Author Archives: Hannah Sullivan


About Hannah Sullivan

Hannah is a performance maker and freelance producer based in Bristol.

Deborah Pearson - History History History - Photo by Tania El Khoury

Deborah Pearson: History History History

Deborah Pearson - History History History - Photo by Tania El KhouryHistory History History is a translation of a Hungarian film – the film that was meant to be shown on the day of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, at the cinema which instead become the revolutionary headquarters. Pearson does not simply convert one language into another, but gives us a Hungarian history lesson on the political climate the film was made and released in, and the personal tale of the actor who plays the main character. Thus we encounter a film dubbed, subtitled, and censored: by the Hungarian government, by Deborah’s own humorous rewriting, and the voiceovers of her mother and grandmother.

I look at the back of Deborah’s head gazing up at the cinema screen. I watch her watching it, looking into it, seeking out a clue. She reveals to us that the main character is played by her own grandfather.

She turns so that a light shines on her face as the film continues to play. The audience look for the resemblance between her and the man in the film. I can see it, something about the shape of her jaw, the darkness of her eyes. And in this moment a line is suddenly drawn back through time between her and 1956, when the film was made and the revolution occurred.

Through a short overhead projection demonstration of the political configuration of 1956 in Hungary, we understand that this film is pinned down by political relations between the film industry and a changing government. So much so that the film is made but never released, and the lead actor flees the country with his family. This performance succinctly stamps out the political as personal by detailing the conditions and consequences of revolution and migration on one family.

Deborah’s mother’s voice is played over the film, and we listen to her calmly translate it. I enjoy her accent and the familiarity of her and her daughter’s interactions. It is a charming way to watch a film, and situates me in Deborah’s own childhood: the film a relic for their family. Her grandmother’s voice is also played, her accent is stronger, and I notice a folding of Hungarian into Canadian that can be heard through the voices of these three generations. Her grandmother starts to really get at the heart of the situation: how she was committed to bringing her children up in a free country and how they weren’t actually at the uprising and… well, there was something else, but Deborah censors it. She talks about compassion, and I understand that she is protecting something of her family’s own suffering, that isn’t for our listening pleasure.

The story and the way it gradually opens is intriguing and sensitive, but what I find most interesting is the suggestion of the underwhelming quality of history, as Deborah says; this happened and then that happened and then this happened and then that happened. There is an inevitable chaos and reorganisation in the story told, the story of history and I do already know it. It’s like my own story, with different nationalities, different uprisings and with a movie star.

I am left considering what history is – is it what is written or filmed? Is it the reality or the story that follows? Is it our relatives, or ancestors? The invisible lines that go all the way back through the gunfire and beyond? Deborah Pearson is written into the history of the Hungarian revolution, and in this performance she evolves from a woman with a film into a hidden history present.

Brokentalkers and Junk Ensemble - It Folds

Brokentalkers & Junk Ensemble: It Folds

Brokentalkers and Junk Ensemble - It FoldsDeath, it’s all around us. Wearing white sheets and hovering about at our birthdays. It Folds opens and closes with ghosts played by people in white sheets. Like a children’s party or a school play: youthful and full of death. It Folds is comprised of many portraits on death, grief and, I think, youth. You would expect an intense darkness with this subject matter, and at times there is, uncomfortably so. But the atmosphere of beauty, lightness, and humour that the show also creates – this is its distinction.

A collaboration between dance company Junk Ensemble and theatre company Brokentalkers, It Folds balances dance scenes and anecdotal storytelling, both leaving a lot of space for thought and interpretation. The movement choreographed is poignantly rigid and communicates an odd affection; hugs are given but not really returned, bodies are swayed lifelessly. This physical language opens up a liminal space between the dead and the living.

The performance is strangely emotionally plain; faces are distant and words are given directly. This means we are not swept away by sadness but spellbound by the images created: a pantomime horse, a man with one eye larger than the other, a ghost in trainers. It is surreal, and the deadpan quality amplifies this. It also allows for the songs in the work to burst like bright stars, peaks of harmony and feeling. A neat folk song played on a banjo by a tearful mother tells the difficult story of a boy who isn’t picked up from school and gets into a stranger’s car.

The cast is expansive and includes performers of many ages. I really enjoy this and note that I don’t usually see mixed age casts in contemporary work. The breadth of age adds weight to the perspective of the piece. It feels collective, like a community tapestry on death that is layered, unresolved, and open.

I am really struck by a tattered angel pulling the rigid body of a young boy across the floor. She appears twice moving across the back of the stage. She really disturbs me and I worry about the insensitivity of that picture. But she keeps appearing and then in a smoke-filled graveyard she drops the body and begins a dance of panic. Through an intense choreography I sense that the angel has become completely traumatised by death. Her body stuttering and slipping, it feels like religion can’t handle it anymore. Persisting with this challenging visual results in the clearest message for me. The presence of death is constant and tightly woven through all our houses. It weighs heavy on our relationships and shatters our faith.

A play of several parts and a generosity of performers, the stage is joyous with people. Each time a new idea is introduced it comes with a new face, allowing each scene to stand alone. In this way, the show feels uncensored and unabashed and I am grateful.

Dead Centre - Chekhov's First Play

Dead Centre: Chekhov’s First Play

Dead Centre - Chekhov's First PlayA bourgeois rollercoaster of classical criticism, existentialist musing, and liberal destruction of the past, speckled with interjections of the true life of acting, money, and debt – what good is a Chekhov play nowadays? In Ireland, to be more specific? Who are these nobodies moaning about their mansions?

Chekhov was a key exponent of naturalist theatre, dedicated to capturing real life and placing it on the stage. This is a staging of his first play, which it seems has had so many drafts all the good characters have been cut and all the important backstories or subplots have been slashed, leaving us with a shell-like play of some people outside a big house. This at least is what we are told by the director, who speaks to us through headphones throughout the play.

Before the Old Vic’s beautiful red curtains are drawn, the director tests our headphones are working. He explains he was worried that we would miss all the references and themes, so will be providing a director’s commentary. This is met by chuckles from the theatre: the idea that the classics are drenched with signifiers you could easily miss, that expert commentary is positively necessary for us to fully grasp these over-studied pieces of culture, is a familiar one.

When they open at last, the curtains reveal an absolutely stunning image of a grand house, banquet table and the back of a stately woman looking at her own property. Property, the director tells us, is a major theme in Chekhov’s work.

The commentary is funny.  The director becomes frustrated when the actors pronounce names wrong, miss out whole pages, overplay or underplay. He starts to literally speak over them, their speeches muted and his voice taking over, talking and talking about why this play is important and what it means. It’s interestingly annoying.  It makes me aware of how much the classics are talked about and how their worth is validated by this talk, but what about the actual play? How does it make anybody feel? How does it make the actors feel?

Meanwhile, the play’s narrative is building up to the arrival of the lead character, Platonov.  The characters are all obsessed with Platonov – it’s clear that he is a real somebody.

And then, everything shifts, and the shift is really welcomed. I can’t even recall the order of the following events, such is the explosive whirlwind of images that break the play wide open, slicing it through, bending and burning. The performers start to shed their characters, they fall into performances of who they really are: making adverts, crippled by debt, abandoned by age, sick and dying.  They are nobodies, they feel like nobodies and they want to be taken away. This is communicated through a series of theatrical images, which appear chaotically and hauntingly. A pregnant woman lies on a table, blue liquid seeping from her belly, while the sound of the ocean plays into our ears.

I am dizzied by the experience. There is a violence to it. A gun is shown in the first act, and so it must be shot in the second. Likewise, the foreboding was there, that this was all going to shatter to pieces, from the beginning.  To be honest, once it started, I wanted more. I wanted a total obliteration of that beautiful mansion house.

I am left considering what it feels like for a poor actor to put on that costume and pretend to be wealthy, a property owner, moaning and crying and eventually dying. I am left thinking about plays that have nothing of the living in them. The living that is messy, unknown, unknowing, and doesn’t own anything.

A theatre piece about theatre, Chekhov’s First Play goes a little too far in one way and not far enough in another. By this I mean, it is too committed to metanarratives and not totally committed to what can really happen when real life walks into a naturalist play. However, slick, surprising, and visually epic, Chekhov’s First Play serves Mayfest’s ambitious and important goal of bringing the large scale to contemporary theatre, presenting Bristol with a memorable show that is really letting rip with big props, big sets, and key issues.

Britt Hatzius - Blind Cinema

Britt Hatzius: Blind Cinema

Britt Hatzius - Blind CinemaThe room is a small cinema.
It has rows of light blue chairs.
The rows are long and the fabric is velvety.
On the chairs are black blindfolds.
Behind the chairs are long black tubes with black cones sticking out of either side.
The adults sit on the rows leaving one empty row behind them.
This row, we know, is for the children.

I hope I described that clearly: it has taken me years to learn how to do that – to know all the words and to organise them in a way that builds a picture. This is the task given to the children participating in Blind Cinema: to describe the images they see, in a film that they have never seen before. to adults who are blindfolded.

I listen intently to their description, given in whispers through the black tube I hold to my ear. The experience is strangely intimate, patient, and quietly treasured.

When we put on our blindfolds, the eight year olds scuttle in like a small herd; the room becomes full of their shuffles and breath, their nerves and excitement. My listening tube starts to softly bump against my head and a whisper begins – ‘the screen is black… there are three bricks on the floor… the floor is muddy’. I can hear the distant crinkles and cracks of the film, but I rely on my narrator to concur any images in my mind’s eye.

I enjoy the opportunity to have a dependant relationship on a child and to meet them solely through their voice. They acquire a special presence, something like a wild animal close by. My attention is nicely heightened.

They sound a little snotty and I imagine their wide eyes staring up at the film. From the descriptions and struggles to find the right words, I understand that it is an experimental film; fragmented images, something like Dada I think. They say ‘weird’, ‘something like an egg’, ‘they are on something but I don’t what it is’. My experience of the film is half formed pictures of trees and people and cities and rooms, I have no sense of narrative or emotion. I let go of the idea of the film very quickly and just become interested in the quality of the voice I am listening too. Instead of imagining the film I begin to imagine the child talking to me. I hang on to any lilt of a Bristol accent and consider what it is like to grow up as child in this city that I have come to live in.

The room is full of whispering voices, I am aware of every child working to describe what they see and trying to make sense of it. A challenge that these children are only just growing skills in. It makes me consider the development of our own communication skills, that it is through talking to others that we become skilled at translating the world around us. For these children, education and the school environment is the centre of their world, and the show made me certain that these places should not be silent but full of children’s voices; trying, developing, changing.

When the film ends, the children file down to the front of the cinema to bow. We remove our blindfolds to see the small gaggle of children in their school uniform. We asked them questions about the film and the experience, and they answer shyly. It is different now, without the blindfolds or the dark or the whispers. And I sense a tenderness around my left ear, I cup it like I did when I was listening, trying to remember the voice that was once there.

Through a simple exercise and allowing children to really try, to fail, and star, Blind Cinema is a sensitive and gentle connection with a developing mind.

Tom Marshman - A Place in the Sun - Photo by Catherine Hoffman

Tom Marshman: A Place in the Sun

Tom Marshman - A Place in the Sun - Photo by Catherine Hoffman‘Everything sparkles in the sun.’ It’s a statement that lingers from Tom Marshman’s new theatre piece A Place in the Sun. This seemingly positive phrase is lined with a sense of blind-sightedness that makes me uncomfortable. What sparkles exactly? The sea, the sand, the all you can eat buffet, the plastic loungers, the flickers of racism.

On a research trip to Lanzarote, Tom Marshman immersed himself in the relaxed escapism of all-inclusive holiday-going. On returning he has brought back some thoughts, images, and characters. In the Southbank Club, Bristol, I was greeted by a surprisingly downtrodden Tom Marshman who introduced himself as Bill, the holiday rep. His eyes were fixed to the ground as he spoke in low dulcet tones, his grey hair and grey eyes shaded under a bright yellow visor. He tells me what time breakfast, lunch and dinner is served but, if I prefer, ‘restaurant row’ is only a stone’s throw away. I am at the welcoming meeting for a new set of all-inclusive holiday goers at one of the best all inclusive resorts for families, of which I am one.

Bill is among Tom’s brilliant set of characters who work that fine but excellent line between comedy and tragedy. We also meet a retired woman who ‘never sits still’, ecstatic with the ease of making new friends, and enjoying making every mundane encounter into something extraordinary. And a serviceman, who says that being in the army is good training for being on holiday, and talks about the lazy erotic pleasures of playing with himself on his balcony. Tom has a particular gift as a performer of managing to create character pieces that show both his questions of and affection for the subject.

From my stool, sipping my corona with lime, I am entertained by Tom Marshman’s songs, dances, and sequence of character pieces strung together with his own reflections and those of his camera. A gold camera spins on its tripod, the spotlight making it shimmer and speak. The camera’s voice is like a smooth-talking American advert, or a self-help tape, she seems to be able to poeticise everything about the holiday from her lensed perspective.

Amongst the lightness of comedy and surreal song and dance, the heavier lines drop like rocks. Laziness, greed, intolerance, gluttony; holiday resorts are a hotbed for the sinful sides of human nature. All-inclusive holidays are the activity of choice for a vast amount of hard working people who want to relax, some go to the same resort three times a year for ease and familiarity, some people make genuine friends and see them at the same place every year. But there lies a distinct difference between holiday and travel; there is no wish to engage with a culture that isn’t your own.

At times the show stretched a little too far into questions of existence, which I feel took away from the interesting conflictions brought up by the characters developed. And as a whole it suffered slightly from trying to overstate holidays as a concept that just didn’t quite land. For me it was at its best exploring the line between pleasure and sin, ridicule and affection, and the subtle discomfort in a relaxed place.

An image I am left with from A Place in the Sun is an abandoned hotel on a distant peninsular. It is a new-build never completed, so now its skeletal form is wrapped in vines and branches bursting with exotic flowers. Its glassless windows welcome in the humid salty air, and nesting in the reception, the dining room, and the sun-bleached bar are thousands of birds. Birds of all varieties, singing and sleeping and constantly fluttering from sill to sill. It is a bird hotel, doesn’t it sound beautiful… but wait, it’s absolutely covered in bird shit.