“Wonder can always exist if we use our imagination”
Wise words from Professor Bamberg (Sean Kearns), and with this production Cahoots NI prove that they have imagination in spades. The University of Wonder and Imagination is not streamed theatre, or theatre transferred to Zoom, it is a new, pandemic-born creature – Zoom Theatre. The company is not making theatre despite having to use Zoom, it is making theatre for Zoom. With innovation aplenty, The University of Wonder and Imagination transports its audience from their homes into a wonderland of treats, tricks and fun.
Entering the “telecomology” device, the audience is brought to visit a handful of the Professors in the warren of the University. After a visit to the Professor of Probability (Lata Sharma), the audience chooses what professors to visit and are off into on an interactive journey of wonder and imagination. From “mathemagic” with Professor Carmo, played by magician Caolan McBride, to songs about space with Professor Lola Hurst (Philippa O’Hara), and painting marvels in the art department with Professor Hoffman (Hugh W. Brown), there is something to delight everyone.
The entire cast appears as comfortable on Zoom as they would be on stage; interacting with the audience members, navigating green-screen sets, and deftly handling transitions between virtual spaces. Though the audience are on their sofas at home, the cast draws them fully into the world of the show, using every virtual trick and tool available to them.
Director Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney has taken the limitations of pandemic theatre and turned them into possibilities, creating an innovative, exciting and engaging work for young audiences. The University of Wonder and Imagination certainly lives up to its name.
The University of Wonder and Imagination runs at the Belfast International Arts Festival from Thursday 22 October to Sunday 25 October and Thursday 29 October – Sunday 1 November. It is recommended for ages 7+.
For thoughts from the first week of Fight Back 2020 Festival, click here.
I’m used to theatre festivals meaning a few weeks of running around, subsisting on sandwiches slightly squashed in pockets as I clock up the kilometres between venues, and taking up residence in corner seats of theatre or near-the-theatre cafés imbibing coffee and probably crisps as I type up my reviews in the brief gaps between shows. It has felt a little strange to travel no further than the distance between the back garden where I lazed in the sun watching the first two of this week’s performances, to the couch in the sitting room where I watched the second two performances after the breeze outside threatened to steal the pages I was writing on. However, though Fight Back 2020 Festival is not a normal theatre festival, it has still brought the work of some of Ireland’s talented writers and performers to the fore.
The second week of the festival opened with a delightful monologue written by Ultan Pringle. Toffee, performed by Clelia Murphy, tells the story of a Aisling, who is going on a first date with a woman at the National Gallery Café. While she waits for her date to arrive, she tells the audience about her experience of going to university in her mid-40s, after a divorce, and raising her two grown up children. There are no major twists or surprises in the 15-minute monologue, but none are needed. Exactly the sort of heart-warming story that is called for in these trying times, Toffee is as sweet as its title.
Day six of the festival brings another love story, but not such a straightforward one. A hilarious and slightly bizarre lockdown story, Ali Hardiman’s Hug takes the form of a lockdown diary inspired by Matt Damon’s video diaries in The Martian. As she grumbles about her neighbours, reminisces about her childhood friend Jack, and reveals the difficulties in her family. Bringing an interesting twist to escapism, Clíodhna, played by Madi O’Carroll, will certainly make you laugh but will also make you pause and think.
Ella Skolimowski’s monologue Pandemic Panic, tells the story of a very different reaction to the Covid-19 lockdown. Aneta Dina Kedar plays a very stressed character who is struggling to manage her OCD while in lockdown. Though the monologue is funny in moments, it is also a tense watch which clearly conveys the fear and panic that the character is feeling.
The final day of Week 2 brought a comic story of a time machine in a wardrobe. Written by David Halpin and performed by Jed Murray, Backwards and Forwards takes the form of a FaceTime call, in which the main character is excitedly discussing the dilemma of whether to go backwards or forwards in time with his newly constructed wardrobe time machine in order to save the world. Though it is light-hearted and funny on the surface, Backwards and Forwards, like many of the other monologues this week, also conveys the frustration and uncertainty of a character in lockdown.
Fight Back 2020 Festival continues until 24th April.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt the pang of absence lately upon hanging up a phone call, FaceTime or Zoom chat. Though these technologies help us to stay in touch, and bridge the gap between one isolated household and another, they also highlight the distance that is separating us. The slightly pixelated images of friends on your screen, constrained by the reach of their webcam, as you have an online “pub” session during lockdown serves to remind us of the things that we are missing. A chat over zoom can’t really replace the feeling of walking into the pub and seeing your mates sitting at a table in the corner, a packet of crisps torn open in the middle of the table for sharing, someone already mid-scéal as you sit down and join them.
It has been uplifting to see the ingenuity, community spirit and enthusiasm that has been displayed by the theatre sector from the outset of this lockdown. The theatres closed, but people stepped quickly into the breach and began generously sharing work online. Amid this wave of creative generosity though, I can’t help but feel a cold current of absence running through it. When we move theatre online, we lose a lot of what makes theatre what it is. Like the Zoom “pub” gatherings, though a great deal of care and talent is evident in them, these online theatrical offerings remind us of the things that we love about theatre that are missing.
As I watched the first week’s plays in The New Theatre and takeyourseats.ie’s Fight Back 2020 Festival, this feeling of absence was brought into focus. The four works told engaging stories, written and performed by talented artists but throughout them all, the lack of so many vital elements of live theatre were brought into focus on camera.
The Festival opened on Tuesday 7th April with An Unmade Bed, written by Elizabeth Moynihan and performed by Laoisa Sexton. The story was one of a woman struggling in a relationship with a man addicted to recreational drugs. The setting of the piece during the Covid-19 lockdown heightened the sense of isolation and entrapment that the woman was feeling as she warred with her love for her partner and the knowledge that his addiction was wearing them both down. In terms of pacing and tone, the work would, like most of the other pieces in the festival, have benefitted from a directorial eye. Overall, the fifteen-minute work felt more like an eloquent short film than a play, with a voice-over narrating beautiful close up shots of Sexton’s character observing the world from her window, and slow fades and between shots of her in a tangle of white sheets as she considers her relationship. Billed as a short film, this piece would be more satisfying, as the cinematic nature of the performance and editing meant that An Unmade Bed did not come across as the theatrical play it was described as.
The second day of the Festival brought a similarly meditative piece, with Tara Maria Lovett’s The One Tree, performed by Pat Nolan. This short play is the most theatrical of the week, with Nolan’s grounded storytelling style holding the audience’s attention as he speaks to someone just beyond the camera. Filmed from a single angle, with static images marking scene changes, the simplicity of this work is its strength. Lovett’s magic-realist script and Nolan’s performance bring to life a bittersweet story of love and loss in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the input of designers and directors, the space to elaborate on the story, and freed from the restrictions of a tightly focused camera, The One Tree has all of the ingredients for a successful one man play.
Day three presented a double bill of Shard, written by Stewart Roche and performed by Neill Flemming, and The Pleasureometer, written by Jack Harte and performed by Gerard Lee. These two contrasting pieces were filmed in a similarly straightforward manner as The One Tree, and both similarly felt like scratch pieces for successful one-handers. Shard tells an increasingly unsettling story of a commune on an island off the coast of Cork. The plan to set up the commune seems suspect from the outset, but as older and more powerful forces than they could ever have expected come into play, the characters gradually realise that they are in far out of their depth. The piece could be a longer one, with the suspense of the story held for longer, and as with An Unmade Bed, the piece would have benefitted from directorial input in the staging and filming of the play. However, the story is engaging and original, and Flemming delivers a strong performance as a member of the commune recounting the story from quarantine in the near after being rescued from the island. Finally, The Pleasureometer provides some comic relief to close the week. As he laments the closure of the pub for the lockdown, Lee’s character meditates on the community that is formed around the pub, with the different characters that he sees only in that setting – the Teacher, the Cynic, the Young Lad, and Himself. Himself, the classic chancer that every community has. Telling the story of one particular day in which Himself brings along a new invention to test on his fellow pub-goers, Harte brings some comic lightness to the lockdown situation, and provides a laugh to end the first week of the Festival on.
When I set out to review work online, I had no idea of the quandary I was setting up for myself, the position I would be putting myself in as a theatre critic reviewing not-quite-theatre. Though the skill of their writers and performers is evident, all four of these works, and many of the other works that are being produced online in lockdown, are a reminder of the collective effort that goes into creating a production – the designers, the technicians, the directors, the dramaturgs, the writers and the performers. No man can be an island in theatre. While we enjoy and support the work that is filling the gap left by the closure of venues, and make no mistake I have been enjoying it, we must also fix our minds on the eventual return to the stage for we can’t forget that theatre is in its very essence a live, collective art form in which social-distancing is not an option. As the writer Griselda Gambaro once wrote, “A theatre piece of itself, demands a confrontation with the audience. It demands that you connect with people; it demands a collective and social effort with the company and later with the audience.”
Self-professed international love-monger, Carys Eleri, takes to the stage in Ffresh to introduce the audience to Lovecraft (Not the Sex Shop in Cardiff), her one-woman science comedy musical about the brilliant neurological nonsense that is love. In her hour on stage, Eleri takes a comprehensive, comic and considered look at the loneliness epidemic that is sneakily working its way through society, and at the importance of love in life to combat it.
Telling anecdotes of her past relationships (with the memorable characters, Eddie Pie-Hands and Bernie the Beautiful Shit) Eleri takes her audience on a journey through the chemical processes of falling in love, and reminds them of the importance of all sorts of love – romantic, platonic, familial. However, this is not just a science or sociology lecture. Throughout the show Eleri accents her point with howlingly funny stories and songs about rejection, jealousy, tinder, and cocaine-addicted mice among other topics. The musical numbers, produced by Branwen Munn, are welcome earworms that will stay in your mind and provide you with residual giggles well after you have left the theatre.
Not only are Eleri’s writing and performance excellent, the slideshow that accompanies her performance on screens at either side of the stage is the source of much hilarity. I know, a slideshow in a theatre show; it doesn’t sound like it will work, but with glitzy hormones and dancing rats, and a kaleidoscopic mammary montage, this is not your average PowerPoint presentation. Like the rest of this show, it is slightly mad, and yet catches the audience and draws out common experiences that make Eleri’s escapades easy for the audience to relate to.
From the moment she walks on stage, Eleri has the audience in the palm of her hand. Even I, an avowed avoider of audience interaction, was happy to join in the audience-wide cwtch (Welsh for cuddle), and sing-along songs. Lovecraft (Not the Sex Shop in Cardiff) is an open, frank show that draws its audience in with ease as Carys Eleri not only reminds the audience that life is short and best spent in the company of others, she gives the audience a chance to enjoy the reality of it as they share an evening of laughter, chocolate and music with each other.
Something happens after midnight. Perhaps it’s the light from the stars, or maybe the silence in the air, but whatever it is, it brings truth much closer to the surface and people much closer to each other. It’s the early hours, and Laura and Danny are the last two people left after Laura’s housewarming party.
They don’t know each other.
This is where we find ourselves at the start of David Eldridge’s Beginning. Directed by Marc Atkinson, and starring Marty Rea and Eileen Walsh, this production is a compelling story of honesty, loneliness and love.
As Laura moves from playful seduction to laying her heart on the table in front of Danny, and her vulnerability is gradually reciprocated, Eldridge paints a picture of two intensely realistic characters who find themselves making an unprecedented connection. A masterclass in storytelling and characterisation, Eldridge’s script, with its comic back and forth, absorbing monologues, and touching moments of mundane humanity, is brought vividly to the stage by Atkinson, whose direction is clear and precise, but never laboured.
This subtle precision and attention to detail is what makes this production. Rea and Walsh bat the power in the evening’s conversation back and forth with an intent naturalism – drawing the story out of each other, and tying the audience’s hearts to these two lonely souls as Danny and Laura edge closer to each other. In one scene in particular, where the pair begin tidying up the flat, the silence of both as they work, with the tension punctuated by quick glances and clattered plates, speaks volumes. And never before has a fish-finger sandwich said so much.
The beautifully theatrical naturalism does not only lie in the direction and performances though. Sarah Bacon’s set and costume design delights in detail – Laura’s favourite colours are evident as the colour palette of her costume mirrors the paint swatches on her wall, but the rich, muted pinks and blues soon infuse more layers of her character than just her wardrobe choices. The front door, placed upstage centre, poses a constant question to both the characters and audience.
Selina Cartmell’s current programme at The Gate promises love and courage, and this production of Beginning delivers both in its touchingly comic staging of love, loneliness and connection.
A Christmas show in Bewley’s is always a treat, even without the pre-show mince pie and coffee I enjoyed beside the fire yesterday. Adapted by Michael James Ford and directed by Bairbre Ni Chaoimh, this year’s Christmas production of Dinner in Mulberry Street tells the story of a young couple, Agnes and Dick Burdoon, who have fallen on hard times and find themselves living on Mulberry Street with a dying fire, hungry bellies, and little else. However, when Dick sells one of their last possessions, they are greeted with a stroke of luck that changes the course of their story.
Ford’s play is based on Fitz-James O’Brien’s 1881 short story Duke Humphrey’s Dinner, and is quite a faithful adaptation; one character is changed, but the overall shape of the story remains the same. Though it is a charming and entertaining story both on the page and the stage, the adaptation may have been wise to stray a little further from the shape of the short story. The lack of action or plot development in the early portions of the short story, and the sudden resolution of events in the final few pages mean that the pacing of the plot is uneven for the stage.
However, the issues of plot and pacing fade as Ashleigh Dorrell and Jamie O’Neill revel in the language of the earlier parts of the play under Ni Chaoimh’s strong direction – though there is little action per se, they bring energy and character to every word as they lament their situation and describe the sumptuous meals they wish they were eating. This is accentuated by Nicola Burke’s costume design which captures perfectly the fall from splendour Dick and Agnes have experienced.
From a seduction via cheese-board to fisticuffs between Fabiano Roggio’s effusive and eccentric Giacomo and O’Neill’s Dick Burdoon, Dinner in Mulberry Street is a play that never takes itself too seriously, and in doing so provides a fun, diverting Christmas show which (despite the Burdoon’s lack of coal), promises warmth and laughter throughout.
Dinner In Mulberry Street runs at Bewley’s Café Theatre until December 22nd.
Elsa, a film blogger played by Maeve Fitzgerald, turns up at a remote house to interview horror actor, Jonathan Ravencliffe (Michael James Ford). As she is greeted at the door by Mrs. Newman, a seemingly Mrs. Danvers-esque housekeeper played by Joan Sheehy, and steps into Naomi Faughan’s classically spooky set, it seems as though Elsa is about to encounter her own real-life gothic horror plot. However, all is not as it seems. Secrets of the past are brought to light and we soon realise the real horror doesn’t lie in the werewolves and vampires of Ravencliffe’s films.
Though the pacing sometimes slows and jolts a little, Roche’s script is an engrossing story that makes clever use of the Hammer Horror movie genre as a frame. Under the direction of Aoife Spillane-Hinks the three characters are skillfully brought to life by Ford, Fitzgerald and Sheehy. Though allusions to the horror genre and tropes drawn from it are woven throughout the script, the characters and plot never rely on them; the characters resist being caricatures or stereotypes, and the story takes twists and turns into unexpected territory.
Wringer is a well-crafted, fresh and unsettling play. For a lunchtime Halloween horror fix, you won’t go wrong with a ticket to this.
Wringer runs at Bewley’s Café Theatre until 4th November.
Published in 1980, Company seems an unlikely candidate for a stage adaptation, a radio play perhaps, but the story of a man lying alone on his back in the dark considering his past and current existence does not seem like a piece for theatre. However, since its publication, Company has prompted a number of dramatic adaptations, with a radio reading by actor Patrick Magee, a dramatized version at the National Theatre in London, and of course this production from Company SJ. Despite the relative stasis of the text, Company SJ brings Beckett’s prose to the stage of Project Arts Centre in an absorbing and affecting production.
In a costume that immediately calls to mind the most famous images of Samuel Beckett, Raymond Keane performs the role of narrator. He uses a puppet (beautifully designed by Roman Paska) to illustrate the actions and memories of the hearer as he recites the text alongside a recorded voice and projected passages. This breaking up of the text between live performance, recorded voice, and projection gave a strong sense of the fractured nature of the voice and the hearer’s conception of it. Though the text is quite cerebral and introspective, Keane breathes life into the words as he shares them, finding the balance between contemplative and narrative performance.
Particularly impressive in this production was Stephen Dodd’s lighting design. To create a described darkness with light is no small task, but Dodd conjures a shadow flitting space that illuminates the darkness of the text just enough to allow the audience in. Precisely catching Keane’s facial expressions in subtle tracts of light and anchoring the eye to the table in the centre of the stage, Dodd’s design harnesses the ephemeral to portray Company’s “dark place form and dimensions yet to be devised.”
There is a frustration in watching this production, as it lies between the conceptual and the embodied, in a liminal space between the inertia of the page and the action of the stage. But then again, is this state of limbo as we sit in the not-dark listening to a story of a man on his back in the dark inevitably and essentially part and parcel of entering a Beckettian space?
Runs until 7 October 2018 | Image: Futoshi Sakauchi
In writing about Anna Karasińska, theatre critic Tomasz Plata coined the term “post-theatre” to describe her work which pushes aside many traditional theatre techniques and conventions, in order to create theatre that does not rely on theatrical illusion or the fourth wall. As her latest work, Fantasia takes to the stage and we see this in action, it becomes clear just how little is needed to create an engaging piece of theatre.
The six actors stand on the stage, awaiting instruction fromKarasińska, who has hidden herself in the auditorium. Karasińska then begins to speak to the audience, giving a little explanation before beginning to issue instructions to the actors – “Agata will now play a person in a far off land who packed raisins in a box for you,” “Adam will play a person who might be wearing a suicide vest,” “Dobrimir will play a man ashamed to dance to a song he likes.” These instructions make up the basis of the piece, as the actors perform their roles to different degrees. They have almost no props, few lines, plain clothes and no set; they simply use the power of the imagination and challenge the audience to do likewise. Some instructions lead to a short scene, while others make a minimal impact on the action on stage. Karasińska’s descriptions paint an image which the actor and audience are imaginatively complicit in.
It is this bizarre semi-imaginary state that makes this piece work; the actors find humour in doing almost nothing, and the audience agrees to this absurdity and laugh. It is a very connected theatrical experience, as everyone relies on Karasińska’s voice and the actors rely on the audience to not only suspend their disbelief but to actively believe. This makes moments where Karasińska breaks out of her instruction to apologise for mistakes particularly interesting, as the audience wonders what is planned, what is accidental, and what is improvised.
Though this is an irreverently entertaining piece of theatre, it is worth noting that on opening night it ran over its stated running time and, in doing so began to tire itself. Originally billed as a 55-minute performance, once it ran over an hour long, it lost some of its energy and sharpness. Had it been shorter (perhaps even a few minutes shorter than the stated running time) it would have held engagement and pace more effectively.
However, the unusual theatrical experience Karasińska creates in Fantasia is refreshing and exciting, eschewing theatrical convention to create something new, immediate and imaginative.
Summertime is only 15 minutes long. Hardly long enough to get an insight into the nuances and changes in a relationship, you would think, but that is not the case. James Elliot’s layered script tells an intensely human story that reminds us how things can seem to turn on a word. Though, as we soon realise, it is never really just a word.
A live sound installation, Summertime is performed by Danielle Galligan and Finbar Doyle, whose lines are heard through headphones, though the performers are moving amongst the audience in the room. Initially the use of headphones felt like it might be a gimmick, but as the two characters voices come into your head in stereo, and the live performances blend with pre-recorded internal monologues, the depth of the idea becomes clear.
Stash is an artist who works in a bar, and Steve is her boyfriend. The story follows them as they drift apart, fighting but not fighting, each not sure how to communicate to the other. As the audience hears the unsaid that could solve the rift between the couple, we realise how painfully simply this not-quite-a-fight could have been avoided by simply talking openly.
Making clever use of sound and setting, Summertime is a beautiful reminder of the power of honesty and openness.