Temple Bar TradFest
Bundle And Go, the title of one of the tune sets from Ciarán Ó Maonaigh and Aidan O’Donnell, offered an apt summary of this year’s Temple Bar TradFest. Straddling the biting cold of late January and the first, tentative taster of spring, this year’s festival caught the zeitgeist on a few occasions and ran with it as fast as its legs could carry it.
The Glackin brothers, Paddy, Seamus and Kevin opened the festival’s programme, followed by the ever-enticing piping of Paddy Keenan with guitar accompaniment from Tommy O’Sullivan.
Friday night’s packed programme proved a challenge for anyone with an appetite for great music. Ciarán Ó Maonaigh and Aidan O’Donnell kicked off a fine opening set with their pair of fiddles, and their growing confidence since last year’s appearance was tangible in their playing. Fiddling trios are a rare breed, but when Damien McGeehan joined them for Hiúdaí Gallagher’s Jig, the combination of Ó Maonaigh’s rapid-fire playing, O’Donnell’s loping bowing and McGeehan’s delicate string plucking proved the wisdom of expanding the original duo to a feverish threesome.
Liam O’Connor and Seán McKeon, sizzling on the eve of the release of their duo debut, Dublin Made Me, had a hesitant start with The Races Of Ballyhooley. It was a challenging opener, laden with history, and might have sat better if it were later in the mix. It was then that the pair found not so much a comfort zone as a heady plateau where they levitated once they’d sampled a trio of jigs headlined by Young Tom Ennis. The initially diffident interplay of pipes and fiddle gradually gave way to a blistering energy that epitomises O’Connor and McKeon’s evident passion for their music.
Over at the more informal Button Factory, the heady tunes from Montreal’s Genticorum were put to bed while O’Connor and McKeon held sway in the Project. Michael McGoldrick led a rhythm-fuelled foursome on a wonderfully merry dance there. With Dezi Donnelly on fiddle, John Joe Kelly on immaculate bodhrán and the transcendent Tim Edey on guitar, this was a session to be borne high into the night air with its dazzling array of tunes composed by McGoldrick himself, as well as sweet borrowings from John Doherty and Steve Cooney. A magical close to a scorching evening of music.
T With The Maggies proved a genteel gathering, with Tríona and Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill sharing a set list with Moya Brennan (from Clannad) and Altan’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. While at times their song choices lodged firmly within a safety net, still they embodied the essence of the tradition: ever evolving, ever curious about what lies around the next corner. An inventive collaboration that promises much more to come, given half a chance.
Wexford Opera House
Second Age Theatre’s latest production for secondary school audiences is a stylish, energetic and unconventional King Lear. Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain, it offers a coherent vision of Shakespeare’s characters and themes, while avoiding the easy clichés associated with the canonical tragedy: there is not a white beard in sight.
The proceedings begin with the ritual beat of a drum, the resonant oilcan-echo silencing the cavernous auditorium of Wexford’s Opera House. Michael Vale’s industrial scaffolded design evokes a factory setting. Lear’s kingdom might well be a manufacturing one, but as the play proceeds and the bodies pile up it begins to resemble an abattoir.
Gerard Murphy makes for a corpulent, choleric Lear, certainly less “sinned against than sinning”, despite the pathos evoked by his inevitable downfall, while Liam Hourican’s Edmund offers an engaging contemporary bad-boy edge to the “base, base, bastard” who sows the seeds of Lear’s ruin.
As Goneril and Regan, Lesley Conroy and Catherine Cusack play his villainous daughters like sexy vampish mutineers, thoroughly in command of their kingdoms and their men. Maeve Fitzgerald’s Cordelia, meanwhile, is thoroughly – and refreshingly – played against type. She is quietly defiant of hypocrisy in Act One, and, costumed in understated military-wear as she sets out to avenge her father, is both “dutiful daughter” and saviour of the kingdom, making her death the most tragic of all.
O’Briain employs choreographer Ella Clarke to orchestrate some effective fight-scenes, while Philip Stewart’s sound design contributes significantly to the tone and atmosphere of the production, most notably in the storm scene, where sheets of metal enhance the sense of an industrial tempest raging across the heath.
Projection is a problem for some of the supporting cast, and while the graphic portrayal of Gloucester’s blinding is effective it is also questionable: engaging the young audience, certainly, but inspiring a giddiness that never quite settles again. Thus Lear’s final moments are met with giggles rather than gasps of empathy or pity. However, while their reaction might be “unnatural”, “sharper than a serpent’s tooth” indeed, the whoops of appreciation at the end suggest an alternative, deeper understanding.
Town Hall Theatre, Galway, until Feb 7; Everyman Palace Cork, Feb 10-13; Helix Theatre, Feb 24-Mar 13
Limerick Unfringed Festival: The Magic Boy
36 Cecil Street, Limerick
Magic provides the metaphor for human connection in John Breen’s new play, The Magic Boy. Shaped as first-person confessional by professional magician Adam, the play unfolds on a miniature, tinselled theatre stage. This is Adam’s final gig, and as he charms the audience with the occasional memory trick, he seems more concerned with revealing the grand deceit at the heart of all magic. The illusion is created by the viewer, he insists. Magic is merely manipulation.
Breen’s writing is engagingly allusive in the first half of the play, conspiring mysteriously towards a big reveal, which unfortunately is never forthcoming, and in the second half of the 80-minute piece, with the appearance on stage of the eponymous magic boy (played by Joe Joe Gilvarry), the play descends into a trite tale of sentimental redemption. The big problem is that Adam has nothing to atone for. It is he who has been duped, he who has been manipulated, not merely by magic, but by the archetypal fallen woman, Eve.
What keeps The Magic Boyalive, however, is Malcolm Adams’s edgy performance, as he plays Adam with a “desperation like drowning”. As Adam, he philosophises about how a magician “re-directs your gaze away from where the magic happens”, and this is what Adams does with his own artful performance. It is an unnerving, natural performance that keeps the audience ill-at-ease as he moves between performing tricks and revealing his own story. It is a pity that the narrative does not facilitate a deeper exploration of the emotional vacuum that draws Adam into the artifice of magic – the artifice of Eve – in the first place.
Marcus Costello’s set and lighting creates an intimate cabaret environment in the Belltable’s temporary theatre space at 36 Cecil Street. The stage is framed like a puppet show, and an old-fashioned carpet thrusts the performance area down towards the auditorium floor, creating a sense of inclusivity between Adams and the audience. And it is in this sense of connection – fostered foremost by Adam’s raw, open and vulnerable performance – that the real magic of the evening happens.
Run finished. Unfringed runs until Sat.
In times of trouble, we search for our heroes in the most unlikely places. Who’d have thought a shy, beardy bloke with a guitar could possibly hold the key to Ireland’s financial salvation? During the New Hampshire singer’s show at the Olympia on Sunday – the first of two sold-out gigs at the venue – a woman in the audience called out: “Mr Lamontagne, our country is in a recession.” Was she hoping this spiritual singer would call on the lord above to heal our cash-strapped souls? Was she expecting Ray to bail our banks out with the earnings from his three top-selling albums? No, she simply wanted him to mark the occasion by singing his most popular song, Trouble. “Your best version,” she added.
Eventually, Ray Lamontagne obliged, but not before he’d treated the devoted to a selection of rootsy, grainy songs, ranging from the countrified soul of I Still Care for Youand Let it Be Meto the grit-speckled folk of Winter Birdsand the West Coast-flavoured Gossip in the Grain. And if it wasn’t his best version of Trouble, that’s probably because this was the shaky first date of his tour, and Lamontagne seems, several years into his success, to be still getting used to this whole performing in front of people thing.
The one-time lonesome woodsman is, however, clearly enjoying the dynamic range afforded by having a full band onstage with him. The ensemble included bassist Jennifer Condos, drummer Jay Bellerose and pedal steel player Eric Heywood, but Lamontagne shunned centre stage, preferring to stand stage right and keep the semi-circle unbroken.
Support act Priscilla Ahn added some haunting backing vocals to a couple of tracks. There were a few first-night nerves in evidence, though, particularly during Meg White, a whimsical tribute to the White Stripes drummer that wobbled a bit when Lamontagne seemed to forget the words.
It’s easy to see the man’s appeal – Lamontagne is a throwback to the American troubadours of the Woodstock era, his gritty voice echoing down a deep well of songcraft. His music nods fervently to the likes of Steven Stills, Neil Young and JD Souther, but while it all sounds reassuringly authentic, there are times when it all gets a bit too cosy and down-home for comfort. Lamontagne’s songs may be peopled by drunks, haunted loners and losers in love, but they’re consumed in settings more salubrious than your average gutter.
Pretty soon, though, we could all be singing the words of Troublewhile sitting in a boxcar with nothing but a heated-up tin of baked beans for company. Then we’ll know if Ray’s really got the blues.