Talking Movies

May 16, 2018

RIP Tom Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 23, 2015

The Gigli Concert

I enjoyed The Gigli Concert at the Gate in the summer, but wasn’t as wowed by it as some people were. Obviously many more people were in the wowed camp than not though as it returned for a sell-out reprise, as my regular theatre and conference cohort Graham Price writes:

DG the gigli concert

Last summer saw one of the most critically acclaimed productions to appear on an Irish stage in recent years: Tom Murphy’s seminal The Gigli Concert directed by David Grindley at the Gate. Such was the level of almost universal praise heaped on this drama that the Gate Theatre brought it back for a limited run this November. The story centres on JPW King, an English “Dynamatologist” (something approaching a quack psychologist and a faith healer) who has been sent to minister to the sick and disillusioned in Ireland, and his Irish “client” (just referred to in the script as “The Irish Man”) who wishes to sing like the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. The play is primarily concerned with their “therapy” sessions together and how they bond over their mutual problem; how on earth are they going to get through each day?

Such a summary does not really do justice to the magisterial power of the play or the amazing performances of the three actors who occupy the stage for the work’s three hours plus duration; Declan Conlon (King), Denis Conway (Irish Man), and Dawn Bradfield who plays King’s mistress Mona. Declan Conlon does an amazing job of conveying both the outward calm and the repressed torment of King, and Conway keeps the audience on the edge of their seats by playing The Irish Man like a coiled spring of rage and frustration that is always threatening to explode and overwhelm both himself and those around him. In a role oft criticised for being underwritten and largely superfluous, Bradfield is very powerful and moving as the woman whose secret traumas eventually inspire King to undertake the titular event. Anyone familiar with Murphy’s work will recognise Mona as a kind of dress rehearsal for the monumental and tragic women in Bailegangaire, the drama Murphy wrote immediately after The Gigli Concert which is as female-centred as Gigli is male-centred.

Gigli’s climax is one of the most challenging moments in the Irish canon in terms of what is demanded of both the director and the actor who must realise this scene onstage. Fintan O’Toole (in one of the few single-authored books on Murphy) has described this crescendo as “a daring moment in which the impossible becomes possible, not as an idea, but as an action on the stage.” As O’Toole asserts, this scene stands or falls depending on how well it is created as a theatrical occurrence, and Conlon’s acting and Grindley’s directing combine to create dramatic gold from a very slight stage direction: “he sings the aria to its conclusion—Gigli’s voice”. The physical and dramaturgical pyrotechnics on display in the concluding minutes of this production will not soon be forgotten by those lucky enough to see them. The tone created by Conlon and Grindley’s three minute scene-collaboration is one simultaneously of hope and painful sorrow that is captivating.

The Gigli Concert is rightly considered one of the most important Irish plays of the last thirty years and the Gate has done a fantastic job of translating Murphy’s script to stage in such a way as to honour this demanding, complex text. Provided its epic running time does not deter a playgoer, it is worth every second of its three hours. Ignore anyone who says Gigli is only relevant to the contemporary Irish moment because a main character is a corrupt developer; its focus on profoundly human concerns make it a work for our time and all time.

5/5

May 28, 2015

The Gigli Concert

David Grindley directs the first ever production of a Tom Murphy play at the Gate, and it’s one of Murphy’s oddest works that he presents.

DG the gigli concert

JPW King (Declan Conlon) is a hard-drinking Englishman, reduced to sleeping in his office in 1980s Dublin. How he can afford the office itself is a mystery given the non-existent patient list for his practice. But then he is a ‘Dynamatologist’, which can sound oddly like Scientology in some of King’s explanations of it. It would take someone truly desperate to enlist his professional help, someone like The Irishman (Denis Conway), a developer in the midst of a tremendous nervous breakdown who has become obsessed with singing like the Italian tenor Gigli. The Irishman is truculent, uneducated, violent, and, despite King’s belief, as told to his Irish mistress Mona (Dawn Bradfield), that qualified psychiatrists are needed, insistent that his unerring instinct has led him to the right man to solve his problem. But can King rise to the insane challenge?

Grindley has been acclaimed for his revivals of RC Sheriff’s museum-piece Journey’s End, so perhaps it’s inevitable he’d been drawn to Murphy’s 1983 puzzler that immediately precedes Conversations on a Homecoming and Bailegangaire, both recent DruidMurphy revivals. The thankless role of Mona is occasional relief from the intense two-hander in which the identity of patient and therapist is in constant transference from the moment both men end up saying “Christ, how am I going to get thru today?” in the exact same spot. But what is the play’s purpose? The publicity talks of ‘the endurance of the human spirit and our ability to achieve the impossible’, which seems delusional given that every character onstage displays alarming mental health, and the climactic ‘singing like Gigli’ is a drug-fuelled Tony Kushneresque ‘bit of wonderful theatrical illusion’, complete with a rush of red lights by Sinead McKenna for the Mephistophelian bargain being struck.

The acting is assured. Bradfield makes Mona an earthy cousin of Bailegangaire’s female triptych, but it is a minor part, notable only for Mona’s apparent coming to terms with her dire situation in a healthy way. Conway is initially dangerous and latterly assured as the developer regains a burlesque of prosperous wellbeing, but his silent screams and hanging, musical ‘Aaaand’ seem slightly mannered when exploring the Irishman’s emotional vulnerability. Conlon, in a startling change of pace from his urbanity in the just-finished Hedda Gabler, makes King a defeated figure who suddenly finds his heroic possibilities. Staying up all night reading books to try and help the Irishman, he makes Dynamatology akin to Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith in a pivotal speech; and is hilarious in the second act when relaying some actual leaps taken as Murphy amps up the black comedy.

Murphy probes some of the darkest recesses of the 1980s Irish psyche here, with notable asides about planning corruption and political ambition, but his actual conclusions remain eternally unclear.

3/5

The Gigli Concert continues its run at the Gate until June 27th

October 7, 2014

Bailegangaire

DruidMurphy returns to the Dublin Theatre Festival with an enthralling revival of Tom Murphy’s 1985 play of storytelling and crisis.

bailegangaire

The ailing elderly Mommo (Marie Mullen) lies propped up against the pillows in her bed, which is in the middle of the kitchen of a small house. She is nursed by her granddaughter Mary (Catherine Walsh), who gets little thanks for her ministrations; Mommo does not recognise her, and treats her as a servant. Mommo’s mind is instead in the past, telling the same story every night, a story she never finishes; about how the town of Bochtan became known as Bailegangaire, and why no one there over the age of reason ever laughs. Mary is driven to distraction by this, and when her abrasive sister Dolly (Aisling O’Sullivan) arrives on her motorbike, they fight over Mary’s responsibilities towards Mommo, and Dolly’s abusive husband Stephen, until Dolly becomes oddly determined to make Mommo finally tell her story to its conclusion.

I wasn’t familiar with Bailegangaire, and so found the first act rather disorienting. Mommo’s continually interrupted story about Bochtan’s finest laugher and the challenge of a stranger at the fair that he had a better laugh was exceedingly hard to keep track of, but in the second act as Mommo is driven by Mary to finish the story and as Rick Fisher’s lights single in on Mommo it becomes quite mesmerising as the laughing competition is relayed; with its outcome told before its conduct in a charmingly perverse move. Bailegangaire is also quite scabrous. Mommo uses a bedpan at length, Dolly roars off on her motorbike for a quickie with her lover, and Murphy gifts Dolly, Mary, and Mommo a fair quota of earthy insults. Mullen alternates nicely between demanding requests, shy requests, and malicious moments in her challenging role.

But despite the monologist storytelling by Mommo, this is very much a three-hander. Walsh makes viscerally evident Mary’s despair; she needs to escape but she can’t escape because the conditions which create the need also prevent its execution – her crippling familial duty to care for the oblivious Mommo. O’Sullivan is on fine form as the swaggering but damaged Dolly, but her accent overplayed hoarse Whesth of Ireland. Francis O’Connor’s impeccably realist set disappears into darkness at roof level, and Gregory Clarke’s sound design renders passing cars practically just past its wall, but director Garry Hynes is focused on the performances. Murphy’s play has a Beckettian quality, with its narration that has to be continually forlornly attempted, but it’s rooted firmly in the 1980s; yet its zeitgeist undercurrents of new technology and crises with multinationals seem to collapse that thirty-year gap.

My fellow academics Graham Price and Tom Walker, both previously mentioned in dispatches here, dubbed Bailegangaire Happy Days as Irish kitchen sink drama’. I’m not about to disagree, Murphy’s unexpectedly redemptive storytelling is towering.

4/5

July 22, 2014

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

dtf2012tf

Hamlet 25th – 27th September Grand Canal Theatre

You haven’t appreciated Shakespeare until you’ve heard him in the original German. Ahem. Berlin’s Schaubuhne theatre troupe returns under the direction of Thomas Ostermeier for an acclaimed production of the Bard’s magnum opus. 6 actors play 20 roles in a production characterised by a spectacular stage covered in loose earth, turning to mud as actors hose it, and film each other for projection.

 

Zoo 25th – 28th September Smock Alley

Teatro de Chile present a one-hour lecture, of sorts. Two scientists inform you of their astonishing discovery, the last two Tzoolkman people; and then bend their brains trying to figure out how to preserve a culture whose central feature is imitation. So far, so Monty Python, but this is intended to be a serious problematisation of the idea of academic ‘performance’ in serious lecturing.

 

The Mariner 25th September – October 11th Gate

Hugo Hamilton appears to be the Gate’s go-to guy for the theatre festival. Following an adaptation of his Speckled People memoir he unveils an original script about an Irish sailor traumatised by the Battle of Jutland whose mute state inspires very different reactions from his wife and his mother. Patrick Mason directs, but how much insight can novelist Hamilton deliver in 90 minutes?

 

After Sarah Miles 26th September – October 11th Axis/Civic/Pavilion/Draiocht

Don Wycherley’s received nothing but rave reviews for his solo performance as fisherman Bobeen in Michael Hilliard Mulcahy’s new play about a fisherman remembering his life from teenage days in 1969 to the present. As the touring element of this festival Wycherley will appear in four venues as the fisherman who worked as an extra on the filming of epic Ryan’s Daughter.

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Our Few and Evil Days 26th September – October 11th Abbey

Mark O’Rowe takes on directing duties for his first original play in some years and he has assembled a stunning cast for it: Charlie Murphy, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Sinead Cusack, and Ian Lloyd Anderson. We’re promised that a devoted daughter will find out a shocking secret about her parents from a menacing stranger. Violence and poetically abrasive language ensues…

 

Ganesh Versus The Third Reich 1st – 4th October Belvedere

The most ambitious of the three Australian plays at the festival sees the Hindu God Ganesh embark on a journey to reclaim the Swastika from the Nazis, only for things to lurch away from fantastical epic into behind the scenes bickering; as an overbearing director fights with his cast over their right to use the most sacred elements of other cultures.

 

DruidMurphy 1st – 5th October Olympia

DruidMurphy’s trilogy of plays was a highlight of the 2012 Festival, and Garry Hynes returns for a second helping with Marie Mullen and Marty Rea still in tow. Not only will Tom Murphy’s 1985 classic of a dying matriarch, Bailegangaire, be revived, but Murphy has also written a new play Brigit which acts as a prequel by filling in the back-story of matriarch Mommo’s husband.

 

Spinning 1st – 12th October Smock Alley

Fishamble presents the great Karl Shiels in a new play by Halcyon Days playwright Deirdre Kinihan. He plays a man trying to hold onto a life coming apart at the seams, who unexpectedly meets a woman coming to terms with the senseless murder of her daughter. With a cast that includes Caitriona Ennis and Janet Moran this looks set to be an absorbing production.

 

Jack Charles V The Crown 8th – 12th October Samuel Beckett

I can’t help but think of this Australian one-man show as being an eccentric kin to Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Jack Charles was part of the Stolen Generation, and then became part of Koori theatre in the 1970s and a film actor; having been a cat-burglar, heroin addict, and convict in the meantime. He performs his life-story with unrepentant brio.

 

Book Burning 8th – 11th October Project

Belgium story-teller Pieter De Buysser tells the story of Sebastian, a man he met at an Occupy demonstration. Sebastian had become embroiled in a WikiLeaks scandal; and from there De Buysser, and his visual artist Hans Op De Beeck, spin out the implications of one man’s struggles to make Sebastian’s story a synecdoche for a new mode of being in the impersonal globalised world.

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