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.

April 9, 2015

The Man in Two Pieces

Stephen Brennan and Gerard Adlum weave a web of fraudulent magic in 1920s rural Ireland in Theatre Upstairs’ new work The Man in Two Pieces.

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Vivid red curtains with an occasionally projected moon above them are the backdrop for this glimpse behind the scenes at Kerrigan’s Vaudeville Troupe. Kerrigan (Stephen Brennan) has been touring the Irish countryside for thirty years; arriving without notice, disappearing without trace, in such unlikely venues as “Gorman’s fourth field”. He keeps the same names and patter for the acts, even as he changes the artistes: his new Italian Adonis is from Sligo, and hypnotist the Great Gustavo is not really from the Black Forest, as his real name, Gordon McAleer, might give away. But just as The Boy runs away with the troupe, entranced by their magical show, the realities of the Anglo-Irish War are about to trump magic as Kerrigan insists on playing Middleton, against warnings both from his artistes and from a menacing local IRA man in Cork…

“We deal in magic” says Kerrigan, and half the trick of his trade is the audience’s desire to believe. Ironically it is just such desire, a wilful self-delusion; that politics can be ignored; which lays Kerrigan low. Brennan is on fine form as Kerrigan, a composite of canny entrepreneur, talented song and dance man, and self-mocking ringmaster who has lied so well, so often, that now all lies sound equally truthful to his ears. He may have come to Ireland from London in pursuit of a Galway girl with a beautiful voice who he made his first vaudeville attraction. He may be from Golden, Tipperary; where he expects a hero’s welcome. There are echoes of Faith Healer in Kerrigan’s contradictory narratives and this impulse to destruction; returning, like Frank Hardy’s Ballybeg, to a place where he must demonstrate his magic.

Playwright Gerard Adlum is the narrator as The Boy, who charmingly remains mute but physically expressive in his scenes with Kerrigan, and also plays the Adonis and Gustavo. He renders one with a cap and a Sligo accent, the other with a Northern accent and, in ‘character’, a German accent akin to Cabaret’s MC but with a notable punctiliousness of gait and business. Such quick changes of character are expertly accomplished through accents, physicality, props, rolling up and down of shirtsleeves, and elegant, fluid blocking by director Sarah Finlay. Finlay seems to enlarge the small playing space of Theatre Upstairs, with Kerrigan’s leaps off the stage for exits and entrances, and the constant feeling that Rebekka Duffy’s colourful and cluttered set of suitcases, brushes, and weights is only part of a wider backstage world that extends off-stage in either direction.

The Man in Two Pieces, even down to Adlum and Nessa Matthews’ two songs, is an affecting and sad play concerned with those left behind, uncomprehending, by political sea-change.

3.5/5

The Man in Two Pieces continues its run in Theatre Upstairs until the 18th of April.

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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