Fintan O'Toole reviews Hurl at the Galway Arts Festival while Michael Dervan witnesses an astonishing performance from Nigel Kennedy at the National Concert Hall.  Meanwhile, Sylvia Thompson finds the Saigon Water Puppets show at The Helix is a joy for adults and children.


Black Box, Galway Arts Festival

Advertising thrives on hyperbole, but there is something not entirely ridiculous about those Guinness hurling ads that use images of giants and ancient epics. Hurling is a realm of living legend, a field of the imagination in which Cuchulainn stalks Croke Park and Semple Stadium. It is therefore somewhat surprising that Irish theatre, with its strong mythic strain, has never really tried to exploit the game's potential to bring dreams and reality, the timeless and the contemporary, into convincing contact.

The theatrical possibilities of sport were opened up for the Irish theatre by Paul Mercier's soccer play, Studs, in 1986, and Hurl, Charlie O'Neill's hurling fantasia for Barabbas, acknowledges the inspiration. The connection is intimate and direct.

O'Neill himself was a memorable performer in Mercier's original production. Eamonn Hunt, who played the tormented, driven manager in Studs, plays the tormented, alcoholic ex-missionary priest who manages the Freetown Slashers, a motley hurling team of asylum-seekers, Irish of mixed ancestry and locals in a western town. The mix of narrative, dialogue and sporting re-enactment is broadly similar.

At a deeper level, too, O'Neill is grappling with the same kind of ambiguity that made Studs so rich: the tension between the hard reality of politics and the pure play of sport. Mercier both celebrated and undercut the ecstatic release of soccer; O'Neill contends, not always successfully, with a similar ambivalence.

Hurl is a game of two halves. On the one hand, there is the fun and fantasy of a hurling team made up of Africans, Latin Americans and Bosnians, the Hollywood-style story of success against the odds. On the other, O'Neill is far too politically astute not to insist precisely that this is a fantasy. He wants to show us, too, the real world in which people end up in Ireland because they are fleeing unspeakable horrors and in which, when they get here, they face an often cruel asylum system.

It is no damning criticism to say that this makes for a sometimes uncomfortable mix. It may be that there is no way to resolve the tension honestly. To leave out the mythic reverie would be to deny the genuine excitement inherent in the emergence of a multicultural society. To leave out the often brutal reality would be to tell a crude lie. If Hurl has an uncertain array of modes and moods, it is probably because, as things stand, the story of Ireland's encounter with immigration is a narrative with a confused beginning, a murky middle and an unknown end.

What it is reasonable to expect, though, is an inventive, suggestive and enjoyable show, and this is what we get with Hurl. The multi-ethnic team that goes out on the field is backed up by a backroom crew of All- Ireland quality, led by director Raymond Keane. Robert Ballagh's virtuoso design is splendidly lit by John Comiskey. With Marie Tierney's clever costumes, David Bolger's elegant movement direction, Brian Fleming's pulsating score performed by De jimbe, and an array of puppets, projections and remote-controlled models, the production values are exceptionally high.

Keane, of course, is completely confident with physical theatre, gesture and spectacle, and the disparate cast is obviously imbued with that confidence. The skills are mostly collective, and Hurl scores most heavily, not in conventional drama, but in the tightly choreographed and athletic sequences that evoke the majesty of the game itself. But Hunt's haunted Lofty carries an impressive weight of conviction. Alan Wai rather startlingly fuses the spirits of Bruce Lee and D.J. Carey. Dystin Johnson is a forceful presence as the ebullient Fatmata. Eoin Lynch, Daniel Kobbina, Paul Tylak and Diane O'Keefe pick their way deftly through an array of character cameos. And at the heart of the piece, Anthony Ofoegbu is an immensely dignified presence.

Even if the game plan is not always clear, there is enough wit, energy, discipline and skill to make this a winning performance, Like the team it depicts, Hurl may not be quite at ease with the subtler skills of the form, but its heart, its funny-bone and its brain are in the right place and it swings its hurley in the right direction.

Hunt, Casey, ICO/Nigel Kennedy

National Concert Hall, Dublin

Strings A-stray - Elaine Agnew, Violin Concerto in A minor - Bach, Concerto for violin and oboe BWV1060 - Bach, Violin Concerto in E - Bach, Double Violin Concerto - Bach

You could easily make a case for regarding Nigel Kennedy as a violinist who wears his heart on his sleeve. It's not really that simple, though, and not just because, given Kennedy's taste in clothes, his sleeve is the antithesis of what you'd expect at a classical concert. His music-making is pretty well in a class of its own, and he goes to a lot of trouble to make sure that his audience registers the fact.

We live in an age when illusion and presentation appear to be paramount, whether in the peddling of war, mass-market foods, or the latest special effect out of Hollywood. In musical performance the acme of this phenomenon is the world of digital recording and the manicured fabrications it yields on CD.

Since the advent of recording, and particularly because of the perfectibility imposed by tape-editing, the everyday concert has found itself in competition with the polished products of the studio.

Performers in concert have had to worry as never before about their musical warts - the accidents, the wrong notes, the sheer unpredictability that music-making can involve, and that digital technology, in particular, can, as if by magic, eliminate.

Kennedy's aim, as evidenced with the Irish Chamber Orchestra, is to restore to his listeners a direct awareness of something malleable being caught in the moment of its creation. He wants everyone to know that any piece he plays doesn't have to go this particular way, and that it definitely would have gone some other way had he not intervened with his physical weaving, his stomping, or his double-footed jumps.

Unlike many another virtuoso approaching the music of the 18th century, Kennedy didn't insist in any of his four Bach concertos on always being the musical centre of attention, nor did he play any louder than the music required.

He eschewed false rhetoric, like a speaker refusing to raise his voice, in the sure knowledge that the content and clarity of what he has to say will get him all the attention he needs.

He's obviously taken account of the period-instrument movement. There was an airiness in his articulation, a spring in his fast movements and a fluidity in the slow ones to make that clear. His Bach danced as well as sang. And in violinist Fionnuala Hunt and oboist Aisling Casey he had two concerto partners of interestingly different bent to engage with. As a special treat for his listeners he offered the finales to both double concertos as encores, allowing the audience the choice of hearing them faster or slower, knowing in advance that one outcome - the faster and more dangerous one - was almost inevitable.

Kennedy's show involves banter from the stage, and in a long sequence of improvisation-rich encores, he traversed the aisles of the concert hall, talking to audience members while he played, "discovered" flautist Brian Dunning on his travels and brought him back up to the stage, and generally gave the impression that if he could play the violin standing on his head for someone's pleasure, he would have done so. The one thing he didn't do was participate in Elaine Agnew's Strings A-stray at the start of the evening, which Fionnuala Hunt directed with her customary aplomb.

The audience, which had accepted his invitation for a standing ovation for the orchestra after the first concerto, received his astonishing performances with the enthusiasm they deserved.

The Saigon Water Puppets

Mahony Hall, Helix, DCU, Dublin

A big tub of warm water lapped gently in front of a giant brightly coloured pagoda placed in front of the stage. Musicians took their seats to the left, to provide music and narration. We were introduced to the show in English. Then it was sink or swim: the show is in Vietnamese. Drums, bells and flags heralded the arrival of the first little wooden character, soon to be followed by dragons spitting fire and water. We were immediately drawn into the magic of a 1,000-year-old tradition, unique to Vietnam.

Puppets harvesting rice reminded us that water puppetry began in the flooded fields of the monsoon as a form of entertainment for visiting royalty. The younger children enjoyed the next few vignettes - a little band of ducklings swimming around, followed by a line of exotic-looking, leaping salmon.

My favourite was the troupe of dancing puppets who flitted across the water in sequence. The four mythological creatures of Vietnam - dragon, turtle, phoenix and unicorn - signalled the show's end with swirling, tumbling movements as the music reached a climax. However, the most striking moment came when the eight puppeteers emerged from behind the green bamboo curtain. Standing waist-deep in the warm water, they bowed before returning behind the curtains. Next, we saw pairs of hands flapping playfully in the water, a reminder of their skilful hand manoeuvres during the hour-long show. Afterwards, the children were content to feel the warm water and admire the unusual instruments, but I suspect the adults were, like myself, left with a longing to visit Vietnam.

Continues until July 27th; then at Cork Opera House from July 29th to August 3rd