Talking Movies

April 5, 2018

The Approach

Mark O’Rowe returns as both playwright and director with his first new play since 2014’s Our Few and Evil Days and it’s another intricate puzzle.

Cora (Cathy Belton) hasn’t seen Anna (Aisling O’Sullivan) for a while when they meet for a coffee. This is a recurring theme. Later Cora hasn’t seen Denise (Derbhle Crotty) for a while when they meet for a coffee. And when Anna and Denise finally meet for a coffee neither has seen Cora for a while. An awful lot of coffee might be drunk but this is not a physically rambunctious play, for all that chairs are hanging in mid-air like they’d been flung at the ceiling. The sisters Anna and Denise are estranged and Cora is engaged in the tricky task of trying to remain friends with both of them, and the even trickier task of maybe pushing them towards rapprochement. Although maybe that’s not what she’s doing, maybe she’s the source of their estrangement. This is O’Rowe after all.

It’s hard not to feel that O’Rowe is playing the same three card trick he successfully pulled off with Our Few and Evil Days.

3.5/5

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November 30, 2016

Helen & I

Druid returned to the Dublin Theatre Festival with a heavyweight cast and director tackling a new play by Meadhbh McHugh.

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Helen is Cathy Belton, and the ‘I’ is Rebecca O’Mara’s Lynne; who we first meet nervously plastering on make-up in the kitchen where she is waiting to meet her estranged sister as they keep a vigil over their dying father. Their nervous rapprochement is complicated by the arrival first of Lynne’s husband Tony (Paul Hickey), and then Helen’s daughter Evvy (Seána O’Hanlon’s).

This feels in thrall to Tom Murphy’s ouevre, most particularly the paralysing grip of the past which can simultaneously not be acknowledged in Bailegangaire, but never truly catches fire. Perhaps it was an unfortunate coincidence of casting that led to an unwarranted feeling of a perfectly good play not quite achieving the heights of greatness: Belton and O’Mara having previously played estranged sisters keeping a vigil over their dying father in Aristocrats at the Abbey in 2014.

Belton dominates the stage, conveying the emotional meltdown Helen endures in a sweltering Galway summer, but this feels like it could have been more than it is.

3/5

July 31, 2016

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

Tickets go on sale for the 2016 Dublin Theatre Festival at 10:00am on Tuesday August 16th. Here are 10 shows to keep an eye on.

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Helen & I 27th September – October 1st Civic Theatre

The great Annabelle Comyn decamps to Druid to direct an original script by newcomer Meadhbh McHugh. Rebecca O’Mara is the ‘I’, returning home to fence with older sister Helen (Cathy Belton) as their father lies dying. It’s always great when Druid tour, and hopefully this will be a return to form for Comyn after the bafflingly praised debacle of The Wake.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 28th September – October 1st Grand Canal

Sean Holmes, responsible for the recent, storming Plough & Stars in the Abbey, returns with co-director Stef O’Driscoll for a Shakespearean rampage. This looks to be very much a ‘This was not Chekhov’ production, but in the best sense, as the text is stripped down to 90 minutes, with live grunge band, nerf gun battle, and an epic food fight.

 

Don Giovanni 29th September – October 2nd Gaiety

Roddy Doyle has for some reason decided to update the libretto to Mozart’s opera about the womaniser par excellence. Eyebrows must be raised at the amount of ‘versions’ he’s doing versus original writing in recent years. Pan Pan’s Gavin Quinn will be directing, while Sinead McKenna follows up her acclaimed diabolist lighting design for The Gigli Concert’s finale with some bona fide operatics.

 

The Father 29th September – October 15th Gate

Just when Michael Colgan had lurched into self-parody by programming The Constant Wife he conjures an ace from nowhere: a piece of new writing from France that has swept all before it on Broadway and Piccadilly. Ethan McSweeney directs Owen Roe as a man suffering from Alzheimer’s, while the supporting cast includes Peter Gaynor and Charlotte McCurry, and Francis O’Connor is set designer.

 

Guerilla 30th September – October 2nd Project Arts Centre

It wouldn’t be a festival without some fellow PIIGS getting bolshy about neo-liberalism, the failure of Europe, and the age of austerity. This year it’s El Conde de Torrefiel company from Spain, presenting the confused inner universe of a group of people inhabiting the same city and collective consciousness, represented by projected text over an electronica concert, Tai Chi class, and conference.

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Death at Intervals 4th October – October 8th Smock Alley

Trailing clouds of glory from its Galway premiere comes an adaptation of Jose Saramango’s novel directed by Kellie Hughes. Olwen Fouere is the grim reaper in retirement, accompanied by her faithful musician Raymond Scannell. Death likes to dance too. A mixture of music, theatre, and dance, with Scannell also co-composing with Alma Kelliher; but he did also compose Alice in Funderland

 

Alien Documentary 4th October – October 8th Project Arts Centre

I’ve read this production’s pitch repeatedly and I’m damned if I can figure out what it is. Director Una McKevitt is apparently mixing transcriptions of real people’s conversations with invented dialogues of her own imagining, so that’s her writing credit sorted. But what exactly is this show? PJ Gallagher, James Scales, and Molly O’Mahony having unconnected deep/comic conversations for 90 minutes?

 

The Seagull 5th October – 16th October Gaiety

Writer Michael West and director Annie Ryan together fashion a modern version of Chekhov’s tale of unrequited loves starring the oft-Fassbendering Derbhle Crotty as well as Genevieve Hulme-Beaman who shone in support in the Abbey’s You Never Can Tell. But will this Corn Exchange production be as hit and miss as their version of Desire Under the Elms that severely downsized O’Neill’s ambition?

 

Donegal 6th October – 15th October Abbey

Frank McGuinness’s new musical/play with music/musical play sounds unfortunately like a pilot for the Irish version of Nashville, as a fading country music star is threatened by a new talent she must curry favour with for her own survival. Director Conall Morrison specialises in exuberance, and grand dames Deirdre Donnelly and Eleanor Methven appear beside Once’s Megan Riordan, but can McGuinness make a comeback?

 

First Love 12th October – 16th October O’Reilly Theatre

Reminding us why he was important before the age of austerity Michael Colgan directs Gate stalwart Barry McGovern in a solo Beckett outing. This time they head up the road to Belvedere College for a Beckett novella turned into a one-man show about a rather existentialist-sounding refusal of a man to fall in love with a woman who’s in love with him.

January 15, 2016

RIP Alan Rickman

Alan Rickman wasn’t just a movie villain, (nor even that) he was a stage star. The Guardian in taking stock of Rickman’s career noted six theatrical highlights; one of those was here at the Abbey.

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Rickman left graphic design to enter RADA at the late age of 26, and then became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1986 he had a success de scandale as Valmont, the mordant seducer in Christopher Hampton’s play Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He was nominated for a Tony for the part, but when Hollywood rushed to make two versions of the story he was cast in neither. Instead he made his screen debut as Hans Gruber, the mordant terrorist in John McTiernan’s film Die Hard. Rickman was drily withering at the L&H in UCD in 2009 (when being presented with the James Joyce Fellowship) on the topic of why he always played villains. He didn’t always play villains, of course. People just didn’t see those films, nor did they see his stage work on the West End and Broadway.

He reunited with Les Liaisons Dangereuses co-star Lindsay Duncan and director Howard Davies in 2002 for Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which, like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, also transferred to Broadway after its initial West End triumph. He controversially played opposite Helen Mirren as Shakespeare’s doomed lovers Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre, showed his political activism in directing My Name is Rachel Corrie, which he helped compile from the emails of the student protestor killed by a bulldozer in the Gaza Strip, and conquered Broadway  in 2011 as an unfeasibly abrasive creative writing professor in the premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar. And in 2010 he played the titular John Gabriel Borkman, in Frank McGuinness’ version of Ibsen for the 2010 Dublin Theatre Festival, which again reunited Rickman with Lindsay Duncan, and toured onwards to London’s National Theatre and New York.

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Ibsen’s 1896 play about a disgraced banker resonated unsettlingly in post-crash Ireland. In a bleak drawing-room Gunhild (Fiona Shaw) battled her twin sister Ella (Lindsay Duncan) for the affections of Gunhild’s son Erhart (Marty Rea) and for Borkman himself in a, for the most part, three-hander between Rickman, Duncan and Shaw – an impressively powerful triptych. Rickman was wonderful, drawing comedy from lines which were funny only because of his sonorous voice, “Remain seated”, as well as intrinsically hilarious material, such as “I loved you more than life itself. But when it comes down to it one woman can be replaced with another”, and his villainous outburst “Has my hour come round at last?!” Rickman had the charisma to make his obnoxious banker heroic as he outlined his schemes for shipping and mining that would have made Norway rich; only he had the vision necessary, but within 8 days of completing his plans his lawyer exposed the fraud. Borkman convinced himself he was as much a victim of the exposure of his speculative use of savers’ deposits as the thousands his actions left penniless, so proclaimed “I have wasted 8 years of my life” in mentally re-staging and winning his trial. Intriguingly Cathy Belton toured with this production as Mrs Wilton; who threatens Erhart’s role as pawn in the mind-games.

Rickman squeezed some laughs in Gambit from being comically obnoxious as vulgar multi-millionaire and ‘degenerate nudist’ Lionel Shabandar, but it was a film unworthy of him, Colin Firth, or Stanley Tucci; all obviously attracted by a Coen Brothers screenplay that got lost in translation. But when Rickman made an unexpected return to directing nearly twenty years after his first effort, The Winter Guest, with a period drama about Versailles’ creation, he found a small showy role for Tucci as his fabulously acerbic screen brother. Rickman’s King Louis XIV was a highlight of the film; weary, cynical, yet somehow also unexpectedly humane; but he kept his role small, and gathered familiar faces around him, including Sense & Sensibility co-star Kate Winslet as Madame Sabine De Barra and John Gabriel Borkman co-star Cathy Belton as Sabine’s devoted servant Louise. Rickman seemed to like creating theatrical repertory companies outside of theatre. Consider his own casting, his reunions with Emma Thompson, and Daniel Radcliffe’s astonished gratitude that Rickman would always appear whenever Radcliffe was debuting a new stage role. So it’s fitting to end with words from a ‘rep’.

Cathy Belton issued this statement yesterday afternoon: “I was deeply saddened to hear the news of Alan’s passing today. It was a joy and a privilege to work with him but it was even more of a privilege to call him a dear friend. His talent was immense, his generosity of heart and time knew no bounds both professionally and personally. His dry Celtic wit was a joy to be around, always challenging, charming, questioning and listening. It was no wonder he felt so at home in Ireland during his many times working and visiting here. His death is such a great loss to us all, my heartfelt sympathies go to his beloved wife Rima, his rock and light at his side for over fifty years.  The world is a lesser place without him and I will miss him greatly.”

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.

April 15, 2015

A Little Chaos

Alan Rickman makes an unexpected return to directing nearly twenty years after his first effort, The Winter Guest, with a period drama about Versailles’ creation.

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In Versailles did King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) a stately pleasure-dome decree. And while the extravagant gardens he demands in 1682 are not quite measureless to man they are certainly too much for Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to construct single-handedly, so he takes on other landscape gardeners; the most unlikely of which is Madame Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), a widower who insults Le Notre’s preference for ordered landscapes in her job interview. With the practical help of blunt rival Duras (Steven Waddington), and the political support of the King’s brother Philippe, Duke of Orleans (Stanley Tucci), and Phillipe’s wife Palatine (Paula Paul), Sabine sets to work. But navigating court politics is complicated by her growing attraction to the doleful Le Notre, and the spiteful reaction to her presence by the manipulative and petty Madame Le Notre (Helen McCrory).

Praise first. A Little Chaos looks gorgeous. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras shoots to advantage the rococo production design of James Merifield, and art direction of Kat Law and Sarah Stuart. Joan Bergin’s costumes are sumptuous, Peter Gregson’s score has a memorable and rousing final cue, and supporting turns, from Tucci’s fabulous acerbity, to the impetuosity of Louis XIV’s mistress Madame De Montespan (Jennifer Ehle) and her lover (Rupert Penry-Jones), are delightful. It’s also nice to see Irish theatre star Cathy Belton appear as Sabine’s devoted servant Louise. But my God is it dull… Rickman co-wrote the screenplay with Alison Deegan and Jeremy Brock so he must take the blame for this. There’s a plodding well-made-screenplay feel to far too many scenes; with obnoxious flashbacks to a coach crash, and hallucinations by Sabine of her dead daughter, recalling another BBC film, Creation.

Nobody expects a discourse on the movement from classical garden design to the contrived pastoral of Capability Brown in the manner of Tom Stoppard’s intellectual investigations in Arcadia. But by the end of the film it remains utterly unclear exactly what is so radical about Sabine’s small garden with water feature in the grand scheme of Versailles. And that’s to say nothing of the script’s remarkable failure to establish that Louis XIV is the Sun King. The closing image gestures to it with some elegance, but unless you know your French history well the sharp point to Sabine’s truth-telling speech about needing a little warmth from the sun is completely lost. Schoenaerts and Winslet’s romance lacks spark, and Peaky Blinders’ McCrory is atrocious. McCrory hams like a panto villain as the script lazily instructs her to sneer from first appearance.

A Little Chaos is so perfectly respectable it’s hard to hate. Cute scenes and funny performances jostle with unmotivated villainy and terrible hamming, but who will remember either afterwards?

2/5

June 25, 2014

Aristocrats

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.

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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.

October 31, 2013

Philomena

Steve Coogan co-writes, produces and stars opposite Judi Dench in a tale of investigative journalism based on a true story.

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Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is a Labour spin-doctor shafted when his well intentioned but unfortunately phrased email becomes the object of media hysteria. Moping around, pitching a book on Russian history, the former journalist is approached at a party by waitress Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin). Jane’s Irish mother Philomena (Judi Dench) has just disclosed she had another child, a son; who was forcibly given up for adoption decades before while in a Magdalene laundry. Initially disinterested, Sixsmith pitches the story to hard-bitten magazine editor Sally (Michelle Fairley), and, commissioned, meets with Philomena. The unlikely duo set off on a road trip, first to the convent in Roscrea where Cathy Belton’s nun informs them all paperwork was lost in a fire, and that Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) is too ill to help them, and eventually to America to find lost child Anthony.

Coogan’s script has been acclaimed, but the Oxbridge educated Sixsmith’s consistent patronising of the ‘Daily Mail and romance novel reading’ retired nurse Philomena is actually rather uncomfortable viewing. His opening quip on leaving a carol service early, “I don’t believe in God, and I think He can tell”, recalls Woody Allen’s “To you I’m an atheist, to God I’m the loyal opposition”, but this script lacks the philosophical engagement of Allen’s most thoughtful works. It is instead largely devoted to bashing the Catholic Church without much reflection. Stephen Frears’ anonymous direction seems to display the effect of four centuries of Anti-Catholic propaganda in England as the camera almost regards pre-Vatican II clerical garb as a cinematic shorthand for evil akin to SS uniforms when depicting the laundry; which the girls could leave at any time if their families wished it.

Hillsborough shows that cover-ups are endemic to institutions, secular as much as religious, which protect their prestige at the expense of innocent victims. Mitt Romney, in his capacity as a LDS Church Bishop, was trying to persuade single mothers to give up their children for adoption well into the 1980s. But acknowledging those truths make Catholicism less exceptional… The American sequence is startling for the dramatic nuances forsaken. Philomena’s son did have a better life there than she could have given him, but he was made to feel shame for his ‘sin’ in America as much as his mother was for hers in Ireland, because of the Evangelical Protestantism that swept Reagan and the Bushes to political power. When the film returns to Roscrea, it seems relieved such knotty ambiguities can be replaced by Catholic-bashing.

Philomena excoriates people for applying their shibboleths without empathy, yet, by condemning people for not applying current shibboleths in the past, itself disdains attempting to understand why those people acted as they did – comprehension is not forgiveness, but empathy.

2/5

July 27, 2012

The House

Tom Murphy’s 2000 Abbey commissioned play about the frustrations of returned emigrants in the 1950s returned to the Abbey as its absorbing final show before shutting down for asbestos-removing renovation.

Murphy’s play echoes Chekhov on several levels. There is a decaying gentry family headed by Mrs DeBurca (Eleanor Methven), which is about to be usurped by the man who once laboured for them, Christy (Declan Conlon). Struggling to come to terms with their slide down the social ladder are her three daughters of contrasting personalities; the sensible Marie (Cathy Belton), the slatternly Louise (Niamh McCann), and the sinuous emigrant Susanne (Catherine Walker). And the action plays out in a series of fixed locations into which people flow and eddy; in one bar scene there are no fewer than 13 people on stage as a chaotic drunken speech and fight plays out. This might be a hauntingly tragic tale of a man who gets everything he ever wanted at the cost of destroying the very reason he ever wanted them, but that Murphy’s characters are more complex than they initially appear…

Christy appears to be a charming, salt of the earth type but he brutally sets upon his friend Jimmy (Aonghus Og McAnally) in the local bar for a perceived slight the audience will struggle to remember in their shock at this sudden eruption of violence. Marie’s initial snobbishness towards Christy may have been her nervousness at revealing her love for him, but then her later affection may be mere desperation to retain her social standing. Similarly Susanne’s initial flamboyance gets progressively more over the top as Walker heavies the affected English accent to convey Susanne’s growing panic that she belongs nowhere – failed in London, no longer respected in Ireland. Into this ambiguity of character motivation Murphy injects ambiguity of nationality in Christy’s fellow returned emigrants Goldfish (Karl Shiels) and Peter (Frank Laverty). Peter’s accent continually wanders towards England, while Goldfish’s life in New Jersey has corrupted not just his accent but his thoughts; a grab-bag of Western and gangster movie sentiments. ‘Home’ for the summer, they’re really at home nowhere.

This is a society that is eager to hoover up money from these emigrants, but even more eager that they leave again when they run out of cash. Paul O’Mahony’s set impressively furnishes the claustrophobic pub run by Bunty (Darragh Kelly), the house of sardonic lawyer Kerrigan (Lorcan Cranitch), and the patio and dining room of the Big House. (I unfortunately saw the second last performance which saw an enforced interval after the first scene as the revolving stage revolveth not.) Kelly and Cranitch are both hilarious as they embody the hypocrisy of hail fellow well met attitudes to emigrants whose unfocused energy discomforts them. Bosco Hogan, in a surprisingly small role as local Garda Tarpey, adds steel to their refusal to fix a society so broken that it exports its youth. Murphy’s play is always gripping, and often very funny, but it’s a good rather than a great piece of work, and the supposed post-property boom resonance is tangential to its dramatic success as a melancholic study with barbed commentary on societal failure.

Director Annabelle Comyn doesn’t quite reach the heights of last summer’s Abbey Pygmalion but she draws excellent performances from her cast in a quality show.

3/5

October 23, 2010

John Gabriel Borkman

Alan Rickman stars as the eponymous disgraced banker in Ibsen’s 1896 play that resonates unsettlingly in post-crash Ireland.

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An icy atmosphere is established from the first sight of Tom Pye’s set, a drawing-room with two walls bordered on two sides by snow-drifts that the flowing dresses of the actresses drag onto the drawing room floor. I’m not sure what Henrik Ibsen the high-priest of naturalist theatre would have made of this, but it visually conveys the frozen emotions and lives of the central characters, and allows for a spectacular set-change in the first act as one set of walls drops down from above while the extant walls head upwards. In this bleak drawing-room Gunhild (Fiona Shaw) listens to the endless pacing upstairs of her detested husband John Gabriel Borkman. Her brooding is interrupted by the unwelcome arrival of another nemesis, her twin sister Ella (Lindsay Duncan), who has come to win back the affections of Gunhild’s son Erhart (Marty Rea), who she raised after the scandal of Borkman’s criminal trial and subsequent bankruptcy and imprisonment.

For the most part this is a three-hander between Rickman, Duncan and Shaw – an impressively powerful triptych. Tony and Olivier winner Duncan is icily commanding as the driven Ella who forces the Borkmans out of their stasis. Shaw is occasionally histrionic but she makes the alternating rage and self-pity of her character utterly convincing. Rickman is wonderful, drawing comedy from lines which are funny only because of his sonorous voice, “Remain seated”, as well as intrinsically hilarious material, such as “I loved you more than life itself. But when it comes down to it one woman can be replaced with another”, and his villainous outburst “Has my hour come round at last?!” In support Talking Movies favourite Rea has a surprisingly minor part as Erhart, whose infatuation with Cathy Belton’s older Mrs Wilton threatens his role as pawn in the mind-games of the central trio, while John Kavanagh is sensational as Vilhelm Fordal, Borkman’s only remaining friend. Fordal is so optimistic as to be masochistic. He sees the best in everything and has forgiven Borkman for ruining him, just as he continues writing a truly diabolical play, and Kavanagh makes him both a tragic and a comedic figure – mirroring Borkman’s own delusions that he will be asked to return to banking.

Normally I’m the first to complain about Irish playwrights of a certain age who insist on mediating between Russian, Greek, and Norwegian classics and Irish theatre-goers but Frank McGuinness’ new version doesn’t insert Hibernicisms, instead he brings out the blackly comic undertones of Ibsen’s script while the contemporary resonances speak for themselves. Indeed the banker as tragic hero synchs well with Enron’s capitalist as irrationally exuberant pioneer of new ideas. Rickman has the charisma to make his obnoxious banker heroic as he outlines how his schemes for shipping and mining would have made Norway rich, how only he had the vision necessary to pursue such schemes, and how he was within 8 days of completing his plans when his lawyer exposed the fraud. Borkman convinces himself that he was as much a victim of the exposure of his speculative use of savers’ deposits as the thousands his actions left penniless. The ambitious madness of speculation allows him without guilt to proclaim “I have wasted 8 years of my life” in mentally re-staging and winning his trial.

Director James MacDonald, acclaimed for his work at the Royal Court Theatre, helms a satisfying mix of melodrama and black comedy culminating in a wonderful catharsis in an impressively staged snowstorm. This is essential theatre.

5/5

John Gabriel Borkman continues its run at the Abbey until November 20th.

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