Talking Movies

February 15, 2018

Look Back in Anger

The Gate advertise the hell out of their doing John Osborne’s seminal 1956 play, and then refuse on point of principle to actually do it.

Jimmy Porter (Ian Toner) is an angry young man, indeed he is the angry young man. He watched his father die from wounds sustained in the Spanish Civil War, and now despite his college education he finds himself manning a sweet stall down the market, unable to escape his working class roots in this post-war Midlands city despite his formidable, vituperative mental and linguistic agility. His rage against the establishment lashes against his upper-middle-class wife Alison (Clare Dunne), and to a lesser degree their Welsh Irish lodger Cliff (Lloyd Cooney). But when Jimmy eventually pushes Alison too far, a visit from her snobbish friend Helena (Vanessa Emme) sees Alison finally desert her stormy marriage. Only for the damndest thing to happen in the continuing war of contempt, class consciousness, and the desire for a worthy opponent between Jimmy and Helena…

While the audience is coming in the actors amble onto Paul O’Mahony’s curious canted stage of a realistic attic apartment, as a box within the exposed walls of the Gate’s backstage area. Emme reads the stage directions while the others take their places, and Dunne is reluctant to don the particular shirt specified. So far so Brecht, kind of. But then it continues, on and on and on, adding God knows how long to the endless 2 hour 45 minute running time, and for one purpose, so that Alison and Helena can eschew the stated directions, even when they’re emphatically repeated. The female characters, like Taylor Swift, would like to be excluded from this narrative. Which doesn’t do much for the narrative. Jimmy ends on his knees cooing a redemptive moment to nobody, as Alison refuses to follow Osborne’s directions.

I saw Kenneth Branagh star in Osborne’s 1957 play The Entertainer on the West End in 2016. Some sequences were melodramatic, but mostly it was very effective; startlingly so indeed because, despite being about the post-imperial crisis of confidence the Suez crisis amplified, one line drew gasps from the crowd because it seemed about Brexit. I expected director Annabelle Comyn would do something of the same here; pare down Osborne’s text like her lean 2015 Hedda Gabler, and bring out the impotent rage against an aloof establishment that would seem apposite to the Brexit moment. Instead I got leaden pacing, and a bad academic workshop exercise gone rogue. Give me a few days and I can furnish you with a version of Hamlet focused on his abusiveness towards Gertrude and Ophelia. But then we wouldn’t have Hamlet anymore would we?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Homecoming would not exist without this play. When Toner leans into Michael Caine in his characterisation of Porter he unconsciously directs attention to how this play aided the explosion of the working class into British culture in the 1950s and 1960s. In short Osborne’s work deserves a modicum of respect. Instead gags and clues to Porter’s left-wing politics are clipped, so Toner is left in the bizarre, thankless and pointless position of playing a charismatic character who is purposefully being denied laughs or attraction by the disapproving staging, while Tom Lane’s sound design and Chahine Yavroyan’s harsh lighting is used to accentuate the most malicious of his rants, and Alison’s father is no-platformed (with his part being read from a script) because he sympathises with Jimmy’s frustration. Dunne kisses Cooney on the lips far too passionately to deny Osborne’s script its intent, while you suspect Cooney and Emme are being deliberately theatrical in their delivery as a further distancing measure. But why bother?

If you are so contemptuous of this play, and contempt comes washing off the stage in great waves, then for heaven’s sake why are you doing it? Who exactly is forcing Selina Cartmell and Annabelle Comyn to do this (sigh) problematic play? Why not do The Children’s Hour or A Taste of Honey or Oh! What a Lovely War or Our Country’s Good or Blasted or Enron or Posh or The Flick instead? It is odd to prioritise doing a ‘bad’ play by a male playwright over doing a good play by a female playwright. It is odder to ask people to pay 35e to see a play deliberately done poorly because the company wishes to complain about its place in the canon. The Gate is not doing itself any favours with this tedious approach to its commercial stock-in-trade, revivals.

This is easily the worst production I have ever seen at the Gate, and sadly it is also the worst show I have ever seen directed by Comyn.

1/5

Look Back in Anger continues its run at the Gate until the 24th of March.

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February 6, 2016

My Own Personal Theatre Awards 2015

All aesthetic judgements are political, but some are more political than others; and if you cannot conceive of great art made by people whose political opinions you do not share, then just maybe you cannot conceive of art at all.

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It was ironic that the Irish Times released their Theatre Awards shortlist just after the death of Alan Rickman; whose performance in John Gabriel Borkman the Guardian valorised as one of his great stage achievements; as it drew the mind back to the Irish Times’ magisterial pronouncements on the state of Irish theatre in 2010. John Gabriel Borkman, a co-production between the Abbey and Southbank’s National Theatre, premiered in Dublin before transferring to London, and eventually Broadway. It was seen by around 20,000 people, got rave notices, and received … two nominations from the Irish Times: for costumes and set.

Meanwhile World’s End Lane, which could be seen by 3 people per performance, and so was seen by almost a hundred punters, as opposed to John Gabriel Borkman’s 20,000, received a nod for best production. And of course you ‘couldn’t’ sputter with outrage over this because, inevitably, you hadn’t seen World’s End Lane. Thus has it been lately with the Irish Times Theatre Awards. Such hipster valuations of theatrical worth downgraded the Gate and Abbey, and combined with a persistent boosting of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, and companies and plays that shared the politico-cultural preoccupations and prejudices of the Irish Times.

But, as with my objections to the Abbey’s 2016 programme, there is little point in speculative grousing. So here are my personal theatre awards for 2015, with the winners in bold. And let me anticipate objections. I did not see DruidShakespeare on tour or The Match Box in Galway. I did not travel up to Belfast to see a single play at the Lyric. But, when you strip out all DruidShakespeare’s nominations, the vast majority of nominations handed out by the Irish Times were for work performed in Dublin. So with more nominees and fewer categories let’s have at it…

Best Production

The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

 DG declan conlon and Catherine Walker

Best Director

Annabelle Comyn – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

David Grindley – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Selina Cartmell – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Conor McPherson – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Patrick Mason – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

 

Best Actor

Declan Conlon – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Marty Rea – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

James Murphy – The Importance of Being Earnest (Smock Alley)

Brendan Gleeson – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

Dylan Coburn Gray – Enjoy (Project Arts Centre)

DG the gigli concert

Best Actress

Catherine McCormack – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Aislin McGuckin – A Month in the Country (The Gate)

Catherine Walker – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Clare Dunne – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Lisa Dwyer Hogg – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

 

Best Supporting Actor

Declan Conlon – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Marty Rea – The Caretaker (The Gate)

Peter Gaynor – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Kevin Shackleton – The Importance of Being Earnest (Smock Alley)

Stijn Van Opstal – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Domhnall Gleeson – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

John Doran – Enjoy (Project Arts Centre)

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Best Supporting Actress

Marion O’Dwyer – By the Bog of Cats (The Abbey)

Minke Kruyver – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Kate Stanley Brennan – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Deirdre Donnelly – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

Elodie Devins – By the Bog of Cats (The Abbey)

 

Best New Play

George Brant – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Conor McPherson – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Gerard Adlum – The Man in Two Pieces (Theatre Upstairs)

Enda Walsh – The Last Hotel (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Gerard Adlum, Nessa Matthews, Sarah Finlay – Bob and Judy (Theatre Upstairs)

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Best Set Design

tgSTAN & Damiaan De Schrijver – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Paul O’Mahony – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Francis O’Connor – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate) & The Caretaker (The Gate)

Liam Doona – You Never Can Tell (The Abbey)

Alice Power – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

Alyson Cummins – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

 

Best Lighting Design

Chahine Yavroyan – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabbler (The Abbey)

Sinead McKenna – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Davy Cunningham – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

 

Best Sound Design

Dennis Clohessy – Through a Glass Darkly (Project Arts Centre) & A View From the Bridge (The Gate)

Mel Mercier – The Shadow of a Gunman (The Abbey)

Conor Linehan – You Never Can Tell (The Abbey)

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 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.

DG declan conlon and Catherine Walker

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.

February 19, 2014

The Vortex

Director Annabelle Comyn forsakes the Abbey and Shaw for the Gate and Coward in this cutting 1920s comedy with an unexpectedly serious and intimate finale.

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The Vortex opens with the sensible Helen (Fiona Bell) and acerbic Pawnie (Mark O’Regan), waiting in an opulent drawing room for vain and apparently ageless socialite Florence (Susannah Harker). Coward follows Chekhov’s lead in having a whirl of characters pass thru one location as we meet unsmiling servant Preston (Andrea Kelly), fatuous singer Clara (Rebecca O’Mara), and, after Florence’s belated arrival, her devoted young lover Tom (Ian Toner), her defeated aged husband David (Simon Coury), her histrionic coke-stoked pianist son Nicky (Rory Fleck Byrne), and Nicky’s calculating flapper fiancé Bunty (Katie Kirby)… A Freudian frisson instantly shivers between Florence and Bunty over Nicky’s undivided love, and when it transpires Bunty and Tom knew each other intimately years before the scene is set for emotional carnage when all concerned up sticks to Florence’s country house for a Charleston-and-cocktails fuelled weekend party.

Comyn’s regular designer Paul O’Mahony provides an elegant crescent of mirrors and walls which slide along to reveal a staircase for the second act in the country, which begins with a literal bang as Chahine Yavroyan’s dramatically surging lighting design provides the effect of old flashbulbs for keepsake pictures of the couples dancing. Comyn showed in The House her skill at blocking large chaotic ensembles, and 8 people bounce around the stage to the over-pumped gramophone recording of the Charleston in Philip Connaughton’s choreographed party, during which Nicky’s coke addiction becomes evident to Helen. Byrne is marvellous as the highly-strung Nicky, trying to overcome his terrible upbringing, while his self-absorbed mother makes a fool of herself as Tom and Bunty move closer together. Toner is impressive as the slowly awakening Tom, while Kirby makes Bunty somehow both cold and right.

O’Regan Fassbenders delightfully as Pawnie, aided by hoovering up the play’s best lines. It’s tempting to link Coward to Waugh and say the trick of 1920s dialogue is the casual use of ridiculously hyperbolic words. Bright Young Things only ever dub things, no matter how trivial, as ‘ghastly, gruesome, sick-making, beastly, horrid, deathly’ or ‘heavenly, divine, sublime’. Well-spoken but OTT-phrased bad behaviour became Coward’s trade-in-stock but, while the curtain anticipates Hay Fever’s flight of guests, this is a more serious work. The third act focuses on Nicky’s insistence, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, that Florence abandons her obsession with her continuing youth and instead acknowledges her blame in his failings as a person. But this once controversial scene echoes Hamlet and Gertrude’s bedroom contretemps, and leaves us hungry for an aftermath that is never analysed – to dissatisfying effect.

The Vortex may have been the ‘theatrical shocker of the Jazz Age’, but what shocks now is not its sex and drugs but its cavalier dismissal of its ensemble.

3/5

The Vortex continues its run at the Gate until the 17th of March.

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