Talking Movies

August 27, 2017

The Dumb Waiter

Artistic director Michael Colgan bade a sentimental (and almost self-parodic) farewell to the Gate Theatre with a festival of Beckett, Friel, and Pinter one-act plays.

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Gus (Garrett Lombard) and Ben (Lorcan Cranitch) are waiting to go to work. Mind you, the nature of that work is not exactly specified. But Gus, the young partner, is impatient, and critical of falling standards in their accommodation for such waiting gigs. Ben, the older partner, is tired of his job, and possibly of Gus. So he tries to ignore Gus’ gripes about being stuck in a basement in Birmingham with tea bags but no gas to light up to boil water. But his attempts to read the newspaper are foiled by arguments about whether Aston Villa are playing at home, whether everyone is always playing away no matter where they get sent, and who really killed a cat in the news. And that’s before the antique dumb waiter in the basement starts acting up, leading to more aggro…

I’ve haven’t seen The Dumb Waiter since the UCD Dramsoc production directed by my friend Priscilla Ni Cheallaigh in 2000, starring Patrick Fitzgerald. Pinter done at anything but the right pace can drag to deathliness, even the Gate’s 2015 The Caretaker wobbled, but director Joe Dowling gets the pace here spot on; drawing out comedy. Cranitch’s raised eyebrows and shuffling newspaper at Lombard’s antics, including business with spare matches and shoes, bring out a level of slapstick that is amped up further when he starts howling “The larder is bare!” at the dumb waiter after they’ve loaded it with odds and ends of food. Oddly enough Cranitch and Lombard’s mania at satiating the unknown operator above actually reminded me of John Olohan and Eamon Morrissey’s ludicrous struggles with a mysterious telephone call in Druid’s 2010 production of The Silver Tassie.

Dowling and set designer Francis O’Connor utilise the full space of the Gate to create as much distance as possible between Gus and Ben, and make the stage very spare; almost a visual equivalent of how silence lingers between them, pregnant with tension and absurdity dependent on how Pinter’s dots on the page work. And Lombard continues to show a real flair for delivering Pinter’s absurdist speeches. Joan O’Clery’s costumes look down-at-heel until they’ve properly dressed; but even still these two are more Harry Palmer than James Bond. For the first time, instead of thinking of these characters as hit-men out of Pulp Fiction, as was inevitable back in 2000, I wondered – what if they’re cleaners? What if they’re plugging MI5 leaks MI5 with extreme prejudice, taking out the Burgesses and Macleans of the world; morose from that squalid task.

Lombard and Cranitch make a formidable double act, bringing Pinter’s early classic to humorous and doom-laden life. Oh, to see them as Mugsy and Stephen in Dealer’s Choice here.

4/5

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November 10, 2015

An Alternative Abbey 2016 Programme

I’d been waiting for the Abbey’s new season, and was disappointed by it. I didn’t think much of their commission choices, and felt their other selections betrayed a peculiarly apologetic and almost self-loathing attitude towards a celebration of our independence. So I thought about what I might have programmed instead…

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Here are the essentials of the Abbey’s 2016 programme to September:

 

*Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland

(dir: Vicky Featherstone)

The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey

(dir: Sean Holmes)

*New Middle East by Mutaz Abu Saleh

(dir: Bashar Murkus)

*Tina’s Idea of Fun by Sean P Summers

(dir: Gerry Stembridge)

Othello by William Shakespeare

(dir: Joe Dowling)

*Town is Dead by Philip McMahon & Ray Scannell

(dir: TBC)

The Wake by Tom Murphy

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness

(dir: Jeremy Herrin)

 

Here are the essentials of my alternative Abbey 2016 programme:

 

*Commissioned Work by Mark O’Rowe

(dir: Mark O’Rowe)

John Bull’s Other Island by George Bernard Shaw

(dir: Roisin McBrinn)

*Not I by Samuel Beckett, Play by Samuel Beckett, On Baile’s Strand by WB Yeats, Riders to the Sea by JM Synge

(dir: Annie Ryan)

*Delirium by Enda Walsh

(dir: Conall Morrison)

Making History by Brian Friel

(dir: Patrick Mason)

*The Effect by Lucy Prebble

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

Commissioned Work by Marina Carr

(dir: Selina Cartmell)

The Wake by Tom Murphy

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

 

*Plays marked with an asterisk are on the Peacock stage.

This alternative programme is of course a fantasy, because it takes no account of the availability of directors and playwrights, but it does utilise people who have done fine work at the Abbey in recent years. It commissions new plays from two of our finest playwrights, Mark O’Rowe and Marina Carr, and gives Enda Walsh’s exuberant Dostoevsky adaptation from 2008 the chance of a subtler interpretation. The Shavian elephant in the room is finally tackled, and what better time for Shaw’s exuberant interrogation of our capacity for self-government? The late Brian Friel is honoured with a timely production of his exploration of exile and myth-making in Irish history, while Tom Murphy’s more recent dissection of exile and return ends the summer season. The Abbey’s fullest spectrum is utilised: Revival classics are paired with two of Beckett’s trickiest works, and Comyn returns to her beginnings in directing a contemporary English play.

The Abbey perhaps stands at an odd angle to 1916. It is after all a national theatre older than its politically constituted nation, led in its early days by Anglo-Irish writers with a gift for enraging their Irish audience, and its seminal engagement with the decade of revolution was by a writer whose corrosive scepticism spared no institution. The Plough and the Stars is the obvious choice for marking the Rising, perhaps too obvious a choice. It has been staged too frequently to too little effect in the last decade to be wheeled out once again to throw cold water over Pearse’s dream. Not least when Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme is deliberately programmed against it, as if we’re apologising to Unionists for rebelling when we could have been nobly dying for the British Empire instead. As for Othello, one quote deployed by Haughey does not a state of the nation play make. Serious engagement with Shakespeare’s quatercentenary would be a post-colonial take on The Tempest.

1916 is to be celebrated like 1776 or 1789, not apologised for, agonised over, or disparaged. The only way to discuss a programme of plays is to parse it qualitatively play by play, because that’s how people choose to go to the theatre: play by play, depending on their particular artistic cost-benefit analysis of the actors, the playwright, the director, and the subject matter. I’ve felt compelled in disliking so many of the Abbey’s individual picks to present an alternative programme of plays. Consonant with my banishing O’Casey I say there’s little use tearing down everything and building up nothing.

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.

August 6, 2015

A Month in the Country on HeadStuff

A Month in the Country has had its run in the Gate extended to the 29th of August, so if you’re wondering whether to catch Ethan McSweeney’s production at the last moment here’s a teaser for my review for HeadStuff.

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Natalya (Aislin McGuckin) dominates the life of an 1850s Russian country house. She is married to the older Arkady (Nick Dunning), who seems oblivious to the platonic love affair she’s conducting with his erstwhile friend Michel (Simon O’Gorman). Natalya herself has a blind spot though, she fails to spot that her teenage ward Vera (Caoimhe O’Malley) has fallen for new tutor Aleksey (Dominic Thorburn). When it’s pointed out to her, and ever-visiting doctor Shpigelsky (Mark O’Regan) approaches her with a proposal of marriage for Vera from the aged Bolshintsov (Pat McGrath), Natalya becomes consumed by jealousy and starts plotting to marry off Vera to leave herself without a romantic rival for the young tutor’s affections. Michel is unable to prevent these machinations, while Arkady’s mother Anna (Barbara Brennan), Herr Schaff (Peter Gaynor), and Lizaveta (Ingrid Craigie) have never stood up to Natalya.

Click here to read the full review on HeadStuff.org.

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.

Dancing at Lughnasa - credit Chris Heaney 800x400

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.

July 16, 2015

A Month in the Country

Ethan McSweeny directs Brian Friel’s version of Ivan Turgenev’s classic comedy-drama concerning the complicated romantic entanglements on a 19th Century Russian estate in high summer.

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Natalya (Aislin McGuckin) is married to the much older Arkady (Nick Dunning), a man too distracted with improvements to his estate to notice that his permanent houseguest and best friend Michel (Simon O’Gorman) is plainly in love with Natalya. Other residents of the Arkady house include bombastic German Herr Schaff (Peter Gaynor), long-suffering Lizaveta (Ingrid Craigie), Arkady’s formidable mother Anna (Barbara Brennan), new tutor Aleksey (Dominic Thorburn), and Natalya’s teenage ward Vera (Caoimhe O’Malley). Local doctor Shpigelsky (Mark O’Regan) doesn’t actually live there, but he might as well given that he spends as much time there as the eternally distracted bickering servants Matvey (Dermot Magennis) and Katya (Clare Monnelly). But when Vera falls in love with Aleksey and Natalya becomes madly infatuated with him, and blind to the counsel of Michel, the stage is set for betrayal, heartbreak, and reproach.

ADP Briggs has convincingly argued that the parallels in characters and relationships between A Month in the Country and Uncle Vanya are too close to be coincidental; Chekhov as we know him is unthinkable without Turgenev’s exemplar. Certainly a scene of total chaos in the final act as several characters wander into the drawing room to resolve several sub-plots anticipates Chekhov’s fondness for rattling several scenes through one set. Friel’s 1992 version gives the servants Northern Irish leanings against an RP aristocracy, and Bolshintsov (Pat McGrath) is amusingly rendered as a 1950s Irish bachelor farmer. An interesting echo is a devastated Arkady’s lament that he needed a measure of discretion from Natalya and Michel in order to successfully not know what he does know, which seems to speak to Judith’s speech in Aristocrats on how her circumscribed life is possible to endure so long as its limits are not hammered home. Oddly enough there are anticipations of another playwright Friel has translated, Ibsen, in Natalya’s manipulations and impulsive scheming. It’s as if Judge Brack had never cornered Hedda Gabler and she continued to relieve her boredom by insulting people, thwarting romances, and impulsively manipulating people.

Aislin McGuckin who had some imperious moments in Heartbreak House at the Abbey last summer rises to the challenge of such a figure, and alternates knowing vocal sultriness, with epic self-pity, blind fury, and vulnerable self-awareness. Natalya’s proto-Chekhovian soliloquies baffled 1850 audiences, but their psychological quality is very modern; although they can seem repetitious, especially if you saw Mark O’Rowe’s lean version of Ibsen in April. O’Gorman’s Michel is a study in defeat, while Dunning’s Arkady comes into his own after the interval as a comic character in his obliviousness who is tragic in that he needs to be oblivious to function. O’Malley slightly overdoes the girlishness of Vera, before maturing under the machinations of Natalya, while O’Regan hoovers up good lines as punning peasant made good Shpigelsky. Gaynor meanwhile lets rip in support. The expected silliness he suppressed in his Hedda Gabler character in April appears here in spades.

Francis O’Connor’s clever set and Peter O’Brien elegant costumes are the perfect visual palette for Turgenev’s tale of misplaced affections and quiet acceptances in a production of bittersweet comedy.

3/5

A Month in the Country continues its run at the Gate until August 22nd.

April 16, 2015

Hedda Gabler

Director Annabelle Comyn reunites with her The Talk of the Town leading lady Catherine Walker for Mark O’Rowe’s new version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 classic.

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Hedda Gabler (Walker) returns from a six-month honeymoon with husband Jorge Tesman (Peter Gaynor), who has tried her patience with research trips to libraries. But at least in libraries she didn’t have to endure Tesman’s beloved Aunt Julle (Jane Brennan) or maid Berte (Deirdre Molloy). Life in this new house looks set fair to be awful, apart from the visits of her former lover Judge Brack (Declan Conlon), and then the forecast gets even stormier. Former schoolmate Thea Elvsted (Kate Stanley Brennan), who Hedda despised, arrives desperately seeking Ejlert Lovborg (Keith McErlean). Hedda is initially intrigued, Lovborg being a lover she’d once threatened to shoot, but then quickly appalled when Brack reveals Lovborg’s new-found sobriety has enabled him publish a book so acclaimed he may pip Tesman to the professorship he was promised, and so ruin Hedda’s prospect of prosperity.

O’Rowe’s version brings a Mametian sensibility to bear on Ibsen’s dialogue, which suddenly erupts in overlapping, interruptions, and back-tracking. He also dials down the black comedy that Brian Friel memorably mined from the script. O’Rowe’s Hedda Gabler remains darkly humorous, but not as riotously funny as Anna Mackmin’s production of the Friel version I saw in the Old Vic in 2012. Half the fun of seeing the classics is seeing how different elements are highlighted by different productions. Peter Gayor is very impressive as Tesman. Whereas Adrian Scarborough rendered Tesman a joyous figure of fun, childlike in his enthusiasms and disappointments, Gaynor makes Tesman comically oblivious to Hedda’s pregnancy, but a serious academic whose conscience-stricken anger is sincere and fiery. Darrell D’Silva Fassbendered as a thoroughly roguish Brack, whereas Conlon renders him as a droll, urbane, and, eventually, inert presence.

The performances follow the version: where Daniel Lapaine emphasised the depraved menace of Lovborg, McErlean is a chastened, sensitive presence as the academic in search of redemption. Sheridan Smith brought her comedy chops to bear on the part, but Walker’s Hedda is a more tragic figure. O’Rowe’s provocative addition that everything she touches ends up “grotesque, vulgar, and f****** farcical” underscores her exhaustion at the bourgeois world she’s trapped in despite her best machinations. Comyn’s regular set designer Paul O’Mahony eschews his usual impressively realised sets and places the furniture of a drawing room centre-stage, with free-standing doors delineating where an imaginary garden and hallway exist on either side. It’s reminiscent of the nightmare of an open-plan house in the finale of Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo movie, and makes lighting designer Chahine Yavroyan’s ‘sun’ streaming in from the garden particularly striking.

The backdrop is a giant video screen on which Hugh O’Connor’s images and sounds, which fatally reminded me of U2’s ZOO TV, appear during scene changes. Perhaps it’s the white noise inside the head of Hedda? Who knows? Par the poster where Hedda sits on a chair under a plastic cover, no matter how well we can see Hedda, we can never see her clearly. O’Rowe’s version hammers home that Hedda is not as brilliant a manipulator as she thinks: she has been trapped in this house by an idle remark, just as an impulsive gesture with Lovborg will trap her. And the gesture which she thinks secures her position as a professor’s wife backfires spectacularly as this production makes it plain that Thea is the perfect wife for an academic, and her seriousness is the perfect match for Tesman.

Annabelle Comyn draws impressive performances from her cast as always, but she also zips the action along as Hedda is brought low by her own headstrong nature; rendered on farce and tragedy’s uneasy borderline.

4/5

Hedda Gabler continues its run at the Abbey until May 16h.

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

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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.

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.

July 6, 2011

Translations

It’s impossible for me to review Translations without first confessing that I know the script inside out, having both studied it at college and then taught it…

1833 in Friel’s eternal Donegal setting of Baile Beag finds a hedge school run by drunken master Hugh (Denis Conway) and his lame son Manus (Aaron Monaghan), specialising in Latin and Greek, being menaced by the arrival of a new English speaking National School, specialising in English. This off-stage menace is accompanied by the on-stage arrival of English sappers conducting an ordnance survey of the area for military purposes. But, as their work proceeds with the aid of Hugh’s other son Owen (Barry Ward) returned from Dublin, one of the British soldiers Yolland (Tim Delap) begins to question the morality of his task, even as he falls in love with local girl Maire (Aoife McMahon). The conflict between high civilisation and base commerce, Irish and English, and the noble rhetoric of progress and its low activities of expropriation, are all layered around these emotional conflicts. Maire’s love triangle with Manus and Yolland is very obviously a choice between a maimed native culture and a confident foreign culture…

Naomi Wilkinson’s set design heavily emphasises the squalor of this hedge-school, while Joan O’Clery’s costumes fit in with this approach by clothing the students in tattered earth tones, with the rebellious Maire in bright yellow and Hugh sporting a burnt orange jacket, while Hugh’s successful son Owen returns dressed in a spiffy blue overcoat, closer to the English military’s colour-scheme. Director Conall Morrison, who I’m still wary of on account of his late 1990s adaptation of Tarry Flynn, predictably brings sauciness to Friel’s comedy in the opening act. In the second act, however, he changes gears as the blue sky above the barn-set darkens, so that the rain sound effect heightens a chillingly conveyed sense of doom that anticipates the impending Famine. Rory Nolan as Doalty and Janet Moran as Bridget carry the bulk of Morrison’s slapstick; Nolan does a glorious mime of the English sappers’ baffled reaction to their ‘malfunctioning’ equipment, a result of his mischief; but they also imbue the off-stage Donnelly twins, often interpreted as proto-IRA figures in their campaign against the British presence, with the appropriate menace by their subdued reaction to their names being mentioned.

The inevitable Aaron Monaghan is very sympathetic as the brother whose half-hearted resistance to the British breaks down under personal contact, even as Ward convincingly travels the opposite arc as Owen grasps the political implications of his linguistic ‘collaboration’ with Yolland. McMahon is surprisingly flirtatious as Maire rather than simply determined, and there is a level of anger by Hugh towards her dismissal of his classics that seems alien to the script, as is his appearance as utterly decrepit. It seems absurd to accuse someone with an Irish Times Best Actor Theatre Award of lacking the necessary stature for a role, but Denis Conway is no Ray MacAnally, and he fails to dominate the stage as Hugh should. As a result Hugh’s final speeches to a drenched Maire, which should be tragic, raised some laughs. Conway effectively mixes bombast with moments of self-awareness, but if Hugh’s paraphrasing of George Steiner’s linguistic theories do not grip as the central statement of the self-defeating cultural delusions that colonisation can foist on a materially defeated civilisation then the focus of the play becomes diffuse.

This is well worth seeing, but there are quibbles…

3.5/5

Translations continues its run at the Abbey until the 13th of August.

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