Thursday, January 25, 2007

Annabelle Comyn's Number

Dolly the sheep didn't know how lucky she was. Despite being a clone, she did not, as far as we can tell, endure a whirlwind of existential uncertainty, or even ponder momentarily the instability of her own identity. Chances are, when we humans get around to cloning ourselves (or get around to admitting to it) it will be a far more disturbing event for everybody concerned.

Thankfully, before any of us have to deal with our clones in real life, British playwright Caryl Churchill, has been working out some of the problems. Sort of. According to Annabelle Comyn, who follows up her National Theatre debut (directing Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange) with Churchill's play, A Number, there are also a lot of other issues at stake.

"I think what is really at the heart of the play is how we value each other," says Comyn. "The play is particularly concerned with parent-child relationships, a father and a son in this case, and that is very interesting for me…"

"The problem is not that there are clones. Because there is no reason at all why hundreds of clones shouldn't get to feel complete and loved. The problem comes when people are not loved or valued properly…which is what we see in the play."

In the play, Salter the father (played by Michael Gambon in the original Royal Court production and played in Dublin by Alan Williams) is forced to confront what exactly has gone into making each of his cloned sons individual.

The job for Stuart Graham, who plays the sons (the roles were brilliantly played at the Royal Court by Daniel "Bond" Craig) is to conjure up a cohort of characters who are identical, but very different. Did that present particular problems when rehearsing the play?

"Well, we didn't concentrate on how we would make them different, we just treated each of them as a different character and I think that worked," says the director.

Directing the play has been an ambition for Comyn for several years. "I wanted to do the play myself for some time. But I couldn't get permission to do it with my own company, Hatch." Then, as luck would have it, came an invitation to direct A Number at the Peacock.

Finally having the chance to work on the play has not, all the same, cleared up all the issues around cloning for Comyn. But at least now she must know the answer to the big question:

"Actually, I don't really know if I would clone myself. There are so many issues around it that I'd have to think about it more…but I suppose if I had to decide now, it would be "no".

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

REVIEW: The World in Pictures (Project, Dublin)

Like any good shindig, The World in Pictures, spends most of its time in the borderlands of chaos, always threatening to come to a messy collapse in a bit of argy-bargy the roots of which nobody can quite explain. But that, of course, is what makes the latest visit to Dublin by Sheffield troupe, Forced Entertainment, rather more memorable than most nights in the stalls.

After this two-hour lurch through the history of mankind, there is a good chance you will have learned absolutely nothing about the past, except perhaps that it is possible to be a little bit vague about some very important dates and events.

The show opens with the company all ambling on stage, in plain clothes, and offering advice to Jerry Killick, who is going to be charged with opening the night’s proceedings. Left alone again, Killick begins to draw us into a story, his posture and gestures hypnotising us into attention as he carefully weirds us out with unsettling account of a gruesome suicide: our own.

It’s a strange kind of warm up, but its morbid twist leads even more unexpectedly to a extremely raucous tour that sprints (sometimes literarily) from the dawn of time (seen through the lens of Rachel’s Welsh’s 1 Million Years BC and some faux-fur cavemen, captivated by internet porn), via Athens, Rome and the Dark Ages, into the harsh light of the murderous 20th century (with a little help from T Rex’s Twentieth Century boy, played at filling- loosening volume).

By the time Killick returns once more to leave us with another labyrinthine monologue about the nature of mortality and the transience of all things, it is hard to know whether laughter or tears are required, as he carefully explains to us the timeline for the complete obliteration of all traces of our existence from the planet.

“You really are a the-glass-is-half-empty kind of kind of guy, aren’t you?” one of his fellow performers admonishes him.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

REVIEW: Desert Island Dances (Project, Dublin)

The BBC’s long running radio show, Desert Island Discs, invites the tribal elders of British society to pick some records to take with them to the eponymous island. Despite all the guests’ chirpiness and happy memories, there is never any missing the fact that the island, that place to which each guests is going alone, and from which none will return, represents death.

Wendy Houstoun’s Desert Island Dances was inspired by the BBC’s program, but seems slightly less coy about the real impact of remembering a few of your favourite things. From the opening, during which the British performer and choreographer attempts to capture for us in words the essence of a nice desert island, things seem to reveal a grim, even frightening side that simply cannot be suppressed.

Instead of selecting a few jolly choons, Houstoun, as a dancer and choreographer, decides to pick some of her favourite movements – gestures and postures, picked up from other dancers, or just from neighbours. It might be a certain way of folding her arms, or stamping across the floor. Or it could be a strange frozen splayed pose she adopts as she slides across the theatre floor.

Most of the time Houston chats away as she moves, offering a running commentary on her movements, even at one point, withdrawing to her huge chalkboard backdrop to draw us a graph of charting how we felt about the show so far – and getting even that spookily spot on. In Houston’s assessment, the early part of the performance sees us in a very rapid cycle of elation and disappointment, which as the show progresses, gradually settles into a kind of tense uncertainty.

It might be slightly facile to say that Desert Island Dances is too clever for its own good. But with her clear sense of how an audience might be reacting to a show that seems so initial welcoming, it is hard to know why Houstoun seems happy enough, finally, to wave at us from a distance.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

REVIEW: Two for Dinner for Two (Project Cube, Dublin)

In the turbulent business of love, intimacy and co-habitation, could the most important thing of all be how to share a kitchen? Life in the kitchen is the prime concern in Two for Dinner for Two, and not just because it offers an image of how we conduct our lives. It is also worth keeping an eye on because, well, there are very hot surfaces in here, really sharp knives and potentially messy raw ingredients. Somebody could get burned, or lose an eye, or at the very least get splattered with squashed tomatoes.

The show, directed by Ciaràn Taylor and originally a site specific work created for an apartment scheme in Ballybough, is not quite dance theatre (though the action is accompanied by live music) and certainly not straight drama. It features actors rather than dancers, though what they are asked to do might easily be described as dancing. The mix, however, proves to be a fine one.

A couple (Karl Quinn and Ruth Lehane) have come together to cook dinner (which they do in real time, with real ingredients and real knives). As they twist and turn about each other, contorting themselves insanely to avoid conflict one moment, giving vent to their basest emotions the next, it becomes clear that what is required here is exactly this degree of "reality" in gesture and movement to blend with the smell of the risotto on the hob.

Quinn and Lehane smoothly provide just that. Stretching into their roles with charm, conjuring up their characters through funny asides – "I found a great new way to chop herbs" says Quinn, interrupting another squabble to clip little curls of parsley into the soup with a scissors – and a panoply of little culinary ceremonies, from eating crisps, to crushing tomatoes and peeling cucumbers. It's an odd flavour overall, with an unaccustomed texture, but no less delicious for that.

REVIEW: Look Back In Anger (Andrews Lane Studio, Dublin)

It is now 50 years, roughly, since John Osborne's proto-Victor Meldew figure, Jimmy Porter, took to the British stage. Jimmy just wasn't happy, and for the length of Osborne's Look Back In Anger he kicked against the pricks, covering everyone within spitting range with his bizarrely egomaniacal invective.

But for some reason, the character, along with his particularly grim English take on existentialism, chimed with enough people to cause all manner of social ripples in post-war Britain.

Now, director, Paul Brennan gives the play a new production, one that explores not so much its social impact, as its eternal qualities as drama. And not just any drama. Brennan's production is determined to style the play as a hyperventilating, psychologically-explorative naturalist classic.

With the approach come some tricky questions (can there be a safe design compromise for low-budget naturalism?); and some hard facts that need facing (most people on stage are clearly going to try to "do" an accent, and they quite possibly feel ideologically obliged to do so). All of which amounts to a production that makes life rather harder for itself than necessary.

Luckily enough, there is enough passion involved to ensure the piece gathers some momentum. As Jimmy Porter, Joseph-Paul Travers has a massive, physically-draining workload, keeping up a nearly non-stop stream of eloquent discontent for nearly two and a half hours.

Fiona Brennan digs ferociously for something real as Jimmy's squirrelly wife, Alison. Lynette Callaghan has a crisp nastiness as her treacherous mate, Helena, while Jason Alexander-lookalike, Dafydd O'Shea, as pal Cliffy, underlines just how Seinfeldish the whole ménage looks at times.

For all that, Look Back in Anger does not quite convince as a timeless classic. Some of the play's twist and turns seem awkward, and unjustified. More importantly, perhaps, it is harder than ever to understand – or worse still, want to understand – Jimmy Porter's irreducible sense of cosmic grievance.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Wendy Houstoun's Desert Island Dances

If you’ve ever felt the need to suppress a bit of a giggle, or even the hint of a snigger, at a contemporary dance show, British dancer, Wendy Houstoun is about to set you free. Free to laugh out loud, guffaw and generally show your appreciation through the action of your funny bones.

“It wasn’t particularly intentional when I began,” says Houstoun of the early days of her dance career in the 1980s. “But people laughed at certain things I was doing and I pretty much decided to go with it…”

From those origins, Houstoun has developed a style of performance that moves beyond categories such as “dance” or “stand-up comedy” blending movement and text, gesture and commentary, and taking her into all sorts of unexpected places. Her show Happy Hour, for example, toured bars and pubs, bursting into life among the drinkers.

Her latest show, Desert Island Dances, is a kind of catalogue of Houstoun’s favourite moves from over the years, the gestures she might take to her desert island if she were ever a castaway.

“It’s a bit of a diary really about what remains with you of people, the residue. Quite often what stays is a gesture that we take for our own. We sort of assume that we are all unique individuals, but really we are all big catalogues, composites of others people’s movements.”

Houston originally trained as a primary school teacher, so her first encounters with dance were in traditional styles such as ballet and tap. She soon found, however, that teaching was not for her. “I wasn’t a very good teacher at all. At least not in the public school system, in London, with 15-year olds, who are, quite frankly, scary.”

Then she came across the National Theatre of Brent, a celebrated “no budget” two-man theatre company that performed truncated versions of the classics in shopping malls and other unlikely venues. Helping to teach one of the performers a piece of classical ballet, she was struck by how well it worked when as the dancer recited his text while dancing.

Eventually she moved into a theatre in education company in Doncaster, and from there to work with some of Britain’s most innovative companies, notably DV8, an innovative troupe, lead by Lloyd Newson, which also had scant regard for the purity of dance and was happy to incorporate unexpected elements, such as spoken word. (Houston also works with Sheffield company Forced Entertainment, with which she will also be performing next week in Dublin in The World in Pictures.)

“Some people complained, because for them talking in a dance piece was the result of a failure of some sort….”

But that was, surely, a long time ago. Since then, Houston, as well as Newson and DV8, must have thoroughly staked out the territory of a new type performance that combines dance with other theatrical elements?

“Well it’s odd really, because dance seems to go in waves, and right now in Britain it is back in one of its purist phases. So when I performed Desert Island Dances in London, at the post-show discussion all the questions were about me not doing “pure” dance, and about that business of talking. Why exactly did we need feel the need to gab all the time…?”

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Ciaran Taylor's Two for Dinner For Two

There was a time when the smell, never mind the taste, of theatre went pretty much ignored. But recently that has begun to change. Last year’s Dublin Fringe Festival welcomed Irish celebrity chef Kevin Thornton to its program, while Barabbas lately cooked up a version of the Cyrano de Bergerac story set in a the kitchen of a celebrity chef.

And of course, the crossover of food and art isn’t just happening in theatre, or just in Ireland. This year’s blockbuster art show in Germany, Documenta, will exhibit work from superstar chef, Ferran Adria.

In the meantime, the “cooking as art” Irish axis opens up a new front next week with the premier of Two for Dinner for Two, a new show by Dublin company, BDNC Theatre.

“I have noticed since we started on this project so many examples of food turning up in shows,” says Ciaran Taylor, the show’s director. “So there is definitely something in the zeitgeist. But what we are doing is not so much about food as art, I think, than about the performance aspect of cooking.”

The show, Two for Dinner for Two, devised by Taylor and the company, features two people who, for the duration of the performance, prepare and eat a meal.

“We concentrate on the act of cooking, on what people are thinking about when they cook. It is something we all have to do, sometimes with somebody else. And we are all aware of the sorts of things that can pop into your mind while you are doing it...there are a lot of knives in a kitchen”

The production began life as a commission under the Per Cent For Art scheme for the renovation of some flats in Ballybough. Since then, the company have performed it in the kitchen of Araby House, in North Richmond Street and in the green room kitchen at Dun Laoghaire’s Pavilion Theatre. For the Project run, however, the company has built a special working kitchen set inside the theatre.

The old stage maxim about not working with animals or children can now, it seems, be supplement with a ban on carnaroli rice. If keeping cats and kids under control is a problem, making sure that all the live cooking happens just on cue has been one of the most demanding parts of the show.

As part of their performances, the actors -- Ruth Lehane and Karl Quinn -- not only have to remember their lines, but chop, mix, simmer, stir and generally rustle up something tasty. On the menu each night will be soup, risotto and chocolate cake. (Luckily for them, the singer and clarinettist who play specially-composed music by Jane O'Leary throughout the show, are not also required to prep some vegetables.)

“Timing the cooking so that everything is ready on cue has been one of the things we have had to rehearse the most…So, we’ve eaten quite a lot of risotto recently,” says Taylor. “My little son, he particularly likes the risotto. But the actors, well, I don’t think they’ll be eating risotto for a while when its over.”