Class in the art room


REVIEWS: Irish Timeswriters review the Dublin Theatre Festival

The Pitmen Painters

Gaiety Theatre

The Pitmen PaintersThe Pitman Painters

Max Robert’s slick production originated at Live Theatre Newcastle in 2007, the theatre’s democratic philosophy complementing the play’s subject. However, following nationwide, and now international, tours under the auspices of Britain’s National Theatre, it seems to have lost its authentic roots. Indeed, framed by the red velvet and gilded trappings of the Victorian Gaiety Theatre, the miner-artists are seen as an exotic species to be marvelled at, both within the structure of the play and for a largely middle-class Dublin Theatre Festival audience. The discourses on class politics therefore become self-congratulatory, while the ideas on art are patronising, over-simplified and thoroughly sentimental, no more so than in the balladic finale. The truth is that – welfare state regardless – “working-class” artists such as the pitmen painters are still very much the exception in the art world.

A solid ensemble animates Hall’s well-made, old-fashioned comedy with poignancy as well as laughs, and the projected images of a variety of artworks (from the Ashington Group as well as from Titian and Van Gogh) enliven Gary McCann’s spartan, rough-deal set, much as art itself brings colour to the blanket “grey” of the miners’ working life as Hall portrays it. The classroom effect complements the learning journey that the characters are embarked upon, but the play’s message is further undercut by the general conclusion that the art should speak for itself rather than be explained.

The Ashington Group’s story is a fascinating one, but ultimately it is the paintings themselves that are most revealing. As the character of Oliver Kilbourn chides Lyon when he sits for him (Lyon is trying to reconcile his exploitation of the group with his desire to remain connected to the men), the overall effect is facile: there is facility but little sense of passion or of the essence of life. Until Sat


The Age I’m In

Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire

How old are you? Many don’t like being asked that question, yet in the performance world of Force Majeure’s The Age I’m In, you’d never have to give a straight answer, because there is no straight answer to give. From the age range in the cast – 15 to 80 – through their topics and manner of presentation to their physicality, all of the elements of the performance serve to relativise our perception of age.

Working skilfully with technical devices, the performers create a show that is seamless in combining human physicality and communication with new technology. Often using recorded interviews as soundscapes, the dancers lip-synch and mime the speakers. Although the dancers and voiceovers are rarely the same sex and age as each other, the dancers work their body language into fluid and convincing representations of the speakers, thus heightening and questioning our preconceptions about age and gender. Families, friends, the existential feelings of the young and the old, all come under light-hearted scrutiny.

The dancers use hand-held video screens to make points and supply extra wit and visual spice to a production that is already visually arresting, not least because of the beautiful lighting design by Geoff Cobham. For example, a man behind a screen talks about his experience of disability, and instead of a performer, we see four screens, together showing a video of an able-bodied dancer, continually breaking apart and reconvening. Performers slide screens up and down the length of clothed women, showing them naked (as if the screens had X-ray vision) as they talk about their bodies and breast cancer.

The production’s emphasis seems to be on combining these elements – which it does superbly – rather than on the actual dancing, which at times is lacking somewhat in originality and creative energy. The piece makes up for this, however, in exemplary teamwork and synchronization of elements. If the production had gone further towards making a unifying, thoughtful statement about all the cleverly presented issues it deals with, it would have made this enjoyable and impressive show truly outstanding. Until Sat


Radio Muezzin

Samuel Beckett Theatre, TCD

The work of German company Rimini Protokoll is a gift for theorists. Its experiments in reality-based performance, using non-actors, prompt questions about the conventions of performance, and its purpose. When an audience is in the back of a moving haulage truck, or hooked up to exchanges in a call centre – as in two of the company’s previous works – the gap between audience member and performer is bridged. Everyone is a participant in a temporary immersion in the lives of others – or at least, in the daily circumstances of those non-fictionalised lives.

Radio Muezzin, conceived and directed by Stefan Kaegi, uses the conventional setting of an auditorium. We are introduced to three Egyptian muezzins, the men who lead the public call to prayer that punctuates each day in Muslim countries. While they are evidently not actors, they are performers in another sense, and their intonation, in unison, of the azanis richly textured, blending centuries of tradition with the distinct tones of each individual voice. The context for this production is that such voices are in danger of extinction, as the Egyptian government plans to reduce the number of muezzins and broadcast the call to prayer from selected locations.

Speaking directly to the audience in a sequence of sometimes hesitant monologues, they tell us their stories and the patterns of their daily lives: the two-hour bus ride to the mosque; the cleaning duties that come with their position. With film clips of Cairo street scenes, and photographs of their homes, colleagues and children projected on to four screens, their presentation is akin to an illustrated anthropological lecture, or a stilted travelogue.

The flatness of presentation seems highlighted by the fact that we are in a theatre. Despite its use of sound and lighting, and a set design that partially recreates the interior of a mosque, this falls between a fully realised theatrical enactment, and a direct engagement with these men’s experiences. There is much emphasis on the “real” here, as the muezzins prepare for prayer with ritual ablutions, yet it is highly mediated, especially through the final striking footage that extends across all four screens, depicting public prayer.

For all its admirable intentions – to demythologise Islam in Europe, to present the dignity of individual lives rather than stereotypes – this ends up sitting uncomfortably between an authentic encounter and a staged lesson in intercultural relations. Until Sun