Thursday, June 22, 2006

Jesus' Guantánamo Years

It was during a sojourn in Paris, when Abie Philbin Bowman let his hair grow long to match his beard, and had strangers in the street shouting “hey! Jesus” at him, that the idea for Jesus: The Guantánamo Years first came to him.

“It just occurred to me one day how much Jesus would have looked like the people who get sent to Guantánamo …” A scene in which Jesus comes to face to face with US Immigration blowhards (and admits his leanings towards religious martyrdom) popped immediately into his mind. Pretty soon, a whole show was taking shape.

Philbin Bowman, a son of the well-known family, admits to being heavily involved with debating while at school, but grew uncomfortable with that pastime when he came to study at TCD. After some forays into the singer-songwriting game (“the business of singing the same songs over and over again was just boring for me”) he fell into stand-up.

“I enjoyed doing all the blather between songs much more than the songs themselves. And I suddenly realised that the people who just did the talking bit were called comedians…”

Last year he lit out for the territories of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to see what this whole comedy thing was about. “I saw 30 shows in a week – which turned out to be just a tiny fraction. But when you see that many shows in a week, you get that this works, this doesn’t. And one of the things I realised was that for me an hour of joke after joke was a bit empty. What I wanted to see, what I wanted to do, was something that also had a bit of substance.”

Last Winter he produced his first solo show in the Players Theatre at TCD, an initial run of Jesus: The Guantánamo Years, which he has now polished and updated for its first professional outing at Project.

Bowman has something of a history of provoking the ire of Americans. It was his column for the Dubliner magazine that lead to the publication’s removal from some Dublin hotels after complaints about his un-PC views on the events of September 2001, which suggested the WTC attack was not an unprovoked one. These days he seems to frame that piece as a thought exercise that got misinterpreted.

And despite the sound of things, Jesus: The Guantánamo Years has organised religion in its sites just as much as the crimes of the US hegemony.

“It is more a show about religion than people expect,” says Philbin Bowman. “People expect it to be about American foreign policy. But in fact, it is also about religion too… The Jesus story is central to our culture whether we are religious or not. One of the key things about Jesus is that they were pretty iconoclastic. And comedy is like that too. But religions just aren’t ever very iconoclastic.”

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

REVIEW: This is Elvis (Gaiety Theatre)

Are you fun enough to spend an evening in the company of an Elvis impersonator? Sufficiently versed in both the Elvis biography and the posthumous mythology? Susceptible to the charms of a leather jump suit, in the black or white-with-spangles version, or, preferably, both?

These are not questions that everybody can answer in the affirmative. But luckily enough for all those behind the British touring version of This is Elvis, there are at least enough people who can answer with a resounding “yes” to fill – and indeed shake, rattle and roll – the Gaiety Theatre as we are guided through a hyperreal recreation of Elvis’ 68 Comeback Special (in the first half) and his initial 1969 concert in Las Vegas (in the second).

At its best, an Elvis impersonation has a strange quality to it, somewhere between musical entertainment and a voodoo ceremony. For this show, suspension of disbelief is not quite enough: what is required is total emersion in the ritual of the undead. The recipe is so irredeemably kistch, the payoff so assured, that the artistic standard or technical qualities of the act are somewhat beside the point.

All of which leaves Simon Bowman’s Elvis easily exceeding expectations. His is a King with more than the requisite amount of fire in his belly (though perhaps, a little less belly than might be ideal) and the power of a steam whistle in his lungs, driving a voice with the gusto of a operatic tenor and a passionate, honking vibrato.

The choreography (by Carole Todd) is every bit as accomplished and indeed, it is in a dancing, thrusting, quaking and vocal-less middle section of Burning Love that the show finds its finest moment. As Bowman’s sexyily incendiary shuddering reaches a crescendo, in unison with some well-deployed strobe lighting, you would have no trouble at all in believing this was indeed, the devil’s music.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange

“What colour is an orange?” turns out to be a key question in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, which opens next week at the Peacock. You think you know the answer, you see, but maybe you don’t. And if you get the answer “wrong” people might start to call you, if not crazy, at least schizophrenic.

In Penhall’s play, a senior psychiatrist struggles with his young registrar for control of a black man who has been sectioned after doing “something funny” with an orange.

The elder doctor has found an unexpectedly happy accommodation between his brand of psychiatry – influenced by the frequently-debunked sixties theorist, RD Laing – and a Thatcherite desire to be rid of costly patients back into “the community”.

“I was interested in the idea that people who were quite radical in the 1960 are now very senior and thoroughly establishment figures,” says Penhall. “But maybe they still believe in approaches that they championed back then.”

The clever switch in Penhall’s play is that the notion that black people may be regularly mishandled and misdiagnosed is the psychiatric establishment’s own view of itself. The young maverick doctor in the play, on the other hand, believes in drugs and confinement as the key to treatment.

“When the play was on at the National [theatre] – where the audience is a subscription one and, let’s face it, quite elderly, I got some extraordinary reactions at the first night reception. People were coming up to me asking me if I thought black people suffered more from schizophrenia because they smoked so much marijuana. Honestly, somebody came up to me and started telling me there were some Chinese people at their golf club who were causing a lot of trouble and what did I think they should do about it…”

And you thought The Gate’s first night audience was herd of moribund dinosaurs!

Talk to any playwright and sooner or later the conversation will come around to writing for the cinema. As it happens, Penhall has been dabbling a bit too, adapting Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love, and even directing his own short film, The Undertaker (which starred Rhys Ifans) “to earn my stripes” he says. A feature film with Penhall as director is now in the pipes.

But like any playwright who is used to the relative autonomy of the theatre, he finds the process of writing for the big screen somewhat bewildering, if not a tad surreal.

“When you’ve written a screenplay and you hand it over to someone to direct, it’s like you give somebody your Labrador to take for a walk, and when it comes back it’s a poodle.”

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Look Out There's A Monster Coming!

If big is beautiful, reckon one group of British-based playwrights, then monstrous is even more magnificent. So members of the group decided to call themselves (this is almost not a joke) The Monsterists. The Monsterists (who include among their number Dublin-born Colin Teevan, who moved to London some time ago in search of big-osity) believe that everything wrong with the theatre might be cured by allowing younger writers to have access to lots of cash to make huge, nay “monster,” shows with massive casts. You can see why they might think that.

The problem, it seems, is that lots of money, big sets and dozens of extras are only ever used when creating bad theatre, which the Monsterists describe as “heritage theatre, the monologue, and anything by David Hare” (for which, I presume, Irish writers might substitute “anything by Brian Friel.”) This means that new writers most often find themselves working on “no budget” productions in “black box” spaces. And this particular group of writers wants to work big.

As the Monsterists see it, new writing for the theatre needs to be elevated “from the ghetto of the studio 'black box' to the main stage.” Playwright, Alan Ayckbourn is a supporter of the movement, offering it the slogan “Think big - write bigger!”

Visitors to the Theatre Forum’s AGM/Annual Conference, which is being held in Limerick later next week, will get to hear much more about the Monsterists in a session called A New Direction for New Writing. This will be run by Richard Bean, a British playwright and founder member of the group.

The Theatre Forum will also feature a plenty of sessions about other, smaller but perfectly formed issues. The writer behind Jerry Springer – The Opera (and one half of prehistoric comedy duo, Lee and Herring) will speak at a session called “Asking for Trouble? Censorship & Artistic Freedom” which will be chaired by director, Conall Morrison. Lee, who is very funny, has in recent times being travelling Britain explaining why exactly he should be allowed to stage his supposedly blasphemous (but not very funny) satirical opera about the life of Jesus Christ.

Another interesting time should be had when Irish playwright, Tom Murphy, pops in for a chat with Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Fiach MacConghail. Although anyone who attends that will miss “parallel session” with contemporary dance bigwig, Lloyd Newson, Artistic Director of DV8.