Irish Shows

Talented tenor trio poised for national tour

The Celtic Tenors, from left Matthew Gilsenan, from Meath, Daryl Simpson, from Omagh and James Nelson, from Sligo.

The Celtic Tenors, from left Matthew Gilsenan, from Meath, Daryl Simpson, from Omagh and James Nelson, from Sligo.

A little more than a year after their first extensive tour of Australia The Celtic Tenors are headed back down under.

The Celtic Tenors are one of Ireland’s most popular classical crossover acts. They have been performing together for almost two decades and have sold more than a million albums worldwide.

Australia is relatively new territory for the trio, although they have toured here with Celtic Woman. They are well established in the US and Canada.

“We’re a little bit late to the party [in Australia],” Matthew Gilsenan tells The Irish Echo. “We’ve been together as a group for 20 years but last year was the first time we did anything meaningful in Australia. We love it.

“There’s so many Irish, half the country lives in Australia at the moment. We can’t wait to get back.

Gilsenan acknowledges that the genre is crowded but points to the longevity of their success as validation of their appeal.

“There’s lots and lots of tenor groups out there and we’ve been around longer than any of them but we’ve kept the head down and kept it small. We didn’t have the resources to go as far as Australia early on.

“The fact that we managed to survive this long and still be productive is great. We’ve just finished our ninth studio album.”

The Celtic Tenors combine classical with pop and perform Irish classics but, as Gilsenan explains, the combination is unique.

“It’s not quite what it says on the tin. We’re called the Celtic Tenors but about 10 years in we said, ‘We should have called ourselves something else’. We don’t do too much of the tenoring. Yes, we do Nessun Dorma and we do the big belter operatic things but only a bit. We’re very proud of our great Irish songwriters, from Declan O’Rourke to Phil Coulter, to Kodaline and the Script. A good song is a good song and that’s what we come to sing.”

On this tour they will perform The Irish Songbook that will include Song For Ireland, Danny Boy, You Raise Me Up and more favourites.

This is also very much the flavour of their forthcoming album: “It’s kind of the album we should have made the very first time out with songs like I’ll Tell Me Ma, Carrickfergus, The Parting Glass and The Rocky Road to Dublin. Many of these songs we’ve kind of avoided because everyone has done them and if we were going to be giving them a go at all, we would want to get fairly good at what we’re doing.

“I think 20 years in we’re beginning to feel almost like it’s a coming of age and have enough maturity to make musical calls.”

The Celtic Tenoes have performed for everyone from Bill Clinton to Bono.

The Celtic Tenoes have performed for everyone from Bill Clinton to Bono.

Gilsenan, from Meath, and James Nelson, from Sligo, have been members of The Celtic Tenors since the start. The third member, Daryl Simpson, from Omagh, replaced Niall Morris in 2006.

The Meathman believes the fact that they are not locked into one setlist keeps it interesting for them as performers and entertaining for their audiences.

“Because we haven’t written our own music so much, we tend to cycle through songs that we think are great songs. And the ones that are truly great songs are the ones that feel like we’re doing them for the first time every night and we still enjoy them,” he says.

“It’s a huge plus for us as performers. If you’re performing something that you’re sick of doing it’s going to come across. We never do anything we don’t like. That’s what surprises: the content of the show, the craic that we have. It’s a non-scripted show. We’re kind of ordinary fellas.

“We’re not overly classical, we’re not overly Irishy, it’s just a good night of quality music. We don’t take ourselves seriously at all.”

Playing to expat audiences is always rewarding, Gilsenan says, and the degrees of separation with home are always few in number.

“An old man came to one of our shows a few years back,” he recalls.

“He said, ‘I noticed your name was Gilsenan. Did you ever hear of a man called Matt Gilsenan from Meath, the football player? That’s why I came, I recognised your name’. My grandfather was Matt Gilsenan. He was the captain of the Leinster football team in 1939 and they won the Railway Cup. He said, ‘I played with your grandfather in 1942’. And I said, ‘My God, that’s amazing’. He said, ‘Well, I left in 1945 and I never came home’.

“He wrote a little note to my grandfather who was the absolute definition of a hard man. But he was really, really gobsmacked when he got this. It’s quite emotional the stories that you come across, it’s unreal.”

What does Gilsenan consider the best compliment the group has been paid in 20 years?

“I remember we sang for Bill Clinton at an event in Dublin Castle. It was marking the fact that the Good Friday Agreement seemed to have stuck, so we were singing for Bill Clinton; Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach at the time, so he was there. Bono and Bob Geldof were there; President [Mary] Robinson and all these people.

“Three days later, we get a phone call from Bono’s office to ask if we would sing at a private birthday party for him so he obviously thought our version of Danny Boy was good enough. He asked us to sing five or six songs as a birthday gift for [the late Secretary General of the United Nations] Kofi Annan’s wife. He was a lovely man and his wife was even nicer.”

Part of the fun of performing is to reconnect with audiences and, Gilsenan says the trio treat their fans as friends.

“Young pop groups have fans; we tend to treat them more like friends. We don’t separate ourselves too much. At the end of a show, we’re there signing CDs, shaking hands and saying hi and you end up knowing so many of them.”

The Celtic Tenors return to Australia in May and June for a national tour. For more information, go to www.celtic-tenors.com

Rebel Wilson to star in Beauty Queen Of Leenane

Rebel Wilson is a big fan of Martin McDonagh’s work.

Rebel Wilson is a big fan of Martin McDonagh’s work.

Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect, Bridesmaids) will play the female lead in Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen Of Leenane for the Sydney Theatre Company next year.

The star of movies like Pitch Perfect, Bridesmaids returns to the Sydney stage in the ink-black modern classic by Academy Award-winning writer McDonagh who wrote and directed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Wilson’s appearance in this Sydney Theatre Company production is sure to generate plenty of interest when it premieres next November.

The play is part of McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy alongside A Skull In Connemara and The Lonesome West.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is one of my favourite plays,” Wilson said.

“It’s a fascinating look at a complicated relationship between a mother and daughter, written by my favourite playwright, Martin McDonagh. He writes such dark and comedic characters – I've always been drawn to his work.

“I am really excited to come back to STC to be in this play. The Beauty Queen of Leenane was the first professional play that I ever saw and I saw it at STC when I was 19 years old. I was just blown away by how talented the actors were and how great the play was. Then I performed in that same theatre a few months later in my first proper play, Spurboard, for ATYP and STC Education. So, to me, the play holds a lot of significance – I hope I can do it justice."

Set in a small Connemara town, Maureen Folan lives a lonely existence with Mag, her aged mother. Their relationship is more arm wrestle than warm embrace. Right now, when Maureen stands the chance of having her first romantic relationship, Mag’s cantankerous presence is simply unbearable.

This play was the first big hit for McDonagh, whose films also include the hugely popular In Bruges.

Rebel Wilson said she is excited by her return to live theatre.

“There’s something very special and very magical about seeing theatre. I can’t get enough of going. I love that it’s an immediate experience. The cool thing is that every theatrical performance is different and it depends on the audience and the energy in the room. Just those people there share that one, live, personal experience. You can’t get that from a movie or a TV show, it’s such a particular experience. That’s why, despite all the technological advances in entertainment, people still go to the theatre – and have for hundreds of years. You just can’t beat the shared experience of theatre.”

The play is part of the Sydney Theatre Company's 2019 Program.

Harp In The South a Strumpet City down under

Kate Mulvany's stage adaptation of Ruth Park's Harp In The South runs until October 6. 

Kate Mulvany's stage adaptation of Ruth Park's Harp In The South runs until October 6. 

 

REVIEW: “There are no literary tricks, no displays of cleverness, little rhetoric and less sentimentality; it is full-hearted, astutely observed writing at its most cohesive.”

Eileen Battersby wrote this in The Irish Times as a way of describing James Plunkett’s novel Strumpet City (successfully adapted for the small screen by Hugh Leonard in the 1970s) but it could have been written about Ruth Parks’ The Harp In The South.

Different city and a slightly different time but its epic scale, its large cast of characters and its essential Irishness are common threads.

Actor and playwright Kate Mulvany, whose resume is already bulging with fine stage work, has adapted Parks’ three novels about the Darcy family - Missus, Harp In The South and Poor Man’s Orange – for the Sydney Theatre Company. The resultant mammoth production, directed by Kip Williams, is both impressive and captivating. 

The ‘harp’ of the title is Ireland and we are taken on a dramatic journey with the Darcy family from the rural NSW town which they first call home in the new land to the grimy Surry Hills slums to which they move in search of a better life.

The streets of Sydney are not paved with gold and their lives become a daily battle of survival against the forces of poverty, violence, illness, crime, alcoholism and prejudice. 

For all that, there’s warmth and humour galore interwoven into the script along with a number of Irish songs tastefully punctuating the narrative.

While this is a new play, it is immediately familiar to Irish eyes with shades of Sean O’Casey, John B Keane and even Brian Friel.

Emigration is a common theme for Irish playwriting but few are written from the perspective of those who have left, looking back over their shoulder, wondering if the grass beneath their feet is indeed greener.

The opening words of Siúil A Rún, which is used to great dramatic effect in Part 1, spell it out.

“I wish I were on yonder hill, ’tis there I’d sit an cry my fill”. 

Harp In The South is steeped in that immigrant world and for the Darcys, Australia does not ultimately deliver a better life for them or their descendants even if the play (six and half hours of theatre delivered over two performances) ends on an optimistic note.

In the #metoo era, Harp In The South resonates with feminist themes as we see three generations of women battle to keep their families together as their own dreams - and indeed their very lives - are sacrificed and abandoned.

As a consequence, the female characters get all the best lines, whether its Anita Hegh’s relentlessly-aproned Margaret Darcy or local brothel madam Delie Stock, beautifully played by Helen Thompson. The Irish-born matriarch Eny Kilker, played by Heather Mitchell chastises her Australian-born son-in-law Hughie Darcy at one point “Irish? You’re about as Irish as a feckin’ wombat!”.

Sadly, the male actors are not given as much to work with as their characters are either lazy drunks, sexual predators or gormless fools. 

Part 1 is a significantly more satisfying theatrical event than Part 2 and one wonders whether the adaptation could have been more comprehensively edited to create one single production.

But make no mistake, this is a very important addition to the Australian theatrical canon and one definitely worth seeing. For all of its Irishness, it is an Australian story. We see the seeds of Sydney’s multicultural, secular, pluralist, hedonistic present through the eyes of these spirited women and the flawed men who take their loyalty and love for granted.

4/5 Stars.

Strong Irish vein to adapted stage epic

Tony Cogin, Anita Hegh and Tara Morice in Kate Mulvany's adaptation of Ruth Park's  The Harp In The South .  Picture: Rene Vaile

Tony Cogin, Anita Hegh and Tara Morice in Kate Mulvany's adaptation of Ruth Park's The Harp In The South.  Picture: Rene Vaile

A MUCH-LOVED story about a Catholic Irish-Australian family living in the Surry Hills slums in the post-war years has been turned into an epic play opening in Sydney this month.

The Harp in the South follows the lives, loves and losses of the Darcy family who run a boarding house amid the dirt and the squalor of inner city Sydney in the 40s and 50s.

It’s a two-part production staged over a mammoth five-and-a-half hours so audiences can be completely immersed in the Darcys’ world.

The play is based on a trilogy of novels by Ruth Park and has been adapted for the theatre by award-winning playwright and actress Kate Mulvany.

Mulvany, who has Irish hertitage, fell in love with The Harp in the South while growing up. She described it as a “beautiful, sweeping, romantic” saga.

“It was just this book that seemed to be on everyone’s shelves,” she said.

“I guess it was because Ruth Park was so inclusive of everyone in her writing. Everyone could find themselves, or their mum, or their grandparents in it. And for me, it was the very, very strong Irish vein that ran through the book in every single way.”

Guy Simon, Contessa Treffone and Rose Riley in the Sydney Theatre Company's production of  The Harp In The South . 

Guy Simon, Contessa Treffone and Rose Riley in the Sydney Theatre Company's production of The Harp In The South

At the heart of the play are first generation Irish-Australians Margaret and Hugh Darcy and their two daughters Roie (Rowena) and Dolour.  Audiences will follow them through the generations and the decades in a production full of song, laughter and tears. Their Irish-born grandma, played by Heather Mitchell, provides many of the gags.

 “She is sort of like an over-sexed, blatantly honest, funny, little tiny creature,”Mulvany said. “I really enjoy it every time she goes on stage.”

There’s also a tight-knit community of neighbours, many of them new immigrants from different parts of the world. The colourful cast of characters includes the notorious madam who runs the brothel next door, nuns and even an Orangeman intent on starting the Troubles in the Darcy’s kitchen.

The Harp in the South reflects the life of Surry Hills’ hardscrabble post-war residents – the Irish, the Chinese and the Europeans – who filled its streets with life and colour.

One of the play’s central themes is community and “finding a place to belong when you’re far from home” and it celebrates the fellowship that existed among the slum dwellers.

But it certainly isn’t all a rose-tinted depiction of the ‘good old days’. 

Along with the grinding poverty, there’s violence, backstreet abortions, alcoholism and death. 

Playwright Kate Mulvany, who adapted Ruth Park's classic for the stage.

Playwright Kate Mulvany, who adapted Ruth Park's classic for the stage.

Park lived in Surry Hills after she got married, so she knew well the conditions firsthand.

“I’m not going to cast it in a golden light because it’s not,” Mulvany said. “Ruth Park never wrote it like that, either. It’s tough.”

In fact, when Park’s book was first published in 1948 there was a public outcry at its depiction of the slums, especially because Park was a New Zealander. And while modern Irish
immigrants might appear to have little in common with the Darcys, Mulvany said they may struggle with some of the same issues.

 “Do you belong either in Surry Hills or in Ireland? How far does Irish blood go?”

Mulvany wrote the play for the Sydney Theatre Company after being given the commission to adapt an epic novel and turn it into event theatre.

Audiences can choose to watch the two-part production on different days, or on the same day with breaks.

The 18-strong cast is in rehearsal and has the enormous task of playing 150 parts, switching costumes and personas for what has been described as one of STC’s most ambitious productions.

 “They’re doing very well with it; I’m sure they’ll turn on me soon,” Mulvany said with a laugh.

The Harp in the South runs from August 16 to October 6 in the Roslyn Packer Theatre.

For more details go to sydneytheatre.com.au

Australian premiere for orphan girls play

The cast of Highlands Theatre Group's production of  Belfast Girls .

The cast of Highlands Theatre Group's production of Belfast Girls.

Belfast Girls, a play which dramatises the journey of Irish orphan girls to Australia in the mid-19th century, is to have its Australian debut this month.

The play, written by Irish playwright Jaki McCarrick and directed by Stephen Clancy, will be performed by the Highlands Theatre Group (HTG) at the Mittagong Playhouse in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales.

Set in 1850 in the immediate aftermath of the Great Hunger (an gorta mór), the play follows the fortunes of five young women who set sail for a new life in Australia aboard the Inchinnan. Each carried with them their own dark and shocking secrets of the past.

As their journey nears its end, they battle with memories of past deeds and confront the reality of what their futures in this new land, may actually hold for them.

Between 1848 and 1851, more than four thousand young women - many of them orphaned by the famine - left Ireland under the Earl Grey Scheme to boost the female population of the colony.

The HTG is one of only nine amateur theatre groups throughout the world to be given permission to stage the show. 

Writer Jaki McCarrick became interested in the orphan girls story when she found a namesake,  Nora McCarrick, from Easkey, Co Sligo, who had travelled to Australia under the scheme.

"This was a chapter of Irish history I knew nothing about," she said.

"I read what books I could find on the subject, including Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, Thomas Kennelly’s History of Australia, Trevor McClaughlin’s Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia, Irish Women and Irish Migration, edited by Patrick O’Sullivan.

"In my reading of these books and articles, I discovered that a particular group of ‘orphans’ were considered to have been especially feisty and colourful, known for their use of obscene language and riotous behaviour. These were known as ‘the Belfast girls’."

The HTG will stage six performance of the play. For more information, and bookings, visit htg.org.au or call Destination Southern Highlands directly on (02) 4871 2888.

 

Blissful Riot brings Irish party to Sydney Festival

Ireland's much-loved drag queen Panti Bliss.

Ireland's much-loved drag queen Panti Bliss.

Ireland's best known drag queen and gay rights activist Panti Bliss is coming to Australia with a show that combines drag, dance, circus and comedy.
RIOT is a spectacle that boasts an all-star Irish cast and sold every ticket available at 2016 Dublin Fringe, won Best Production and broke box-office records. Panti and RIOT coming to Sydney Festival and Arts Centre Melbourne is particularly apt following the recent same sex marriage vote here.
The self-described accidental activist played a major role in the successful referendum campaign for Marriage Equality in Ireland.
"I was following it very closely," Panti told The Irish Echo of the recent postal plebiscite. "It was a slightly odd experience to be watching it from Ireland because, having gone through the exact same excruciating debate in the run up to our referendum on marriage equality, we knew exactly what you were going through and how emotionally draining it could be.
"And it was also a bit like going back in time watching it all unfold, because the exact same arguments were being made - sometimes word for word! - that we had heard ad nauseam in 2015.

Panti Bliss says she was emotional over Australia's decision to legalise same sex marriage.

Panti Bliss says she was emotional over Australia's decision to legalise same sex marriage.


"Like many interested members of the LGBTI community here, I watched the results live on the internet and it was quite emotional! Reliving the joy and relief we felt in Ireland as we heard the results of our own vote."
 Rooted in the Irish traditions of poetry, oratory, Irish dance and song, then deconstructed using musical, electro, striptease, drag and pop culture, RIOT is a theatrical gut-punch. It is a love letter of hope to the future and a clarion call on the state of the world today.
Panti is well known to Australian audiences. Her 2016 one-woman-show High Heels in Low Places racked up stellar reviews and packed houses in Australia as well as Ireland, UK, Europe and USA.
Is she looking forward to getting back down under? "Am I?! Does Pauline Hanson make poor fashion choices??
I'm lucky enough to get to go to Australia most years and, even better, usually during our looooong Irish winter! It's so nice to get away to Aussie sun just as I'm getting totally fed up of the cold and damp, and by the time I get back, the winter is nearly over! But this year, after the Yes vote, I'm looking forward to it even more than usual."
 Joining Panti on stage are Street Performance World Champions and unlikely heroes of Britain’s Got Talent, The Lords of Strut. These spandex adorned lads are on a mission to change the world with a dose of dance, acrobatics and a big old measure of slapstick. Multi-award winning dance duo Philip Connaughton and Deirdre Griffin roll out some thumping jigs whilst Megan Riordan, the star of the Tony Award winning Once The Musical (Dublin) and Ronan Brady, the Gaelic football player who ran away to join the circus, add to the sensational line up.  
Rounding out the cast is Kate Brennan, RIOT’S street corner poet delivering the emotive words and rhymes of Emmet Kirwan including those from Heartbreak, which became an award-winning short film, along with the show’s ‘Sirens’ vocalists Alma Kelliher, Adam Matthews and Nicola Kavanagh.  In addition, a surprise local guest artist will join the cast each night of the season.  
 It is not like Panti has not been to Australia before but this show is completely different: "But usually it's just me with my one-woman shows so this time will be very different (and I suspect even more fun) going with a big cast of brilliant, fun performers - many of whom have never been to Oz before.
"I think Australian audiences are going to LOVE this show. It was actually conceived as a show about Ireland but the themes are universal. It's got real heart, but is also a high octane spectacle. It's a noisy, glittery, raucous show that incorporates theatre, cabaret, circus, and music, and it will have you howling laughing one moment and the very next moment will break your heart. It's a wild fun party that sends you home with lots to think about. And I'm in it, so.... bound to be amazing, right? RIGHT??!! Right.
"Melbourne is one of my favourite cities in the world and the beautiful Arts Centre Melbourne is one of my favourite venues to perform in, so I'd be excited to return there under any circumstances. But returning there with this wildly talented cast, in this spectacularly entertaining show that we're all so proud of, is almost too much excitement for this old show pony! And then on top of that we get to welcome a different special guest into the cast every night! I may have to lie down till the palpitations pass."
 

RIOT plays as part of Sydney Festival 5- 28 January (www.sydneyfestival.org.au), then at Arts Centre Melbourne 31 January – 9 February 2018. Book at artscentremelbourne.com.au