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Scene and Heard Festival: Syrius

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If I had to describe Syrius with one only phrase, it would definitely be: the beauty in simplicity.

A sharp 20 min piece about a Syrian refugee on her unintended journey to Ireland presented by Rosebuds Theatre Company is indeed an awakening production. Through beautifully choreographed dance and movement Romana Testasecca tells us the story of Rasha, a young Syrian woman who is forced to flee her though beloved but self-destroying motherland in search of a more peaceful future.

A play like Syrius shows us perfectly how the almost complete lack of spoken words can sometimes even benefit and enhance a performance. One image equals one hundred words. We all live in the same world; we are all human beings who, when really want, can communicate with each other without the need for words at all. Protest banners, the white wedding veil, the headscarf, the tent, the paper boat… all these things are not only props or attributes that help move the story forward but they are also strong easily recognised international symbols.

Even though the actress does remain silent, towards the end of the piece there is an audio recording involved; the beautiful thing is that we can hear both Arabic and the English translation of it speaking almost simultaneously. It gives Rasha that little extra of being a real fleshed out person, even though she is just a generalised character. But the truth remains the same: there are hundreds of Rashas out there who have lost everything from their family and friends to the sense of belonging.

And if we want to be completely honest: there is a bit of Rasha in all of us.

Directed by Karen Killeen and choreographed by Stephanie Dufresne, Syrius is a play that isn’t afraid of challenges: be it in the structure of the piece or what lies behind the story. Rosebuds TC didn’t only create a touching piece of theatre, they brought the reality of today’s world into the art of performing. And isn’t it what good theatre is supposed to do: reflect the current situation we live in?

Syrius ran as part of Dublin’s Scene and Heard Festival in the Smock Alley Theatre from Feb. 24th to 26th. For more info about the production, you can read my interview with the woman behind it all – Romana Testasecca.

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Scene and Heard Festival: Interview with Romana Testasecca – Syrius

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Another day – another show. The second week of Scene and Heard Festival has already begun and we are talking human interest, international crisis and physical theatre now. All combined in one: SYRIUS, a new movement piece produced and performed by Romana Testasecca in association with Rosebuds Theatre Company.

In the interview below Romana talks about why she chose such a difficult subject as Syrian civil war and its effects on common civil Syrians; Romana also explains why she decided to present her new play as a movement piece rather than anything else.

SYRIUS will run for three nights only from Feb 24th to 26th in the Smock Alley Theatre’s Main Space. To book the tickets: http://entertainment.ie/show-/Smock-Alley-Theatre/Scene-Heard-Syrius/event-2789898.htm

 

Tell me a little bit about the piece. Is it your first solo movement performance?

1. We’re very excited to present this piece on behalf of Rosebuds, Karen Killeen and I (co-
founders) have never worked on anything like this before. The process has been very interesting and a real eye-opener. The piece is centred around the story of a young Syrian woman, Rasha, who is forced to leave her country. The piece starts just before Rasha takes part in a peaceful protest against Bashar al-Assad which leads to Rasha’s imprisonment. In prison she realises that “the Syria she knows has gone” and it’s time for her to leave. This is my first solo piece and I am very grateful that it will be taking place at Smock Alley Theatre main space to meet its first audience this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 6.30 pm. (24th -26th Feb)

What made you decide to create a movement piece? Why this genre in particular?

2. Movement is extremely effective especially when the subject matter is so difficult for us to talk about. In many catastrophic situations, like the Syrian civil war happening right now and the subsequent difficulties thousands of refugees are facing, people find it hard to express their feelings about it. It’s hard to comprehend, we say things like “there are no words”, we find it hard to process and vocalise painful news. When matters are beyond our control and we feel helpless it is hard to express our thoughts. Sometimes a visceral bodily reaction is all we have.

Who and how came up with the story behind the piece? Tell me a little bit about the creation of the piece.

3. The process started from an idea I had about telling a specific story of a refugee and the circumstances that led up to that happening. Conversations between myself and the director Karen Killeen gave a structure and arch to the piece. After a lot of research, we pin-pointed what was going to happen, section by section. We then brought in our wonderful choreographer Stephanie Dufresne. She shaped a lot of the movement for each section. We have never had a written piece. You can’t express movement on paper. There was a lot of filming and watching back and repeating over and over. Myself and Karen rehearsed and devised all in one.

What are the main elements that can be achieved through movement and sound that wouldn’t be as noticeable or as enhanced if done in a more traditional style (i.e. a play or a monologue)?

4. Different feelings bring about movement in the body. Sometimes thoughts are hard to elaborate through words. You can achieve a certain flow when you’re moving and that sequence of movements can mean something to one person and a different thing to someone else. People can interpret movement in different ways and that’s what makes it so interesting and unique. Movement connects a different part of us which is very rarely exposed.

The sound, designed by the talented Garret Hynes, is extremely helpful in conveying the message and feeding the narrative. The tricky part of abstract movement is that when it gets too abstract people don’t know what’s going on. When you are invested in the story and you’re creating it, you know what is going on so you feel it’s obvious. You aim to leave the audience as free as possible but you can’t give them too little either or you’ll lose them. It has to be balanced out and the sound provides a great equilibrium and serves as a guide for the audience. The audience then connects the visual with the audio.

What are the main challenges // advantages for you rehearsing and performing the piece?

5. The process is very free and liberating. There are no boundaries but if anything doesn’t work, we’re not afraid of letting it go or moving sections around so that the pieces fit together. It’s good to peel back and get to the core of what we’re trying to achieve. As a performer, you don’t always get the chance to move freely in the space and follow your physical instincts so that has been incredibly interesting to explore. I found it very useful to record myself and to watch it back with an objective eye. The challenge is assigning the correct weight to each part and moving coherently from section to section. The piece is abstract but it does follow a linear narrative, we have inserted voiceovers and certain moments in the story to give a little more context.

What would you like to achieve through the piece? What would you like the audience to bring home with them after the performance?

6. Ideally, we would love for the audience to connect with this story, no matter how far away it is from their own reality; SYRIUS is a universal story about losing everything you hold close, starting with your country. Geographically we are far from what is happening in Syria but that does not excuse us from being mentally disconnected from it. I’d like for the audience to reflect upon what is happening right now and ask themselves what we can do to help refugees. As a nation but also as individuals. These people need our help and all we have is our voice and our bodies. We have to use ourselves to speak out on behalf of people like Rasha. We have to welcome them in our countries. We have to give them a voice.

If you could describe the piece in three words only what would they be?

COLD , HARD , HOPE.

 

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The New Theatre: Happy Birthday Jacob

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You know a decent play from the very start! Beautifully designed stage (by Ciara Murnane), intriguing beginning and an adorable 10 year old playing one of the main parts! It’s unusual enough for a big production to have child actors (never mind The Abbey’s latest staging of Anna Karenina), let alone a first production of an original play. Challenge must definitely be something Púca Productions aren’t afraid of and ready to embrace.

A poignant tragedy about two brothers: a 17 year old Jacob (played by Sean Basil Crawford) and a 10 year old Lucas (played by Finian Duff Lennon). After both of their parents left them, for eight years Jacob has been looking after his baby brother. Perhaps not an ideal brother himself, with demons of his own as we all are, Jacob was the one who stayed behind and always cared for Lucas. Living in a run-down flat and barely making ends meet, the situation, nevertheless, takes an even worse turn when Lucas suddenly gets into fight at school and parents are being called in. Jacob quickly realises the gravity of the situation; his baby brother, the only person he has in this world, can be soon taken away from him as there is no parent or legal guardian looking after the two underaged boys. The only hope remains that in a couple of days it’s Jacob’s 18th birthday. And then a sudden knock on the door from the past comes…

In Michael Marshall’s roller-coaster script, there is everything a good audience can wish for. Hand in hand with the impeccable and obviously talented cast, the author brings you on a hugely enjoyable though highly emotional journey to Jacob’s life and loss. In Happy Birthday Jacob there is absolutely everything a solid plot needs: there is tragedy, there is comedy, there is singing and dancing (in a very cute and adorable way!), there are carefully crafted characters who make the audience really care about their lives.

Nowadays it’s quite difficult to pull off a twist at the end that is not predictable all throughout the play but Marshall did it and he did it well. Just when you think you know what’s happening, the very last scene comes as a complete jaw-dropping surprise and as the lights go out, you suddenly understand that the blackout isn’t only for the audience.

But no play, no matter how good it is, is ever truly alive without the actors actually performing the scenes and saying the words. The small cast of four in Happy Birthday Jacob beats all the possible expectations. Every single one of them absolutely shines on stage and truly gives a performance of a lifetime that shall never be forgotten. All the characters are very diverse and beautifully shaped out by both the actors and the playwright. The absolute jewel of the crown is the immensely talented Finian Duff Lenon portraying Lucas. But kudos must also be given to Maree Jane Duffy (playing Mary), whose storytelling skills were so moving it made some cry; to Karen Kelly (playing Terry) for bringing us back to the 90s in a way that no travel machine could have done better! And, of course, to Sean Basil Crawford who created a truly beautiful complex human being.

Done to a very high standard was also the technical side of the show. Happy Birthday Jacob wouldn’t be what it is without the outstanding music and sound design (by Bill Woodland).

So, if in doubt, it’s simple: don’t think twice: Happy Birthday Jacob is a play that has to be seen. It’s touching, it’s heart-breaking, it’s probably one of the best written and performed plays that you will see this year! See where I’m going with that?.. For more info or to book tickets: http://www.thenewtheatre.com/tnt_php/scripts/page/show.php?show_id=288&gi_sn=589af5e1ee950%7C0

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The International Bar: Gulp

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If you had just over half an hour to explore a typical Irish topic, what would it be? What aspect of every day Irish life would be interesting, understandable and easily relatable by the young modern audience? Looks like SQUAD Theatre Company got this one right!

As we sit down on the second floor in the International Bar (from where every door unmistakably and rightly so leads to the bar downstairs), drinks in hand, Friday night plans in head, Lorna Castello and Emma-Jane Purcell offer us an insight in the tenderest and, probably, longest-lasting relationship in their lives: the one with the alcohol.

In this hugely entertaining super fast-paced piece, where every one and a half liner is a total cracker (and not only because it’s funny but also because sure you can recognize yourself in the character), we quickly discover how Lorna tried her first bit of alcohol at the age of six – the cream on her grandfather’s pint of Guinness – and Emma-Jane promised to her mother to never ever drink… but the love and desire for a pint of plain, or creamy, or fizzy, or mixed, or not a pint at all but a shot, or a can, or a bottle was much stronger than keeping the small sweet girl’s promise to her mama.

The onomatopeyac Gulp, written by Lorna Costello herself and directed by Robert Dawnes, is a nicely structured piece. It even includes a real alcohol knowledge quiz, where members of the audience can win drink tokens. And how can anybody say no to that? So, don’t be shy and pick a place in the front row, closer to the action.

From a person who doesn’t drink at all, I can absolutely confirm that the play is a pure joy to watch. The amount of energy, only comparable to a Friday night out fever, both Costello and Purcell put into this piece is incredible. It starts off from the very first word and doesn’t stop until the last drop has been squeezed out of it. As the piece is only slightly over half an hour, it also means that the after-party drinks are never too long to wait for.

Taking into account the nature of a performance space like The International Bar, the lighting designer took quite an interesting approach to separate scenes. The blackouts were a good, strong choice that added colour and structure to the story. Another atmosphere setter was “a voice from the crowd” coming from the back of the auditorium. Little details like that very nicely extend the performing space making you believe that you are on the actual location rather than in a theatre.

Remember, “when health is bad and your heart feel strange, and your face is pale and wan, when doctors say you need a change – a pint of plain (or whatever tickles your fancy, for that matter) is your only (wo)man”. Gulp, by the ever so talented and never disappointing SQUAD Theatre Company, runs in The International Bar until November 26th. For more info or to book tickets: squadtheatrecompany@gmail.com

 

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The New Theatre: All Washed Up

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Another day – another show to catch. For those of you who are suffering from the melancholic autumn blues, there is a cure: All Washed Up‘s post-Halloween theatre therapy currently running in The New Theatre.

Developed by the recently formed theatre company Rosebuds, All Washed Up is dramatic comedy about one very unusual relationship. Alice (played by Romana Testasecca), Fionn (played by Jamie Sykes) and Kate (played by Karen Killeen) are three friends living together. Normal modern life situation. But is it? The catch is: apart from sharing the common living space, they also happen to share the only bed in the apartment. Fionn goes to an office job every day, Alice cooks and paints her pictures and Kate… well, Kate is just being Kate – the glue that is keeping them all together. And everything seems fine until one of them decides it’s time to move on to somewhat more ordinary life.

All Washed Up is a beautiful representation of how an abnormal situation can become almost a routine, the kind of life that you just get used to. The original idea of the show belongs to Jamie Sykes but by elaborating it inside the company, the actors managed to create some very different and very real characters. It’s a pleasure to watch three fully developed personas with their naturally human perfections and flaws: be it the corkiness of Kate or the down-to-earthness of Alice.

Being just a one hour piece, the play flies by. The set (by George Reeves) and the lighting (by Patrick Maher) designs are a very nice addition to convey the atmosphere of the life in the house. The chaotic mess in the room is a powerful representation of the mental state our characters find themselves in.

An unusual story about what’s happening behind the closed doors of ordinary people, All Washed Up, directed by Lorna Costello, is running in The New Theatre, Temple Bar till November 5th. Halloween might be over but the fun isn’t. For more info or to book tickets: http://www.thenewtheatre.com/tnt_php/scripts/page/show.php?show_id=282&gi_sn=580baefe09e7a%7C0

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The Abbey Theatre: Donegal

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“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

The beautiful season of golden Irish Lughnasa inevitably brings us back to county Donegal. After the successful national and international run of McGuinness’ Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme, we have the pleasure to witness another work by the Donegal-born playwright. In his new play Frank McGuinness introduces us to The Days, a west country Irish family with a musical spark.

Donegal isn’t a musical, it’s “a play with songs”. Quite good and catchy ones, too. Once rich and famous, Irene Day’s (played by Siobhan McCarthy) singing career has seen better times. She barely sells any tickets, no matter how hard her husband Conor (played by Frank Laverty) and sister Joanne (played by Eleanor Methven) work to lure the audience in. Irene has the whole family working for her to regain the love of the Irish music lovers. But no family is a proper family without a black sheep in it. Jackie Day (played by Killian Donnelly), Irene’s own son, is a country singer, too. Be it the jealousy of his success or the accusations that he throws at her for being a bad mother, Irene admits that she had never listened to anything that he had ever produced. But, life is a tricky thing. Now she depends entirely on him to bring her old life back.

What we once learnt with Brian Friel, we can now solidify with Frank McGuinness. Every good Irish play has a deviated torn apart family in it. Generation after generation, they hate, bad mouth and poison each other, but no bonds are stronger than the family bonds. Relatives wash down with liquor all their little tragedies and unhappinesses just to wake up the next morning and carry on with life as it is. The only difference with Donegal is that this play also has some sparkly costumes (designed by Joan O’Clery) and nice tunes (by Kevin Doherty) that you can hum to.

One of the absolute bonuses of seeing this show is evidently the fact  they there is a live band at the very back of the stage (under a black veil). Personally, it’s always a plus when for the price of one you get to see a production and listen to some high quality music. It’s also a positive if you are into west-country songs but even if you are not, the melodies of the show create a very powerful atmosphere of a different (somewhat unknown in Dublin) Ireland.

The stunning set design (by Liam Doona) converts from something very simple outdoor-ish into The Day’s house, pub and even a performing arena. That’s when the lighting design (by Ben Ormerod) plays its memorable part. It does create a feeling of a very colourful bright experience; the light will be shining long after the play is over.

Always at its best is Frank McGuinness with the profound characterisation and pencil-sharp lines. Such characters as Magdalene Carolan (unforgettably played by Deirdre Donnelly) shall remain in the history  of fictional bad mouthes for a long time. The modern plays are getting corkier and corkier. The usage of language is changing; what once used to be a taboo or, well, fringe, is now a part of life.

An entertaining show, undoubtedly unlike any other, probably makes Donegal one of the absolute highlights of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. Impossible not to enjoy, that’s for sure. Runs until November 19th. For more info or to book tickets: https://www.abbeytheatre.ie/whats_on/event/donegal/

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The Teachers’ Club: Franner and Joey

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Somewhere in furtherest corner of Dublin North Side unofficial theatre district, there is a tiny performing space in the basement, where every night for the past week two partners in crime, Franner and Joey, find their shelter from a robbery gone horribly wrong.

Little Shadow Theatre Company presents Franner and Joey, a tragicomedy about two twenty-something best pals and drug addicts. Petite crime hooligans looking for a big fish in a small pond, they attempt to steal a bag from an old lady. She fights back. Joey (played by Sean Sheppard), already half-high on the next fix, doesn’t give a second thought and pushes the woman. She falls on the ground and smashes her head. This wasn’t the plan at all. People start gathering. The two friends have to flee the scene. They end up on the roof of one of the buildings. Waiting for the commotion to settle down and keeping an eye on the updates on the old woman’s health (which can quickly convert them from street junkies into murderers), Franner (played by Adam Tyrell) have the whole night to reminisce about their past, dream about their future and fear the ugly present.

Franner and Joey tells the kind of story that usually never gets heard. Who cares about the junkies? Who wants to hear their side of the story? Do they have any right to have their side? In Eddie Naughton’s intense 60 min piece we are faced with the reverse side of the coin. And it’s tragic. But so real and human. Among other things Franner and Joey touch on such subjects as child abuse (both physical and verbal), broken families, drugs and alcohol overdose, premature death, etc.

Performed in a thick and easily recognisable North Dublin inner city accent, both actors do an amazing job in portraying their characters: the voices, the movement and the physicality are on an admirably high level in this piece. Being hugely convincing all throughout the play, they undoubtedly succeed in bringing across the nastiness and the dislikability that people like Franner and Joey would normally evoke in others. At the same time, Tyrell and Sheppard give their characters a human side, a reason and a tiny sip of hope.

The perfect atmosphere has also been created thanks to the great lighting (by Alan Lynch) and set design (by Alan Lynch and Donna-Marie Mahony). I like to think that theatre is probably the only place where a rooftop can be built in a basement. The team worked out the tiniest details, graffiti on the walls were my personal favourite. As for the lighting, it ideally matched the mood, especially when it came to the most intense scenes.

An uneasy piece of emotionally charged theatre that is presented in a very enjoyable way, Franner and Joey (directed by Kieran McDonnell) runs in The Teachers’ Club until October 8th. For more info or to book tickets: https://www.facebook.com/frannerandjoey/

 

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