Talking Movies

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.

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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.

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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.

July 28, 2015

The Shadow of a Gunman

Director Wayne Jordan returns to the Abbey after 2012’s The Plough and the Stars for another summer production of a venerable Sean O’Casey Dublin play.

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Donal Davoren (Mark O’Halloran) is trying to write poetry in a Dublin tenement in May 1920. A task rendered nigh impossible by his talkative roommate Seamus Shields (David Ganly), and constant interruptions from a never-ending stream of visitors. There are Shield’s Republican associate Maguire (Muiris Crowley), hated landlord Mulligan (Gerard Byrne), and fellow tenants, the excitable Tommy Owens (Lloyd Cooney) and the flirtatious Minnie Powell (Amy McAllister). And that’s just for starters. Over the course of a long day Davoren gets no verse composed as he finds himself implored by Mrs Henderson (Catherine Walsh) to stand up for put-upon Mr Gallogher (Malcolm Adams) at the Republican courts in his capacity as an IRA gunman on the run. Davoren is happy to play along with this glamorous misunderstanding, until his masquerade suddenly turns all too real with searches, bullets, and bombs…

The Shadow of a Gunman’s two acts are played through without an interval. As so often with Jordan’s work it’s hard to discern the artistic imperative of that decision. It seems impossible for Jordan to inspire negative reviews, but this showcases his consistent flaws as much as it does his trademarks; down to O’Halloran reprising Jordan’s Twelfth Night tic of eschewing socks with shoes. Sarah Bacon’s tenement set has impressive depth, but it has none of the grimy realism of Bob Crowley’s 2011 Juno and the Paycock creation, and it seems to belong to a much later time-period, as does her brightly coloured short dress for Minnie Powell. Perhaps then this production is meant to be a critique of fellow-travellers in the years before the Troubles kicked off, with Davoren a nationalist who talks the talk but shrinks from walking the walk. No. But then sets and costumes have made illusory promises or served one joke in Jordan’s oeuvre before.

The costume is the first step to transforming the confident survivor O’Casey wrote into McAllister’s interpretation of Minnie as wide-eyed innocent. Surrounding her Crowley camps it up as Maguire, and Cooney is nearly a teenager in a Martin McDonagh Leenane play; giving the idea that fighting for anything is a bad joke. Ganly eventually hits his stride as Shields, but it’s hard, after Alice in Funderland, not to feel Jordan is laughing at religion in its own right when it comes to Shields’ religiosity, rather than laughing with anger at the hypocritical use of religion as O’Casey intended. O’Halloran plays Davoren’s frustration well, but his exaggerated movements seem a bit too much commedia dell’arte elsewhere; this is not a role akin to his scene-stealing turn in Hay Fever after all.

Gunman, courtesy of Mel Mercier’s impressive sound design, ends with a bang; but this is a consistently misfiring production.

2/5

The Shadow of a Gunman continues its run at the Abbey until August 1st.

September 18, 2014

Noble

Stand-up Deirdre O’Kane tackles a weighty dramatic role as humanitarian Christina Noble in this biopic set in Ireland and Vietnam.

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Noble (O’Kane) arrives in Vietnam in 1989, on a mission from God – more or less. She had a dream about Vietnam and travelled there, quickly discovering that her calling is to make a difference in the lives of the buidoi, the despised street children. Flashbacks (with Gloria Cramer Curtis and Sarah Greene as the younger Noble) draw the parallel between her tenement childhood and institutionalised teenage years, and the plight of the Vietnamese children she takes under her wing. In Vietnam she attempts to cajole Irish and English businessmen Gerry Shaw (Brendan Coyle) and David Somers (Mark Huberman) into financing building works at the neglected orphanage run by Madame Linh (Nhu Quynh Nguyen). But as her experience with abusive husband Mario Pistola (David Mumeni) has taught her, charm can hide callous cruelty – and figures of authority everywhere disdain their buidoi.

Cinematographer Trevor Forrest’s location work in Saigon is fantastic, with familiar imagery of vegetation floating downriver right next to the modernising city of the Western businessman. Noble is also lit up by many great performances. Ruth Negga is winning as Joan, the best friend of Greene’s teenage Christine. Greene, a Talking Movies favourite for her great theatre work, has a meaty cinematic part here and renders Christina a punchy survivor. Sadly the great Karl Shiels is wasted in as cipherish a cameo as his Peaky Blinders role. This is doubly disappointing because Coyle and Huberman offer wonderfully nuanced turns, and Liam Cunningham as Christina’s drunken father is gloriously ambiguous. However, Cunningham’s self-mythologising father who veers between love and rage is a figure out of O’Casey; which draws attention to Christina Casali’s 1950s Dublin design seeming more suited to 1920s Dublin.

That design even drags us into Angela’s Ashes territory, because everything that can go wrong for Christina does go wrong. Even though it’s based on a true story you feel like writer/director Stephen Bradley’s script is hewing to established clichés of the misery memoir. And there are other problems: Christina’s constant recourse to charming singing feels forced, the practicalities of her living rough in the Phoenix Park and later gaining access to Vietnam are left unaddressed, and even her impassioned rant to God in a church recalls The West Wing. Quite worryingly, following Philomena’s unlovely lead, Bradley seems to deploy pre-Vatican II religious garb as a simplistic visual signifier of presumptive evil. Eva Birthistle’s nun is to be treated as a boo-hiss pantomime villain from her first appearance in a wimple; a veritable judas-goat for judicial, political and familial villains.

Noble has a number of committed performances, but the script doesn’t do them justice; it is too on the nose when it could have used more subtlety and humour in depicting Noble’s extraordinary efforts.

2.75/5

May 1, 2014

Twelfth Night

Wayne Jordan tackles Shakespeare’s serious comedy and the result is nearly three and a half hours of mystifying directorial decisions.

Viola (Sophie Robinson) and her ship’s Captain (Muiris Crowley) are washed up on the shores of Illyria. Her twin brother Sebastian having drowned, Viola adopts his wardrobe to become a male courtier to Duke Orsino (Barry John O’Connor); quickly being favoured above long-suffering Valentine (Elaine Fox). The Duke is in love with the widowed Olivia (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), who’ll have nothing to do with him. Olivia is also fending off the suit of Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Mark Lambert), friend of her dissolute cousin Sir Toby Belch (Nick Dunning). Her court is split between the punctiliousness of Malvolio (Mark O’Halloran) and the buffoonery of Sir Toby, with the Fool Feste (Ger Kelly) and Fabian (Lloyd Cooney) siding with Toby, especially when Olivia’s servant Maria (Ruth McGill) devises a prank to humble Malvolio. But Sebastian (Gavin Fullam) did not drown, he was saved by Antonio (Conor Madden), and their arrival causes comedic chaos…

That at least was what Shakespeare wrote, but it’s not what Jordan renders onstage. The opening line ‘If music be the food of love, play on’ is taken a bit … literally: 5 massive speakers are wheeled out onto the stage and Orsino plays raucous music on a mandolin plugged into them. It’s unfortunately reminiscent of the start of Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’ video… The speakers are (saving a fridge, table and chairs) all the set Ciaran O’Melia provides, and they’re redundant for most of the action. When active they provide comedy extraneous to the text: playing ‘Sexy Boy’ for the Duke parading his Freddie Mercury cloak, and Rage Against the Machine for Sir Toby standing on a table shouting profanities until the music is turned off. Sir Toby also gets a gong sounded when he does the crane pose during a fight, and he leads Feste and Sir Andrew in a barbershop version of ‘Firestarter’. These are all funny only by virtue of being inappropriate, but if you can’t find comedy within Shakespeare why stage him? Why not set Twelfth Night in Manhattan and sprinkle it with Woody Allen one-liners to get laughs?

This is the third Jordan Abbey production I’ve suffered thru after Alice in Funderland and The Plough and the Stars, and he apparently has no idea of pacing. Twelfth Night starts at 730 and runs until 1055 with one interval. It’s a romantic comedy, and it’s nearly 3 ½ hours long… The mark of a confident director of Shakespeare is their willingness to cut the Bard’s text. Instead Jordan inserts material: the insistence on having everyone listen while one character sings a song makes you feel you’ve wandered into some Cameron Crowe nightmare. The ‘brave’ anti-Catholicism of Alice is also in evidence, as, unheeding of Calvary’s critique of the blanket vilification of priests, Jordan decides that the priest interrogating Malvolio should be played by Feste adopting a thick Kerry accent. His appearance being preceded by a jibe from Shakespeare produces the bizarre spectacle of English Anti-Catholicism enacted via Irish Anti-Catholicism.

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And then there’s Jordan’s queering of Shakespeare and weak casting… Robinson fails to project the necessary comic vivacity as Viola, indeed by the finale Viola has become a petulant teenager, and her Northern accent does not synch with Fullam playing her ‘identical’ twin Sebastian at all. But internal logic isn’t much of a concern in this production. Sebastian is introduced in bed with Antonio (in their tiny whiteys, as everyone must appear in their underwear), as a very literal reading of a few lines of dialogue is used to make them a gay couple. But Jordan wants us to applaud this enlightened reading while at the same time having Valentine play pantomime shocked when she sees it, which is just ridiculously smug back-slapping: much like Alice’s ‘satire’, Jordan appears to think he’s scandalising an audience of Eisenhower and DeValera stalwarts. And then with massive illogicality Fullam’s fey mannerisms as Sebastian are instantly dropped for an enthusiastic sexual relationship with Olivia. Sebastian is either inconsistent or opportunistic, and faithful Antonio is totally shafted by Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia, who herself is played as obviously still in love with Viola in her female guise. Internal logic schlogic…

The obvious saving grace of this production is the great Mark O’Halloran as Malvolio. He is very funny, especially in convincing himself by crazy leaps of logic that Olivia has written him a love letter. His hysterical appearance in a full yellow-bodysuit underneath his suit is perhaps over-egging the comic pudding, but it’s saved by the perverse dignity with which he replaces his glasses over his hooded head. Radmall-Quirke also exudes that quality of perverse dignity in fending off Malvolio, and the gradual softening of her icy facade is well played. Ger Kelly is also a splendid physical presence as Feste, and his delivery of Fool’s wit sparkling. The impulse to go too far is intermittently present in Lambert’s drunken Sir Andrew, but his outraged vanity gets the biggest laugh out of the script Shakespeare actually wrote. Dunning, however, feels like he’s playing Aidan Gillen’s Sir Toby, not his own.

Dunning’s unexpectedly mean-spirited Sir Toby seems to feed into a bizarre interpretation of the text by Jordan, in which he wants to queer Shakespeare by having the traditional climatic heterosexual marriages be a parade of misery. Olivia and Antonio are unhappy at losing Viola and Sebastian. The Duke marries Viola for no apparent reason, making Valentine unhappy. Sir Toby is horrid to Sir Andrew, and loses his only friend, while Sir Andrew runs away from Illyria. And Malvolio runs thru the audience, with his face stained with tears. O’Halloran is so good you feel like crying at Malvolio’s humiliation, but his exit line could be high comedy as could Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s parting. Instead after 3 ½ hours nearly everyone ends up miserable. The finale is thus so muted that when Feste sings you half-expect the characters to come back. And then they all do, in their underwear … and gather under a giant shower-head, before running off to don bath-robes before bowing. As with so much else, such as the pointless drumming minor characters start before the audience has returned from the interval, I had no idea why that decision was taken.

This production will no doubt receive the acclaim that all Jordan’s projects get, but after three duds I can only protest such acclaim’s undeserved.

2/5

Twelfth Night continues its run at the Abbey until May 24th.

December 1, 2012

Dubliners

Corn Exchange’s flagship production of Dubliners at the Gaiety for the Dublin Theatre Festival was desperately uneven as overplayed slapstick often trounced Joyce’s muted epiphanies.

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Performed under heavy face-paint on a minimalist set by Joe Vanek (that relied on expressive lighting and shadows) the show distractingly had characters narrate their own dialogue, drowning conversations with endless, unnecessary, and literal instances of he said/she said. In its defence this strategy allowed the narrator of ‘Two Sisters’ to deliver Joyce’s delicate prose, and he was cleverly also made the narrator of the next vignette, ‘An Encounter’. But the encounter is with a paedophile, played with malicious suavity by Mark O’Halloran, and the commedia dell’arte exaggerations deployed to create a crippled predator resulted in the unnerving spectacle of the audience of Joyce newcomers laughing heartily at this creation before being audibly horrified as they realised he’s not a mere eccentric. This misjudgement presaged later missteps but the painful yearning of ‘Eveline’ expertly played by Janice Byrne quickly dispelled any misgivings, and ‘Two Gallants’ saw Stephen Jones on fine swaggering form, which he continued in the ‘The Boarding House’ as the landlady’s menacing son. O’Halloran was on top comedic form opposite him as the rent-skiving actor, while the heightened slapstick style elevated the black comedy of Joyce’s hapless lodger Doran being trapped into proposing onto a much funnier plane.

After the interval that slapstick approach was imposed on stories that it defiantly did not suit. ‘Counterparts’ was rendered as stark nonsense. It was amusing to see O’Halloran never finish a sentence and dash about panic-stricken as the chief clerk, but there are things that one must not do to get a laugh, and among these is going so far over the top as to end in low-earth orbit. At first I was prepared to grant Mark Lambert as domineering lawyer Mr Alleyne the same privileges of blustering abusiveness as Will Forte as Ted Turner on Conan, but when he actually chicken-stepped around the stage in a comic fury at a slight from his subordinate I had exhausted any possible exculpatory comparisons. This was too OTT to amuse, but not his fault. Ruth McGill as his secretary used the same leer as she did as The Duchess in Alice in Funderland, and if the same expression can find equal purchase in Alice in Funderland and an adaptation of Joyce then it’s a sure sign that the adaptation of Joyce by Michael West and director Annie Ryan has strayed farcically far from the ‘scrupulous meanness’ and understated compassion of Dubliners.

Which leads one to conclude that Mark O’Halloran as an actor is truly immense. By sheer force of personality he dismissed ‘Counterparts’ to make the audience feel the tragedy of ‘A Painful Case’ as his fastidious Duffy sabotaged a relationship with Derbhle Crotty’s neglected housewife. O’Halloran made you so empathise with this cold character that when he spoke the final words of Joyce’s narration you could hear a pin drop, and hearts break. But then ‘A Mother’ painfully wasted the great Crotty’s talents by piling on the excessive slapstick to produce a painfully protracted skit devoid of any dramatic momentum, though at least it lacked the cognitive dissonance of the bungled traumatic ending of child abuse after clowning of ‘Counterparts’. ‘The Dead’ began with McGill’s performance of ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ as the story was pared down to Greta’s revelations after a party that leave her husband Gabriel stunned at how his wife was loved before she met him. O’Halloran’s delivery of the famous closing monologue ended the play on a triumphant note, and highlighted O’Halloran’s towering pre-eminence in the ensemble, the emotional power of Joyce’s material, and the frustratingly inconsistent fidelity to Joyce which held back the show.

Throughout, actors delivered their dialogue to the audience and then looked at the actor they’d been addressing, a technique Corn Exchange use in rehearsal; which made this feel like a quasi-workshop. Replacing ‘Counterparts’ and ‘A Mother’ with ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ and ‘Clay’ would immeasurably strengthen reprises…

2.5/5

April 5, 2012

Alice in Funderland

The Abbey stages its first musical in 20 years, but if decades long moratoriums are the cost of keeping atrocities like this off the stage then it’s a price well worth paying…

Thisispopbaby bring their Project work-shopped contemporary musical take on Alice in Wonderland to the stage with Talking Movies favourite Sarah Greene in the title role. Her Alice is a hopelessly depressed Corkonian whose unfaithful boyfriend recently died from eating a peanut. Upset by the demand of her materialistic sister (a catty Susannah de Wrixon) that she be her bridesmaid, Alice has a bad reaction to a wedding rehearsal curried prawn and dreams herself stranded in a queered Dublin. As she stumbles across the city in search of Warren (Ian Lloyd Anderson) she encounters Carroll characters. The Caterpillar is a Dublin taxi-driver obsessed with British oppression, the Cheshire Cat is a corrupt politician, Tweedledee and Tweedledum are drug dealers, and… I don’t know what the Duchess is supposed to be. “I’d rather take advice from a f****** caterpillar sitting on a mushroom” is the level these references operate at; crude, unfunny.

Composer Raymond Scannell pens some memorable melodies. ‘We’re all going to Hartstown’ is nicely jaunty, the Duchess’ entry has nice shuddery techno under Carroll’s actual verse, and there’s a wonderfully poignant duet between Alice and The Gay (Paul Reid). But the fact that a character is actually called ‘The Gay’(!!) clues you that it’s not the music that’s the problem here. The first act’s wearying campiness is actually self-defeating. The Cheshire Cat as crooked politician sets up a rousing James Brown style number for the grinning Mark O’Regan about playing monopoly with the country’s future, but what could have been great satire can’t soar in this context and the attempt is quickly abandoned. Instead satire is directed at brave, original targets: The Pope, Blaithnaid Ni Chofaigh, Mary Harney. Satire punctures the pomposity of the powerful. Does a religious figure unlikely to be defended by the audience, a presenter who hasn’t been on air for over a year, and a retired politician strike you as powerful? Swift would guffaw derisively at attacking Harney not Phil Hogan, or singling out Blathnaid as the most scandalous element of RTE’s recent troubles. Attacking those targets is just pathetically easy, and that’s easily just pathetic.*

Philip McMahon’s book also irritatingly nods to the presence of the audience frequently for, again, no particular reason. Fourth wall breaches should be used sparingly (Tom Jones) or to the point of meta-textual madness (Slattery’s Sago Saga), but such pointlessness is hardly surprising as Alice runs for nearly 3 hours (including the interval) yet Sarah Greene is hopelessly upstaged by Kathy Rose O’Brien and Aoibhinn McGinnity because the script gives her nothing to do. McGinnity’s madly enthusiastic Chloe is one of the second act’s few saving graces, while O’Brien is hilarious impersonating Blathnaid and Fassbenders the Bob Fosse homage second act curtain-raiser number which is the closest this production ever feels to an actual musical…

The second act is unbearable. All the previously baffling campiness builds towards Tony Flynn’s domineering presence as Dolores, the Red Queen of Hartstown. I’ve seen the Rocky Horror Show. It’s joyous, and 90 minutes. I’ve seen Cabaret, working off Sam Mendes’ queered revival. It’s devastating, and 2 hours. Alice in Funderland fails by its own yardsticks… It’s 3 hours that degenerates into endless unfunny drag queen humour; line after line of witless comedy, whose staggering coarseness becomes incredibly tedious. The late appearance of the ‘Scissors Sisters’ is an amazing low point. I actually considered walking out, but figured such diva behaviour would only encourage the performers. The repeated chorus “We’re all torsos in the banal” is the most tasteless thing I’ve ever sat thru. It’s embarrassing to watch this on the stage of the national theatre in the same way that it’s embarrassing to see Mrs Brown’s Boys on primetime BBC. You urgently want to buttonhole the rest of the world and assure them, “All this…it’s not us. Underneath, we are more…”

If you see Alice, and don’t, feel free to leave at the interval if you’ve disliked the first act; the second act is ‘wretched beyond belief’… As I’ve tweeted, #Thisiscrapbaby.

1/5

Alice in Funderland continues its run at the Abbey until May 12th.

*If you think I’m bluffing about attacking the powerful then tune in next week when I stick it to hackers extraordinaire Anonymous who can break my poor blog like a twig.

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