Talking Movies

December 4, 2012

A Whistle in the Dark

Druid stunned the brutalised Gaiety audience into silence at the Dublin Theatre Festival with Tom Murphy’s coruscating 1961 debut. Depicting violent Irish immigrants in Coventry trapped in self-mythologies of violence’s utility and “learning”’s futility it still packs an emotional sucker-punch.

A Whistle In the Dark

Michael (Marty Rea) is married to a Coventry girl and living there, but in a tense situation. His house is being shared with three of his brothers. The brutishly violent and ignorant Hubert (Garrett Lombard) and Ignatius (Rory Nolan) are intimidating presences but Michael’s wife Betty (Eileen Walsh) is rightly most frightened of Harry (Aaron Monaghan), the street-smart brother who is running a prostitution ring. But there’re more Carneys yet…

A Whistle in the Dark was infamously rejected by the Abbey because Ernest Blythe said no such people existed in Ireland, yet the novels of John McGahern attest to the baneful reality of monsters like Michael Senior (Niall Buggy), who arrives to visit with the youngest son Des (Gavin Drea). The battle of wills to mould Des’ future is an incredibly tense and bleak affair essentially pitting barbarity against civilisation.

Nolan and Lombard are terrifying as primitive thugs, in their second outing as brothers after 2010’s Death of A Salesman, but while the ensemble was uniformly flawless Buggy’s self-pitying and savage turn as the patriarch must be singled out as being truly remarkable, while Rea was agonisingly sympathetic as the good man inexorably being dragged down to his father’s level. Garry Hynes’ direction rendered a realistic set a febrile battleground.

Graham Price and I couldn’t help but note how indebted Pinter’s The Homecoming is to Murphy’s primal scream of familial power plays, but while both have the resonance of Greek myth this is not black comedy but darkest tragedy.

5/5

June 1, 2012

Glengarry Glen Ross

David Mamet won a Pulitzer in 1984 for his black comedy about desperate real estate agents, and this Gate theatre production is a note-perfect rendition.

550647_10150890589797929_403113012_nThe first act is almost the definitive Mamet, being three two-hander scenes in which one person struggles to get a word in edgeways while the other tells them to stop interrupting. Shelley Levene (Owen Roe), an over the hill salesman, tries to cajole, bully, and beg his younger office manager Williamson (John Cronin) for the vital ‘leads’ without which he doesn’t stand a chance of making it onto the leader-board for sales completed; which decides who wins a Cadillac at the end of the month, and who gets fired. The other agents Moss (Denis Conway) and George (Barry McGovern) complain about the cruelty and unfairness of this process and ‘talk’ about ripping off their own office. Finally a timid man Lingks (Peter Hanly) is accosted by the freight-train of confidence that is salesman Ricky Roma (Reg Rogers); who swans into the Chekhovian second act so drunk on ‘closing’ Lingks and thus winning the Cadillac that it takes him a while to notice that the office has been ransacked and the leads and closed contracts stolen…

Mamet’s rhythmic, profane, overlapping dialogue is one of the most distinctive theatrical accomplishments of the past half-century; and every actor in this production excels in its delivery. The famous finagling by Moss and George of ‘talking’ and ‘speaking’ about a robbery is performed exquisitely by the great McGovern and Conway. They also nail the subsequent indignation of their characters at being questioned by Patrick Joseph Byrnes’ no-nonsense cop, while Cronin is magnificent as the overwrought Williamson yelling at George to just for the love of God go for lunch… If there is a flaw in this production it’s that Cronin at times can appear nervous at sharing the stage with such heavyweights of Irish theatre, but even that flaw works for the play as Williamson is subject to such vicious verbal abuse by these men (whose need to belittle him outranks their instincts for self-preservation) that being occasionally nervous in their presence is entirely in character. The two showy parts though are the salesman leading a life of noisy desperation and the scenery-chewing Pacino role.

Director Doug Hughes steered the original production of Doubt to Tony glory some years ago before reviving Mamet’s Oleanna on Broadway and he is alert to every nuance of the text. He coaxes from Roe a performance that alternates between despair, self-delusion, and arrogance as Levene, and from Broadway actor Rogers a barnstorming powerhouse of bombast, hostility, and cunning as Roma. Levene can seem like Mamet’s riff on Miller’s tragic hero Willy Loman, with the uncaring Williamson as a version of the son of Loman’s old boss who doesn’t care about Loman’s service to the firm and humiliates him. Ricky Roma though is all Mamet. The new face of capitalism isn’t like Miller’s successful brother Ben Loman, indeed he’s Levene’s protégé, and, in his outrageous machismo, actually behaves like one of Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe on Wall Street, despite being a small-time property salesman. The impressively decrepit ransacked office set by In Treatment designer Neil Patel is an apt setting for the comings and goings of men deluding themselves about the American Dream.

Mamet’s attack on ruthless capitalism is given its full punch here by a cast who bring out the comedy and the cruelty – essential theatre.

5/5

Glengarry Glen Ross continues its run at the Gate Theatre until July 14th.

June 10, 2011

On Fassbendering

“To Fassbender: To very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work”. That’s the Urban Dictionary definition at any rate. But, like the residents of Madison Avenue advertising firms in the 1960s being termed Mad Men, I defined it myself…

So, where on earth did I get the concept of Fassbendering from? Well, I first really noticed Michael Fassbender when he played Azazeal in Hex, and my reaction to the show was pretty much “meh, pale Buffy rip-off, but serious kudos to that guy who’s really enjoying himself far too much as the Big Bad”. Later on I realised that he was the actor from Guinness ad who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. The fact that Fassbender had ended that ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again, suggested a trend – this was a guy who just couldn’t stop grinning mischievously because he was always enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender fell off my radar for a while so I only belatedly noticed that he grinned with some malevolence in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, as he got to be both an impeccably impassive servant and a sadistic serial killer; who, several years before Heath Ledger’s Joker, took a distinct pleasure in being tortured by Holmes. I also later caught up with ITV’s Poirot and discovered that Fassbender had smoked, drank, drawled and grinned his way thru After the Funeral.

But his ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where I really started to take this nonsense seriously, if you will. I have found among my circle that whoever watched 300 as a serious action drama thought it was unbearably bad, but whoever watched it thru the absurd prism of Fassbender (on my prompting) thought it was a deliriously great black comedy. Watching the film with Fassbender as your focus you realise just how much fun he’s obviously having. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning… Later he jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Well then, we shall fight in the shade”, with the air of a man once again enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender gets to be half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and, in his definitive moment of gleefulness, when the Persian mystics are throwing bombs Fassbender runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. In the darkness lit only by bomb blasts we can’t see Fassbender’s face underneath his helmet until we see his teeth, as he grins. Fassbender does something awesome in the denouement to allow Leonidas to do something even more awesome, before holding hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines; where even dying becomes a blast…

But, daft as it sounds, it was Fassbender’s subsequent role in Hunger that led me to go online and define Fassbendering, because, when announcing the casting news from Cannes the Irish Times, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to accompany the story that Fassbender was taking on this big serious role in what one would expect to be a grim sombre film, with a photo of Fassbender cracking up on set – as if there was nothing on this planet, not decency, not logic, that could prevent Fassbender from enjoying himself too much… And indeed Hunger did provide one moment which I deemed Fassbendering above and beyond the call of duty. In the midst of a serious performance in a serious film he still managed to sneak in a scene where, after being beaten up and then dropped naked and bloodied on the floor of his cell, his Bobby Sands rolls over, blood streaming from his mouth, and slowly grins at the camera… On retrospect this is obviously the moment where Sands realises he can defeat his captors by doing this to himself by going on hunger strike, but would anyone but Fassbender dare to do communicate this by a grin, that also serves to indicate that he knows he is doing a great job with this role and still can’t quite believe his luck.

Fassbender had a straight man role in Inglourious Basterds opposite Mike Myers’ absurdist British officer, and then in one of the tensest sequences in the film, but I argue that he was able to play things straight because he didn’t need to Fassbender, he’d already infected the entire ensemble. Christoph Waltz’s ecstatic glee at his role is pure Fassbendering, especially his appreciation of the musical qualities of Italian names and Diane Kruger’s explanation of her leg injury, during which he has to go off to one side to laugh himself sick. The trailer for Jonah Hex left me in tears of laughter as Fassbender’s first appearance as henchman Burke saw him grinning manically while dressed as a droog and setting fire to a barn with someone trapped in it. You can only hope that one day Fassbender gets to truly cut loose with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films.

So what is Fassbendering? I used 300 for the definition because it’s the supreme example of a man just obviously enjoying himself far too much for something that’s meant to be paid work, hence my quip – “On being handed the cheque he probably said ‘No, really I couldn’t. It’s just been such a blast. Can I keep the cape?” Now, Fassbendering is not unique to Fassbender, but only in one sense as I will argue in a minute. I would argue that the Red Hot Chili Peppers can be audibly heard Fassbendering their way thru BloodSugarSexMagik because when you listen to it you feel that they would do this for free, they are so obviously deriving too much enjoyment from their paid work. But Fassbendering always has a positive undertone, what is enjoyable for the performer is enjoyable for the audience too, unlike fiascos like Ocean’s 12 where a group of actors obviously having a ball does not translate into the warm hug of the audience that the same actors having a ball provides in Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 13. Fassbendering therefore is high praise when I use it for another actor, as I have occasionally done (Iron Man, Speed Racer, The Importance of Being Lady Bracknell, Death of A Salesman, 7 Reasons to Love Scott Pilgrim, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Pygmalion, X-Men: First Class).

The part of Erik Lensherr is dark and vengeful, but there is some Fassbendering. The most obvious moments come in the recruitment and training montages where Erik suddenly reveals a hitherto unsuspected sardonic side. These are where any actor would grin widely at how much fun they’re having, even if Fassbender grins wider than most. The true moment that defines Fassbendering as something that only Michael Fassbender truly personifies comes in the extremely tense sequence in the Argentinian German Bar. Fassbender smiling widely drops loaded hints to the ex-Nazis, “They had no name. It was taken from them, by pig-farmers, and tailors”, his smile confusing the hell out of them, even as he slowly drains his drink, still looking affable, but perhaps to be feared. Fassbender is obviously enjoying himself far too much in this scene, but what’s more, to paraphrase Werner Herzog, he’s conveying an inner thought process of his character that other actors would not attempt – Erik really is obviously enjoying this Nazi-hunting business far too much…

April 26, 2011

Revue: Attempts on Her Life: Review

A postmodern play is what we mean when we point at something and say, ‘This is what we mean by a postmodern play’…

A review of a play should be impartial and objective. It’s never a good idea to review a play when you know people acting in it. Having said which I’ve already done so to an extent when reviewing Death of A Salesman last summer. But of course I never knew Rory Nolan half as well back in 2001 when he was my Dramsoc committee liaison as I do some of the people in this play. Can we get around this? Perhaps..

SCENE 7. ARGUMENTS.

BORIS, GODUNOV, and JOHNSON are onstage. They can be any age and either sex. They are panellists on a TV show, or maybe politicians at a debate, you decide.

BORIS: It’s weird beyond belief. I approve.

GODUNOV: But is it good-weird or bad-weird?

BORIS: Can one apply such banal terms to post-modern theatre? It exists, it breathes; one cannot pigeonhole it into such bourgeois categories as good or bad.

JOHNSON: But surely a play has to achieve something other than simply being?

BORIS: You would like a tidy linear plot and developed characters progressing along a satisfying and predictable emotional arc, would you? Anything else we can do for you while we’re rolling back theatrical history? Bring back the Lord Chamberlain? Maybe we could ban women from acting again…

GODUNOV: I think that what Johnson meant was that a post-modern play whose sole content is reiterations of how impeccably post-modernist it is becomes as self-defeating as a woman Irish poet whose sole subject for poetry is the trials of being a woman Irish poet, to the point where you must ask if it’s such a chore trying to fit into the patriarchal tradition of Yeats why not just chuck it for something more congenial like novel-writing. Seems to work out nicely for Emma Donoghue…

BORIS: There you go again. You have an obsession with every work of art being pre-digested for your facile consumption, rather than struggling against patriarchy.

JOHNSON: I fear Boris that we are getting away from the play.

BORIS: Yes. We are. I thought a triumphant scene was the superbly combative Aisling Flynn talking down Ian Toner in the panel discussion tentatively chaired by Sam McGovern.

GODUNOV: Yes, he did catch rather well the host awkwardly caught between both trying to start fights and defuse excess tension at the same time.

BORIS: Shut up, Godunov. Yes, it was a pitch-perfect parody of the sort of spats over modern art once catches on Newsnight Review of a Friday. I also admired the deranged quality of Fiachra MacNamara’s monologue while blindfolded and being whipped by a girl wearing a pig-mask and shouting thru a microphone.

JOHNSON: The blunt satire of the second scene with the children’s entertainment turning into a discussion of atrocities bothered me by its tremendous lack of subtlety. Does one need really need to jackhammer at obvious truths like that? But I must ask you one question Boris. Did it not bother you that for large chunks of the play you had absolutely no idea what was going on? I’m thinking of that amusing but baffling Pinter homage where Toner and McGovern seemed to be either ad-men or hit-men, writing a personal ad or an obituary, with a mysterious suitcase bothering their efforts.

BORIS: I understood everything that happened.

GODUNOV: I beg to differ. You turned to me during the scene with the six actresses doing the satirical car adverts in different languages to ask in a terrified whisper if that man was meant to be on stage or had he just wandered in off the street?

BORIS: I was merely adding to your confusion to amplify the intended artistic effect…

JOHNSON: The scene deconstructing pornography I thought was another highlight.

BORIS: It appealed to your low taste for moralism in art did it?

GODUNOV: Why must you constantly sneer at any attempts to find meaning in life?

BORIS: Because one cannot find meaning in life! Crimp’s entire gestalt is that no play can represent accurately even one person, so how on earth could a play seek not only to create multiple ‘realistic’ characters but then have the audacity to claim that they represent the universe in some sort of microcosm, and that the play can thus make ‘important’ points about society? The only point it can make is the inadequacy of its ability to make points.

JOHNSON: You ascribe a Beckettian impulse to Crimp then, the compulsion to speak, mixed with the awareness of the inability to say anything worth speaking of?

BORIS: Don’t bring your philosophical poppycock into this, Crimp is operating on a purely aesthetic level. I have no idea what I mean by that. Or do I? …

GODUNOV: Are you attempting to say that we must not look for any deeper meaning? That Attempts on Her Life represents merely post-modern theatre’s abdication of the urge to create versions of reality in favour of merely stringing together disparate scenes containing blunt anti-capitalist satire? Didn’t 9/11 make that sort of posturing an embarrassment? If western civilisation is not inviolable what is the point of deconstructing it?

BORIS: Well, one could say the same about resisting the Nazis after the tide turned in Africa or in Russia. The battle against patriarchal structures is never futile. Vive La Resistance. You will notice the ‘La’…

JOHNSON: I think Boris that you have lost your mind.

BORIS: I’m in the good company of Nietzsche in that case.

GODUNOV: And I keenly resent the implication that I am a Nazi.

It’s hard not to feel that Enron shows the influence of Attempts on Her Life while simultaneously abjuring it. They’re both Royal Court productions but separated by a traumatic decade. There are a number of inexplicable musical numbers in both plays although neither is a musical, in both actors double up and a huge cast run thru many different cipher characters, and multi-media is also a commonality with large screens bombarding the audience with subliminally fast images of modern life; but the differences are huge. The blunt satire of capitalism remains, but the generalised anxiety of Martin Crimp is replaced by a sharp focus on the fall of one company by Lucy Prebble, who also develops four stable characters amid the slapstick in order to give us an emotional anchor, and has a solid plot in the downfall of Enron’s insane accounting system to drive things forward in a semi-linear fashion. In other words Attempts on Her Life is an important play but it’s not a trailblazer, nothing can follow it, other writers can only plunder from it what they like best and incorporate it into their own more traditional work – after all if one actually wants to say something about society it’s not really that satisfying only having a dramatic framework that deconstructs the validity of any and all attempts to say anything about society.

3/5

August 2, 2010

Death of a Salesman

Harris Yulin, familiar as a ‘That Guy’ from Looking for RichardBuffy, and 24, gets a chance to shine in a lead role in this revival of Arthur Miller’s coruscating 1949 play.

deathoas

Salesman was a devastating response to people embracing the post-war boom by forgetting that the last boom, driven by cheap credit and property speculation, had produced the intractable Great Depression. The American Dream requires both such collective amnesia and a self-delusion that everyone can succeed in a system whose rules only allow some succeed. Such self-defeating dreaming is articulately skewered by Miller in the self-deceptions of the titular salesman Willie Loman. Talking of dreams – “Who let Ellen Page loose in here?” asked fellow Inception fan Stephen Errity (stephenerrity.wordpress.com) as we first noticed Michael Pavelka’s set, which tilts towards the audience from a height of a few feet, even as the facade of a hideous apartment building with a tree growing through it topples towards the actors. This set communicates Willie’s loosening grip on reality. His sons complain that he is talking to himself at night, but really he is talking to them, his reality is slipping from the present to events from years gone by. He interacts with teenaged versions of his sons in scenes which start purely in his mind and then explode into physical life with the help of quick costume and hair-style changes. Director David Esbjornson also skilfully employs the mobile props on the stage to slide between locations and temporalities.

Willie raised his sons to believe they were leaders of men and he clings to delusions of his own importance despite being forced back on the road instead of receiving the office job he was promised for his trailblazing work for the firm as a younger man. Willie is a willing victim because he has been bewitched by the notion that everyone can end up like his brother Ben who boasts – “When I was 17 I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21 I walked out. And by God I was rich.” His implosion due to money worries, in particular a meltdown with his old boss’s feckless son, is incredibly raw as Yulin does justice to Miller’s script, which wraps an emotional knock-out punch around his politico-economic message.

Willie’s disintegration is given its pathos by the effect it has on his family. Garrett Lombard as Willie’s eldest son Biff (an aimless self-loathing drifter), Rory Nolan as the younger Happy (mildly successful in business but insanely successful in womanising), and Deirdre Donnelly as long-suffering wife Linda, make you care intensely for their flawed characters and their various efforts to save their everyman patriarch, particularly a heart-rending restaurant scene where Biff attempts to lay bare the lies he and Willie have told themselves over the years. Lombard’s accent became pure mule during some tense scenes but that problem should disappear as the run continues, while in minor support the Gate ‘repertory’ enjoy themselves with Stephen Brennan’s luminous white-suited Ben out-Fassbendering Barry McGovern’s droll waiter and John Kavanagh’s Charley.

Miller was sometimes criticised for letting his moral concerns trump naturalistic dialogue but this production is riveting theatre.

4/5

Death of a Salesman runs at the Gate Theatre until September 25th.

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