Talking Movies

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

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October 6, 2014

Our Few and Evil Days

Ciaran Hinds and Sinead Cusack, so successful in Juno and the Paycock back in 2011, reunite as a more contemporary but equally troubled married couple; whose headstrong daughter brings home an equally superficially attractive paramour.

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Michael (Hinds) and Margaret (Cusack) are a loving couple in a Dublin suburb who no longer share a bedroom. The wordless opening of both acts sees Michael come downstairs to wake her up, and then put away mattress and pillows and switch the pull-out bed back to a sofa while she dresses upstairs. Yet their obvious devotion to each other is noticed and commented on by unexpected visitor Dennis (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), who has been placed in the awkward position of meeting the parents solo by Adele (Charlie Murphy) running off to help her friend Belinda thru yet another crisis. Dennis inevitably makes a faux pas, about Adele’s absent brother, Jonathan; something teased out, along with Belinda’s crises, when Adele arrives for a very late dinner. But when Adele leaves again Dennis is convinced to stay over by Michael, and so when Dennis gets up for a drink of water he falls over Margaret; and their conversation about Jonathan becomes… disturbing.

Our Few and Evil Days is hard to review without ruining the effect of Mark O’Rowe’s mischievous structure. My lead-in was mischievous in mentioning O’Casey, because this is clearly in the vein of two other playwrights. The interrupting and sharply back and forth dialogue owes a debt to David Mamet, and the stellar cast, once they’ve warmed up to it (almost), embrace its rhythms with gusto. Meanwhile Harold Pinter’s comedy of menace rumbles under the attempts of naively nice guy Dennis to make a good impression. As director O’Rowe is also mischievous, casting Ian-Lloyd Anderson against type as Belinda’s abusive boyfriend Gary, by muting the physical menace he displayed in Major Barbara and instead playing up epic self-pity. This is a solidly middle-class setting courtesy of Paul Wills’ fully functioning set; with stairs behind the glass doors from the sitting room to the hall, a laundry area behind the kitchen, and a working sink (the final pre-Irish Water set design?).

Unfortunately such an impressive deeply layered set necessitates the removal of the first four rows of seats, so row E gets pasted up against the stage; and during Dennis and Margaret’s pivotal scene sitting at the kitchen table you are listening to a table emote because you can’t see Margaret’s face at all… O’Rowe’s play comprises three scenes either side of the interval; but where uncomfortable comedy dominates the first act, Freudian nightmares, shouting matches, and pop-analysis dominate the second. This gives the impression by the end that some characters have merely acted as plot devices to push the most important characters into dramatic screaming matches, and that much of the comedy has been a red herring. This doesn’t really matter though when actors of the calibre of Hinds, Cusack, Murphy and Vaughan-Lawlor are giving it their all. Vaughan-Lawlor clearly relishes playing against ‘Nidge’, Cusack is endearingly earthy, Hinds is sympathetically conflicted, and Murphy impressively alternates between wounded and wounding.

O’Rowe’s script has a fearful symmetry, great comedy, and touches on true darkness, but is perhaps a bit too full of misdirection. It’s possible to see future productions simply fall apart with lesser actors.

4/5

Our Few and Evil Days continues its run at the Abbey until the 25th of October.

September 18, 2014

Noble

Stand-up Deirdre O’Kane tackles a weighty dramatic role as humanitarian Christina Noble in this biopic set in Ireland and Vietnam.

NOBLE

Noble (O’Kane) arrives in Vietnam in 1989, on a mission from God – more or less. She had a dream about Vietnam and travelled there, quickly discovering that her calling is to make a difference in the lives of the buidoi, the despised street children. Flashbacks (with Gloria Cramer Curtis and Sarah Greene as the younger Noble) draw the parallel between her tenement childhood and institutionalised teenage years, and the plight of the Vietnamese children she takes under her wing. In Vietnam she attempts to cajole Irish and English businessmen Gerry Shaw (Brendan Coyle) and David Somers (Mark Huberman) into financing building works at the neglected orphanage run by Madame Linh (Nhu Quynh Nguyen). But as her experience with abusive husband Mario Pistola (David Mumeni) has taught her, charm can hide callous cruelty – and figures of authority everywhere disdain their buidoi.

Cinematographer Trevor Forrest’s location work in Saigon is fantastic, with familiar imagery of vegetation floating downriver right next to the modernising city of the Western businessman. Noble is also lit up by many great performances. Ruth Negga is winning as Joan, the best friend of Greene’s teenage Christine. Greene, a Talking Movies favourite for her great theatre work, has a meaty cinematic part here and renders Christina a punchy survivor. Sadly the great Karl Shiels is wasted in as cipherish a cameo as his Peaky Blinders role. This is doubly disappointing because Coyle and Huberman offer wonderfully nuanced turns, and Liam Cunningham as Christina’s drunken father is gloriously ambiguous. However, Cunningham’s self-mythologising father who veers between love and rage is a figure out of O’Casey; which draws attention to Christina Casali’s 1950s Dublin design seeming more suited to 1920s Dublin.

That design even drags us into Angela’s Ashes territory, because everything that can go wrong for Christina does go wrong. Even though it’s based on a true story you feel like writer/director Stephen Bradley’s script is hewing to established clichés of the misery memoir. And there are other problems: Christina’s constant recourse to charming singing feels forced, the practicalities of her living rough in the Phoenix Park and later gaining access to Vietnam are left unaddressed, and even her impassioned rant to God in a church recalls The West Wing. Quite worryingly, following Philomena’s unlovely lead, Bradley seems to deploy pre-Vatican II religious garb as a simplistic visual signifier of presumptive evil. Eva Birthistle’s nun is to be treated as a boo-hiss pantomime villain from her first appearance in a wimple; a veritable judas-goat for judicial, political and familial villains.

Noble has a number of committed performances, but the script doesn’t do them justice; it is too on the nose when it could have used more subtlety and humour in depicting Noble’s extraordinary efforts.

2.75/5

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.

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