Thursday, November 01, 2007

Ken Fanning's Circus(es)

Isn't it about time you knew your silks from your corde lisse? Your Chinese pole from your Danish one? With every other week seeming to bring a circus crossover act to town (check out for a hint at the range of current circus activity in Ireland) a little familiarity with the terminology is bound to help.

Or is it? As a new show suggests, it's the emotional power of the circus skills that matter, not the techniques.

This week Barabbas open their new latest theatre piece, Circus, made in collaboration with the founders of the Tumble Circus, Tina Segner, from Sweden, and Balbriggan's own, Ken Fanning.

Fanning and Segner has been running their circus company since the Spring day in 1997 when the two met, accidentally, like the pair in John Kearney's film, Once, while busking on Grafton Street.

"I knew Tina was a juggler because I could see juggling clubs sticking out of her bag, and literally within 5 minutes we were passing clubs on South Anne street," says Ken.

Together the pair formed Tumble Circus, one of the very few "new" circus troupes in Ireland. Perhaps the only one. While they have so far specialised in street shows, they are now moving indoors for their collaboration with Raymond Keane and Barabbas, a love story loosely based on the one in director, Fellini's cinematic hymn to the rough life of Italian travelling performers, La Strada.

"As a company, we have a lot in common with Barabbas whose work is based in clown," says Ken. "Although I think that, for instance, that Raymond is interested in the beauty of the clown, whereas we use the slapstick element more."

The intention in Circus is to use the skills of the Tumble Circus pair to tell a story without even resorting to words. This is possible, Ken suggest, because the skills of the circus always carry with them distinct emotional charges.

"Each act has a different emotional layer to it. For example, when we are doing a trapeze scene, for instance, it's very floating and slow, but quite dangerous. And it really evokes falling in love."

And while Barabbas show is one place to use those skills, as soon as the production finishes, Tumble Circus will be back to work. And to the tricky question of what the company growing profile should mean for its future.

"Right now, Tumble Circus is about the right size," says Ken. "You look at those companies like Cirque De Soleil, with 14 shows running around the world, and doing the same thing they've been doing since they started -- they're just soulless corporations. Who would want to become one of those?"

"All the big companies are just basing their ideas on what they find in the smaller companies anyway. The smaller companies are where the real innovations are coming from. That where the real creativity is. That's where we want to be."

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Monday, November 13, 2006

REVIEW: Cyrano (Project, Dublin)

Two celebrity chefs and a New York Times food critic (from Longford, no less) make up the bizarre love triangle in Barabbas update of the Cyrano de Bergerac story.

Laddish Christian (Aidan Turner) has knocked the aging superchef, Cyrano (Raymond Keane) from his perch, a TV studio-cum-kitchen, and is now wooing Roxanne, the woman the old cook secretly loves. Now, for reasons that are not at all clear, Cyrano decides to aid in Roxanne’s seduction.

Instead of the arts of courtly love, however, what Cyrano has to share are the secrets of his culinary arts, which will conquer Roxanne. And in a nice bit of re-writing, the love letters sent by the original Cyrano-disguised-as- his-rival become emails, forging a neat connection between the antique story of deception and a twenty-first century of chatrooms and fluid online identities.

Only problem is, the secrets Cyranno bestows are of a remarkably prosaic kind – seduce her with oysters and fancy white wine, is the summation of Cyrano’s first step. So why exactly does Christian – himself also a celebrity chef -- not already know this, or not have a burning opinion of his own, or indeed a clue about food?

It may be something to do with the company’s style, which remains rather cartoonish, despite the absence of red noses, but the foodie setting never quite becomes much more than a backdrop. There is plenty of chat about food, ample helpings of culinary name-dropping, but the passion for cooking never really ignites because the details are so sketchy.

On stage, food is about a specific as it gets. Produce some flour, some eggs and bottle of wine and you’ve whet our appetites. If those items then turn out to be nothing more than props, there is an unquestionable disappointment, particularly when the play is about two chefs and a food critic.

The performances were a little unsteady as of opening night. All three actors contributed at one time or another to the fun, but things were not slipping easily into place. Together they achieved some very funny moments – some early business with a hidden microphone was excellent – but the energy too often dissipated, rather than adding to the momentum.

This sticky progress was exacerbated by elements of the plot that didn’t quite add up, while some of the multimedia elements were far enough from breathtaking as to be adjacent to superfluous. All of which gave an odd sense of making the best of a bad situation, as though some theatrical chef were quickly trying to save a sauce that had cracked.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Kelly Campbell's Nose

It is eight years since Kelly Campbell almost appeared on stage with Barabbas theatre company. Back then, the actress went through all the rehearsals for a show called Brilliant Day’s Blue, which was due to go on at the Abbey, only to be scrapped when Ben Barnes took over as artistic director. Now, all these years later, she is finally due to make her debut with the company renowned for its “red nose” productions, which brought clowning to new artistic heights in Ireland.

But in the way you can never stand in the same stream twice, you certainly can’t perform with the same company after eight years. The Barabbas of old, and its reservoir of red noses, has gone. “Yes, the company has changed a lot,” says Campbell of a realisation that came to her early in rehearsals for Cyrano, Barabbas’ updated, green-screen multimedia version of the old story of true beauty that lies within.

“I had thought it would be clowning and red noses until about the third day of rehearsals when I turned to [director] Veronica [Coburn] and said ‘so this is how it’s going to be’.”

For her new version of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, Coburn and company have shifted the action to the present day and set it in the milieu of celebrity chefs. Rozanne (played by Campbell), the shared object of affection from two famous cooks, is now a New York Times food critic.

Updating the show has also involved getting familiar with the “Star Wars” school of acting, in which the performer has to imagine much that will be digitally superimposed “on the night”.

“A lot of the show will be done with green-screen and virtual sets, so for the moment we can’t really see how it will all look. We can only really see big blocks on which things will appear later. For the moment, we can only imagine how it all fits together.”

Since her aborted Barabbas debut, Campbell has been a regular on the Abbey stage and part of the cast of Batchelor’s Walk, for which she recently completed filming on the Christmas special. “It was a funny kind of reunion, coming back together after three years. I think it was a reluctant projection for a lot of people. They were hesitant to bring back something that was so much ‘of its time’. But it really felt like slipping into old shoes…”

She has also recently finished shooting an upcoming series, Kingdom, for ITV, in which Stephen Fry stars as a neurotic Norwich solicitor and Campbell plays a mysterious visitor from Ireland. “They’ve filmed six parts already and, if all goes well, there will be another series after that. That’s the plan at least.”

In the meantime, Campbell is also involved on the management side. She is part of the team that run the revitalised Bewley’s Café Theatre, a labour of love, for which she has at one time or another acted, written, directed, designed lighting, designed graphics, taken production photography and produced. For once, however, these days job is as much about keeping the crowds down as getting them in.

“The fire officers have been very strict with Bewley’s – I suppose because of its location. So now we absolutely must keep the number down to 50 people.”

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

REVIEW: The Walworth Farce (The Helix, Dublin)

A father and his two adult sons are holed up in a South London, in a Walworth Road tower block, to be precise. And you have to be precise around here. Otherwise Pa, that is Dinny, may just whack your ignorant head with the saucepan.

Together the trio (Denis Conway as Dinny, with Garrett Lombard and Aaron Monaghan as his troubled offspring) are preparing for what has, apparently for some time now, been a daily ritual.

They are about to re-enact a shaggy story that somehow explains how this distorted family ended up in the downright miserable situation in which we find it. But, of course, the little drama they are playing under Dinny’s direction (the play within the play) explains nothing of the sort.

Enigmatic is a word that relatively easily covered earlier efforts by the Walsh, such as Bedbound. But here, it doesn’t even come close. Here, the more we see, the more fragments of ‘the Walworth Farce’ that the trio perform, the less we understand of anything.

Walsh’s stroke is to use the speed and energy of farce, with its silly costumes and its broad physical comedy, not to provoke laughter, but instead to induce a kind of nauseous psychic disorientation.

The reaction of many members of the audience to all this is apparently to roll along with the slapstick and laugh. It will not be everyone’s response. If, say, you think of Hitchcock’s Psycho as a kind of high camp masterpiece, then you may indeed rack up the yucks.

But for the rest of us, the claustrophobic psychodrama will have other payoffs. Looking into Walsh’s tenement of demented mirrors, through the brilliant mist of director Mikel Murfi’s production, we are offered a glimpse of a family whose eccentricities have become perversions, whose malaise has become both murderous and terminal. Noises Off it ain’t.


Monday, March 20, 2006

Mikel Murfi's Farce

“As an actor, I’m known for is shouting my lines and falling down holes,” says Mikel Murfi of his work with the clown troupe, Barabbas. “I enjoy the notion of as an actor you’re able to fire yourself across the stage and bang your head and then go straight on with what you’re doing.” Which will have come as mixed news to the cast of The Walworth Farce, which Murfi is currently directing for Druid Theatre Company in Galway.

Murfi style of performance is among the most demanding, the most full body, among Irish actors. In one Barabbas show, Hupnouse, a scene involved the Jacques LeCoq trained actor using his bare backside as a pair of giant puppet lips, delivering his lines while moving his cheeks in time with the words. Johnny Noxville would be proud.

In recent time, however, Murfi has appeared on stage less, instead looking to the draw the same sort of physical performances out of other actors. The change, he suggests, has something to do with the aging process.

“I have sometimes done things in terms of physical theatre that I’m not now maybe able to pull off with the same aplomb. It may even be true that I might have my best work done in that style, but I like that there are other types of challenges out there in terms of acting. And the great thing about working with other actors who are able to perform in a really physical style is that these actors can let you do things that at this stage you can’t do yourself.”

After directing comedian-turned-playwright, Mark O’Doherty’s first play, Trad, (which premiered at Galways Arts Festival and will open at the Bush Theatre in London later this year) he is back in Galway for Druid’s re-engagement with contemporary writing, follow the company’s epic Synge cycle.

Anyone who is familiar with the Walsh’s Bedbound (in which a father and daughter live their entire lives on top of a double bed) will know the territory of the Walworth Farce. The action may have been shifted to London’s Irish community, but the bizarre is still to the fore, as a father and his sons re-enact – again and again and with the help of a carrier bag of ritual Tesco’s nosh – a scene from their past.

“Enda is a fantasic man for getting straight to the core of very disturbed people,” says Murfi of the show which he suggests will offer something quite different from just another night at the theatre.

“He likes to examine the lives of broken people and that is what he is doing here. In this play, I think he puts the audience on three rollarcoaster but they only know they are on two. It’s a high risk strategy in terms of how it works, and the speed it goes at: I think for some people, it will be a great challenge. And some people will find it just crazy.”

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Friday, November 11, 2005

REVIEW: Luca (Project Upstairs, Dublin)

Good is bad and bad in good in the latest frantic, cartoonish satire from Barabbas. So it helps to keep in mind that when the show’s three odd characters say that they “abhor” something, they mean it as the highest praise; while whatever they “adore” is considered worse than worthless.

The three, dressed as standard issue drama-student boho types, seem to be members of a race of time traveling sprites. Luca (Raymond Keane) is the shock-headed leader, while Him (Eoin Lynch) a lecherous beardy whose bare backside appears on stage before he does (not the first time that approach has turned up in a Barabbas show) and Sparrow (Amy Conroy) a blue-haired circus school drop-out, if appearances can be trusted, are his less than obedient footsoldiers.

On a massive, splayed dodecahedron (helpfully identified with the aid of the program) the gang travel at will through time, fetching up at any point that seems in need of a bit of laying waste. Once there, they proceed to have a bit of crack, doing everything from an aerobic work out exploring the various sexual combinations available to two males and a female, to exploring the Pope’s Nazi past. Well, it passes the time.

Despite all of that (and slightly too much more) the show’s clear desire to be a side-splitting romp, remains unfulfilled. It is hard to tell if it is the performances (which are surprisingly brittle) or the characters (which lean towards annoying) that cause the problem, but Luca turns out to be unexpectedly thin on the laughs.


Monday, May 18, 1998

The Whiteheaded Boy (Andrews Lane Theatre, Dublin)

The most surprising aspect of Barabbas' success is that the company has made its reputation performing deeply lighthearted slapstick comedy, often while wearing clip-on red noses, on an Irish theatre scene still enamoured with the theatre of the word.

With The Whiteheaded Boy, the company founders -- Veronica Coburn, Raymond Keane and Mikel Murfi -- offer a substantial nod to that literary, Abbey version of Irish theatre, while at the same time shredding its pretensions and creating their most consistently satisfying work yet.

Lennox Robinson's comedy (first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1916) of one Irish family and its blinkered response to the bad habits of its favourite son, gives ample scope for the indefatigably elastic Barabbas threesome (with Louis Lovett) to work their brand of theatrical magic.

The production's return to Dublin offers Irish audience's a last chance to catch the company before they open the show in London, to what will undoubtedly -- given the current vogue for Irish theatre -- be widespread acclaim.

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