Waking The Feminists: One Thing More

Originally published on The Reviews Hub: One thing more on gender imbalance in Irish arts

 

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Photo by Kate Horgan

 

“This is what collaborative feminist power looks like and it is a powerful, playful and inclusive thing.”

In just one sentence Sarah Durcan, general manager of Science Gallery International and member of the Waking the Feminists group, succinctly summed up the atmosphere in the Abbey Theatre today at Waking The Feminists’ One Thing More.

On October 28th 2015, the Abbey Theatre launched its 2016 programme marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising, a programme which featured only one play written by a woman, and only three directed by women. In no time Ireland’s feminist alarm clock, Lian Bell, had posted her now famous Facebook post highlighting the issue of gender imbalance, not just in the Abbey, but across the sector, and the wheels were in motion. Just two weeks later, the first Waking the Feminists meeting took to the Abbey stage, kicking off what was to be one of most active years of evolution and change in Irish Theatre in over a century.

Today, Waking the Feminists filled the Abbey Theatre for their final event, One Thing More. The aim of today’s event was to take stock of the year that was, and to discuss where the work of the campaign could lead in the future. With too many speakers to reference individually, dozens of diverse voices said their one thing more about Waking the Feminists.  Young, old, Irish, American, English, Welsh, Scottish, men, women, writers, producers, managers, actors, people from every corner of the sector and beyond added their voices to the discussion. Our new directors of the Abbey Theatre, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, offered an open call for everyone’s “outrageous,” reminding us that “regardless of race, gender, age, or the money in your pocket, the Abbey is your theatre” and re-iterating that the National Theatre exists to serve, not be served.  Later, Amelie Metcalfe, the youngest speaker at only eight years old, told the audience of the reasons she is proud to  be a girl in Irish theatre, but asked when it was going to “wake up to children” appealing to her adult colleagues with the words “Excite us. Inspire us.” From a child then on to a parent, Tara Derrington of “Mothers Artists Makers” (M.A.Ms) spoke of their work over the past year, and of their continued aim to highlight the unequal care burden that is pushing many mothers out of careers in the arts.

Not only were there speeches in person on the stage; a number of supporters sent video messages to be played as part of the proceedings. Emma Rice, former artistic director of The Globe, took to the screen to much applause as she asserted that “we need to make our presence felt at every level.” With one speaker just off the plane from America, another a long-time emigrant returned to Ireland, another sharing her experiences of theatre in Poland, messages from England, America, and across Ireland streaming in, and a wealth of passionate voices both on and off the stage, there was a tangibly electric and powerful atmosphere throughout the venue. Orlaith McBride, director of the Arts Council, said that Waking the Feminists is “a perpetual flame, it is a fire that will not go out,” and the energy in the Abbey mirrored that.

Towards the end of the morning, the research group from NUIG who compiled a study of gender equality in Irish theatre over the past decade presented a number of their findings, sending a cacophony of gasps and sighs rippling through the auditorium. The full report is due to be published in early 2017, but even today’s snapshot painted a stark statistical picture.

As happened in 2015, with the now iconic sing-along to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” the meeting ended on a song. Camille O’Sullivan sang the event to a close with her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” bringing many to tears and all to their feet by the time she sang the final lines.

Waking the Feminists has been an historical moment in Irish theatre, and One Thing More was a fitting end to it. To borrow a quote from Jane Daly, “to do nothing is simply not an option.”

Loose Canon – Book Review

Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James & Pete Atkin

Ian Shirocore

Red Door Publishing, 2016

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“The common characteristic of all Atkins/James songs is that they don’t sound like each other, and they don’t sound like anything else.”

The appeal of Ian Shircore’s book Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James & Pete Atkin, is best summed up in this line from chapter 17. It is a celebration of the diverse and accomplished careers of Clive James and Pete Atkin, as well as an exploration of how their collaborative work came to be what it is.

Blending technical analysis of songs with entertaining personal anecdotes, Shircore writes a book that is an interesting and entertaining read for both the casual and the devoted listener. While it is definitely aimed at an audience of long-time Atkin and James fans, fans who were listening through the duo’s most active years in the 1970s, this is by no means alienating or limiting. I, a twenty year-old listener of Atkin and James’, felt welcomed into the book with open arms.

Even in the most densely factual and analytical passages, Shircore writes with flair. Making liberal use of metaphor and lyrical images of his own, with a description of James’ writing in Have You Got a Biro I can Borrow as a “dancing constellation of internal rhymes” standing out as a particular example of this, Shircore mirrors James’ own tendency to marry technical particularity with natural flair. The information about James and Atkin, beyond their work, that is woven through the exploration of a selection of their songs adds depth to the discussion of their work and gives an insight into the artists as people.

Shircore writes with an easy, open style that makes this book an accessible and engaging read. This casual tone can, at times, lead to some repetition which takes some chapters on a circuitous route to their point, and to sweeping statements which can err on the side of hyperbole in the case of lines such as the one in which “Together at Last” is described as featuring “the most spectacular enjambment ever.” However, overall it is one of the strongest features of the book, opening the doors and leading the reader through an exploration of James and Atkin’s varied and fascinating careers with ease.

Loose Canon takes an engaging and insightful look at the careers of Clive James and Pete Atkin through a close examination of a selection of their extensive songbook. It is a book to be read whilst listening to the songs it discusses; between the writing of Shircore, James and Atkin, “the music in the room, both beautiful and true, on plushly hushed extended wings, is flown to me and you.”

Butterflies and Bones – Review

Originally published on The Reviews Hub

Butterflies and Bones

Project Arts Centre, Dublin

20/10/16

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In recent months, Irish stages have been awash with productions exploring 1916 and where we stand on the events of that year now, in 2016, a hundred years later. There have been productions about the Easter Rising, productions about the creation of the state we live in now, and productions about Roger Casement. As one might imagine, after nine months of this, the theme is getting worn and fewer avenues are left to be discovered. However, Butterflies and Bones: The Casement Project, created by Fearghus Ó Conchúir as part of Project Arts Centre’s 50th anniversary programme, puts paid to any such ideas of staleness. An electric and insightful work, Butterflies and Bones conveys the human behind the history with skill and passion.

Roger Casement (formerly Sir Roger Casement; he was stripped of his title before his execution for his involvement in Irish revolutionary activity, including the 1916 Rising) was a British peer, and Irish nationalist figure and all-round enigmatic historical figure. However, alongside his political life, there is his personal life. As a gay man in early 20th century Ireland, Casement had a carefully hidden portion of himself that was only later discovered in a number of diaries. Butterflies and Bones effectively reminds the audience of this; that Casement was not just a political or revolutionary figure, but a person too.

Ó Conchúir’s choreography (created in conjunction with the performers) is evocative and intense, conveying the formal public Roger Casement, and the raw, open private Casement. Introducing strong elements of each performer’s personal dance style into the performance, and then creating segments in which they adopt each others’ movements, the choreography creates a strong ensemble that portrays Roger Casement as a multi-faceted character. One of the most powerful elements of this, when combined with Alma Kelliher’s expressive sound design, comes through in the undercurrent of fear and threat portrayed almost throughout the performance. Even in moments of heady ecstasy, there is a threat lingering in the atmosphere, whether of being discovered in his republican activities or in his personal life.

Working with dance styles reminiscent of those such as Lucinda Childs’ 1970s/1980s postmodern choreography, The Casement Project takes the theme of 1916/2016 far from any danger of nostalgia or stasis and injects it with a revolutionary quality of its own. As it breaks down, reforms and plays with a tower of speakers and two large metallic cloths (the only props), this production breaks down and represents a well known historical figure in a new and insightful light. Complimenting this performance and direction style, Ciaran O’Melia’s skilful design, both in terms of lighting and set, takes the piece far from the reach of realism and into an exciting, open and productive space.

Butterflies and Bones: The Casement Project takes a well-worn topic and re-invigorates it in innovative and engaging ways. With a wealth of dramatic, political and social history to absorb and re-invent with ingenuity and fervour, this production takes a truly new approach to the story of Roger Casement and 1916.

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Dusk – Review

The New Theatre

13/10/16

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When one thinks of Irish myth and folklore on stage, one writer springs immediately to mind, W.B. Yeats. His plays earned their place in Irish theatre history for his lyrical writing, interpretations of the obscure and unexplored in Irish mythology, and reimagining of old well-worn tales.  His legacy has evidently lived on and manifests itself in Eamon Carr’s Dusk.  Telling the story of Aisling, who meets the ghost of the ancient Irish hero Cúchulain on the eve of her wedding, Dusk explores the real and mythological in Irish history. Carr’s verse writing and theatrical techniques are reminiscent of a number of Yeats ‘ works, with one particular scene in which The Morrígan (a mythological figure likened to the Valkyries of Norse folklore) dances, appearing to pay almost direct homage to At The Hawk’s Well. Drawing direct influence from such a well-known writer who has such an individual writing style is an ambitious decision, but for the most part, Carr takes on the challenge with impressive skill. There are points at which the text begins to lose pace in favour of stylistic writing (though I believe that can often be said of Yeats’ plays too!), but overall it is an engaging and well-crafted story.

Under Denis Conway’s direction, Garrett Lombard delivers an impressive performance as Cúchulain, striking the balance between ethereal and human qualities in the character, and deftly handling the dense text with gravity and intensity. It is his performance of the character that carries the show through its slow paced moments and keeps the audience engaged. There are, however, points at which Caoimhe Mulcahy (Aisling) appears to struggle with speaking in verse, breaking the flow of her character’s emotion. Similarly, the character of the Caretaker, played by Denis Conway, breaks the flow of the piece and slows its pace further, without much tangible benefit.

One of the most impressive scenes is the Morrigan’s dance, choreographed and performed by Justine Doswell. Though a short scene, it encapsulates the ethereal sense of the play effectively and further blurs the hazy lines between the real and mythological setting, and between past and present.

Worthy of mention is Katie Davenport’s set design which is actually composed largely of smoke and mirrors. With candles, a large mirror covering one wall and a dappled cloud pattern painted across it and the other two walls, the ambiguous setting is highlighted and each character’s reality is subtly represented.

Despite flaws in pacing and performance, Dusk is an engaging and interesting production, re-interpreting and challenging of the character of Cúchulain with regard to the mythological Ireland in which he existed and the Ireland which exists outside the theatre.

Dusk runs at The New Theatre until  October 15th.

Briseis After The Black – Review

Originally published on The Reviews Hub

Tiger Dublin Fringe

The New Theatre

21/9/16

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An adaptation of an adaptation of a play, in which a different actor with no prior rehearsal plays one of the leading characters each night, sounds like a recipe for a convoluted shambles of a production. Briseis After the Black proves this assumption wrong. With dexterity and energy, Coburn Gray conjures the production from just a few props and prompts as he stands on stage with his fellow actor.

Briseis After the Black tells the story of playwright Maria Black telling the story of Briseis and Achilles. Briseis, a character created as motivation for Achilles, then allowed to simply vanish from the Iliad with no further explanation, serves as a starting point for an exploration of literature’s tendency towards using female characters as plot devices then killing them off once they have served their purpose. Using multiple layers of storytelling, this production raises question after question, not always resolving them, but not always needing to. Is Maria Black simply being used as one of the characters she so hated? Is she one of the characters? Which story is more important to this production, that of Briseis or Black? From the inclusion of an actor that knows as little about the piece as the audience, to the switching between stories and Coburn Gray’s suggestion of action but persistent inaction, Briseis After the Black is a play that thrives on ambiguity and trusts its audience to understand.

This script that almost has a life of its own is excellently executed by Coburn Gray as he guides the volunteer actor (Zoe Ellen Reardon last night) through the play. From witty comments to self-aware lines in which he tells us where he changed the script and reminds us “I like to pause here, but I haven’t forgotten my line,” he works with an earnest and genuine performance style that engages and entertains throughout.

Briseis After the Black is an insightful, provocative and entertaining post-dramatic exercise in ambiguity that leads an exploration into the telling of myths, the treatment of women in literature and life, and how hard it is to separate a work from its creator.

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Gays Against the Free State – Review

Originally published on The Reviews Hub

Tiger Dublin Fringe

Smock Alley Theatre

21/9/16

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We voted yes on May 22nd 2015, so that is it isn’t it? Everyone is equal now, are they not?  Gays Against the Free State is here to remind us why that is not the case, why everyone is not equal. Drawing inspiration from many sources, this production, written by Oisin McKenna and directed by Colm Summers, is a sharp reminder of the ways people can be left behind as change occurs, a reminder of the importance of intersectionality in campaigning.

While the message the production expresses is still a fresh and pertinent one, there are times when the production’s chosen means of expression come across as worn and trite. The parody of Irish celebrities and stock characters is entertaining to a point, but after a while it feels like the piece is just painting a picture of the problems without providing any comment on them.  When Gays Against the Free State dispense with the loud stereotypes, pare back their performance style and speak directly to the audience the true point of the production shines through. These couple of minutes of intensity and natural speech pack more of a punch than any of the pointedly satirical pieces that precede them.

That said, there is a lot of skill in the construction of the more elaborate scenes. From Seamus Ryan’s musical score (performed by Mark O’Donnell and Ryan) to Hugo Lau’s entertaining and acerbic video sequences, the design of the piece is excellent.

Gays Against the Free State is a promising production that delivers an important message but too often falls back on worn stereotypes and tropes to convey it entirely effectively.

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Black Pitch Pitch Black – Review

Originally published on The Public Reviews

Tiger Dublin Fringe

10 Exchequer Street

20/9/16

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Drawing inspiration from the Pitch Drop experiment on display in the library of Trinity College Dublin, Black Pitch Pitch Black is an exercise in waiting. As the audience enters and sits on the ground looking up at Murphy who sits on a chair suspended metres above the floor there is already a sense of anticipation.

Over the course of the show Murphy’s character waits for a drop of pitch to fall. We see her spend days methodically checking the experiment, working and watching, watching and waiting. As she swings from silk to silk in a beautifully designed set, suspended above the floor, the audience is drawn into the feeling of anticipation around the experiment.

However, basing an aerial dance piece around waiting and repetition can result in a piece that begins to lose its audience. Though the production effectively creates the atmosphere around the experiment, the audience was evidently beginning to shuffle and fidget by the third repetition of the piece.  More justice could potentially have been done to the concept and Murphy’s skilful choreography and performance had the format been changed to a rolling installation perhaps, in which the audience were free to wait to their limits with the character but also free to move and return.

Overall, Black Pitch Pitch Black is a beautiful, atmospheric piece, but one that does not entirely suit the format in which it was presented.

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