Talking Movies

December 1, 2012

The Select: The Sun Also Rises

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Hemingway’s first novel was transformed at Belvedere College into one of the highlights of the Dublin Theatre Festival by New York troupe Elevator Repair Service.
 
Hemingway’s picaresque tale of America’s ‘Lost Generation’ carousing aimlessly around 1920s Paris and Spain was vividly brought to life within an impressively detailed set of The Select bar where these expats spend so much time drinking. Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson) is our narrator, a maimed war-hero now earning a living as a writer. Jake spends his days drinking with his quasi-friend Robert Cohn (Matt Tierney) and Cohn’s verbally abusive girlfriend Frances (Kate Scelsa), and flirting ineffectually with native women (Kaneza Schall), but life becomes far more complicated for all these characters when Lady Brett Ashley (Lucy Taylor) breezes back into town… Jake is hopelessly in love with Brett, but his war-wound renders him impotent, and so, in one of literature’s most heartbreaking thwarted romances, Brett, despite being truly in love with only Jake, turns to many men to do for her the one thing he can’t. Her impending marriage to fellow rich Briton Mike Campbell (Pete Simpson) might perhaps stop her wandering eye but in the meantime she gets entangled with Cohn, which ensures a very tense visit to Pamplona for the Fiesta for the entire expat group; including Jake’s sardonic, macho, shooting and fishing friend Bill Gorton (Ben Williams).
 
This show put the other high-profile adaptation Dubliners to shame. Director John Collins begins with Jake’s casual narration straight to the audience, and then strips it away to stage dialogue scenes that use sound effects to conjure what cannot be staged, with the narration used for comic effect as Jake comments on conversations from within or for scene-setting until the climactic bullfight when, deliriously, a sports microphone appears as Jake and Brett sit together commentating using Hemingway’s narration as the star bullfighter takes on an intimidating bull; which is a table with horns being dashed about the stage by Ben Williams stomping the ground. The sound effects are truly spectacular, whether it’s glasses that don’t touch clinking together, a man stepping away from a typewriter which continues typing and when he announces in response to a question that he’s finished rings the end of a page, to the sloshing of the endless booze drunk by the characters, the lapping water and splashes of struggling fish in a pastoral idyll, and the roar of cheering and animalistic grunting from the bullfight. Small wonder that once Cohn’s role is finished Tierney stays on stage so we see him operate the live sound-work.
 
But this is theatricality that illuminates the novel. The dance to what would have been the catchiest song on the Continent in 1926, which continually interrupts the conversation between Brett, Jake and the Count (Vin Knight), is both a delight of ensemble choreography and encapsulates the frustrating allure of Brett; a moving target of a romantic lead who can’t be tied down by any man. Taylor’s Brett, all short blonde hair, clipped accent, and passionate recklessness, is well nigh definitive, while Iveson is immensely sympathetic and charismatic as Jake. In support in the first act Kate Scelso plays the Ugly American stereotype with astonishing gusto in a lengthy harangue. I didn’t remember Bill being a funny character, but Ben William’s performance was so modern that it was compared to Sam Rockwell and Will Arnett by my companions. Williams only features in the second act but he finds the sardonic humour and hidden tenderness in Hemingway’s declarative hardness, the highlight being his deadpan questioning of a telegram in Spanish – “What does the word Cohn mean?” The entire ensemble excelled though, not least in the amazing Fiesta sequence of pulsating lights, mass shuddering primal dance, and furious ecstatic noise; including Simpson drumming thunderously on a chair. But for all the triumphant sound and fury that created Pamplona’s excitement the heart of the play comes with lighting reduced to mere spots on Jake and Brett as they whisper their agonising unrequitable love for each other – an astonishingly intimate ending for such an expansive and exuberant play.
 
I had to read The Sun Also Rises for a course, which is always a good way to ruin a novel, but this production was so electric it’s actually forced me to re-evaluate and increase my estimation of Hemingway…
 
5/5

October 11, 2011

Peer Gynt

Director Lynne Parker follows last year’s misfiring Phaedra with another deeply frustrating combination of theatre and live music…

Arthur Riordan’s rhymed version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 farewell to verse drama is underscored by a constant live soundtrack from traditional/jazz quintet Tarab which renders his script as bad rap at its worst and good beat poetry at its best. Talking Movies’ favourite Rory Nolan is our hero Peer Gynt, incarcerated in a lunatic asylum for his Baron Munchausen tendencies, but who continues to spins yarns of his adventures (which are oddly identical to heroic Norwegian folklore) to the disdain of inmates and staff alike. Riordan’s script never addresses this set-up directly though, it’s all only suggested by the costumes. John Comiskey follows last year’s massive stainless steel set with tunnels, narrow windows and video screens for Phaedra with an imposing, stately lunatic asylum set designed with Alan Farquharson. It is equally irrelevant as the characters largely stalk up and down the narrow playing space imagining, and inhabiting, outdoor locations.

Three hours is a hefty running time for a misfiring production, but hysterically the longer second half is far better as it largely dispenses with the conceits that sink the first half. There are only two scenes that work brilliantly in the 75 minute first half, the first and last. Peer’s opening account of chasing a deer thrillingly uses the rhythm of verse and music to conjure up a vivid hunt complete with a hilarious fabulist anti-climax, while his comforting of his dying mother Aase (Karden Ardiff) with a recreation of a childhood fantasy she told him is genuinely tear-jerking. Everything in between doesn’t work. Hilary O’Shaughnessy is too arch for her own good as runaway bride Ingrid, and the slapstick comedy Trolls are merely pointlessly silly. It all leaves you thinking Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite is a better adaptation. The best moments come later on when Tarab’s music stops.

Silence allows the 90 minute second half to begin with hilarious sequences of Nolan and Co discussing demented imperialist plans in half-British accents, before Peer becomes a false prophet, leading to a wonderful sequence in a Cairo lunatic asylum. These sequences, jam-packed with quick costume changes and absurdist props, see Will O’Connell display great comedic flair across multiple roles, before delivering a powerful eulogy at a draft-dodger’s funeral. Fergal McElherron and Peter Daly have their best moments in their smallest roles as the Devil and the Button Moulder, one rejecting Peer for not having sinned enough, the other condemning him to Purgatory for never truly having been himself. Sarah Greene is again scene-stealing, moving wonderfully between the demure Solveig, whose unshakeable love for Peer may yet save him, and an Egyptian dancing-girl alter-ego. Riordan half-attempts to Hibernicise Ibsen but never makes the obvious link to Translations, that escaping material poverty by imaginative fantasy can be equally imprisoning. His script, in its vagueness and prioritisation of rhyme, ultimately resembles Peer’s famous peeling of the onion that symbolises his fabulist personality – no core.

This is slightly better than Phaedra, but Seneca, Racine and Ibsen aren’t to blame when a classic play doesn’t work. Rough Magic’s insertion of pointless live music into half-updated scripts performed on extravagant but irrelevant sets has disappointed two years in a row. Henceforth, this Rough Magic I here abjure…

2.75/5

Peer Gynt continues its run at Belvedere College until October 16th.

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