Monday 1 May 2017

Life is a carbaret

Declan Cashin

A man lies on a bed of nails with two cement blocks resting on his stomach, which are subsequently cracked with mallets. Another is watching over proceedings while dressed as a delicate mermaid. Minutes later a woman is singing the blues. A comedy skit comes after, followed by maybe by a little rap.

No, these are not scenes from the night-bus rink at College Green at 3am on a Sunday, but rather an iPod shuffle-like look at what makes up the entertainment on the recently resurgent cabaret and burlesque scene in Dublin.

Your regular weekend night out it ain't. And while the popular image of burlesque might be automatically linked to striptease acts such as Dita Von Teese, there's much more to the genre than one might initially think.

As a measure of the impact that the theatrical/performance/variety show trend is making on Dublin's nightlife, the hallowed ground of no less than the Abbey Theatre will next month be occupied by Werk, a new monthly addition to the burgeoning scene.

"We wanted to inject some youth into the Abbey, and for people to have fun there, especially for those who might never have been before," says Phillip McMahon from Thisispopbaby, the theatre and events company behind Werk.

"The idea is for people to go and have a wild night, and maybe that will lead to them think, 'Okay, I can go see something in the Abbey again'."

The Werk club night, which takes place on Saturday, May 8, in the Abbey's Peacock Bar (tickets €12/€10 from www.abbeytheatre.ie), can be summed up as "performance roulette", according to Phillip.

"It's kind of like spinning the wheel to decide the next act, but they won't necessarily be in the same genre," he explains. "It could be a slam poet from Galway, or a hip-hop star from the Fatima Mansions.

"We have three monthly club nights planned over May, June and July, and we're treating each one like issues of a magazine.

"The line-up so far includes screenwriters reading from their work, a slam poet, a theatre company, a dance performance, a pop star, an emerging hip-hop act, and a few visual artists' installations. All three clubs will be compered by [playwright and one-time Alternative Miss Ireland winner] Neil Watkins, who's creating bespoke characters for each night."

It certainly doesn't sound like traditional fare for the national theatre, but Phillip says that Abbey boss Fiach Mac Conghail didn't take much convincing. "Like so many things in the theatre, it was agreed over a couple of sherries," he laughs. "Once we put in a strong proposal, and they knew we were serious and could pull it off, Fiach was totally behind us."

Werk aims to be "wild and really polished at the same time", according to Phillip. "The bar in the Peacock is a relatively small space and that can only be a good thing," he explains.

"At the moment, we have a capacity of around 150, so it's going to have this real feel of people just getting to know each other. There will be two distinct areas on the night: the bar where we're building a small stage for the performances, and another area for chilling out and chatting."

Phillip believes the popularity of such nights is due to the "sanitisation" of clubbing in the capital. "Clubbing has become very weak in the last five to 10 years," he says. "But the tide is turning again, and people want to be part of something, and to take ownership of the experience, and the night out.

"It's a DIY culture where people, especially those aged 25-35, are looking for more than standing around in a club holding an over-priced drink. As soon as someone puts war paint on, or dons a costume, they're investing in becoming part of the entertainment itself." (Those wishing to actually take part should see the guidelines at www.thisispopbaby.com.)

Meanwhile, Nighthawks is one of the city's most established cabaret and burlesque nights. Having grown out of The Shoe String Collective, Nighthawks has been running every month (summer excluded) in the Cobalt Café and Gallery on North Great George's Street since January of last year. The next one is scheduled for May 29 (see www.theblogsthejob.blogspot.com).

"I think these nights are popular because they're good value," says Nighthawks organiser Stephen Kennedy. "For an average price of €12 to €15, you get to see seven or eight different performances.

"At our last show, we had The Flaws perform an acoustic set. We'd always have a mix of music, be it classical, jazz, indie, or folk. We do short films and theatre pieces. We'll always have comedy acts, a performance poet, and a writer to read prose, like Dermot Bolger or Claire Kilroy. The point is that the audience knows they can trust us to present something that they'll enjoy or find interesting."

These are sentiments echoed by Paul Gardner Craig, the organiser of Sinner's Circus, another burlesque night taking place on Friday, May 7, in The Good Bits on Store Street, opposite Busaras. (Tickets are €15 from www.sinners-circus.com.).

"Generally, the quality of the performances out there are really high right now, and that has a domino effect where people are challenging themselves more and rising to it," says Paul, who also goes by the performance name Big Chief Random Chaos (he of the aforementioned bed of nails act, which can be viewed on YouTube).

A sculptor turned performance artist, Paul is organising several events this year to mark his 20th year in the business. Sinner's Circus will feature comedy and music from Preacher's Son (made up of ex-Kila member Brian Hogan and Emmaline Duffy-Fallon, formerly of Engine Alley), but the major draw of the opening event on May 7 is Armitage Shanks, a global cabaret and burlesque legend, who Paul gleefully admits is "pretty dark" in his choice of content.

"It has an anarchic edge, but burlesque always has a dark side to it," Paul says. "It's against the norms of society at any given point."

He pauses before adding with a laugh: "We're thinking of getting a sheet of plastic to throw over the first row of the audience ... to protect them. It might be wise not to ruin their good frocks. We might even have a bit of blasphemy in it, so there's every chance we'll be shut down."

Nighthawks is holding a comedy event tomorrow at 8pm in the Cobalt Café to launch an EP in aid of Oxfam Ireland. Tickets (€10) on sale from the Oxfam Shop, Parliament St, Dublin. See www.oxfamireland.org

Irish Independent

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