Talking Movies

December 31, 2015

‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ published in Irish Studies Review

I’m pleased to belatedly report that my essay ‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ has been published in a special issue of the Irish Studies Review edited by Catherine Wilsdon and Giulia Bruni.

photo

G.K. Chesterton’s 1936 Autobiography affectionately re-creates his first meetings with W.B. Yeats, whose critical thought Chesterton parsed in his 1905 book Heretics. Chesterton was dubious about Yeats’s occultism, but attracted by the Irish Revival’s linking of cultural reawakening with small-scale economic independence. His criticism of Yeats’s linking of nationalism and mysticism anticipates Benedict Anderson’s seminal theorising of nationalism. P.J. Mathews’s Revival locates texts in the context of separatist agitation against Joseph Chamberlain’s Boer War. Chesterton’s 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill can be read as a parallel text, explicitly rebutting Chamberlain’s imperialist philosophy, but also repurposing elements of Yeats’s critique of Matthew Arnold’s Celt/Teuton cultural binaries for application to English classes. Declan Kiberd’s idea that Wilde exposed England as deeply colonised by the British Empire usefully situates Notting Hill‘s anti-imperialism. Chesterton grants the English populace the Hellenistic spontaneity of consciousness Arnold denied them, and sets forth a vision of English nationalism that even contains a critique of Anderson’s “official nationalism”. Notting Hill‘s politico-cultural revolution, led by Wayne, a poet-warrior, and Turnbull, a visionary shop-keeper, defeats the forces of imperialist politics, plutocratic economics, and empiricist philistinism, and acts as an English parallel in its concerns to Yeats’s decolonising process.

Advertisements

October 11, 2011

A Film with me in it

A Film with me in it has finally been released on DVD, three years after its limited cinema release, so allow me to both praise it to the skies and urge you to buy it.

A Film with me in it is quite simply one of the best Irish films ever made. It’s a jet-black comedy which sees two fine stand-up comedians blunder their way thru a scenario of escalating disastrousness that could have been written by Joe Orton and which makes you laugh at really horrible things. Set in a crumbling Georgian building which has been appallingly converted into the very worst flat in Dublin it follows the misadventures of the morose Mark Doherty (estranged from his live-in girlfriend Amy Huberman and caring for his recently disabled brother David O’Doherty) and his friend Dylan Moran (a scriptwriter who hasn’t written anything but IOUs for quite some time) as they battle their shiftless landlord Keith Allen and try to cope with a series of disastrous but inescapably funny lethal accidents.

Dylan Moran’s sardonic comedy persona finds a perfect leading film role outlet in the part of heroically self-deluding alcoholic writer/director/waiter Pierce. His ramble around the word ‘alcoholic’ at an AA meeting, “My name is Pierce and I am a …. writer/director, and waiter”, is only one of many priceless moments. Moran also gives a fantastic reaction to a bloody accident, “Did, did, did you do a murder?”, devises a series of increasingly ludicrous attempts to avoid a charge of murder, “I have another plan, it involves beards and Morocco”, and powers an amazing cameo where an unexpected actor appears and has his preciousness completely exploded by dint of merciless mockery from Moran. Co-writer Mark Doherty’s blank deadpan opposite all of this mugging from Moran is Leslie Nielsen-esque in its ability to keep the nonsense grounded.

Compiling my top films of the year in 2008 for my own private film awards, as I’ve done annually since 2003, I placed A Film with me in it just outside the Top 10. But coming 11th only confirmed what an extraordinary year it had been for Irish cinema. Declan Kiberd’s Irish Classics noted that Daniel Corkery had propounded a ridiculously purist doctrine. ‘The English language, great as it is, can no more throw up an Irish Literature than it can an Indian literature’, opined Corkery who went further and put forward an influential and rigid formula Kiberd summarises thus, to qualify as Irish, “literature must treat of three themes: religion, nation, and land. Joyce had fled those nets as tyrannies, yet by treating them in his books, he did at least concede their importance”.

2008 saw Irish cinema break free of that transmogrified Corkery/Joyce need to make every film a pompous state of the nation sermon on Dev’s Ireland, the IRA or the land hunger, and/or a box-ticking journey through a number of expected clichés in order to appeal to Irish-American audience expectations, and instead just make films. The result saw entertaining, magical, demented, and insightful films (In Bruges, A Film with me in it, Hunger, Kisses) take 2 of the top 3 places and 4 of the top 12 in my awards. Now you can judge for yourself.

November 12, 2010

The Silver Tassie

Druid’s towering production of Sean O’Casey’s 1928 play was a triumph that should re-instate it in the Irish canon and was surely the apex of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

This was the play that infamously saw O’Casey sever his ties with the Abbey after Yeats rejected it – because O’Casey had not fought in WWI. O’Casey’s justly caustic retort, “Was GB Shaw present when St Joan made the attack that relieved Orleans? And someone, I think, wrote a poem about Tir na nOg, who never took a header into the Land of Youth”, obscured that, behind his bizarre hang-up regarding Art and WWI, Yeats’ bluster was probably hiding sheer panic at how badly such a mammoth production would expose his Abbey’s limited resources. And it is a mammoth production as O’Casey uses 19 actors and the 4 Acts beloved of Chekhov but now out of vogue to stage a dazzling array of situations.

The play opens in the archetypal O’Casey setting of a Dublin tenement, with neighbours intruding all the time on a customary self-deluding male double-act -Simon Norton (John Olohan) and Sylvester Heegan (Eamon Morrissey). Syl is quite possibly the most useless father in all O’Casey, and that’s saying something. He is awaiting the return of his son Harry’s football team from their championship game before the entire squad returns to the Western front. The comedy, however, is more abrasive than the endlessly performed Dublin trilogy. Simon and Syl are upbraided by Harry’s jilted girlfriend Susie Monican (Clare Dunne), who has become an evangelical, while their neighbour upstairs Mrs Foran (Derbhle Crotty) cooks in their flat to avoid her husband Teddy (Liam Carney), who she’s desperate to get rid of back to the front. He’s none too happy about this and, being a wife-beater, knocks a bit of the roof down onto the stage in his rage. No one really cares about him smashing her crockery, or giving her a bleeding cut under her eye, just as they didn’t care about her steak burning while they recounted Harry’s heroic drunken boxing exploits. They do care about Teddy appearing downstairs to menace them with a hatchet… Luckily for them the team arrives with the titular trophy won by Harry’s goal. Harry’s new girlfriend Jessie Taite (Aoife Duffin) taunts Susie with PDA of a suspiciously blatant nature for 1914, before Harry’s boasting in almost Syngean language of the game explodes into a musical number which ends with the team in uniform marching out. The 10 minute intermission is filled with groaning and then sulphurous dry ice floats across the audience in the Gaiety. What are they building back there? France…?

The curtain opens to reveal not France but billowing dry ice. Somewhere inside this fog is a green light, and suddenly we can see that a gun turret is trundling out from the side of the stage and over the front resting above the audience and pointed at them. The entire stage is taken up with an enormous tank. A man is tied to it by both arms on the right, and at the top of a ladder on the left Aaron Monaghan’s Harry sits looking like a character from Apocalypse Now with green camouflage face-paint and a red cross daubed on his chest. He begins to quote the ‘dry bones’ passage from Ezekiel and the soldiers beneath him rise up and dance. Having recently fallen in love with Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class I was delighted by these anti-musical numbers coming thick and fast, alternated with not-so-straightforward dialogue scenes with Simon and Syl, out of their bowler hats, as officers and a wonderful Bush Moukarzel as their cowardly superior, who complains in plummy tones about not being allowed to plunge into the action while giving every appearance of being terrified of even moderately loud noises. Pretty nurses arrive in carrying stretchers and lay down their burdens for a chanted lament, as the truth of Declan Kiberd’s observation that “the men’s chants attain an intensity reminiscent of Eliot’s religious poetry” becomes obvious. Everything ends in a panic as the Germans break through the line. The soldiers chant ‘to the guns, to the guns’, and they shin up the ladder on the stage-filling tank which then starts to move, towards the audience, before an almighty bang stops it and the curtain drops for the interval. Francis O’Connor’s set design is thus quite literally show-stopping and by far one of the most impressive sets I’ve ever seen. This act was the lightning rod for hostile commentary in the 1920s but I saw Journey’s End last year and was struck by how it had been utterly destroyed by Blackadder Goes Forth. The working-class characters as mere comic relief and the overall feel of self-pitying public-school tragedy felt antiquated, a time-capsule of a very different way of looking at the war. The Silver Tassie, by contrast, feels so modern in sensibility, so cynical and blackly comic, that if Stephen Fry’s Colonel were to pop up in this second act he wouldn’t be out of place at all. Its violent non-naturalism, especially after the revolution in British theatre in the 1960s, seems not only perfectly reasonable but also a more appropriate response to the horrors of the trenches than RC Sheriff’s stiff-upper lip officers’ quarters complete with servants.

Act three opens in an absurdist hospital. Absurdist, because all the characters from the opening act are here, for no discernible reason… Harry is in a wheelchair with crippled legs that will obviously never kick a football again. Susie has swapped evangelicalism for nursing and is now doing some serious social-climbing as she tries to impress the English doctor, leading to a hilariously scrambled accent which ranges from Gardiner Street to Grosvenor Square within a single sentence. This is plausible enough, but why on earth are Simon and Syl in hospital, still wearing bowler hats over their hospital gowns? Syl is in for an unspecified operation (minor to the point of trivial), while Simon appears to be merely keeping him company, but why are they in a military hospital and are we in Ireland or England? O’Casey gleefully doesn’t care, and neither should you. What you should care about is how quickly Harry the hero is abandoned once he’s wounded. Jessie isn’t visiting him and Susie’s pity is unbearable especially as she will never take him back now an English doctor is in her sights. Teddy makes an appearance, blind, and thus totally dependent on his now all-powerful wife. His honest comments about the minimal chances of Harry walking again after a spinal injury provide the blackest of comedy in this cruel scenario. Finally Brian Gleeson’s Barney arrives, he has an arm in a sling and it becomes obvious that Jessie has abandoned the maimed Harry for the unscathed Barney.

And so O’Casey roars into the final action at the Avondale football club. Another room visible behind the room on-stage presents us with merry dancing on the far side of the divide, while the audience is cut off from it, like the casualties of the war, who engage in desperate boozing on this side of the divide. Harry has no place anymore in this club for which he won the Silver Tassie, just as the wounded soldiers have no place in the world they fought for. Their attempts to remain in that world only discomfort it, exemplified by Teddy’s bandages being replaced by a face-mask with painted-on eyes which are incredibly disturbing. There is some incredibly funny slapstick comedy amidst this bitter tragedy with Simon, Syl and Mrs Foran attempting to answer a new-fangled telephone device, but O’Casey does not pull his emotional punches. Harry’s bitter attacks on Barney reveal Jessie to be as promiscuous as we suspected, Susie has become firmly attached to the English doctor and wishes Harry would leave, while when Harry finally storms off in his wheel-chair with his mother (Ruth Hegarty) following him at the end his once proud father Syl remains behind to enjoy the party. The ending speech of Harry to Teddy seems to offer some sort of Chekhovian wisdom like the closing speech of Three Sisters, but O’Casey has no intention of ending with anything approaching a noble sentiment. Instead Mrs Foran comes on-stage again, to get another bottle of booze, and falls down repeatedly while trying to open it before passing out drunk for the ultimate of low comedy endings.

This is a play which seems to occupy a central but largely unheralded place in the Irish dramatic tradition. The comedy double-act in their bowler hats anticipate the hyper-articulate sardonic tramps of Beckett and are granted routines as funny as their contemporaries Laurel & Hardy, while, as fellow academic Graham Price pointed out to me, the closing exit by the two crippled soldiers recalls the abrasive end of Synge’s Playboy with the two injured Mahons leaving mediocrity behind to strike out for a more heroic world. But O’Casey’s decision to leave us not even with a Pegeen Mike weeping but instead with a falling-down-drunk woman is a kick in the teeth for all but the most Schopenhauerian of audiences. It is little wonder Yeats preferred the Dublin trilogy but this incredibly funny but bleak play is more accomplished dramatically.

Garry Hynes’ direction creates theatrical magic yet again and demonstrates that Sean O’Casey’s forgotten play is arguably his masterpiece.

5/5

Blog at WordPress.com.