Fizzy Drinks With Two Straws

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Fizzy Drinks With Two Straws – Theatre Upstairs, Dublin

Writer: Joyce Dignam

Directors: Joyce Dignam and Meabh Hennelly

Tea + Toast Theatre Company are presenting their entertaining short play Fizzy Drinks With Two Straws at Dublin’s Theatre Upstairs. The play previously premiered at Smock Alley Theatre’s Scene and Heard Festival, which gives theatre makers the chance to present and workshop new writing. It is interesting to see a play develop like this. It has been expanded upon for its current run and is being delivered on the back of a wealth of positive reviews from the festival.

The set sits perfectly in the theatre. The stage is a matter of inches from the front row. It largely consists of a soft green lawn, with a children’s slide and holiday paraphernalia (fizzy drinks, crisp packets, Barbie dolls) scattered about. One quarter of the stage is made of sand with small sandcastles facing the audience. This is Wexford. Sisters Lana are Rosie are here with their parents on holiday. They have been left outside to play while the adults are having a ‘grown up talk’ in the pub. Pints are consumed and the children are left to wonder is something wrong or it just for grownups? The phrase that we all know; “you’re too young to understand” stalks the play.

As the pair spend the day together their family story starts to unravel and through their young eyes the audience see how, although they may not understand, they are taking everything in. The clever use of a story within a story gives a ferocious insight into their family life and one can see how closely intertwined love, rage and fear can be. Both actresses, Ali Hardiman as Lara and Tara Maguire as Rosie, deliver assured performances that are often full of humour and naiveté. In some ways this is also a mystery play as the audience are drawn into the drama and try to work out what has bought the sisters to this point at the same time that they are trying to understand the grownups who keep changing around them. This is an interesting piece of new writing that will continue to entertain and intrigue for the rest of its run.

 

Vampirella

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Vampirella – Smock Alley, Dublin

Director: Conor Hanratty

Composer: Siobhan Cleary

Librettist: Katy Hayes

Conductor: Andrew Synnott

The world premiere of Opera Briefs 2017 production of Vampirella took place this evening in the main stage of Smock Alley Theatre. This work by composer Siobhan Cleary is the result of a creative partnership between the Royal Irish Academy of Music and The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin.

Based on Angela Carter’s story this makes for an interesting and entertaining basis for an opera. As the somewhat unusual title suggests vampires feature heavily in this work. Set deep in the Carpathian Mountains The Count watches posthumously over his beloved daughter. His love outliving death. The young Countess meanwhile is consumed by loneliness, living in the shadows with only her Scottish Governess for company. In 1914 an English soldier called Hero seeks shelter in a desolate castle. Arriving on a bicycle in tweeds with a perfect upper class English accent his hunt for a cup of tea couldn’t be more out of place in this home of the undead. Soon he meets the beautiful Countess but is taken aback by her unusually sharp, pointy teeth and lengthy nails. When her pet cat scratches him she cannot resist the chance to drink.

Hero is presented as an innocent. He enters the stage from the right completely free of fear with a naïve sense of humour. Throughout the performance one waits to see whether he will retain this innocence and go onto survive or whether he will eventually be drawn into darkness. The final scene sees a change in tone that rounds of the opera on a sad and tragic note. Traditionally, in pantomime in particular, the characters representing good enter from stage right and those representing evil enter from stage left. This idea is used and played with in Vampirella when our protagonists take their places on the stage. The Count sits above the proceedings, only descending to the stage when he fears that his daughter will be lost to the charms of this invading Englishman.

Special applause should go to the orchestra who navigated the piece successfully from beginning to end while also managing to play in near darkness. They seemed to be both technically exact while supplementing and furthering the narrative without ever overpowering and obstructing the vocalists. The compact team worked well together in this tightly organised and plotted production. In line with this the stage is effectively utilised with simple props; a bicycle and a bed moving easily from one side to the other. Eight cloaked figures holding candles haunt the stage; singing, chanting, moving in unison.

This is an ideal opera to take place in the city that gave birth to Bram Stoker and that has been drawn year after year into tales of vampires. At the close of Vampirella one is left questioning who the real monsters are and can innocence survive in this world?

 

Try Not To Breathe by Holly Seddon Review

Last month the book club made a welcome change towards contemporary thrillers with journalist Holly Seddon’s debut Try Not to Breathe. Although there has been a plethora of female driven psychological thriller’s in recent years this is my first foray into the genre. Despite my slow start this was definitely a good introduction.

In 1995 15 year old Amy was found having been raped and left for dead by an unknown attacker. However she didn’t die. Instead she fell into a vegetative a state: a form of a coma where there are no obvious signs of life except for neural changes. When freelance journalist Alex visits the hospital to write about advances in neuro medicine she becomes intrigued with Amy. They come from similar backgrounds and are the same age, except as Alex has aged and lived through the past 15 years Amy has remained as if in stasis. Soon Alex finds herself investigating Amy’s case and is determined to hunt down the killer. In doing so will she find herself in the process?

Alex, who holds the primary narrative voice, is an intriguing character. A young, successful woman who ought to have the world at her feet is falling apart at the seams. Her marriage and work have been crushed and she is ‘dealing’ with this by attempting to drink herself to death whilst denying her alcoholism. Her interest in Amy offers a glimmer of redemption and brings her into contact Amy’s mystery visitor.

The main characters are well fleshed out and their less than ideal aspects help to make them recognisable. For example Amy’s confusion and naiveté, Alex’s drinking and others hiding behind silence, rounds them out to become characters that could walk off the page and sit next to you. Sometimes characters are at their most realistic when they are at their most undesirable. However it is important to note that Alex is a pleasant travelling companion for the novel and it feels as though you could bump into someone like her in the street. What is intriguing is what people do not say. How Alex has to chase down answers and knock on locked doors in order to try to recapture Amy’s final days. Journalists make good protagonists as they take the reader on the same journey they are on.

It is also interesting to look at a case such as this without the filter of social media and mobile technology, where someone can have secrets, can disappear. Sneddon’s past as a journalist can be seen throughout as the writing is well crafted and skips along navigating the line between storytelling and description well. The medical information comes across as accurate and useful. It is lightly dropped into the novel – as it would be in a good piece of journalism – so as to provide the needed information in a manageable manner.

The murder mystery aspect has readers scouring the text searching for clues and turning points. Can you work out what happened before Amy does? Most of the book club kept pace with Amy’s investigation and found the writing and characters kept them reading even more so than the thriller aspect. The end is wrapped up rather quickly and little time is given over to get to know the perpetrator. It might have been nice to have had a chapter or two near the end narrated by the murderer. Seddon does not do this, perhaps in part because she avoids making the murder sensational or gratuitous, instead keeping human, frail and real Amy – the victim – at its centre.

Full of suspense Try Not To Breathe hooks the reader in from the start. The quality writing keeps one reading as much as the level of intrigue. It is one of those books that once you have started will not be able to put down until you reach the end. Set aside a day or two to get lost in Sneddon’s writing to really enjoy the novel

 

Ballantine Books. London. 2016. Hardback. ISBN: 9781782399452.

Hagseed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood Review

 

As the 4ooth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death brought with it an outpouring of new appreciation. However at the same time there has been some debate as to the worthwhile of adapting Shakespeare for new generations. The London based Hogarth Press persuaded eight popular modern novelists to retell or respond to their favourite Shakespeare play in novel format for today’s audience. Margaret Atwood, best known for her feminist dystopias, chose Shakespeare’s final solo authored play and possible goodbye to the stage; The Tempest.

On the release of the Hogarth Press novels, Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker argued persuasively that Shakespeare, a jobbing writer and actor, would be somewhat bewildered by this turn of events. Stating that “Shakespeare believed in fate, order, and forgiveness; we believe in history, justice, and compassion – three pairings so similar as to sometimes seem the same, though they are not”. Shakespeare’s dramatic storylines that pulled in the London crowds have been muted and internalised and the outcast and dejected made sympathetic. This may work for a new audience but ultimately it pushes one back to the original; to seek out the certainty in order and forgiveness that has been lost over the centuries. However, if one is to argue that these novels push one back to the original plays is that a bad thing?

This argument seems to have been expected. For example Constance Grady at Vox focuses on the exciting plot lines to be developed from new adaptations. Once one is free of the language and poetry the storylines become open to response. From the literal island banishment of Prospero comes the figurative exile and prison of Atwood’s Felix.

The novel concerns theatre director Felix, who after losing his prestigious position at Makeshiweg Theatre Festival goes into hiding for several years before remerging as a prison literacy teacher. Having spent many years at the top as artistic director his plays had increasingly started to bewilder rather than charm the audience, and importantly the shareholders. His next production was to be The Tempest. This would bring him back to prominence and also give him the chance to resurrect his family and heal himself.

In the first few chapters Felix, who can be somewhat pompous and self-righteous, is the victim of an unexpected act of treachery that foists him from all he knows and leaves him plotting his revenge. “What was Felix waiting for? He hardly knew. A Chance opening, a lucky break? A pathway toward a moment of confrontation? A moment when the balance of power would lie with him. It was an impossible thing to wish for, but suppressed rage sustained hum. That, and his thirst for justice.”

Living in exile with thoughts of his daughter becoming increasingly real to him Felix is a shadow of his former self. Having named his daughter Miranda the chance to perform as Prospero gives Felix the chance to bring back his daughter. She had died shortly before the novel opens at the age of three. Their lives will parallel those of Prospero and his Miranda. As he lives out his days in the wilderness he allows himself to think her back into existence. “It was only a short distance from wistful daydreaming to the half-belief that she was still there with him, only invisible. Call it a conceit, a whimsy, a piece of acting: he didn’t really believe it, but he engaged in this non-reality as if it were real”.

Instead of being set on an island Hagseed takes place in a prison: Fletcher Correctional Facility. Felix uses this as his chance to lure his old adversaries onto his territory. Will he seek vengeance in the end though or will this be his final curtain call? The idea to set the action in a literal prison was inspired. It offers the sense of claustrophobia and entrapment that is necessary to make the character motivations seem believable. Throughout The Tempest there are many forms of imprisonment with every character being trapped and lacking control over their own destiny. In this light one can see how the characters come to take advantage of whatever skills or abilities they have to try to reassert their authority in a push for freedom.

Further Atwood latches on to the idea that more than any other play The Tempest is about production. “But above all, The Tempest is a play about a producer/director/playwright putting on a play – namely, the action that takes place on the island, complete with special effects – that contains another play, the masque of the goddesses. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, this one is most obviously about plays, directing and acting.”

This retelling is clever and self knowing. Hagseed is tremendous fun. It roars along tearing through the layers of acting, playing, identity, mischief and magic that mark Shakespeare’s final play. Although prior knowledge of The Tempest is helpful and will provide insight into the multiple layers Hagseed can, and should, be enjoyed by those unfamiliar with the play.

The title Hagseed refers to Caliban (it also comes from a list of swear words gathered from the text. Although he is granted the title of the novel his name is still used as an insult) however the novel is Felix’s (aka Prospero’s). Magic, control and power are played with throughout. The play is often thought to be Shakespeare’s goodbye to the theatre. As Prospero says goodbye to his magic books was the writer saying goodbye to his pen and paper? Similarly in Hagseed by recreating The Tempest will Felix either recapture Miranda or be finally ready to let her go. The father daughter relationship is beautiful although full of sorrow and softens Felix to the reader. It is this relationship that makes him seem human and damaged, rather than a power hungry. However it is surprising that Atwood set up the idea of a novel focusing on Caliban and then retreated from the idea.

The Tempest is an underappreciated play that contains more depth and feeling that often sighted at first glance. In Hagseed Atwood teases out the twin themes of grief and isolation to create a vital and surprising novel that does an excellent job of reimagining the storms and magic of the 1600s into music and special effects for today’s reader. This version perhaps leaves the reader with more hope than the original, with one being able to see a glimmer of life left for Felix. Most of all this is an excellent read from start to finish and can, and should, be enjoyed by all.

 

Hogarth Shakespeare. 2016. London. ISBN: 9781781090237

 

The Liffey Swim and Jack Butler Yeats

First written for Headstuff.org

The Liffey Swim and Jack Butler Yeats: Ireland’s First Olympic Medalist

The first Olympic medal won by the Irish Free State was a silver medal in 1924, awarded Jack Butler Yeats for his 1923 painting The Liffey Swim. That may seem surprising today, however between 1912 and 1948 the arts took pride of place alongside sporting events in the Olympic Games. The arts section was broken down into five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture.

The arts were introduced to the Olympic Games largely due to the work and enthusiasm of one man: Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The Frenchman spent his life studying sports and education, becoming convinced of the importance of physical exercise in day to day and cultural life. Known as the Father of the Modern Olympics after he founded the International Olympic Committee, he acted as the driving force behind the sporting events revival.

Inspired by a somewhat romanticised view of the Ancient Greek games, his prime ambition was to place sport at the centre of French social and cultural life. More importantly, Coubertin saw the arts as being equal to sports. One can then see why the silver medal went to a work such as The Liffey Swim, which is now held in the National Gallery of Ireland. A lyre is represented on one side of the medal next to oars, javelins and other sporting paraphernalia.

There was of course a catch; all eligible works of art had to be inspired by sport and this suited Yeats well. Many of his oil paintings depicted boxing and horse racing events. Alongside The Liffey Swim (credited by the Olympic Committee as just Swimming) Yeats also submitted his 1915 painting Before The Start; an oil painting of three jockeys before the race began. Fellow Irish artist Sean Keating entered his painting The Fowler, which did not take home a medal. The Gold medal winner was Jean Jacoby from Luxembourg. He submitted, and won for three paintings: Corner, Depart and Rugby. World renowned artists were a part of the judging panel including John Singer Sargent and Belfast-born Sir John Lavery (who also has works on display at The National Gallery). At 53 Yeats was already a star on the international arts scene.

Jack Butler Yeats was the younger brother of Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats and son of the portrait artist John Butler Yeats. The family were very artistic, making their names through their writing or their paintings. A successful writer and playwright Jack started out as a cartoonist before he began to focus on oil painting. It was here that he found his calling and became one of Ireland’s most prominent artists of the twentieth century. Samuel Beckett once recorded that “Yeats is with the greats of our time”.

The Liffey Swim itself was a new event which Yeats captured in its infancy. The first race took place in 1920 with 27 entrants. Beginning at Victoria Quay, the swimmers would follow the river through the centre of Dublin, with spectators gathered on bridges to watch, before coming to an end one and a half miles later at Butt Bridge. After years of uncertainty, The Liffey Swim proved to be a transformative and vibrant communal event that bought people together from across the political divide. The painting captures the essence of that bond of excitement. According to the National Gallery, the 1923 swim was promoted as “the biggest free spectacle of the year in Dublin”. It was held after work hours on a Saturday so as many people as possible could watch. Even today the race still takes place on a Saturday in late August or early September. The 1923 winner was former Olympian water polo player Charles “Cecil” Fagan, who would go on to enter the race for many years to come. The runner up was the previous year’s winner Thomas Hayes Dockrell. The 1924 Olympics were the first Olympic Games after the years of conflict and war that had plagued Ireland. The fact that artists of such ability and stature wanted to take part arguably shows a great commitment to the new Irish Free State, and a desire to show the positive side of Ireland. The Liffey Swim is a positive and vibrant depiction of Dublin. For this one moment in time all are united in the joy and excitement of the competitive swim.

The bright blues of the painting reinforce the idea of this being a delightful day out. In reality it is likely that Yeats took a few artistic liberties with the colouring. On the actual day in 1923 the Irish Independent reported that “it rained now and then, but like a deluge during the concluding stages of the race” and that “a canopy of umbrellas ten deep lined the river”. Interestingly Yeats has also included himself in spectator scenes. The man wearing the brown fedora is thought to be Yeats, and the woman in the elaborate yellow hat his wife Cottie. In the painting the swimmers are approaching O’Connell Bridge. There is a feeling of activity and movement from the thick loose brush strokes and multiple layers of oil paint. The audience are placed in with the spectators, looking over shoulders to see the swimmers as they come into view. It captures the celebratory feeling that can be seen each year at the event.

Ultimately the fledgling Irish State only took home two medals from the 1924 Olympic Games. Both of these were from the arts categories: Yeats’ silver medal for The Liffey Swim and a bronze medal in literature for Irish poet Oliver Gogarty for his poem Ode to the Tailteann Games. Overall Ireland came joint fourth, with Denmark,in the arts section. Although Yeats was the first Irish artist of the twentieth century to sell for over £1,000,000 the silver medal did not initially lead to a sale. In 1925 The Liffey Swim was exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, with a £300 price tag. It wasn’t until December 1930 that the painting finally sold, for £250 to the Haverty Bequest Fund, who presented the painting to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1931.

The Eurydice Project

First Written for The Reviews Hub

The Eurydice Project – Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Writer: Joanna Crawley

Director: Lee Wilson

Composer: Jane Deasy

Choreographer: Monika Bieniek

Project Arts Centre is hosting a radical retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth: The Eurydice Project. This time the story is told from Eurydice’s perspective. In the original myth she was an oak nymph, a child of Apollo, who wed the adoring musician Orpheus. She was a daughter of nature, at home in woods and forests. This is shown in the play by her wildness and freedom. Unconstrained by human society she is feisty, intelligent and speaks freely. Dressed in browns and earth tones with mud patterns on her limbs when she moves it is more like a dance than footsteps. In this version Orpheus is half God; returning to Thrace after his father’s death to take over the kingdom and heal the rifts that war and neglect have caused. However on his way to Thrace he bumps into Eurydice. They quickly fall in love and the story grows out of their love affair. Is it possible for a creature of the woods to adjust to city life and should Orpheus even ask this of her?

Joanna Crawley’s script investigates relationships and the nature of being a woman in modern day Ireland. Going behind the scenes The Eurydice Project opens up the doors of a male dominated society to show how women – and men – are both left suffering and confused. This version of Eurydice and Orpheus are very recognisable, as they experience loss and lack of trust. Hades rounds off the cast in a surprisingly humorous way. Dressed in purple and red velvet he is out to make trouble. A former flame of Eurydice he is not content to sit back as she pursues happiness with another. Incorporating live music, video, lighting and prose to create a visually intriguing performance with the musicians adding atmosphere and contributing to the comedy throughout. The three person cast worked very well together giving each other a chance to shine. India Mullen was sparky and as Eurydice and Michael – David McKernan and Barry McKiernan were well cast as Orpheus and Hades respectively.

The Eurydice Project skewers relationships and brings out their turning points as they love, fight and struggle to reconcile themselves to their life together. The way this is done is startlingly real; moving from tender to painful. It is a wonderful way to reinvigorate an ancient myth and use it to shine a light on modern society. Full of rage, music, fury and the cold calm of political decision making The Eurydice Project is a highly watchable and powerful piece of theatre.

Anecdotal Evidence

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Anecdotal Evidence – Smock Alley, Dublin

Writer: Grainne Curistan

Director: Noel Cahill

It’s funny from where you’re standing.

Anecdotal Evidence premiered at Smock Alley Theatre’s Scene and Heard Festival 2017 in the theatre’s main space. It is without a doubt one of the most strange, interesting and powerful uses of theatre and satire that one is likely to see in the near future.

The play begins with distorted circus music. It feels uncomfortable and unavoidable. A table is placed near the back of the stage; decorated with large multi coloured lightbulbs and covered in blank paper. A man wearing a white toga, orange fright wig and clown makeup (face painted white, red mouth turned down at the sides and black make up around the eyes) takes up the position of a judge overlooking a court room. This is not an ordinary court room though. The ‘lawyers’, dressed all in black, are also made up to look like clowns, as is another cast member who facilitates the proceedings. Evidence is pulled out of storage boxes and important issues are reduced to being scribbled down on paper. A woman is bought onto the stage covered in a white sheet before she is unveiled like a prize. We learn that her name is Miss Reed and she acts almost as if a prop in proceedings. Even when the defendant is bought in, smartly dressed and able to defend himself verbally she remains mute. Her mouth has been covered and her body is dressed and manipulated as she stands there in silence.

It is important to note that Anecdotal Evidence is funny; its humour a little twisted, like a knife. The last few scenes are troubling and dark. They reach out and tell the audience to focus. Without giving away the narrative these last moments are perhaps the most frightening because this is where absurdity and parody fade into reality. The story is powerful and truthful. At the end it is impossible to look away and the strength of this makes one stop and breathe at the end. There is a moment of silence before the applause begins. This is innovative and entertaining theatre but it is also powerful political and social commentary that will linger on in the minds of all who see it.