Artistic Licence column (Sunday Business Post, September 14, 2014)

We have to talk about U2, don’t we? That’s the funny thing about U2. Even when you’re tired of talking about them, when you’d rather talk about anything else but them, you still find yourself talking about them. The band who hyperactively need to be acclaimed as the biggest band in the world; who just won’t settle for being their already brilliant fiftysomething selves, are – like your granny in a miniskirt – back once again clamouring for your full and undivided attention. Sigh.
Before I complain, however, let’s at least applaud them for a stealth marketing plan that, to be fair, borders on genius. On Tuesday, all you had to do was click on your iTunes library to discover that – hey presto! – the new U2 album was magically there for your listening pleasure. The album itself will be released by Island Records on October 13, but since more than half a billion iTunes customers already possess it, that release date is effectively redundant. The album is out and you own it. How could you not talk about that fact? In homes, by office water-coolers, on blogs and in social media all over the world, people who couldn’t give a fig about U2 are talking about U2. Smart move, guys.
U2 have hobbled their musical critics, too, in what was probably Section 5, Paragraph 17 of their fiendish Pinky and the Brain-style world domination plan. Said plan has been orchestrated by Guy Oseary, their new manager, who has it all to prove after becoming the successor to the band’s unofficial fifth member Paul McGuinness. The thing about inserting an album into iTunes by stealth is that every major website and newspaper in the world instantly needs a review of it. Cue urgent calls to rock hacks and queries about how fast something could be cooked up. So what if the album has 11 tracks and is 49 minutes long? You only need to hear the record once, right?
The problem with this scenario is that reviewers barely have the time to listen to the new record, much less digest it. Without the appropriate examination time, all but the most naturally vituperative of critics will default to a positive analysis, hesitating to criticise without the time to properly formulate their feelings. In double-quick speed, the Daily Telegraph whipped up a four-star review by Neil McCormick, who – despite his status as Bono’s school chum – admitted he did not get access to the album any earlier than anyone else. His review was a feat of hesitant positivity, full of wavering lines like “on first impressions” and “on first contact”.
The truth is that albums need to be lived with. They need to be examined like you might inspect a horse: have their teeth checked, be weighed, get their hooves felt. By short-circuiting the usual advance promo copy listening format, U2 denied themselves the benefit of early reviews last week that were genuinely the product of serious consideration. Still, they’ve downloaded themselves into the homes of millions, and that’s self-evidently a good thing for them in terms of keeping their profile stratospheric and earning them a fortune on the touring circuit. More people will see U2 live because of this move, and that’s where the real money is.
But – and call me naive – I question why, at this point in their career, the marketing and the money are so important to them. Aren’t there greater imperatives for artists at this juncture? What is this confounded insistence on being the biggest and best? Would, say, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen or David Bowie so nakedly require or seek out such status?
I can’t say a bad word about U2’s plan. It’s bloody brilliant. But I wish that I didn’t feel so manipulated by them, so exposed to them, so forced to talk about them. I’d rather write about them because I thought their new music was great. That’s the best reason to write about any band. Bono, you might break into my iTunes, but my heart has sturdier firewalls against you.

John Michael McDonagh interview (Sunday Business Post, April 6, 2014)

Arts Interview: Calvary charge
6 April 2014 by Nadine O’Regan

John Michael McDonagh has waited a long time for his moment in the sun, and you can tell. As he settles himself contentedly into his suite in a luxurious Dublin hotel, the London-Irish film-maker – whose break-out success came with The Guard in 2011 – doesn’t mince his words telling of how hard his early struggles in the film world were.
Unlike most writer-directors, McDonagh wasn’t just fighting to make his voice heard in film. He also had to contend with living in the shadow of his ultra-talented, keen-eyed and successful sibling Martin, the so-called enfant terrible of British theatre, responsible for the Leenane Trilogy, and later, in film, the successful dark comedy In Bruges.
Was there sibling rivalry at play? McDonagh gives me the wry look of one who has lived with this answer for many years.
”To begin with, Martin was very successful in theatre, and I’m not a big fan of theatre,” he says, leaning forward, his eyes resolute, his tone of voice pragmatic. ”I think people pay too much for plays, and they’re usually not very good. So I didn’t mind when he was a playwright. But when he got In Bruges set up, and it became a critical success, then I got jealous.”
At the time, John Michael was living in London, labouring to craft commissioned screenplays that were earning him a crust but rarely making it the whole way to the big screen. At parties, he would be embarrassed when people asked what he did; hating their awkward expressions as they realised he had never written a screenplay they had heard of. But he used the feelings to good effect.
”A lot of the bad experiences in your life form you just as much as the good experiences,” he says. ”Those years of frustration, of rage against the film industry, rage against my brother, led to the making of The Guard. That frustration became the character of Gerry Boyle. So you can’t take it back. If you took it back, I would never have made The Guard.”
When The Guard, a dark buddy-buddy action comedy starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle and written and directed by McDonagh, emerged in 2011, it surprised everyone by becoming the most successful Irish indie film of all time, overtaking In Bruges at the box office. John Michael’s response was as jubilant and crowing as you might expect.
”He rang me up with the news, and slammed down the phone laughing,” Martin McDonagh told this reporter. ”There was a lot of violence and drinking [that Christmas], and that was just my mother.”
Fortunately, while the McDonagh brothers might sound like the warring Gallaghers of Oasis, they’re actually pretty supportive of each other. To some extent, their film material echoes each other – they specialise in dark, acerbic work, with frequent lurches in tone and a tendency to offer up intriguing philosophical truths alongside gruesome jokes and self-conscious commentary.
In person, they share a confident, charismatic, self-made-man attitude. McDonagh left school at 16, which, for him, makes his subsequent stories about flying business class on planes all the sweeter. A stockier, balder version of his playwright brother, McDonagh wears a perpetually determined look on his face and talks a fantastic game – if Michael O’Leary made films, this is how he’d sound in interviews.
Certainly, confidence was needed for his latest film project – Calvary, the story of a good priest being threatened with murder, which again stars the magnificent Gleeson in the lead role, flanked by a cavalcade of Irish talent including Aidan Gillen (as a doctor), Pat Shortt (a barman), Dylan Moran (the local rich man) and Chris O’Dowd (the town butcher), playing small but memorable roles. How did McDonagh get such a great cast together?
”You write a good script,” he laughs, while also being entirely serious. ”A lot of the actors have only three or four scenes, but they’re intense, heightened scenes, so they can come in and kind of chew the scenery.
”They’re going up against Brendan Gleeson, which is a challenge. They’re seeing an actor who is very prepared, a De Niro-type actor, who is very method. So he gets very intensely involved in the role. He’s playing a character who is continually battered – he was exhausted emotionally – so when actors come in, they have to go up against him. So it’s a series of one-on-one fights in the movie. I think it’s one of the best casts ever assembled for an Irish movie.”
Earlier, downstairs in the Merrion Hotel, the perpetually ruffled-looking Dylan Moran has backed up McDonagh’s claims about the script. Moran plays an eccentric toff in the film who appears to need for nothing, but actually despairs of his own existence.
”I loved the script, so I knew straight away that I wanted to do it,” says Moran. ”It’s a very powerful piece of work, not patronising or prescriptive. It’s got elements of comedy and drama in it, but it’s not easily categorised. You could probably call it an epic.”
The film begins with an intriguing manifesto – Gleeson is told in the confession box that his life will end in seven days – so it’s time to get his affairs in order. One of his parishioners means to do away with him – ”I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent,” the man in confession says – but which one? Almost everyone in the town of swishing curtains and raised eyebrows is suspicious.
The film is a profound meditation on life and loneliness; a contemplation of the iniquities of the Catholic Church; and also an arthouse drama – the story of a man who has fought his demons and become a priest. It’s about pain, and about finding ways to fill the void.
”It’s all those things, and it’s funny as well which is quite odd, because it veers back and forth between really dark stuff and stuff that makes you laugh,” adds McDonagh. ”It keeps audiences on their toes. It’s a strange beast. The Guard had melancholic moments, but this goes into deeper and darker moments. It’s a strange hybrid of a movie.”
Although there are longueurs, Calvary is a better and more thoughtful, if less accessible, movie than The Guard – a one-man meditation (albeit played out through multiple characters) of what it means to exist in post-religious, small-town Ireland. It’s also beautifully shot – Sligo has never looked so well. But does McDonagh agree that he’s made a better film than The Guard?
”I think it’s trying to be more ambitious and deal with deeper themes,” he says. ”I think The Guard is a good film, but it can be dismissed as a buddy-buddy black comedy.
”But with Calvary, hopefully it makes you think. It’s a more international, expansive film, dealing with things that we think about in life, but never put in a movie.”
Speaking of Irish film-making, McDonagh is openly dismissive of some of the choices his fellow film-makers have made in terms of the screenplays they have brought to life for low-budget movies. ”A lot of the movies that are made – their initial ideas just aren’t good enough. You see synopses for these movies, and you think: No one is going to go and watch that.’
”As Brendan always says, what’s the point of making a film for an empty cinema? You might as well not have made it. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of impetus to it, other than that someone wanted to make a movie.
”But you’re being really arrogant if you’re expecting people to pay a lot of money for a film that isn’t that well-made, well-cast or well-written. It leads to a despair in the Irish audience. Then, when someone eventually makes a good Irish film, there’s an in-built resistance to it. I don’t want to sound like one of those US studio heads, but the film does have to play to the people.”
Already, the reviews for Calvary have been stellar, which means McDonagh can relax and look forward to taking a well-earned rest after he finishes the promotional work around the film.
”I’m a very lazy person,” he laughs. ”There were three years between The Guard and Calvary, and I spent a lot of that time on the beach. My wife is Australian so we go to Australia for a couple of months every year, which is very nice. Once I’ve made a movie, I just want to take a year off, lie around reading and watch movies.”
When he does return to the fray, however, it’s unlikely that it’ll be in collaboration with his brother Martin. Despite their obvious synchronicity, John Michael thinks that it’d simply be too painful for those around them.
”We played five-a-side on Wednesday night, and the game ground to a halt where we had an argument about a penalty. If we’re doing that in a football match, it wouldn’t be wise to work on a movie, he laughs. ”It’d be a good behind-the-scenes documentary, but it probably wouldn’t be a good movie.”

My review of Ballyturk by Enda Walsh, from its opening night in the Black Box Theatre, Galway

Ballyturk
By Enda Walsh
Black Box Theatre, Galway
Rating: 4/5

How do you describe a play like Ballyturk? In interviews ahead of the play’s premiere on Monday night in Galway’s Black Box theatre, playwright Enda Walsh refused to try. ”I don’t want to even talk about the situation on stage,” he said with a grin. ”Three people are definitely in the play. It’s about how we exist as people.”
After 90 minutes spent in the hermetic world of Ballyturk, you understand his reticence. Designed by Jamie Vartan, the set catapults us into a strange enclosed space where red balloons scatter the floor, a shower juts from one corner and a cuckoo clock is stuck on a wall. A neon sign says Ballyturk. Sketches of residents embroider the walls.
This space is inhabited by two nameless characters (Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi), who are trapped but not thinking about it. In fact they are frantically busy, giddily gabbling, exercising, showering, waltzing to the 1980s synths of ABC’s The Look of Love.
They are hilarious, surreal, chattering about yellow jumpers, throwing talcum powder on each other, and enacting fictionalised sketches of small-town Ballyturk residents with amphetamine-charged finesse.
Their comic timing is virtuoso and marvellous to behold. Walsh’s language (daft, full of brilliant metaphors) is another joy.
Of the two, Murfi is the senior figure: stronger, commanding, an advisory leader committed to their routine. Murphy – needy, helmet-clad and sweating, his voice moving in the sketches from a gruff male to a whining high female – is an almost Gollum-like presence, crouching his body in the foetal position.
But it’s Murphy who provides more honesty. ”Sleep is freedom,” he cries. ”It feels like we might be less than we were in a place we don’t know now.”
Music – from 1980s synth songs to compositions by Teho Teardo – works brilliantly to snap tension or contribute to it.
But what’s actually going on? Gradually – as with a crime scene investigation – things become (slightly) clearer. Voices beyond the walls remind them of things they haven’t seen, lives they haven’t lived. (Walsh himself provides a cameo voice.) A buzzing fly is a small marvel.
Just when you think they could continue, Godot-like, in this fashion forever, their world – and ours – falls away, as an entire wall of the play is lowered, revealing the dark figure of Stephen Rea, a terrifying figure for a few minutes until – in a typical Walsh reversal – Rea chats absent-mindedly about his left and right hands, before saying he’d like tea with biscuits.
For all that Rea does his gloomy best in the role, Walsh has already done so much to build up a deeply specific and particular idea of a world that Rea’s arrival is jarring; his explanations have the feel of training wheels that Walsh should kick away.
Equally, some of the later speechifying from all the characters is intended to be profound but fails to connect: you can’t help but feel that when Walsh is explaining, he’s losing.
Still, the profound sense of menace and despair left by the final scene of the play, a clear sibling of Misterman and The Walworth Farce, is undeniable. When the lights dim for the final time, the applause is delayed by a shocked audience simply sitting in the darkness, taking in what has come before them.
That silence – rather than the standing ovation that followed it – was Walsh’s real reward on the night.

Meeting Sinead O’Connor (as published in The Sunday Business Post, 030814)

Everyone has an opinion on Sinéad O’Connor. From the taxi driver to the teacher, the name Sinéad O’Connor elicits a slew of standpoints, ranging from the bewildered to the condemnatory. There’s the Miley Cyrus spat to ponder, the online dating, the brief fourth marriage, the breakdowns and the infamous 1992 Saturday Night Live appearance, in which O’Connor tore up a picture of the Pope. Drama seems to follow O’Connor around or – if you prefer another interpretation – she often courts it herself.
And so it’s a surprise to walk into a tiny recording studio on Westland Row in Dublin, (picked because a musical environment is comfortable for her, her publicist explains), and see O’Connor looking placid and serene, a veritable sea of calm in the storm. The 47-year-old is here today to talk about the music. She is about to release a new, vivid and strong album called I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, the name inspired by a high-profile Sheryl Sandberg campaign, and she looks every inch the title.
O’Connor is tiny these days. Clad in a black-fronted waistcoat, with a leopard-print back, black trousers and pumps, the first thing you notice are those beautiful woodland doe eyes, still as striking as they were in the video for her star-making Prince cover, Nothing Compares to You. But O’Connor herself is uncomfortable. “I went for a facial,” she explains regretfully. “And my face reacted to the fruit acids, right before these interviews.”
I reassure her that she looks great. Her face is a little red, true, but hardly a big deal and – as always with O’Connor – far more prominent are the tattoos that sprawl all over her body, her chest, her arms, present even via tiny red-inked lettering on her cheeks. But she doesn’t seem totally convinced.

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Caitlin Moran interview (Sunday Business Post, Ireland)

Caitlin Moran has a new book out — a funny and thoroughly enjoyable novel called How to Build A Girl, so in honour of that, here’s my interview with her from 2012, when we chatted in a limo on the way to The Late, Late Show. . .

Special type of woman
14 October 2012 by Nadine O’Regan

Caitlin Moran has a dress in her bag that she’s thinking of wearing when she appears on The Late Late Show later, but time is ticking away. It’s already 8pm. The limo is due to arrive shortly, and Moran is still clad in her everyday gear of denim shorts, opaque tights and a multi-coloured bomber jacket with yellow deer on the front.
Her hair is an Amy Winehouse-channelling barnet of black with a large daub of silver-blonde through it. Her eyeliner is in a cartoonish Cleopatra curve. It’s a cute, alternative look, but not very Late Late Show.
Her Irish publicists look anxiously at their watches. The queue at Eason on O’Connell Street, Dublin, where Moran has been doing a public appearance and book signing, is showing no signs of fading.
Partly that’s because of the enthusiasm of the 130-strong audience. Partly it’s because Moran devotes so much time to each fan. She signs personalised notes on the books, offers compliments, doles out advice and even clasps her hands around one fan’s boobs for a photograph – much to the laughing delight of the fan in question.
Later on the Late Late Show, the non-appearance of the dress – Moran zipped onto the show still clad in her denim shorts and bomber jacket “‘with a soup stain down the front” – will become a talking point on the programme itself.
Moran has been brought on beside glamourpuss and Playboy model Rosanna Davison, and presenter Ryan Tubridy (whether for showbiz schtick or not) can’t seem to let go of the fact that Moran has rocked up to the programme in the same outfit she might wear to Topshop of a Saturday.
In a way, though, Moran’s Doc Marten-clad appearance is part of the point. An award-winning feminist author and columnist, Moran has won the love and respect of millions of women, not just for being honest about her life, but for being hilariously funny with it.
In her 2011 book How To Be A Woman, she laments her cystitis, refuses to depilate, contemplates weight gain and talks in a down-to-earth tone about big subjects including feminism, childbirth and abortion – the last of which is movingly narrated through the prism of her own experience.
The audience on the shop floor today is largely composed of young women, many of whom stare at Moran with a mixture of awe and adoration.
“I hate to disagree with you on anything,” says one girl in a mortified tone, prefacing a question.
Moran does few interviews, but has endless time for her fans. As she says goodbye to the final autograph-hunter, she doesn’t mention the crumpled dress, but muses as to whether the deodorant she’s put in her hair to replace the dry shampoo she left at home in north London is working. Then up comes the limo and the four of us – Moran with her two Irish publicists – leap in.
If giving an interview to The Sunday Busines Post in the back of a car fazes Moran, she doesn’t show it. If anything, she’s more worried about how I’m going to cope.
“Can you see your notes?” she asks. “Do you want me to switch the light on?”

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The Gumption to Go it Alone

Artistic Licence: The gumption to go it alone
Sunday Business Post, 29 June 2014 by Nadine O’Regan

Last weekend at the Dalkey Book Festival, I was putting my things away after doing a public interview with a film director when a lovely lady, brightly made-up and perhaps in her 70s, approached me. She said she had very much enjoyed the interview with Lenny Abrahamson and mentioned that she herself had had a long career in TV and film production before retiring to spend more time doing exactly what she was doing on that glorious afternoon in Dalkey – listening to talks, reading books and investing her time in the arts.
We had a nice chat, but before she finished, she said that it upset her that although she had bought lots of tickets for the festival, she couldn’t find a friend to bring with her to the event. ”So I said I’d come by myself,” she finished brightly, with just a whiff of strain on her features. ”And I had a wonderful time.”
Her comment stayed with me, because it illustrated a simple truth about life: whether you’re 18 or 80, sometimes it’s just not easy going to things by yourself, even though going to things by yourself has become ever more likely. More of us are single than ever before. People get married later. Marriages themselves are more likely to dissolve. We live more solitary lives, communicating endlessly – by social media, text and Skype – but we are less physically present with those we love. We talk, text and chat, but we are alone while doing it.
Meanwhile, it seems like there are more communal things to do than ever. Festivals sprout like fields of waving dandelions. There are author talks and gigs and theatre performances. With so much choice, it’s not always easy to find a friend who shares your appreciation of, say, a niche industrial metal band in town for one gig, or an esoteric film about knitting at the IFI. And money, for many, is tight. So the question arises: should you say, ”Hang it all” and go by yourself?
I do it often – partly because of the demands of my job – but I wouldn’t deny that it takes a certain amount of gumption sometimes, to step outside the door on your own. I’ll go to gigs by myself. I’ll happily take in a play flying solo. But I could relate to the look of frustration in that woman’s eyes – as she talked about ringing friend after friend – but then finally decided to put on a smart outfit, nice make-up and simply go on her lonesome to the event she wanted to attend.
On Monday I found myself near a cinema with a few hours to kill, and I slipped in to watch the new film The Fault in Our Stars, an adaptation of a John Green book I love. Not only was I going to the cinema on my own, as it turned out, but the cinema was entirely, gobsmackingly, empty. Not a soul had arrived to watch the story of two cancer-afflicted teens – not a soul except me. While I briefly pondered if this was what it felt like to be Kim Kardashian, booking out a private cinema, I had a more pressing concern – the film is a notorious weepie, and I wondered about the sheer embarrassment of bawling my eyes out alone in the cinema. (Not a dry eye in the house, you say? I can confirm with 100 per cent authority that there wasn’t.)
But even still I couldn’t say that I was put off. I was really glad that I got to see The Fault in Our Stars. And I was also glad that the lady had enjoyed her experience of Dalkey Book Festival. The arts is a pleasure – and sometimes the price of that pleasure doesn’t involve just money. Have a little pluck and the rewards can be correspondingly great.

 

Nadine O’Regan is The Sunday Business Post’s Books and Arts Editor. She presents Songs In The Key Of Life on Dublin station TXFM (105.2FM) every Saturday from 11am.
E-mail: nadine@sbpost.ie, Twitter: @nadineoregan

Orange is the New Black: set report from New York

Last year, I flew to New York for The Sunday Business Post to meet the cast members of Orange is the New Black and watch them film their final scenes in the first series — as the new second series goes out on Netflix, here’s a look back at what I found…

“Rolling!” The shout goes out around the set, and everyone quietens. In the cafeteria of Lichfield Prison, the inmates – dressed in their regulation prison garb of orange and beige jumpsuits – begin arguing.

Black girls, white girls, Latino girls: aggression cuts the air as they jab fingers at each other, clustered together tightly at the ugly table. Spittle flies as they make their points like battling rappers, each not giving an inch.

Even from a safe distance, listening in on headphones well behind the camera’s gaze, the air of intimidation is palpable – and impressive. We’re a long way from home, Toto. Even if, thankfully, we’re not actually in a federal prison, but on Stage E of the Kaufman Astoria studio in New York, the venue for the glossy new Netflix production Orange Is The New Black, a prison drama with heart and humour.

That we find ourselves here is testament to the muscle and might of Netflix, which extended its massively popular online streaming TV and film service to Ireland a mere 18 months ago, but already feels like an intrinsic part of our televisual furniture. Last January, its gripping political drama House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, arrived onto Netflix screens. Now it’s time for Orange Is The New Black, a 13-show series based on a true story and helmed by Jenji Kohan, the creator of Weeds.

Considering as we have flown the whole way to America, it would be awkward indeed if the production wasn’t much cop. Happily, Orange Is The New Black is a piece of whip-smart programming, fitting in somewhere between Breaking Bad and The L Word in the televisual spectrum, with rich characterisation, an underlying comedic tone and some of the best casting I’ve ever seen on a series.

Set largely in a women’s prison — a federal jail populated by women who have committed so-called paper crimes — the series is based on the real-life experiences of Piper Kerman, who found herself doing jail time in the US when her international drug smuggler ex-girlfriend revealed to police that Kerman had been a small part of her operation. Strip-searched, intimidated and subjected to racial segregation, the Waspish Kerman had to adapt fast to cope with prison life.

In the series, the role is played by Taylor Schilling, who wears a bright smile to greet me, but nonetheless looks physically drained – and no wonder, they’ve come to the end of a gruelling process of shooting the first season, one which depicts her as naked and vulnerable in both an emotional and physical sense.

“Jenji requires a lot of all of us,” Schilling explains. “To go there, physically, emotionally. All of these stories go to the heart of whatever got these girls into prison. It goes to the heart of who they really are, and I don’t know if that’s ever really comfortable, as a human being.”

One of the first scenes in Orange Is The New Black shows Schilling in the shower, being soaped down by her then-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon). It’s the first of several graphic, Sapphic scenes, which make a clear statement about the no-holds-barred ethos of the show.

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