An Overview Of The Arts For 2010

OVERVIEW (2010 Reviewed) BY GEORGE FLEETON LAST  year was generally a good one for visiting or touring performance events in Down District, most of which were promoted by the local Arts Centre, and early 2011 is looking quite promising too (of which more anon). While naturally it was not possible to catch everything, this overview will deal with a selection of theatre, classical and popular music events seen and appreciated in the last twelve months. In terms of theatre, easily the most singular event was the George Best story told, in March, before a sparse audience, through the medium of modern ballet. It covered a selection of chapters from his troubled life, seamlessly danced to an eclectic sound background which ranged from Doris Day to Jackie Fullerton by way of Bob Dylan and the Undertones. There were no less than four strong local dramas: That Woman at Rathard (Sam Hanna Bell) in February, The Absence of Women (Lyric Theatre) and The Haunting of Helena Blunden, both in March, and The Boat Factory (Dan Gordon) in October. That Woman at Rathard is an adaptation of Hanna Bell’s very fine novel December Bride, which was first published 60 years ago. (That anniversary, by the way, is being marked at Down County Museum on April 6th at 11.00 am, followed by a screening of the film of the book after lunch). The play foregrounds the novel’s principal character, the woman who moves in to the Echlin brothers’ farm at Rathard on Strangford Lough, and then refuses to bend or contrive things. She is an unstoppable force meeting an array of immoveable objects, all beautifully caught in Maria Connolly’s excellent interpretation of a determined and complex character. The Absence of Women arrived with Lyric Theatre credentials in tow, and its story of the loneliness and ordinariness of two Belfast types tied down in London was pure Beckett. Their existence, for want of a better word, is a dead end, a limbo, a treadmill slowly revolving, labour without purpose or witnesses, as they railed through a long tea-fuelled day in a slow burn from weariness to unconscious profundity and back to zero. The Haunting of Helena Blunden was not in this league. The source material was excellent (an aspiring young singer working in a Belfast mill 100 years ago, producing damask tablecloths for the Titanic, falls to her death one evening on her way to see a concert in the Grand Opera House) but it lay in tatters on the stage at the curtain, because it tried to be a thriller, a musical and a ghost story all at once, and couldn’t. The Boat Factory, too, struggled manfully inside its overwritten straitjacket. This was a great pity because its story of the various tradesmen working in Harland & Wolff’s is as valid as and needs telling as much as the stories of the December bride, Gerry and his mate – men without women – exiled in London, and poor Miss Blunden, who died the night the Titanic sank. In its best moments, The Boat Factory was very good theatre indeed, but there weren’t just enough of them. Other drama on stage locally last year came in from a wider cultural context and carried lots of excess baggage. A Taste of Honey surfaced in February (teenager Shelagh Delaney’s mould-breaking kitchen sink drama) and perhaps timely it was too in that its picture of disaffection with the quality of life in late 1950’s Britain has resonances today. This is still a very good play, by any standards, but it was served up here in a lacklustre production that was poorly judged, uninspired and gritless. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui proved that conveying Brecht, one of Europe’s great radical theatre theorists, to a Saturday night audience in February is far from easy. Non-melodramatic avant-garde theatre, as both collective experiment and collective experience, needs buckets of mediation and soft landings. The one play of last year that needed extensive but judicious cuts to both plot and character left this production mercilessly exposed and overwrought. The most unusual performance of the year was The Event, in April, but it too was sparsely attended. It featured a man in a light speaking memorised words on an empty stage as he interrogated one’s collective experience of theatre and the relationship between himself and the strangers – the audience. This was an entirely honest, engaging and self-reflecting essay on what other, more conventional drama is about when the spectator sits there in the dark watching make-believe dressed up in pools of light. And then there was Hamlet in November, in a production that was measurably less than pitch or pace perfect, and from which it was difficult to salvage anything of value. Classical music was a very scarce commodity in the year under review. Four BBC Radio 3 song recitals were recorded in the Great Hall in June and then broadcast in August (and they sounded great when interwoven with Sean Rafferty’s knowledgeable comments, on Downpatrick’s attractions, for a national audience).  For the record, the singers were Swedish soprano Miah Persson, Irish tenor Robin Tritschler, Czech bass-baritone Jan Martinik and Croatian mezzo Renata Pokupic, each accompanied on piano by some very accomplished musicians. These performances would have graced concert halls anywhere in the world, but unfortunately the promoters lost the struggle here to supply audiences in the strengths the works deserved. One other classical event was pianist Michael McHale’s recital in April.  This was prodigious liquid architecture as he effortlessly sculpted his way through a rich programme of Mozart, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Brahms. However the true highlights of a good year for local arts were not to be fond either in drama or in the classics, but rather in four events celebrating a wide range of music making with more contemporary echoes. Delightful because unexpected were Doris Day in January (as incarnated by Brigid O’Neill), Mary Coughlan, in person, in March, Linley Hamilton’s reconstruction of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue sessions, in April, and singer-songwriter Anthony Toner’s gig in November. All four managed to find their fan bases, enthusiasts in niche markets that keep these kinds of events supplied with oxygen. Unfair perhaps to push her into the spotlight again, but the gong for utmost honesty in performance, of everything reviewed here last year,  goes to Lady  Coughlan, putting recent heartbreak and trying times firmly behind her, mocking her ‘miserable songs’ (her words), delivering to a finish, an artist with nothing left to prove. Some exceptional Arts’ dates to note (not included in the Ultimate Guide): Of Gods and Men, QFT, film introduced by the Abbot of Portglenone, January 6th; La Fanciulla del West, Puccini’s opera, in Odyssey Cinemas, Belfast, January 8th; Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 50th anniversary screening, QFT, January 22nd; Nosferatu, Ulster Hall, film accompanied by Mulholland Grand Organ, February 8th; and Don Pasquale, Donizetti’s opera, Great Hall, Downpatrick, February 24th. YOU CAN SEE OTHER ARTS REVIEWS BY CLICKING ON TO ‘ARTS AND CULTURE’ IN THE MENU BAR]]>