Talking Movies

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.

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

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