Talking Movies

January 31, 2018

Any Other Business: Part XIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirteenth portmanteau post on television of course!

Dangerous, Handle With Care.

Very Dangerous, Do Not Handle At All.

Watching re-runs of The Avengers (in colour!) on ITV 4 over a few months before Christmas it was hard not to be struck by two things. It was better than most current TV shows, and it made the soapbox posturing of the CW’s Berlantiverse look utterly inane. The ludicrous blackmail episode, ‘You Have Just Been Murdered’, is so hilarious, as the blackmailers repeatedly mock-murder their wealthy victims and leave a calling card just to prove how easy it would be to do it for real, so pay up, was one of the best episodes I saw on TV in 2017. The sustained ninja attacks on Steed’s friend; a car almost runs him over, he is attacked with a fake katanna, and finally shot with an arrow that imprints ‘You Have Just Been Murdered… Again!” on his shirt; floored me. And there were many other episodes almost at the same level in Diana Rigg’s 25 colour episodes, and some equally wonderful in the subsequent 32 episodes with Linda Thorson. The Rigg episodes were very telling in their writing of Renaissance woman Mrs Peel: painter, sculptor, chemist, journalist, mathematician published on the subject probability as applied to Bridge, and amateur secret agent. Nobody makes any deal out of Steed’s partner being a woman, apart from a doddery Colonel back from the tropics in ‘The Hidden Tiger’; “Highly unusual to have a woman on a hunt, Steed” “Highly unusual woman, Colonel”. And Mrs Peel, expert in judo, wins most of the fights she gets into, hence her amusement in ‘The Correct Way To Kill’ when she finds two photos with handwritten annotations in the local KGB HQ. Steed is described as ‘Dangerous, Handle With Care’. She then discovers that ‘Very Dangerous, Do Not Handle At All’ refers to her. This is a fictional universe where many of the villains have women as their most ruthless lieutenants, and any daffy woman is very possibly a ruthless lieutenant hiding in plain sight by playing up to bimbo stereotypes. In ‘The Living Dead’ the village hospital is run by a woman doctor, and nobody mentions her gender; she’s just the doctor who runs the village hospital. Steed and Mrs Peel almost co-opt her as a third agent in their investigations, but Mrs Peel doesn’t make a big deal of it. It would be literally impossible for a woman to run a small-town hospital in a Berlanti show without a plethora of dialogue about it, and if she were to aid Supergirl we would get girl power dialogue about the sisterhood working together in a man’s world. It is disconcerting when a 1967 show assumes equality, entertains, and provides an indomitable heroine with a delightfully light touch, while 2017 shows talk endlessly, needlessly about equality, as if trying to convince themselves.

The Berlantiverse was once highly praised on this blog but as time has gone on it has become more and more obviously flawed. So let’s try and isolate the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Berlantiverse: The Good

Tony Zhou amusingly gutted the MCU a while ago for its complete, deliberate absence of memorable music. Their copy of a copy of a copy elevator muzak approach seems to be a determined attempt to free cinema from the Wagnerian leitmotifs that composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold had in the 1930s made the convention for scoring the fates of characters and the progress of action. As a result of Marvel’s decision no matter how many Avengers assemble there will never be any music that can announce the arrival of a single one of them. What is lost by that? Well, look at what Blake Neely was able to pull off in the Supergirl/Flash/Arrow/Legends crossover extravaganza for the final fight against the alien Dominators. When Green Arrow is shooting the Dominator the jagged Arrow theme is heard, when he is thrown off the roof the music hangs in the air with him with a sustained note on strings, only for a roar of brass to announce the arrival of Supergirl to catch him from plummeting to his death. That is what leitmotifs are for. Why Marvel would want to pass on that sort of emotional punch is a mystery.

Berlantiverse: The Bad

There are elements; such as 24’s lack of humour; that you forgive so long as the show is good. But once you stop enjoying a show you remember those flaws, and notice new ones. I never made 10 episodes of Arrow, but I was surprised the same creators brought forth the fun that was The Flash. I also watched Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl until the recent crossover. Then I ditched all three shows. My problems with Arrow I’ve outlined. The Flash became idiotically repetitive; “My name is Barry Allen, and I am the fastest man alive!” – apart from Reverse Flash, and Zoom, and Savitar…; emotionally manipulative; Barry watches his mother die again, watches his father die, gets them back sort of only to give them up, gives up Iris, how much damn angst does one character need; and eventually unwatchable despite maintaining a comic edge. Supergirl from the get-go had problems, which started to converge with the problems of Legends. Legends degenerated from a fun show in which time-travellers screwed up their mission, to a less fun show in which they took George Lucas in Love as their ur-text and applied it to Lucas, Tolkien, and Arthurian legend, to the E.T. episode where they re-did E.T. in 40 minutes with their characters, like House or CSI: NY saw writers take off a movie they saw, just with less self-awareness. Supergirl’s characters kept getting on soapboxes; Jimmy Olsen on black men not being allowed show anger, Cat Grant on being a woman leader, Kara on being a woman and a superhero; rather than having comic-book adventures. Moving network for season 2 Berlanti decided that Alex should be gay now, an abrupt character reboot handled with the grace of an Austin Powers skit. But then he doubled down by beginning season 3 with Alex and Maggie engaged. Wow, that was quick! They break up because they never had a discussion about having children before getting engaged. Berlanti’s political imperatives were trumping his aesthetic imperatives with a vengeance. Legends’s characters arrive in the 1950s with an injunction not to attract attention; so they set up Ray and Kendra as a married couple, with Sara as a nurse. Berlanti castigates Jim Crow racism and has Sara liberate a repressed nurse. This makes nonsense of the injunction not to attract attention. The way to do that would have been to have Ray and Sara play house, with Kendra as a nurse. But internal logic was starting to be damned if it got in the political way.

Berlantiverse: The Ugly

Can you tell who Don Siegel voted for in 1956 and 1972 from watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry? Adlai Stevenson? Maybe? Richard Nixon? Maybe?? It’s not easy. Can you tell who Greg Berlanti voted for in 2016? … It seems Berlanti was traumatised by the failure of America to be with her. Now, art and politics don’t need a Jeffersonian wall of separation, but there ought be some artistic guile cast over political intent, like Arthur Miller addressing Senator McCarthy at three centuries’ remove. Berlanti has a beef with Trump. He could silently showcase heroic, adorable, and honourable minority characters like The Blacklist. [Navabi, Aram, Dembe] He does not. Instead, to stick it to Trump, he introduces to Legends the rather insufferable Zari, and reminds us repeatedly that she’s a Muslim American. He probably needs to remind us because she doesn’t wear a hijab, or have a prayer mat, nor use it 5 times a day, worry about keeping halal, or attending a mosque. Given previous complaints about American artists’ inability to take faith seriously this shouldn’t surprise, but ironically it makes Zari the kind of Muslim Trump might endorse – invisible. Berlanti could espouse meritocratic ideals like Bernie Sanders’ support for basic income. He does not. Instead Berlanti has gone down the rabbit-hole with Hillary. Her failure was due to misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. Ignore that she was as historically awful a candidate as if the Republicans had nominated Robert A Taft in 1948, and that she called ¼ of the eligible voters “a basket of deplorables”. Pushing Hillary’s apologia is killing the Berlantiverse. It would be clumsy and obvious to try and push basic income. But it couldn’t be worse than the gender studies harangue when Helen of Troy appeared in Legends, or when The Flash had a stripper lecture her clients on her critique of the male gaze. That same episode a female supervillain was taken down by the female characters working together and Iris said “Hashtag Feminism”. This, along with insisting “We are The Flash”, is Iris’ new thing. The abandoning of all pretence of artistic guile over political intent in attacking Trump came in the recent crossover, with this interchange: “Make America White Again” “Which it never was” “Hashtag Melting Pot”. But the nadir was Nazi Arrow proudly announcing “We’ve created a meritocracy”. … … … One should not have to point out that Nazis did not believe in meritocracy, but in its exact opposite, aristocracy. It is self-evident.

If you’re looking for the brightest and the best, you get Einstein, and then, if you’re a Nazi, mutter, damn, a Jew, and issue another call for the brightest and the best, but Aryans only please. Whereas if you’re not a Nazi you say, Welcome, Mr Einstein, I hear you are a very brilliant genius. Meritocracy advances people on the basis of ability. Aristocracy advances people on the basis of bloodlines, rather than their ability.

Berlanti wasn’t being ironic, none of the superheroes protested about this calumny of meritocracy. That degradation of meritocracy, the one true guarantor of equality, shows Berlanti pursuing a political agenda that while thinking itself liberal is not. The Berlantiverse no longer entertains because so many artistic decisions are clearly suborned to a political agenda, and it troubles because that political agenda is clearly Hillary not Bernie. Meritocracy doesn’t see colour, gender, or religion. It sees ability. And it only sees ability. Attempt to attach secondary considerations to it and it is gone. You can’t grade a test on correct answers and ensuring a diversity quota.

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November 29, 2017

Tribes

The Gate reinstates seats for the Dublin Theatre Festival but burns its audience a different way with a coruscating play of spectacular, hilarious family dysfunction.

Nick Dunning is Christopher, the patriarch of an intellectually combative upper-middle-class Jewish family in North London, or is it South County Dublin, we’ll have to get back to that… He is infuriated to have all three of his adult children Billy (Alex Nowak), Daniel (Gavin Drea), and Ruth (Grainne Keenan) living under his roof again, for various reasons. Shouting matches between Christopher and his children, Christopher and his wife Beth (Fiona Bell), the competitive siblings among themselves, and some combination of all the above are frequent, ribald, cutting, and funny. But as Nowak’s Billy is deaf, he misses a lot of it. Mercifully some might say. And others might not, such as his new girlfriend Sylvia (Clare Dunne), who is losing her hearing, and who teaches Billy sign language; setting him on a collision course with his already troubled family…

Now then… where is this play set? Nina Raine wrote it for the Royal Court in 2010 and set it in North London. If you think of North London and argumentative Jewish intellectuals and wordsmiths like the Corens, Milibands, and Aaronovitches that makes perfect sense. Idly relocating Tribes to South County Dublin startles, just as idly relocating an Arthur Miller play from Brooklyn to Buncrana would startle. Tribes was not written in French like God of Carnage, so why did it need that relocation treatment? What next, Harold Pinter done as Roddy Doyle? And why was the relocation so incompletely rendered? Half the cast employ English accents for Blackrock, and Dunning mercilessly pillories people from the North by which he means Yorkshire. It is a meta-moment when characters express (appropriate) surprise Billy will be interviewed in the (foreign) Irish Times.

Dunning is magnificent. He so dominates proceedings that when Conor Murphy’s gleaming modernist kitchen reveals its outré surfaces to be a projection screen for surtitles it is with Dunning’s voice that you read the immortal line “Well, was I right or was I right about the deaf community?” The surtitles that allow us understand the sign language Billy and Sylvia fire at each other also, in Raine’s stroke of genius, express the body language and facial expressions of all. So that Beth, when Billy makes his stand to leave his family’s ‘bigotry’, worries “Why isn’t Billy saying anything?” and then “I feel like I’m in a Pinter play”, before sniping silently with her husband: “I feel completely unapologetic” “Yes, you’re good at that”.

 

I was one of few laughing uproariously at a half-empty matinee, and such sparse attendance was not a one-off for this “huge hit with audiences”. Has the Gate purposefully burnt off its old audience, only to find the new audience that wanted edgy original material instead was largely …imaginary?

4/5

September 18, 2015

A View from the Bridge

Joe Dowling returns to Dublin from Minneapolis to direct another of Arthur Miller’s signature tragedies, following his acclaimed 2003 Abbey version of All My Sons.

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Our tragic hero Eddie Carbone (Scott Aiello) works on the docks in 1950s Brooklyn; still an Italian stronghold as our narrator, and local lawyer, Alfieri (Bosco Hogan) informs us. But more important it’s still a Sicilian stronghold, and, as Alfieri warns us, the descendants of the Greeks at Syracuse are about to enact another tragedy. Eddie’s long-suffering wife Beatrice (Niamh McCann) raises Eddie’s niece Catherine (Lauren Coe) almost as her own daughter, but everything is about to change for the Carbones as she prepares to shelter her cousins Marco (Peter Coonan) and Rodolpho (Joey Phillips), fresh off a boat from Sicily and very illegal in their immigration status. But Eddie is aggrieved when Rodolpho takes a liking to Catherine, and so picks fault with Rodolpho’s extroversion that Marco has to protectively step in. But Eddie’s true motivation is even darker…

Set designer Beowulf Boritt places dockyard gantries funnelling the audience’s gaze in an odd trick of perspective towards a huge backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge. These gantries then close in to create, with the addition of a dropped-down light-shade, the Carbones’ apartment. Dowling dispenses with the elaborately shifting sets of his 2011 version of The Field, instead seamlessly changing location for scenes via Malcolm Rippeth’s expressive lighting design. He also makes notable use of Denis Clohessy’s sound design to inject a literal note of menace at the curtain when Marco effortlessly lifts a chair by one leg to issue an unspoken threat to Eddie to leave Rodolpho alone. Coonan’s physicality is brilliantly used to make Marco a man of few words, gentle, unless you cross him, and then implacably set on hurting enemies in the approved pre-Socratic Greek moral code.

Aiello is fantastic as a decent man destroying himself, at times even echoing The Crucible’s John Proctor’s concern for his good name. Aiello keeps audience sympathy as Eddie’s mind unravels because of an incestuous desire he can’t even acknowledge to himself without tearing up (though he does this maybe once too often). His attempt to convince Alfieri (a very empathetic Hogan) that Rodolpho’s ‘not right’ is played for laughs as Alfieri simply does not get what Eddie is trying to nudge, nudge about. Rodolpho is clearly not ‘not right’, but Eddie does seem to have half a point, in that Rodolpho decided (rather too quickly) to marry literally the first eligible American citizen he set eyes on. But then Alfieri’s warning that God can give someone an excessive amount of love is evidenced in a shocking scene of aggressive sexuality.

Freud notwithstanding human incest in Greek tragedies was unwitting. Miller deliberately shocks with the intentionality here, even as the vice inexorably closes for Eddie in this riveting, disturbing production.

4/5

A View from the Bridge continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 24th of October.

August 4, 2015

Dublin Theatre Festival: 12 Plays

Tickets go on sale for the 2015 Dublin Theatre Festival at 10:00am Wednesday August 12th. Here are 12 shows to keep an eye on.

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The Night Alive 22nd September – October 4th Gaiety

Trailing clouds of glory from Broadway does Conor McPherson come. His new play, a co-production with Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, stars Adrian Dunbar and Kate Stanley Brennan as damaged souls beginning a tentative romance in the dodgy-geezer-land of Dublin that McPherson has made his own. Laurence Kinlan and Ian-Lloyd Anderson lead the supporting cast, and while tickets have been on sale for a while, some seats are still available.

Bailed Out! 23rd September – 4th October Pavilion

In case you’re not depressed enough by the ongoing farce in Leinster House you can soon head to Dun Laoghaire to see Colin Murphy’s follow-up to Guaranteed; an unlikely hit that ended up being filmed. Rough Magic regular Peter Daly and others bring to life, under Conall Morrison’s direction, official documents and unguarded interviews revealing how Ireland was troika’d. But, pace Fintan O’Toole, can documentation as agit-prop achieve anything?

At the Ford 23rd September – 3rd October New Theatre

Political ruminations of a fictional stripe will occupy the intimate surroundings of the New Theatre. Aonghus Og McAnally and rising star Ian Toner headline Gavin Kostick’s new play about a family coming apart at the seams as they struggle with the future of their business dynasty. Said dynasty imploding because of the sins of the father, so we’re promised critical analysis of Celtic Tiger via Celtic mythology.

Oedipus 24th September – 31st October Abbey

Sophocles’ resonant tragedy returns to the Abbey, but not in WB Yeats 1926 text or Robert Fagles’ spare translation. It’s a new version by director Wayne Jordan, who casts his Twelfth Night’s Barry John O’Connor as the Theban King. The great Fiona Bell plays Oedipus’ wife Jocasta, but after Spinning that doesn’t reassure, especially as Jordan’s directorial failings (especially leaden pacing and poor staging) have become embedded through critical praise.

A View from the Bridge 24th September – 10th October Gate

Joe Dowling returns from his long exile in Minneapolis to direct Arthur Miller’s 1955 classic. Chicago actor Scott Aiello plays Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman in Brooklyn who shelters illegals Marco (Peter Coonan) and Rodolpho (Joey Phillips), but when Eddie’s niece Catherine (Lauren Coe) falls for Rodolpho jealousy and betrayal loom. Dowling’s 2003 production of All My Sons was typically solid, and this should be equally polished.

Star of the Sea 24th September – 26th September Draiocht

Joseph O’Connor’s 2004 best-seller belatedly comes to town. This was a sell-out hit at last year’s Galway Arts Festival, and has just three performances at the theatre festival as part of a nationwide tour. This racy production is ‘freely adapted’ from O’Connor’s tale of lust and murder on a famine ship fleeing to America, in Moonfish’s Theatre trademark bilingual approach of performing in English and as Gaeilge.

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Hooked! 25th September – 10th October Various

Director Don Wycherley’s apparently become the go-to guy for the festival for touring theatre productions about whimsical goings on in the Irish countryside. This is a three-hander about a Dublin woman (Seana Kerslake) who moves to the country and rubs her neighbours (Tina Kellegher, Steve Blount) up the wrong way. Hilarity ensues. Secrets and lies are laid bare. A bit of comedy, a bit of menace, in four different venues.

The Last Hotel 27th September – 3rd October O’Reilly Theatre

Enda Walsh has written an opera! Music by Donnacha Dennehy is performed by the Crash Ensemble and the singers are led by star soprano Claudia Boyle, who starred in Mahoganny last year. The production team is that which brought us the demented Ballyturk, and Mikel Murfi even appears in a plot revolving around a man cleaning a blood-soaked hotel room and a couple fighting in a car-park.

The Train 6th October – 11th October Project Arts Centre

Well, here’s a gamble and a half. Rough Magic premiere a musical: book by Arthur Riordan, direction by Lynne Parker, music by Bill (Riverdance) Whelan. Previous Rough Magic musical Improbable Frequency was a hoot, but DTF plays with music Phaedra and Peer Gynt were deeply unsatisfying. This could implode, especially as the subject; importing contraceptives on a 1971 train; seems tailor-made for ‘liberals backslapping each other’ smugness.

Dancing at Lughnasa 6th October – 11th October Gaiety

25 years ago Friel’s masterpiece premiered at the theatre festival, and director Annabelle Comyn brings her Lyric production to the Gaiety to mark the occasion. Comyn’s regular design team are on hand to revive the bittersweet story of the Mundy sisters (Catherine Cusack, Cara Kelly, Mary Murray, Catherine McCormack, Vanessa Emme) with Declan Conlon as their returned brother. Comyn excels at blocking large casts so the dance entices…

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time 6th October – 10th October Grand Canal

Tickets are becoming scarce for this flagship import from London’s National Theatre. Mark Haddon’s book was a masterful exercise in disguising almost total lack of substance behind flashy style, and writer Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott deploy every theatrical bell and whistle going to recreate the sleuthing mind of an autistic teenager, but can they add substance to the source?

The Cherry Orchard 7th October – October 10th O’Reilly Theatre

You haven’t experienced Chekhov till you’ve heard him in the original French. Ahem. Belgian collective tg STAN take on Chekhov’s final elegiac play, an obvious influence on Tom Murphy’s The House; as a peasant’s cunning sees him rise up to supplant the decaying aristocracy, then lament over the genteel way of life he destroyed. Playing straight through for 2 hours without an interval we’re promised unfussy intensity.

June 1, 2012

Glengarry Glen Ross

David Mamet won a Pulitzer in 1984 for his black comedy about desperate real estate agents, and this Gate theatre production is a note-perfect rendition.

550647_10150890589797929_403113012_nThe first act is almost the definitive Mamet, being three two-hander scenes in which one person struggles to get a word in edgeways while the other tells them to stop interrupting. Shelley Levene (Owen Roe), an over the hill salesman, tries to cajole, bully, and beg his younger office manager Williamson (John Cronin) for the vital ‘leads’ without which he doesn’t stand a chance of making it onto the leader-board for sales completed; which decides who wins a Cadillac at the end of the month, and who gets fired. The other agents Moss (Denis Conway) and George (Barry McGovern) complain about the cruelty and unfairness of this process and ‘talk’ about ripping off their own office. Finally a timid man Lingks (Peter Hanly) is accosted by the freight-train of confidence that is salesman Ricky Roma (Reg Rogers); who swans into the Chekhovian second act so drunk on ‘closing’ Lingks and thus winning the Cadillac that it takes him a while to notice that the office has been ransacked and the leads and closed contracts stolen…

Mamet’s rhythmic, profane, overlapping dialogue is one of the most distinctive theatrical accomplishments of the past half-century; and every actor in this production excels in its delivery. The famous finagling by Moss and George of ‘talking’ and ‘speaking’ about a robbery is performed exquisitely by the great McGovern and Conway. They also nail the subsequent indignation of their characters at being questioned by Patrick Joseph Byrnes’ no-nonsense cop, while Cronin is magnificent as the overwrought Williamson yelling at George to just for the love of God go for lunch… If there is a flaw in this production it’s that Cronin at times can appear nervous at sharing the stage with such heavyweights of Irish theatre, but even that flaw works for the play as Williamson is subject to such vicious verbal abuse by these men (whose need to belittle him outranks their instincts for self-preservation) that being occasionally nervous in their presence is entirely in character. The two showy parts though are the salesman leading a life of noisy desperation and the scenery-chewing Pacino role.

Director Doug Hughes steered the original production of Doubt to Tony glory some years ago before reviving Mamet’s Oleanna on Broadway and he is alert to every nuance of the text. He coaxes from Roe a performance that alternates between despair, self-delusion, and arrogance as Levene, and from Broadway actor Rogers a barnstorming powerhouse of bombast, hostility, and cunning as Roma. Levene can seem like Mamet’s riff on Miller’s tragic hero Willy Loman, with the uncaring Williamson as a version of the son of Loman’s old boss who doesn’t care about Loman’s service to the firm and humiliates him. Ricky Roma though is all Mamet. The new face of capitalism isn’t like Miller’s successful brother Ben Loman, indeed he’s Levene’s protégé, and, in his outrageous machismo, actually behaves like one of Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe on Wall Street, despite being a small-time property salesman. The impressively decrepit ransacked office set by In Treatment designer Neil Patel is an apt setting for the comings and goings of men deluding themselves about the American Dream.

Mamet’s attack on ruthless capitalism is given its full punch here by a cast who bring out the comedy and the cruelty – essential theatre.

5/5

Glengarry Glen Ross continues its run at the Gate Theatre until July 14th.

April 5, 2012

Top 10 Plays to see on stage before you die

It’s caused an awful lot of angst and wide consultation to try and do it justice but this 200th blog post is devoted to meeting Stephen Errity’s specially requested topic.

Having tied myself up in absolute knots over the question of whether this was about plays that really have to be seen rather than read, or plays that had to be seen because they were the best that have ever been written, I plumped for the latter interpretation. A separate blog about the first option is Blog #201 for anyone interested in that. But, having nailed down what I was doing I immediately had a spanner thrown in the works by Keith Thompson who tied me up in even more knots about how I was going to do what I was going to do – was I going to choose the plays that best interrogated the society of the day, or the plays that most change you as a person on a deep level? I never made myself particularly clear on the issue to him, but I hope that I have gone for the latter of his two options. So, after that lengthy preamble about the tortured selection process, here’re the Top 10 Plays to see on stage before you die…

(10) The Rivals by Sheridan
“She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile!” A perfect comedy that anticipates Wilde’s Bunburying in Captain Jack Absolute’s invention of a second persona for romancing, Ensign Beverly, this, along with Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, is damn near the only thing worth salvaging from British theatre between 1710 and 1890, and jumped the footlights via Mrs Malaprop’s inimitable verbal gaffes to coin a new word – Malapropism. Sheridan quickly rewrote the role of Sir Lucius O’Trigger after an initial savaging for being stage-Irish, and made it as deliriously silly as everything else in this satire on duelling, female education, pride and excessive sentimentality.

(9) Hedda Gabler by Ibsen
“I will not have anyone holding power over me” A role quite often referred to as a female Hamlet, Ibsen’s tragic heroine has been essayed on Broadway by both Cate Blanchett and Mary Louise Parker in recent years; and neither nailed it, it’s that hard. Ibsen may have been meanly caricaturing Strindberg as the rival academic to Hedda’s husband, but who cares? A heroine who is either Freudian neurotic basket-case, feminist warrior, or sociopathic villain trumps such considerations. Ibsen’s late run of masterpieces are all worth seeing but few combine his devotion to realism, and tragic plots, with such a complicated and powerful lead.

(8) The Homecoming by Pinter
“Don’t call me that, please” “Why not?” “That’s the name my mother gave me.” Pinter’s trademark comedy of menace reaches a sort of mythic height in this unnerving story of an ill-advised visit home by expatriate university professor Teddy to the East End. Ill-advised because Teddy brings with him his attractive wife Ruth, who quickly enters a twisted psychodrama with Teddy’s wide-boy brother Lenny, naive brother Joey, and aged father Max. The dialogue at first glance appears banal, until you feel the subtext crackling under every innocuous remark as everyone circles each other in a battle for control. The controversial ending is somewhere between absurdist and a Greek legend.

(7) The Crucible by Miller
“I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” Miller’s allegorical attack on McCarthyism thru the prism of the 1692 Salem witch-hunts is extremely scary at the moments when Abigail and her accomplices fake attacks by evil spirits, and is incredibly emotionally draining as the plot inexorably tightens with a vice-like grip around decent everyman John Proctor. Proctor reluctantly signs his death warrant by daring to speak up for the truth against the self-delusions of petty vindictive people. Remarkably Miller prepared for this script by adapting Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and yet produced a Greek catharsis that Aristotle would sign off on.

(6) Endgame by Beckett
“Sir, look – [Disdainful gesture, disgustedly.] – at the world – [pause] and look – [Loving gesture, proudly.] – at my TROUSERS!” Almost for that anecdote alone, possibly the funniest punch-line in Beckett’s dramatic works, this play is my pick of his output that reshaped 20th Century drama. 1958’s Endgame might be the satirical last word in Irish Big House decay, a response to the Irish Famine (look at Hamm’s adoption of Clov near a place called Kov [Cobh] while people obsess about corn) or the Cold War, or simply a characteristically inexplicable drama in which after the word ends life, such as it is, continues on as it was, bickering and ridiculous, although with people in dustbins.

(5) As You Like It by Shakespeare
“Sweet are the uses of adversity.” Rosalind is Shakespeare’s most likeable heroine, and her practical use of her male alter-ego Ganymede to teach the overly sentimental Orlando how to conduct a romance the most sensible use of the endless cross-dressing to be found in the comedies. A play about defeat, and the over-indulgence in cultural compensation that it can engender in Duke Senior in the forest of Arden, and about idealised romance, and the stupid behaviour it can provoke, this touches on serious matters – yet always with a feather’s weight; the melancholy Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” monologue.

(4) Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
“It’s all chance, Oedipus, chance rules our lives!” Archetypal stories don’t come much greater than Freud’s go-to Greek tragedy. The heroic Oedipus defeats the Sphinx’s riddling, unwittingly kills the King of Thebes, and then marries his stunning widowed Queen, Jocasta; only for his investigations into provenance of the King’s murderer to unexpectedly and traumatically rebound on him. I’ve managed to see this in Robert Fagle’s peerless translation, but without masks, and the effect of the Greek chorus is eerie and memorable. Can we escape destiny, or does that very attempt bring out the destiny thus eluded? Fate/Free Will – drama’s original and greatest preoccupation…

(3) Arcadia by Stoppard
“Do not indulge in paradox Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit…” Stoppard has an unparalleled gift for constructing hysterically funny romantic comedies that also elucidate a knotty subject. This 1993 masterpiece casually tackles chaos theory and bad literary/intellectual history theorising. Set in 1809 and 1993 a clever Regency Coverly seems to have anticipated the new breakthroughs of mathematics of the present, while dodgy academic Bernard Nightingale’s outrageously shoddy scholarship makes a travesty of the connection between Byron and his friend Septimus Hodge, the tutor of said clever Regency chaotician Thomasina Coverly. Stoppard constructs a play about rationality and imagination with enormous warmth, wit, and unexpectedly overwhelming poignancy.

(2) Three Sisters by Chekhov
“In a little while all this living and all this suffering will make sense, if only we could know!” Chekhov’s small opus of plays contains immensities. The tale of Olga, Masha and Irina’s economic and social decline and fall at the hands of their impecunious brother Andrei and his grasping wife Natasha began the 20th Century with a startlingly prescient meditation on the crippling nature of dreams, the impossibility of escape (to Moscow, or any other equivalent idyllic past), the inexorable change of social orders, and the redemptive possibilities that could be gleaned from simply enduring the chaos of a world incapable of being ordered effectively or decently by human action. Yet that’s only half of it. Chekhov’s play disrupts the realism of Ibsen with characters not listening to each other and thinking out loud, creates dizzying movement as characters wander in and out of each of the four act’s distinct locations, and mines absurdist comedy from dark material.

(1) Hamlet by Shakespeare
“Thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied oe’r with the pale cast of thought.” The definition of a play full of quotable quotes, a leading role that every young actor wants to test himself against, a meditation on the nature of revenge and its futility, a satire on bad acting, a tragic love story, a pitch-black comedy of errors, a geo-political thriller, an oblique statement on the survival of Catholic belief in Tudor England, a wisdom text that teaches us how to live even as its hero learns how to die, the play that made black clothes cool – all these are valid ways of interpreting Shakespeare’s titanic 1601 magnum opus. Hamlet is the most important play to see on stage before you die because it has inspired so many subsequent artists, and it always will. It is full of memorable characters, who have become types, dialogue that despite its familiarity retains its profundity, and a challenge, “This above all, to thine own self be true,” that could serve as the final statement on the Greek dilemma of being a self-willed individual against powerful external forces.

May 25, 2011

‘I need to do more theatre’

I was struck, reading the Win Win press release, by the sheer amount of theatre work, and acclaimed theatre work at that, undertaken by the lead actors.

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“I could be doing that new LaBute play right now”


Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor and Burt Young all have theatre resumes as long as your arm, while Bobby Cannavale, presumably feeling guilty about his lack of theatre work, finally hit Broadway in 2008, and won a Tony nod for his troubles. What’s interesting about the resumes of this particular clutch of actors is the picture it builds up of what good actors, interested in telling emotionally engaging human stories, really want to do. Looking at the plays that they’ve done you can expand out to include more related works to create a convincing picture of just what actors have in mind when they sigh in interviews for crummy films – ‘I need to do more theatre’.

The plays explicitly mentioned in the press release include works by Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Chekhov, Stoppard, Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Neil LaBute, Theresa Reback, David Rabe, and Lanford Wilson. You could add to that list a select clutch of other names: Mamet, Sophocles, Pinter, Beckett, Lorca, Moliere, Arthur Miller, Shaw, Ibsen, Shepard, Strindberg, Friel, Hare, Churchill, Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh, Jez Butterworth, Kenneth Lonergan, John Logan, Martin Crimp. There’s a hit list of great plays and juicy roles every actor wants to have a shot at, and it boils down to a desire to do both the classics (ancient and modern) and interesting new work, which is hilariously contradictory, and also would take up all your life for very little pay if you eschewed film and TV work to do it. But…you can’t help but think that sometimes actors feel, as when Aaron Eckhart lamented to the L&H in UCD ‘I need to do more theatre….’, that it might be a more fulfilling if far less lucrative choice to concentrate on theatre.

Those great plays are nearly always the things I think of when watching good actors in bad movies, when a look of despair/desperation that doesn’t belong to the character they’re playing seems to convey the inner thought process the actor has slipped into: “God. I killed as Teach in American Buffalo a few years ago, now I’m having a nightmare within a nightmare within a really crummy exploitation vampire noir; which in some categorisations might be a nightmare. I need to do more theatre.” I will neither confirm nor deny I have someone from the movie Rise: Blood Hunter in mind when I write that…

This is not to engage in the snobbery, that theatre is a purer art form than cinema, which drove cinephile Michael Fassbender to quit the Drama Centre. It’s merely to recognise that, bar exceptional roles like James Bond, Batman and their ilk, it’s not possible in cinema to measure yourself against the standard set by actors past by taking on an unchanging role. That compulsion, which drove Jude Law to play Hamlet, ensures theatre remains an off-screen siren call…

August 2, 2010

Death of a Salesman

Harris Yulin, familiar as a ‘That Guy’ from Looking for RichardBuffy, and 24, gets a chance to shine in a lead role in this revival of Arthur Miller’s coruscating 1949 play.

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Salesman was a devastating response to people embracing the post-war boom by forgetting that the last boom, driven by cheap credit and property speculation, had produced the intractable Great Depression. The American Dream requires both such collective amnesia and a self-delusion that everyone can succeed in a system whose rules only allow some succeed. Such self-defeating dreaming is articulately skewered by Miller in the self-deceptions of the titular salesman Willie Loman. Talking of dreams – “Who let Ellen Page loose in here?” asked fellow Inception fan Stephen Errity (stephenerrity.wordpress.com) as we first noticed Michael Pavelka’s set, which tilts towards the audience from a height of a few feet, even as the facade of a hideous apartment building with a tree growing through it topples towards the actors. This set communicates Willie’s loosening grip on reality. His sons complain that he is talking to himself at night, but really he is talking to them, his reality is slipping from the present to events from years gone by. He interacts with teenaged versions of his sons in scenes which start purely in his mind and then explode into physical life with the help of quick costume and hair-style changes. Director David Esbjornson also skilfully employs the mobile props on the stage to slide between locations and temporalities.

Willie raised his sons to believe they were leaders of men and he clings to delusions of his own importance despite being forced back on the road instead of receiving the office job he was promised for his trailblazing work for the firm as a younger man. Willie is a willing victim because he has been bewitched by the notion that everyone can end up like his brother Ben who boasts – “When I was 17 I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21 I walked out. And by God I was rich.” His implosion due to money worries, in particular a meltdown with his old boss’s feckless son, is incredibly raw as Yulin does justice to Miller’s script, which wraps an emotional knock-out punch around his politico-economic message.

Willie’s disintegration is given its pathos by the effect it has on his family. Garrett Lombard as Willie’s eldest son Biff (an aimless self-loathing drifter), Rory Nolan as the younger Happy (mildly successful in business but insanely successful in womanising), and Deirdre Donnelly as long-suffering wife Linda, make you care intensely for their flawed characters and their various efforts to save their everyman patriarch, particularly a heart-rending restaurant scene where Biff attempts to lay bare the lies he and Willie have told themselves over the years. Lombard’s accent became pure mule during some tense scenes but that problem should disappear as the run continues, while in minor support the Gate ‘repertory’ enjoy themselves with Stephen Brennan’s luminous white-suited Ben out-Fassbendering Barry McGovern’s droll waiter and John Kavanagh’s Charley.

Miller was sometimes criticised for letting his moral concerns trump naturalistic dialogue but this production is riveting theatre.

4/5

Death of a Salesman runs at the Gate Theatre until September 25th.

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