Talking Movies

June 18, 2015

The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939

I was lucky enough last night to attend the launch in the Abbey theatre of Professor Anthony Roche’s latest book The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939.

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Professor Patrick Lonergan of NUIG, who edited the book for Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, gave a generous introductory speech; noting as an undergraduate in UCD in 1993 he had been struck by the way Roche presented his lectures as if he’d just rushed from a good play either in the Gate or in UCD Dramsoc’s LG theatre and was eager to tell his students about it so they could experience it too. Indeed Lonergan claimed that he remembered lectures Roche gave then more vividly than lectures he’d heard in the last month. Roche’s interest in, and support for, UCD Dramsoc was attested to by the presence of former students Caitriona Ennis, Caitriona Daly, and Eoghan Carrick, now rising stars of the Dublin theatre scene as the founding members of We Get High On This theatre company.

Fiach Mac Conghail, the artistic director of the Abbey, praised Roche for inscribing performance into the study of the Revival. Yeats may have prioritised a literary theatre, but he still needed actors to speak his words, and Mac Conghail noted that without the Fay brothers and the Allgood sisters the early Abbey would not have succeeded. He also noted that Roche had a telling eye for gossip in detailing the power struggles by which Yeats managed to subvert a democracy of actors and writers, and instead form a smaller unit; centred on himself; who decided what plays to perform and who to cast in them. Mac Conghail observed that questions of art and commerce as were laid bare in the book still beset the current Abbey board, and that the duality of the theatre was captured by the term ‘show-business’.

Mac Conghail also praised Roche for matching his prioritisation of the collaborative nature of the Abbey repertory players and the Abbey writer/directors with a reinstatement of the influence on the Abbey writers, particularly JM Synge and Sean O’Casey, of Henrik Ibsen; a reinstatement practised in the Abbey’s current season which deliberately followed a new version of Hedda Gabler with a revival of The Shadow of a Gunman. Mac Conghail also promised that Shaw would return to the Abbey at Christmas (Which Shaw? Wait and See), and praised the work done by Roche, as well as Frank McGuinness, in writing Shaw back into the narrative of the Revival; ‘The Absent Presence’ as Roche’s chapter dubs him. Roche launched the book officially by noting that Bloomsbury’s offer to write a book accessible to general audiences gave him a chance he’d been waiting for – to tell the long narrative of the theatrical Revival.

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Director Patrick Mason and Prof. Tony Roche

The Irish Dramatic Revival: 1899-1939 by Professor Anthony Roche is published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

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October 8, 2014

Spinning

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Karl Shiels, Fiona Bell, Caitriona Ennis and Janet Moran are the weighty cast in Fishamble’s contribution to the Dublin Theatre Festival; a meditation on grief.

Conor (Shiels) arrives unannounced in an unnamed small town and heads for the seaside cafe run by Susan (Bell), who nearly collapses from shock – as he is the man responsible for the death of her teenage daughter Annie (Caitriona Ennis) some years before. Conor has just been released from prison for his role in her death, and has come to return Annie’s locket; and to try and explain what happened. Flashbacks that disrupt their confrontation help the audience piece together the closeness of Susan and Annie, and the courtship, marriage and divorce of Conor and Jen (Janet Moran). As more and more pieces of the puzzle are thrown at us the imminence and inevitability of tragedy weighs down on us; leading to a merciful lie and perhaps a suicide after that redemptive gesture – perhaps not; the crashing waves are ambiguous.

Sabine Dargent’s set impressionistically creates a seaside cafe with table and chairs on a raised platform; but for all other scenes the audience has to do the heavy lifting. Jim Culleton’s direction focuses attention on the great actors, but they’re not miracle workers. Deirdre Kinahan has crafted an intelligent structure, but unlike Our Few and Evil Days she hasn’t filled the structure with any surprising content. Susan and Annie’s close relationship is uncomfortably akin to Gilmore Girls, down to the decent absent father having proposed marriage and been rejected before fleeing; in this case to Melbourne. Annie is a less adorable and smart version of Rory Gilmore; and her plea that they should move to Melbourne because “Our life here is totally crap!” is unintentionally funny; even though Ennis essays a spirited teenager and Bell adeptly alternates tender with traumatised.

Spinning is so rife with cliché that it doesn’t reprise Kramer Vs Kramer or Blue Valentine so much as it descends to the level of soap opera. Moran is awful because she’s given a shrill social-climbing cipher to play. The pantomime ‘oooh!’ reaction of the audience to Conor’s “I let you go back to work” was particularly depressing. Jen insists they pay for a crèche rather than let Conor’s mother babysit, she volubly disparages his family business before happily snaffling up money and house derived from it, and full custody of daughter Kate to boot (odd that people still seriously talk about patriarchy when such sexism is legally enshrined by the courts daily isn’t it?). But all this was seemingly outweighed in the audience’s estimation by Conor’s line, even though she went back to work late hours with her ex-boyfriend.

Spinning is only 75 minutes long, yet I found myself almost checking a phantom wristwatch from its first scene; it was that quickly obvious that this wasn’t top drawer.

1/5

Spinning continues its run at Smock Alley until the 12th of October.

July 22, 2014

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

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Hamlet 25th – 27th September Grand Canal Theatre

You haven’t appreciated Shakespeare until you’ve heard him in the original German. Ahem. Berlin’s Schaubuhne theatre troupe returns under the direction of Thomas Ostermeier for an acclaimed production of the Bard’s magnum opus. 6 actors play 20 roles in a production characterised by a spectacular stage covered in loose earth, turning to mud as actors hose it, and film each other for projection.

 

Zoo 25th – 28th September Smock Alley

Teatro de Chile present a one-hour lecture, of sorts. Two scientists inform you of their astonishing discovery, the last two Tzoolkman people; and then bend their brains trying to figure out how to preserve a culture whose central feature is imitation. So far, so Monty Python, but this is intended to be a serious problematisation of the idea of academic ‘performance’ in serious lecturing.

 

The Mariner 25th September – October 11th Gate

Hugo Hamilton appears to be the Gate’s go-to guy for the theatre festival. Following an adaptation of his Speckled People memoir he unveils an original script about an Irish sailor traumatised by the Battle of Jutland whose mute state inspires very different reactions from his wife and his mother. Patrick Mason directs, but how much insight can novelist Hamilton deliver in 90 minutes?

 

After Sarah Miles 26th September – October 11th Axis/Civic/Pavilion/Draiocht

Don Wycherley’s received nothing but rave reviews for his solo performance as fisherman Bobeen in Michael Hilliard Mulcahy’s new play about a fisherman remembering his life from teenage days in 1969 to the present. As the touring element of this festival Wycherley will appear in four venues as the fisherman who worked as an extra on the filming of epic Ryan’s Daughter.

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Our Few and Evil Days 26th September – October 11th Abbey

Mark O’Rowe takes on directing duties for his first original play in some years and he has assembled a stunning cast for it: Charlie Murphy, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Sinead Cusack, and Ian Lloyd Anderson. We’re promised that a devoted daughter will find out a shocking secret about her parents from a menacing stranger. Violence and poetically abrasive language ensues…

 

Ganesh Versus The Third Reich 1st – 4th October Belvedere

The most ambitious of the three Australian plays at the festival sees the Hindu God Ganesh embark on a journey to reclaim the Swastika from the Nazis, only for things to lurch away from fantastical epic into behind the scenes bickering; as an overbearing director fights with his cast over their right to use the most sacred elements of other cultures.

 

DruidMurphy 1st – 5th October Olympia

DruidMurphy’s trilogy of plays was a highlight of the 2012 Festival, and Garry Hynes returns for a second helping with Marie Mullen and Marty Rea still in tow. Not only will Tom Murphy’s 1985 classic of a dying matriarch, Bailegangaire, be revived, but Murphy has also written a new play Brigit which acts as a prequel by filling in the back-story of matriarch Mommo’s husband.

 

Spinning 1st – 12th October Smock Alley

Fishamble presents the great Karl Shiels in a new play by Halcyon Days playwright Deirdre Kinihan. He plays a man trying to hold onto a life coming apart at the seams, who unexpectedly meets a woman coming to terms with the senseless murder of her daughter. With a cast that includes Caitriona Ennis and Janet Moran this looks set to be an absorbing production.

 

Jack Charles V The Crown 8th – 12th October Samuel Beckett

I can’t help but think of this Australian one-man show as being an eccentric kin to Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Jack Charles was part of the Stolen Generation, and then became part of Koori theatre in the 1970s and a film actor; having been a cat-burglar, heroin addict, and convict in the meantime. He performs his life-story with unrepentant brio.

 

Book Burning 8th – 11th October Project

Belgium story-teller Pieter De Buysser tells the story of Sebastian, a man he met at an Occupy demonstration. Sebastian had become embroiled in a WikiLeaks scandal; and from there De Buysser, and his visual artist Hans Op De Beeck, spin out the implications of one man’s struggles to make Sebastian’s story a synecdoche for a new mode of being in the impersonal globalised world.

August 7, 2012

The Lark

Anouilh’s strikingly modern take on Joan of Arc is performed in the strikingly antique Boys School space in Smock Alley.

The audience sit on benches in front of a stage, bare except for chairs and a chest, while the Lord Bishop Cauchon (Gerard Adlum) and the Earl of Warwick (Dave Fleming) discuss how they will conduct the trial, as if the audience were attending it in 1431, and inform us that they can’t enter the battles in evidence as they don’t have enough men to stage them… Eoghan Carrick’s spotlights aid fluid switches between the trial and flashbacks, while the monastic garb (with extra medieval caps and steeple hats for actors playing multiple roles) epitomises director Sarah Finlay’s high seriousness. This is a stripped-down production which demands absolute concentration from the audience on fierce theological arguments debated in front of a centuries old Romanesque wall.

Warwick, a sardonic Machiavellian, wants Joan condemned in order to discredit her crowning of the Dauphin as King of France. Cauchon, however, insists the Maid is not for burning. Joan is allowed perform her family’s disbelief of her visions and her encounters with her local squire and the Dauphin. The father-daughter scenes convince not only because of the striking height difference between the two actors but also Shane Connolly’s nuanced portrayal of an exasperated but loving father, beating his daughter to try and protect her from herself. Sadly the other flashbacks drag. Ian Toner is nicely leering as de Beacourt, eager to exercise his droit de seigneur, and also amuses as the mistress of the Dauphin, but both scenes outstay their welcome. Ruairi Heading’s turn as the Dauphin similarly suffers in comparison to his more tightly written role of the compassionate Brother Ladvenu. Indeed the second act crackles with energy purely because Anouilh eschews flashbacks.

Joan (Caitriona Ennis) is frequently the still centre of a hurricane of ideas. Toner’s hysterical Promoter sees a seductive Devil everywhere. Joan’s suggestion that God could damn a soul, free will be damned is pounced on by him as a terrible heresy but then forgotten, even though it’s arguably proto-Calvinism. More rigorous is Jennifer Laverty’s terrifying Inquisitor, who attacks Joan for elevating Man in importance against and over God. Though ultimately suspiciously Manichean for a defender of Orthodoxy, in insisting that man is evil because he is worldly, the Inquisitor intimidates the other clerics, and if it’s not specified by the script is brilliant casting by Finlay as Laverty stands in ultimate judgement over another woman. Laverty also scoops a great line rebuking someone for confusing “charity, the theological virtue, and the murky liquid known as the milk of human kindness”. Fleming is wonderfully droll as Warwick, but Adlum has the most interesting role and he is riveting every time Cauchon clashes intellectually with Joan.

Cauchon is desperate to save Joan’s soul, and distances himself from Warwick’s politicking. Ennis plays saintly simplicity very well, the ‘sign’ she gives of recognising the disguised Dauphin is done with the playfulness of a child, while her connection to God when rebuking her favourite soldier for swearing is as utterly self-conscious as her performance of God’s voice for the benefit of her interrogators. Ennis also displays some nice signs of self-doubt under the subtle questioning of Cauchon on what Joan would do if one of her soldiers started to hear voices countermanding her orders… The steel and righteous savagery of Joan the soldier though only appears once when, in a speech uncannily similar to the contemporaneous The Crucible, she renounces her abjuration in order to be true to herself.

Fleming’s English accent is close cousin to a certain contemporary politician, suggesting chummy but callous people always triumph. But self-immolating in protest about that won’t change society, and Anouilh refuses to endorse either Joan’s martyrdom or Cauchon’s mercy. Anouilh’s Joan literally prefers burning out to fading away, but a script so focused on complicated ideas surely implicitly endorses thinking over feeling. Joan temporarily changed the world by emotional force of will, but perhaps the question of Calvinism is left hanging to make us realise that if Joan felt the truth of Calvinism it took Calvin’s application of rigorous theology to make it a force. The lesson: only by understanding a conventional wisdom can one hope to permanently change it.

Fast Intent provides an absorbing production of a thought-provoking play.

3/5

The Lark continues its run at Smock Alley Theatre until the 11th of August.

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