Paul Kennedy's wonderfully realised morality tale reveals the plight of the 21st century artist and warns of a brain drain as artistic opportunities dry up in Northern Ireland
It is, perhaps, inauspicious to see a publically funded theatre show the night the Tories get voted back into office with a majority. However, the show must go on, however warily, however wearily.
Luckily, Rawlife Theatre Company – now one of Belfast’s more established companies, who have been producing since 2001 – bring to the Belfast Circus School Paul Kennedy’s Lanciatore – The Juggling Man, as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.
Lanciatore is a young medieval man beset by the miseries of our 21st century age. Dirt poor, with a wife and growing family to maintain and only his talent as a juggler to protect him, Lanciatore is crushed by his dreams – the dreams of bringing beauty and wealth to those he loves.
He therefore decides that he must gamble money borrowed from a ruthless moneylender, and throw it all in against the Vagabondi, the ruthless runners of a card school located under a bridge. When juggling is your talent, presumably planning is not your strongest suit.
Lanciatore and his wife, Victoria, are a sweet couple, one of whom dreams of villas and bags of florins, while the other would be happy just to pay the rent. Terry Keeley and Roisin Gallagher give an innocence to both parts, playing a wholly believable couple whose differing values in the harsh world they live in threaten to rip them asunder. Lanciatore is caught between the priest and the moneylender, each as bluntly cynical as the other, and in the end has nowhere to go.
The bedrock of the play is the chorus, the three ‘ragazze’ brought to life by Jo Donnelly, Claire Connor and Julie Maxwell. Playing a variety of parts throughout, they give the show energy and wit, opening it up with a lewd, lascivious fury that evokes the carnal, desperate streets of medieval Rome.
As Kennedy's story unfolds, these women discuss the moral desperation of Lanciatore, offer him greater delights than riches, mock him and attempt to warn him of the dangers that lurk in his heart.
Maxwell and Donnelly also appear as the henchmen of the moneylender, cutely named Rack and Ruin. These two highlight the physical theatrics championed by the show’s co-director, Patrick O'Reilly.
Heavily stylised, Maxwell and Donnelly bring a structured expression to the play that truly fascinates, both actors making sure we fully understand the cruel world that Lanciatore exists within. O'Reilly's direction here heightens the circus aesthetic, and the sensuality of all the performer's physical presences authentically gives us that Roman mix of the languid and the passionate.
Kennedy's smart idea is to present this medieval morality play to echo our modern times. Our post 2008 world displays the riches that are possible, but to a wider and wider section those riches are far out of reach. The insinuation that we are returning to a quasi-medieval world is hard to escape.
His script toys with the moral dilemmas of risk, the question ever present of whether a man should be judged on his act or his intentions. Is Lanciatore to blame for his aspiration, or is the world to blame for making him aspire?
Even with a few weaker moments towards the end, where the language doesn’t quite match the emotions, ultimately the play succeeds. The characters of the priest and moneylender could be more nuanced and energetic perhaps, but the simple story of Lanciatore is brought to life with style and verve.
Of course, in the 1990s, any crusty with three balls and two hands thought they were a juggler; it wasn’t much of a distinctive talent. As is their happy knack, however, Rawlife have gathered together a tremendously gifted cast, and it occurs to me that almost every Northern Irish theatre production, successful or otherwise, boasts tremendous talent both backstage and on stage.
With our government(s) now seeing the arts as an area to be patronised occasionally and harshly cut when budgets are being set, I ask myself, where will this talent go? As platforms slowly disappear, and with them opportunities for artists to grow, learn and experiment, will our artists leave for pastures new? Presumably, the more we remove the opportunity for talent to thrive, the more we will lose.
Lanciatore – The Juggling Man returns to the Belfast Circus School from May 15-17.