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Moving toward a new ‘Theatre of Crisis’.

For the past few months world news has been dominated by sweeping revolution across the Arab world. It has been incredible to witness the youth of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and most recently Lybia take to the streets in protest and in a unified voice declaring change is both wanted and needed. With these events in mind, it is interesting to note how and where theatre and the arts are responding to these seminal moments of political and social upheaval.

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa despotic regimes have been challenged and toppled by what has popularly become known as ‘Facebook Revolutions’. The disenfranchised and un-institutionalised youth took the stop forward to initiate change. Ideas and debates spread and were disseminated through social networks, beyond regional and national boundaries and it would be a natural reaction that revolution would be born. The key ingredient was information.  Now, in the instant wake of these events, it is the reactive agency of theatre that can assess and respond to these seismic social upheavals.

The power of theatre as a tool to astutely capture and represent social shifts is in its immediacy. It can capture the rawness, the tragic and the hope. The role of theatre as a conduit for independent thought and resulting change is not lost on the current crises the world has faced.

Seven Jewish Children by Caryl Churchill

Seven Jewish Children

Playwrights such as Caryl Churchill penned and saw produced her work Seven Jewish Children in the immediate wake of the 2008-2009 Israel military strike on Gaza. It was first performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre on 6th February 2009. This play was also staged at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin at a free performance in March 2009. The Abbey would again return to the barricades when it staged a season of works to reflect on the national crises of institutional abuse of Irish children. The Darkest Corner was a brave and also disturbing account of the torture these forgotten children endured. An interesting note is the play reflecting on the complex Gaza/Israel issue was staged almost immediately and in time with the conflict. The Darkest Corner would follow a full year after the publication of the report of “the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland”.

No Escape at the Peacock Theatre

No Escape, image courtesy of The Abbey Theatre

The question of timing such plays is tricky. Stage the work too soon and it can lose its focus and become overtly emotionally or politically aligned with a certain cause or side. Stage the work too late and the real immediacy and impact of a work will also be distorted. On the recent RTE documentary series From Stage to Street, Prof. Chris Morash made the point regarding the original staging of the Plough and the Stars at the Abbey Theatre in February 1926: The Plough and the Stars was written and staged ten years after the 1916 Rising and still provoked near riots. It is the equivalent, Morash said, of a play being staged today depicting the firemen of New York in the aftermath of 9/11 acting in a drunken stupor and cavorting with prostitutes in brothels. This incredibly astute observation opens up debate on when indeed are we as a society and audience ready to engage with the fall out of such global events.

This also raises another question. What form, should this ‘Theatre of Protest’ take? Mary Raftery’s No Escape, produced as part of The Darkest Corner series, took the form of ‘verbatim’ or documentary theatre. This form is possibly the purest in content as it is the words, and solely the words, of a particular group or viewpoint, retold verbatim. It is a hugely powerful form of theatre and engages an audience with the primary source rather than news stories or political spin.

Staging works as world events are unfolding does allow a unique viewpoint. Theatres become agents of debate and information but perhaps this is inevitably to the detriment of artistic and dramatic thought and creativity. The normal processes of creativity involve the gestation of an idea, reaction to thought, a play is written, a theatre is found to stage it, an audience witnesses it and reaction begins. Creating a play in reaction to a particular crisis and watching it gel with its cast, see its form change and keep up with world events is a radical departure from the traditional.

Closer to home, can we pinpoint a specific new play or work staged professionally or otherwise in Ireland that adequately tackles the demise of Irish society in the crash of our economic sovereignty? There are few.  Fewer works look at the involvement of the Irish in international conflict situations, such as, international peace keeping missions for which they have been highly commended for decades. Works such as Colin Teevan’s How Many Miles to Basra and others that comprised the Bearing Witness series at the Abbey Theatre commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights in December 2008 are excellent and notable exceptions to the lack of debate, pushing the Abbey Theatre once more to the front of reaction to international conflict.

Love and  money at Project Arts Centre

Love and Money

Looking back on March 2008, The Project Arts Centre staged Dennis Kelly’s Love and Money which was a stylish and slick production that examined the high-capitalist, materialist classes emerging in London. At the very precipice of Irish and global financial crisis, the Project Arts Centre was critiquing and commenting on the very greed and fiscal incompetency that set forth to shatter our national sovereignty.

Internationally, works such as Black Watch by the Scottish National Theatre, produced at the 2008 Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival and Tony Kushner’s Homebody read at the Abbey Theatre in March 2003 highlighted the impact and power these reactive works infused on their audiences. Conflict and immediate reaction to conflict has been relevant to the Irish stage and has been more than important and essential to understanding the global consequences of these actions.

Now, in North Africa and the Middle East, revolution has taken the form of Web 2.0.We have witnessed protests on stage. Is it now time for the crisis to be put on stage? This means engaging directly with the event and making a response relevant and which creates debate and understanding. If the highest role of theatre is citizenship then a new ‘Theatre of Crisis’ may be needed to match the experience of its audience. Theatre makers must keep up with the pace of this revolution. The thought, energy and emotions are palpable as the world looks on. If we keep looking without engaging, the real threat is that it can pass us by. The stakes are that high.

 

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Hustings for the Arts

 

National Campaign for the Arts

 

 

The arts community is mobilising. Once again the driving force is the National Campaign for the Arts group who are getting to grips with the masses, getting to grips with those seeking our votes in the General Election. The venues have decided, the candidates are bracing themselves and all that is needed is the support and commitment of as many arts workers and professionals as possible!!

Hustings are taking place in Dublin, Galway, Cork and Limerick on Next Monday morning, February 14th. The times and venues are as follows:

Limerick, Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick City: 10.45am

Dublin, Project Arts Centre, Templebar: 10.45am

Cork, Crawford Art Gallery, Cork City: 10:45am

Galway, Radisson Blu Hotel, Galway City, 10.45am

In Dublin the arts spokespersons from all five political parties will attend a meeting to outline their respective arts policies and answer your questions. In the other city venues prospective T.D.’s  from their respective constituencies will attend.

The National Campaign for the Arts website has further details on these events and also on their other projects and find out how to further support this group who are supporting arts workers and arts jobs nationwide.  Visit the website here: www.ncfa.ie

If you cannot make the hustings then when canvassers come to your front door, and they will come! The NCFA lists the following questions to challenge them with:

  • Does your party have a policy for the arts?
  • What do you believe are important values for a healthy and flourishing society?
  • What values would you bring to Government that would make a difference?
  • Does your party recognize the vital and valuable contribution the arts and creative industries could make to our national economic and social recovery?
  • Will your party invest in the arts?

The lead-up to February 25th polling day will be a vital period for ensuring the voice of the Arts community is heard and recognised. Be informed and be heard!

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2011 in Culture

 

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The Story of Vincent River

Eleanor Methven and Kerr Logan

Vincent River has a story to tell. His life has a story and his death has a story. His brutal murder at the hands and weapons of a hate mob pass the story of Vincent into the hands of his mother Anita and his secret lover, Davey. Prime Cut productions at the Cube in Project Arts Centre present a scene where one’s true self and one’s self recognition is forever held to ransom by the judging eyes and ears of neighbours, of family and of fear.

Vincent is absent throughout the play but lives on through the stories of his life that are teased out via a cocktail of alcohol and drugs from the grieving Anita and Davey. We view the story as it unfolds in the dank and grimy East-end London flat recently inhabited by Anita (Eleanor Methven) the mother of Vincent River. The flat, with its exposed rafters and wooden-frame walls invoke a vision of a through-section cut into the domestic life and memories of Vincent, Anita and Davey (Kerr Logan). This access into the private domestic sphere allow the audience the feeling of being the society and neighbours constantly watching and gossiping on the hidden love affairs of Vincent.

Methven is incredibly natural in her portrayal of the heartbroken and withered mother, worn down by a life of menial factory work, no husband and the threats to her son owing to his ‘precarious’ lifestyle. In fact this lack of a male role model for Vincent is pondered by Anita for her son enjoying male relationships. “He would have felt safe maybe”. The naturalness of Methven is at times at odds with Logan’s character, Davey. His accent wanders from Hackney to Merseyside at inopportune moments and is distracting but his delivery of an anxious, confused and utterly lost teenager is compelling.

Sarah Jane Shiel’s astute lighting, especially on the exterior street provides the only indication of passing time as the street lights glow in the passing night, allied with Philip Stewart’s tingling soundtrack creates a tense and enclosed environment.

Sophie Motley’s direction is well driven and structured with perhaps just the middle section lacking the emotive power of the opening and concluding sections, which incidentally contain the most imagery of the last moments of Vincent’s life, ensuring it is the absent titular character that has the most powerful story to tell. The graphic portrayal of the murder of Vincent, in a toilet cubicle of a disused railway station emphasises the isolation and extreme lenghts these men were going to in order to hide their relationship. The homophobic mob, identified only by their malice; “the one who cut, the one who kicked, the one who punched”, end Vincent’s story before it truly began.

If author Philip Ridley and director Sophie Motley sought to solely examine hate crimes, one wonders is there perhaps more that could be teased out of this work, perhaps learning more about Vincent than just his death and awkward childhood. Prime Cut productions have made an at times gripping and engrossing production that tells Vincent’s story when as so often the case, the victims of street violence are silenced forever.

Vincent River is at Project Arts Centre until 21 August 2010. www.projectartscentre.ie

Touring to: The Alley Theatre, Strabane, 26 August 2010. www.alley-theatre.com

The Market Place Theatre, Armagh, 27 August 2010. www.marketplacearmagh.com

The Playhouse Theatre, Derry, 28 August 2010. www.derryplayhouse.co.uk

 
 

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Nothing Natural About Butler’s Astounding “The Early Bird”

"The Early Bird"

It is the stuff of nightmares for any family and for any parent. Stress and a breakdown in communication lead to a breakdown in marriage and in the family order. What order may remain in this life via the routine of child rearing is disquietly and suddenly fractured and distorted as the fabric of the family union, the child, is torn from its parents.

The play focuses on familial relationships: husband and wife, mother and daughter, father and daughter and also father and son. This examination of relationships, responsibility, trust and suspicion is undertaken amidst a super-heightened emotional state and at absolute crisis point. The couple’s only child has, without warning, disappeared and in the resulting void, Cusack’s and Palmer’s characters emit illicit suspicion and little compassion. Alex Palmer’s Jack is cruel and tainted with bitterness about not bonding with his daughter as he would have with a son.  His belittling of his wife, played by his real wife, Catherine Cusack, is beyond reprehensible and spiteful in the utmost, as he callously describes her as “useless” and “cut” in a derogatory sense regarding her post-caesarean body.

The loss suffered by the parents, of their angel, is a consequence of the loss of stability in their own relationship. The breakdown of familial communication and love, demonstrated by the flashbacks to loving embraces on a sun-kissed Spanish beach, has had a knock-on effect on their daughter as she enduring crippling nightmares, foreboding the tragic fate to come. The confinement of the set is matched by the confinement of the nightmare which the parents endure at the loss of their child. Time loses its hold, sentences hang and remain unfinished and moods alter rapidly and more often than not, violently and threateningly.

Catherine Cusack and Alex Palmer

Leo Butler’s text is immensely taut, frighteningly stark in its delivery, frantic but with balance in its pacing. The story retrospectively recounts the movements of the child on the morning she disappears but even no certainty can be attributed to those ill-remembered moments and adds only to aggravated distribution of blame.

 A ubiquitous menace and ominous sense of frustration and grief pervades throughout the performance which often treads on the mark of unsettling. The real strength of Butler’s text lies in its reality and documentary quality but also relying on more pure theatrical elements of fictional presentation. Here, Donnacadh O’Briain, director, must be given credit as he exudes every last element of space, time, anxiety and fear from the restricted space and set and also the spot-on delivery of Palmer and Cusack.

Catherine Cusack, in the role of the distraught mother, delivers a performance of such striking ability and passion, with a final monologue astutely balanced in its delivery and yet tinged with gaping rawness, it will stand as one of the great performances of this or indeed any year.

The sound and score, designed and orchestrated by Philip Stewart, delivers an ambience and soundtrack that can at once force one to shiver, squirm in fear and anticipation and remain totally in tune with the cast and dialogue. The words and actions of the permanently absent child presented through the mouths and actions of the parents are simply chilling.

The set, designed by takis (sic) consisting of a large Perspex box, imprisons its two inhabitants for the duration of the play. The design has Beckett-like elements that restrict the movement but not the graphic expression of the grieving and warring couple. The voyeuristic element of viewing the work through this box presents and challenges many elements of contemporary theatrical formats. It adds a dimension between the cast and audience that must be cognitively deconstructed by all parties in order to experience the heightened emotions of the parents.

The play has many contemporary references with news stories of late with similar theme of loss of a child. While these references will be near impossible to avoid, the relevance of the work as a social commentary reflecting on a lack of trust in society and neighbours and breakdown of relationships and marriages owing to work and personal pressures mark the specific relevance of this intriguing and astounding piece of dramatic theatre. The Early Bird is as powerful a production that reflects in uncharacteristic ways many of the most universal of family issues and creates a forceful deconstruction of family relationships.

Continues at Project Arts Centre until 26 June 2010

http://www.projectartscentre.ie/programme/whats-on/922-the-early-bird

 

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Examining the Project Arts Centre Archive

The Irish history blog, Pue’s Occurences, has published an article detailing the history and archive of the Project Arts Centre. The article discusses the processes of archiving a performance and artistic archive and its value to Irish cultural history. 

http://puesoccurrences.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/building-an-archive-the-project-arts-centre/

The Project Arts Centre is one of Ireland’s most important and contemporary arts venues in Ireland and has been so since its insception in 1966 and continues to promote and develope new and emerging Irish artists, playwrights, actors and dancers. The archive is a vital addition to the documented heritage of Irish culture and is  housed in the Manuscripts Department of the National Library of Ireland.

Full details on the archive are available via the article on Pue’s Occurances and via the National Library of Ireland.

 

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Who is Fergus Kilpatrick?

Who is Fergus Kilpatrick? Image courtesy of thecompanyireland.com

Following its award winning debut (Spirit of the Fringe award) at the Dublin Fringe festival in 2009, Who is Fergus Kilpatrick has returned to Dublin and set up residency in the Project Arts Centre. The faceless and rather elusive title character, in a work devised and produced by The Company, will leave you still questioning in fact who really is Fergus Kilpatrick, But it will also leave you questioning the reality of performance, the reality of theatre and even the validity of documented history. 

While being described by The Company as ‘non-theatre’ and  the piece having been created with the deliberate intention of avoiding theatre, you can already see the challenges and questions that this work throws out to an audience coming to see a ‘play’ in a theatre. The piece opens with a documentary being screened on the life of Fergus Kilpatrick, a rebel in early 19th century Kerry. The audience quickly realises the documentary is in fact a work of fiction and addresses questions of who we are, where our lineage has brought us and how our oral tradition of memories and storytelling has often left gaps and inaccuracies in the historical narrative of the story of our country and also of our families. 

Image courtesy of thecompanyireland.com

This work tightly embraces the aid of digital technology and painstaking video and sound editing and blatantly flaunts the presence of pre-recorded scenes and interviews with the cast as a tool for telling the story of how the Fergus documentary came to be. The audience is often left struggling to determine if it is the cast on stage speaking or in fact a video screening. It becomes apparent that the real direction of this work is to challenge what exactly is ‘live’ in theatre. 

Clever devices are implied, such as pre-recorded and humorous interviews with cast members describing their characters and the preparation in finding themselves in each character. The deliberately over-the-top and ham acted scenes, mimicking the rehearsals of this work are described as being devised by asking each cast member to act out one another’s character, thus resulting in a “heightened version of each cast member’s personality and traits.” 

Creator of this work and its director Jose Miguel Jimenez said “it challenges the continual presence of history and challenges the truth in history and in performance and challenges a prescribed present by removing the connection between history and truth by emphasising the role of who writes history. Everyone has a different view of history and different version of a story. Where is the definite truth in all this?” 

Scene from "Who is Fergus Kilpatrick". Image courtesy of Dublin Fringe Fest, Flickr.

The story of Who is Fergus Kilpatrick has strong base in a short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, entitled The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero published in 1944. Though this work by the Company is not a direct adaptation of the story by Borges, the story acted as a facilitator for the work Who is Fergus Kilpatrick. The framework of truth and believed conceptions of what we know to be reality are dismantled on stage before us. Again heavily influenced by the writing of philosopher Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrilliard, one can also see the presence of French surrealist Antonin Artaud who wrote The Theatre and Its Double in the 1930s. Artaud argued that the act of performance and the presence of theatrical energy lies in the theatre space and with the audience as much as it does on stage.  The ‘double’ of theatre and its mirror image that Artaud mentions is the residual memory that remains in any production space and also with the audience members long after a performance and it is that history which forms a legacy and memory that can be altered or lost in each retelling of the story. 

Jimenez states that the views of Derrida, Baudrilliard et al on “the interaction between the real and illusory in contemporary societies created in us a new interest in theatre: we thought that the relationship between these two concepts relates to the very nature of theatre. We see theatre as the right medium to articulate the arguments between real and illusory since, without doubt, this is the base of any theatrical event.” 

This documentary of misinformation and questioning of history again asks us who we all are and questions our history and certainly leaves one particular questioning hanging over the audience, Who, exactly, is Fergus Kilpatrick? 

 Who is Fergus Kilpatrick runs at the Project Arts Centre until 24 Apr 2010. 

For details visit: http://www.projectartscentre.ie/programme/whats-on/908-who-is-fergus-kilpatrick

 

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Theatre at the Barricades

 “A national theatre’s place is the stage, not the barricades”, argues Mick Heaney in his article (Sunday Times, Culture, 14 Mar 2010) The barricades of which Heaney speaks are those which are currently heaving under the weight of angered and frustrated people who have felt the smothering hand of recession in Ireland the most.  The Irish air-waves and television screens are buzzing with outcry and disbelief directed at the constant surfacing of scandals to hit our banks, corporate boardrooms, clergy and churches. While many feel a saturation point has long been surpassed in relation to round-the-clock coverage to recession themed programming and chilling tales of abuse of power and innocence, a public without an expressed voice and opinion has little chance of beginning to rectify what has brought about these unprecedented times.

Since Fiach MacConaghail took over from Ben Barnes as Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre, he immediately sought to right what he and many others saw as the misdirection the Abbey had previously taken. Debts were rising and audiences flagging. MacConaghail believed that the national theatre should be pulsing at the same rate of the heart of the people. It is the people who make a country what it is. They are who live, study, work, rear families and, yes, also vote within a country. While there is scarcely an individual in Ireland who has not felt the pangs of economic readjustment, it is WE who elected and re-elected a government who rode the highest crest of an economic tidal wave but with seldom a thought to this wave turning into a thunderous tsunami and have it crash on our shores. Public opinion towards government during the Boom years was of indifference and of the laziest type of Laissez-Faire. Now, the national theatre has tried to reinvigorate public debate and opinion and the state of the nation and on our political, social and economic state.

The program of productions at the Abbey and indeed in Irish theatre for the last number of months have been dominated by political responsive works. Even earlier, in April 2009, Love and Money written by Dennis Kelly and produced at the Project Arts Centre foretold an eerily cautionary tale of consumerism based on a high credit-subsidised level that can and will lead to ruin of self, sanity and relationships. The work produced by Hatch theatre company received strong reviews, notably for the roles played by Kate Brennan and Barry Ward and acted as a warning light for what would arrive in the near future in our news headlines but also in our theatres.

Love and Money, image courtesy of Project Arts Centre

The stages of Irish theatres would soon be awash with political works and, counter to the argument made by Mick Heaney, most were extremely strong pieces of drama, extremely well written, produced and acted. Dublin-born playwright Conall Quinn has this year been awarded the Stewart Parker Trust Award, a prestigious recognition of new writing and writers. His play, The Death of Harry Leon performed in the fantastic Smock Alley theatre in January 2009 was a counter factual drama that portrayed an Ireland that had aligned itself with German Fascism in the 1930’s and 1940’s and also alluded to Irish political and military elements active at the time. Quinn asks tough questions about national identity, racial prejudice and distorted ideology that are as much present today as they are in the past. Fintan O’Toole described this work as “terrifically courageous. It does what political theatre should do, taking real risks in order to provoke new thoughts.” The Parker trust recognises Quinn as a writer of brave, thought rendering and powerful drama, which also happens to be political in its tone and resonance.

Conall Quinn at Smock Alley Theatre. Image Courtesy of Irish Times

Therein lies a critical distinction. The elements that make up a well written, well produced and well acted drama should not be diminished or treated as “other” simply because they are political in essence. Thought provoking work on the social, ethical, financial and legislative failures of our government and citizens should not be dismissed in favour of those which steer clear of civic significance. For too long a lack of public debate and discussion on the failures within Irish moral society and business have facilitated a culture of abuse on astounding levels. If theatre and the arts do not take up the mantle of removing the cloak cast upon many aspects of Irish society then there is a very real risk that actions can continue underneath it unabated. Business as usual.

On January 30th 1961, a new play The Evidence I Shall Give was premiered at the Abbey Theatre. Written by a district court Judge, Richard Johnson, the play dealt with, quiet openly, the abuse and fear that prevailed in Irish institutional schools and Magdalene Laundries. Frustrated by the restraint in the Irish Judicial system in dealing with cases of abuse on young people within these state sanctioned homes and the indifference that was also evident among Irish families and parishes, Johnson honed his craft as a writer and used the powerful ally of the stage to create a public awareness and view of self accountability in the face of these systemic and moral failings.

The play had an initial run of 42 performances, quite a substantial run for any work on the Abbey stage by a debutant playwright. More startling was that the play received another 42 performances from 10 July 1961, a further 6 shows on 6 July 1961 and yet another run of 21, 9 and 6 performances on 1 August, 18 September and 9 October 1961 respectively. This run totals 126 performances. This equates to The Evidence I Shall Give being on the Abbey Stage for roughly one third of the calendar year. This was at a time when the Second Vatican Council was still meeting in re-evaluating its Catholic doctrine and role of its Bishops. Johnson’s belief in the power of theatre and ability to create and provoke sincere debate and thought was not lost on this play, but perhaps lost to some degree by an audience who left the performance behind in the theatre and did not question within themselves the themes of abuse raised by the play.

 Following on from this play, which is being revived currently by a reading at the Abbey as part of its Darkest Corner series, Tom Murphy’s play the Sanctuary Lamp, premiered in 1975 caused ructions and was met by outcry in an Ireland that was still heavily subscribed to a burdening fear of the Mitre. The Project Arts Centre at this time also acted as an outcrop and forum for public discourse and discussion in an otherwise indifferent Irish society to tackling social failures that were hitherto unspeakable.

I can understand Mick Heany’s worry at the Abbey or any theatre becoming merely a soapbox and an outlay to vent frustrations at a weak and floundering government. This does not benefit theatre and should not be its goal. However, for any theatre, be it the national theatre or otherwise, it must first come to terms and recognise the true character of the nation and people it is based in and those whom it represents. This means a thorough and comprehensive overhaul of the states many failures and to once again produce an audience that cares about its theatre, an audience that is strongly willed enough to take stock of their individual failures and create a public forum through powerful drama that can leave an audience thinking and reassessing its beliefs as no other medium can do.

Fiach McConghail, Director of the Abbey Theatre. Image courtesy of University of Limerick

www.abbeytheatre.ie

 

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