Talking Movies

November 20, 2019

From the Archives: American Gangster

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

In 1970s America, narcotics agent Richie Roberts works to bring down the drug empire of Frank Lucas, who is smuggling pure heroin into the country in military coffins returning from the Vietnam.

The black Goodfellas this is not. Ridley Scott is hailed on this film’s posters as the director of Gladiator. He’s also the director of GI Jane, Kingdom of Heaven and A Good Year to name just three of his super-turkeys from the last decade. This film has his usual striking visual quality, it’s very murkily lit and NYC looks very grimy and cold indeed. But American Gangster lacks energy, the analogy with Goodfellas practically screamed at us by the end sequence only reminds us just how dazzling Scorsese’s frenetic direction of that film really was. Such lethargy renders this film grotesquely long, the sort of running time that makes you keenly aware of absurdities, like why are all the hookers cutting Frank’s drugs topless or naked? It’s eventually lamely explained but it seems part of a drive by Scott to get as much gratuitous female nudity in to the film as he can manage. Is this Good Luck Chuck?!

Denzel Washington is as bad as he’s been in Inside Man, Out of Time, and all the other dreck he churns out while retaining a baffling reputation as a great actor. Russell Crowe, in a role with surprisingly little screen time, fares slightly better but despite playing a character of great professional integrity and personal dishevelment he looks like an actor going through the motions rather than exploring the possibilities of the part.  Josh Brolin, so good as the crazed Dr Block in last week’s Planet Terror, is much more committed as repellent bent cop Detective Trupo. The amount of police corruption portrayed in this film is really quite depressing. Scott uses it, in an effort as misguided as John Boorman’s attempts with Martin Cahill in The General, to valorise Frank Lucas. A psychopathic killer who pays lip service to taking care of Harlem while getting the whole borough hooked on cheap, potent heroin? Either pick someone else to mythologise or get a better scriptwriter.

Oscar-winning writer Steven Zaillian (an award the trailer boasts about far too much) won for a film Aaron Sorkin did an uncredited dialogue polish on while his previous film for Scott was co-written with legendary playwright David Mamet. His directorial debut, last year’s All the King’s Men which he also wrote, abundantly proved that, along with his problems with writing memorable dialogue, Zaillian has no idea of pacing. This story is just not interesting enough to sustain its bloated length while characters/plot devices like Carla Gugino’s shrill wife (divorcing Crowe’s emotionally distant cop) never convince as real people. The trailer for Charlie Wilson’s War, written by Aaron Sorkin precedes American Gangster and painfully highlights the utter vacuity of Zaillian’s dialogue in a film which all concerned obviously believe to be epic and meaningful but which is nothing of the sort.

1/5

October 2, 2019

From the Archives: Michael Clayton

From the Archives:

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a fixer for a New York law firm whose looming bankruptcy distracts him from trying to stop his friend Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) destroying one of the firm’s most lucrative cases.

The Bourne trilogy seems to have become a veritable cash-cow for all concerned, allowing them to do resolutely un-commercial fare in between Bourne films. Here’s the directorial debut from Tony Gilroy, the co-writer of all three Bourne films, about a shady fixer for a law firm, Michael Clayton (worst title ever…). Perhaps it’s the influence of Gilroy’s Pulitzer Prize winning playwright father but there’s more than a hint of David Mamet’s coruscating plays about the opening voiceover monologue. Not at all what you’d expect for the start of a standard legal thriller it leads into a baffling but intriguing prologue that promises Gilroy is going to bring the same realism to this genre as he did to the spy genre in The Bourne Identity.

The film is structured as an extended flashback of the previous 4 days leading up to a replaying of the prologue which gains added meaning second time around. Gilroy has created two genuinely bruised characters in Michael Clayton and Arthur Edens, both men who have been ground down mentally by doing what they know to be wrong in their service of law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. Edens seeks redemption by leading the charge against his own side and scuppering their lucrative case representing the obviously guilty chemicals company U-North while Clayton seeks escape by investing in a restaurant venture that will allow him to bow out of being a fixer for the firm’s legal dirty laundry. It’s refreshing to see a Hollywood hero being harassed about money and perpetually worried about bankruptcy for the duration of a film, and that is exactly what happens to Clayton as his restaurant fails. However, we could have done with seeing Clayton in action as a fixer. We’re constantly told how good he is but in focusing on the worst four days of Clayton’s life Gilroy undermines that. Show, don’t tell. All we see is Clayton making a mess of everything and being belittled as useless, which is indeed how he appears to us the audience.

George Clooney is on fine muted form as the long-suffering Clayton while Tom Wilkinson fairly snarls thru the screen as Arthur Edens, a manic depressive gone off his meds in order to liberate himself from his evil corporation. Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder the chief legal counsel of U-North skilfully makes us hate Karen’s villainous actions while sympathising with her fragile emotional state, owing to the enormous pressure on her to succeed in a job she was groomed for but does not feel ready for. This film shares some qualities with Breach, another uncommercial venture by someone connected with the Bourne films. It is muted in tone, icily intelligent and features some intriguingly written characters. John Grisham for adults.

3/5

July 4, 2019

5 Works of Americana

For the day that’s in it here’re five pieces of 20th Century American music to score the 4th of July from sunrise to midnight. Shake off your drowsiness with the tremulous clarinet glissando of Gershwin, roll up your shirtsleeves with the frontier rambunctiousness of Copland, go for lunch (will you just go to lunch, George!) with the bustle of Bernstein, greet the evening with the alternating amplitude and frenzy of Gershwin (again), and then hit the energetic streets after dusk with the chromatic, romantic but nervy energy of John Adams.

Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

Rodeo by Aaron Copland

Candide Overture by Leonard Bernstein

Piano Concerto in F by George Gershwin

City Noir by John Adams

 

July 20, 2018

Any Other Business: Part XVII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a seventeenth portmanteau post on television of course!

 

Sorry seems to be the hardest word for Facebook

I had been thinking about commenting on Facebook’s current TV spots on British television, and then Channel 4’s Dispatches came along and disquietingly lifted the lid on the people who work for Facebook but don’t work for Facebook in Dublin. Ah, the joy of outsourcing. It’s always someone else’s fault that the high standards Facebook expects are not being upheld. Not that we’re ever told what those high standards are precisely. And nothing bad that happens is ever wrong, certainly never criminal, it’s always, well, let’s listen to the TV spot Facebook is using in Britain to try and reassure people that Brexit may have been the result of Facebook but not to worry, soon your newsfeed will be full of only cute kittens again – take it away maestro, “We didn’t come here for click-bait, spam, fake news, and data misuse. That’s not okay.” Well, that is profound. I guess if Mark Zuckerberg, whose non-apology apology to Congress came in for some stick hereabouts previously, can go so far as to admit that enabling Brexit and Trump was ‘not okay’ then we can all meet him half-way and forgive him for letting it happen, and evading responsibility. The best way to protect your privacy is not to change settings on Facebook it’s to not use social media at all. And if Facebook is really intended just to ‘connect people’ rather than say data-mine the f*** out of the world’s population for psychometrics in the service of personalised advertising then there’s one really simple way to prove it. Change it to Facebook.org

xkcd by Randall Munroe, where would our collective sanity be without it?

 

I can’t believe it’s not The Unit

I can’t remember the last time I had such a double-take reaction to a TV show as watching SEAL Team. The adventures of a band of brothers in the American military who fly about the world causing mayhem, when not dealing with domestic dramas at home. This simply was a remake of David Mamet’s The Unit, they even hired Mr Grey (Michael Irby) from The Unit to play their ‘been there done that’ character putting the hopefuls thru their paces before they can ascend to the godlike status of a Tier 1 Operator. There were touches that distinguished it from Mamet’s creation to be sure, but mostly that was a layer of SJW-babble; centred around the character of Alona Tal’s English PhD student and would-be girlfriend of would-be Tier 1 Operator Max Thieriot; and it was never entirely clear whether this was being satirical of SJW-babble or just thinking it needed to be there to represent America as it is right now. But mostly this was The Unit, with different actors, led by David Boreanaz taking over the Dennis Haysbert role. And then creator Benjamin Cavell, late of Justified, threw the mother of all structural spit-balls at the viewer. The characters just upped and left to Afghanistan for deployment, a regular occurrence, but one brought forward on this occasion because of the complete destruction of their predecessors Seal Team Echo. All the domestic dramas at home gone, apart from two Skype scenes in six episodes so far of this investigative arc into who ordered the hit on Echo which has replaced the mission by mission of the earlier standalone American episodes whose only arc was Thieriot’s training to join the team. I’m not sure I was prepared for such formalist experimentation on CBS.

“That’s some editing”

Editing the punch-lines out of jokes first annoyed me a few years ago when Willem Dafoe was voicing the Birdseye Bear. A peerless advert saw him set the scene for a romantic dinner for his hapless owner, only to be told to hop it as the no longer frozen food arrived at the impeccably mood-music’d and mood-light’d table. The bear turned straight to camera to register his astonishment, and was then found sitting outside the house muttering “There’s gratitude for ya!” But then the advert started to get edited more and more severely, and the punch-line was thrown out. Who does that? What buffoon makes these decisions? Let’s edit for time, and throw away the jokes that are the point of the seconds we’ve kept that are now pointless. James Corden’s current advert has been cut to the point of sheer gibberish. The three encounters with three fly-by-night mechanic brothers, who bore a passing resemblance to Donald Trump, and left Corden sad and depressed entering Vegas with bugger all money after their antics and then elated when he left with loadsamoney have been reduced to a decontextualised idiotic mishmash. What exactly was the purpose of this editing?

February 24, 2018

A Bluffer’s Guide to Phantom Thread

Life is too short to watch the films nominated for the Oscars, but how else can one join in on conversations about the films nominated for the Oscars? Fear not, for here is your manual for being in the know.

Not having seen Phantom Thread should not stop you indulging in in-jokes about it, or making obscure references to scenes to cut out from the chatter people who also haven’t seen it, but haven’t read this piece either. There are three obscure things you simply must do. You must say, “Ah Fitzrovia, all shot on location there, as you recognised I’m sure” and then sigh wistfully, leaving your listeners discomfited at their lack of Old London chic. You must praise Brian Gleeson’s upper-crust English accent, and compare it to Day-Lewis’ cut-glass accent in 1985’s A Room with a View. You must impress upon people the extravagance of Paul Thomas Anderson hiring a 1950s red London double-decker bus for an entire day, only to drive it past a window, out of focus in the background of a shot, for two seconds; and then crush them by saying “Ah, yes, but it is indispensable. Phantom Thread isn’t just set in the 1950s, in that scene for those seconds it embodies the 1950s.”

Now then, quotable quotes; some of which are damned hard to work naturally into a conversation unless you find yourself in a kitchen or eating breakfast. If you do find yourself near some food, clatter the cutlery about, and make a noisy show of scraping your knife on toast; and then mutter “Entirely too much activity at breakfast” or “It’s like you rode a horse across the room” with a knowing wink. To completely dispel any doubt that you have no idea what you’re actually referencing then deadpan very seriously, “If his breakfast gets upset he finds it very hard to recover for the rest of the day.” To chide someone, shush them away, and then bark “The tea is going out, but the interruption is staying right here with me”. To exit in high dudgeon, say “There is an air of quiet death about this house, and I do not like how it smells”. If all this is too much to remember you could just offer to cook someone your famous mushroom omelette and then degenerate into helpless laughter.

So far so good, but you can layer your faux familiarity further. You should comment loudly on the omnipresence of Jonny Greenwood’s score and say that it puts one in mind of Shostakovich, but then of course the driving strings of Plainview’s theme in There Will Be Blood owed much to the 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, allegedly depicting Stalin’s ruthless energy. And then add in that a new note struck by Greenwood this time was the gorgeous piano cues, reminiscent of Debussy at his most gorgeous and minimal. As a feint you can feign ignorance if you think people are getting suspicious, note that you don’t fully (feign ignorance, never admit to ignorance) understand the purpose of the Clockwork Orange reference when Daniel Day-Lewis drives in the countryside at night. But then trump these sceptics by saying that this move’s ‘milkshake scene’ is surely the ‘asparagus scene’. Compare it to Pinter, compare it to Mamet, compare it to Le Carre as a joke because Day-Lewis raves about spies, and then seem to struggle to remember the words “You know that I like my asparagus cooked in butter and salt, yet you have cooked it in oil. Were the circumstances different I might be able to pretend to like it, but as they are I’m simply admiring my own gallantry for eating it in the way you prepared it.”

Now you are in the know. Go forth and bluster.

September 20, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Director Matthew Vaughn helms a hasty sequel to his Mark Millar absurdist spy fantasy which sadly displays its hasty production.

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Our hero Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is waiting for a Kingsman cab when he is attacked by old rival Charlie (Edward Holcroft); unexpectedly, because he was presumed dead, and didn’t have a bionic arm. Said ‘arm’ leads to Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) being the last Kingsmen standing, and having to seek help from their American cousins, the Statesmen. They get a gruff reception from Agent Tequila (Channing Tatum), but a warmer welcome from Merlin’s opposite number Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) who has developed a maguffin for dealing with headshots. Et voila – despite Colin Firth being shot in the head last time out – Harry lives! But will Harry recover his memories and his co-ordination in time to save the world from the depredations of drug baron Poppy (Julianne Moore) or does his distrust of Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) bespeak incurable paranoia?

This sequel was written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, but the tone is off; right from the twisted but not funny use of Chekhov’s meat-mincer in Poppy’s introduction. The fact that Eggsy and Merlin face the same Kingsmen apocalypse in this first act as the original’s third act feels very lazy, as does the Hollywood cliché for raising stakes in the finale.  This is a bloated movie: Tatum is barely in it,  Jeff Bridges even less so, and the impulsive jackass President played by Bruce Greenwood (!) feels like a late Trump-bashing addition to the script; especially his final scene which is a transparent and asinine piece of wish fulfilment. The running time could be trimmed by removing Elton John; his foul-mouthed temper-tantrums in support add nothing. Indeed all the swearing lacks the purposeful artistry of a McDonagh or Mamet.

A notably bombastic yet unmemorable score is punctuated by ecstatic uses of Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and John’s ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ for elaborate fights as Vaughn relentlessly searches for but never really finds an action sequence to equal the church brawl from the original. Like The Matrix Reloaded, physical reality is traded for bullet-time and CGI, and the magic of choreography is lost. Oddly the most effective use of music is the most muted; John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ for an all guns blazing character moment. Hanna Alstrom’s Princess is now Eggsy’s girlfriend, possibly as a response to criticism, yet Poppy Delevingne’s femme fatale Clara is subjected to even more tasteless comic use than Alstrom was… Moore’s super-villain has an interesting plan; but you feel Vaughn and Goldman understand it to articulate something meaningful that they never actually articulate.

This strains to equal the fun quality its predecessor had naturally, but, despite many misgivings, there are enough good action sequences, gags, performances, and uses of pop to make this worth your cinema ticket.

3/5

August 10, 2016

Edfringe Lift-off

At Large Theatre Company are taking three one-act shows to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and they did a warm-up in Players Theatre before leaving Dublin.

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Beryl

Beryl (Lesley-Ann Reilly) offers a very specialised service to gentlemen callers to her modest flat, but not what you think…

Frank (Alan Rogers) is an extremely diffident man, who seems continually on the point of bolting as if this was all a bad idea. Beryl meanwhile has more bonhomie than is needed for the two of them. The early interchanges in Lesley-Ann Reilly’s script entice us to understand this as a man paying for sex for the first time, before we realise it’s something entirely different: Beryl’s services are allowing men to dress in women’s clothes for the first time. But as Beryl draws Frank out of his taciturn shell, and he stalks about in high heels that remind him of his mother, proceedings take a dark twist as his guilt-ridden motive for availing of her services is laid bare.

Director Grainne Curistan keeps the potentially lurid subject matter nicely underplayed for the most part; a tense exchange where Beryl presses a glass of wine on Frank who does not want it recalls the power-plays in Pinter’s The Homecoming concerning a glass of water. A moment where Frank adjusts a scarf around Beryl becomes extremely menacing because Rogers is so successful at keeping Frank an enigma, lost in the mazes of his own mind – he may confess to past misdeeds but in the present he remains unknowable. Reilly’s turn is less cryptic. She is amusing and believable as a chatty Cathy but when Beryl forces Frank to confront his sins and competes with his guilt the performance becomes too outré.

Beryl is always engaging, but ultimately Beryl’s need to trump Frank’s crime by confessing a minor infraction of her own undermines its dramatic impact.

3/5

 

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The Meeting

Writer/director Grainne Curistan unfurls a perfectly normal, perfectly tedious business meeting that starts to go decidedly sideways to delirious effect.

The chairwoman (Elaine Reynolds) begins the meeting with all the confidence of Josh Lyman briefing the White House Press Corps in The West Wing, and it’s just as misplaced as her attempts to canter thru the agenda late on a Friday evening fall foul of her co-workers. Professional absentee Linda (Ann Hogan) is intent on querying a directive on actually replying to emails, Italian Antoine (David Breen) wants something actually done about the stupid f****** doors that keep hitting him in the face and he doesn’t care about not putting bad language on the agenda, and permanently out to lunch assistant Daisy (Kate Feeney) wants to create a taskforce to name the photocopiers to improve morale; the photocopiers’ morale. As squabbling intensifies Linda’s friend Stephanie Morris-Ni Shuilleabhain (Gillian Fitzgerald) arrives late and asks to be recorded as present, only to be trumped by an even later entrant – an enraged boss…

Linda and Daisy are delightful comic creations. Linda’s commitment to union procedures taken to the brink of madness could stand next to Peter Sellers’ I’m All Right, Jack shop steward without raising eyebrows. Indeed her devotion has taken boss Owen (Daniel O’Brien) over the brink of madness, hence his drunken arrival with a baseball bat. If one wants to quibble the lighting design leaves Owen in shadow too often and his roaring indignation runs out of dramatic road, but it transmutes into wonderful groaned apologies and acquiescence in the finale. Michael O’Kelly, Brendan Rooney, and John O’Rourke keep the more farcical elements grounded with their straight men. O’Kelly’s double act with Breen is a particular joy, as he repeatedly is forced to act as translator when Linda affects not to understand Antoine. Curistan’s script builds to a logically demented climax with a sensational and unexpected pay-off of an earlier element.

The Meeting is a hilarious one-act play, fleshing out nine characters whose grains of truth are magnified to comical proportions and loosed in absurdity.

4/5

 

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Nowhere Now

Writer/director Daniel O’Brien satirises international trade, media saturation, and macho posturing in a bizarre, inexplicable, theatrical, and memorable fever dream.

A trade deal is being done. A preposterous amount of beef is to be sold. Many people will make a lot of money. Other people will have no beef to eat. Everything waits upon the arrival of the Prime Minister. And so the Ambassador (Darcy Donnellan), the CEO (Kate Cosgrave), and the Minister (Yalda Shahidi) wait around a table for the PM to arrive and bring all their mind-bending travails to fruition. Meanwhile journalists and victims of the deal (played by Grainne Curistan, Noel Cahill, and Ciaran Treanor) eat from bowls, lie on the ground despairingly, and run about the stage with angel wings strapped to their backs – all part of the colour scheme of red and white that dominates.

Nowhere Now does not have a driving plot. What it does have is lashings of theatrical mood in the cod-Beckettian set-up of people waiting for an important individual who stubbornly refuses to appear as scheduled. Shahidi’s hapless functionary contrasts wonderfully with the swagger with which Donnellan dominates the stage. Donnellan’s interactions with Cosgrave, both women wearing white shirts, red braces and ties, flip from macho aggressiveness to a hyper-theatrical incantation praising the cows that form the meat of the deal; ending with a kiss that further complicates the gender-swapped Mametian shapes being thrown as Cosgrave seems both the secretary and the betraying executive from Speed the Plow. Curistan, Cahill, and Treanor meanwhile act out bizarre scenarios ranging from a lengthy list of excuses to go home that get increasingly demented, to a horrifying way to get your beef hit, and, in, a climax that is hysterically funny, the PM explaining ‘live’ (ahem) on radio that he’s come rather a cropper.

Daniel O’Brien’s hour of madness may not be everyone’s cup of tea. There are undeniably longueurs, indeed it probably doesn’t need to be an hour. Cahill and Treanor can be a bit too shouty at times, and in the finale resort to arm-clenching gurning in the background which distracts from the main action. But even with these reservations, O’Brien conjures spectacle from a colour scheme, draws out some great performances, and asserts the theatricality of not needing to make sense.

Nowhere Now in its most coherent moments resembles Speed the Plow assaulted by The League of Gentlemen, and betimes it’s visually striking and memorable.

3/5

July 30, 2016

The Weir

Decadent Theatre Company revive Conor McPherson’s all-conquering 1997 play of ghost stories in an isolated Leitrim pub to chilling and cathartic effect.

DKANE 15/06/2016 REPRO FREE Gary Lydon, Frankie McCafferty and Pat Ryan performing a scene in the Decadent Theatre Company production of The Weir by Conor McPherson. The Weir opens its national tour on June 16th in the Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick. for more information see http://decadenttheatrecompany.ie/the-weir-tour-dates/ PIC DARRAGH KANE

PIC DARRAGH KANE

Jack (Gary Lydon) arrives into a small pub to find the tap for his chosen tipple isn’t working. So it goes with laidback barman Brendan (Patrick Ryan), who gives Jack a bottle instead. They are soon joined by the quiet but sharp Jim (Frankie McCafferty), and anxiously await the arrival of local tycoon Finbarr (Garrett Keogh), who is bringing Dublin blow-in Valerie (Janet Moran) to the bar. The men are concerned that Finbarr, a married man, is being unseemly in his attentions towards Valerie, and are equally concerned that he is turning them into dancing bears as a show of local colour for Valerie. But in the end the unseemliness comes from the concerned locals, as a number of local ghost stories pour forth, becoming progressively darker as the night draws in and the beers and short ones mount up.

Director Andrew Flynn’s handling of The Weir is riveting. You could hear a pin drop during the multiple monologues, and I cannot have been the only one to have a chill run down my spine while listening to the first two ghost stories told by Finbarr and Jack. An eerie atmosphere was greatly aided by the terrific whistling wind effects of Carl Kennedy’s sound design. Owen MacCarthaigh’s set design is a world away from the spectacular cut-aways he rendered for Decadent’s A Skull in Connemara, and in this simple naturalistic setting McPherson’s place in a continuum is apparent. The menace of possible drunken violence between the arrogant Finbarr and the prickly Jack is reminiscent of Tom Murphy, while everyone’s resentful mockery of Finbarr’s wealth recalls similar attitudes to the Shah in John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun.

Lydon brings Jack to cantankerous life, making his closing monologue particularly affecting, while Keogh is a world away from his put-upon turn in A Skull in Connemara with his infuriatingly patronising Finbarr (“Oh! Good girl”). This is the first time I’ve seen the play since Patrick Doyle parsed the script for me as a Mametian series of power-plays. Seen in that light the stories have suspicious similarities of theme, to say nothing of the escalation; Jack narrates a historic haunting, Finbarr narrates feeling a ghost behind him, Jim interacts directly with a paedophile’s ghost, and Valerie’s daughter returns via a ghostly phone call. The fact that Valerie unleashes her trumping story after a trip to the toilet supports the idea that she’s had enough of these strangers trying to unnerve her and has decided to beat them at their game.

Such cynicism is far removed from regarding the play as communal catharsis, but it says much for its deceptive depth that one can suspect Valerie and yet still sincerely feel Jack’s cri-de-couer.

4/5

The Weir continues its run at the Pavilion Theatre until the 30th of July.

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.

October 6, 2014

Our Few and Evil Days

Ciaran Hinds and Sinead Cusack, so successful in Juno and the Paycock back in 2011, reunite as a more contemporary but equally troubled married couple; whose headstrong daughter brings home an equally superficially attractive paramour.

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Michael (Hinds) and Margaret (Cusack) are a loving couple in a Dublin suburb who no longer share a bedroom. The wordless opening of both acts sees Michael come downstairs to wake her up, and then put away mattress and pillows and switch the pull-out bed back to a sofa while she dresses upstairs. Yet their obvious devotion to each other is noticed and commented on by unexpected visitor Dennis (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), who has been placed in the awkward position of meeting the parents solo by Adele (Charlie Murphy) running off to help her friend Belinda thru yet another crisis. Dennis inevitably makes a faux pas, about Adele’s absent brother, Jonathan; something teased out, along with Belinda’s crises, when Adele arrives for a very late dinner. But when Adele leaves again Dennis is convinced to stay over by Michael, and so when Dennis gets up for a drink of water he falls over Margaret; and their conversation about Jonathan becomes… disturbing.

Our Few and Evil Days is hard to review without ruining the effect of Mark O’Rowe’s mischievous structure. My lead-in was mischievous in mentioning O’Casey, because this is clearly in the vein of two other playwrights. The interrupting and sharply back and forth dialogue owes a debt to David Mamet, and the stellar cast, once they’ve warmed up to it (almost), embrace its rhythms with gusto. Meanwhile Harold Pinter’s comedy of menace rumbles under the attempts of naively nice guy Dennis to make a good impression. As director O’Rowe is also mischievous, casting Ian-Lloyd Anderson against type as Belinda’s abusive boyfriend Gary, by muting the physical menace he displayed in Major Barbara and instead playing up epic self-pity. This is a solidly middle-class setting courtesy of Paul Wills’ fully functioning set; with stairs behind the glass doors from the sitting room to the hall, a laundry area behind the kitchen, and a working sink (the final pre-Irish Water set design?).

Unfortunately such an impressive deeply layered set necessitates the removal of the first four rows of seats, so row E gets pasted up against the stage; and during Dennis and Margaret’s pivotal scene sitting at the kitchen table you are listening to a table emote because you can’t see Margaret’s face at all… O’Rowe’s play comprises three scenes either side of the interval; but where uncomfortable comedy dominates the first act, Freudian nightmares, shouting matches, and pop-analysis dominate the second. This gives the impression by the end that some characters have merely acted as plot devices to push the most important characters into dramatic screaming matches, and that much of the comedy has been a red herring. This doesn’t really matter though when actors of the calibre of Hinds, Cusack, Murphy and Vaughan-Lawlor are giving it their all. Vaughan-Lawlor clearly relishes playing against ‘Nidge’, Cusack is endearingly earthy, Hinds is sympathetically conflicted, and Murphy impressively alternates between wounded and wounding.

O’Rowe’s script has a fearful symmetry, great comedy, and touches on true darkness, but is perhaps a bit too full of misdirection. It’s possible to see future productions simply fall apart with lesser actors.

4/5

Our Few and Evil Days continues its run at the Abbey until the 25th of October.

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