Talking Movies

February 19, 2014

The Vortex

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Director Annabelle Comyn forsakes the Abbey and Shaw for the Gate and Coward in this cutting 1920s comedy with an unexpectedly serious and intimate finale.

The Vortex opens with the sensible Helen (Fiona Bell) and acerbic Pawnie (Mark O’Regan), waiting in an opulent drawing room for vain and apparently ageless socialite Florence (Susannah Harker). Coward follows Chekhov’s lead in having a whirl of characters pass thru one location as we meet unsmiling servant Preston (Andrea Kelly), fatuous singer Clara (Rebecca O’Mara), and, after Florence’s belated arrival, her devoted young lover Tom (Ian Toner), her defeated aged husband David (Simon Coury), her histrionic coke-stoked pianist son Nicky (Rory Fleck Byrne), and Nicky’s calculating flapper fiancé Bunty (Katie Kirby)… A Freudian frisson instantly shivers between Florence and Bunty over Nicky’s undivided love, and when it transpires Bunty and Tom knew each other intimately years before the scene is set for emotional carnage when all concerned up sticks to Florence’s country house for a Charleston-and-cocktails fuelled weekend party.

Comyn’s regular designer Paul O’Mahony provides an elegant crescent of mirrors and walls which slide along to reveal a staircase for the second act in the country, which begins with a literal bang as Chahine Yavroyan’s dramatically surging lighting design provides the effect of old flashbulbs for keepsake pictures of the couples dancing. Comyn showed in The House her skill at blocking large chaotic ensembles, and 8 people bounce around the stage to the over-pumped gramophone recording of the Charleston in Philip Connaughton’s choreographed party, during which Nicky’s coke addiction becomes evident to Helen. Byrne is marvellous as the highly-strung Nicky, trying to overcome his terrible upbringing, while his self-absorbed mother makes a fool of herself as Tom and Bunty move closer together. Toner is impressive as the slowly awakening Tom, while Kirby makes Bunty somehow both cold and right.

O’Regan Fassbenders delightfully as Pawnie, aided by hoovering up the play’s best lines. It’s tempting to link Coward to Waugh and say the trick of 1920s dialogue is the casual use of ridiculously hyperbolic words. Bright Young Things only ever dub things, no matter how trivial, as ‘ghastly, gruesome, sick-making, beastly, horrid, deathly’ or ‘heavenly, divine, sublime’. Well-spoken but OTT-phrased bad behaviour became Coward’s trade-in-stock but, while the curtain anticipates Hay Fever’s flight of guests, this is a more serious work. The third act focuses on Nicky’s insistence, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, that Florence abandons her obsession with her continuing youth and instead acknowledges her blame in his failings as a person. But this once controversial scene echoes Hamlet and Gertrude’s bedroom contretemps, and leaves us hungry for an aftermath that is never analysed – to dissatisfying effect.

The Vortex may have been the ‘theatrical shocker of the Jazz Age’, but what shocks now is not its sex and drugs but its cavalier dismissal of its ensemble.

3/5

The Vortex continues its run at the Gate until the 17th of March.

August 7, 2012

The Lark

Anouilh’s strikingly modern take on Joan of Arc is performed in the strikingly antique Boys School space in Smock Alley.

The audience sit on benches in front of a stage, bare except for chairs and a chest, while the Lord Bishop Cauchon (Gerard Adlum) and the Earl of Warwick (Dave Fleming) discuss how they will conduct the trial, as if the audience were attending it in 1431, and inform us that they can’t enter the battles in evidence as they don’t have enough men to stage them… Eoghan Carrick’s spotlights aid fluid switches between the trial and flashbacks, while the monastic garb (with extra medieval caps and steeple hats for actors playing multiple roles) epitomises director Sarah Finlay’s high seriousness. This is a stripped-down production which demands absolute concentration from the audience on fierce theological arguments debated in front of a centuries old Romanesque wall.

Warwick, a sardonic Machiavellian, wants Joan condemned in order to discredit her crowning of the Dauphin as King of France. Cauchon, however, insists the Maid is not for burning. Joan is allowed perform her family’s disbelief of her visions and her encounters with her local squire and the Dauphin. The father-daughter scenes convince not only because of the striking height difference between the two actors but also Shane Connolly’s nuanced portrayal of an exasperated but loving father, beating his daughter to try and protect her from herself. Sadly the other flashbacks drag. Ian Toner is nicely leering as de Beacourt, eager to exercise his droit de seigneur, and also amuses as the mistress of the Dauphin, but both scenes outstay their welcome. Ruairi Heading’s turn as the Dauphin similarly suffers in comparison to his more tightly written role of the compassionate Brother Ladvenu. Indeed the second act crackles with energy purely because Anouilh eschews flashbacks.

Joan (Caitriona Ennis) is frequently the still centre of a hurricane of ideas. Toner’s hysterical Promoter sees a seductive Devil everywhere. Joan’s suggestion that God could damn a soul, free will be damned is pounced on by him as a terrible heresy but then forgotten, even though it’s arguably proto-Calvinism. More rigorous is Jennifer Laverty’s terrifying Inquisitor, who attacks Joan for elevating Man in importance against and over God. Though ultimately suspiciously Manichean for a defender of Orthodoxy, in insisting that man is evil because he is worldly, the Inquisitor intimidates the other clerics, and if it’s not specified by the script is brilliant casting by Finlay as Laverty stands in ultimate judgement over another woman. Laverty also scoops a great line rebuking someone for confusing “charity, the theological virtue, and the murky liquid known as the milk of human kindness”. Fleming is wonderfully droll as Warwick, but Adlum has the most interesting role and he is riveting every time Cauchon clashes intellectually with Joan.

Cauchon is desperate to save Joan’s soul, and distances himself from Warwick’s politicking. Ennis plays saintly simplicity very well, the ‘sign’ she gives of recognising the disguised Dauphin is done with the playfulness of a child, while her connection to God when rebuking her favourite soldier for swearing is as utterly self-conscious as her performance of God’s voice for the benefit of her interrogators. Ennis also displays some nice signs of self-doubt under the subtle questioning of Cauchon on what Joan would do if one of her soldiers started to hear voices countermanding her orders… The steel and righteous savagery of Joan the soldier though only appears once when, in a speech uncannily similar to the contemporaneous The Crucible, she renounces her abjuration in order to be true to herself.

Fleming’s English accent is close cousin to a certain contemporary politician, suggesting chummy but callous people always triumph. But self-immolating in protest about that won’t change society, and Anouilh refuses to endorse either Joan’s martyrdom or Cauchon’s mercy. Anouilh’s Joan literally prefers burning out to fading away, but a script so focused on complicated ideas surely implicitly endorses thinking over feeling. Joan temporarily changed the world by emotional force of will, but perhaps the question of Calvinism is left hanging to make us realise that if Joan felt the truth of Calvinism it took Calvin’s application of rigorous theology to make it a force. The lesson: only by understanding a conventional wisdom can one hope to permanently change it.

Fast Intent provides an absorbing production of a thought-provoking play.

3/5

The Lark continues its run at Smock Alley Theatre until the 11th of August.

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

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