Talking Movies

May 3, 2016

Northern Star

Director Lynne Parker revisits her late uncle Stewart Parker’s 1984 script again, with a Brechtian touch, and the result is a theatrical tour de force.

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Henry Joy McCracken (Paul Mallon) is on the run. The 1798 Rebellion has failed miserably in Antrim as he has found himself leading literally dozens of men, to exaggerate slightly. And exaggerating slightly is something McCracken does a lot during a purgatorial night in a ruined house with his Catholic lover Mary (Charlotte McCurry). As he attempts to construct some sort of decent speech from the gallows for the citizens of Belfast he trawls through his memories of the 1790s, remembered in flashbacks that approximate to Shakespeare’s 7 Ages of Man and to the style of 7 different Irish playwrights. There is the ribald shenanigans of Sheridan in rooting out informers, the melodramatic balderdash of Boucicault in uniting Defenders and Orangemen, and the witty quips of Wilde in McCracken’s dealing with Wolfe Tone and Edward Bunting. But there’s also darkness…

Lynne Parker has spoken of adopting a Brechtian approach by having McCracken identified by his jacket, so Mallon can hand it over to other actors and sit back and observe himself in his own flashbacks; played by Ali White with gusto in the Boucicault flashback and with comic disbelief in the O’Casey flashback. This combined with Zia Holly’s design, confronting the audience with the wings of a theatre as the playing space, amps up the theatricality of Stewart Parker’s script, which was already reminiscent of Stoppard’s Travesties in its dialogue with and pitch-perfect parodies of older works. Rory Nolan is hilarious as a dodgy Defender played in the style of O’Casey’s Paycock, and as harp enthusiast Edward Bunting played as Algernon Moncrieff’s ancestor, in Stewart Parker’s two most acute ventriloquisms. But all these capers occur underneath an ever-present literal noose.

Mallon and McCurry scenes in McCracken’s long night of the soul are the emotional glue that binds together the fantastical flashbacks, and they are affecting as she tries to convince him that his sister’s plan to escape to America under false papers is a reprieve not banishment. The flashbacks become more contemplative after the interval with Darragh Kelly’s loyalist labourer challenging McCracken over his failure to rally Protestants to the United Irishmen’s standard, and a prison flashback revealing the desperation of McCracken’s situation. Richard Clements, Eleanor Methven, and Robbie O’Connor complete the ensemble, deftly portraying a dizzying array of characters in McCracken’s remembrances. Mallon is wonderfully melancholic during Parker’s most overtly state of the nation moments, and remarkably, even with the Troubles’ paramilitary iconography at work, a 1984 play about 1798 sounds like it’s addressing 1916 at a theatrical remove.

Rough Magic’s 2012 Travesties occasionally lost the audience with its intellectual bravura, but Lynne Parker through theatrical panache has indeed ‘liberated’ this equally clever meditation on history and culture.

4/5

Northern Star continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until the 7th of May.

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October 9, 2015

The Cherry Orchard

Belgian company tg STAN bring a revelatory, fourth-wall crumbling production of The Cherry Orchard to the Dublin Theatre Festival.

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Widower Lyuba (Jolente De Keersmaeker) is returning home to her Russian estate after five years in Paris. She and daughter Anya (Evelien Bosmans) find that Lyuba’s brother Leonid (Robby Cleiren) and her adopted daughter Varya (Evgenia Brendes) have been unable to keep up interest payments on the estate’s mortgage. The spendthrift family is in danger of being evicted, despite the sensible, if heartless, advice offered by millionaire entrepreneur Lopakhin (Frank Vercruyssen) to cut down the trees and lease the land for summerhouses. But there is little hope of anything sensible being done in this house. If Leonid isn’t playing imaginary games of billiards or eulogising bookcases, then Lyuba is tearing up letters from her lover and, inspired by the return of Petya (Lukas De Wolf); her drowned son’s tutor; lamenting that it’s all a punishment from God for her misdeeds.

If you wish Chekhov to be presented in splendid costumes with elaborate sets and subtle naturalistic lighting, then this is not Chekhov. The ball in the background of the action in Act Three is a party scored by Belgian house music that frequently becomes a mesmerising foreground. The dawn breaking in Act One is achieved by Stijn Van Opstal removing filters from lights visible behind some moveable scenery, and informing the audience ‘It’s the sun rising’. Van Opstal also offers members of the front row a bottle of water at the start of Act Three as he puts out water for the house party in his capacity as aged servant Firs. He also plays Master Mishap, Semyon, a dual role he informs us of with ‘A change of shoes, a change of shirt, oh, and yes, a change of character’.

The Cherry Orchard as presented by tg STAN may be construed as Chekhov via Bertolt Brecht via Groucho Marx. The fourth wall is a moveable feast. Van Opstal literally winks at the audience. When one person laughed at a tender line between Petya and Lyuba both actors turned to look for that person in the audience to raise their eyebrows at them. This is tremendous fun, and a not unreasonable response to Chekhov’s anarchic script. It also makes supporting players like drunken neighbour Boris (Bert Haelvoet) and governess/magician Sharlotta (Minke Kruyver) incredibly memorable. Indeed it will be almost impossible not to hold Kruyver’s still, wry performance as the resigned, witty drifter dressed in New Romantic garb as the benchmark when next encountering the character. Emphasising the ensemble in this way also amplifies Chekhov’s pathos by highlighting the characters’ shared haplessness.

This stands beside 2009’s Three Sisters and 2012’s The Select: The Sun Also Rises as a production which will forever affect the way you think about a classic work.

5/5

The Cherry Orchard continues its run at Belvedere College until the 10th of October.

February 5, 2015

Patrick’s Day

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The enfant terrible of Irish cinema writer/director Terry McMahon follows up Charlie Casanova with another exercise in epating les bourgeoisie.

Patrick (Moe Dunford) was born on St Patrick’s Day. And so every year his devoted mother Maura (Kerry Fox) has made a ritual of getting him a silly hat or glasses, going for a meal, and taking a photo. But this year she loses her son. He finds himself in the company of suicidal air hostess Karen (Catherine Walker), who takes him back to her hotel room; across the corridor from his; and deflowers him. But the reason Patrick is a taciturn virgin at 26, and seems mildly out of it, is that he has mental health issues. But as Karen is drawn into Maura’s attempts to control her son’s life, along with Garda Freeman (Philip Jackson), the question is posed – who is truly crazy here? Patrick and Freddie (Aaron Monaghan) in the psychiatric hospital or the ‘sane’ world outside?

McMahon’s script is artificial and problematic. Karen’s dialogue, especially her use of ‘kiddo’ and her initial introduction, is the worst offender for ham-fisted dialogue, but there are also wearisome cinematic clichés that telegraph their arrival; like Maura knocking all her photos with Patrick off the wall. All give the impression that McMahon is scripting based on how people act in films rather than from any sort of observation of how people act in reality. Karen’s suicide attempt with pills is remarkably inept, and not deliberately so as is with Colin Firth in A Single Man, and her suicidal impulses are never explored and quickly forgotten. There’s a scene with a dog in which Patrick tosses a scrap of food into traffic for the dog to get, the dog of course gets hit by a car – why do that? Well, the script said to; so Patrick could bring the dog inside to the cafe where the manager recognises Patrick’s condition, saying his son had the same. This scene’s remarkable, contrivance aside, because it’s not clear at all what Patrick’s condition is…

Patrick seems off from the start, but maybe that’s the tranquilisers he’s on zoning him out. He has a regimen to control his schizophrenia. But then later it’s revealed that he has intellectual disability. He has a mental age of 14. But then a later anecdote indicates that at age 9 he couldn’t distinguish between fact and fiction. But then the schizophrenia is emphasised again… John Nash is a paranoid schizophrenic given to auditory and visual hallucinations. He’s also a mathematical genius whose invention of game theory earned him the Nobel for economics. Schizophrenia and intellectual disability are not connected. McMahon is depicting a thirtysomething woman having sex with a man with a teenage boy’s mind. Far from realising how dubious this is Patrick’s Day expects us to unfurl a banner with ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’ on it for the finale. And that’s before we get to the compound of Ken Kesey and RD Laing that is the presentation of the psychiatric hospital run by bad people and the madness of mother Maura constantly kissing her adult son on the lips.

We are meant to feel traumatised by Patrick’s treatment at the hands of authority figures in the third act. But it’s impossible to feel anything when it’s so obviously George Lucas’ proverbial cinematic gimmick of drowning a bag of kittens to make the audience cry – everything has been so contrived that McMahon has unintentionally achieved a Brechtian alienation. Dunford’s performance is one of blank bafflement alternated with childish surliness and childish exuberance. It’s not possible to care about Patrick’s distress because he’s scary – he has the force of a strong man, able to break noses with a single sharp punch, but the self-control of a petulant child – and the film doesn’t seem to realise that. Dunford, like Walker, Jackson, and Fox, is a good actor being incredibly ill-served by the script in which McMahon’s desire to provoke outweighs all else. RD Laing and Ken Kesey were of their time (and Adam Curtis has persuasively argued that Laing has had a baneful effect on modern medicine), and simply replicating their ideas is a startlingly outdated, unoriginal way to criticise Ireland 2015.

Patrick’s Day is technically very competent but its script is so troubling both aesthetically and morally that you wish Terry McMahon would just drop his auteurist ambitions and direct someone else’s screenplay next time.

0.5/5

July 27, 2013

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

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Maeve’s House 24th September – October 12th Peacock

Another theatre festival, another show about Ranelagh native and New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan. Gerry Stembridge directs Eamon Morrisey’s one-man show about growing up in the house that Brennan set many of her biting short stories in. Morrissey promises to properly incorporate some of her stories into the performance, something which was quite badly needed in last year’s The Talk of the Town.

Winners and Losers 26th – 29th September Project

This sounds like a contemporary spin on Louis Malle’s 1981 film My Dinner with Andre. Canadian actors and writers James Long and Marcus Youssef sit at a table and play a friendly game; dubbing people, places and things winners or losers. Friendly, until making monetary success the sole nexus of human relations gets too close to home, and things get personal and ugly…

The Threepenny Opera 26th September – October 12th Gate

Mack the Knife graces the Gate stage, but in this instance Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s classic scabrous Weimar Republic musical has been given a makeover by Mark O’Rowe and Wayne Jordan. The combination of the writer of Perrier’s Bounty and director of Alice in Funderland doesn’t entice, but Aoibhinn McGinnity belting out Weill’s fusion of jazz and cabaret is practically irresistible.

riverrun 2nd – 6th October Project

Actress Olwen Foure’s premiere of Sodom, My Love at the Project underwhelmed so expectations should be lowered for her new one-woman show. Now that Joyce is finally out of the dead hand of copyright she adapts Finnegans Wake with an emphasis on the voice of the river, Anna Livia Plurabelle. Expect some physical theatre to complement and parallel the ‘sound-dance’ of Joyce’s complicated linguistic punning.

Three Fingers below the Knee 2nd – 5th October Project

As Portugal lurches about in renewed economic crisis this is a salient reminder of how dark many of our fellow PIIGS’s recent past is. Writer Tiago Rodrigues directs Isabel Abreu and Goncalo Waddington in an exploration of power and expression based on the records of the censorship commission of Salazar’s dictatorship; thoughtfully probing their editing decisions for plays old and new.

Waiting for Godot 2nd – 6th October Gaiety

Probably, along with The Threepenny Opera, the flagship show of the festival as Conor Lovett and his Gare St Lazare players take on Beckett’s most celebrated play. It’s always worth seeing Vladimir and Estragon bicker as they wait for the unreliable Godot, and be driven mad by Lucky and Pozzo’s eruption onto their desolate stage, but you feel Barry McGovern has copyright here…

Desire under the Elms 2nd – 13th October Smock Alley

Corn Exchange bring their signature commedia dell’arte style to Eugene O’Neill’s early masterpiece about a love triangle akin to Greek tragedy playing out in an 1850s New England farm. Druid came a cropper with Long Day’s Journey into Night at the 2007 festival and Corn Exchange’s 2012 show Dubliners was incredibly uneven. This could be great, but let’s employ cautious optimism.

The Critic 2nd – 13th October Culture Box/Ark

Well, this looks eccentric. Rough Magic throws Talking Movies favourites Rory Nolan and Darragh Kelly at a Richard Brinsley Sheridan script. Nolan was superb in 2009’s Abbey production of The Rivals, but director Lynne Parker is going for a far more postmodern effect here as the characters leave the theatre to watch Dublin’s premier college troupes perform the preposterous play within a play!

Neutral Hero 9th – 12th October Project

Writer/director Richard Maxwell made the New York Times’ Top 10 Plays of 2012 with this picaresque tale of a young man searching for his father in the contemporary Midwest. New York City Players are known for their experimental style fusing text, movement and music; and the 12 cast members play characters that are all revealed to hide mythic importance behind their initially humdrum facades.

The Hanging Gardens 3rd – 12th October Abbey

Frank McGuinness’ adaptation of John Gabriel Borkman stole the 2010 Festival, but does he really have a great new original play in him? Talking Movies favourite Marty Rea reunites with his DruidMurphy sparring partner Niall Buggy. Three children competing for their parents’ approval sounds like a parody, but so did Tom Murphy’s The House which then revealed itself to be far more layered.

December 3, 2011

Big Maggie

The Clinic star Aisling O’Sullivan stars as the titular monstrous matriarch in Druid’s production of John B Keane’s abrasive comedy-drama.

John B Keane’s 1969 play is remarkably explicit in its dissection of how ecclesiastical attitudes to sexuality were a rather useful enabler to the snuffing out of any romantic machinations that didn’t also satisfy cravings for social climbing thru land acquisition. Maggie opens the play smoking by an empty hearse rather than watch her husband be buried. A lengthy and tense scene in the family home sees her reveal that he had signed over to her all rights to money, house, shop and farm. She means to dominate now, and the children will get nothing unless they toe the line. Mick, the eldest son promised ½ the farm by his father, immediately leaves for England. Maurice is strung along with the promise that he might be allowed to marry and have the farm, if he waits. Maggie chillingly notes that he’s only 24, and his father (in this deranged society) was considered very young to be married at 35. Gert and Katie are to swap working in kitchen and shop as punishment for Katie being the father’s favourite.

Maggie’s determination to exercise absolute authority powers the resolution of this family struggle over four shocking scenes. Charlie Murphy is impressively haughty and saucy but also fragile as Katie, the eldest daughter who it’s implied might have had an incestuous relationship with the dead patriarch. The only member of the family who can land a verbal blow on Maggie, she is nevertheless forced into a loveless marriage by her mother for the sake of money and respectability. Sarah Greene is wonderfully jejune as Gert, the youngest daughter who is shocked by Katie’s early revelations but grows up quickly under the harsh tutelage of her mother’s cruelty in stifling her love life. John Olohan is again a terrifically funny presence as the monumental sculptor Byrne. He’s gifted the filthiest gags in the play as well as both delivering and receiving tremendously vicious putdowns in his flirtatious bantering with Maggie. Director Garry Hynes’s stunt-casting gamble pays off as Keith Duffy is surprisingly good as the playboy commercial traveller, trading on his boy-band looks and matinee idol romantic posturing to good comedic effect.

The bleak ending is both a quasi-reversal of Riders to the Sea, and, as Fiachra MacNamara pointed out to me, almost a nod towards Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Aisling O’Sullivan does a good Kerry accent and delivers biting lines with relish, but she has rarely made any of her characters particularly likeable, and it’s tempting to ask if Maggie’s motivations might have seemed more convincing with a different actress in the role. Would another actress have made Maggie’s marrying off of Katie, despite her complaints about the misery of her own marriage for the sake of financial security, seem tragic in its complicity with a hated socio-economic system rather than merely hypocritical? Despite the quality of the acting and sharpness of the writing this play becomes quite draining because of the sheer selfishness of Maggie, which appears in her final espousal of her ‘zero-sum world’ philosophy; a philosophy which she fails to note is contradicted by the continued support and affection her exiled children still afford each other, but will now justly deny to her…

Nevertheless this is a strong production of a play whose existence challenges the conventional wisdom about our recent past.

4/5

Big Maggie is on a nationwide tour, ending with its return to the Gaiety in February.

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.

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…

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