Returning to my home town of Belfast last week, I was delighted to experience a dynamic arts and culture scene with a diverse range of productions in many different venues.
Here’s just a glimpse into what’s on offer on a visit to the Northern Ireland capital.
The Lyric Theatre
A creative hub nurturing talent and promoting the critical role of the arts in society for more than 50 years, the Lyric Theatre has been home to internationally acclaimed playwrights, poets and actors, many of whom started their careers there. It recently won The Stage’s Theatre of the Year 2023 for its impact on writers and the wider community.
Until early March, the theater is hosting a vibrant and innovative production of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ with a story twist being that the deadly rivalry in Shakespeare’s classic play between the House of Montague and House of Capulet is transformed into two fashion houses in Verona in the modern era. Directed by Philip Crawford and adapted by Anne Bailie, the production, the first Shakespearean play at the theatre in ten years but the 25th since the theatre’s opening, is a rush of color and costume as the tragic tale unfolds.
Kudos to costume designer, Gillian Lennox, for producing a slew of contemporary outfits that would grace any catwalk and and set designer, Robin Peoples, for creating the illusion onstage of Italian Renaissance architecture with simulated honey-toned stone and stucco encompassing a church, stained glass window and the iconic balcony, all warmly illuminated by James C McFetridge’s excellent lighting. A digital billboard displaying ads for Aperol Spritz, Vogue and GQ Italia add an extra dimension. In combination, they create a veritable feast for the eyes.
Praise also goes to Adam Gillian from Armagh who trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland who plays Romeo and Emma Dougan who plays Juliet in her first professional theatre debut.
Two innovative changes in this production is that Escalus, Prince of Verona, is a powerful woman played by Lata Sharma and Lady Montague, played by Mary Moulds, is a single parent.
Interestingly, half of the 16-strong cast in this show are alumni of the Lyric’s Drama Studio and while they lack the experience that comes with years of onstage practice and sometimes their Northern Irish accents may be difficult to understand at times, collectively they brought a high-level of entertainment to the whole production. I was particularly impressed with Thomas Finnegan as Mercutio, a role he played with panache.
The script is deftly cut to about half its original length but loses none of its dramatic flair.
As the play features suicide, it is admirable the theatre has partnered with the Zachary Geddis – Break the Silence Trust (ZGBTST), an organisation that offers free counselling services and workshops.
Reflecting the range of productions at the Lyric, upcoming Spring and Summer shows include ‘Pop Tart Lipstick’ by the Glass Mask Theatre Production; Big Telly Theatre Company hosting ‘Frankenstein’s Monster Is Drunk And The Sheep Have All Jumped The Fences;’ and Martin McDonagh’s ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane,’ not to mention the theatre’s own New Playwrights Programme Showcase.
Founded in 1966, the Ulster Orchestra has been a leader in musical life in Northern Ireland for half a century with around 40 performances every year in its home, the historic Ulster Hall, and also at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall.
Last week, a well-attended event was entitled ‘Going Dutch’ with guest conductor, Jac van Steen, and violinist, Rosanne Philippens, in a programme featuring the Academic Festival Overture by Johannes Brahms, a violin concerto by Benjamin Britten and Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6.
A prelude to the evening was a short Q&A with Van Steen, Honorary Principal Guest Conductor with the orchestra, who spoke about the lives of of the three musical maestros and his approach to their work.
Considered a serious, even stern man, it was a surprise to hear in Brahm’s overture a sense of playfulness and to find out the light-hearted piece is based entirely on student drinking songs.
Britten’s concerto was a change in mood, written for Spanish violinist Antonio Broso, with the Spanish civil war very much in Britten’s mind.
As for Dvorak’s sixth symphony, it was dismissed by the haughty Vienna Philharmonic as ‘too Czech’ due to its evocation of the Bohemian countryside yet is now recognised as a powerful symphony of the Romantic era.
Located in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, this theatre opened more than a decade ago and is key to the ongoing regeneration of downtown Belfast, offering an eclectic programme of visual art, theatre, dance and family workshops.
Last week, two events took place here at the same time, one being a sold-out one-woman comedy, ‘Maggie Yer Ma,’ which I attended about the hilarious adventures of loveable rogue Maggie Muff in working-class north Belfast in the 1990s. The show is the latest sequel in a popular trilogy – the previous two being ‘Dirty Dancin’ In Le Shebeen’ and ‘Maggie’s Feg Run’ – penned by author and playwright Leesa Harker. It stars Caroline Curran who switches adroitly between several different colorful characters, both male and female. A frenetic, madcap performance filled with jokes is in store throughout the two hours.
As for content, the show is beyond risqué, with crude references to sex and profane language a key part of scene-setting. Directed by Andrea Montgomery, the only stage props are two giant pink sequinned slippers which Curran energetically leaps upon while being acting out her role as a single mother to her child, ’Prosecco,’ dealing with family dramas and trying to win a talent competition in her local shebeen’s (illegal Irish drinking club). Not to mention keeping up with her lively sidekick, Big Sally-Ann, who has embraced Buddhism.
Waves of laughter rose from the audience throughout the show with Curran receiving a rapturous standing ovation at the end. Someone not familiar with Belfast might find some of the content confusing as there’s a lot of in-jokes and vernacular language particular to the city.
The other event on the same evening, part of the MACtivate programme in association with The Rainbow Project, was a Queer Set Dancing class with dancer and human rights activist, Alexa Moore, welcoming LGBTQ+ members to learn new steps.