Reviews

Mon, Nov 12, 2007, 00:00

Irish Timeswriters review a selection of events

Riddley Walker, The Big Top, Woodlands Hotel, Waterford

Once upon a time Russell Hoban wrote enduring books for children such as The Little Brute Familyand the justifiably acclaimed The Mouse and His Child. Then he grew up. His novel Riddley Walker(1980) is one result of his experience of maturation, and from this Red Kettle staging of Hoban's adaptation, it seems that he has pressed, sometimes press-ganged, into it everything he learned and heard on the way. It should be said at once that whatever happens in the narrative progression of this story, the presentation is terrific. The raked and shelved set design by Ben Hennessy, the costumes by Joan Hickson, the accurately agile movement from Eoin Lynch, Conleth White's lighting and the musical score from Jamie Beamish and Torann are declarations of the highest values of talents and creativity in a union of shared commitment. The large cast, led by Cormac McDonagh as the brave, vulnerable and eternally seeking Riddley, is fully engaged and, even when the incoherent veers towards the incomprehensible, always maintains a reassuring aura of knowing what's going on. The location in a circus tent indicates intention: this is big, bold and, from the second the lights go up, brilliant.

So it remains for the entire first act, an enthralling entertainment lurching from a future in which glades, caverns and cliffs house tribes in search of their history and speaking a language that has to be decoded like a cryptic crossword. Within the frame of a post-cataclysmic society connected through fit-up plays, Hoban has constructed a mythic world as compelling as anything from Troy to Camelot. It is only when myth collapses into allegory that things fall apart, beginning with the revelation that this clan is literate and has a surviving document which it can read but not interpret.

But the audience can, and once we know more than the tribe, the metaphors dissolve into all too intelligible references. The fit-up plays are transformed into satanic and cannibalistic Punch and Judy, there are hints both of King Lear and Ground Zero (Hoban is a recognised prophet but maybe this was a deliberate updating?), to nuclear winters, to a big bang to end all big bangs, and, as Riddley's journey brings him either to Canterbury or Stonehenge, to a suspicion that Hoban is a rolling stone that has gathered too much moss. And as the spangled roof of the tent palpitates gently during the long last hour of this three-hour performance, there is time to ponder the relevance to Red Kettle of the prominent thematic image of St Eustace, whose envisioned stag with a crucifix between his antlers becomes Riddley's grail. As with many other questions in this magical production, enthusiastically directed by Ben Hennessy, no answer is forthcoming and we are left wondering but elated. Mary Leland

To November 17th.

Kurt Wagner, Tripod, Dublin

Kurt Wagner doesn't know what he's doing here. At least, that's what he tells us. "I forgot to bring my band," he frowns mid-way through his set in Tripod. "I'm doing songs you don't know. I'm drinking water." In other circumstances these would all be capital offences for the leader of an alt-country band - particularly the water drinking - but in this utterly beguiling, uniquely low-key performance, Wagner need make no apology.

His usual band, Lambchop, has a membership so frequently rotating that it can now be gauged only by official estimates. Reducing its endeavours - and the lush, skewed symphonies for which it is famed - to a one-man show could have been the surest way of alienating Lambchop fans.

Wagner could not spell out tonight's more minimal agenda better than with his entrance, announcing his presence at the back of Tripod's auditorium with a cappella blast as he works his way slowly through the crowd towards the stage. For the main part he performs in near darkness, his trademark trucker cap and thick-framed glasses just about perceptible from the LED glow of his music stand.

Tonight is divided between two kinds of song, the "new and obscure" - those he is working on and those rediscovered.

As though to underscore the evening's focus on song craft, he affixes a single piece of sheet music to a clothesline above his head with the conclusion of each number. When he has made a paper curtain, we'll know the night is finished. "This is the quietest Dublin audience ever," he remarks at one point, but, though he invites questions through the evening, this is also the quietest Kurt Wagner ever; his brittle, Lou Reed huskiness drawing a warm blanket over the shimmering arpeggios of his Gibson guitar. Some of these songs, gorgeously spare in their delivery, will be infuriatingly difficult to get hold of - It's Impossible being an apposite example. Peter Crawley