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The Abbey Theatre: Anna Karenina

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“Rummaging in our souls, we often dig up something that ought to have lain there unnoticed. ”

– Anna Karenina

2016 has been a huge year for the arts. 2016 was anything but a challenging year for the Abbey Theatre in particular, a year filled with the most unexpected, brave decisions and thought-provoking plays. In addition to seeing one year round up of #WakingTheFeminists meeting; Ireland’s National Theatre has also had a change of directors welcoming Neil Murray and Graham McLaren to the steering wheel.

The last play of the departing year is none the less but Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, adapted for the stage by Ireland’s very own literature giant Marina Carr.

No doubt, Tolsoty’s masterpiece is a poignant, heavy piece in all senses possible. Starting with the fact that the play lasts approximately three and a half hours (which then pass by quicker than a fly). But above all, it’s a Russian tragedy where, unfortunately, there is no place for a happy ending.

Anna Karenina (played by Lisa Dwan) is a wife, a mother and a woman, who one day falls in love with Vronsky (played by Rory Fleck Byrne), a well-built handsome young man. Tolstoy has never created a weak woman in his work and Karenina isn’t an exception, either. But just as any human being isn’t safe of making mistakes, she gives in to temptation and finally decides to leave not only her husband but also her son Seryoza and the respected position she occupies among the Russian intelligentsia. She looses everything for a chance to live maybe not a happy but an emotionally fulfilled life. Nevertheless, happiness does come but only for a short time before Anna realises that some things can never be replaced or substituted in life; that people remember it when you did them wrong; that people betray, lie and simply get tired of what once excited them; that some of the most tender souls hide behind the thickest walls; that no heart is made out of stone and every heart breaks in its own way.

This absolutely stunning interpretation of a Russian classic is a truly jaw-dropping piece to watch. It should definitely be placed among the strongest pieces produced by the Abbey last year. Unsurprisingly brilliantly directed  by Wayne Jordan, the play transports us to pre-revolutionary Russia where the  freshly spilled blood is an ever constant contrast to the peacefully falling snow. In a very simple but wonderfully decorated set (by Sarah Bacon) we witness the lives, loves and tragedies of a grand total of 42 characters. Dressed in some of the most eye-catching ribbons and bows (by Sarah Beacon),the piece presents to our display a whole range of mothers, daughters and wives and their everyday struggle. From Dolly (played by Ruth McGill), who perhaps doesn’t even remember what it feels like not to be pregnant and who also is living a tragedy as she has a cheating husband, to Kitty (played by Julie Maguire) a young girl who is only preparing to enter wifehood.

In one single play, we are given the incredible opportunity to see the same problems being dealt with by different people and from alternative angles. With beautifully stylised musical accompaniment (by David Coonan), the cruel Russian reality ideally translates to the Irish stage. Anna Karenina has it all: tragedy with elements of comedy, very nice pace for a long piece, stunning decorations and costumes and some absolutely superb acting. The cast, the majority of whom double and triple, truly gives a performance of a lifetime with each single one of the ensemble being exceptional.

Anna Karenina is a beautiful experience that won’t leave a dry eye. The play runs in The Abbey Theatre until January 28th. For more info or to book tickets: http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/whats_on/event/anna-karenina/

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The Mart: Low in The Dark

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You may know Marina Carr, you may think you know her work… But, have you ever heard of Low in the dark, written by Carr in 1989?

I didn’t. So, when I was invited to a staging of this play by Squad Theatre Company I had absolutely no expectations but rather decided to remain open to whatever theatre had to offer.

Staged in a cozy far from traditional venue – The Mart (in Rathmines) – the play had an out of ordinary plot and structure. It comes as no surprise that Marina Carr is one of the greatest of modern Irish playwrights. Doubtlessly, she has the skill and ability to create interesting and watchable characters. But it all makes it the harder for the theatre company to produce the play up to a certain standard and quality, to bring to life those characters and make the story appealing to the audience. Squad Theatre Company accepted the challenge and absolutely smashed it.

For the Squad Theatre Company Low in the dark by Marina Carr is the first staging of a published work. The director of the piece – Romana Testasecca – definitely had a certain vision of the play and Carr’s creations. The finely sharpened characters are recognised from the first seconds of the play.

Low in the dark is a truly universal play. It has a total number of five characters, it can be set anywhere any time. In a quite elaborated set design (by George Reeves), we witness the tale of Bender (played by Polly Lloyd) and Binder (played by Norma Howard). Presumably mother and daughter, they spent all their free time conversing in a bathroom and reliving their past encounters with men, all of whom are now long long gone. The tale of Baxter (played by David Greene) and Bone (Aaron Shiel) are very similar to that one of the women. Gender challenged (or confused) they are building a wall, while wearing high heels, eating cupcakes and getting pregnant… but, they too, are living in the world of a strange mixture of memories and imagination. The last but by no means least character is The Curtains (played by Julia Stipsits), a faceless and, presumably, genderless creature whose purpose is to tell the story of the man and the woman.

Low in the dark is a play that rediscovers and rethinks the nature of the gender and relationships. It’s also a play in which anything can happen, even the unexpected. Even the unexplainable. Even the unthinkable.

With a mood-setting soundtrack (by Michael Moloney and Kevin McLeod), superb acting and strong directing, Low in the dark is a surreal piece that doesn’t require deep understanding or possesses a profound meaning but rather offers you to keep an open mind and be welcoming to unorthodox ideas.

Huge kudos to the Squad Theatre Company for embarking on such a difficult (in a good sense) play and choosing it as one of their very first professional productions. All the cast and crew were outstanding and made the characters jump alive out of Carr’s pages. The venue only contributed to the whole atmosphere of being in a non-traditional space and time.

Low in The Dark runs in The Mart Rathmines until August 6th. Catch it before it flies away. For more info or to book tickets: https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/low-in-the-dark-by-marina-carr-tickets-26291575811

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Verdant Productions: Signatories

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“So many people have died for Ireland; one or two should’ve opted to live for it.”

– Joseph O’Connor

It’s April 2016 and there has already been a numerous amount of Easter Rising related productions and events all over Ireland. It’s also quite early in the year to make any statements but if you are going to see only one play on the matter of the famous history-changing actions that took place in Dublin exactly a centenary ago, then make it Signatories by Verdant Productions.

I had a unique chance and a huge privilege to attend the dress rehearsal of Signatories last night. For three nights only it will be presented to the public in none the less, but Kilmainham Gaol itself! If you have never been to the gaol before, then take it as a double treat!

Signatories opens tonight and will run in Kilmainham Gaol until April 24th before it sets on a short tour, visiting The Pavilion Theatre Dún Laoghaire, The Civic Theatre Tallaght and finally closing on May 5th in the Dublin’s National Concert Hall.

Eight original monologues specifically written for this occasion by some of Ireland’s most acclaimed writers: Emma Donoghue wrote a piece on Elizabeth O’Farrell’s (performed by Barbara Brennan) eventful day on April 29th 1916, who was an Irish nurse sent, white flag in hand and red cross on her shoulder, to deliver the unconditional surrender to the British military; Marina Carr wrote a monologue for Thomas McDonagh (performed by Stephen Jones) who was naively romanticizing the fact of dying for his country before a target was put on his military jacket in the small hours on May 3rd 1916; Frank McGuinness wrote the experience of Éamonn Ceannt (performed by Ronan Leahy) playing heads and tails in his cell, when the result didn’t even matter anymore, his fate, just as the fate of his country, had already been predetermined; Thomas Kilroy showed us the last hours of Padraig Pearse (performed by Peter Gaynor) life, whose watch was taken away from him, so all he was left to do was pray and face something that is even scarier than death: his own company; Hugo Hamilton took a very unusual insight on James Connolly’s life and told his story through the eyes of a girl (performed by Lisa Dwyer Hogg) who has never even met the man himself; Joseph O’Connor lifted the curtain on the fact that being scared doesn’t make a coward out of man, before receiving the bullet himself Joseph Mary Plunkett (performed by Shane O’Reilly) heard his three friends being executed beside him; Rachel Fehily took upon herself the uneasy task of shadowing the light on the last hours of Thomas Clarke’s (performed by Joe Taylor) life, the person who is claimed to be “responsible for the Easter Rising”; Éilis Ní Dhuibhne also decided to show us the other side of history, and told the story of the last hours of Seán McDermott’s life through the eyes of his young, giggly and full of life fiancé Min Ryan (performed by Roseanna Purcell).

Eight brilliant pieces presented by eight wonderful actors, the experience of Signatories is once in a life time. I don’t know what takes your breath away more: the absolutely flawless and deeply touching performances by an amazing group of actors or the fact that all those characters were real, and they actually did live and some of them spent their last hours within the same walls where you are standing right now. As the sun sets over the horizon and there is no natural light coming through, you start feeling the coldness of the Gaol’s walls. All actors are using microphones which only adds to the already quite eerie atmosphere of the space. In the inky darkness and impeccable silence the voices of the actors are almost out of this world-ish.

Each and every single one of the eight pieces is different, it has it’s own rhythm, energy and mood. Within the space of two hours the walls of Kilmainham witness songs, reciting of poems, words of passion, love and desperation directed towards one’s own wife, family or motherland.

And standing right there and right then, I couldn’t help but remember O’Casey’s famous words:

“Ireland is greater than a wife; Ireland is greater than a mother”.  

Signatories, directed by Patrick Mason, is not a play, it’s an experience. And no amount of amazing set designs, beautiful decorations or the comfort of a traditional theatre auditoriums can offer you what Signatories in Kilmainham does.

And just before I round this up (because, yet again no amount of words can express what simply has to be seen), I want to give you a little piece of a somewhat practical advice:

If you are attending this performance in the Kilmainham Gaol, I would highly recommend wearing a pair of comfortable shoes and a warm jacket. The performance ends well after ten, when the sun has already set. And, no matter how much one does not believe in ghosts, it’s an old jail after all and the stone is a very cold substance that has a long memory. But, be it the energy from the touching performances or the spirits of the long deceased, it will chill you to the bones. So, dress well and bring a bottle of water!

For more info or to book the tickets: http://centenaries.ucd.ie/events/signatories/ 

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Costumes and props tour in the Abbey Theatre.

If you like theatre as much as I do, then you absolutely must go on a tour behind the Abbey’s stage!

On a rare occasion the public is allowed to walk the same corridors that once were walked by some of Ireland’ and England’s most notable writers, playwrights, directors and other theatre makers. There are tours available, during which you will be told about the Abbey’s history, its founders, the stories behind the numerous portraits all around the theatre, as well, as many other things.

The first time I went on a tour behind the stage was two years ago on Hallowe’en. The Abbey organised a special themed tour filled with eerie stories from the Abbey’s past. We saw some of the costumes from previous productions and learnt how blood and glass are used on stage. At that time, the Risen People was on, and during one of the scenes a character smashes a mug across the wall… We were shown how relatively easy and safe (for both the actors and the audience) it actually was.

During this year culture night, yet again The Abbey Theatre opened its (back?) doors for the lucky few (tickets were gone within seconds). This time, we had an opportunity to walk behind the Abbey´s stage and visit such rooms as the costume storage (where the costumes, from last year’s DTF play Our few and evil days, were lonely hanging in between other piles of jackets, trousers, blouses and coats…); the hair and make-up room was unexpectedly small. Apparently actors do their own make up, unless it’s something complicated or unusual. Val Sherlock is pretty much the only man there, who manually crafts every wig, every fake eye brow or moustache. We got a glimpse (and, well, even a touch!) of some of the wigs, moustaches, beards and even scars used in the previous productions (including Marion O’Dwyer’s wig from She Stoops to Conquer which ran in the Abbey last Christmas, Jane Brennan’s wig from By The Bog of Cats and many other shades of gray, blue and red that I couldn’t quite place); the next one was the sewing room, where on display we had Hester’s two wedding dresses from By The Bog of Cats. The dresses were before and after Hester sets the house on fire. It was truly amazing to see how much attention was paid to the smallest details. That same room was also full of drawings of By The Bog of Cats’ characters. After having seen the play, it´s amazing how much work goes into a production. Sometimes, not all of this work gets noticed, appreciated or even used in the play, but even the fact that it is there and how much thought, knowledge and precision was put into each single piece is simply astonishing.

As we were going from one room into another, we couldn’t miss The Rehearsal Room. I will be honest, I almost cried! A room, that I have seen so many times in pictures, it was there… Huge, cold and dark. It’s nonsense, but it looked empty without human energy. It’s a room that certainly does leave an impression! It´s like all the words of all the plays ever rehearsed there are still hanging in the air and you could almost hear them if you listen…

The poor Props department is located in an old Presbyterian church, right across the road from The Abbey Theatre. It’s a huge old space filled with all the props used during different productions. It has everything from old phones, suitcases, fake flowers, fake cakes, fake scalps (all shapes and colours of poor Yoricks!) and fake knives to portraits, irons, walking sticks and of course there is the buggy! Right in the center stand the original pram used in the very first production of O’Casey’s The Plough and The Stars in 1926.

The schedule for the tours can be found here: http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/whats_on/performances/abbey-backstage-tours-2014

Keep an eye on the Abbey’s page as they tend to organise special themed tours from time to time!

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The Abbey Theatre: By the Bog of Cats

By the Bog of Cats is, undoubtedly, one of the most famous Irish plays and definitely the most known and loved play written by Marina Carr. By the Bog of Cats was originally staged in the Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1998 as a part of Dublin Theatre Festival.

Since the ’98 success, the play has been translated into many languages. Theatre lovers from all over the world has got a chance to meet the Irish Medea – Hester Swane – and see for themselves what’s like to live By the Bog of Cats.

17 years after, By The Bog of Cats, this time directed by Selina Cartmell, comes back to the Abbey’s stage with a new cast and a new interpretation. This can be considered a real treat to any theatre (and especially Irish Theatre) connoisseur.

Being hugely inspired by the story of Medea, By The Bog of Cats very subtly follows the Greek myth and shows how problems and misconceptions of the past are more than relevant to the modern [Irish] society.

The whole play takes place within one day: from dawn to dusk. Being haunted by both dead and alive, The Bog of Cats is a strange place to be. The beautifully eerie greyshly-white set represents the bog of cats: the place in between realities, where the long lost souls wander around trying to find their way back to the world they once left. The bog of Cats is a cold, almost frozen piece of land where even hope comes to die.

This is a story about Hester Swane (played by Susan Lynch) who lives in an old broken caravan by the bog of Cats. She was born and brought up here and, almost forty years after, she isn’t going anywhere. The bog of Cats is not only Hester’s physical home, it’s also a place where she belongs, where she knows everything and everyone, where she has a purpose… Being abandoned at the age of seven, Hester has never lost hope to see her mother again. Poor Hester’s mind has been so haunted with demons ever since her mother left, that now, being a grown up woman, Hester still waits for big Josie to return with some answers. A childhood’s trauma, a wound that never seems to heal… it’s a story about mothers and daughters.

Symbolicly, Josie is also the name of Hester’s 8 year old daughter (played by Eve Maher). As any little child, Josie loves her mother more than anything, but she also loves her dad… Cartridge Kilbride (played by Barry John O’Connor) was once deeply in love with Hester. He promised to marry her; he even bought her a wedding dress. Cartridge and Hester used to be more than partners in bed, they were partners in crime.

Now Kilbride is marrying the young, beautiful and very rich Caroline Cassidy (played by Rachel O’Byrne). Caroline’s father (played by Peter Gowen) is well known farmer in the area, he’s a man whose hero would be nobody’s else but The Field’s Bull McCabe. And as any decent and proper farmer, there are only two things he loves and appreciates in life: his daughter and his land (and not, necessarily, in this particular order). There is no law other than the land law for him.

Apart from all mentioned above, the play is full with charismatic and out-of-this-worldish characters. Take Kilbride’s mother Mrs. Kilbride (brilliantly played by Marion O’Dwyer) who represents the nouveau riche Irish society. She is a nobody who thinks that she can be somebody only because she has money to buy expensive things. Being very abusive and manipulative, she manages to insult every single person who crosses her path, including her little granddaughter Josie. Even though this character makes the audience cry with laughter, Mrs. Kilbride is a pathetic woman who is a rather more satirical than funny caricature on an old woman.

Then there is this half-animal half-woman type of creature known as Catwoman (played by Brid Ni Neachtain). She also lives by the bog of Cats (obviously! where else would a creature with such a name live?). She has been there long before anyone else and will be there long after everyone’s gone. Blind on both eyes, she does not need the power of sight for she can foresee the future. Never ever has the catwoman been wrong. She is a brilliant representation of a Greek oracle.

There’s also Monica Murray (played by the amazing and ever so natural Jane Brennan), Hester´s closest neighbour and her “voice of reason”. Only Monica knows how to calm Hester down and make her see the situation rationally.

A very interesting decision was made to place a big screen at the back of the stage to give the action another dimension, so during some scenes we can see the actor on stage from different angles. Something I haven’t seen before in the Abbey (as far as I can remember) and to be honest, I was a bit skeptical of it at the beginning. Fortunately, the big screen is used very rarely and only adds to the whole effect of the play.

The play itself is full of symbolism and little details. It’s a beautiful representation of a rural Irish society with its demons and angels and characters that wouldn’t fit in neither category. It’s a place where people become animals and animals become people.

Runs in the Abbey Theatre until September 12th, for more info or to book… http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/whats_on/event/by-the-bog-of-cats/

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The Peacock Theatre: Scratch Night

Nothing wakes you up after a week holiday in Spain better that a night of theatre, laughter and friendly atmosphere in The Abbey Theatre.

Peacock Scratch Night takes place, as you could have guessed, in the Peacock Bar. The chairs are brought out and the mics are installed for a series of brand new extracts reading from works-in-progress by emerging Irish artists.  I would also like to mention that Scratch Night 2015 was completely sold out and when I arrived there were people waiting to see if they could get it.

This year there were 8 different extracts presented by 8 new but already highly acclaimed Irish playwrights; and a bonus piece by a well-know writer, whose name was kept in secret till the very end. It came as a nice surprise to find out that 4 actors will be doing the readings. For some reason I thought that the playwrights themselves might present their works.

So the four actors were: Ali White, Kate Stanley Brennan, Manus Halligan and Don Wycherley. Needless, to say that the acting (or shall I say the rehearsed reading?) was on an excellent level. It never ceases to amuse me how so naturally and believably some actors can switch characters.

The 8 extracts, each lasting approximately seven minutes, were: “Baggage” by Erica Murray, “Angels of Mercy” by Lee Coffey, “Through the Tabernacle” by Philip Doherty, “Normal” by Catriona Daly, “The Kudome Valentine” by John Morton, “Long to me thy coming” by Neil Flynn, “Something Lost” by Barry McStay and “The Church of Matthias Mulcahy” by Fiona Doyle.

All the pieces were very different. Some are better than others or, well, better to say that some were more elaborated than others. The mood was very different and constantly changing. Murray’s “Baggage”, for example, was light and funny, a perfect piece to set the mood and open the night while Coffey’s “Angels of Mercy” was about such a difficult and profoundly contrasting topic as euthanasia.

Personally my favourite one was “Through the Tabernacle” by Philip Doherty. The extract could have easily been an episode of Father Ted had it been written some twenty years ago. Very funny and edgy. Great characterisation and dialogue.

The long waited and gossiped about “Bonus” piece was an extract from a new play by Marina Carr. Another amazing piece with a very entertaining and original plot about a happy couple leaving in paradise, literally.

All the pieces left me wishing to hear more. Here goes to the hope that one day, hopefully in the near future, all nine productions will be staged!

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Filed under Irish Stage, New Plays, Peacock Thetare, Scratch Night, The Abbey Theatre, Theatre

Theatre Upstairs: Rehearsed Readings

Yesterday the curtains fell on a series of rehearsed readings in Dublin’s Theatre Upstairs. Four brand new plays, eight talented playwrights, three different directors and a total cast of sixteen actors and actresses. I must say that I am not a big fan of rehearsed readings (some of them can be really dull) but as soon as I saw the names of the playwrights, there was no chance that I would miss it. Not every week you are given an opportunity for just a tenner to go and witness creative work of a bunch of Irish best playwrights. And I really mean it. From the good ol’ ones to the rising newbies.

The first play “Quartet” was written by one of Irish most famous and loved playwrights Marina Carr. The rehearsed reading of  the play was directed by the Theatre Upstairs’ very own Karl Shiels. The story revolves around a married diplomat (played by John Kavanagh), his beautiful middle-aged wife (played by Sharon Coade), his elder but wise and intelligent Irish mistress (played by Barbara Brennan) of whom the wife is very much aware!, his young American lover (played by Ciara O’Callaghan) and her teenage son.

I can’t say that I’m very familiar with Marina Carr’s previous work (who doesn’t know “By the Bog of Cats”, obviously) but, for some reason, I expected something totally different from “Quartet”. I can’t say what exactly. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a very light and humorous play. The audience were in stitches how funny some bits of it were.

Another great thing about this play was that all the cast was clearly enjoying the reading just as much as the audience did. It might have happened because it was the very first night and everything was new and unknown… but it definitely added to the whole atmosphere.

The second play was “Ceasefire Soldiers”, written and directed by Jimmy Murphy. This really Irish play tells the story of three IRA volunteers. Two young men: Sean (played by Liam Carney) and Eamonn (played by Frank O’Sullivan) and a girl Marie (played by Neilí Conroy) were living in England when they got recruited by the same man from for an important task on behalf of IRA. The task was to place a bomb in Central London (Soho). They were told that the bomb won’t go off, it was just needed to remind the people about the Irish radicals and that the IRA was still alive. Eamonn, Sean and Marie did as they were told. They followed the instructions. But the bomb did go off. And two people were killed, including an innocent child. Soon after the Irish Three realised that it was all well-planned beforehand, they decide (each other on their own) to run away from London. Go to somewhere like Scotland or Wales to hide for some time before they could safely return to Ireland. They were never caught.They were never convicted. They were never imprisoned. But now, thirty years after, they still carry the burden of their wrong-doing. And as Jimmy Murphy puts it himself “For some people the war is just never really over”.

This play was totally different from the first one. As a matter of fact, they are incomparable. The mood of this play is much heavier and darker. You see the situation from the perspective of view of the IRA members. What they did, how they did it and what happened next. This piece plays with the audience feelings a lot: there they are, people who in their own hands brought the bomb to Soho and left it there. What kind of feeling does it awake in you? What would you do in their place? Is it their fault?

Yet again, the cast for this play was spot on.

The third play was “Fogarty”, written and directed by Karl Shiels. As we were told before the reading, this play was commissioned by The Abbey Theatre. So maybe some time in the near future we will see a fully staged production of this play in The Peacock?

Fogarty is a play about a clown named Fogarty (played by Joe Conlan) and a thirteen year old girl (Megan O’Brien) who he had kidnapped and now keeps in his basement. The story is being told to us by the little girl herself. She has been in the dirty basement for some time now, she is already used to it. She has even kind of grown to like (“accept” might be the word) Fogarty. She is not scared of him anymore. She has even found a way of talking to him and making him do what she wants (sometimes, when he is in a good mood).

This play was probably the darkest one of all. It contained some strong language and explicit descriptions at times to make the piece sound authentic. I absolutely loved Megan O’Brien’s voice. It was like a little bell. She did sound like a little girl. On the opposite side, Joe Conlan created an absolutely appalling and disgusting Fogarty The Clown but put something very human into him too, which is always the main aim in acting. Nobody wants to see a completely evil creature if there wasn’t something human in it, something everyone (on some level) could relate to.

The ending of this piece was interesting, I thought. I can’t really say that it was totally unexpected but the solution of the problem was very smartly pitched.

The fourth reading was a whole collection of mini  plays: “Youth” by Kate Gilmore, “Glutton Free Philosophy” by Keith James Walker, “Presentation” by Jeda De Brí and Finbarr Doyle and “Slice” by Lee Coffey.  All of them directed by Jeda de Brí.

This was quite something. First of all, it was a bit more than a simple reading. More like full scenes played out by actors. All four of them were very different: from an arguing couple (who happened to be a brother and sister) to a guy who steals bikes to another couple who has found not the easiest way to get their first work project to a guy who can’t tolerate glutton and is in love (it’s a difficult story!). Some of the pieces aimed to be funny and some of them really were. Furthermore, all of the pieces were very well done and quite enjoyable.

It was a bit sad to realise that it was the last one, though! There goes hoping and wishing that Theatre Upstairs will organise more readings like these ones some time soon!

For more info about the plays or to keep an eye on forthcoming plays, visit: Theatre Upstairs

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