Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Falk Richter’s The System

“It was really interesting when I came back to Dublin to discover how much the place had changed,” says director Rachel West, who spent many years in Berlin, working with some of Germany’s best-known writers and directors. “The whole place had become so intensely interested in money, so obsessed with getting it, much more so than even in Germany.”

But as West sees it, Irish theatre has hardly reacted at all to the changes. The director’s latest response to the situation has been to import a little of the new playwrighting of modern Germany, in the shape of Falk Richter’s The System, a series of four plays created by Richter and the team at the team at Berlin’s Schaubühne theatre, concerning the lives of people all but swallowed up by the system of High Capitalism.

West worked at the Schaubühne, the heavyweight institution that had given the world Peter Stein and the post-Sixties generation of German playwrights, at a time when a younger generation of theatre artists, such as Richter, and the charismatic Thomas Ostermeier, were beginning to come to prominence.

“It was really interesting that when that group started to get well known, it was through their productions of works by British playwrights. But what happened then was that new German writing began to come through, it had elements of the other work, but also something of its own. The problem in Ireland is that has not happened.”

The problem, as far as West is concerned, is rooted in a certain lack of originality. “I read through about 80 new Irish plays in two months and it was amazing to see how similar they all were, how many Tom Murphy-type plays there were, how many Brian Friel-like plays there were…”

Projects such her current Falk Richter mini-season of events aim to gentle change that situation. As well as the productions of two parts of The System , there will be a reading of another part, as well as a workshop with Falk Richter, post-show discussions and the screening of a documentary, Grow or Go, which was a crucial inspiration for the plays.

“I think one of the biggest problems for everybody is that people in the theatre here tend to work in isolation: the companies work in isolation, the writers work in isolation. So instead of working together, all the companies end up competing against each other. We’d like to create some kind of a model for a different way of working…”

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Top Five of 2005

It’s time to point fingers at stuff that was bloody good.

Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Enquiry
Describe the best piece of theatre of 2005? Well, it involved lots of Leaver Arch Files, some PostIt notes, plenty of filing cabinets, and many, many annotated diagrams. Richard Norton-Taylor and London’s Tricycle Theatre continued their “Verbatim Theatre,” project (a fiendish plot to make drama out of the impenetrable findings of various public inquiries) with an astounding distillation of the Saville Inquiry. Where the inquiry, as usual, managed to create a great, foggy plume of information – thereby remaining reliably useless – Norton-Taylor filtered the testimony into a couple of hours of theatre. The result was an indelible sense of what was happening in Derry on that Sunday in 1972, as well as an equally indelible sense of a variety of moral and emotional power that only live theatre possesses.

The Bull
After startling everyone by creating Giselle, a contemporary dance show that smashed its way out of that particular ghetto, Michael Keegan-Dolan must have felt the steamy breath of the heard breathing down his neck as he premiered his latest theatre-dance/dance-theatre show, The Bull. Happily, for everyone who grappled for a ticket, Keegan-Dolan came up with the goods, a show that leveraged the talents of singers, dancers and even legit actors, to create a show that was massive, muscular, poetic, moving and hilarious: a rare joint.

The Goat (Or Who Is Sylvia?)
Bryan Murray’s return to the Irish stage also ushered in a brutal, unflinching late play from veteran American dramatist, Edward Albee. The Goat (Or Who Is Sylvia) is about sounding the limits of love, and the limits of community, with the help of a smart New York family whose architect patriarch has an undying, carnal passion for the eponymous goat, Sylvia. A great production, directed by Michael Caven, with some top-drawer performances from Murray and company, made for as startling and disturbing an evening as the year had to offer.

As ever on the hungry hunt for new voices, Fishamble turned up one Gary Duggan, the kind of bone fide storyteller that 2005 found in short supply. Duggan’s play Monged took on the no-sleep-till-Cabra lifestyle with a deft even-handedness, lyrically revelling in “mad” nights out, while at the same time filleting all moronic excess. A writer. What more do you want?

Lost in A Flurry of Cherry Blossoms / Just For Show
For joint runners-up we have a lushly costumed Japanese allegory of I’m-not-quite-sure-what and a British dance show that was at best when its images were projected. (Guess which was which?) Both shows existed just beyond whatever is easy to digest, but both turned being baffling and perplexing into a beautiful competitive advantage.

Monday, December 12, 2005

REVIEW: Aladdin (Gaiety, Dublin)

Panto reviewing is closer to wine writing that most theatre criticism: the most important question here is always ‘was it a good year,’ because the question of whether you like panto or not will probably have been solved some time ago if you are over 10 years of age. The good news for the 2005/6 harvest, is that the Gaiety has turned in a vintage Aladdin.

Everything seems to have changed up a gear this year from costumes, to special effects to performances and the result is something that is much more palatable for grown ups, while providing shed-loads of fizz, pop and awe for the pre-teens.

Michael Grennell’s sulphurous baddie, Abanazer, does a nice job of stirring the kids into a heaving mass of hissing resentment before the curtain is even up, and the central pair of George “Mondo” McMahon’s Aladdin and Karl Harpur’s Elvis-impersonating genie have a kind of puppyish energy that keeps things rolling at a pleasant pace.

In place of the usual litany of tortuous contemporary gags, director, Carole Todd seems to have dipped into early comedies (which themselves presumably lift from vaudeville and Yiddish theatre) for some great old routines. A Keystone-cops-alike chorus falls about the stage at regular intervals, a substantial number of plates are smashed (to the delight of 5 year olds throughout the house) while Harpur and Gavin Armstrong’s Window Twanky perform a crisp and very funny recreation of Abbot and Costello’s ‘Who’s On First’ sketch. And why not? If it’s good, it’s good.

Better still, most of the elements which have made the Gaiety panto of recent years difficult to stomach have been pruned away. The excessive in-show advertising (which was never less than nauseating) is all but gone, the gratuitous live ads replaced by less disruptive plugs incorporated into the script. It is just so much easier to see the magic of theatre when there are commercial breaks every few minutes.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Heidi Konnt XXXmas

There is something disturbing about interviewing people “in character”. You know the drill: a well known character from a show – a pantomime turkey, or a drag queen, say – decides to talk to journalists while “being” that turkey. Or drag queen.

Usually, this leaves the journalist with some questions: like “who should I be while do the interview?”; “Am I in character now?”; and of course “Will I pretend to be Bob Woodward for this one?”

Anyhow, time to suck it up, so to speak. So, Heidi? “This is Neil.” Well, thank God for that. Instead of the fearsome German mistress of the obscene, excoriating put-down, on the phone is a nice young man called Neil Watkins.

“Yeah, I wasn’t really sure about doing Heidi over the phone. I mean Heidi can really be very vicious and totally obscene. And that’s OK when I’m in the room with an audience and I can control it. But over the phone…”

Watkins started performing Heidi Konnt back in March. Since then, the character that has cut a great filthy swathe through the Dublin drag scene, culminating in being crowned the Alternative Miss Ireland, at the raucous beauty pageant for Drag queens and kings.

And the act will move onto the next level next year when Heidi and Neil will both star in a new RTE comedy show, The Unbelievable Truth, a mockumetary from the makers of The Blizzard of Odd.

In the series, Heidi will play a bitchy gossip columnist while Neil (who is perhaps most famous as the letting agent in that McDonald’s ad about tiny flats) will appear as Michael Flatley. “I play him as a sort of superhero: Flatman”.

But before all that, Heidi and Neil will magically recombine for The Heidi Konnt XXXmas Show, an “alternative” Christmas show which will explore Heidi’s youth, and her innocent dalliance with the young Cardinal Ratzinger.

The show has been created in conjunction with Corn Exchange’s Annie Ryan, which might seem to explain why Heidi has tended to sport Ryan’s company’s distinctive commedia del’arte war paint.

But, as it happens, the look came courtesy of another Corn Exchange regular, Mark [Adam and Paul] O’Halloran, who was called in to do makeup for Heidi’s successful Alternative Miss Ireland bid.

“He came in and did me and my entire entourage – in a commedia del’arte stylee,” explains Neil, exhibiting a bit of Heidi-style double entendre.
(Photo: Will St. Leger)