BELFAST FESTIVAL 1:
R And J/Romeo E Giulietta/Snow White (Biancaneve)/
A Clockwork Orange/Waiting For Godot
Various venues, Belfast
November, 1999

The first week of this year's Belfast Festival afforded the opportunity to view not one, but two "versions" of Romeo And Juliet. The Belfast-based Kabosh company's R And J (Old Museum Arts Centre) is moderately adventurous for a production aimed so squarely at the school set-text market, in that director Karl Wallace chops up and intercuts the text and uses a cast of five men (and in either part of Ireland, male-male kisses on stage can still cause outrage). However, it rather feels to me as if Wallace and his company have first come up with the gimmicks and then found rationalisations for them rather than setting themselves a goal and utilising particular techniques toward that end. The ever-excellent Sean Kearns, doubling as the Nurse and Friar Laurence, inadvertently shows up his younger colleagues' lesser abilities to delineate characters quickly and easily.

Tuscan company Teatro del Carretto's Romeo E Giulietta (Waterfront BT Studio) was a rather more sumptuous affair. Pruning the text back so as to recount events specifically from Juliet's point of view, and often relying on extracts from Bellini's opera I Capuleti Ed I Montecchi, director Maria Grazia Cipriani generally represented the lovers themselves with four-foot-high rod puppets and other characters by actors in full mask. So scrupulous was the attention to detail and nuance that, behind the series of rostra and traps on which the action was played out, several backdrops were employed to depict the same sky, with identical cloud patterns, at different times of day and night and in different qualities of light. Such captivating precision was also evident in the same company's children's show Snow White (Biancaneve), which was almost entirely puppet-based. This suffered slightly, though, in that these islands have no real tradition of children's puppetry performed, so to speak, in earnest: I suspect the youngsters and their parents were expecting rather more knockabout stuff than the poise and elegance presented to them, although the wicked queen's first appearance (played by a masked actor) was enough to send several children scurrying back from the front row to the arms of their grown-up companions.

A Clockwork Orange (Maysfield Leisure Centre), by Tyneside's Northern Stage, boasted a magnificent score by John Alder which cut up, sampled and rearranged Beethoven's Ninth, but was otherwise uninspired almost to the point of laziness. It's all very well having Alex and his droogs dress in contemporary casual "baggies", but when those around them are done up to resemble cartoon characters, the young thugs look not so much "relevant" as awkward. Alex's "rehabilitated" responses to violence physical repulsion and vomiting were diffidently directed, vague and rushed, and moreover inconsistent, as on a couple of occasions he shoved people around with no ill effects. Most perplexingly, for a production which made such use of projected video images, the one occasion on which no such footage was used (but rather, a high-speed kaleidoscope of abstract shapes and colours) was when Alex was being conditioned by being forced to watch films of violence. An irritating muddle.

Quite the opposite, in fact, of Gabor Tompa's Waiting For Godot at the Lyric Theatre. The Hungarian-Romanian director has worked with an Irish cast: a southern Didi (Sean Campion), a northern Gogo (Conleth Hill, with a beautiful line in Stephen Rea-like dying falls), an Anglo-Irish Pozzo (Donncha Crowley) and, er, Lucky (Ned Dennehy). Granted, Andrei Both's set design of a landscape composed of white shoes seems gratuitously gimmicky, as does the device of having the Boy appear at the end of each act on a half-ruined television screen rather than in the flesh, but Tompa's thoughtful direction means that many passages most notably the slowly, almost imperceptibly growing frenzy during Lucky's episode of "thinking" show both more minute care and more power than I have ever seen in them.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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