Talking Movies

October 10, 2015

Dancing at Lughnasa

Dancing at Lughnasa premiered at Dublin Theatre Festival 25 years ago, but this anniversary production doubles as a posthumous tribute to its author Brian Friel.

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The adult Michael (Charlie Bonner) narrates the summer of 1936 when he was 7 years old. The illegitimate son of the youngest daughter Chrissie (Vanessa Emme), he was doted on by her four sisters: messer Maggie (Cara Kelly), simple Rose (Mary Murray), quiet Agnes (Catherine Cusack), and schoolteacher Kate (Catherine McCormack). But this golden summer is the beginning of the end for the Mundy sisters, even though the return of their beloved brother Jack (Declan Conlon) after 25 years in the Ugandan Missions seems an unlikely catalyst for catastrophe. While the visit of Michael’s ne’er-do-well Welsh father Gerry Evans (Matt Tait) seems pivotal to the emotional turmoil that besets the house, it almost takes a ha’penny place in hindsight to the arrival of malfunctioning wireless Marconi; the ambassador of the industrial revolution finally reaching Ballybeg that will sweep away all.

Director Annabelle Comyn strips away the misplaced nostalgia that has gathered around Friel’s Tony-winning script; there are no fields of wheat crying out for Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold’ to soundtrack memories of halcyon summer here. Instead Paul O’Mahony’s domestic table, chests and stove yield seamlessly to the outside of rocks, kites and leaves strewn on the ground while looming over all is a reflective triangle with a layer of gauzy fabric dulling its accuracy. Chahine Yavroyan’s lights frequently flash accompanied by a loud pop, as in her design for Comyn’s 2014 The Vortex, to jolt us back to fuller lighting after expressive dimming during monologues or sad moments. It also emphasises these are Michael’s memories, and he mayn’t be as scrupulously accurate as he believes. Indeed his penultimate narration of doom colours the final scenes as oblivious to coming tragedy.

As my academic cohort Graham Price noted this is not a production that masks the bleakness. The dance is not a joyous climax, a moment of healing. It is an abrupt explosion of energy, that can’t overwhelm the despair; even in their dancing the sisters are alone, their movements governed by the forces that entrap them. And no dance is as revealing as Kate’s energetic but strict Irish dance-steps. McCormack’s performance recalls Cathy Belton’s affecting Judith in Friel’s Aristocrats at the Abbey last year. Kate is intelligent, and loving towards Michael, but she is buckling under the strain of holding her family together by conforming to societal norms. And her priest sibling instead of a godsend proves an albatross, having gone wildly native. A stooped, bearded Conlon is magnificent. His English initially clipped, from long usage exclusively with British imperialists. His hair wet from malarial sweats, but then smarter as he regains his vocabulary. Jack’s enthusiasm for Riyangan rituals leaves you convinced he, not the fox, sacrificed Rose’s pet rooster.

It is odd that a production that began as a celebration of a living playwright become a eulogy, but a fitting one it is.

5/5

Dancing at Lughnasa continues its run at the Gaiety Theatre until the 11th of October.

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July 16, 2015

A Month in the Country

Ethan McSweeny directs Brian Friel’s version of Ivan Turgenev’s classic comedy-drama concerning the complicated romantic entanglements on a 19th Century Russian estate in high summer.

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Natalya (Aislin McGuckin) is married to the much older Arkady (Nick Dunning), a man too distracted with improvements to his estate to notice that his permanent houseguest and best friend Michel (Simon O’Gorman) is plainly in love with Natalya. Other residents of the Arkady house include bombastic German Herr Schaff (Peter Gaynor), long-suffering Lizaveta (Ingrid Craigie), Arkady’s formidable mother Anna (Barbara Brennan), new tutor Aleksey (Dominic Thorburn), and Natalya’s teenage ward Vera (Caoimhe O’Malley). Local doctor Shpigelsky (Mark O’Regan) doesn’t actually live there, but he might as well given that he spends as much time there as the eternally distracted bickering servants Matvey (Dermot Magennis) and Katya (Clare Monnelly). But when Vera falls in love with Aleksey and Natalya becomes madly infatuated with him, and blind to the counsel of Michel, the stage is set for betrayal, heartbreak, and reproach.

ADP Briggs has convincingly argued that the parallels in characters and relationships between A Month in the Country and Uncle Vanya are too close to be coincidental; Chekhov as we know him is unthinkable without Turgenev’s exemplar. Certainly a scene of total chaos in the final act as several characters wander into the drawing room to resolve several sub-plots anticipates Chekhov’s fondness for rattling several scenes through one set. Friel’s 1992 version gives the servants Northern Irish leanings against an RP aristocracy, and Bolshintsov (Pat McGrath) is amusingly rendered as a 1950s Irish bachelor farmer. An interesting echo is a devastated Arkady’s lament that he needed a measure of discretion from Natalya and Michel in order to successfully not know what he does know, which seems to speak to Judith’s speech in Aristocrats on how her circumscribed life is possible to endure so long as its limits are not hammered home. Oddly enough there are anticipations of another playwright Friel has translated, Ibsen, in Natalya’s manipulations and impulsive scheming. It’s as if Judge Brack had never cornered Hedda Gabler and she continued to relieve her boredom by insulting people, thwarting romances, and impulsively manipulating people.

Aislin McGuckin who had some imperious moments in Heartbreak House at the Abbey last summer rises to the challenge of such a figure, and alternates knowing vocal sultriness, with epic self-pity, blind fury, and vulnerable self-awareness. Natalya’s proto-Chekhovian soliloquies baffled 1850 audiences, but their psychological quality is very modern; although they can seem repetitious, especially if you saw Mark O’Rowe’s lean version of Ibsen in April. O’Gorman’s Michel is a study in defeat, while Dunning’s Arkady comes into his own after the interval as a comic character in his obliviousness who is tragic in that he needs to be oblivious to function. O’Malley slightly overdoes the girlishness of Vera, before maturing under the machinations of Natalya, while O’Regan hoovers up good lines as punning peasant made good Shpigelsky. Gaynor meanwhile lets rip in support. The expected silliness he suppressed in his Hedda Gabler character in April appears here in spades.

Francis O’Connor’s clever set and Peter O’Brien elegant costumes are the perfect visual palette for Turgenev’s tale of misplaced affections and quiet acceptances in a production of bittersweet comedy.

3/5

A Month in the Country continues its run at the Gate until August 22nd.

June 25, 2014

Aristocrats

Director Patrick Mason returns to the Abbey for a new production of 1979’s Aristocrats, Brian Friel’s Chekhovian study of a Catholic Big House in decline.

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The peculiarity of Ballybeg in having a Catholic Big House has attracted Chicagoan academic Tom Hoffnung (Philip Judge). As he researches the history of the well-to-do O’Donnell family since 1829, he is privy to gossip from helpful local fixer Willie Diver (Rory Nolan). Willie is devoted to the eldest daughter Judith (Cathy Belton), whose life is now spent caring for her invalided father (John Kavanagh) and the eccentric Uncle George (Bosco Hogan). Tom’s visit is peculiarly opportune for getting family gossip as youngest daughter Claire (Jane McGrath) is getting married, and so middle daughter Alice (Rebecca O’Mara) and oddball son Casimir (Tadhg Murphy) have returned to the fold. However, while Casimir has left wife Helga in Hamburg, Alice has brought acerbic husband Eamon (Keith McErlean). And Eamon is a truth-teller when it comes to his peasantry and the O’Donnell gentry…

Uncle George who shuffles about silently avoiding people is a character straight out of Chekhov. But Aristocrats, while it has some very funny moments (not least imaginary croquet), is primarily a very sad play. Judith’s speech about how she manages to be ‘almost happy’ within a strict routine of servitude, which she does not want disturbed, is made all the more heart-breaking by the ingratitude of her stroke-stricken father; who continually refers to Judith’s great betrayal, unaware that it is she who tends to him. Casimir’s relating how his father told him his eccentricities could be absorbed in the Big House whereas he would be the village idiot in Ballybeg is equally distressing as it has led him to narrowing his life to avoid pillory. And, in Sinead McKenna’s evocative lighting design, behind everything – Judith’s past role in the Troubles.

Francis O’Connor’s set, a detailed drawing room with abstracted staircases and doors behind it and an imaginary wall to a lawn, strikes a balance between verisimilitude and artifice that my sometime co-writer John Healy pointed out to me was reflected in the acting styles; naturalistic for the ‘native peasantry’ Willie and Eamon, more mannered for the self-conscious gentry in decline – especially Alice’s performative alcoholism and Casimir’s apologetic tics. The set also reflects Friel’s concern with the ghostly technology; absent daughter Anna (Ruth McGill) can record a message, Father’s rantings can be relayed downstairs. Catherine Fay’s 1970s costumes (especially for Alice and Willie) are impeccable, while Mason lives up to Eamon’s programmatic ‘This has always been a house of reticence, of things left unspoken’ by offering muted hints that Eamon fathered Judith’s child, and that Eamon and Alice will be happy.

My fellow academic Graham Price would no doubt note the contrast between McGahern’s vision of the Big House; a place of learning; and Friel’s vision; a place where objects are named after Chesterton, Hopkins and Yeats, but it is severely doubtful that the self-absorbed status-conscious O’Donnells who did so ever emulated their intellectual curiosity.

3.5/5

Aristocrats continues its run at the Abbey until the 2nd of August.

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