7 February 2008
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
FOR the past five years, this truly fabulous dance theatre company has been building a Midlands Trilogy - a series of works set against the backdrop of communities in the heart of present-day Ireland.
The biblically-tinged conclusion, James Son of James - which launches the Barbican's Bite season - is undoubtedly the most sophisticated piece of storytelling Fabulous Beast has yet embarked upon.
Mixing speech, song and powerfully effective snatches of dance, it follows the progress of James (Emmanuel Obeya), who arrives late for his father's funeral - and has a profound effect on the small-town community in which he finds himself.
From the second he sits down to a carefully grouped Last Supper of welcome, the trajectory of the story is plain. This quietly mannered outsider will transform people's lives: he will save an unhappy girl from drowning, he will heal her sorrowing father, he will help the barren policeman's wife to conceive. In the end, however, this sort of messiah will be rejected and undone by prejudice, self-interest and jealousy.
But what is impressive about Michael Keegan-Dolan's production, choreographed by the whole company, is the bright clarity with which the tale unfolds. On Merle Hensel's simple set - a half-timbered, unfinished house presumably representing Ireland's growth - and, with Philip Feeney's jaunty songs providing an ironic counterpoint, a series of deft duets reveal character and emotion with economic originality.
As James saves Simone (wonderful Rachel Poirier) from a ditch (represented by real water under stage trapdoors), the drenched girl struggles and swims in his arms; when a farmer recruits a foreign worker who eventually becomes his wife, he measures her with his body, lifting her over his head to weigh her; the way the policeman and his wife grapple with their unfertility is shown by her desperate lunges towards his crotch; when James's yoga classes provide sexual and emotional liberation, they conceive in a giddily acrobatic series of movements. The height of the town's happiness is celebrated in a wedding scene full of whirling, breathless couples.
Often funny and always absorbing up to this point, the piece's subsequent tilt into tragedy and the heavily allegorical conclusion feel less convincing. It may make a point about the struggles of modern Ireland, but it turns its characters into ciphers, their motivation for malice generic rather than specific.
The superb cast still delineate every second with a kind of unassuming lucidity that belies the great skill on display, but the impact of their actions slightly falls away.
Perhaps that is partly because James Son of James feels less visceral, less instinctive than its two predecessors. But, taken as a whole, the Midlands Trilogy looks like a substantial achievement, melding various aspects of dance, theatre and music in an entirely convincing and satisfying way.
6 February 2008
Michael Keegan-Dolan is not the bringer of good news. The characters in his dance-dramas are greedy and guilty. They can impersonate goodness but they cannot sustain it, and when they meet someone innately good, you know they will crush it.
James son of James is Keegan-Dolan's latest creation, his fourth at the Barbican, and its characters are just such. They live in small-town Ireland, and at first all seems respectable enough. The action opens at the funeral of the local schoolteacher, James, whose son, also James, returns to pay his respects. Standing around the grave are the shopkeeper, the policeman, the farmer and the local politician.
All are revealed to have troubled lives, and unhappy wives, on which James works a kind of redemptive magic. The town is flush with happiness (how merrily they dance when the farmer finds a wife), yet the villagers soon turn on their saviour.
The Biblical reference is obvious, both in the telling and the title, although Keegan-Dolan is more Old Testament than New. It is a bitter pill in a bitter coating, especially at the close when the town's double crime becomes clear.
Between start and gloom, James son of James delivers flashes of humour and energy. The section when the childless couple get it together is a good laugh, as is the 'chicken' sequence and the tango-ing politician. There is also a nicely naturalistic gesture, a rag-taggity dance, and a clever set with good lighting.
Speech and song are part of the mix, even if Keegan-Dolan includes rather too much of them (not all the 11 dancer-actors are up to their demands). There is also some duff comedy, a sluggish start, and too much running, jumping and lolling about (more choreography, please). However, the last half builds to powerful effect, even if it leaves you in sombre hues.
7 February 2008
Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Fabulous Beast finishes its Midlands trilogy skewering modern Ireland on the horns of mythical tales with its most strongly narrative, and most mournful, piece so far. Gone is the raucous humour, Tarantino-style violence and thundering drumming of last years tour-de-force The Bull: instead we have piercingly sad songs by Mark E Everett and a tale of Christ-like sacrifice. James (Emmanuel Obeya) returns home after a long absence to attend his father’s funeral. After saving suicidal Simone (Rachel Poirier) from drowning, he’s hailed a hero.
But as his calm benevolence starts to affect more of the screwed-up townsfolk, suspicion replaces goodwill: his fall from hero to scapegoat is inevitable in this town of vituperative curtain-twitchers.
There are some fine performances, and Keegan-Dolan’s choreographed duets fit well into the movement of the piece, offering tender, amusing depictions of fumbled courtships and strained relationships.
7 February 2008
James is an accidental hero. Returning from his travels abroad to bury his father, his handsome, easy manner strikes a charismatic contrast to the repressed and ugly mood of his native town. From the local policeman and his wife who are failing to get pregnant, to the gay doctor who wishes he had been a hairdresser, to the widowed merchant who smothers his daughter with anxious care, this is a town seething with tragedies, paranoia and obsession.
By chance, James rescues the suicidal daughter from drowning and finds himself elevated to the role of community saint. The women are over him like a fever, the men all want to be his friend. Yet the more James fixes the lives of these people, the more warped and angry they turn out to be. When a crime is committed in town James is fingered, and lynched.
When it comes to detail, this production is often clever. Short, cartoon-like dance sequences introduce character and plot to comic effect. Particularly funny is the contortionist duet through which the policeman and his wife attempt to conceive, a quivering marathon of dogged ecstasy and pain. A medley of sour, satirical songs from Philip Feeney's score satisfyingly curdles the tone, and Merle Hensel's set - a huge wooden cut-out house - serves as an ingenious series of locations.
7 February 2008
Again we are in the Irish Midlands, and again we are shown a society in transition. With rising economic prosperity and an influx of foreign migrants, traditional social patterns are changing. James is the wandering son who returns home after 11 years away to attend his father's funeral. When he rescues a local girl from drowning (she was apparently intent on suicide) he becomes an accidental hero. As he gradually affects the lives of the ten people around him it begins to look as if he's an angel dispensing goodness and righting their ills. But it's not that simple, of course, and when James's beneficence is turned cruelly against him the production takes on an entirely different tone.
Keegan-Dolan tells his 90-minute tale in speech, song, clowning and dance - the complete package. The set is a construction site on which a house is being built. The score, by Philip Feeney, provides suitable mood music, while the interspersed songs add narrative lustre. The choreography (a company effort) is doled out in meagre doses, but when it does come its wanton physicality is welcome. Duets express various frustrations and desires, leaving nothing to the imagination and making clever use of comic overstatement. The townspeople are well drawn. The politician ambitious for re-election; his frustrated wife and troubled son; the policeman and his wife, desperate for a child; the lonely farmer and the East European woman seeking security; the doctor struggling with homosexuality. The grieving merchant (his wife died in a fire) and his tormented daughter (the one saved by James).
James is the most centred person on stage, and not just because he teaches the local breathing class. Emmanuel Obeya delivers him with a kind of beatific naivety. The rest of the international cast is equally outstanding, imbuing their stories with conviction and a strong physicality even when not dancing.
Michael Keegan-Dolan’s artistic fascination for the middle earth of Ireland, the homeland where he currently hangs his hat, continues into this final part of Fabulous Beast’s Midlands Trilogy, following ‘Giselle’ (2003) and ‘The Bull’ (2005). But unlike its predecessors, this story is not quintessentially Irish and could come from any introverted, remote community having to deal with incomers and one particular troublesome outsider.
James, the son, rushes home from Delhi to attend James, the father’s, funeral but sitting on a runway in Dubai and stuck on a bus in Ireland, he arrives too late and James, the cadaver, is already underground. The son stays on, enjoying an apparent episodic step-change of acceptance: he saves the Merchant’s Daughter from drowning; encourages the Farmer’s engagement of The Woman from the East; and attracts the women of the town to join his breathing classes. But all this masks an undercurrent of resentment that eventually boils over in a truly shocking dénouement.
Keegan-Dolan and his collaborators (for he’s always quick to point out that everything is a team effort) have an amazing eye for the spectacular theatrical effect. In ‘The Bull’ a mini-mountain of peat covered the stage (and the fortunate ticket-holders of Rows A and B); here, the performance starts with a construction site cameo of physical theatre that suggests a before and after health & safety demo; a series of trapdoors in the stage conceals a channel of water, doubling as the stream from which the girl is rescued and a trough for washing apples on the farm; at the very end, the wooden gable end of a house that has stood throughout the performance comes crashing down with the last remaining character standing just out of the way; not quite as Buster Keaton famously filmed a similar sequence but as near as you could come in live theatre!
There’s a significant dance content in ‘James’, more so than I recall in the previous parts of the trilogy, mainly as a means of developing the narrative between the town’s major characters: we have, for example, an energetic sexual duet between The Policeman (Vladislav Soltys) and his wife (the aptly named Lorena Randi) as they strive to maximise fertility; and a poignant set of inter-dependencies played out in dance between the Politician (FB regular, Michael Dolan), his wife (Daphne Strothmann) and their son (Khamlane Halsackda). The intimate physicality of these gymnastic duets is counter-balanced by a more traditional ceilidh, which marks the beginning of James’ downward slide.
For the most part, there is great humour, especially in the inside-outside, camp character of Doctor Bartholomew, secretly desiring to be a hairdresser, played brilliantly by the counter-tenor, Angelo Smimmo, another regular Beast; and in Daphne Strothmann’s striking performance as the frustrated, bitchy wife of the local Politician, whose life is neatly summarised by her eventual orgasmic release in response to James’ breathing class.
The imagery is literally fantastic, where else would you see a character in a ghastly check suit, face entirely bandaged like the Invisible Man – with just the business end of a goatee poking out – sitting on a washing machine (for sale at 1999) singing a song called “I’m a Motherfucker”.
Unlike in ‘The Bull’ where the comedic content was punctuated by frequent violence, the humour here remained a consistent theme until being roughly and abruptly punctured in an ending where the townspeople lynch James (played with appropriate understatement by Nigerian dancer, Mani Obeya), hanging him in a noose of party lights. The sight of a black man being strung up by a white, mixed gender mob, coming as it did after so much laughter, is like walking out of a party and being hit in the face with a spade.
Keegan-Dolan’s audacious, and frequently beautiful, Irish Midlands’ Trilogy ends with the house, and not just the curtain, falling down – a final splendid giant thud to represent an emphatic full stop to this rich vein of artistry created and set in his bleak but inspirational homelands.
In the programme notes, Keegan-Dolan says that he’s not world famous like Pina Bausch. Maybe not, yet.
3 October 2007
It was magnificent. The concluding part of Fabulous Beast’s Midlands Trilogy, James son of James (written and directed by Michael Keegan Dolan) is a raucous tragicomedy told through dance, physical theatre, slapstick and song. A huge balsa wood cut-out of a house dominates the stage. James (the magnetic Emmanuel Obeya) – son of James, deceased – returns from overseas to the town of Rathmore for his father’s funeral where he’s welcomed by a motley crew of locals. When he fishes the suicidal Simone Fallon (Rachel Poirier) out of the river – the first of some really fabulous choreographed duets – he reaches messianic status, which can only lead to one thing: persecution.
The women flutter around him like moths to a flame, while the men trust his zen demeanour. Icy Judith (Daphne Strothmann, brilliantly sinister) exudes spiritual ecstasy during their communal yoga sessions; a rare moment when she truly drops her steely façade. Later, when dancing with her politician husband Peter (Michael Dolan) and reminiscing about James, even her stoner son (Khamlane Halsackda) notices his mother’s breathless, dangerous beauty.
Across town, infertile Luke and his wife Pauline are engaged in a very funny but hugely touching sex scene in a bid to get pregnant following a healing session with the eponymous hero. But when a house gets broken into and Pauline’s belly blooms, all fingers point at James and the true and brutal nature of a closed community is revealed.
The ensemble cast is outstanding, seizing the large wooden stage like Lipizzan horses. This is dance theatre at its very best.
7 October 2007
SUNDAY BUSINESS POST
The ‘‘By’’ on the Dublin Theatre Festival programme for this production is pointed: this play is a collaborative effort. Created by Michael Keegan Dolan in collaboration with an 11-member, multinational cast of dancers who act and actors who dance, and most of whom sing, James Son of James is a riot of physical and emotional energy.
The cast, including Milos Galko, Vladislav Soltys, Mick Dolan, Daphne Strothmann, Emmanuel Obeya, Rachel Poirier, Neil Paris, Khamlane Halsackda, Cliodhna Hoey and Lorena Randi, are a revelation.
They dance and sing about heartache and loneliness, about longing for a baby or for someone who’s died - and then they join in together for dances that illustrate their sexual tension, self-hatred, or simply pure physical comedy. The music, sometimes upbeat and comedic and sometimes eerily otherworldly, is perfect for the piece it surrounds.
The set design is akin to a 12th cast member. Designed by Merle Hensel, it is an enormous, moveable wooden frame, sturdy enough to be climbed upon - and it often is. Three trapdoors in the floor’s centre open to become a grave, a river, a washbasin full of apples and, most memorably, a bathtub.
Set in a small Irish town in the midlands - this closes the company’s Midlands Trilogy, begun with Giselle in 2004 and The Bull in 2006 - the scene opens in a graveyard.
The townsfolk are burying James, a teacher and pillar of the community. Then a young black man, travel-worn, arrives amidst the mourners and kneels beside the grave.
He is James too, the eponymous son, and within days he has gone from interloper to reluctant hero after pulling a young girl out of the river. His presence will transform the town, at first for the better and then, through a callous criminal act, very much for the worse.
Is he a Christ-like figure? We’re never sure - Keegan Dolan and his crew haven’t supplied many straight answers, and the comedy keeps turning dark, leaving more questions than it answers - but the play left me with a beatific glow.
7 October 2007
THE SUNDAY INDEPENDENT (Ireland)
IT WAS bound to be audacious: a storyline that combines the lonesome cowboy saviour and the Saviour of Galilee. It also suggests a level of posturing self-importance. But this production comes from Fabulous Beast (in co-operation with the Barbican and the Dance Touring Partnership), and Fabulous Beast's Michael Keegan Dolan is not given to posturing.
James Son of James is the third piece in his Midlands Dance Trilogy; it is also the darkest of the three, and exposes Ireland in an even uglier light than previously. James the unknown son returns for his father's funeral, saves a young woman from killing herself, and sees that he is needed in the townland where misery reigns supreme, primly contained behind new forms of lace curtains. Watching it, it's easy to remember that the original Valley of the Squinting Windows was Delvin, Co Westmeath, Keegan Dolan's own county base.
The local TD and his wife are obsessed with keeping up appearances so he can win the forthcoming election and are prepared to sacrifice their teenage son to do it; the local garda's sexual self-image is pathetically insecure despite his young wife's reassurance. Tommy Fallon is slimily and possibly incestuously obsessed with his own daughter (leading to her attempted suicide), and the local doctor suffers from psychotic manifestations because he has been responsible for his wife's death.
Cue the heaven-sent arrival of James, the stranger who sorts things out with compassion and sanity, a crime for which he can merely not be forgiven, but which allows him to be made the scapegoat and hate figure.
This is Ireland with the gloves and the complacency off, an almost cynically intelligent and angry assessment echoed ferociously in the choreography…
It works stunningly on the level of performance, with Fabulous Beast stalwarts and some new faces giving their all to director Keegan Dolan; and an impressive all it is. Add in Philip Feeney's score, Merle Hensen's design, Adam Silverman's lighting and Alexis Nealon's sound, and you have a diamond in the rough. It just needs polishing and cutting for the facets to sparkle.
TOP OF PAGE