Dazed and confused

 

Irish Times writers review events at the Dublin theatre festivals

Dublin Theatre Festival

Tragedia Endogonidia, Samuel Beckett Theatre

On the night that Romeo Castellucci's Tragedia Endogonidia opened in Dublin the evening news programmes were showing, along with the usual reports of casual murder, the video of a US aircraft bombing Iraqis with the triumphant war cry "Dude!" and a Palestinian father clutching a photograph of the daughter shot by the Israeli army while she was baking bread. So the 30-odd people who walked out of the performance (the largest walkout I've seen in Dublin) were paying the show a rather undeserved compliment. They found upsetting what I found merely disheartening.

Tragedia Endogonidia derives rather obviously from the theories propounded by Antonin Artaud. Noting how the catastrophe of the plague had stimulated so much great European art, Artaud said he wanted to create a theatre that would give audiences an equivalent experience, so that "they will be terrified, and awaken". Artaud's ideas, expounded in the 1920s and 1930s, form the basis for most of the theatrical avant-garde. Castellucci's deeply problematic work shows how, 75 years on, those ideas need to be completely rethought.

If anything is characteristic of our cultural moment it is that terror does not wake us up. Politically, societies assaulted by terrorism tend to go into a deep freeze, reverting to atavistic instincts. Morally, as we know from our daily lives, the bombardment of media images of extreme violence and suffering does not awaken us but leaves us in a daze of disconnection and depression. A genuine 21st-century avant-garde would test new ways of engaging with these conditions. Tragedia Endogonidia, though, is very much in the recycling business.

What we've got in Dublin is the fourth episode of a projected 11-episode piece. The slice we are served was in fact prepared for a festival in Brussels in May last year, and, given that Castellucci makes much of the specificity of each episode to the city of its origin, part of the problem may be that Dublin gets it second hand. This isn't the only second-hand aspect of the show, however. It draws on an eclectic mix of sources, from Grand Guignol to silhouette theatre and from Beckett's short, wordless experiments to contemporary excursions in multimedia sensory overload. The ability of Castellucci and his company to master these disparate influences is almost as striking as their inability to say very much in so many languages.

The show consists of a sequence of episodes that unfold in an open cube lined with grey-and-white marble and lit by six fluorescent tubes. A woman mops the floor for a long time. Next, in the most disconcerting image, the curtain parts to reveal a crudely sculpted head on one side and a real baby on the other. The baby looks at the audience, tries to crawl and starts to cry. The head speaks. The curtain is drawn again. Morally dubious though it may be to use a baby in this way, the scene is unsettling, and if the show had stopped there it would have been at least a provocative gesture.

The baby is followed, however, by a very old man with a long grey beard, dressed in a garish bikini. He clothes himself, slowly and tortuously, in exotic priestly garb and then puts a policeman's uniform on over it. Eventually, he is joined by three other men in similar uniforms. One of them strips to his underpants and lies down in a pool of "blood". The other two beat him with truncheons for a very long time while the audience is assaulted with white noise. He is then wrapped in a black plastic bag, and a microphone is placed at his mouth, so we can listen to his amplified groans and whimpers. Two women and a boy enter in 19th-century costumes and make various gestures. In the final scene the old man wraps a bandage round his head, gets into a bed and gradually sinks from view.

It was the violence of the beating sequence that seemed to prompt the walkouts, but it struck me as much more phoney than shocking. The one time you can be sure people are not hurting each other is when an actor is being hit onstage. It is a kind of dumb literalism that undercuts the minimal aesthetic for which Castellucci seemed to be striving, just as the bombast of the soundtrack became a short cut to the much tougher task of unsettling us theatrically. If it all adds up to anything, it is simply to offer more evidence that the avant-garde is falling further behind the times.

Runs until Saturday

Fintan O'Toole

Tom Thumb, The Ark

Lyngo Theatre Company's one-man show suffers from the lack of a second actor - or even of a few puppets. Patrick Lynch's innovative blend of storytelling and theatre is at times compelling, but the detail and complexity of the story go over the heads of many of the under-sevens in the audience. The performance is at its best when Lynch draws on his imaginative props: feathers on a stick become birds, branches evoke a forest and more feathers conjure up snow. The young audience struggles to build a vivid picture of any character other than Tom, however. We get glimpses of Tom's father, mother and six brothers, as well as the lady who gives shelter to Tom and his brothers, but we engage only with Tom. The audience may well remember the tiny house flying across the stage to show how far from home the children were, but did they understand why the children were left in the wood? The dark message of the poor woodcutter abandoning his children in the forest and their fortuitous return with seven silver crowns was, I fear, missed by many. No matter how clever, funny or unusual it is, innovation is never a substitute for a story sincerely pitched at your target audience.

Ends tomorrow

Sylvia Thompson

Dublin Fringe Festival

The Arts Club, SS Michael & John

Before punters enter this hilariously banal installation (I suppose that's the word, although ruder ones suggest themselves) they are handed a list of terse commands, at the bottom of which is a plea not to reveal too much of what lies within to the next participants. My apologies. Grabbing rubbishy art material and a scrap of black paper, you make your way towards a glass box containing a nude blue woman draped in replicas of the world's flags and attached to an intravenous drip. She is Earth, you see, and Earth is sick. Should you wish to see the hopeless sketch that I was encouraged to draw, it will, alongside everybody else's, be on display at the Sustainable Living Festival, in Temple Bar, later this month. Mine is the one incorporating the legend "Oh, spare us". The event is in aid of an admirable programme supporting volunteer doctors overseas. I'd stay at home and send a cheque if I were you.

Runs until Saturday

Donald Clarke

Ay Carmela! New Theatre

Carmela (Charlotte Bradley) is dead when we first see her - and there is still almost two and a half hours to go in BareBones' production of Jose Sanchis Sinisterra's play. Mind you, it seems to make little difference if the characters are dead or alive in this moribund production set in the Spanish Civil War, the action of which goes in and out of flashback. Carmela and Paulino (Lenny Hayden) are husband-and-wife comedians and dancers who entertain fascist troops until Carmela decides she doesn't agree with their politics. They then shoot her dead. The troops could simply have been objecting to the couple's dire performances. Why does a supposedly Spanish character speak with a strong Irish accent? Why does Carmela keep coming back from the dead to tell Paulino that another dead person is pinching her arse? And why does it go on so long? A torturous mess.

Runs until Sunday

Rosita Boland

Bones For Otto, Focus Theatre

You'd think a whore from any other country would still look beat. Not so in Romania, according to the author and actress Lia Bugnar, where going on the game is less like the oldest profession and more like a freelance gig to make up for a shortfall. Despite her fishnet stockings and wig of dreadlocks, Bugnar's hooker is tough but by no means hardened; her counterpart, a newbie workingthe same strip of highway, played by Dorina Chiriac, surely has a spiritual mother in Giulietta Massina in Nights Of Cabiria (right down to the fathomless, expressive eyes). That the play is a metaphor for the desperate financial state of Romania's artistic community is clear, if somewhat unwieldy, but at bottom it's a sweet tale of female bonding that can't but seduce.

Runs until Sunday

Susan Conley

Chairs, Project

When considering improvised theatre one sometimes thinks of Samuel Johnson's dog walking on its hind legs: it may not be done well, but it is a surprise to see it done at all. Chicago's Carnikid Productions does a decent job of dispelling such musings in this lively, relentlessly comic show. The young actors have an uncanny ability to locate and flesh out stimulating characters, even if they have some trouble finding useful things to do with them. The evening begins with a game of musical chairs - to Toploader's Dancing In The Moonlight of all things - following which one performer finds himself plonked in the protagonist's seat. On the first night this was stout Jay Olsen, and his tale of a sensitive architect oppressed by a macho hard ass of a dad used a common theme in US literature as a vehicle for any amount of surreal high jinks. Perhaps the company shouldn't laugh quite so hard at its own jokes, though.

Runs until Saturday

Donald Clarke

Dance On Glasses, SFX

We have been vastly misled about the "axis of evil". While music concerts have been forced to cancel this week in Tehran, Mehr Theatrical Group's production of Amir Reza Koohestani's third play lifts the veil on Iran to reveal a religious, personal and physical divide. From remote ends of a long table, the possessive instructor Forud (Ali Moini) encourages and admonishes the wilful Shiva (Sharare Mansourabadi) in the dangerous art of dancing on upside- down glasses. The gulf between Shiva, a Hindu, and Forud, a Shia Muslim, may seem as deep as the chasm between Islamic ululations and the power chords of Metallica. But, in a reflection of Iranian youth culture, Koohestani finds space for both. Ultimately, though, amid endless voice-over meditations, counting games and one-sided conversations (otherwise known as prattle), one is left with the impression not of revolution but of stasis. And in their pained meanderings Islamic law thaws into Dawson's Creek and the story demystifies into the mundane.

Runs until Sunday

Peter Crawley

Doublethink, Liberty Hall

It all starts simply enough: two guest performers, invited by the UK company Rotozaza, inhabit areas marked out by masking tape on the floor of Liberty Hall's basement venue. A flat, uninflected voice issues commands that range from "Turn in a circle" to "Try, and fail, to relieve yourself of sadness". It seems a straightforward blend of existential silliness and B.F. Skinner- style behaviourism, as the guests, treated like hostages by the theatre company's facilitators, appear to execute the often abstract demands with some hope of reward. When chaos eventually ensues the piece becomes a fascinating exercise in psychological puppetry, as the two company members join the guests onstage, who become more and more confident as their "masters" fall to pieces. It all transforms into a weird but superb deconstruction of notions of relationship and is a triumph of technological and conceptual prowess in the guise of bare-bones avant-gardism.

Runs until Sunday

Susan Conley

El Silencio, New Theatre

Outside the theatre the eponymous silence of Cali Teatro's production is menacing and dangerous. Inside the theatre it is broken by the murder of a pregnant woman, the first of many violent scenes narrated by the four actors, who play inside and outside their unfinished script as they wait for El Calvo, their writer and director, to appear and lead them towards an ending. With more than a nod to Brecht, Beckett and Pirandello, this Colombian production is a metanarrative that exposes the theatre of war, the theatre of cruelty, the theatre of the dead and, above all, the violent reality of the lives of the actors themselves, who tell us: "There are no metaphors. It's all true. Everything is true." An intelligent and engaging piece of theatre, El Silencio's only frustration is that the fast pace demands fast reading of the surtitles: inevitably, some meaning is lost.

Runs until Sunday

Fíona Ní Chinnéide

Everybody Into The Pool, Project

Site-specific dance can redefine and re-create spaces that habit teaches you to ignore. This gem of a piece, short but perfectly formed, discovers its performing space for the first time for most of the audience. Rebecca Walters's work always exhibits lashings of quirky humour, and this collaboration between her company, Catapult, and Spitroast Productions, with Hugh O'Neill, is no exception. Like human Silly Putty, Walters bounces and bends up and down the terrace fronting Project arts centre, leaping in a springy imitation of Irish dancing, and displaying nifty footwork, but also pausing to present impressive imagery, such as Walters in her coral costume against the cobalt wall, or her waving to the plastic-mac-clad audience before gazing wistfully into the street. The final sequence is one of the most amusing I've seen in any dance piece. Walking down East Essex Street will never be the same again.

Runs until Sunday

Christine Madden

Plays For The Poor Theatre: Gum And Goo & Christie In Love, SS Michael & John

The interesting Cellar Door company, from Berlin, offers this double bill of plays by Howard Brenton. It is a pity that it has not come with better material, for these 35-year-old works are creakily showing their age. Gum And Goo has at its centre a severely autistic girl. She is surrounded by unloving parents, cruel youths and the eponymous creatures who live inside her head in an upside-down world. Her situation is tragic. Then comes Christie In Love, with the notorious murderer under the spotlight. Two policemen capture and interrogate him in a number of surreal and at times distasteful scenes. Neither play illuminates the psyches or conditions it seeks to probe; both exploit them. But the excellent acting (by Rebecca Sponseller, Andrew Weale, Tomas Spencer and Simon Newby) and direction (by Lydia Steler) make the night worthwhile.

Runs until Sunday

Gerry Colgan

H, SS Michael & John

"Let us do away with this foolish adherence to text," croaks Deirdre Roycroft through the gloom of one working light. Reading carefully from No More Masterpieces, Antonin Artaud's dusty manifesto on the theatre of cruelty, Loose Canon's production adheres likewise to any number of texts in a stark collage of Artaud, Hamlet and The Oresteia. The lengthy script of Jason Byrne's programme note offers reasons, defences and a dramaturgical breakdown of the production - in short, an instruction manual. But Byrne's genius lies in beauteous presentation, fusing Greek myth and Shakespearian tragedy in electrical storms and blood baths. Shackled to such literalism, Byrne's embrace of theatre theory simply moves him from one library shelf to another while unwittingly alienating and denouncing his audience ("masses", "crowds" or "the public"). This conflicted production finds one of Ireland's boldest companies still yearning to break loose, still chained to the canon.

Runs until Sunday

Peter Crawley

Rubbish, Helix

You'd want a firm belief in the quality of your performance to call it Rubbish. The title refers supposedly to a television that breaks down, forcing the two contemporary clowns in Krepsko's production to amuse themselves and their audience. God, but life is boring without the box, and the clowns swivel about or go up and down on their chairs, try to play paper, scissors, rock and arm-wrestle before, miraculously, the television springs back to life. Monkey puppets appear within it, and draw the characters behind the screen as well, where they later appear as part of the programme. The live violin accompaniment adds humour and depth to the performance.

Runs until Sunday

Christine Madden

Southern Discomfort, International Bar

With just five adults in the audience, one might have expected the turnout to mute the performance of the US actor and writer Butch Hammett. But his one-man show of reminiscence, recollection and sexual perversion rolls along at a whip-crack pace. Hammett has fashioned a true story about a wide-eyed Southern country boy and his journey from the grit roads of Georgia to Manhattan. He takes on all the characters - himself as a boy, his parents, his holiday-camp counsellor Hoppy, his Vietnam-veteran friend Birddog, his girlfriends and his gay boss - and moulds them into shapes so realistic it's like watching a series of holographic performances. It's a tough, multifaceted monologue that touches on family dysfunction, sexual awakening and gradual acceptance of love. It's also one of the best fringe shows you'll see this week.

Runs until Sunday

Tony Clayton-Lea

Two For A Girl, Bewleys Café Theatre

Skipalong's second production is a competent two-hander with Mary Kelly and Noni Stapleton playing multiple roles. It's the story of Traveller Josie's brief affair with married settled man Michael, which results in the birth of baby Fran, and Josie's subsequent life-long ostracisation from her family. Fran is adopted by Michael and periodically visited by Josie. Not all of the roles that Kelly and Stapleton juggle between them are clearly delineated, which is confusing and unhelpful. Too often this production founders under the weight of its subject matter, trying far too hard to be politically correct at every turn and attempting to emotionally hijack its audience en route. The result is a show that feels technically worthy but theatrically insipid.

Runs until Sunday

Rosita Boland