Talking Movies

May 16, 2018

RIP Tom Murphy

I attended Dancing at Lughnasa at the 2015 Dublin Theatre Festival mere days after the death of Brian Friel. That production served almost as a wake, and Graham Price and I mused then that Tom Murphy was now Ireland’s greatest living playwright. Alas, now he is taken from us too.

I studied The Gigli Concert for my MA in Anglo-Irish Literature & Drama. I didn’t really get it, nor did I think that, despite patches of undoubted brilliance, it really worked overall. Only for Frank McGuinness to pronounce that often Murphy’s work didn’t read very well, it had to be performed to really come alive. I remember scratching my head at the time about that. My unspoken objection was: how would you ever know something was worth performing if you had to perform it first to see its quality? Frank McGuinness, of course, knew best. 2012 saw a feast of Murphy on the Dublin stage and I reviewed three of those productions here. First out of the blocks was Annabelle Comyn’s revival of The House, which dripped Chekhov, and a savagery in characterisation and theme when tackling emigration. But savagery in Murphy hit its high water-mark at the very beginning with A Whistle in the Dark, which formed part of DruidMurphy’s repertory at the Dublin Theatre Festival. The primal violence of A Whistle in the Dark brutalised the Gaiety’s substantial capacity into a stunned silence. It still remains one of my most vivid theatrical memories. And then, in a marvel of repertory, the same cast turned their hands to the serious comedy Conversations on a Homecoming; with Rory Nolan and Garrett Lombard morphing from the two scariest brothers in Whistle to an amiable duffer and the village intellectual scrapper respectively.

Druid returned to the Murphy well for a striking production of Bailegangaire a couple of years later. President Michael D Higgins was in attendance when I saw it with Graham Price and Tom Walker who summed it up perfectly as ‘Happy Days as Irish kitchen sink drama’. It is startling to think in retrospect that Murphy’s classic was packing out the Gaiety, when it represented such a collision of the avant-garde with the popular mainstream. When the Gate finally broke its duck and presented The Gigli Concert as its first foray into Murphy’s oeuvre the same thing happened: packed audiences, to the extent that the play was brought back for a second run. Graham Price reviewed it on the second run, to add a corrective to what he felt was my insufficiently admiring review from the first time round. I realised that it did work better in performance than it read, but still didn’t think it was the ne plus ultra of Irish drama. And then I ended my belated exploration of Murphy’s work where I began, with Annabelle Comyn directing on the Abbey stage in the summer. But The Wake was a very different proposition than The House.  Comyn threw practically every Bat-tool in the director’s utility belt at it but Murphy’s rambling script proved ungovernable. But for all that there was still much brilliance shining thru the wreckage. Not bad for a play written in his early sixties.

I have a personal hit-list of key Murphy plays left to see: A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer’s Assistant, The Morning after Optimism, and The Sanctuary Lamp. Now, whether anyone other than Druid will put them on in this current cultural climate is sadly quite another matter.

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/the-house/

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/a-whistle-in-the-dark/

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/conversations-on-a-homecoming/

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/bailegangaire/

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/the-gigli-concert/

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/the-gigli-concert-3/

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/the-wake/

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April 30, 2018

Why Fund the Arts?

A little over two years ago a post here bemoaned the impact of austerity on the arts. Now I’d like to re-examine the topic with a considerably more critical eye.

The clash between Minister Hacker and Sir Humphrey still carries much weight. Art subsidies can easily be presented as a middle-class rip-off.  Take the funding of cinema, distribution rather than production that is. Cinema is not in any trouble. Well, historically it is, but let’s not open that can of worms here. Cinema is not in any trouble. (Hear, hear) There are cinemas everywhere, and people go to them ever Saturday night.  Advertisements for cinema roar at you from buses and phones, radios and televisions, billboards and newspapers. You would have to be in a coma not to have some subliminal awareness of what blockbuster is playing right now. Cinema is not in peril. What is in peril are unpopular films. Now, I like unpopular films. I routinely end up in screen 3 of the IFI, watching the films that are the most unpopular in the home of unpopular films. When the IFI writes to the Government they are obliged to camouflage their simple request for subsidies that they may show films nobody wants to see. That is brutal, but it’s the truth. I personally benefit enormously from this; I saw Alex Ross Perry’s masterful Queen of Earth during its six day run in the IFI. I am an appreciable percentage of its entire Irish audience. But should everybody else have to pay so that I can indulge my obscure tastes? Is that right and proper that Sean Citizen stump up so that I can watch a film flickering on the big screen as intended by ARP rather than get with the programme and just watch it on Amazon video?

A key argument against cutting arts funding in the last decade’s ceaseless austerity was that art develops empathy, and is therefore very useful for society. But the current obsession here, in England, and in America with *representation* completely vitiates that contention. I have identified completely with Seth Cohen, Rory Gilmore, Louis de Pointe du Lac, Esther Greenwood, and multiple characters in Brideshead Revisited and Michael Chabon novels. But the American Jewish experience is alien to me, as is the small town New England female adolescence. I know nothing of vampiric existential angst, or of 1950s female depression. I am neither a gay English aristocrat, nor a depressed creative writing student. I can look at all these characters that not like me, in nationality or gender or class or era or humanity or life experience, and empathise… But *representation* can be summed up by Mark Waid celebrating the much loathed character of Rose Tico purely because young Asian-American girls can look at an Asian-American woman onscreen and empathise – with themselves. That is not empathy. There is a GK Chesterton quote that hits this at an angle: “They say they wish to be as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe as weak as themselves”. Representation is the opposite of empathy because it demands that art be a mirror held up to the person consuming the art. No work of empathy is to be done in imagining themselves in someone else’s life, and looking in this solipsistic mirror they expect that art will be representing them with positive feedback only, please; this is a safe space, you know.

January 26, 2018

My Own Personal Theatre Awards 2017

“Then the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us, so that to us it seems just as natural to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products” – Pericles’ Funeral Oration, Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War.

Best Production

Waiting for Godot (Druid/The Abbey)

The Effect (Project Arts Centre)

The Dumb Waiter (The Gate)

The Pillowman (The Gaiety)

I Hear You and Rejoice (The Pavilion)

The Man in the Woman’s Shoes (The Pavilion)

Tribes (The Gate)

 

Best New Play

The Effect by Lucy Prebble (Project Arts Centre)

I Hear You and Rejoice by Mikel Murfi (The Pavilion)

Tribes by Nina Raine (The Gate)

Autumn Royal by Kevin Barry (Project Arts Centre)

Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn (Project Arts Centre)

This isn’t my Desk by Kate Cosgrove (Smock Alley)

Best Director

Garry Hynes – Waiting for Godot (Druid/The Abbey)

Ronan Phelan – The Effect/Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play (Project Arts Centre)

Joe Dowling – The Dumb Waiter (The Gate)

Andrew Flynn –  The Pillowman (The Gaiety)

Geoff O’Keefe – King Lear (The Mill Theatre)

Catriona McLaughlin – Autumn Royal (Project Arts Centre)

Best Actor

Mikel Murfi – The Man in the Woman’s Shoes/I Hear You and Rejoice (The Pavilion)

Marty Rea – Waiting for Godot/The Great Gatsby (Druid/The Abbey & The Gate)

Aaron Monaghan – Waiting for Godot (Druid/The Abbey & The Gate)

Garrett Lombard – The Dumb Waiter (The Gate)

Lorcan Cranitch – The Dumb Waiter (The Gate)

Peter Gowen – The Pillowman (The Gaiety)

Philip Judge – King Lear (The Mill Theatre)

Donal Gallery – The Effect (Project Arts Centre)

Best Actress

Siobhan Cullen – The Effect/Crestfall (Project Arts Centre/The Abbey)

Rachel O’Byrne – The Great Gatsby (The Gate)

Clare Dunne – Tribes (The Gate)

Charlie Murphy – Arlington (Landmark/The Abbey)

Seana Kerslake – King of the Castle (Druid/The Gaiety)

Karen McCartney – Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play (Project Arts Centre)

Rebecca O’Mara – Private Lives (The Gate)

Best Supporting Actor

Mark Huberman – The Great Gatsby (The Gate)

Nick Dunning – Tribes (The Gate)

Rory Nolan – Waiting for Godot (Druid/The Abbey)

Marty Rea – King of the Castle (Druid/The Gaiety)

Garrett Lombard – Waiting for Godot (Druid/The Abbey)

Gary Lydon – The Pillowman (The Gaiety)

Conor O’Riordan – Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play (Project Arts Centre)

Michael David McKernan – King Lear (The Mill Theatre)

Gavin Drea – Tribes (The Gate)

Ronan Leahy – The Effect (Project Arts Centre)

Best Supporting Actress

Aoibheann McCann – The Great Gatsby (The Gate)

Fiona Bell – Tribes (The Gate)

Ali White – The Effect (Project Arts Centre)

Sharon McCoy – King Lear (The Mill Theatre)

Maureen Rabbitt – This isn’t my Desk (Smock Alley)

Liz Fitzgibbon  – A Statue for Bill Clinton (Belvedere College)

Nessa Matthews – Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play (Project Arts Centre)

Best Set Design

Francis O’Connor – Waiting for Godot/Private Lives/King of the Castle/The Dumb Waiter/ (Druid/The Abbey & The Gate & Druid/The Gaiety  & The Gate)

Owen MacCarthaigh – The Pillowman (Gaiety Theatre)

Ciaran Bagnall – The Great Gatsby (The Gate)

Molly O’Cathain – Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play (Project Arts Centre)

Conor Murphy – Tribes (The Gate)

Jamie Vartan – Arlington (Landmark/The Abbey)

Best Lighting Design

James F. Ingalls – Waiting for Godot (Druid/The Abbey)

Ciaran Bagnall – The Pillowman (The Gaiety)

Jason Taylor – The Dumb Waiter (The Gate)

Kris Mooney – King Lear (The Mill Theatre)

Adam Silverman – Arlington (Landmark/The Abbey)

Best Sound Design

Carl Kennedy – The Pillowman (The Gaiety)

Greg Clarke – Waiting for Godot (Druid/The Abbey)

Declan Brennan – King Lear (The Mill Theatre)

Helen Atkinson – Arlington (Landmark/The Abbey)

Ivan Birthistle – Tribes (The Gate)

Best Costume Design

Peter O’Brien – Private Lives/The Great Gatsby (The Gate & The Gate)

Francis O’Connor – Waiting for Godot (Druid/The Abbey)

Joan O’Clery – The Dumb Waiter (The Gate)

The Costume Room – King Lear (The Mill Theatre)

Special Mention

Bryan Cranston – Network (National Theatre)

Well here we go again, including London in these awards, but an exception must again be made.

Cranston’s multi-faceted turn was a performance that made this play better than its cinematic precursor.

 

August 16, 2017

Dublin Theatre Festival: 5 Plays

This is the 60th anniversary of the Dublin Theatre Festival, but this year’s programme is not very good; in fact it’s the weakest I can remember since I started paying attention back in 2007 and the 50th anniversary iteration when Druid presented James Cromwell in Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Tribes 28th September – October 14th Gate

English playwright Nina Raine’s acclaimed work about a deaf youngster’s emotional battles with his highly-strung family gets a puzzling relocation from Hampstead to Foxrock, as if Hampstead was in a faraway country of whose people we knew little. Fiona Bell, Clare Dunne, Nick Dunning, and Gavin Drea are among the familiar faces throwing around hyper-articulate insults while director Oonagh Murphy makes her Gate debut.

Melt 28th September – October 8th Smock Alley Theatre

Lynne Parker directs a new script by Shane Mac an Bhaird which has attracted an impressive cast of Owen Roe, Rebecca O’Mara, Roxanna Nic Liam, and Charlie Maher. Set in Antarctica it follows rogue Irish ecologist Boylan, his young colleague Cook, his love interest Dr Hansen (ex-wife of Boylan), and their discovery from a sub-glacial lake – Veba. Rough Magic promise a fairytale!

The Second Violinist October 2nd – October 8th O’Reilly Theatre

Composer Donnacha Dennehy and writer/director Enda Walsh reunite following their opera The Last Hotel with Crash Ensemble again providing the music, while the chorus of Wide Open Opera and actor Aaron Monaghan join the fun. Jamie Vartan again provides a set on which for 75 minutes physical madness of a presumably ineffable nature can play out, to a Renaissance choral backdrop.

Her Voice October 10th – October 11th Samuel Beckett Theatre

A Japanese riff on Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days sees Keiko Takeya and Togo Igawa directed by Makoto Sato; who has also designed the set and stripped away all the words from Beckett’s scripts save his numerous stage directions to get to a new kernel of the piece as Takeya conveys Winnie’s rambling monologues of memory purely through gesture and facial expression.

King of the Castle October 11th – October 15th Gaiety

Director Garry Hynes and frequent collaborators designer Francis O’Connor and lighting maestro James F. Ingalls tackle Eugene McCabe’s 1964 tale of rural jealousy. Sean McGinley’s Scober MacAdam lives in a Big House in Leitrim, with a large farm and young wife, played by Seana Kerslake. But their childless marriage sees rumours swirl amidst neighbours Marty Rea, John Olohan, and Bosco Hogan.

March 27, 2017

My Own Personal Theatre Awards 2016

It seems odd that Irish theatre should be so ruled by just one set of awards, especially when they have such transparent biases. Someday perhaps someone with the necessary money, reach, and prestige will set up an alternative to the Irish Times Theatre Awards. In the meantime here’s my 2nd annual Theatre Awards, pitched as a corrective; like the Film Top 10 is pitched somewhere between the mid-1990s Oscars and MTV Movie Awards; operating under the fervent aspiration that what is good ought be popular and what is popular ought be good.

Best Production

The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Othello (The Abbey)

 

Best Director

Lynne Parker – Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

Sean Holmes – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Garry Hynes – The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Jeremy Herrin – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Joe Dowling – Othello (The Abbey)

Annabelle Comyn – The Wake (The Abbey)

Ethan McSweeny – The Father (The Gate)

Best Actor

Denis Conway – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

Marty Rea – Othello (The Abbey)

Owen Roe – The Father (The Gate)

Peter Macon – Othello (The Abbey)

Phelim Drew – Kings of the Kilburn High Road (The Gaiety)

Gary Lydon – The Weir (The Pavilion)

 

Best Actress

Fiona Bell – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

Aisling O’Sullivan – The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Cathy Belton – Helen & I (Civic Theatre)

Derbhle Crotty – Juno and the Paycock (The Gate)

Lisa Dwyer Hogg – After Miss Julie (Project Arts Centre)

 

Best Supporting Actor

Marty Rea – Juno and the Paycock/The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gate/The Gaiety)

Rory Nolan – Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

Darragh Kelly – Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

David Ganly – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Paul Kennedy – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Aaron Monaghan – The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Neill Fleming – Hamlet (The Mill Theatre)

Brian Doherty – The Wake (The Abbey)

 

Best Supporting Actress

Marie Mullen – The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Janet Moran – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Eileen Walsh – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Ali White – Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

Sophie Robinson – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

Caoimhe O’Malley – Juno and the Paycock/The Constant Wife (The Gate/The Gate)

Darcy Donnellan – Nowhere Now (Players Theatre)

 

Best New Play

The Father by Florian Zeller (The Gate)

The Meeting by Grainne Curistan (Players Theatre)

Nowhere Now by Daniel O’Brien (Players Theatre)

Helen and I by Meadhbh McHugh (Civic Theatre)

 

Best Set Design

Paul O’Mahony – The Wake (The Abbey)

Jonathan Fensom – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

Francis O’Connor – The Father/The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gate/The Gaiety)

Ciaran Bagnall – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Riccardo Hernandez – Othello (The Abbey)

Gerard Bourke – Hamlet (The Mill Theatre)

 

Best Lighting Design

Paul Keogan – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme/The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey/The Abbey)

Sinead McKenna – Othello/Juno and the Paycock (The Abbey/The Gate)

Rick Fisher – The Father (The Gate)

Kris Mooney – Hamlet (The Mill Theatre)

 

Best Sound Design

Emma Laxton – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Philip Stewart – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Denis Clohessy – The Father (The Gate)

Ferdy Roberts & Filter Theatre – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Grand Canal Theatre)

 

Special Mention

Pippa Nixon – The Tempest (The Globe)

I’m loath to include anything I saw in London in these awards, but an exception must be made here.

Nixon’s commanding turn as Ariel was one of those performances that upend your perception of a play.

July 31, 2016

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

Tickets go on sale for the 2016 Dublin Theatre Festival at 10:00am on Tuesday August 16th. Here are 10 shows to keep an eye on.

dtf2012tf

Helen & I 27th September – October 1st Civic Theatre

The great Annabelle Comyn decamps to Druid to direct an original script by newcomer Meadhbh McHugh. Rebecca O’Mara is the ‘I’, returning home to fence with older sister Helen (Cathy Belton) as their father lies dying. It’s always great when Druid tour, and hopefully this will be a return to form for Comyn after the bafflingly praised debacle of The Wake.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 28th September – October 1st Grand Canal

Sean Holmes, responsible for the recent, storming Plough & Stars in the Abbey, returns with co-director Stef O’Driscoll for a Shakespearean rampage. This looks to be very much a ‘This was not Chekhov’ production, but in the best sense, as the text is stripped down to 90 minutes, with live grunge band, nerf gun battle, and an epic food fight.

 

Don Giovanni 29th September – October 2nd Gaiety

Roddy Doyle has for some reason decided to update the libretto to Mozart’s opera about the womaniser par excellence. Eyebrows must be raised at the amount of ‘versions’ he’s doing versus original writing in recent years. Pan Pan’s Gavin Quinn will be directing, while Sinead McKenna follows up her acclaimed diabolist lighting design for The Gigli Concert’s finale with some bona fide operatics.

 

The Father 29th September – October 15th Gate

Just when Michael Colgan had lurched into self-parody by programming The Constant Wife he conjures an ace from nowhere: a piece of new writing from France that has swept all before it on Broadway and Piccadilly. Ethan McSweeney directs Owen Roe as a man suffering from Alzheimer’s, while the supporting cast includes Peter Gaynor and Charlotte McCurry, and Francis O’Connor is set designer.

 

Guerilla 30th September – October 2nd Project Arts Centre

It wouldn’t be a festival without some fellow PIIGS getting bolshy about neo-liberalism, the failure of Europe, and the age of austerity. This year it’s El Conde de Torrefiel company from Spain, presenting the confused inner universe of a group of people inhabiting the same city and collective consciousness, represented by projected text over an electronica concert, Tai Chi class, and conference.

 seagull

Death at Intervals 4th October – October 8th Smock Alley

Trailing clouds of glory from its Galway premiere comes an adaptation of Jose Saramango’s novel directed by Kellie Hughes. Olwen Fouere is the grim reaper in retirement, accompanied by her faithful musician Raymond Scannell. Death likes to dance too. A mixture of music, theatre, and dance, with Scannell also co-composing with Alma Kelliher; but he did also compose Alice in Funderland

 

Alien Documentary 4th October – October 8th Project Arts Centre

I’ve read this production’s pitch repeatedly and I’m damned if I can figure out what it is. Director Una McKevitt is apparently mixing transcriptions of real people’s conversations with invented dialogues of her own imagining, so that’s her writing credit sorted. But what exactly is this show? PJ Gallagher, James Scales, and Molly O’Mahony having unconnected deep/comic conversations for 90 minutes?

 

The Seagull 5th October – 16th October Gaiety

Writer Michael West and director Annie Ryan together fashion a modern version of Chekhov’s tale of unrequited loves starring the oft-Fassbendering Derbhle Crotty as well as Genevieve Hulme-Beaman who shone in support in the Abbey’s You Never Can Tell. But will this Corn Exchange production be as hit and miss as their version of Desire Under the Elms that severely downsized O’Neill’s ambition?

 

Donegal 6th October – 15th October Abbey

Frank McGuinness’s new musical/play with music/musical play sounds unfortunately like a pilot for the Irish version of Nashville, as a fading country music star is threatened by a new talent she must curry favour with for her own survival. Director Conall Morrison specialises in exuberance, and grand dames Deirdre Donnelly and Eleanor Methven appear beside Once’s Megan Riordan, but can McGuinness make a comeback?

 

First Love 12th October – 16th October O’Reilly Theatre

Reminding us why he was important before the age of austerity Michael Colgan directs Gate stalwart Barry McGovern in a solo Beckett outing. This time they head up the road to Belvedere College for a Beckett novella turned into a one-man show about a rather existentialist-sounding refusal of a man to fall in love with a woman who’s in love with him.

February 25, 2016

Austerity and the Arts

The Journal has compiled a handy guide to various political pledges on arts funding. But take all with the caveat of Pat Rabbitte’s infamous slip on farcically utopian bait-and-switches, “Sure isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”

Reh-image-eight-800x533

Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture at the British Library last year excoriated politicians, especially the Tories, for wanting to bask in the reflected glamour of cultural icons, and boast about the money such activity makes for Britain, both in its own right and in attracting tourists via a sheen of national creativity, without ever wanting to invest in it. According to him these people believed artists magically appear, and start providing a return without requiring any initial capital outlay; an impressive economic conjuring trick to be sure. Whereas, he pointed out, Roxy Music would not have come about without a previous generation establishing a whole gamut of public investment in the future: the NHS, Arts Schools, libraries, galleries, museums, and the dole. According to the Social Democrats there has been a 55% cut in arts funding since 2008 in Ireland. Such cuts dramatically change the cultural current. Take Annabelle Comyn.

Annabelle Comyn was the founding artistic director of Hatch Theatre Company in 2004. She directed a number of contemporary British plays (by Martin Crimp, Dennis Kelly, David Greig, and Zinnie Harris) with regular collaborators including set designer Paul O’Mahony, sound designer Philip Stewart, and actor Peter Gaynor. Then in 2009 Hatch Theatre Company saw its grant slashed from €90,000 to €20,000. After that there was no funding for any projects submitted, and Comyn, who had also directed Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Caryl Churchill’s A Number for the Peacock in 2006 and 2007, took the hint. As she told the Irish Times in a 2014 interview “I remember thinking that the work I had done with Hatch – predominantly contemporary British plays – wouldn’t get funding.” So began two years in which one of Ireland’s best theatre directors didn’t work as a director.

And then Abbey artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail offered her the chance to direct Pygmalion at the Abbey’s main stage in 2011. So began a new phase of Comyn’s career. Her version of Shaw’s comedy emphasised that Henry Higgins really is stripping Eliza Doolittle not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims. The coldness of Charlie Murphy’s Eliza to Higgins in their final scenes captured the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on, and was an unexpected touch. 2012 saw her back on the Abbey main stage reviving Tom Murphy’s 2000 Abbey commission The House. This Chekhovian tale of social climbing and the frustrations of returned emigrants in the 1950s saw Comyn add new strings to her bow as she blocked 13 people for a chaotic drunken speech and fight. Comyn’s interpretation of Murphy’s melancholic character study with barbed commentary on societal failure saw her win Best Director at the Irish Times Theatre Awards. And yet…

DG declan conlon and Catherine Walker

A director who specialised in premiering contemporary British plays is now (with the exception of 2012’s The Talk of the Town) exclusively reviving classic texts. A cultural current in Irish theatre has been diverted, and you can be sure that nobody returned to Dail Eireann after tomorrow will have as a priority allowing it to resume its original course. Does it matter? Well, John McGahern, the Irish novelist par excellence, would not have become the writer he was had he not been exposed to the works of Flaubert, Camus, and Hemingway. It matters if our theatrical landscape suddenly has a Berlin wall of austerity erected cutting off consistent interaction with new British writing. In the grand scheme of things cutting a €90,000 grant has had a larger effect than the latter-day Gladstone who made that retrenchment could ever have imagined.

To quote the two voices at the end of GK Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The other voice replied—

“The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost.”

February 6, 2016

My Own Personal Theatre Awards 2015

All aesthetic judgements are political, but some are more political than others; and if you cannot conceive of great art made by people whose political opinions you do not share, then just maybe you cannot conceive of art at all.

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It was ironic that the Irish Times released their Theatre Awards shortlist just after the death of Alan Rickman; whose performance in John Gabriel Borkman the Guardian valorised as one of his great stage achievements; as it drew the mind back to the Irish Times’ magisterial pronouncements on the state of Irish theatre in 2010. John Gabriel Borkman, a co-production between the Abbey and Southbank’s National Theatre, premiered in Dublin before transferring to London, and eventually Broadway. It was seen by around 20,000 people, got rave notices, and received … two nominations from the Irish Times: for costumes and set.

Meanwhile World’s End Lane, which could be seen by 3 people per performance, and so was seen by almost a hundred punters, as opposed to John Gabriel Borkman’s 20,000, received a nod for best production. And of course you ‘couldn’t’ sputter with outrage over this because, inevitably, you hadn’t seen World’s End Lane. Thus has it been lately with the Irish Times Theatre Awards. Such hipster valuations of theatrical worth downgraded the Gate and Abbey, and combined with a persistent boosting of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, and companies and plays that shared the politico-cultural preoccupations and prejudices of the Irish Times.

But, as with my objections to the Abbey’s 2016 programme, there is little point in speculative grousing. So here are my personal theatre awards for 2015, with the winners in bold. And let me anticipate objections. I did not see DruidShakespeare on tour or The Match Box in Galway. I did not travel up to Belfast to see a single play at the Lyric. But, when you strip out all DruidShakespeare’s nominations, the vast majority of nominations handed out by the Irish Times were for work performed in Dublin. So with more nominees and fewer categories let’s have at it…

Best Production

The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

 DG declan conlon and Catherine Walker

Best Director

Annabelle Comyn – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

David Grindley – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Selina Cartmell – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Conor McPherson – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Patrick Mason – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

 

Best Actor

Declan Conlon – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Marty Rea – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

James Murphy – The Importance of Being Earnest (Smock Alley)

Brendan Gleeson – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

Dylan Coburn Gray – Enjoy (Project Arts Centre)

DG the gigli concert

Best Actress

Catherine McCormack – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Aislin McGuckin – A Month in the Country (The Gate)

Catherine Walker – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Clare Dunne – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Lisa Dwyer Hogg – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

 

Best Supporting Actor

Declan Conlon – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Marty Rea – The Caretaker (The Gate)

Peter Gaynor – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Kevin Shackleton – The Importance of Being Earnest (Smock Alley)

Stijn Van Opstal – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Domhnall Gleeson – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

John Doran – Enjoy (Project Arts Centre)

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Best Supporting Actress

Marion O’Dwyer – By the Bog of Cats (The Abbey)

Minke Kruyver – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Kate Stanley Brennan – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Deirdre Donnelly – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

Elodie Devins – By the Bog of Cats (The Abbey)

 

Best New Play

George Brant – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Conor McPherson – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Gerard Adlum – The Man in Two Pieces (Theatre Upstairs)

Enda Walsh – The Last Hotel (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Gerard Adlum, Nessa Matthews, Sarah Finlay – Bob and Judy (Theatre Upstairs)

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Best Set Design

tgSTAN & Damiaan De Schrijver – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Paul O’Mahony – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Francis O’Connor – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate) & The Caretaker (The Gate)

Liam Doona – You Never Can Tell (The Abbey)

Alice Power – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

Alyson Cummins – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

 

Best Lighting Design

Chahine Yavroyan – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabbler (The Abbey)

Sinead McKenna – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Davy Cunningham – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

 

Best Sound Design

Dennis Clohessy – Through a Glass Darkly (Project Arts Centre) & A View From the Bridge (The Gate)

Mel Mercier – The Shadow of a Gunman (The Abbey)

Conor Linehan – You Never Can Tell (The Abbey)

January 15, 2016

RIP Alan Rickman

Alan Rickman wasn’t just a movie villain, (nor even that) he was a stage star. The Guardian in taking stock of Rickman’s career noted six theatrical highlights; one of those was here at the Abbey.

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Rickman left graphic design to enter RADA at the late age of 26, and then became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1986 he had a success de scandale as Valmont, the mordant seducer in Christopher Hampton’s play Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He was nominated for a Tony for the part, but when Hollywood rushed to make two versions of the story he was cast in neither. Instead he made his screen debut as Hans Gruber, the mordant terrorist in John McTiernan’s film Die Hard. Rickman was drily withering at the L&H in UCD in 2009 (when being presented with the James Joyce Fellowship) on the topic of why he always played villains. He didn’t always play villains, of course. People just didn’t see those films, nor did they see his stage work on the West End and Broadway.

He reunited with Les Liaisons Dangereuses co-star Lindsay Duncan and director Howard Davies in 2002 for Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which, like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, also transferred to Broadway after its initial West End triumph. He controversially played opposite Helen Mirren as Shakespeare’s doomed lovers Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre, showed his political activism in directing My Name is Rachel Corrie, which he helped compile from the emails of the student protestor killed by a bulldozer in the Gaza Strip, and conquered Broadway  in 2011 as an unfeasibly abrasive creative writing professor in the premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar. And in 2010 he played the titular John Gabriel Borkman, in Frank McGuinness’ version of Ibsen for the 2010 Dublin Theatre Festival, which again reunited Rickman with Lindsay Duncan, and toured onwards to London’s National Theatre and New York.

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Ibsen’s 1896 play about a disgraced banker resonated unsettlingly in post-crash Ireland. In a bleak drawing-room Gunhild (Fiona Shaw) battled her twin sister Ella (Lindsay Duncan) for the affections of Gunhild’s son Erhart (Marty Rea) and for Borkman himself in a, for the most part, three-hander between Rickman, Duncan and Shaw – an impressively powerful triptych. Rickman was wonderful, drawing comedy from lines which were 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?!” Rickman had the charisma to make his obnoxious banker heroic as he outlined his schemes for shipping and mining that would have made Norway rich; only he had the vision necessary, but within 8 days of completing his plans his lawyer exposed the fraud. Borkman convinced himself he was as much a victim of the exposure of his speculative use of savers’ deposits as the thousands his actions left penniless, so proclaimed “I have wasted 8 years of my life” in mentally re-staging and winning his trial. Intriguingly Cathy Belton toured with this production as Mrs Wilton; who threatens Erhart’s role as pawn in the mind-games.

Rickman squeezed some laughs in Gambit from being comically obnoxious as vulgar multi-millionaire and ‘degenerate nudist’ Lionel Shabandar, but it was a film unworthy of him, Colin Firth, or Stanley Tucci; all obviously attracted by a Coen Brothers screenplay that got lost in translation. But when Rickman made an unexpected return to directing nearly twenty years after his first effort, The Winter Guest, with a period drama about Versailles’ creation, he found a small showy role for Tucci as his fabulously acerbic screen brother. Rickman’s King Louis XIV was a highlight of the film; weary, cynical, yet somehow also unexpectedly humane; but he kept his role small, and gathered familiar faces around him, including Sense & Sensibility co-star Kate Winslet as Madame Sabine De Barra and John Gabriel Borkman co-star Cathy Belton as Sabine’s devoted servant Louise. Rickman seemed to like creating theatrical repertory companies outside of theatre. Consider his own casting, his reunions with Emma Thompson, and Daniel Radcliffe’s astonished gratitude that Rickman would always appear whenever Radcliffe was debuting a new stage role. So it’s fitting to end with words from a ‘rep’.

Cathy Belton issued this statement yesterday afternoon: “I was deeply saddened to hear the news of Alan’s passing today. It was a joy and a privilege to work with him but it was even more of a privilege to call him a dear friend. His talent was immense, his generosity of heart and time knew no bounds both professionally and personally. His dry Celtic wit was a joy to be around, always challenging, charming, questioning and listening. It was no wonder he felt so at home in Ireland during his many times working and visiting here. His death is such a great loss to us all, my heartfelt sympathies go to his beloved wife Rima, his rock and light at his side for over fifty years.  The world is a lesser place without him and I will miss him greatly.”

November 10, 2015

An Alternative Abbey 2016 Programme

I’d been waiting for the Abbey’s new season, and was disappointed by it. I didn’t think much of their commission choices, and felt their other selections betrayed a peculiarly apologetic and almost self-loathing attitude towards a celebration of our independence. So I thought about what I might have programmed instead…

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Here are the essentials of the Abbey’s 2016 programme to September:

 

*Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland

(dir: Vicky Featherstone)

The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey

(dir: Sean Holmes)

*New Middle East by Mutaz Abu Saleh

(dir: Bashar Murkus)

*Tina’s Idea of Fun by Sean P Summers

(dir: Gerry Stembridge)

Othello by William Shakespeare

(dir: Joe Dowling)

*Town is Dead by Philip McMahon & Ray Scannell

(dir: TBC)

The Wake by Tom Murphy

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness

(dir: Jeremy Herrin)

 

Here are the essentials of my alternative Abbey 2016 programme:

 

*Commissioned Work by Mark O’Rowe

(dir: Mark O’Rowe)

John Bull’s Other Island by George Bernard Shaw

(dir: Roisin McBrinn)

*Not I by Samuel Beckett, Play by Samuel Beckett, On Baile’s Strand by WB Yeats, Riders to the Sea by JM Synge

(dir: Annie Ryan)

*Delirium by Enda Walsh

(dir: Conall Morrison)

Making History by Brian Friel

(dir: Patrick Mason)

*The Effect by Lucy Prebble

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

Commissioned Work by Marina Carr

(dir: Selina Cartmell)

The Wake by Tom Murphy

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

 

*Plays marked with an asterisk are on the Peacock stage.

This alternative programme is of course a fantasy, because it takes no account of the availability of directors and playwrights, but it does utilise people who have done fine work at the Abbey in recent years. It commissions new plays from two of our finest playwrights, Mark O’Rowe and Marina Carr, and gives Enda Walsh’s exuberant Dostoevsky adaptation from 2008 the chance of a subtler interpretation. The Shavian elephant in the room is finally tackled, and what better time for Shaw’s exuberant interrogation of our capacity for self-government? The late Brian Friel is honoured with a timely production of his exploration of exile and myth-making in Irish history, while Tom Murphy’s more recent dissection of exile and return ends the summer season. The Abbey’s fullest spectrum is utilised: Revival classics are paired with two of Beckett’s trickiest works, and Comyn returns to her beginnings in directing a contemporary English play.

The Abbey perhaps stands at an odd angle to 1916. It is after all a national theatre older than its politically constituted nation, led in its early days by Anglo-Irish writers with a gift for enraging their Irish audience, and its seminal engagement with the decade of revolution was by a writer whose corrosive scepticism spared no institution. The Plough and the Stars is the obvious choice for marking the Rising, perhaps too obvious a choice. It has been staged too frequently to too little effect in the last decade to be wheeled out once again to throw cold water over Pearse’s dream. Not least when Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme is deliberately programmed against it, as if we’re apologising to Unionists for rebelling when we could have been nobly dying for the British Empire instead. As for Othello, one quote deployed by Haughey does not a state of the nation play make. Serious engagement with Shakespeare’s quatercentenary would be a post-colonial take on The Tempest.

1916 is to be celebrated like 1776 or 1789, not apologised for, agonised over, or disparaged. The only way to discuss a programme of plays is to parse it qualitatively play by play, because that’s how people choose to go to the theatre: play by play, depending on their particular artistic cost-benefit analysis of the actors, the playwright, the director, and the subject matter. I’ve felt compelled in disliking so many of the Abbey’s individual picks to present an alternative programme of plays. Consonant with my banishing O’Casey I say there’s little use tearing down everything and building up nothing.

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