Talking Movies

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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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.

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“I could be doing that new LaBute play right now”


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…

March 12, 2011

The Cripple of Inishmaan

Druid fostered Martin McDonagh so it’s pleasing to see Garry Hynes belatedly directing his satirical play originally written for London’s National Theatre.

In 1934 the younger inhabitants of Inishmaan have their heads turned by the prospect of escape to America if they can only get a part in the filming of Man of Aran on Inis Mor and impress the director Robert Flaherty. Billy Claven, the titular cripple, is the most eager, desperate to escape a life of tedium living with his half-mad pretend aunts, where the only respite from shuffling to the doctor for his various ailments is staring at cows. McDonagh’s dialogue is as wonderful as always, with his trademark repetition and love of outrageously cruel black comedy everywhere. Babbybobby (Liam Carney) urges Billy to feck books at cows to liven them up a bit, while Helen and Bartley have a lengthy discussion in front of Billy of the conflicting accounts of whether his parents killed themselves by drowning rather than endure living with his deformities.

McDonagh has tremendous fun invoking Irish theatre past. The double-act of Billy’s ‘aunts’ Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy) are, given the strictures of the Beckett estate, probably the closest you’ll ever get to a female Vladimir and Estragon as they open the play standing behind their shop-counter looking at the audience and bickering over ritual dialogues and events, and means of making time pass. Local news-man Johnnypateenmike (Dermot Crowley) always announces he has three pieces of news, but unlike Hugh’s customary triptychs in Friel’s Translations, he not only remembers all three items but always keeps the best for last. In a nod to Synge there’s the assertive Irish colleen Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne) who domineers over her idiotic brother Bartley (Laurence Kinlan) and is secretly loved by Billy (Tadhg Murphy). But this rich theatrical past being invoked only increases the perceptiveness of McDonagh pointedly referencing the national inferiority complex with a terrific running gag; “Sure Ireland can’t be such a bad place after all if a German fella wants to come and live here”; which reaches its apotheosis while the characters watch the ludicrously fictional Man of Aran shark-hunt; “Sure Ireland can’t be such a bad place after all if sharks want to come and live here.”

The characters’ comedic obsessions, whether it is Kate talking to a stone, Eileen eating yalla-mallas when stressed, Bartley discussing telescopes, or Helen pelting eggs at people, give all these actors ample opportunity to deliver tremendous comedic turns, with the double-act of Crowley and Nancy E Carroll as Mammy O’Dougal Fassbendering for all their worth as Johnnypateenmike tries to aid his mother in her ongoing quest since 1871 to drink herself to death while she fervently hopes to see him in his grave first. But in McDonagh’s subversive finale the characters that seem most honourable turn out to be vicious and the most obviously vicious characters end up displaying some oddly tender hearts. As fellow academic Graham Price pointed out to me the ending, while tender towards the long-suffering Billy, is ultimately a negative version of Synge and Wilde’s belief in the power of a lie to transform the lives of their heroes.

McDonagh thus delivers his own verdict on whether lying really can transform a feckin’ eejit into a likely lad.

4/5

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