Thursday, May 31, 2007

REVIEW: The Crucible (The Abbey, Dublin)

Are you with the Goodies, or the baddies? A follower of God, or a servant of Lucifer? Democrat or Republican? With us, or against us? And, yes, those are the only choices.

Arthur Millar's drama of Seventeenth century Massachusetts superstition was originally conceived in the wake of the anti-communist purges that dominated 1950s American. But as the current resurgence of homicidal groupthink across the Atlantic suggests, such spasms of hysterical bigotry are very much part of the American Way

It would probably be a mistake, all the same, to read Patrick Mason's thunderously emotional new production at the Abbey as a simple allegory for the current US regime's "War on Terrorism." For tucked into Millers drama are all sorts of intriguing ideas about knowledge and human society, obedience and progress.

The town of Salem (evoked effectively by Conor Murphy's harsh, scuffed-Goth design in tones of graphite and charcoal) is swept up in a familiar kind of madness, in which anything less than total acquiescence is read as an admission of guilt.

The girls of the village, lead by Abigail (Ruth Negga) are keen to explain away their naked midnight dancing, and pious Rev. Parris (Peter Hanly) is more than happy to have something to blame for the disintegration of his flock. And so the devil takes the rap.

Everyone, it soon becomes clear, is guilty of something; not to be would be a crime in itself. Once the deafening machinery of the witch trials starts up, you see, finding fuel, rather than separating the innocent from the sinner, becomes the true quest.

Mason's production brilliantly steers clear of preachy excess, while still giving Miller's play a humming emotional clarity. In the director's hands, the large set-pieces, such as when the village girls wheel around the stage in demented ecstasy, become as eloquent as the quiet suffering, or the ornate liturgical disputes that pepper the dialogue.

There are half a dozen extraordinarily good performances, but as the couple at the emotional centre of this maelstrom, Declan Conlon and Cathy Belton are nothing short of startling: restrained, quietly focussed, but ever-ready for the violent onset of the kind of integrity that can derail even a global crusade.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

REVIEW: Cosi Fan Tutte (RDS Concert Hall, Dublin)

Gavin Quinn, a founding member of PanPan, easily one of the country’s most mercurial and inventive theatre companies, seems like a sound creative choice by Opera Ireland to direct Cosi Fan Tutte.

Last year, Quinn finally completed an elaborate plan to co-produce a version of Playboy of the Western World with a Chinese company. In Mandarin. After which, a dip into Italian for Mozart’s fizzy, but unapologetically unenlightened opera should present no great hurdle.

As it happens, Quinn’s production is every bit as playful as could be expected, though something short of an anarchic assault on the operatic form. The action has been updated to the present, or, to a certain vision of it: Quinn’s boys all like football, and are happy to bare their bums, or serve as UN Peacekeepers; his girls like boozing and shopping, and indulge in pilates only under protest.

The RDS Concert Hall lets Quinn, all the same, mess around, just a little. The action wanders off the stage occasionally, to stroll through the book-lined hall, the lovers picking out volumes to read, or Guglielmo (Josef Wagner) to ply his wares flirtatiously with the crowd, walking among them and throwing silky pink underwear to the occasional lucky soul.

Bruno Schwengl’s set, too, is economic, but with plenty of smart good humour. The small stage of the RDS is clearly not the place for extravagant gestures, but the production gets plenty of mileage out of enormous chunky versions of the letters L O V & E, which become bartops and seats, beds, hammocks and stages at various times.

Performances from Mary Bowen (Dorabella) and Sara Galli (Fiordiligi) are particularly appealing, with their almost slapstick physical antics contrasting brightly with the precision and sweetness of their voices.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Firenza Guidi's Immotal

“Roll up! Roll Up! Gasp at the 360 degree immersive experience! Enter the afterlife in a performance with full on duende! Revel at the husky, seedy synaesthesia of it all! The sensual mix of colour, music, touch and even taste!” Ah, yes, circus barkers aren’t what they used to be.

Take for example Firenza Guidi, the Milan-born performer, director and circus visionary behind the latest show from NoFit State Circus. She makes quite a case when it comes to talking up a storm for Immortal: The Gasworks, the latest show from the Welsh “post- circus” troupe.

Guidi first came to Ireland in the 1980s, on foot of a British scholarship, to attend Queens’. “At the time I was completely obsessed with Irish literature and Irish theatre,” says Guida. “So when I applied for the grant everyone else was saying they wanted to go to Cambridge or Oxford, or London. But I picked Belfast.”

After shifting her base to Wales she eventually came into contact with a group keen to establish a new circus company in Wales. Inspired by the like of Bread and Puppet Theatre and the early Cirque de Soleil, or Canada’s Cirque Eloise, or the blood ‘n’ guts of the French punk circus, Archaos, they wanted to work in a style that used traditional circus skills to entirely new dramatic ends.

Guidi created her first show with NoFit State circus – which is based in Cardiff – in 1995. But it was some years before she was reunited with the company and working on the multi-part, multi-year show, Immortal.

“That time the company had basically spent building a reputation and raising the funds to buy the tent…the tent was required for aesthetic reason, of course. But it also gave them a realistic way to tour, with their own readymade venue…”

Naturally, no ordinary circus tent would do. After all, if the “new circus” movement was to see the replacement of the ‘tamed beasts’ and the ringmaster, with something less nineteenth century, their tent would have to reflect it. And so it did.

“It’s is a big silver space ship. So it really causes an impression when you first see it there, twinkling away.” says Guidi, whose blend of Milanese and Cardiff accent makes her sound remarkably like Bjork.

Immortal, which is now in its fourth incarnation, was originally based on a book by the Portuguese 1998 Noble Prize-winner, Jose Saramago, called The Cave. This circus, then, has a story.

“It’s about a place where people go who are dead but not yet ready to go, to move on. It’s a place where they can get to do things that they didn’t do in life. Here, finally, they can do them…”

The third version of the show, called ImMortal: The Rooftops, was seen around Ireland last year. But this time around, audience will be treated to ImMortal: The Gasworks. “I live in Cardiff Bay and it is based on a building I see almost every day….which lead to create what we can the doughnut, a kind of raised 360 degree platform.”

“I’m never excited by skills in themselves, but more in something the Spanish call duende. It’s when something is not necessarily the most polished, but has some rawness that is riveting to watch. I hope Immoral has that...”

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

REVIEW: Gagarin Way (Andrews Lane Studio, Dublin)

Just who are the bad guys here? Gregory Burke’s breakthrough play concerns the midnight heist of computer chips from a grim Scottish factory. Or does it? Certainly the boot boys running the operation, Eddie (Ronan Leahy) and Gary (Jimmy Watson) look mad-eyed and menacing enough to put the boot in without too much pause for thought.

But still, there’s something here that doesn’t quite add up. Take Eddie, the bearer of the kind of smile that just screams “steer well clear”. He seems to know a surprising amount about the life and times of Jean-Paul Sartre, the alienation of the proletariat and the sociology of violence. Is he a gangster, a terrorist or just a keen reader? And who on earth does his mate in the leather coat think he is?

Burke’s sharply cut drama flirts with a host of genres, only steering totally clear of romance. The all-male show is predictably boisterous, with slaps (and whatever else is required) administered at will. As befits a Scottish take on Martin McDonagh, or indeed, Quentin Tarantino, violence is at the heart of the drama: the threat of it, constantly, the fact of it, eventually.

All of this proves to be a sleek vehicle for re-examining Scotland’s -- and indeed the rest of the world’s -- socialist history, as the certainties of comrades and party are ditched in favour of the alienated despondency of the depoliticised present.

The writing is the kind of stuff that sounds like a pleasure to act – even given the stretch of a stageful of Fife accents. The actors rise to the occasion with a succession of vivid and gruffly entertaining characterisations. Leahy’s wiry bruiser is a nasty treat, while Watson, as his deluded sidekick, squeezes some melancholia out of the would be killer. Gary Murphy as a “suit” mixed up in the mayhem, and Domhnall O’Donoghue, as an equally unfortunate security, guard offer able support.

Karl Shiels, whose productions with his own company, Semper Fi, have never shown much inclination to avoid violence and its aftermaths, guides Burke’s bloodbath expertly towards its predictably unpredictable conclusion.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

REVIEW: Cruel and Tender (Project, Dublin)

There is something of an orgy of Martin Crimp plays going on at the moment, with Irish productions following the lead of recent English outings, which themselves were inspired, to some extent, by productions on continental Europe.

No sooner has Project said good-bye to the English playwright's Attempts on Her Life, than it says hello to his 2004 version of Sophocles story of the last misguided campaign of the great hero, Heracles, aka Hercules.

While the big guy, known in Crimp's version simply as the General (played by Robert O'Mahoney, who played Julius Caesar in the Abbey's recent production) has been away in African waging a bloody, disgusting and clearly illegal war, his wife Amelia (Andrea Irvine) has stayed home with her manicurist, her beautician and her housekeeper wondering if its all worth it.

We never see the two meet, but instead watch their effect on each other's lives, an strategy that makes sense given that Crimp's interests apparently lie in the knotty relationship between war and the construction gender. This dramatic hole in the piece – that so much action is simply reported -- underlines the classical origins of the story, but also, helps to give a kind of anti-dramatic flatness to the characters.

Sure there is an vulpine figure in a dark suit -- played up to a revolting tee by Owen McDonnell -- who is happy to stoke up death and destruction for some entirely opaque reasons, and Conrad Kemp's James is a well-organised performance. But even when a performance shines, it tends to disrupt the flow of things.

Crimp writes some powerful dialogue which reads very well, but his characters are far too post-modern to do much more than float through the action. So just when they are guiding us into their characters, the actors seem to find themselves like Wile E Coyote, trying to get a foothold in thin air. Cruel and Tender is clearly not an easy play to get right, but what is not clear from this production is why exactly everyone is trying.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

REVIEW: The Books (Sugar Club, Dublin)

It’s all about the video these days for The Books. The band that won a million indie hearts with their virtuoso collages of found samples and snatches of bizarre, uncanny, and, occasionally, quite possibly meaningless dialogue, blended with delicate, folky, treated guitar and electric cello, have been working out how to take their decidedly studio-bound show on the road.

The answer has come partially through the prominence given to video at their concert, and partially by working out organic versions of the studio sound that relied profoundly – but always shrewdly – on the cut and paste buttons.

Nick Zammuto and Dutchman Paul de Jong, take their seats stage in front of the large video screen and tell us that they spent a lot of time working on video recently, and that they’d like to play some of them for us tonight. And so, with a press of the remote control, which Zammuto wields throughout the night like an extra instrument, the screen lights up, the lads pick up their instruments and start to play.

The music is not quiet a live soundtrack for the pictures – a la Cinematic Orchestra. But the pictures aren’t simply there to give your eyes something to do while you listen either. The connection between music and pictures is, instead, at a far more interesting level, with images sometimes illustrating musical points, or offering a visual rhythm section to the boys’ multi-layer melodies; sometimes clearing up ambiguities, sometimes causing them. It’s complicated, but there is not doubt The Books are onto something here.

Working this way adds extra layers of meanings to the tunes, but also great waves of humour and – via a delightful mash-up of Nick and Paul’s childhood home movies – the kind of feeling of intimacy that seldom comes across in interviews. Sometimes, a zippy animation of a song’s lyrics suddenly presents a whole new type of fun, as in Smells Like Content; at others, the chopped up clips of looping, salacious athletes that accompany If Not Now, Whenever seem intended to alter the song’s DNA to produce a new beast entirely.

The mood established by all this is extraordinary, bringing together music that is poised, lyrical, with humour that hops from broad slapstick, to wry observations about philosophy, religion and race. Rapt silence interspersed with explosive laughter and applause is the Sugar Club’s general response -- which makes a lot of sense, given that almost sounds like a description of an average tune by The Books.


As if to underline their inventive approach to gigging, the band encourages us all not to buy their CDs on the way out, but instead to get a copy of their DVD featuring the images and the music. On the night, it struck me as a nice, business-minded development from the boys. But then I read this on their web site:

A Note About Our Finances:

We feel the need to dispel any notions that we are financially sitting pretty because of the acclaim our music has enjoyed. It's true, we've released a couple of records and we're grateful to all of the writers who have taken the time to write about them, but unfortunately our record sales do not reflect this. Our work, although deeply satisfying to us, has left us both on the brink of financial collapse since we began, so we are asking you: Please, do not steal our music thinking that we can afford it. We barely get by, and aren't able to afford basic things like health insurance, let alone raising a family, etc. We love what we do, and we love that people listen, but if you would like to see our work continue, please support us, and all of the artists you enjoy, as directly as possible. The sad fact is, we can make a much better living selling t-shirts than we can selling music, so please help us keep this going.

I felt rather happy (OK, relieved) that I had purchased the DVD, at e15. You can do the same (and more) at

REVIEW: Roger Water's Dark Side of The Moon (The Point, Dublin)

Roger Waters has been touring his live version of Dark Side of the Moon since 2006, playing the entirety of Pink Floyd's Prog symphony as the climax of the show. So it is, by this stage, a well-polished production that lights up the Point, a big budget affair that never plunges into the unknown, but is never lacking in flash, or musical wallop.

Even before Waters' takes the stage, we are treated to an enormous hyper-real image of a radio set which a giant hand adjusts every now and then to change to the station and introduce a new golden oldie. But once the bassist and his big band are on stage, the same screen never relents from its impressive assault of lava-lamp animations, psychotic short films, cartoon strips, and cosmic photography. Always with the cosmic photography.

For the first half of the evening, Waters and co are a little more flirtatious with the Pink Floyd back catalogue, offering classics like Shine On You Crazy Diamond (with Dave Kilminster stylishly recreating the absent David Gilmour's guitar work) alongside Waters' newer Bush-baiting polemic, Leaving Beirut. After the break, however, it's DSOTM all the way down.

The risk, always, is that such a show begins to reproduce the songs, rather than playing them, as though Waters was gigging with his own tribute band. Or, equally troublingly, that the wigged out craziness of classic-era Pink Floyd is replaced by a kind of arthritic psychedelia.

In the end, the show is so thoroughly thought out that neither extreme is reached. Everything falls into its place, almost too comfortably. The gargantuan radio-controlled astronaut and pig that fly over the heads of the audience seem remarkably obedient, and even the album's spoken word samples turn up exactly as they should, allowing hardcore fans to sing along with the maniac laughter from Brain Damage as it is bounced around the auditorium in a surround-sound mix.

Just to make sure absolutely nobody could leave thinking they hadn't got their money's worth, the album's closer, Eclipse, is accompanied by floating 3D recreation of the album cover, drawn with lasers, that received its own standing ovation.

"It's really ripe now," says one aging hipster into his mobile, on the way out "for The Wall tour." Some people just don't know when to stop.

REVIEW: Room Service (Wynn's Hotel, Dublin)

Gob Squad’s latest explosion of the theatrical form is kind of live reality show without the editing. In keeping with that, the incentives for watching pretty much mirror those that prevail in Big Brother. You aren’t necessarily still here because you’re being entertained, or even because there’s a chance in a moment that you will be. Mostly you keep watching to avoid the feeling of missing something.

Room Service, which runs for five hours in total, does not actually expect its audience to see everything. There’s plenty of time and space for a little stroll out to the bar, or a sandwich. But the four performers from this Nottingham-Berlin collective are staying put, each locked away in their bedrooms above us in the hotel and connected to the function room where we sit by a video camera and a phone.

The two men and two women go through their agonies and their ecstasies alone, while we watch a bank of four monitors. Occasionally they reach out to us, via a phone call, to find somebody to play truth or dare, or, as the night goes on and everyone gets a little tired, truth or truth.

We, the audience, are invited to bare their souls, to talk about love, friendship and loneliness, to say how much they earn, and even, at one point, to come to a surprise party in one of the rooms, (a large portion of the audience accepted that invitation, and left their seats only to appear again, in a boisterous scrum, on one of the monitors).

But this was no ordinary audience. Perhaps the most striking thing about the show was how many off-duty performers and theatre folks had turned up, happy to get involved, delighted, it seems, to have found somewhere to shine and be visible, even on their night off.

Finally, the clock approaches twelve, as is decreed in the Good Book of reality TV, everything goes green as we switch to night vision and we quieten up to hear the last few stories, the last few confessions, the last few whispered lullabies.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Michael James Ford's Rooms

After success translations to the stage of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, and the songs of Freddy Mercury (and the imminent arrival of U2’s Spiderman: The Musical) could it be long before it happened…the stage version of Declan Lynch's novel, The Rooms?

Lynch’s widely praised novel is a fictionalised exploration of alcoholism, its sufferers, its effects, and their struggle to be free. So perhaps the all-singing, all-dancing version was never on the cards. But how about the all-measured tones, all-sober reflection version?

Rather than pass over the job of turning the novel into a live show to a journeyman writer, the author himself has taken on the adaptation, under the watchful direction of actor-director and former Bewley’s Café Theatre boss, Michael James Ford.

So far, following the model of the big Broadway musicals, the stage version, called Breaking Out, has had a couple of “out of town” previews “to get a feel of how it is working”. The Axis Arts Centre in Ballymun was the chosen location earlier this month, and, according to the director, response from the invited audience was very strong.

Lynch has adapted the piece for the stage as a one-man show, with the talents of actor-writer, Arthur Riordan (the man behind the brilliant Irish musical, Improbable Frequencies) “very much in mind.”

“We just wanted to see what shape the piece was in and we were very pleased with it,” says Ford of the preview shows. “We are not sure yet what scale we want to do the show on. It could be done from a country pub upwards. The play is set in a pub, so that would be a good place to perform it. One way or another, I think it has great touring potential.”

“I also think it is a play that will divide the AA community. It asks a lot of questions about that. But happily, it is also very entertaining.”

More out of town test shows are planned for the summer.

Meanwhile, another theatrical stalwart (that's a kind of military vehicle, i think) is also preparing his latest show. Donal O’Kelly, whose name must never be mentioned without evoking the spirit of Catalpa, the actor’s virtuoso one man show, is back on the road with an extensive national tour of Vive la!

The actor’s interest has been sparked, not for the first time, by a historical story, this time one concerning a Frenchman who turns up in North Dublin in 1798 with the notion of helping in the struggle for Irish freedom. An ardent fan of the phrase Vive La Revolution, he is soon nicknamed, Vive La.

O’Kelly, whose has moved his company westwards, is producing the play as part of an ongoing collaboration with The Glens Centre, Co. Leitrim, where Vive La received its “out of town” previews. From the looks of the show’s touring schedule, there are very few venues around the country that will not have welcomed it by the end of the summer.

Sorcha Fox, collaborator in several of O’Kelly’s more recent works, also stars, while Barabbas’ Raymond Keane, who directed O’Kelly in The Cambria and The Hand, is once more in charge.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Gob Squad's Room Service

There is something Gob Squad want to make clear from the start. Something that you may want to know given the company’s tendency to enlist audience members and passersby in the street in their improvisational videos and performances.

“We don’t force anybody to do anything,” says one of the company’s founding members, Sarah Thom. “It’s their choice and if they do it they are glad they do it. You can be entirely a voyeur. Or you can instigate.”

Instigating is a good word for what this Nottingham-Berlin collective have been doing since they formed in 1994, from the graduates of an interdisciplinary arts course at Nottingham-Trent University. Sometimes involving running amok through the streets filming a one-take improvised movie, sometimes building giant portraits from toast, the company’s work is best classed as unclassifiable.

“Our work has developed and changed a lot of the years. I wouldn’t have known when we started that we would be making something like Room Service. But one project has tended to generate another and here we are…”

And where Thom is is a bedroom Wynn’s hotel on Abbey Street, in which she will staying (a few walks around town notwithstanding) until the end of the Gob Squad’s show at midnight tonight. And a few hours after that too.

Room Service, which runs from 7pm tonight, sees various members of the company staying in rooms at Wynn’s, linked to the conference room (where the audience sits) by video cameras and the rooms’ bedside telephones.

“The telephone is our only means of communication with the other people. I have a camera, so I’m confronted with my own image, but that’s all,” says Thom “So it can be a very lonely experience, sitting there, on your own, for hours.”

As the night goes on, the performers attempt to make contact with the audience, invite them up to their rooms to perform in some cases, just bend their ear in others. During all of this, members of the audience are free to come and go, dip in to the action, or wander off to the bar for a little chat. Not your traditional night at the theatre, then?

“You know, I think people are not so concerned now with what is traditional theatre: they’re more and more just interested in what is good performance…It's not like 'Hey! Let’s use a video camera!’ and then work out what we are going to do with it. Because that would be just a gimmick…The idea is to let things develop in an organic way.”

Which, at the moment, sees Thom and company in a succession of hotel rooms all over the world. “Yes, I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur of hotel rooms…I particularly like hotels in England and Ireland, because you always get a kettle and some tea bags, so you can make a nice cup of tea. Which I always do.”


Panti's Shoes

Twink? Anna-Nicole Smith? Dolly Parton? er...Anne Doyle?...and Catherine Nevin? The roll call for the School of Wardrobe Hell, you're thinking. Well, close. But a closer answer still would be the dramatis personae of a new show from pioneering Dublin drag queen, Panti.

This is her here...

Panti's show In These Shoes? will be one of the highlight of this year's Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, which has already kicked off.

Panti (the alter ego of Rory O'Neill, one of the producers of the Alternative Miss Ireland and former Tokyo drag scenester "That was fun!") has created her own show, "a kind of lecture with lots of slides and video" in which the self-styled "queen of Ireland" explores the many women who have influenced her.

"With my drag character, her style is quite conversational," says Rory, who has taken over interviewing duties from Panti. "It comes very naturally to do something where she chats and tell stories. Nowadays it's all about the PowerPoint and it is funny to mix that with drag. I guess this isn't a typical drag show..."

The show, which is directed by Phillip McMahon 50% of the brains behind Danny and Chantelle, deals with the sort of women who have always fascinated Rory. And Panti. "Women who appear to be fake, but are actually real women. They all have a very strong visual image, but we know behind the image there is someone real. It's like a good drag queen, someone who has created their own surface, but you can see that they exist in the real world."

This type of woman, Rory explain, is clearly distinct from Paris Hilton "...she is all front and no reality. Whereas with Twink, you can always see Adele King in there. Paris Hilton doesn't have the depth, or the talent to be interesting at all. I'm always more interested in people with real talent.."

Which doesn't quite explain what Anne Doyle and, even more unexpectedly, Catherine Nevin are doing in this gang?

"Well, how many women have been tried for murder over the last 25 years in Ireland? And yet she is the only one that people remember. She is the one who people have become fascinated with, her hair, her nails too well done, just too well-dressed. If you are a murderer, well, people want you to look dowdy."

"And Anne Doyle has changed her appearance so slowly that people don't remember that she started out as a kind of raven-haired beauty on the TV. That's what I remember her as when I was young. But she has changed so subtly people don't even notice. In her case, it is just staying around long enough that's done the trick; she doesn't really need to say anything."

And Panti's own tips for the DGTF (besides using the wares of her sponsor, Make Up Forever)? "I will try and go see some stuff, but when I'm on every night, it's not easy. But The Gaydar Diaries is one show everyone seems to be talking about. And Pageant the Musical, which is all drag, so I better support that."

More of Panti miming like a lula on lulatube

Festival info:

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