BELFAST FESTIVAL AT QUEEN'S:
Of Mice And Men/Macbeth/Phaedra/Nick Cave
Various venues, Belfast
November, 1997

London was not the only British city to attempt last weekend to recreate the Parisian rive gauche institution of casual philosophical discussion over a beverage or two. While the capital's French Institute unveiled its café philosophique, the more authentically ad hoc venue of a second-hand bookstore in the university quarter of Belfast kicked off its "Philosophy Party" on Saturday night. Professional thinkers, as it were, lit a series of blue touchpapers concerning freedom, religion and sex, then retired to let the rest of the house get on with it; whether the debate was fuelled by the free-flowing wine, or the talk drove participants to drink, is a separate and, I fear, insoluble question.

Like many arts festivals, the Belfast Festival at Queen's (as it continues to be known despite spreading ever wider from the University itself) does not so much kick off as phase itself in. The two final days of Of Mice And Men's three-week run at the Lyric Theatre just sneaked under the wire as Festival events, as did the end of Macbeth's week-long stint at the Grand Opera House. Robin Midgley's production of John Steinbeck's novel-turned-play comes a very distinct second to the same play's recent outing at Leeds. Midgley goes for narrative clarity rather than emotional depth; thus, Sean Kearns plays Lennie as not merely simple but dumb, stammering his lines and giving eq-ual weight to ev-e-ry syl-la-ble (although Kearns includes a nice touch in the form of Lennie compulsively stroking his hand, even when it does not contain a small animal), and David Gorry's George never really develops a coherent character at all, although John Hewitt turns in a fine character performance as the elderly Candy. At the performance I saw, the largely GCSE-student audience was never sufficiently engaged to stop whispering, rustling and even giggling at the two purportedly climactic deaths on stage.

Nor was this simply because that is how schoolchildren behave; the contrast with the even more heavily teenage audience at the following night's performance of Macbeth could not have been greater. George Costigan's production with its keen sense of both human and supernatural horror, its unabashed rewrites, its discreet nods to the film versions of both Polanski (in the time-serving villainy of Ross) and Welles (as a waiting-gentlewoman becomes almost a Holy Mother), and above all the immense power of Pete Postlethwaite's central performance gripped those several hundred young people and just did not let go. Granted, Costigan shows an occasional taste for over-emphatic gesturing (and Ken Campbell would be distressed to learn that the role of Angus is entirely excised), but the production coruscatingly achieves its aims. And yes: when you think about it, Postlethwaite's face is as a book where men may read strange matters.

The theatre highlight of the Festival's first week, however, was Silviu Purcarete's National Theatre of Craiova production of Phaedra. Purcarete's adaptation and staging are, as one would expect, visually stunning and crammed at every instant with portent; at certain points characters are played by several folk at once, as folk peel off from the clustered 19-strong chorus... at certain other points a perverse humour emerges. Most of all, though as, to an extent, with Costigan's Macbeth one sees a world in which the gods neither disdain to involve themselves nor toy idly with humans, but are constantly in the thick of things: gloating or snubbing, being venerated or giggling childishly at their acts of vengeance. Phaedra was first seen some four years ago, and deserves to be around for much longer still.

Yet the most appetising single strand of the Festival overall must be the (however cringeworthily named) BT Belfast Talks. Having been set in motion with a scholarly, almost apologetically fervent plea from Christopher Hitchens for greater discrimination (in the sense of the word alas all too unfamiliar to us in Northern Ireland), the Elmwood Hall bill has already boasted Gavin Esler, the surprisingly indifferent reading of Martin Amis, and a joint session featuring Andrew Motion and Tom Paulin. Programme director Seán Doran's major coup, though, was the late addition of a session of readings and music from Nick Cave, confirming that he now occupies a place in the front rank of singer-songwriters along with the likes of Dylan, Cohen, Van Morrison and Lou Reed; indeed, his solo-vocal-and-piano rendition of "The Mercy Seat" was the most literally spine-tingling musical moment I have experienced since seeing the reunited Velvet Underground slip stealthily into "All Tomorrow's Parties" a few years ago. Although rightly irritated by sound problems and perhaps a little bemused by the characteristic raucous affability of a Belfast audience, Cave mesmerised for an hour with his prose, lyrics and the surprise appearance of occasional collaborator Kylie Minogue, in the kind of seeming disjunction that my hometown arts festival thrives on.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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