Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Celebrating Stoker by Interrupting the Ordinary

Macnas return to Dublin for the Bram Stoker Festival and the scale of the performance is epic. 

You'd think it was an ordinary day in Dublin: mellowing outside a Temple Bar café, elaborate coffee in hand. Then a pale fellow donning a crimson overcoat, with more than a smidgen of blood dripping from his mouth, thoughtfully says hello with a flash of his fangs.

An agent of Dracula perhaps? Or maybe Jo Mangan, theatre director of The Performance Corporation and artistic leader of the Bram Stoker Festival. Sending these vampiric figures (Anthony Kinahan and Camille Ross, sticking their charismatically deformed necks out) to scour the streets is one of Mangan's methods to engage the wider city, which is surely a challenge. The broad programme of events including a fancy-dress Shapeshifters Ball at IMMA, a VampWire zip-line in Wolfe Tone Square, and a range of readings and lectures seems intent to draw blood from that figurative stone.

The most intriguing-sounding place to be transported was the disused train tunnel underneath the Phoenix Park. Underground Gothic by director Maeve Stone and composer Tom Lane begins with boarding a train at Connolly Station. We put on headphones that carry the recorded sound of rattling train tracks, manipulated by Lane into a rapid rhythm as a woman begins to move suspiciously through the carriage. Desperate for escape, she leaps on tables with the dexterity of a dancer. When we're instructed to remove the headphones we realise that the sound design has flooded the train, eventually gutting a familiar operator's announcement - "Please mind the gap", edited now to a looped plea: "Please, please, please, please, please ..."

Lane's design is clever but the event is let down by slow pacing and over-wrought details, particularly the arrival of two tawdry figures in hazmat suits that lunge through the carriage and take the distressed woman away. While playing on fears of disease outbreak, an item topical at the moment with the Ebola epidemic, you'd wish the production focused instead on our unusual surroundings - the mysterious tunnel and its remove from ordinary life. We stepped excitedly through Stone's past productions in non-theatre venues, especially the epic You Can't Just Leave - There's Always Something, but she can't hold the audience in suspense here, who instead tend to giggle at the naff effects. The promised discovery of the Dublin underground isn't delivered.

Back in the city, traffic along the quays was brought to a standstill as street theatre warriors Macnas returned to Dublin with The Summoning, directed by Noeline Kavanagh. An amber-glowing Pegasus stood regally outside city hall before extending its wings and taking to the streets. A crew dutifully controlled the puppet with assistance from coordinators Mike O'Halloran and Róisín Stack, as a brass ensemble followed suit and sent the crowd bobbing down Copper Alley. Meanwhile, a metallic Medusa was rolling through Temple Bar, her seismic lips drooping off her face, and icy blue light emanating from her eyes.

The two parties conjoined in Wolfe Tone Square, and brought their respective crowds with them. A raised band filled the park with jazz beats as the crowd were towered over by masked gorgons on stilts and stalked by performers including: an elite-looking Helen Gregg; Lauren Trainor, staring down spectators like a deranged pixie; a warped Emma O'Grady; Clare Barrett as a feathered faerie; alarmed harlequin Tracy Bruen, and many others.

Finally, a third puppet enters the square: embittered giant Crom, an old man effectively frayed and given grave expression by Macnas designers to suggest a lifetime of unhappiness. The epic figures are cast against a juxtaposition of modern offices and the 19th century architecture of the old Jervis hospital, with nearby gravestones reminding us of the former graveyard onsite, adding to the atmosphere of the spectral scene.

As the finale sets the sky ablaze, the scale of Macnas' performance feels epic. By extension, the festival pays tribute to Stoker in a defining element of the Gothic: a supernatural interruption of ordinary life.

What did everyone else think?

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