Irish theater continues to thrive with leading companies maintaining not just a high level of quality but hosting an impressive diversity of performances, including an excellent production of the classic Willy Russell play, ‘Educating Rita’ at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre recently.
Transposed to Belfast in the 1980s, a perilous time in northern Ireland’s history, the action takes place in the comfy, book-lined study of the stagnant academic Frank, played in a wonderfully understated way by Michael James Ford, whose ongoing war against growing cynicism and alcoholism is alleviated by the arrival of Rita, a spirited hairdresser longing to escape via an Open University course from the narrow-minded, working-class world to which she is glued.
A bouncy, bright and bubbly Kerri Quinn provides the spark – a mix of spunky energy and a grounded, no-nonsense demeanor – that enlightens the rumpled Marshall’s increasingly dim and depressing view of the world around him.
Upcoming performances at the Lyric include ‘Here Comes The Night,’ which is set in Belfast and written by Rosemary Jenkinson. Her new work is billed as “a playful, thrilling and hilarious take on love, family and loyalties, asking important questions about identity and remembrance.” Directed by Jimmy Fay, it stars Kerri Quinn, Niall Cusack, Michael Condron, Thomas Finnegan and Susan Davey.
Also playing – in the theatre’s Drama Studio – is ‘The Patriot Game’ by Tom Murphy, directed by Philip Crawford. Promotional material states, “Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. A group of young actors meet to present a dramatization of the Easter Rising, some of them passionately in agreement with the 1916 leaders and others cynically opposed to the cause, at least until the full story begins to unfold….” Both plays are part of a group of eight exploring the nature of identity.
Rawlife Theatre Company will also present the world premiere of Pearse Elliott’s ‘As The Tide Ebbs,’ billed as “a dark comedy about truth and buried lives.”
So varied is this year’s Lyric season it includes the world premieres of three new plays by local writers, a co-production with the Young Vic in London of Conor McPherson’s new play and works to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.
Meanwhile, at Dublin’s Trinity College, directors and actors at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, tucked away in a corner of the university’s spacious grounds, continue to laud the many works of their company’s namesake. The theatre’s hosting of his 1963 radio play ‘Cascando’ by Pan Pan Theatre Company recently follows that group’s avant-garde production of ‘All That Fall,’ an existential mystery story during which audience members sit in rocking chairs in a transformed space and ‘Embers,’ a meditation on life and death, during which a ‘skull-scape’ is used whereby actors speak within a huge sculpture of a grimacing skull.
In ‘Cascando,’ audience members wear black, hooded graduation-like gowns and headsets and wander barefoot in a slow procession through a narrow labyrinth created by Aedín Cosgrove, cloaked in either complete darkness or dim lighting while listening to the play interspersed by swelling and subsiding passages of music composed by Jimmy Eadie. The effect: an uplifting sense of freedom, as well as a sense of foreboding. Lifted from the familiarity of ‘normal vision and sound,’ one’s imagination and reason collide until there is a fusion between both. The spoken words take on added meaning, limited only by the flexibility of one’s mind. At times, with a Voice urging, “if you could finish it… you could rest….” and “we’re there . . . nearly . . . just a few more,” this intriguing immersive experience creates images of life and death, then reincarnation, then the dynamics of the creative process and the inevitable loneliness often associated with it, to name but a few.
It’s not just Ireland’s two largest cities that offer refreshing new theatrical entertainment. An Grianan Theatre in Letterkenny, Donegal, in the northwestern region of the country, is also serving up a colorful menu over the next few months, ranging from Harold Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party’ by the London Classic Theatre Company to ‘God Bless the Child,’ a creative interpretation by Patrick Talbot of some of the short stories by Irish author, Frank O’Connor.
This is in addition to a series of comedy and music performances the theatre is hosting. Of the latter, mention must be made of ‘Gutz,’ a dazzling musical, featuring original songs composed by Strabane-based David Oliver who also directs the extravaganza. Focusing on Casey Carson, a feisty, independent and bright young woman from Idaho who arrives in New York to work in the high-flying investment world of Davis Power Inc., the show reflects Oliver’s impressive virtuosity, with complex, high-energy choreography and dance routines and music and song that leap from Gospel and blues to pop, soul and jazz. Scene changes are also impressive, the set transforming speedily from a computer-filled office environment into a lively, anything-goes nightclub. Nor does Oliver shy away from serious social messages, highlighting drug use, gender issues in the workplace and the pervading unethical nature of financial institutions in their rush to make the proverbial quick buck, with such individuals referred to as ‘glorified gamblers’ and ‘Wall Street wannabees.’ The musical also highlights the abundance of local talent, with Christina McBeth and Vicki Templeton outstanding in leading roles.
While the sound-system at An Grianan faltered at times, making hearing difficult, the show is being hosted next month at the modern, Millennium Forum venue in Derry, and is well worth seeing. Another entertainment treat at the same venue this Saturday evening as part of the city’s annual Jazz and Big Band Festival is ‘A Night To Remember,’ featuring singer, James Huish, and his 10-piece band in a lively tribute to the two musical genres with songs ranging from Sinatra to Buble.