Tuesday, September 20, 2005

REVIEW: Rumble (O’Reilly Theatre)

MTV pioneered the notion of a hip-hopera, to surprisingly dull effect. And everybody from Baz Luhrmann to Levi’s jeans has attempted to add some ghetto style to Shakespeare. But it falls to a German company to bring hip-hop to the Bard, combining freestyle street dancing (alongside more academic contemporary dance) to tell (almost) the story of Juliet and her Romeo.

Rumble features utterly stunning breakdancing that had the first night audience regularly erupting into appreciative cheers and applause. With good cause. You might not have realised that what your life was missing was a fine display of the art breakdancing, driven by fantastic physical wit and scarcely believable athleticism. But after a few minutes being swept along with the raw energy of Rumble, and you’ll know it was.

But with that rawness comes a certain, well, rawness. While the breakdancing justifies the price of admission, Rumble is far less effective when it comes to moving through the narrative of the star-crossed lovers. As they might say in the hip hop community, the joint had distinct problems with its “flow”. Scenes seem to disconnect from each other, and some routines (the non-hip hop ones largely) too often lacked a real place in the evening’s entertainment.

One might imagine that driving proceedings along with a live DJ might have given the show more coherence and liquidity. It was actually a surprise that the company had made do without. The presence of a live selecta might also have weeded out some of the distinctly unhip hop music.

As it was, the swing from soft techno, to reggae, to Latin, to jazz always felt like a departure from what was best about the show: the miraculous battle of muscles and gravity that is breakdancing.

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Thursday, July 07, 2005

Footsbarn's Floating Tempest

We’re going into our 35th year of doing this,” says Paddy Hayter of Footsbarn theatre company, “and it’s still tough to survive.” The life of any theatre company can be precarious, but as Hayter and Footsbarn have built a company to produce theatre built to travel the world, that achievement seems even more admirable.

“We spent ten years when we were completely nomadic, so when a gap came in our schedule we would rest up, or go out perform on the street. But now everything has become much more formal, there are salaries and social contributions to be paid, we have to approach thing quite differently. Now any gaps can be quite frightening,” says Hayter.

In 1990, the company bought an old farmhouse in Hérisson in France, when, through good fortune, they happened to meet a local landowner with an interest in acting and a building for sale. It became La Chaussée, Footsbarn’s home base.

The origins of the company, however, lay in a post-sixties experimental theatre based around Cornwell. Many cast changes later – Hayter is the only direct line to those days -- the company still manages to maintain strong elements of a family business, while at the same time welcoming new talent from around the globe. What everyone in the company hold in common is a belief in the particular merits of the travelling show.

“In France the travelling theatre companies survived for quite a long time. In the 1950s, there were still 200 of them moving about the country, putting on show wherever they stopped. But I think the thing that killed it off in the end was the paperwork. There just started to be too much regulation…it seems it’s getting a bit like that in Ireland now…”

The company’s style has always been strong on physically theatre, using extravagant acting and brash storytelling techniques that hark back to bawdy Elizabethan theatre. But what Footsbarn aren’t famous for is using high-tech techniques to tell their stories. But that has been changing. Perchance to Dream, which has played at George’s Dock over the last few weeks, and now The Tempest, see the company incorporating little films into the drama, cleverly integrating them live action.

“My stepdaughter, Sophie Lascelles, who has performed in previous Footsbarn shows and now works as a visual artist, makes films as her gallery work. So we had the idea of using of her films in a production and it turned out to work very well. We use a real 16mm projection – no video, or anything like that – and all the films are made back on the farm in Hérisson.

But while the company has been updating its arsenal of theatrical techniques, there are some things that Hayter and company feel are working just fine. “That Shakespeare guy, he seemed to know what he was doing. There don’t seem to be a lot of complaints about his work. You don’t hear people saying it’s gone off…”

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

REVIEW: Perchance to Dream (George's Dock, Dublin)

George’s Dock may be the new site for the National Theatre if the current front-runner for a new location finally wins out. And if future activity is of the same standard offered here by Footsbarn Travelling Theatre Company, the Abbey would be off to a good start.

Reborn from the ashes of a post-sixties theatrical experiment, Footsbarn are by now a venerable institution, celebrated for their vivid, back-to-the-roots approach to making theatre. And while the company’s roots are long, they have also being renewing themselves, husbanding fresh talent and even incorporating a little bit of new-fangled technology into their medieval-inspired style.

The company has made something of a specialty of Shakespearean shows and their latest brings together various tales from the bard – Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet – blending the stories together, and having the actors quit one scene from Romeo and Juliet, only to reappear in Hamlet.

The transitions are impressively fluid, highly inventive and often gorgeously executed. The company’s use of projected images – from fake antique newsreels, to brilliant use of an overhead projector – gives extra power and smoothly enhances the work of the actors.

This company, however, does not put too much emphasis on the text, and the multinational accents tend to fog the verse somewhat. But then, Footsbarn’s Shakespeare (more of which is will be on offer later in the month at the same venue, with their production of The Tempest) offers substantial other rewards.

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Thursday, October 07, 2004

REVIEW: Twelfth Night, The Olympia

Cheek by Jowl’s Declan Donnellan takes on a double challenge in his all male, all Russian cast for Twelfth Night. Working mainly with graduates of the Moscow Arts Theatre School and Russian Theatre Academy, he sets about what might be called an “un-deconstruction” of Shakespeare’s tale by casting men for both male and female roles, reviving some of the original spin to a romcom in which cross-dressing is so crucially woven into the plot.

To keep this complex operation airborn and bring a contemporary audience into The Kingdom of Illyria’s teetering, polymorhous world of sexual misdirection requires Donnellan’s theatre mojo to be working at full power. If the director finally suceeds in the tricky task he has set himself, his creation is in patches more impressive than enjoyable.

Donnellan’s production is spare, but always elegant. The design by Cheek By Jowl co-founder, Nick Omerrod, evacuates the stage as much as possible, bringing on a chunky chair or table, or cabdle or two, only when absolutely necessary.

Scenery is then created with towering bolts of fabric (black at first, creamy coloured with light-stencilled leaves and branches later on) dropped from the rafters . This simple plan, lit gently and unfussily but with a range of enticing details by Judith Greenwood, provides Donnellan and his actors with what they clearly crave: plenty of naked white stage in which to work.

Onto this Donnellan marches a large latin wedding band of cast, their sweet bossas turning the play’s songs from the excruciating digressions they often are, into entirely delightful musical interludes. Who would ever have bet that the mix of russian translations of Shakespearean lyrics sung to a swaying Brazillian beats would produce such a joyful mashup.

While music had the power to overcome the language barrier in the songs, the rest of the play had to rely on green LED surtitles. This seemed to result in the Russian speakers scattered around the Olympia audience heartily enjoying some gags that were simply not available to the anglophones present. So, while reading the surtitles was not a complete bar to enjoying the show, there was a sense of receiving, at times, the narrowband version of the message.

But all of this fortuoutously serves to throw the attention back towards the visual aspects of Donnellan’s creation: the throughly, whole-body physical styles of the Russia actors’ work, as well as the way smooth, dynamic way the director continually diced and reconstituted the stage.

When the production finally finds its groove, it is actually as free and funky a version of the piece as anyone could hope. The slapstick becomes beautifically balletic, the potty gender-trading louche and hillarious, the anachronisms sharp, spare and well-marshalled.

One moment the cast are involved in a cluster brawl that seems to reference the hammy bouts of the WWE, the next an onstage microphone adds a deeply spooky reverb to Malvolio’s prison torture scene.

Donnellan’s approach happily negotiates old and new, antique and contemporary resonances, to give a sensation of an uncompromsing, pure Twelfth night, without forgetting to remind us those Shakespearean puzzels we not yet unravelled.

Olympia Theatre, Dublin, 7 October, 2004

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Monday, December 06, 1999

Conal Morrison's Tempest

"You can do what you like because you can never destroy the Tempest. The play is always still there," says director Conal Morrison of his new Abbey production of what is probably Shakespeare's last complete play. "The main thing is to make it something of your own and show what your version of magic in the theatre is like."

For some reason, The Tempest seems to encourage radical reinterpretation. From the 1952 sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet (in which the characters, including Robbie The Robot, find themselves on the surface of the planet Altair 4) to a 1982 version set in on a Greek holiday island (starring John Cassavetes, Susan Sarandon and Molly Ringwald) directors have attempted to put their own stamp on the play.

In taking on the Abbey's millennium production, Morrison says he has brought in a set of actors who are prepared work collaboratively, devising and creating their roles. In casting, for examples, Mikel Murfi and Donal O'Kelly, he certainly picked on actors whose abilities as physical performers separate them from most of their contemporaries and mark a break with the National Theatre’s word-based house style.

Newry-born Morrison is particularly interested in the play's local resonances. "I don't want to be heavy-handed about it," he says. "But you have the fact that all the characters are on an island. And there are other things too. People often think of the Tempest as Shakespeare's benign late plays. But when you look at it closely, it is really all about anger and the desire for revenge."

Morrison has had a busy year of it, hopping back and forth between directing the revival of Friel's Freedom of the City at the Abbey and working for musical impresario Cameron Mackintosh, re-directing the musical version of The Return of Martin Guerre. He has now directed an American cast in the show which is currently playing at Joe Dowling's Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, but which is set for a US tour.

Even though his commitments for next year tend towards "legit" (he is working on a version of Aristophenes’ the Birds for the National Theatre in London) offers to keep him working in musicals have been arriving steadily. "After Martin Guerre cassettes kept dropping though the door, but I wouldn't say I turned down anything that gave me much pause for thought. There was nothing that lifted my skirt. They all seemed to be things like musical versions of the life of Maude Gonne..."

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