Venue: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Writer: John Logan
Director: Emma Jordan
Cast: Patrick O’Kane, Thomas Finnegan
Prime Cut and the Lyric’s co-produced revival of John Logan’s towering play was the outstanding home grown production of 2017.
At its heart is the culmination of a flourishing creative partnership between director Emma Jordan, designer Ciaran Bagnall and the two actors who play the domineering yet vulnerable Mark Rothko and his nervous young apprentice, whose confrontation of his own demons imbues him with unexpected strength and courage.
Rothko’s huge, controversial red murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York were to become both his calling card and his downfall. In a dramatic opening, Jordan places O’Kane framed plumb centre in one of them, his intense, far-seeing gaze reaching right to the back of the auditorium, emanating from an unreachable place deep inside the artist.
Ciaran Bagnall’s set and lighting designs are drenched in the title colour. He imagines Rothko’s studio as an intimidatingly vast, cathedral-like space into which the eager young apprentice is pitched like a lamb to ritual slaughter.
As they work within a strictly controlled and insulated environment, O’Kane and Finnegan develop a balletic dance style, sometimes graceful and fluid, sometimes feverish to the point of exhaustion. Dylan Quinn has done a fine job of choreographing these interactions which punctuate and effect the scene changes.
Alongside, Carl Kennedy’s soundscape offers a syncopated contemporary jazz beat to the social and cultural politics of the day, while allowing sudden stabs of sound to invade the worshipful silence of the studio from the seething city streets below.
Logan sets up Rothko as the main man, a celebrated but reclusive artist who seems to carry on his shoulders the history of his turbulent Russian Jewish heritage, brought with him to New York. Through his paintings he gained a sense of belonging often denied to the exile. Slowly, imperceptibly the focus shifts to his apprentice, whose startling reveal of his own traumatic past ignites the surfacing of a singular artistic talent.
In my review in The Stage, I observed:
“Contrasting in style and appearance, O’Kane and Finnegan craft an intense, deeply absorbing relationship marked by explosive verbal and intellectual tussles over human responses to art.
“The toll of the creative process is splattered over their work clothes, their faces and their bodies. Their fevered concentration on the simple act of priming a canvas is exhilarating and exhausting to witness.”
Jordan’s fearless direction lends a hypnotic poetry to the battle of morality, vision and motivation, which propels this mighty play.
2. FIRE BELOW (A WAR OF WORDS)
Venue: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Writer: Owen McCafferty
Director: Jimmy Fay
Cast: Ruairi Conaghan, Cara Kelly, Frankie McCafferty, Ali White
The opening of a new play by Belfast writer Owen McCafferty always sends a frisson of anticipation through the theatre community. When it picks up on the themes of Quietly, one of his most critically acclaimed and commercially successful plays of recent years – and is again directed by his old sparring partner Jimmy Fay – the sense of expectation is that much more acute.
Initially, the connection between the two pieces seems tenuous, non-existent even. Here, the atmosphere is affable and convivial, as two well-to-do middle class couples relax on a summer’s evening, sipping wine and nibbling canapés. Collectively, they cast a lofty, disdainful eye onto the rowdy residents of a loyalist estate below their leafy gardens, as they embark upon the annual 11th July ritual of lighting a bonfire and burning hated symbols of Catholicism, Irish nationalism and the Palestinian side of the Middle East conflict.
In contrast, Quietly is harder-edged and more immediately confrontational. Jimmy and Ian, two Belfast men in their 50s meet in a pub to talk for the first time about a day in 1974, when they were both 16. It emerges that the pub was the scene of a bomb attack, experienced by both teenagers, one as a perpetrator, the other a victim. In a review in The Guardian, Patrick O’Kane’s performance as Jimmy was described as “… extraordinary … he looks like a man whose past is burning from inside”.
In this play, fires are burning inside and outside. Rosemary (Cara Kelly) and Gerry (Frankie McCafferty), Maggie (Ali White) and Tom (Ruairi Conaghan) are far too polite, too cultured, too sophisticated to let their respective Catholic and Protestant identities get in the way of friendship. Gerry’s cruel wit is directed towards the neighbours down below, Cara’s exasperation is motivated by his refusal to convert their garden shed, Tom is moving into a new shared future by learning Irish, while Maggie’s preoccupation is with adding the name Cherry Hill to their postal address.
McCafferty subtly disguises his anger at their bourgeois insouciance beneath a stream of witty repartee and smart personal jibes. But as the wine flows and tongues loosen, the friendly atmosphere shifts into a minor key. As is so often the case in a place which is emerging from years of conflict, a scrape of the surface will reveal all kinds of lurking divisions and horrors.
In reminiscing about events of the past, when the two couples would have been on opposing sides, McCafferty springs the spectre of Quietly with devastating dramatic effect. When wise cracking Tom drops a chance remark about the burning of a flag on the bonfire, the gloves come off and the truth comes pouring out unabated.
In a single fast-moving hour, this multi-layered play unleashes a welter of cold anger, hidden prejudices, suppressed feelings and emotional damage. It is a glinting, beautifully written and crafted commentary on the state of the nation in these troubled, shambolic times.
3. TEN PLAGUES
Venue: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Writers: Mark Ravenhill & Conor Mitchell
Director: Conor Mitchell
Cast: Matthew Cavan
Producer: The Belfast Ensemble
Rarely, if ever, does one leave a Conor Mitchell/Belfast Ensemble show humming one of the tunes. The ‘tunes’ are just too complex, too challenging, too discordant for that. But in the immediacy of a live performance situation, that music feels fresh, energising and so, so original.
Mitchell’s 2011 collaboration with English writer Mark Ravenhill and the iconic singer Marc Almond produced Ten Plagues, a dramatic song cycle, which was premiered at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh Festival and won a Fringe First Award.
In November, the Outburst Queer Arts Festival hosted a single performance of Ten Plagues. Ravenhill travelled from London to the Lyric to see it and was reportedly as thrilled as the rest of us by Belfast cabaret artist Matthew Cavan, who shouldered the daunting burden of stepping into Almond’s sparkly stilettos and gave one of the performances of the year.
Ten Plagues draws its inspiration partly from Schubert and Schumann’s classical cycles and partly from the edgy European torch song tradition. Ravenhill’s vivid score makes only tangential reference to AIDS, opting instead for overt images from the Great Plague of London in 1665 and the Biblical plagues of Egypt. But there is no escaping its resonances to the epidemic labelled in tabloid newspapers as ‘the gay plague.’ When the wan-faced Cavan sings, almost in a whisper, the line “I wanted to kiss you but you stopped me”, we are left in no doubt about its contemporary relevance.
A chilling story of survival is narrated via a libretto containing horrific word pictures – a child at the graveyard gates, the heaps of rotting bodies, the tolling of the death bell, the pit of corpses, the stench of fever. They emanate from the blighted, diseased landscape which this despairing, tormented survivor is doomed to navigate.
At the piano, Mitchell is an integral element of the performance, injecting emotion and alchemy and living every second of a plaintive, outraged rant against a society which rejects and isolates the victims of this cruel illness.
There is general agreement by all who were present on the night that this is a piece of work which absolutely must be seen by a wider audience, at home and abroad. Here’s hoping that 2018 will bring it to international attention.
4. HARD TO BE SOFT
Venue: The MAC, Belfast (Belfast International Arts Festival)
Director/choreographer: Oona Doherty
Producers: Prime Cut Productions, Belfast International Arts Festival, Dublin Dance Festival & Abbey Theatre
Oona Doherty’s four-part, multi-faceted dance theatre piece Hard to be Soft came to the Belfast International Arts Festival weighed down with anticipation and expectation.
Northern Ireland is justifiably proud of this exceptional artist, who received the 2016 Dublin Tiger Fringe Award for Best Performance and whose landmark piece Hope Hunt was nominated for Best Production. The Times reviewer said of it: “It’s riveting and moving, and she’s a simply phenomenal performer.”
The same piece won the Total Theatre Award for Dance at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival and Doherty was selected as one of twenty promising emerging artists selected by the pan-European network Aerowaves.
She spent her early years in London before moving to Belfast at the age of ten and continuing her education at St. Louise’s College on the Falls Road. Her background equips her to cast a cold, dispassionate eye over the city where she grew up. This perspective forms the basis for Hard to be Soft, a relentlessly bleak portrait of her home place. Its totality and cohesion spring from a first-time collaboration with two other internationally acclaimed Belfast creatives, DJ David Holmes and designer Ciaran Bagnall.
The work is not pretty, but it has a raw, violent beauty embodied in Doherty’s own distinctive, intensely honest and tightly disciplined performance style. She has developed a dance vocabulary drawn from the mean streets, the litter-strewn corners where disenfranchised young people gather, the dealers, the drinking dens. She does not flinch from tackling issues like homelessness, crime, racism, LGBTQ and women’s rights, pro-choice and gay marriage in her work. On the contrary, this is her territory, her artistic raison d’être.
The first of the quartet Lazarus & The Birds of Paradise has been developed from Hope Hunt and features Doherty, all in white, dancing at floor level and translating in slow motion the gestures and violent physical language of male aggression. It has evolved out of the hardlands of urban Belfast and is set to a score which combining voices from the docudrama Wee Bastards? with the celestial sounds of Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus. Somehow, she extracts from alarming snapshots of degraded, marginalised youth, something approaching a blessing.
The second piece Sugar Army is danced with terrific abandon and athleticism by the young hip-hop performers of the east Belfast group Ajendance. A hymn to female strength and fortitude, it was inspired by the women who worked in the shirt factories of Derry, the city where Doherty was a dance student for three years.
Meat Kaleidoscope is arresting and affecting. Two shirtless, slightly overweight middle-aged men, John Scott and Bryan Quinn, approach each other hesitantly, building up to a tightening embrace, which in turn transforms into a wrestling tussle. It gives permission for men to touch, to dance, to hug, to feel each other’s bare flesh without fear of accusation or misinterpretation.
Finally, Helium takes dance down to another level of experience. Ryan O’Neill’s astonishing solo performance exposes a young man out of his head and his body on drugs. His response to Doherty’s uncompromising choreography is hard to watch and impossible not to watch. The audience is swallowing hard throughout.
Doherty subtitles this extraordinary dance kaleidoscope A Prayer to Belfast. Why?
“The show uses what I think is the glamour of the church, like the godly and the divine. But it places it in the normal everyday”, she says.
“For me the church is like an old school theatre. It’s just that the original message of love has got a bit tainted and contorted along the way. I guess in my own way, I’m trying to own some of that back.”
As 2018 approaches, we await the next episode of this remarkable creative journey with baited breath and unashamed excitement.
5. COMPASSION: THE HISTORY OF THE MACHINE GUN
Venue: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Writer/director: Milo Rau
Producer: Schaubühne, Berlin
Cast: Ursina Lardi & Consolate Sipérius
Two years ago, Richard Wakely, director of the newly rebranded Belfast International Arts Festival, persuaded one of Europe’s most acclaimed theatre companies to Belfast. The memory of Schaubühne Berlin’s ground-breaking modern day version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People will linger long in the minds of those who experienced it.
A small group of arts journalists had the privilege of seeing its UK premiere at the Barbican in London and of interviewing the company’s artistic director Thomas Ostermeier, one of the giants of world theatre.
From that conversation in London, it became clear that one should always expect the unexpected from Schaubühne. And indeed, its UK and Irish premiere of Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun, directed by another highly regarded theatre maker Milo Rau, proved that that adage still holds strong. It made a profound impression in a festival where conflict and political uncertainty were prevailing themes.
The main stage of the Lyric was trashed for the occasion, covered ankle deep in detritus and wrecked household effects, as though some terrible atrocity had just occurred on that very spot. And, in dramatic terms, it just had.
A softly spoken witness account pitches us into the heart of darkness. Its shock value will be brought full circle at the end of the ‘performance’ with the realisation that the actress Conslate Supérius is a survivor of mass murder by Tutsi militia in her native Burundi. She has lost her family. She has given up her name. She has been adopted into a new family in a strange country. The memories still haunt her. She is speaking about her own life.
Rau looked upon the wave of refugees which has overwhelmed Europe these past couple of years and felt compelled to tell their story. It is not an easy story. He is not an easy director. He takes risks, he does not settle for easy answers on stage or off.
As images of drowned people on Mediterranean beaches, diseased and starving communities in Central Africa flooded our media, intellectuals, activists and politicians lined up to declare their solidarity with these suffering people. In this semi-documentary of interlocking monologues a very difficult question is asked: “Why does one dead person at the gates of Europe outweigh a thousand dead people in the Congolese civil war zones?”
This challenging piece continues the discussion, informed by Rau and his creative team’s journey to the Mediterranean refugee routes and the civil war zones of the Middle East and Congo. It holds to account the well meaning but often misplaced efforts of NGO workers, questions the morality of clerics and the veracity of victim accounts, while venturing into dangerous and deeply contentious geographic and ideological territory.
The elegant Ursina Lardi is poised, confident and reassuring as a former teacher from Switzerland whose desire to make a difference takes her to the area now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. She begins to addresses the audience from behind a lectern, communicating the facts as she sees them. But slowly the knot tightens on her motivation, her actions, her misguided attempts at contributing to the humanitarian aid effort .
The piece throws up a scarcely reported element of the torture process: humiliation. Lardi talks of – and fearlessly recreates on stage – the pits of degradation dreamed up by the warring factions. We share her shame at the punishment she is forced to inflict upon a woman she considers a friend.
We look across the stage and there sits Supérius, a quiet victim of just one such conflict, now finding her voice as an actress in a land far from home.
The piece raises important, and probably unanswerable, questions, and puts the brake on meaningless hand wringing. It prods us into thinking a little more deeply about our capacity to watch and put up with the misery of others, to search our consciences for the limits of our own compassion while acknowledging that within a Europe currently consumed with Brexit, humanism is in pretty short supply.
6. NIVELLI’S WAR
Venue: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Writer: Charles Way
Director: Paul Bosco McEneaney
Producer: Cahoots NI
Nivelli’s War is a little nugget of a show, which, through a combination of magic, illusion and gritty realism, introduces children to one of the the most difficult events of the 20th century.
Charles Way has a lovely touch in his writing for young people and Paul Bosco McEneaney has a disarming way of turning a simple story into a thing of wonder. In this, their second collaboration, they have produced a sensitive piece of theatre which has since found success on the other side of the Atlantic.
Dan Gordon reprises the role of the ageing magician Nivelli, returning to the New York theatre where, as a much younger man, he had been hugely celebrated. The narrative spools back to his childhood in another country and the harrowing journey which drew him into the big wide world of magic and illusion.
His protector on that journey is Mr. H, a mysterious older man, who is fleeing persecution. Nivelli, it turns out, is a derivation of Levin, the man’s real name. The newer version carries an Italianate flavour rather than a Jewish one. Way’s lyrical script evolves out of the real life story of a Jewish man called Herbert Levin, who owned a magic shop in Frankfurt.
Young audiences identify with a boy called Ernst from Frankfurt, who is evacuated from the city to his uncle and aunt’s farm in the countryside. A series of terrifying events in that supposedly safe place prompt him to embark on a courageous crusade to find his way home.
Way’s writing operates on two levels, spanning the audience demographic. For instance, substitute the word ‘fox’ for the word ‘Jew’ in the scene of the hunted fox in the vegetable patch and a powerful alternative message emerges.
Sabine Dargent’s gloomy ash-coloured design palette is threaded with brilliant flashes of scarlet through swirling mists and smoke. It subtly evokes Nazi iconography and the horrors which awaited hapless victims of the Third Reich.
Bob Kelly’s physically expressive Mr H is riven with suffering. Alongside Jack Archer’s bright-faced Ernst, they make a poignant pairing, as they drag themselves across a war-ravaged land fraught with danger.
Fleeting moments of wonder are recalled in flashes of bright colours echoed in Garth McConaghie’s cinematic score. The story travels full circle to the present day as the elderly Nivelli reflects on the kindness of a man who gave him his name, a means of survival and the precious gift of life itself.
7. TRIPLE BILL
Venue: The MAC, Belfast
Choreographers: Rachel Lopez de la Nieta, Oona Doherty & Nicola Curry
Producer: Maiden Voyage Dance
There is much to celebrate and reflect upon in Maiden Voyage’s dense triple bill. All life is there, a whole clatter of experiences, from the prosaic to the practical, agony, ecstasy, longing, forbidden love, ghosts from the past and stark realities of the present.
Three choreographers each brought a distinctive vocabulary and vision to a stimulating, sharply contrasting trio of pieces.
This writer’s review for Culture Northern Ireland reflected on the way in which this piece represents a landmark in the history of the company:
“It is rewarding to have witnessed not only the development of the company over the 16 years of its life but also the way in which it has built a core of dancers, who have gone from strength to strength individually and collectively.”
Surprisingly, Maiden Voyage founder and artistic director Nicola Curry here makes her choreographing debut for the company. Alongside her are Rachel Lopez de la Nieta, one of the UK’s rising dance makers, and Northern Ireland dance artist Oona Doherty, whose remarkable talent is celebrated in The Even Hand‘s resumé of Hard to be Soft (Number 4 in this list).
The first piece has its feet planted firmly on the ground. The process of clearing out an old house is a common experience. But not all concerned will be susceptible to ghostly presences inhabiting the four walls.
In Lopez de la Nieta’s witty Every Something Has a Somewhere three shapeless creatures in diaphanous white veiling emerge out of the dusty bricks and mortar of the building. They swirl and creep, slink and shriek as the house comes to life around them. Clocks chime, floorboards creak, windows rattle and distant voices from the Antiques Roadshow are heard assessing the value of everything from plastic mixing bowls to precious artefacts.
Doherty’s Körper & Leib’ (Body & Soul) is a fine example of the intensity and physicality that characterise her work. Ryan O’Neill and David Ogle’s duet lurches between pain and passion, abandon and control, love and aggression. Literally joined at the hip, they create fluidly moving images inspired by both Robert Mapplethorpe’s delicate homoerotic flower photographs and the 19th century portraits of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, who drew on mythological themes in his interpretations of classical subjects.
Carl Kennedy’s score adds depth and dimension to an unforgettable piece, performed by two dancers who have grown up with the company.
Curry’s contribution cuts to the nerve of one of the most painful of human experiences, the loss of a child. In close collaboration with visual artist Sharon Kelly and verbal artist Martelle McPartland, this mixed-media piece is bathed in Ciaran Bagnall’s soothing, golden lighting, lending a soft focus to the plight of a grieving couple, beautifully danced by Carmen Fuentes Guaza and Ryan O’Neill.
Animated graphic images flood a large screen across the back of the stage, on which stands a bare branched tree, hung with fragments of ultrasound scan images. The overall effect is almost unbearably sad as the pair struggle to connect, communicate and share their bereavement.
8. POWDER HER FACE
Venue: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Composer: Thomas Ades
Director: Anthony McDonald
Producer: Northern Ireland Opera
Northern Ireland Opera opened its New Year 2017 account with a saucy little production guaranteed to warm up a winter’s night.
Its central character is the perfect operatic heroine and a real life diva. Margaret, Duchess of Argyll was beautiful, wealthy, flamboyant and sexually voracious, the epitome of upper class 1930s decadence, looked upon by the public with a mixture of distaste, shock and fascination. You couldn’t have made her up.
Amongst her string of widely publicised affairs was a famous incident caught on camera and widely known as ‘the headless man’ photograph. In recapturing the moment, Thomas Ades’ audacious chamber opera was the first in the genre to stipulate an act of fellatio in its stage directions.
The storyline is not entirely about sex; it’s about social mores, a corrupt legal system, about people who have more money than sense. But actually, yes, it’s mainly about sex.
Set, appropriately, in a luxurious hotel bedroom, Daire Halpin and Adrian Dwyer are a naughty pairing as the upstairs maid and the smouldering handyman, with Mary Plazas all gloss, glamour and crimson lipstick as the predatory Duchess.
This writer’s review for The Stage noted the well crafted fall from grace that reduced this flamboyant creature to a piteous shadow of her former self:
“The dramatic climax arrives in the final scene when Plazas crafts a long moment of breathless despair, rendering the ageing Margaret a pathetic figure, resorting to her familiar tricks in a desperate effort to avoid eviction from her opulent hotel suite as the bills go unpaid.”
This stylish, racy little production was much enjoyed by a full house and shows signs of bringing in new young audiences to opera.
9. THE BLUE BOY OF GLENMORE
Venue: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Writer: Joe Brennan
Director: Tony Devlin
Producer: Brassneck Productions
It went on the road with relatively few fanfares but good reports slowly filtered through from around the country. By the time it arrived at the Lyric on the final leg of its tour everyone wanted to see Joe Brennan’s dark drama, set in the Cooley Mountains on the borderlands of Ireland.
In its unflinching examination of thwarted hopes and unrealised dreams, it bears comparison with great contemporary plays like Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa but is very much its own drama.
Tony Devlin’s deft direction coaxes some fine individual performances from a strong ensemble cast: James Doran, Christine Clare, Gerard McCabe and Marty Maguire. It vividly captures the claustrophobia, suppressed secrets and prejudices of a remote rural community, where generations of the same families have grown up in close proximity. In these boggy peatlands, rumours spread like Chinese whispers and despairing people take matters into their own hands, sometimes with horrific consequences.
In the title role, James Doran’s Jemmy John is dangerous, crazed and yet as sane as the next person. He is an object of local curiosity and fear, his unsettling presence slightly marred by rather overdone blue make-up to convey a bizarre skin condition caused by drinking contaminated water.
Christine Clare is unrecognisable from the actress who clearly struggled in the role of Masha in the Lyric’s poorly received version of Three Sisters in 2016. As Colleen, the intelligent, put-upon sister of the blue boy, she tugs at the heartstrings in her elusive desire for escape, independence and happiness. Hopes are high for her romance with Gerard McCabe’s finely realised Paudie Rua, the local joker and car mechanic, the man on whom Colleen pins her dreams of an escape route.
This is a skilfully realised portrait of life in rural Ireland not so very long ago. Its fetid atmosphere, enhanced by Ciaran Bagnall’s shabby, rust-coloured set and Donal O’Connor’s plangent score, remains in the mind long after the applause has died away. A revival in 2018 must surely be in order.
10. THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
Venue: The MAC, Belfast
Writer: Oscar Wilde
Director: Lisa May
Producer: Bruiser & The MAC
A hard coming it had of it, a bungled announcement, a difficult birth. But Lisa May’s thoughtful, cleverly directed production of one of the most frequently visited plays in the English language turned out rather well, dreadful wigs notwithstanding.
It was the all-male thing which started the controversy. Why, oh why, was the question? Was it just another gimmicky, clichéd attempt to justify revisiting the play, an inverting of the under-representation of female actors with an over-representation of male actors? In flighty flibbertigibbets Gwendolyn and Cecily, the play contains two peachy roles for young women, so why deny these rare opportunities?
And then there was the video promo, brimming with camp cross dressing and simpering men. The omens were not good.
But that’s where May’s smart brain and theatrical intellect took over. Her production seized on Wilde’s own description of a ‘trivial comedy for serious people’, cutting deep to the rationale behind the play.
The initial surprise is that all the male characters are portrayed as identikit Oscars – beige suits, floppy hair, doughy physiques. Thus, the message comes across loud and clear. Wilde’s sharp witted observation of forbidden love and suppressed sexuality was autobiographical. It was all about Me, Me, Me.
The Stage review reflected on the production’s underlying social message:
“The serious intent behind this all-male version … is a statement of the fact that Northern Ireland is the only country in the United Kingdom where same-sex marriage does not exist.”
This bittersweet Bruiser production that was all the more enjoyable for its refusal to live down to its own hype. In the way that Jimmy Fay’s all-female The Ladykillers for the Lyric confounded many of its potential critics, May more than justified her casting decision, delivering a fresh new take on the duality that lies at the heart of the play.
Only in the leafy rural idyll of the countryside can these men become who they really are. The little maids Gwendolyn and Cecily are not as they appear and the sweet, shy proposals of marriage – one replicating the love affair between Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas – are all the more heartbreaking for their impossibility to exist in the smart world of polite, male-dominated London society.
This selection is made from the range of work seen and/or reviewed by the writer during the year.