Talking Movies

November 2, 2010

Enron

Filed under: Talking Theatre — Fergal Casey @ 4:46 pm
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Velociraptors in the basement, sex in the boardroom, trading shares to techno music, and wielding light-sabres in the dark; just another day at the office in Lucy Prebble’s demented satire Enron.

Director Rupert Goold picked up his second Olivier award this year for his energetic interpretation of her script which rambunctiously charts the rise and fall of Enron under the stewardship of CEO Jeffrey Skilling. An impressive trading exchange dominates the stage, which runs Enron’s share price across its screen, and onto which TV footage from the era, including Alan Greenspan’s ‘irrational exuberance’ speech, is projected. Much like The Silver Tassie, which it succeeded in the Gaiety, Enron is a play with music rather than a musical. Composer/lyricist Adam Cork only writes three genuine musical numbers, including a jaunty 1920s style routine complete with cane-twirling by cheerleading financial analysts (“He’s our man/If Jeff can’t do it, no one can!”), and a show-stopping hymn to the market when Skilling’s dream of an in-house trading floor becomes a reality with chanted verses of price movements to juddering techno yielding to ambient backed choruses of reverence by the traders for Gold or Aluminium or whatever commodity is going up. Elsewhere Cork’s sound design is high-octane dance music and Guns’n’Roses’ ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ for a slow-motion physical theatre depiction of Skilling’s lethal team-building automotive weekends.

Prebble’s script develops four characters in detail and surrounds them with a circus of caricatures, the most amusing of which include the easily persuaded conjoined twins the Lehman Brothers and the equivocating auditors Arthur Andersen, one man and his truth-telling puppet. Sara Stewart (Batman Begins’ Martha Wayne) is Claudia Roe, the only executive who questions Skilling’s wisdom. Her insistence on building a power plant in India is continuously derided as passé, physically making electricity instead of just trading it, but in the end the plant is the only tangible asset remaining. Clive Francis is wonderfully despicable as Ken Lay, whose avuncular folksiness is only maintained by not asking questions he knows have uncomfortable answers. Paul Chahidi is magnificent as financial wunderkind Andy Fastow whose hero-worship of Skilling extends as far as naming his son Jeffrey. Fastow sees the smartest guy in the room succeeding and to hell with the social niceties he can’t master, but Skilling turns out not to be that clever as (to the bitter end) he cannot see that other people can’t and won’t ‘catch-up’ to his schemes. Corey Johnson (Hellboy’s retiring partner) deserves high praise for making his arrogant protagonist charismatic enough to be sympathetic.

Skilling’s new accounting system logs future revenue as present revenue, but present expenses are actually present, which quickly leaves him in debt. Fastow explains to Skilling with the help of a laser-pen that if his cavernous basement office is the debt that needs to be hidden, selling it to ‘independent’ entities which only need 3% of non-Enron stock to be independent, Fastow can use a tiny amount of Enron stock to create almost infinite layers of shadow entities he calls ‘raptors’ so that “this red dot fills the whole room”. Fastow later finds two hatched eggs, nervously asking “Is there anyone down here?” a velociraptor appears, “Clever girls”, and a blackout leaves only the raptor’s red eye visible – a precursor of the madness of the second act. Lay’s politicking with Dubya destroys energy regulation and a cash-strapped Skilling sends in his traders to profiteer from creating rolling blackouts in California. A darkened stage is lit up by choreographed traders wielding light-sabres as Skilling barks orders before the light-sabres power-off on Skilling’s jibe: “You want to know the difference between California and the Titanic? When the Titanic went down it still had lights on”. But this tactic destroys Enron’s reputation and share-price precipitating the catastrophic end.

An incarcerated Skilling defiantly addresses the audience, his peroration is disturbingly thought-provoking; not just progress but also love and parenting depend on irrational exuberance -“The best things I did in my life I did in a bubble. When there was that atmosphere of total hope, and trust…and stupidity”.

4.5/5

April 26, 2011

Revue: Attempts on Her Life: Review

A postmodern play is what we mean when we point at something and say, ‘This is what we mean by a postmodern play’…

A review of a play should be impartial and objective. It’s never a good idea to review a play when you know people acting in it. Having said which I’ve already done so to an extent when reviewing Death of A Salesman last summer. But of course I never knew Rory Nolan half as well back in 2001 when he was my Dramsoc committee liaison as I do some of the people in this play. Can we get around this? Perhaps..

SCENE 7. ARGUMENTS.

BORIS, GODUNOV, and JOHNSON are onstage. They can be any age and either sex. They are panellists on a TV show, or maybe politicians at a debate, you decide.

BORIS: It’s weird beyond belief. I approve.

GODUNOV: But is it good-weird or bad-weird?

BORIS: Can one apply such banal terms to post-modern theatre? It exists, it breathes; one cannot pigeonhole it into such bourgeois categories as good or bad.

JOHNSON: But surely a play has to achieve something other than simply being?

BORIS: You would like a tidy linear plot and developed characters progressing along a satisfying and predictable emotional arc, would you? Anything else we can do for you while we’re rolling back theatrical history? Bring back the Lord Chamberlain? Maybe we could ban women from acting again…

GODUNOV: I think that what Johnson meant was that a post-modern play whose sole content is reiterations of how impeccably post-modernist it is becomes as self-defeating as a woman Irish poet whose sole subject for poetry is the trials of being a woman Irish poet, to the point where you must ask if it’s such a chore trying to fit into the patriarchal tradition of Yeats why not just chuck it for something more congenial like novel-writing. Seems to work out nicely for Emma Donoghue…

BORIS: There you go again. You have an obsession with every work of art being pre-digested for your facile consumption, rather than struggling against patriarchy.

JOHNSON: I fear Boris that we are getting away from the play.

BORIS: Yes. We are. I thought a triumphant scene was the superbly combative Aisling Flynn talking down Ian Toner in the panel discussion tentatively chaired by Sam McGovern.

GODUNOV: Yes, he did catch rather well the host awkwardly caught between both trying to start fights and defuse excess tension at the same time.

BORIS: Shut up, Godunov. Yes, it was a pitch-perfect parody of the sort of spats over modern art once catches on Newsnight Review of a Friday. I also admired the deranged quality of Fiachra MacNamara’s monologue while blindfolded and being whipped by a girl wearing a pig-mask and shouting thru a microphone.

JOHNSON: The blunt satire of the second scene with the children’s entertainment turning into a discussion of atrocities bothered me by its tremendous lack of subtlety. Does one need really need to jackhammer at obvious truths like that? But I must ask you one question Boris. Did it not bother you that for large chunks of the play you had absolutely no idea what was going on? I’m thinking of that amusing but baffling Pinter homage where Toner and McGovern seemed to be either ad-men or hit-men, writing a personal ad or an obituary, with a mysterious suitcase bothering their efforts.

BORIS: I understood everything that happened.

GODUNOV: I beg to differ. You turned to me during the scene with the six actresses doing the satirical car adverts in different languages to ask in a terrified whisper if that man was meant to be on stage or had he just wandered in off the street?

BORIS: I was merely adding to your confusion to amplify the intended artistic effect…

JOHNSON: The scene deconstructing pornography I thought was another highlight.

BORIS: It appealed to your low taste for moralism in art did it?

GODUNOV: Why must you constantly sneer at any attempts to find meaning in life?

BORIS: Because one cannot find meaning in life! Crimp’s entire gestalt is that no play can represent accurately even one person, so how on earth could a play seek not only to create multiple ‘realistic’ characters but then have the audacity to claim that they represent the universe in some sort of microcosm, and that the play can thus make ‘important’ points about society? The only point it can make is the inadequacy of its ability to make points.

JOHNSON: You ascribe a Beckettian impulse to Crimp then, the compulsion to speak, mixed with the awareness of the inability to say anything worth speaking of?

BORIS: Don’t bring your philosophical poppycock into this, Crimp is operating on a purely aesthetic level. I have no idea what I mean by that. Or do I? …

GODUNOV: Are you attempting to say that we must not look for any deeper meaning? That Attempts on Her Life represents merely post-modern theatre’s abdication of the urge to create versions of reality in favour of merely stringing together disparate scenes containing blunt anti-capitalist satire? Didn’t 9/11 make that sort of posturing an embarrassment? If western civilisation is not inviolable what is the point of deconstructing it?

BORIS: Well, one could say the same about resisting the Nazis after the tide turned in Africa or in Russia. The battle against patriarchal structures is never futile. Vive La Resistance. You will notice the ‘La’…

JOHNSON: I think Boris that you have lost your mind.

BORIS: I’m in the good company of Nietzsche in that case.

GODUNOV: And I keenly resent the implication that I am a Nazi.

It’s hard not to feel that Enron shows the influence of Attempts on Her Life while simultaneously abjuring it. They’re both Royal Court productions but separated by a traumatic decade. There are a number of inexplicable musical numbers in both plays although neither is a musical, in both actors double up and a huge cast run thru many different cipher characters, and multi-media is also a commonality with large screens bombarding the audience with subliminally fast images of modern life; but the differences are huge. The blunt satire of capitalism remains, but the generalised anxiety of Martin Crimp is replaced by a sharp focus on the fall of one company by Lucy Prebble, who also develops four stable characters amid the slapstick in order to give us an emotional anchor, and has a solid plot in the downfall of Enron’s insane accounting system to drive things forward in a semi-linear fashion. In other words Attempts on Her Life is an important play but it’s not a trailblazer, nothing can follow it, other writers can only plunder from it what they like best and incorporate it into their own more traditional work – after all if one actually wants to say something about society it’s not really that satisfying only having a dramatic framework that deconstructs the validity of any and all attempts to say anything about society.

3/5

October 23, 2010

John Gabriel Borkman

Alan Rickman stars as the eponymous disgraced banker in Ibsen’s 1896 play that resonates unsettlingly in post-crash Ireland.

An icy atmosphere is established from the first sight of Tom Pye’s set, a drawing-room with two walls bordered on two sides by snow-drifts that the flowing dresses of the actresses drag onto the drawing room floor. I’m not sure what Henrik Ibsen the high-priest of naturalist theatre would have made of this, but it visually conveys the frozen emotions and lives of the central characters, and allows for a spectacular set-change in the first act as one set of walls drops down from above while the extant walls head upwards. In this bleak drawing-room Gunhild (Fiona Shaw) listens to the endless pacing upstairs of her detested husband John Gabriel Borkman. Her brooding is interrupted by the unwelcome arrival of another nemesis, her twin sister Ella (Lindsay Duncan), who has come to win back the affections of Gunhild’s son Erhart (Marty Rea), who she raised after the scandal of Borkman’s criminal trial and subsequent bankruptcy and imprisonment.

For the most part this is a three-hander between Rickman, Duncan and Shaw – an impressively powerful triptych. Tony and Olivier winner Duncan is icily commanding as the driven Ella who forces the Borkmans out of their stasis. Shaw is occasionally histrionic but she makes the alternating rage and self-pity of her character utterly convincing. Rickman is wonderful, drawing comedy from lines which are funny only because of his sonorous voice, “Remain seated”, as well as intrinsically hilarious material, such as “I loved you more than life itself. But when it comes down to it one woman can be replaced with another”, and his villainous outburst “Has my hour come round at last?!” In support Talking Movies favourite Rea has a surprisingly minor part as Erhart, whose infatuation with Cathy Belton’s older Mrs Wilton threatens his role as pawn in the mind-games of the central trio, while John Kavanagh is sensational as Vilhelm Fordal, Borkman’s only remaining friend. Fordal is so optimistic as to be masochistic. He sees the best in everything and has forgiven Borkman for ruining him, just as he continues writing a truly diabolical play, and Kavanagh makes him both a tragic and a comedic figure – mirroring Borkman’s own delusions that he will be asked to return to banking.

Normally I’m the first to complain about Irish playwrights of a certain age who insist on mediating between Russian, Greek, and Norwegian classics and Irish theatre-goers but Frank McGuinness’ new version doesn’t insert Hibernicisms, instead he brings out the blackly comic undertones of Ibsen’s script while the contemporary resonances speak for themselves. Indeed the banker as tragic hero synchs well with Enron’s capitalist as irrationally exuberant pioneer of new ideas. Rickman has the charisma to make his obnoxious banker heroic as he outlines how his schemes for shipping and mining would have made Norway rich, how only he had the vision necessary to pursue such schemes, and how he was within 8 days of completing his plans when his lawyer exposed the fraud. Borkman convinces himself that he was as much a victim of the exposure of his speculative use of savers’ deposits as the thousands his actions left penniless. The ambitious madness of speculation allows him without guilt to proclaim “I have wasted 8 years of my life” in mentally re-staging and winning his trial.

Director James MacDonald, acclaimed for his work at the Royal Court Theatre, helms a satisfying mix of melodrama and black comedy culminating in a wonderful catharsis in an impressively staged snowstorm. This is essential theatre.

5/5

John Gabriel Borkman continues its run at the Abbey until November 20th.

October 6, 2010

Phaedra

Filed under: Talking Theatre — Fergal Casey @ 12:09 pm
Tags: , , ,

Rough Magic presents a version of Phaedra that incorporates live music into the unfolding tragedy but the results are sadly uneven…

 Phaedra charts the downfall of one of those psychotically dysfunctional families that seemed to proliferate in ancient Greece. Phaedra (Catherine Walker) is a trophy wife married to the older and brutally abusive Theseus (Stephen Brennan) but she is mad with desire for his adult son Hippolytus (Allen Leech), ironically her emotional distance only increases Theseus’ infatuation with her. When news comes that Theseus has been killed champagne is spilled and secret desires are revealed, not only by Phaedra who provocatively poses in her underwear while asking Hippolytus to help her pick out a dress for the funeral, but by Aricia (Gemma Reeves) whose father traded the house to Theseus for his debts. Much like the Abbey’s recent production of Macbeth that attempted to situate the play in Cromwellian Ireland before giving up Phaedra is littered with the remains of a half-abandoned high-concept. Theseus is apparently a property developer and there are references to the entire country circling the drain on its way out. But there’s no sustained attempt to substantively re-imagine Phaedra for the Celtic Tiger so these moments feel like cheap zeitgeist-surfing beside the more pointed resonances to be found elsewhere in the festival with Enron and John Gabriel Borkman.

John Comiskey’s stainless steel set with tunnels leading underground and huge narrow windows and video screens worked by remote control nicely de-domesticises proceedings as the gods stalk this family. Euripides’ tragedy had previously been reworked by Seneca and Racine and this version reinstates the gods Racine discarded, as well as placing five musicians led by Ellen Cranitch and Cormac de Barra on-stage scoring the action. This conceit can be utterly stunning. Aphrodite (Cathy White), Artemis (Anuna co-founder Fionnuala Gill), and Poseidon (Rory Musgrave) sing while the characters move in a stylised fashion and the first act climax is amazing, as is a later sequence where Phaedra rehearsing a speech by repeating certain lines becomes live sampling scored by repetitive music which re-creates the ritualistic origins of Greek theatre. Composer Ellen Cranitch and director Lynne Parker were deeply involved in the extended development of this version so while they should be praised for such heights they must also accept blame for Hilary Fannin’s script which is deeply uneven and too eager to ‘shock’, why else open with Enone (Michele Forbes) discussing re-shaping the contours south of the female border? Fannin favours profanity over profundity to an extent that quickly becomes deeply tiresome, and a number of Theseus’ gynaecological-flavoured insults in the second act receive no laughs when they are clearly meant to be hi-larious.

Gate mainstay Brennan’s Theseus is absent for nearly half the play and when he does appear he is deeply over the top, rolling his voice and relishing his swearwords. Sarah Greene’s saucy Ismene, talking dirty in broadest Corkonian, matches him while Darragh Kelly’s subtle turn as the psychiatrist Theramenes provides a badly needed emotional anchor. Leech redeems himself for Man About Dog with a fine performance as the tortured Hippolytus but while Catherine Walker is strong as Phaedra, for all her dialogue you never feel allowed into her psyche, and that is a disappointing outcome for a classical heroine here re-created by women.

This is worth seeing but what should have been a highlight of the Dublin Theatre Festival only intermittently reaches the heights that were expected of it.

 2.5/5

Phaedra continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until October 10th.

August 17, 2010

Dublin Theatre Festival: 12 Plays

Filed under: Talking Theatre — Fergal Casey @ 4:49 am

Boston Marriage 29th Sept – 3rd Oct Gate

It’s from 1999 and is an all female cast so I wouldn’t have thought this was vintage David Mamet but he did write and direct his satirical film State & Main the year before and apparently this is a rather good scathing Victorian era drawing room black comedy about lesbian couples in fin de siecle Boston.

Phaedra  30th Sept – 10th Oct Project

Rough Magic use music interpolated from an operatic adaptation of Racine’s version of the Euripides tragedy, and indeed perform it live to supplement a new polish on the script that apparently adds some contemporary resonances to the implosion of the type of dysfunctional family only found in Greek plays.

T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. 1st Oct – 4th Oct Belvedere

The first of three Polish plays sees a stranger seduce everyone in a rich household in a wordless version of a Pasolini film that also has similarities to Something for Everyone or About Adam depending on your generosity.

The Silver Tassie 5th Oct – 10th Oct Gaiety

Druid doing Sean O’Casey in the Gaiety should be an obvious flagship show but my bad experience of Long Day’s Journey into Night in 2007 gives me pause. O’Casey’s move into experimental theatre saw him break with the Abbey as he used symbolism, dance, and music to depict the explosion of WWI into the lives of a Dublin football team who enlist so this should be very good. But…

Celebration 5th Oct – 10th Oct Gate

A very late and allegedly not very good one act play by Harold Pinter about a vicious and crude dinner party in a London restaurant. An odd choice for the festival but perhaps the Gate can extract some black comedy from its brevity.

John Gabriel Borkman 6th Oct – 16th Oct Abbey

Another odd choice, as this is by far the least known of Ibsen’s major works. But it does star ALAN RICKMAN, (a fact inexplicably buried deep within the press release), Fiona Shaw and Lindsay Duncan. This is in a new version by Frank McGuinness (a fact which will be returned to in a future blog piece) which brings out the black comedy of Ibsen’s drama.

Factory 2 9th Oct – 10th Oct Belvedere

The traditional play which you go to not so much for its merits but so you can boast that you managed to endure its marathon running time is this re-imagining of life at Warhol’s chaotic NYC art Factory in the 1960s as, interspersed with Warhol’s own endless films, it’s a whopping 7 1/2 hours long.

Watt 7th Oct – 17th Oct Gate

This is on at some very odd late hours but that probably only adds to the effect. It’s pricey for a one-hour one-man show but Barry McGovern is a noted Beckett exponent who will bring out the black comedy of Beckett’s novel and its tour de force of linguistic tricks.

Una Santa Oscura 8th Oct – 10th Oct Smock Alley

A hit at the fringe last year this mixture of video installation about a girl living in a city at night and specially written live music is performed by skilled violinist Ioana Petcu-Colan. Blink and you’ll miss its short run.

ENRON 12th Oct – 16th Oct Gaiety

A West End musical about the fall of Enron that has an Olivier Award for best director but flopped on Broadway after the NY Times disliked it. It’s definitely high-energy and smart in explaining things over its two and a half hours and it certainly does appear to be dazzling – with light-saber fights in the dark and an accountant with a team of pet velociraptors among the highlights.

Endgame 13th Oct – 17th Oct Gate

Owen Roe apparently made the fabled role of Faith Healer Frank Hardy his own at the Gate earlier this year so he should make an excellent Hamm with support from old double-act Des Keogh and Rosaleen Linehan in the dustbins. Beckett’s apocalyptic black comedy will probably return with Michael Gambon soon but this is a good chance to see it with Irish stage actors of long standing.

The Danton Case 13th Oct – 16th Oct Belvedere

The final Polish play is the pick of the bunch. Bawdy anachronistic fun, as a fourth wall breaching version of the French revolution and subsequent terror, performed to pounding punk music, plays out that is really about the fall of Communism and the rise of crony capitalism. Take that Sofia Coppola.

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