Monday, 23 February 2009

The Virgin Father

A man who is on the run knows he will be tortured and executed if he is captured rants and wonders how he got himself into such a situation.
He tells how he ended up marrying the quiet girl in the village where he worked, even though he discovered she was pregnant and the child was not his.
He loved his wife - who left the house one day and has never been seen since - but the man says she was full of delusions and filled her son's head with strange ideas.
The man on stage, who we find out is called Joseph, worked as a carpenter and tried to lead a normal family life.
But he could never get away from the fact that he was not the real father of the boy who he was bringing up as his own and one day confronts Mary, his wife.
He is shocked when she tells him that the boy is the Son of God and that she has been telling her son that.
The Virgin Father is a monologue by Joseph who is hiding out in his workshop and recounting the circumstances which led to this day on which his friend Matthew - who is writing the story of his family - says he will be captured, tortured and killed but reunited by the end of the day with his wife and stepson.
In terms of Christian theology Joseph, as far as I'm aware, never had the same insider information that Mary and Jesus did and so must have had doubts about what was going on.
Writer Jimmy McAleavey takes this premise and exploits to its full tragic, and comic potential.
When Joseph's stepson goes off to spend some time with his cousin, Joseph is delighted, however, it turns out that cousin John is "the biggest headbanger of them all".
Joseph's stepson is never named, and although the chronology of the play in terms of the "trial" that he faced differs from the Gospels, as does Joseph's attempt to rescue him, there is never any doubt who is being referred to.
The Tinderbox Theatre Company production of The Virgin Father ran for just four nights at the Old Museum Arts Centre in Belfast last week. I saw it on its final night, Saturday, when the 80-seater theatre was full.
The stage had just a work bench with carpenter's tools laid out on it (with other hanging as backdrop), planks and sawdust on the floor, and a few other props. The lighting was superb, sinisterly red (like the sky described by Joseph on the day his step son was crucified), but changing to suit the mood.
There was also an ominous musical soundtrack, used sparingly but effectively to heighten the drama at the most tense moments.
Actor Stewart Ennis prowled the stage and embraced the role with total dedication, switching from bathos to pathos and back again.
McAleavey's play would probably be seen by many as blasphemous but he does not go out to undermine Christianity, rather he takes the central strands of the story and tells them from the perspective of a bewildered bystander who is at the heart of the action and yet outside it and trying to rationalise how he fitted in.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The Doan

The Doan (bottom left) is an ugly little runt of a mountain set in the heart of the Mournes, diminutive among the towering slopes that surround it. Many of the best known and most frequently climbed peaks are rounded with man-made cairns on their summits making them appear almost breast-like. Little wonder the mishapen Doan (the name is a bastardisation of the Irish word for 'dun' meaning fort) attracts little attention from many of the usual walkers in the Mournes whose sole purpose seems to be conquer and 'to do' ('I did Donard today'). The Doan is just not sexy enough, and the boggy, undulating ground that you have to trek to get to get to it, after a fairly strenuous climb into the heart of the mountains, makes it even less appealing.
Yet it is this isolation that makes the Doan so appealing for me. While some slopes in the Mournes, Donard in particular, can become congested on a good day, I have only ever met one person treking to the Doan and that was while I was coming away from it.
It took me two hours to climb there today and I spent an hour just sitting there and relishing the silence and the full panorama of the Mournes all around me. Slieve Donard and Comedagh, to their left the craggy summit of Bernagh and then the twins of Meelmore and Meelbeg (top left) - although contrary to what the Irish names suggest Meelbeg (little mountain) is actually bigger - by a few metres - than Meelmore (big mountain).
Below me was Lough Shannagh, Carn Mountain and Slieve Muck, further south I could see the made-made Silent Valley Reservoir and beyond it the mountains fell away to a flat pensinsula that opened on to Carlingford Lough and on the opposite shore the Cooley Mountains in Co Louth. Then turning again were some of the finest and most spectacular peaks in the Mournes - Slieve Binnian and Slieve Lamagan and between them, in the distance, lies the Irish Sea.
There were no sounds except for a few circling ravens, a couple of tricking rivulettes and the wind. Don't go there. You wouldn't like it. Do Donard instead, its far more exiciting.

Monday, 16 February 2009

La Ronde

IT can only be an encouraging sign when someone gets up and leaves a theatre just five minutes into a play and another handful don’t come back after the interval.
La Ronde has its comic moments but the muttering of some members of the audience had me grinning as much as anything that was said or done on the stage. “Oh Holy God no!” was the most notable exclamation of the night as it became clear that two male actors were about to kiss on stage.
La Ronde was written in 1900 by Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler but was not performed for another 20 years when it caused a riot and aroused personal anti-Semitic attacks on the author. There were no ‘gay scenes’ in the original production in which all the interactions was strictly heterosexual so God knows what its critics in the 1920s would have made of the production performed at Downpatrick Arts Centre on Saturday night.
There are 10 separate sexual encounters in the La Ronde between The Whore and The Soldier, The Soldier and The Parlour Maid, The Parlour Maid and The Young Gentleman and so on until the play ends with a final encounter involving a whore once again.
Each encounter explores a different dynamic or aspect of sexual relationships – adultery, exploitation, domination etc. It also explores the theme of sex as a leveller on the various strata of society whereby, for example, the social stations separating The Parlour Maid and The Young Gentleman become irrelevant as they become lovers.
Where this production diverges from the original play, and expands on the original theme, is to subvert the traditional roles and to introduce same-sex encounters.
In the first scene The Whore is a male prostitute and The Soldier is a woman and in the next scene it is the female soldier who makes love to The Parlour Maid – at which point the first member of the audience to depart made his exit. Scene six in the original play is an encounter between ‘The Husband and the Little Miss’ but in this production the Little Miss becomes a Young Sir.
While these same-sex encounters bring a new dimension to the play it does create a narrative flaw to La Ronde in which the final encounter is between The Count and The Whore – but this whore is female as opposed to the male prostitute we saw at the start.
La Ronde translates as ‘the circle’ and I think the intention was to complete the circle by having the 10 characters all linked to one another through sex, but then maybe I’m being overly pedantic.
This was an excellent, sensual production in which five actors took on the various roles – two female and three male. There was much, stripping and caressing, kissing and toe-sucking, fondling and writhing – however, the actual act of sex was portrayed through a tango – each one different to illustrate the different dynamics between the various couples.
The tangos were danced to the background of classic punk and new wave songs played in a Bossa Nova style – Love Will Tear Us Apart (Joy Division), Teenage Kicks (Undertones), Heart of Glass (Blondie) This Is Not A Love Song (Public Image Ltd) and even Too Drunk to Fuck (The Dead Kennedys). At the time I though it would make a great soundtrack and only after we got home and Sinead did a bit of online research did we discover that it was all the work of a French group called Nouvelle Vague.
The production was by a theatre group called Love & Madness, who brought a production Shakespeare’s The Tempest to the same venue last year which also involved a lot of highly stylised choreography. Hopefully they’ll be back again next year.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Kíla - Féile An Earraraigh

Each of the musicians who make up Kíla could hold an audience enthralled and sometimes it is a shame that their individual musicianship is lost in the wall of sound that dominates their concerts.
Not that the audience minded on Friday night at the Marquee outside Kelly’s Cellars in Belfast with many happy to leap around the place.
In a group of seven people in which four play traditional lead instruments – whistle, flute, uilleann pipes and fiddle – it is perhaps strange that the instrumental sound that defines them comes from the bodhran player Ronan Ó Snodaigh, who also takes on most of the vocals.
His drumming style is as individualistic as his singing voice with both owing more to tribal ceremonies of Australian Aborigines or North American Indians than Irish tradition.
He sings as Gaeilge (in Irish) in a staccato, almost rap like delivery while his drumming would cause an enemy tribe charging into an attack to stop short, do an about turn and run for the hills.
Ronan’s brother Colm played flute while a third Ó Snodaigh sibling, Rossa, swapped between mandolin and whistle and sometimes probably even played them both at the same time, for this is a multi-skilled band who seem to change instruments with songs.
Even Kíla’s only female member, Dee Armstrong, took a turn at bashing the drum kit and various bongos.
Lance and Brian Hogan on guitar and bass also took turns at percussion duties while Uilleann piper Eoin Dillon unstrapped his pipes for some acrobatics.
At one point all the group members abandoned their instruments to chant a backing to Ronan’s bodhran and lead vocal on one of their best known songs, ‘Bí An’.
Kíla often build their sound into a crescendo, distorting their instruments through various effects pedals in a sonic ensemble in which you struggle to distinguish what is flute, fiddle or pipes – although always through it all is that pounding Ó Snodaigh bodhran.
As a quick listen to any of their albums will confirm, Kíla’s members can all slow down and show off their individual instrumental techniques but in live situations they seem to have little appetite for such finesse and their aim seems to bombard their audience with a full-on aural assault.
You’ll never hear anyone say shhhh at a Kíla gig.
The band have a good website with some tracks and video footage at

Friday, 6 February 2009

The Pillar of Cloud by Francis Stuart

In the war-shattered remains of a German town occupied by the French Dominic Malone tries to stay warm in a freezing room and stave off his constant hunger with meagre rations. Dominic, an Irish poet, had spent the Second World War in Germany and now lives among the defeated.
He becomes close to two displaced Polish sisters, Halka and Lisette. Halka was incarcerated in a concentration camp during the war and later in a mental institute where she was regularly electrocuted as part of her treatment. Dominic is attracted to Halka because of what she suffered but it is only after he is also incarcerated and questioned about why he spent the war in Germany that Halka begins to come close to him.
In a postscript to this 1994 edition of the Pillar of Cloud (first published in 1948) Stuart writes: “I suppose a central impulse in compiling The Pillar of Cloud… was to record my conviction… that pain and anguish are great evolutionary forces through which mind and heart, nervous system and psyche, mature and develop in complexity.”
Dominic had believed that out of the carnage that had swept over Europe during the war years would emerge a new type of society in which old materialistic values would be rejected.
A “Rumanian” called Petrov, shares Dominic’s hopes and says he has found signs of a new way of thinking in some obscure French literary magazines.
Petrov tells Dominic: “Scattered through little magazines and reviews that are only read by a few people are the new words of annunciation and despair… they went down to the uttermost end of desolation by the words they have brought back with them – words that could not have been spoken before, words that have been formed in that particular world-darkness, and the only words that have encompassed the darkness and not been encompassed by it.” P64
However, he says that only a few of those who survived the war had been truly transformed while for most people: “these torments have not borne fruit.” P64
Dominic’s hopes for a new sort of society are also undermined by the attitudes that he experiences around him but he is comforted to know that Halka shares his disillusion.
“It was good to feel her sharing his hatred of all the mediocrity, staleness, the tame, stale sentiment, or all the belittlement and diminishing of the heart.”P68
Petrov’s disillusion leads him to abandon hope in a new society emerging. He tells Dominic: “I lived with the faith that Europe was emerging from the darkness that had fallen on her with a new vision.” But he had abandoned that belief. “We live in a world delivered up to the Beast of mediocrity armed with the weapons of destruction, and the only thing to do is come to terms with it.” P157
Yet for Dominic his faith that a new type of humanity should emerge is the only thing that could justify all the death and destruction that took place during the war. He realises that he must be true to that vision by marrying the seriously ill Lisette to try to get her back to Ireland for the sake of her health even though it is Halka who he loves and who he may never see again.
It is this act of self-sacrifice by Dominic that allows Halka to come to terms with the suffering that she went through and to restore her belief in humanity, even if that is limited to a few individuals like Dominic.
The Pillar of Cloud is a vehicle through which Stuart explores his belief that “pain and anguish” can be redemptive factors that can lead to good.
Dominic says: “I needed a war and hunger and cold and imprisonment. I needed all those things before my eyes were opened enough to see a good woman.” P188
He contrasts his attitude with that of his uncle who lived out the war in security in Ireland and ignorance of what was happening in Europe.
“In order to enjoy a good game of golf and come back to a glass or two of sherry in a well-appointed club house, one must tacitly believe in the sacredness of property, in the sacredness of marriage, in the security of society, in the police force, in the established system of education. Dominic might once more play golf and even enjoy it, but it would always be with his tongue in his cheek, always with an amused wonder at there really being such a thing as golf links left in the world.”p189
In his novel The Angel of Pity, written in the early 1930s, Stuart envisages a post-war scenario and writes: “Show me the being who has suffered most and I would feel more humble before him or her than in the presence of the greatest geniuses that the world recognises. I would know beyond doubt that he had gone further towards finding the eternal truth than anyone else, whether as an artist, a lover, a saint or in some more obscure capacity. He would be bound to have at least some qualities of these three types because his being would be developed to the greatest fullness of experience.” (The Angel of Pity P72)
The Pillar of Cloud was Stuart’s first novel to be published after the Second World War, during which he lived in Berlin. After the war he spent several years in southern Germany, Austria and France a refugee and was imprisoned by the victorious Allies. It echoes his pre-war philosophy but is given added depth because he is able to draw on real life experiences.
The philosophies expressed by the narrator are clearly Stuart’s and they would continue to inform all his post war fiction in which he constantly created scenarios in which a damaged individual would find himself at odds with a materialistic world and only find solace in the company of a few like-minded, and equally damaged, companions.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Control - Ian Curtis biopic

The problem for a lot of rock-star biopics is that their central characters are so well-known that the actors who portray them have to bear at least a passing resemblance to make the film seem credible.
The film John and Yoko took on two of the most iconic figures in rock history but when I watched it I kept thinking that Mark McGann and Kim Miyori sort of looked a bit like Lennon and Ono, but not quite.
Perhaps the most successful example of the genre was Oliver Stone's The Doors in which Val Kilmner became a near-dead ringer for Jim Morrison - both in terms of looks and how he sang - while Kyle McLachlan was a more than passable Ray Manzerak.
Sam Riley's depiction of Ian Curtis in Control is uncanny - not so much when he is just being a clerk in a job centre than when he is performing on stage.
His facial contortions while he sings and the twitching body movements perfectly captured the few video snatches that still exist of Curtis on stage with Joy Division.
The band emerged from Manchester in the late 1970s on the back of punk.
It is probably a bit of cliché for films set in the north of England to be filmed in black and white, cashing in on the 'its grim up north' stereotype.
But it works here because Joy Division was such a stark band ¬ stripped down instrumentation and dark lyrics.
Control, directed by Anton Corbijn, is based on the book Touching From a Distance, written by Curtis’s wife Debbie about her relationship with her husband who died by suicide in 1980 aged just 23.
It takes us from when Curtis is at school and meets and marries Debbie when they are both still teenagers and before he becomes involved in music.
They are shown standing at a Sex Pistols concert, Curtis mesmerised and Debbie nestling in to him, clearly uncomfortable with the pogoing bodies all around her.
Curtis has a dual existence as an efficient and friendly clerk in a job centre who lives in a terraced house with his wife and baby daughter while at the same time fronting the edgy and innovative Joy Division.
It is far from the romanticised image of a rock star, particularly after Curtis collapses suffering from an epileptic fit and is put on a dozen different medicines that bring him our in rashes and cause his gums to bleed.
When on tour he meets Annick, a Belgian fan, with whom Curtis begins an affair.
Each time he comes off tour he returns to his terraced house where his wife and child are waiting for him and his underwear is hung out to dry in the kitchen.
He loves two women and can not give up one to commit himself to the other and the Control does not try to judge him on that, although given that it is based on Debbie’s recollections there is more depth to her than to Annick.
The film worked for me because it fleshed out a story that I was already half aware of and was based on a singer and a band that I always respected but didn’t really know that much about. Yet I surprised myself by recognising nearly all the featured tracks in Control even though I have never owned a Joy Division album and had only really heard their material on various compilation albums.
Curtis is portrayed as the epitome of the tortured artist, writing poetic lyrics, delivering passionate performances, battling a debilitating illness and, as he testified in his most famous song, being torn apart by love and ultimately driven to join the notorious pantheon of musicians who died long before their time. See my dead rock stars report here.