Talking Movies

May 20, 2017

Waiting for Godot

The Abbey, in its new baffling role of an Irish Wyndham’s Theatre, hosts Druid’s hit 2016 production of Samuel Beckett’s debut; and it’s incredibly impressive.

Broken down gentlemen Vladimir (Marty Rea) and Estragon (Aaron Monaghan) find themselves in a desolate landscape, waiting for a meeting with possible benefactor Godot. Their attempts to pass the time; or hang themselves, whichever seems more practicable; are aided by the unexpected arrival of Pozzo (Rory Nolan) and his servant Lucky (Garrett Lombard). Vladimir is outraged by Pozzo’s treatment of Lucky, but Lucky’s speech soon puts paid to his sympathy… And then a small boy appears and tells them Godot will not be coming, but that he will certainly see them the next day; if they would be so good as to wait again.

It is hard not to feel watching this production that something remarkable has happened: the torch has passed to a new generation of Irish actors.

5/5

 

Waiting for Godot continues its run at the Abbey until the 20th of May.

September 1, 2015

Six Years, what a surprise

Filed under: Talking Movies,Talking Nonsense,Talking Television,Talking Theatre — Fergal Casey @ 10:06 pm
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Previous milestones on this blog have been marked by features on Michael Fassbender and a vainglorious, if requested, list (plays to see before you die). But as today marks exactly six years since Talking Movies kicked off in earnest on Tuesday September 1st 2009 with a review of (500) Days of Summer I’ve rummaged thru the archives for some lists covering the various aspects of the blog’s expanded cultural brief.

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Top 6 Films

There’s been a lot of films given a write-up and a star rating hereabouts. So many films. Some fell in my estimation on re-watching, others steadily increased in my esteem, and many stayed exactly as they were.

 

Here are my favourites of the films I’ve reviewed over the past six years:

 

Inception

X-Men: First Class

Shame

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Skyfall

Mud

 

And that’s a selection from this list…

Iron Man, Indiana Jones 4, Wolverine, (500) Days of Summer, Creation, Pandorum, Love Happens, The Goods, Fantastic Mr Fox, Jennifer’s Body, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Bright Star, Glorious 39, The Box, Youth in Revolt, A Single Man, Whip It!, The Bad Lieutenant, Eclipse, Inception, The Runaways, The Hole 3-D, Buried, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Let Me In, The Way Back, Never Let Me Go, Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D, Win Win, X-Men: First Class, The Beaver, A Better Life, Project Nim, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie, The Art of Getting By, Troll Hunter, Drive, Demons Never Die, The Ides of March, In Time, Justice, Breaking Dawn: Part I, The Big Year, Shame, The Darkest Hour 3-D, The Descendants, Man on a Ledge, Martha Marcy May Marlene, A Dangerous Method, The Woman in Black, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 3-D, Margaret, This Means War, Stella Days, Act of Valour, The Hunger Games, Titanic 3-D, The Cabin in the Woods, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lockout, Albert Nobbs, Damsels in Distress, Prometheus, Red Tails, Red Lights, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3-D, Ice Age 4, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, The Dark Knight Rises, The Expendables 2, My Brothers, The Watch, Lawless, The Sweeney, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Liberal Arts, Sinister, Hit and Run, Ruby Sparks, On the Road, Stitches, Skyfall, The Sapphires, Gambit, Seven Psychopaths, Lincoln, Men at Lunch – Lon sa Speir, Warm Bodies, A Good Day to Die Hard, Safe Haven, Arbitrage, Stoker, Robot and Frank, Parker, Side Effects, Iron Man 3, 21 and Over, Dead Man Down, Mud, The Moth Diaries, Populaire, Behind the Candelabra, Man of Steel 3-D, The East, The Internship, The Frozen Ground, The Wolverine, The Heat, RED 2, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Diana, Blue Jasmine, How I Live Now, Thanks for Sharing, Escape Plan, Like Father, Like Son, Ender’s Game, Philomena, The Counsellor, Catching Fire, Black Nativity, Delivery Man, 12 Years a Slave, Devil’s Due, Inside Llewyn Davis, Mr Peabody & Sherman 3-D, Dallas Buyers Club, The Monuments Men, Bastards, The Stag, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Calvary, Magic Magic, Tracks, Hill Street, X-Men: Days of Future Past 3-D, Benny & Jolene, The Fault in Our Stars, 3 Days to Kill, Boyhood, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 3-D, SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, God’s Pocket, Hector and the Search for Happiness, The Expendables 3, What If, Sin City 2, Let’s Be Cops, The Guest, A Most Wanted Man, Wish I Was Here, Noble, Maps to the Stars, Life After Beth, Gone Girl, Northern Soul, The Babadook, Interstellar, The Drop, Mockingjay – Part I, Electricity, Birdman, Taken 3, Wild, Testament of Youth, A Most Violent Year, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Son of a Gun, Patrick’s Day, Selma, It Follows, Paper Souls, Home 3-D, While We’re Young, John Wick, A Little Chaos, The Good Lie, Let Us Prey, The Legend of Barney Thomson, Hitman: Agent 47.

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Top 6 Film Features

There’s been a lot of film features, from me obsessing over ignored inflation at the box-office and omnipresent CGI on the screen to the twaddle of Oscar ceremonies and thoroughly bogus critical narratives of New Hollywood.

 

Here are my favourite film features from the last six years:

 

A Proof – Keanu Can Act

Snyder’s Sensibility

What the Hell is … Method Acting?

Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree

5 Reasons to love Tom at the Farm

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

 

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Top 6 TV Features

There’s been quite a bit of musing about TV here, usually in short-form howls about The Blacklist or other such popcorn irritants, but sometimes in longer format, like two disquisitions on Laurence Fishburne’s stint in CSI.

 

Here are my favourite TV features from the last six years:

 

TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimensions In Smartness

Double Exposure: Cutter’s Way/House M.D.

Medium’s Realism    

2ThirteenB Baker Street, Princeton

Funny Bones

An Arrow of a different colour

 

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Top 6 Plays

Since I decided to start reviewing plays in summer 2010 there’s been a steady stream of reviews from the Dublin Theatre Festival and regular productions at the Gate, the Abbey, the Olympia, the Gaiety, and Smock Alley.

 

Here are my favourites of the plays I’ve reviewed over the last six years:

 

John Gabriel Borkman

The Silver Tassie

Pygmalion

Juno and the Paycock

The Select: The Sun Also Rises

A Whistle in the Dark

 

And that’s a selection from this list:

Death of a Salesman, Arcadia, Phaedra, John Gabriel Borkman, Enron, The Silver Tassie, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Attempts on Her Life, Pygmalion, Translations, Hay Fever, Juno and the Paycock, Peer Gynt, Slattery’s Sago Saga, Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, Big Maggie, Hamlet, Improbable Frequency, Alice in Funderland, Glengarry Glen Ross, Travesties, The House, The Plough and the Stars, The Lark, Dubliners, The Select: The Sun Also Rises, A Whistle in the Dark, Conversations on a Homecoming, The Talk of the Town, King Lear, Major Barbara, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, The Critic, Desire Under the Elms, Neutral Hero, Macbeth, A Skull in Connemara, The Vortex, An Ideal Husband, Twelfth Night, Aristocrats, Ballyturk, Heartbreak House, The Actor’s Lament, Our Few and Evil Days, Bailegangaire, Spinning, She Stoops to Conquer, The Walworth Farce, The Caretaker, The Man in Two Pieces, Hedda Gabler, The Gigli Concert, A Month in the Country, The Shadow of a Gunman, The Importance of Being Earnest, Bob & Judy, By the Bog of Cats.

 

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Top 6 Colour Pieces

It must be admitted that I’ve written fewer colour pieces for the blog than I would have liked, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the occasional adventures of Hollywood insider Micawber-Mycroft; a homage to PG Wodehouse’s Mr Mulliner.

 

Here are my favourite colour pieces from the last six years:

 

How to Watch 300

Mark Pellegrino gets ambitious

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: Apocalypse Now

Micawber-Mycroft explains nervous action directing

Alfred & Bane: Brothers in Arms

Kristen Bell, Book and Candle

 

Six years, my brain hurts a lot…

February 5, 2015

Patrick’s Day

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The enfant terrible of Irish cinema writer/director Terry McMahon follows up Charlie Casanova with another exercise in epating les bourgeoisie.

Patrick (Moe Dunford) was born on St Patrick’s Day. And so every year his devoted mother Maura (Kerry Fox) has made a ritual of getting him a silly hat or glasses, going for a meal, and taking a photo. But this year she loses her son. He finds himself in the company of suicidal air hostess Karen (Catherine Walker), who takes him back to her hotel room; across the corridor from his; and deflowers him. But the reason Patrick is a taciturn virgin at 26, and seems mildly out of it, is that he has mental health issues. But as Karen is drawn into Maura’s attempts to control her son’s life, along with Garda Freeman (Philip Jackson), the question is posed – who is truly crazy here? Patrick and Freddie (Aaron Monaghan) in the psychiatric hospital or the ‘sane’ world outside?

McMahon’s script is artificial and problematic. Karen’s dialogue, especially her use of ‘kiddo’ and her initial introduction, is the worst offender for ham-fisted dialogue, but there are also wearisome cinematic clichés that telegraph their arrival; like Maura knocking all her photos with Patrick off the wall. All give the impression that McMahon is scripting based on how people act in films rather than from any sort of observation of how people act in reality. Karen’s suicide attempt with pills is remarkably inept, and not deliberately so as is with Colin Firth in A Single Man, and her suicidal impulses are never explored and quickly forgotten. There’s a scene with a dog in which Patrick tosses a scrap of food into traffic for the dog to get, the dog of course gets hit by a car – why do that? Well, the script said to; so Patrick could bring the dog inside to the cafe where the manager recognises Patrick’s condition, saying his son had the same. This scene’s remarkable, contrivance aside, because it’s not clear at all what Patrick’s condition is…

Patrick seems off from the start, but maybe that’s the tranquilisers he’s on zoning him out. He has a regimen to control his schizophrenia. But then later it’s revealed that he has intellectual disability. He has a mental age of 14. But then a later anecdote indicates that at age 9 he couldn’t distinguish between fact and fiction. But then the schizophrenia is emphasised again… John Nash is a paranoid schizophrenic given to auditory and visual hallucinations. He’s also a mathematical genius whose invention of game theory earned him the Nobel for economics. Schizophrenia and intellectual disability are not connected. McMahon is depicting a thirtysomething woman having sex with a man with a teenage boy’s mind. Far from realising how dubious this is Patrick’s Day expects us to unfurl a banner with ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’ on it for the finale. And that’s before we get to the compound of Ken Kesey and RD Laing that is the presentation of the psychiatric hospital run by bad people and the madness of mother Maura constantly kissing her adult son on the lips.

We are meant to feel traumatised by Patrick’s treatment at the hands of authority figures in the third act. But it’s impossible to feel anything when it’s so obviously George Lucas’ proverbial cinematic gimmick of drowning a bag of kittens to make the audience cry – everything has been so contrived that McMahon has unintentionally achieved a Brechtian alienation. Dunford’s performance is one of blank bafflement alternated with childish surliness and childish exuberance. It’s not possible to care about Patrick’s distress because he’s scary – he has the force of a strong man, able to break noses with a single sharp punch, but the self-control of a petulant child – and the film doesn’t seem to realise that. Dunford, like Walker, Jackson, and Fox, is a good actor being incredibly ill-served by the script in which McMahon’s desire to provoke outweighs all else. RD Laing and Ken Kesey were of their time (and Adam Curtis has persuasively argued that Laing has had a baneful effect on modern medicine), and simply replicating their ideas is a startlingly outdated, unoriginal way to criticise Ireland 2015.

Patrick’s Day is technically very competent but its script is so troubling both aesthetically and morally that you wish Terry McMahon would just drop his auteurist ambitions and direct someone else’s screenplay next time.

0.5/5

February 14, 2013

King Lear

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All dark, and comfortless

The Abbey amazingly hasn’t staged King  Lear since the early 1930s. Director Selina Cartmell thus has no  legendary productions of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy to outshine.

The aged Lear (Owen Roe) has decided to split his kingdom between his three  daughters. But, while the scheming diabolical siblings Regan (Caoilfhionn Dunne)  and Goneril (Tina Kellegher) flatter him to get their rightful shares, Lear’s  only good-hearted daughter Cordelia (Beth Cooke) refuses to lie or exaggerate,  enraging the vain Lear; and her share is thus split between her sisters’ husbands Cornwall (Phelim Drew) and Albany (John Kavanagh). Cordelia leaves  without a dowry to become the Queen of France and the noble courtier Kent (Sean  Campion) is banished for taking her part in the quarrel. He disguises himself to  serve Lear, but the scheming bastard Edmund (Ciaran Mcmenamin) uses the fraught  situation to eliminate his legitimate brother Edgar (Aaron Monaghan) from the  line of succession to Gloucester (Lorcan Cranitch); exploiting the political  chaos that Lear’s wise Fool (Hugh O’Connor) foresaw…

I found myself comparing Cartmell’s interpretation of the text to Sarah Finlay’s 2010 production  starring Ger Adlum because Gaby Rooney’s costume design replicated its  colour-coded royal houses, both productions being indebted to Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. But instead of Finlay’s icily  austere minimalism Cartmell offered rich medieval costuming, wolfhounds lurching  around between scenes, and a second storey built onto the Abbey stage to add a  period gallery to the drunken carousing in castles below. Garance Marnuer’s  layered set design sends a triangle into the audience for characters to deliver  their monologues, so that in the front rows the eye is caught by actors on three  levels; and that’s before the triangle spectacularly rises for the heath scene.  Given such impressive staging the climactic fight with long-staffs between  Edmund and Edgar surprises with its sheer inertness and lack of ambition in  clashing choreography…

Cartmell’s commitment to visual  medievalism though clashes with her highlighting of the paganism in  Shakespeare’s most nihilistic play. ‘Nothing comes from nothing’ proclaims Lear  in a famously pre-Christian thought, and the illuminated paganism is truly  chilling in one scene in which Lear, holding an antler skull to channel power,  calls down a curse on the heavily pregnant Goneril to make her miscarry for her  ill treatment of him. But… there are constant references to Greek philosophers  and Roman gods, and why would they be invoked if you believed in animist gods or  pantheism? Especially as Gloucester’s “As flies are to wanton boys so are we to  the gods/They kill us for their sport” screams of the capricious Greek  divinities. And that’s before you wonder what historical neverland Cartmell has  situated her post-Roman but pre-Christian nations of France and England in…

Cartmell coaxes many strong  performances. Roe is appropriately magisterial as Lear, while Monaghan is  fiercely committed as Edgar’s alter-ego Poor Tom (even if John Healy was not the  only one coughing Gollum), and Cooke’s Cordelia shedding a tear when Lear  finally recognises her in his madness is extremely affecting. Dunne makes  Regan’s villainy a progressive revelation, while Drew gives some richness to the  oft one-note psychotic Cornwall, and Ronan Leahy stands out from the ensemble  with empathetic nuance as he counsels Gloucester and Cordelia. Kellegher’s  Goneril though lacks subtlety, and Mcmenamin’s Edmund, emphasising his  discordant Northern accent and swanking around in black, at times appears to be  in an entirely different play. Cranitch’s straightforward Gloucester meanwhile  failed to match Keith Thompson’s 2010 camp lecherous interpretation, making his  eye-gouging less traumatic despite some truly horrific gouged eye-socket makeup.  He certainly wasn’t helped though by both beard and gouged-eye makeup peeling  off on the night I went…

This is a good production that has a  number of great performances, but some disappointing turns and an  inconsistency in tackling the text hold it back from true greatness.

3/5

King Lear continues its run at the Abbey  until the 23rd of March.

December 4, 2012

Conversations on a Homecoming

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Druid’s lightest outing of the Dublin Theatre Festival at the Gaiety saw their sterling ensemble assemble in a 1970s pub for Tom Murphy’s serious comedy about unsuccessful emigration, a tightly-knit group’s failed dreams, and the illusory promise of their mentor.

Michael (Marty Rea) has arrived home after 10 years in New York pursuing an acting career. He finds all his old cronies more or less stuck where they were. Tom (Garret Lombard) is still teaching at the local school, and still engaged to Peggy (Eileen Walsh), and showing about as much likelihood of moving on to the next step as Rory Nolan’s Junior is of finally getting his parents’ farm.

The one person who seems to be going places is Liam (Aaron Monaghan), who seems to have absurdly as many jobs in the town as Kurt in Gilmore Girls. Michael is insistent that they can do all better if they remember the example of JJ, their mentor, who established this pub The White House with their help a decade before as a forum for ideas. Tom violently disagrees, disowning radicalism.

It’s remarkable to see Nolan and Lombard who were terrifying as ignorant thugs in Whistle transform into an amiable old duffer and an intellectual scrapper respectively in this play. Rea is as reliable as ever, his half-romance with Beth Cooke’s barmaid Ann being nicely underplayed, and his sparring with Lombard on the merit of over-reaching ambition carries some nice emotional charge to go with the wonderful barbed insults flung about.

Murphy’s play, performed without an interval, would please Aristotle in observing the classical unities but its night at the pub offers both insight and comedy under Garry Hynes’ direction.

4/5

A Whistle in the Dark

A Whistle In the Dark

Druid stunned the brutalised Gaiety audience into silence at the Dublin Theatre Festival with Tom Murphy’s coruscating 1961 debut. Depicting violent Irish immigrants in Coventry trapped in self-mythologies of violence’s utility and “learning”’s futility it still packs an emotional sucker-punch.

Michael (Marty Rea) is married to a Coventry girl and living there, but in a tense situation. His house is being shared with three of his brothers. The brutishly violent and ignorant Hubert (Garrett Lombard) and Ignatius (Rory Nolan) are intimidating presences but Michael’s wife Betty (Eileen Walsh) is rightly most frightened of Harry (Aaron Monaghan), the street-smart brother who is running a prostitution ring. But there’re more Carneys yet…

A Whistle in the Dark was infamously rejected by the Abbey because Ernest Blythe said no such people existed in Ireland, yet the novels of John McGahern attest to the baneful reality of monsters like Michael Senior (Niall Buggy), who arrives to visit with the youngest son Des (Gavin Drea). The battle of wills to mould Des’ future is an incredibly tense and bleak affair essentially pitting barbarity against civilisation.

Nolan and Lombard are terrifying as primitive thugs, in their second outing as brothers after 2010’s Death of A Salesman, but while the ensemble was uniformly flawless Buggy’s self-pitying and savage turn as the patriarch must be singled out as being truly remarkable, while Rea was agonisingly sympathetic as the good man inexorably being dragged down to his father’s level. Garry Hynes’ direction rendered a realistic set a febrile battleground.

Graham Price and I couldn’t help but note how indebted Pinter’s The Homecoming is to Murphy’s primal scream of familial power plays, but while both have the resonance of Greek myth this is not black comedy but darkest tragedy.

5/5

August 7, 2012

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

Beyond the Brooklyn Sky 25 Sep – 6 Oct Touring

Peter Sheridan directs a production that is touring between the Civic, Pavilion, Draoicht, and Axis theatres. Listowel Writers’ Award-winner Michael Hilliard Mulcahy has been supported by Fishamble in developing his debut play about returned emigrants who left Brandon, Kerry for Brooklyn, NY in the late 1980s. There are thematic similarities with Murphy’s The House as a visit by an emigrant who remained in Brooklyn ignites tensions.

Dubliners 26 Sep – 30 SepGaiety

Corn Exchange tackles Joyce’s short story collection in an adaptation by playwright Michael West and director Annie Ryan. Judging by Mark O’Halloran’s make-up this is an almost commedia dell’arte take on Joyce’s tales of paralysis in a dismally provincial capital. This features Talking Movies favourite Derbhle Crotty, who should mine the comedy of Joyce’s seam of dark, epiphany ladennaturalism. This is an experiment worth catching during its short run.

The Select (The Sun Also Rises) 27 Sep – 30 Sep Belvedere College

Hemingway’s 1926 debut novel gets adapted by Elevator Repair Service, the ensemble that performed F Scott epic Gatz in 2008. On a bottle-strewn stage America’s ‘Lost Generation’ carouses aimlessly around Paris and beyond. The maimed war-hero’s girlfriend Brett is as exasperating and alluring a character as Sally Bowles so it’ll be interesting to see how she’s handled. Her, and the Bull Run in Pamplona…

The Talk of the Town 27 Sep – 14 Oct Project Arts Centre

Annabelle Comyn, fresh from directing them in The House, reunites with Catherine Walker, Darragh Kelly and Lorcan Cranitch for Room novelist Emma Donoghue’s original script. Walker plays real life 1950s writer Maeve Brennan who swapped Ranelagh for Manhattan, becoming a New Yorker legend before fading into obscurity. The rediscovery of her chillingly incisive stories has revived her reputation, so Donoghue’s take on her intrigues.

The Picture of Dorian Gray 27 Sep – 14 Oct Abbey

Oscar Wilde’s only novel is adapted for the stage and directed by Neil Bartlett. Bartlett as a collaborator of Robert Lepage brings a flamboyant visual style to everything he does, and he has a cast of 16 to help him realise Wilde’s marriage of Gothic horror and caustic comedy. I’m dubious of the Abbey adapting Great Irish Writers rather than staging Great Irish Playwrights, but this sounds promising.

Tristan Und Isolde 30 Sep – 6 Oct Grand Canal Theatre

Wagner’s epic story of doomed romance between English knight Tristan (Lars Cleveman) and Irish princess Isolde (Miriam Murphy) comes to the Grand Canal Theatre boasting some remarkably reasonable prices for a 5 hour extravaganza. This production originates from Welsh National Opera, and if you’re unfamiliar with Wagner let me tell you that this houses the haunting aria Baz Luhrmann used to indelible effect to end Romeo+Juliet.

Politik 1 Oct– 6 Oct Samuel Beckett Theatre

I’m sceptical of devised theatre because I think it removes the playwright merely to privilege the director, but The Company are a five strong ensemble who won much acclaim for their energetic As you are now so once were we. This devised piece is a show not about living in the ruins after the economic tornado that hit us, or chasing that tornado for wherefores, but building anew.

DruidMurphy 2 Oct – 14 Oct Gaiety

Garry Hynes again directs the flagship festival show, 3 plays by Tom Murphy, which you can see back to back on Saturdays Oct 6th and 13th. Famine, A Whistle in the Dark, and Conversations on a Homecoming tell the story of Irish emigration.Famine is set in 1846 Mayo. The second crop of potato fails and the unfortunately named John Connor is looked to, as the leader of the village, to save his people. Whistle, infamously rejected by the Abbey because Ernest Blythe said no such people existed in Ireland, is set in 1960 Coventry where emigrant Michael Carney and his wife Betty are living with his three brothers when the arrival of more Carney men precipitates violence. Conversations is set in a small 1970s Galway pub where an epic session to mark Michael’s return from a decade in New York leads to much soul searching. The terrific Druid ensemble includes Rory Nolan, Marty Rea, John Olohan, Aaron Monaghan, Beth Cooke, Niall Buggy, Eileen Walsh, Garret Lombard, and Marie Mullen.

Hamlet 4 Oct – 7 Oct Belvedere College

The play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the Wooster Group making their Dublin debut. Founded in the mid 1970s by director Elizabeth LeCompte, who has led them ever since, this show experiments with Richard Burton’s filmed 1964 Broadway Hamlet. The film footage of perhaps the oldest undergraduate in history is rendered back into theatrical immediacy in a postmodern assault on Shakespeare’s text which includes songs by Casey Spooner (Fischerspooner).

Shibari 4 Oct – 13 Oct Peacock

This Abbey commission by Gary Duggan (Monged) slots perhaps just a bit too neatly into what seems to be one of the defining sub-genres of our time. A bookshop employee, a restaurateur, an English film star, a journalist, a Japanese florist, and a sales team leader fall in and out of love as they accidentally collide in an impeccably multi-cultural present day Dublin. Six Degrees of Separation meets 360?

July 6, 2011

Translations

It’s impossible for me to review Translations without first confessing that I know the script inside out, having both studied it at college and then taught it…

1833 in Friel’s eternal Donegal setting of Baile Beag finds a hedge school run by drunken master Hugh (Denis Conway) and his lame son Manus (Aaron Monaghan), specialising in Latin and Greek, being menaced by the arrival of a new English speaking National School, specialising in English. This off-stage menace is accompanied by the on-stage arrival of English sappers conducting an ordnance survey of the area for military purposes. But, as their work proceeds with the aid of Hugh’s other son Owen (Barry Ward) returned from Dublin, one of the British soldiers Yolland (Tim Delap) begins to question the morality of his task, even as he falls in love with local girl Maire (Aoife McMahon). The conflict between high civilisation and base commerce, Irish and English, and the noble rhetoric of progress and its low activities of expropriation, are all layered around these emotional conflicts. Maire’s love triangle with Manus and Yolland is very obviously a choice between a maimed native culture and a confident foreign culture…

Naomi Wilkinson’s set design heavily emphasises the squalor of this hedge-school, while Joan O’Clery’s costumes fit in with this approach by clothing the students in tattered earth tones, with the rebellious Maire in bright yellow and Hugh sporting a burnt orange jacket, while Hugh’s successful son Owen returns dressed in a spiffy blue overcoat, closer to the English military’s colour-scheme. Director Conall Morrison, who I’m still wary of on account of his late 1990s adaptation of Tarry Flynn, predictably brings sauciness to Friel’s comedy in the opening act. In the second act, however, he changes gears as the blue sky above the barn-set darkens, so that the rain sound effect heightens a chillingly conveyed sense of doom that anticipates the impending Famine. Rory Nolan as Doalty and Janet Moran as Bridget carry the bulk of Morrison’s slapstick; Nolan does a glorious mime of the English sappers’ baffled reaction to their ‘malfunctioning’ equipment, a result of his mischief; but they also imbue the off-stage Donnelly twins, often interpreted as proto-IRA figures in their campaign against the British presence, with the appropriate menace by their subdued reaction to their names being mentioned.

The inevitable Aaron Monaghan is very sympathetic as the brother whose half-hearted resistance to the British breaks down under personal contact, even as Ward convincingly travels the opposite arc as Owen grasps the political implications of his linguistic ‘collaboration’ with Yolland. McMahon is surprisingly flirtatious as Maire rather than simply determined, and there is a level of anger by Hugh towards her dismissal of his classics that seems alien to the script, as is his appearance as utterly decrepit. It seems absurd to accuse someone with an Irish Times Best Actor Theatre Award of lacking the necessary stature for a role, but Denis Conway is no Ray MacAnally, and he fails to dominate the stage as Hugh should. As a result Hugh’s final speeches to a drenched Maire, which should be tragic, raised some laughs. Conway effectively mixes bombast with moments of self-awareness, but if Hugh’s paraphrasing of George Steiner’s linguistic theories do not grip as the central statement of the self-defeating cultural delusions that colonisation can foist on a materially defeated civilisation then the focus of the play becomes diffuse.

This is well worth seeing, but there are quibbles…

3.5/5

Translations continues its run at the Abbey until the 13th of August.

November 12, 2010

The Silver Tassie

Druid’s towering production of Sean O’Casey’s 1928 play was a triumph that should re-instate it in the Irish canon and was surely the apex of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

This was the play that infamously saw O’Casey sever his ties with the Abbey after Yeats rejected it – because O’Casey had not fought in WWI. O’Casey’s justly caustic retort, “Was GB Shaw present when St Joan made the attack that relieved Orleans? And someone, I think, wrote a poem about Tir na nOg, who never took a header into the Land of Youth”, obscured that, behind his bizarre hang-up regarding Art and WWI, Yeats’ bluster was probably hiding sheer panic at how badly such a mammoth production would expose his Abbey’s limited resources. And it is a mammoth production as O’Casey uses 19 actors and the 4 Acts beloved of Chekhov but now out of vogue to stage a dazzling array of situations.

The play opens in the archetypal O’Casey setting of a Dublin tenement, with neighbours intruding all the time on a customary self-deluding male double-act -Simon Norton (John Olohan) and Sylvester Heegan (Eamon Morrissey). Syl is quite possibly the most useless father in all O’Casey, and that’s saying something. He is awaiting the return of his son Harry’s football team from their championship game before the entire squad returns to the Western front. The comedy, however, is more abrasive than the endlessly performed Dublin trilogy. Simon and Syl are upbraided by Harry’s jilted girlfriend Susie Monican (Clare Dunne), who has become an evangelical, while their neighbour upstairs Mrs Foran (Derbhle Crotty) cooks in their flat to avoid her husband Teddy (Liam Carney), who she’s desperate to get rid of back to the front. He’s none too happy about this and, being a wife-beater, knocks a bit of the roof down onto the stage in his rage. No one really cares about him smashing her crockery, or giving her a bleeding cut under her eye, just as they didn’t care about her steak burning while they recounted Harry’s heroic drunken boxing exploits. They do care about Teddy appearing downstairs to menace them with a hatchet… Luckily for them the team arrives with the titular trophy won by Harry’s goal. Harry’s new girlfriend Jessie Taite (Aoife Duffin) taunts Susie with PDA of a suspiciously blatant nature for 1914, before Harry’s boasting in almost Syngean language of the game explodes into a musical number which ends with the team in uniform marching out. The 10 minute intermission is filled with groaning and then sulphurous dry ice floats across the audience in the Gaiety. What are they building back there? France…?

The curtain opens to reveal not France but billowing dry ice. Somewhere inside this fog is a green light, and suddenly we can see that a gun turret is trundling out from the side of the stage and over the front resting above the audience and pointed at them. The entire stage is taken up with an enormous tank. A man is tied to it by both arms on the right, and at the top of a ladder on the left Aaron Monaghan’s Harry sits looking like a character from Apocalypse Now with green camouflage face-paint and a red cross daubed on his chest. He begins to quote the ‘dry bones’ passage from Ezekiel and the soldiers beneath him rise up and dance. Having recently fallen in love with Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class I was delighted by these anti-musical numbers coming thick and fast, alternated with not-so-straightforward dialogue scenes with Simon and Syl, out of their bowler hats, as officers and a wonderful Bush Moukarzel as their cowardly superior, who complains in plummy tones about not being allowed to plunge into the action while giving every appearance of being terrified of even moderately loud noises. Pretty nurses arrive in carrying stretchers and lay down their burdens for a chanted lament, as the truth of Declan Kiberd’s observation that “the men’s chants attain an intensity reminiscent of Eliot’s religious poetry” becomes obvious. Everything ends in a panic as the Germans break through the line. The soldiers chant ‘to the guns, to the guns’, and they shin up the ladder on the stage-filling tank which then starts to move, towards the audience, before an almighty bang stops it and the curtain drops for the interval. Francis O’Connor’s set design is thus quite literally show-stopping and by far one of the most impressive sets I’ve ever seen. This act was the lightning rod for hostile commentary in the 1920s but I saw Journey’s End last year and was struck by how it had been utterly destroyed by Blackadder Goes Forth. The working-class characters as mere comic relief and the overall feel of self-pitying public-school tragedy felt antiquated, a time-capsule of a very different way of looking at the war. The Silver Tassie, by contrast, feels so modern in sensibility, so cynical and blackly comic, that if Stephen Fry’s Colonel were to pop up in this second act he wouldn’t be out of place at all. Its violent non-naturalism, especially after the revolution in British theatre in the 1960s, seems not only perfectly reasonable but also a more appropriate response to the horrors of the trenches than RC Sheriff’s stiff-upper lip officers’ quarters complete with servants.

Act three opens in an absurdist hospital. Absurdist, because all the characters from the opening act are here, for no discernible reason… Harry is in a wheelchair with crippled legs that will obviously never kick a football again. Susie has swapped evangelicalism for nursing and is now doing some serious social-climbing as she tries to impress the English doctor, leading to a hilariously scrambled accent which ranges from Gardiner Street to Grosvenor Square within a single sentence. This is plausible enough, but why on earth are Simon and Syl in hospital, still wearing bowler hats over their hospital gowns? Syl is in for an unspecified operation (minor to the point of trivial), while Simon appears to be merely keeping him company, but why are they in a military hospital and are we in Ireland or England? O’Casey gleefully doesn’t care, and neither should you. What you should care about is how quickly Harry the hero is abandoned once he’s wounded. Jessie isn’t visiting him and Susie’s pity is unbearable especially as she will never take him back now an English doctor is in her sights. Teddy makes an appearance, blind, and thus totally dependent on his now all-powerful wife. His honest comments about the minimal chances of Harry walking again after a spinal injury provide the blackest of comedy in this cruel scenario. Finally Brian Gleeson’s Barney arrives, he has an arm in a sling and it becomes obvious that Jessie has abandoned the maimed Harry for the unscathed Barney.

And so O’Casey roars into the final action at the Avondale football club. Another room visible behind the room on-stage presents us with merry dancing on the far side of the divide, while the audience is cut off from it, like the casualties of the war, who engage in desperate boozing on this side of the divide. Harry has no place anymore in this club for which he won the Silver Tassie, just as the wounded soldiers have no place in the world they fought for. Their attempts to remain in that world only discomfort it, exemplified by Teddy’s bandages being replaced by a face-mask with painted-on eyes which are incredibly disturbing. There is some incredibly funny slapstick comedy amidst this bitter tragedy with Simon, Syl and Mrs Foran attempting to answer a new-fangled telephone device, but O’Casey does not pull his emotional punches. Harry’s bitter attacks on Barney reveal Jessie to be as promiscuous as we suspected, Susie has become firmly attached to the English doctor and wishes Harry would leave, while when Harry finally storms off in his wheel-chair with his mother (Ruth Hegarty) following him at the end his once proud father Syl remains behind to enjoy the party. The ending speech of Harry to Teddy seems to offer some sort of Chekhovian wisdom like the closing speech of Three Sisters, but O’Casey has no intention of ending with anything approaching a noble sentiment. Instead Mrs Foran comes on-stage again, to get another bottle of booze, and falls down repeatedly while trying to open it before passing out drunk for the ultimate of low comedy endings.

This is a play which seems to occupy a central but largely unheralded place in the Irish dramatic tradition. The comedy double-act in their bowler hats anticipate the hyper-articulate sardonic tramps of Beckett and are granted routines as funny as their contemporaries Laurel & Hardy, while, as fellow academic Graham Price pointed out to me, the closing exit by the two crippled soldiers recalls the abrasive end of Synge’s Playboy with the two injured Mahons leaving mediocrity behind to strike out for a more heroic world. But O’Casey’s decision to leave us not even with a Pegeen Mike weeping but instead with a falling-down-drunk woman is a kick in the teeth for all but the most Schopenhauerian of audiences. It is little wonder Yeats preferred the Dublin trilogy but this incredibly funny but bleak play is more accomplished dramatically.

Garry Hynes’ direction creates theatrical magic yet again and demonstrates that Sean O’Casey’s forgotten play is arguably his masterpiece.

5/5

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