Talking Movies

August 24, 2017

Arlington

Enda Walsh’s latest play hit the Abbey stage, a transfer from Galway Arts Festival, and provoked walkouts from people who just don’t do interpretive dance.

 

Isla (Charlie Murphy) is an institution, it seems. The stage is a vast room of sterile white walls with the odd potted plant and high windows. And to one side, visible to us but hidden from her by a wall, is Hugh O’Conor. He is the new psychiatrist or gaoler or interrogator in a pokey office filled with monitors and equipment with an unfortunate habit of going on fire. They talk through microphone and speaker, and then suddenly Murphy is freed. But then O’Conor takes her place, bloodied and beaten, unsure what he did wrong. We are equally unsure, and also as to what happened to his predecessor, or what post-apocalyptic solution to humanity’s violent impulses this sterile room and the video projections of meanderings through forests are meant to represent, or the meaning of Oona Doherty’s lengthy solo dance.

Enda Walsh is getting vaguer and vaguer, even as he’s becoming ever more extravagant with his staging. If Ballyturk was an abstracted rewrite of The Walworth Farce, but with added prop destruction and unexpectedly expansive set design, then this is even more puzzling, but even more extraordinary in its use of space. There is something wonderful about the sheer extravagance of filling most of the Abbey’s canvas with blank space, and focusing all the action on a tiny corner where two people separated by a wall talk to each other. Except that for a significant portion of the just about 90 minute running time the floor is held by Doherty performing Emma Martin’s choreography. And, having previously praised The Cherry Orchard and The Select: The Sun Also Rises, I realised suddenly that what I loved was their choreography en masse.

As my regular theatre cohort Graham Price and I discussed afterwards, perhaps instead of running straight thru the 90 minutes there should have been an interval at the very obvious curtain point to facilitate people who don’t like dance, with a later call to put down your G&Ts because “Charlie Murphy will be re-taking the stage in 5 minutes”. As it was some people simply got up and walked out, no longer willing to wait hopefully for the ticket machine on stage to dispense dialogue at some unspecified point in the future. O’Conor brought a wealth of comic tics and Murphy was winningly naive and curious but they were dwarfed, first by Jamie Vartan’s set, and then by the crushing feeling that this was a meditation on weighty but ill-defined themes as empty as the fish tank on the stage.

Enda Walsh’s work has been getting steadily more abstracted, but this may represent the tipping point where he literally loses interest in ‘play’-writing in favour of exploring other media.

2.75/5

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October 6, 2015

The Last Hotel

Playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh adds another string to his bow with his first libretto, the opera being scored by his Misterman collaborator Donnacha Dennehy.

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Mikel Murfi’s silent hotel porter cares for a ramshackle two-star hotel. At least it’s ramshackle from what we see in Jamie Vartan’s set, which impressively fills the Belvedere College stage; a canted platform surrounded by the detritus of hotel cleaning and catering, with a series of ad hoc handholds to one side for Murfi to shin up the back wall to his tiny bedroom above the stage. From that perch he notices with horror a bloodstain on the platform and descends to clean it up. This cleaning their room is what holds up the opera’s characters: Soprano Claudia Boyle’s Irishwoman who cheerfully greets an English couple; baritone Robin Adams and his sullen wife, soprano Katherine Manley. Adams helped Boyle at an event; she’d underestimated the amount of wine that would be drunk; so she’s turned to him for darker help…

Walsh’s libretto isn’t quite as outré as his plays, but it’s still recognisably his world. Adams and Manley have been hired to murder Boyle with a gas canister, a plastic bag, and some rope to make it fast. Manley is reluctant, and sings sadly of her husband’s emotional distance from her. Adams, however, extols the joys of hotel food; “People tend to pile the plate, but not me, I respect the buffet”; exults in the extension Boyle’s blood money will finance; “A kitchen of substantial size”; and scolds Murfi over his lack of hygiene in preparing mashed potatoes. Boyle seems to be suicidal because her teenage daughter is moody, or because everyone’s always looking to her for leadership; pretty flimsy reasons for checking out. But in this strangely haunted last hotel, as Manley chillingly predicts, no one can ever leave.

Walsh also directs, which means not only showcasing Murfi’s physical acting and creating an elevator from spotlighting a square light and having Crash Ensemble play muzak, but also, after recent bafflingly squib-free stabbings in A View from the Bridge and By the Bog of Cats, that blood is properly spilt when Adams and Murfi have an altercation. It’s harder to judge Dennehy’s contribution. Nobody’s going to mistake this for a Verdi score, and yet, while plenty atonal, it’s not Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire either. The most unsettling moments, especially the climax, are driven by jagged, frenzied strings that almost combine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Herrmann’s Psycho. The prominent use of piano, flute, and xylophone gives an unusual texture to the music, while there are definite touches of Philip Glass in the minimalist repetition that Dennehy often uses to underpin arias.

The Last Hotel is a qualified success. It’s certainly an interesting meeting of minds between Enda Walsh and Landmark Productions and the other cultural world of Wide Open Opera.

3/5

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.

January 20, 2015

The Walworth Farce

The Olympia Theatre stages its second star-studded Enda Walsh play in six months as the Gleeson family throw themselves into an extravaganza of physical theatre.

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The play opens with proud Corkman Dinny (Brendan Gleeson) in the living room, matching a hideous yellow tie to his hideous blue suit. In the bathroom of their quietly disintegrating London flat son Blake (Domhnall Gleeson) is shaving his legs. They are both preparing for their day while Dinny’s other son Sean (Brian Gleeson) is out shopping. Once Sean is back, wigs and dresses can be donned, and a ritual can begin: Dinny relates the story of his mother’s funeral and the reading of her will. His sons stand in for all other characters while he plays himself; possibly the sincerity of his interpretation is the reason that every day he wins the acting trophy. But today Sean has stage-managed badly, bringing home a sausage. “It’s just not working without the chicken,” laments Dinny – which made me think  of “This chicken is the only real thing here, so I’m going to work with it” – but not only has Sean not supplied the needful props, he’s also accidentally invited an audience…

The Walworth Farce becomes an acting showcase for the Gleesons. Brendan’s charisma is such that he’s able to maintain our sympathy as the overbearing Dinny, despite some horrendous physical abuse where slapstick moments result in real injuries. Brian is the straight man, performing the part of Dinny’s put-upon brother, while in reality he is the quiet, defeated son; horrified at having bungled the shopping, but also excited by the prospect of escaping this life. Domhnall is remarkable, his physicality encompasses sitting with his leg wrapped behind his head, and playing three female characters with three distinct voices (and three different wigs, and, thanks to Velcro, outfits); running from place to place to carry on conversations with himself in different guises. Aside from the manic comedy he also registers the fear Dinny has instilled in his boys of dangerous London – dead bodies waiting to rise up from the footpaths and grab you – and resentful fury when their routine is interrupted by frightfully enthusiastic Tesco assistant Hayley (Leona Allen), luring away Sean.

It’s odd seeing this 2006 play after 2014’s Ballyturk. In both plays manic enacting of absurdist small-town bickering is interrupted by a stranger. Hayley is initially amused, then bored, and finally terrified by the ritual – and, unlike Ballyturk, which remains defiantly oblique, we know that the trio perform the routine because Dinny needs to in order to function; so that her attempts to take Sean away are fraught with danger for both herself and Sean. Walworth is less abstract than Ballyturk. Paul Keogan brightly lights the performance, while reality is subdued and sinister. Alice Power’s set of half-shown walls convincingly depicts a decaying flat: a bathroom with a hole in the wall, a bedroom with a bunk-bed and a ‘dining room’ sign with a coffin laid over two chairs, a kitchen, a sitting room with a curious wheelchair. Yet, when a knife appears, your stomach knots in dread, and you realise that there is no rational way to predict where, or in whom, it will end up by the curtain.

Director Sean Foley’s track record in exuberant, slapstick comedy is a perfect match for Walsh’s mania, but he also brings out these trapped players’ tender desperation, and the almost Pinterish edge that Hayley’s arrival brings to this family dynamic.

4/5

The Walworth Farce continues its run at the Olympia Theatre until the 8th of February.

September 5, 2014

The Actor’s Lament

Actor Steven Berkoff returns to writing verse drama for the first time in decades with this entertaining if slight production.

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Berkoff is an actor recovering from hostile reviews of his first outing as a playwright. Licking his wounds, he is comforted by the kind words of his playwright friend played by Jay Benedict, who insists he is a fantastic actor and the critics could not forgive his presumption. And the mutual flattery escalates even further when their actress friend played by Andree Bernard arrives, to be told what a great artiste she is; even if she is understudying a soap star on the West End. And then things kick off into not so much a lament as a tirade, at the state of the West End, the cult of theatre directors, the arrogance of playwrights, and, above all, the agony of the actor’s life and the importance of what they do night after night; for themselves and for the audience.

That might sound a bit off-putting, but this splenetic hour is filled with humour and self-awareness. Berkoff knows that an actor turned playwright moaning about revivals in the West End, and how directors like them because they get a cut of the proceeds, will seem dangerously like personal carping by Berkoff himself. And so he turns it up to 11: we get Berkoff moving himself to tears over the West End being a morgue; “Poor Chekhov dragged out again, leave the poor bloody sod alone”; full of clueless screen actors; “If you don’t remember your lines you do it fifty more bloody times. But in theatre there is only one take, and it goes on all night, every night, until you get it right!”; while dedicated actors like Berkoff and Bernard are left on the scrapheap, abandoned even by Benedict.

Berkoff’s use of verse is not like Joss Whedon’s use of rhyme in his musicals. You’re rarely waiting for a pay-off from a Berkoff line, instead it sounds like normal speech with the occasional unexpected rhyme. And, performed on a bare stage, with only an ornate chair for decoration, the focus is on the physical theatre Berkoff perfected after studying at the Lecoq school in Paris; so well displayed in Ballyturk some weeks back by a younger veteran of that school, Mikel Murfi. Imaginary cigarettes are lit with hands where the thumb waggles for the flame of a lighter. Othello, Macbeth, and Lear come to life for a few lines by dint of a change in posture and tone of voice. Berkoff ages himself by stooping and playing deaf. Indeed by the end Berkoff, age 77, was drenched in sweat…

The Actor’s Lament is a late and almost disappointingly short work from a master, but, while his age precludes the full powerhouse style of his youth, his physical theatre is still to be revered.

3/5

The Actor’s Lament continues its run at the Gaiety Theatre until September 6th.

August 14, 2014

Ballyturk

Cillian Murphy and playwright Enda Walsh reunite for their second collaboration in two years, following Misterman’s success, and Ballyturk is another extravaganza of physical theatre.

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Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi are trapped in a massive room, which, courtesy of designer Jamie Vartan, fills every inch of the stage, with a fold-down bed, a shower, a kitchen-space, and endless closets. The play begins with Murphy in a hurling helmet screaming his head off about the inhabitants of Ballyturk. Murfi, however, is not dressed yet – and so ABC’s ‘The Look of Love’ soundtracks their ritualised manic getting-dressed routine. It will be the first of many 1980s pop songs that they dance to amongst other performances. They listen to mysterious voices from next door, are terrified of a cuckoo clock, and, when their alarm clock rings, throw darts at a wall of sketches and then enact the interactions of the pinpointed inhabitants of Ballyturk. And writer/director Enda Walsh relishes the physical theatre of their recreations of Ballyturk’s denizens.

Murphy leaps around the stage, even nearing its roof as he perches on a ledge to portray the town’s waspish storekeeper, embittered by her loss at bingo to her hated rival Mrs Reynolds. He has frequent fits, which Murfi holds him during, and becomes despairing at the presence of a fly which makes their routines less satisfactory so that he bangs his head against a wall till he bleeds. Murfi joins Murphy in destroying their LP collection, and cycles manically through Ballyturk’s rogue’s gallery, but his calmer character is defined by his elaborate stacking of biscuits. Stephen Rea’s startling arrival into this closed space is an equally startling change of pace, as he engages in a lengthy monologue about ageing, parenthood, and both the necessity and purpose of death in creating meaning by bringing lives, and stories, to an end.

But what’s it all about? Are they brothers? Is Rea their father? Perhaps. Murfi protects Murphy, and says he as the eldest should be first to go when Rea threatens one must die. But Teho Teardo’s foreboding music, and a chilling final minute, suggest a different interpretation – perhaps this is a more manic and surreal Room-like depiction of abduction? Rea’s musical number, in which a mic is lowered down from above certainly suggests effortless control. Or maybe it’s Plato’s allegory of the cave? Rea offers a glimpse of the world outside, but are its flowers that bloom from nothing in minutes more real than the rich Ballyturk created by the neon sign over the gallery of sketches, and could Murphy and Murfi ever accept a world outside their own mental projections as being as satisfyingly real as their imaginative creations?

It could be a poetic vision of mental illness. Ultimately I have no idea what this play is about and I rather like that. It’s simply barmy and brilliant.

4/5

Ballyturk continues its run at the Olympia Theatre until the 23rd of August.

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