogues of almost pardonable despicableness.

    At times the pacing of Jones's odd battalion of theatrical styles becomes somewhat awkward, with Vera occasionally seeming to repeat herself in the second act. Such signs of unsteadiness do not, however, substantially diminish the impact of a funny, angry and, at times, painfully direct piece of theatre.
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