Ulster Bank Arts Ambassador Reviews: Justin Kauflin

Ulster Bank Arts Ambassador Reviews: Justin Kauflin

Justin Kauflin: Tuesday 25 October 2016 | Black Box

I won’t try to claim that I know a lot about jazz, or even be an avid follower in music in general. What I can say, however, is that Justin Kauflin’s performance, as part of the Justin Kauflin Trio, moved me and managed to make, even my musically challenged soul, jump with every beat.

Kauflin’s bio is an impressive one. He began music at the age of four, performed in concert by the age of six and was performing jazz at a professional level by fifteen.  What makes these feats even more remarkable is that Kauflin had been faced with exudative retinopathy throughout, resulting in total vision loss at the age of 11.

However, this is not what defines Justin Kauflin. That is instead his sheer love of music, which radiates clearly in every composition played and every stroke of his ivory keys. What is also worth noting is that Kauflin has both been befriended and endorsed by some of the biggest names in jazz. Despite these social circles and high praise, he still manages to maintain an air of humility throughout, evident even in his performance that night.

One of the standout pieces of the night was the song ‘For Clark’. This is a piece dedicated to one of these famous acquaintances, more specifically the late Clark Kelly, a musician known for his prowess on a trumpet. The emotion in Kauflin’s stance was raw and it was clear that he meant every note.

As stated, last night’s performance moved me. I attended the Black Box with no real knowledge as to what I was going to be privy too and, if I am honest, no real expectations. What I left with however, was a new founded appreciation of jazz, the skill of composition and a blatant amount of respect and admiration for all that Kafulin has achieved. In all, this newly converted fan will be following this artist’s work closely, and all that jazz.

Siobhan McKenna, Ulster Bank Arts Ambassador

Photo taken by Redcap Productions

Ulster Bank Arts Ambassador Reviews: The Suppliant Women

Ulster Bank Arts Ambassador Reviews: The Suppliant Women

The Suppliant Women:  Friday 21 October 2016 | Grand Opera House

‘The Suppliant Women’ may have been written 2,500 years ago, but for all its political power and current resonance, it could have been penned this very day.

The Suppliant Women’ is a play written by the Greek playwright Aeschylus and features 50 daughters of Danaus, fleeing their home and the men they do not wish to marry.

What I watched in the Grand Opera House, however, was a modern and powerful adaptation by David Greg, a playwright well known for both his written and producing talents.

The play, as mentioned, focuses on a group of women, desperately seeking asylum from their ‘would-be’ oppressors. They arrive on the shores of Argos and immediately seek refuge in a temple, calling to Zeus for protection and assistance, lest they be tossed aside by those from whom they seek asylum.

In a bold choice of casting, influenced by the methods of Ancient Greek theatre, the chorus, bar one, consists of volunteers from our local community. Now this is undoubtedly a risk, however Ramin Gray’s direction along with the impressive talents of these amateurs ensured a successful outcome.

The play is vibrant and intense, and the energy and plight of these women is well represented by boththe ritual cries and choreographed dances by Sasha Milavic Davies and the foreign sounds and emphatic notes of John Browne’s musical compositions.

The chorus was well led by its ‘Chorus Leader’ Gemma May and, despite the clear focus on the female plight, both Oscar Batterham as The King and Omar Ebrahim as Danaos offered a resounding and sympathetic male perspective.

As stated, this play may have been written over two millennia ago, but the central themes of migrants,the plight of refugees, feminism, arranged marriage and violence against women resonate just as strongly today.

The Suppliant Women’ is a true celebration of community, theatre and the power of the written word. It is effortlessly political and manages to make even the most unwilling of viewer look within to their own personal morals. In all, ‘The Suppliant Women’ is a play that will stay with you, long after you have left the theatre.

Siobhan McKenna, Ulster Bank Arts Ambassador

Ulster Bank Arts Ambassador Reviews: The Dog Days Are Over

Ulster Bank Arts Ambassador Reviews: The Dog Days Are Over

The Dog Days Are Over: Friday 14 October 2016 | The MAC

The performance took place in the ‘Downstairs’ theatre in the MAC and when the audience arrived the dancers were already on stage waiting for us, warming up and stretching, similar to what you would do before a workout. I wondered was this part of the performance as they were watching us filtering into our seats. As the last person sat down, the eight dancers walked forward and each of them put on their socks and trainers. With the house lights still up, the dancers slowly built up to their ultimate movement; the jump.

For 70 minutes we watched the dancers’ hop, leap and bounce through a most exhausting routine of which required the utmost endurance and concentration from those performing…and from those in the audience. Through a mixture of wonderfully styled geometric patterns, we saw how punishing this was on our dancers, some visibly pained with the extent of the routine. At times it seemed so invasive watching these performers put their bodies through this but as the show continued I was willing them on hoping that each of them make it through to the end.

The festival director, Richard Wakely, led a Q&A session with choreographer, Jans Martens at the end of the performance which allowed the audience to understand the mind-set behind Jans’ creation. He explained he was trying to show the fine line between art and entertainment with a comparison to reality television or those in the gladiator arenas where we didn’t want to watch this painful process but championed the subjects by the end. He explained that the routine took only 4 weeks to put together and due to the arduous nature of the piece, they rotated dancers when they took it on the road so to rest those not in use.

This wouldn’t be something I would normally go to as I prefer live theatre to have a more blatant story but I was totally mesmerised by what I witnessed that I felt privileged to be part of something so different. It truly represented everything the Festival is about and really opened my eyes to venturing into more diverse theatre performances.

Sherene Masterson, Ulster Bank Arts Ambassador

Photo © Alwin Poiana

This is Shakespeare, but not as you know it – Amanda Coogan

This is Shakespeare, but not as you know it – Amanda Coogan

Black people can do the same things as white folk’ Sibu Mpanza, Capetown, June 2015

‘Deaf people can do the same as hearing people’ Dominic Mc Greal, Belfast, September 2015


Are you sitting comfortably?

Sit back. Relax. Imagine.

We’re going to make a story – together.

This is Shakespeare, but not as you know it.

Let the images and sounds wash over you.

You are inside – with us.

We’re going to make the story – together:

You, us and Shakespeare.

In this year of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary Run to the Rock is a mediation on Shakespeare, an exploration, if you like, of his writings and their performance potential for the twenty-first century; Shakespeare Reworked.


The texts we have chosen are taken from the ‘Robben Island Bible’, a complete works of Shakespeare, covered by postcards of Hindu gods, shared between the prisoners on Robben Island. The book’s owner, South African Sonny Venkatrathnam, was a political prisoner on Robben Island from 1972 to 1978. During his incarceration he asked his wife to send him a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works during a brief period when prisoners were allowed to have one book, other than a religious text, with them.

The book’s ‘fame’ resides in the fact that Venkatrathnam passed the book to a number of his fellow political prisoners in the single cells. Each of them signed and dated a Shakespearean passage from the book that spoke to them at that time, and in that situation, in 1974. Thirty-two inmates, all leaders in the struggle for a democratic South Africa, signed this complete works of Shakespeare. Run to the Rock has chosen six of these text; the choices of Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Joe Gquabi, Eddie Daniels, Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela.

Their selected texts provide a fascinating insight into the thinking of those political prisoners who fought for the transformation of South Africa and example the resonance of Shakespeare’s work on exploring the human condition, regardless of place or time. These speeches cross a myriad of Shakespeare’s plays and are, if you like, Desert Island Disc choices. We cannot read these selected speeches without remembering the context of their choosing; men imprisoned while fighting against oppression. Themes of disillusionment, of inequality, of trouble and leadership sparkle through the chosen texts. They are potent reflections on the time and situation in which they were chosen.

Shakespeare’s place in the new South Africa and the status of Robben Island Bible are not without complications. The ANC deny any inspiration coming from the texts in the Robben Island bible and indeed, Ahmed Kathrada, one of the signatories, has no memory of choosing any text or of the Bible’s existence. This muddied legacy provides me with fertile grounds on which to explore. Fintan O’Toole, literary editor of the Irish Times describes the potential of contested narratives when he said ‘contested spaces can become imaginative places’. In the case of this production, contested sites of influence for these chosen texts offer rich space for the creative imagination.

To explore these speeches the all female company of Run to the Rock have put the words onto our bodies. We have translated them in Irish Sign Language. We have translated them also into British Sign Language. Sign Language, with its iconic and gestural roots, is a physical form of language; language put on the body. It is creative, expressive and naturally aligns with physical theatre and performance practice. Sign Language is also hotly contested and a divisively oppressed language. Sign is half the company’s native tongue. The community of sign language users – including those living in Northern Ireland and South Africa – is a global one, connected through life experiences of living as a marginalized linguistic minority community. South African Sign language is closely related to Irish Sign Language because the Irish Dominican Order established the first school for the Deaf in South Africa, the Dominican School for the Deaf Children in Capetown, and brought with them Irish Sign Language. Here in Northern Ireland the Deaf community uses both Irish and British Sign Language, paralleling the traditional cultural allegiances we live with.

We have fractured the speeches, repeated them, dislocated them from their original play context and the prison where they were chosen and re-located them here, with us, now. These texts, both written and on the body, channel an exploration of struggle for recognition. This struggle, while filtered in this production through the Anti-Aparthied movement and Deaf Community cultural recognition campaign, is a universal and recognisable experience, lateral to any emblematic ‘otherness’.

The Robben Island Bible became in 1974 when the struggle against apartheid seemed an impossible one. Twenty years later children born in 1994 in South Africa, the year of the first free elections, are called the ‘born free generation’. What a beautiful title. 1994 was an important year for us too.


Northern Ireland and South Africa have a long and strong interrelationship. Our most notable in our recent history is the Arniston Conference, or the Great Indaba (the Zulu word for “gathering of the minds”) in 1997. At this conference all the key parties of our peace process gathered in South Africa to meet with Nelson Mandela. Included in the meeting were Martin McGuinness, David Trimble and Peter Robinson. Seven weeks after the conference, Sinn Féin declared a cease-fire that paved the way for negotiations and ultimately the fragile Good Friday Agreement to share power, still in place today. A year later, Trimble and John Hume were awarded the Nobel Prize for peace.

I am not, however, a historian, and this artwork does not offer a historical perspective on Shakespeare or South African and Northern Irish relations. I merely offer you here the nodes of reference we have been considering while building Run to the Rock. All of these I have explored on and through the body – not the word or images purely but the actions on the body. Embodied exploration draws out different perspectives.


I have translated (appropriated-re-worked) the texts into Sign language and put them on the bodies of the performers as a fresh way to consider where we are here and now. The translator’s role is to go beyond the vocabulary of a text. It looks to what the meaning is and what metaphors are used. This, for our approach, demands a wider contextualized reading on the words and in this instance the context in which they were chose. How can a translation, performed on the body, add to this or rather bring new meaning and unexpected perspectives. I had to liberate myself from the text, jump off the speeches to find a new way of communicating them. We live through our bodies. Run to the Rock looks to reignite a reading of the world thought our bodies.


Sign language is at the core of this project. Sign is a language in motion, a form of communication that manifests on the body with choreographic impact. We have stepped into, and away from, these texts through sign language. Drawing these texts together as a cohort allows us an openness to their re-contextualisation. They facilitate us to speak to contexts of inequality, embodiment and ‘other’ in contemporary society, universal themes. These are explored on and through the bodies of the performers eschewing the verbal, predominate method of communication. Run to the Rock forefronts the embodied and the visual. When handling the text we have destabilized the location of the meaning making from the site of the verbal utterances to focus the meaning making on the body of the performers. We have fractured the speeches, elongate the words, repeat and loop phrases.


Amanda Coogan, Run to The Rock, 2016

Booking: http://belfastinternationalartsfestival.com/event/run-to-the-rock/