Talking Movies

March 27, 2017

My Own Personal Theatre Awards 2016

It seems odd that Irish theatre should be so ruled by just one set of awards, especially when they have such transparent biases. Someday perhaps someone with the necessary money, reach, and prestige will set up an alternative to the Irish Times Theatre Awards. In the meantime here’s my 2nd annual Theatre Awards, pitched as a corrective; like the Film Top 10 is pitched somewhere between the mid-1990s Oscars and MTV Movie Awards; operating under the fervent aspiration that what is good ought be popular and what is popular ought be good.

Best Production

The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Othello (The Abbey)

 

Best Director

Lynne Parker – Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

Sean Holmes – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Garry Hynes – The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Jeremy Herrin – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Joe Dowling – Othello (The Abbey)

Annabelle Comyn – The Wake (The Abbey)

Ethan McSweeny – The Father (The Gate)

Best Actor

Denis Conway – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

Marty Rea – Othello (The Abbey)

Owen Roe – The Father (The Gate)

Peter Macon – Othello (The Abbey)

Phelim Drew – Kings of the Kilburn High Road (The Gaiety)

Gary Lydon – The Weir (The Pavilion)

 

Best Actress

Fiona Bell – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

Aisling O’Sullivan – The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Cathy Belton – Helen & I (Civic Theatre)

Derbhle Crotty – Juno and the Paycock (The Gate)

Lisa Dwyer Hogg – After Miss Julie (Project Arts Centre)

 

Best Supporting Actor

Marty Rea – Juno and the Paycock/The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gate/The Gaiety)

Rory Nolan – Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

Darragh Kelly – Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

David Ganly – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Paul Kennedy – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Aaron Monaghan – The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Neill Fleming – Hamlet (The Mill Theatre)

Brian Doherty – The Wake (The Abbey)

 

Best Supporting Actress

Marie Mullen – The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Janet Moran – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Eileen Walsh – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Ali White – Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

Sophie Robinson – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

Caoimhe O’Malley – Juno and the Paycock/The Constant Wife (The Gate/The Gate)

Darcy Donnellan – Nowhere Now (Players Theatre)

 

Best New Play

The Father by Florian Zeller (The Gate)

The Meeting by Grainne Curistan (Players Theatre)

Nowhere Now by Daniel O’Brien (Players Theatre)

Helen and I by Meadhbh McHugh (Civic Theatre)

 

Best Set Design

Paul O’Mahony – The Wake (The Abbey)

Jonathan Fensom – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

Francis O’Connor – The Father/The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gate/The Gaiety)

Ciaran Bagnall – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Riccardo Hernandez – Othello (The Abbey)

Gerard Bourke – Hamlet (The Mill Theatre)

 

Best Lighting Design

Paul Keogan – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme/The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey/The Abbey)

Sinead McKenna – Othello/Juno and the Paycock (The Abbey/The Gate)

Rick Fisher – The Father (The Gate)

Kris Mooney – Hamlet (The Mill Theatre)

 

Best Sound Design

Emma Laxton – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Philip Stewart – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Denis Clohessy – The Father (The Gate)

Ferdy Roberts & Filter Theatre – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Grand Canal Theatre)

 

Special Mention

Pippa Nixon – The Tempest (The Globe)

I’m loath to include anything I saw in London in these awards, but an exception must be made here.

Nixon’s commanding turn as Ariel was one of those performances that upend your perception of a play.

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May 30, 2016

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Director David Grindley and actor Denis Conway follow their celebrated collaboration on The Gigli Concert last year with another revival of an intense chamber piece.

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George (Denis Conway) is a disappointed history professor whose career has been hindered more than helped by his wife Martha (Fiona Bell) being the daughter of the college president. When they arrive back, slightly drunk, from a mixer for new faculty members he is horrified to learn she has invited back a younger couple to their house for yet more drinking. When the couple arrive, biology professor Nick (Mark Huberman) and his slim-hipped wife Honey (Sophie Robinson), George and Martha soon get roaring drunk and verbally flay each other, to the bemusement of Nick and Honey, before Martha crosses a line and George reacts with violence that escalates from flamboyantly physical to cruelly psychological. And once the mind-games begin in earnest Nick and Honey are dragged down too as the secrets and lies of their marriage are brought to light.

Grindley and designer Jonathan Fensom wall in a substantial part of the Gate’s playing space to shrink down proceedings into one claustrophobic living room. An arena cluttered with the detritus of academic life, which nobody can escape until the mind games have reached a conclusion, it is decorated in an unlikely pervasive red as if to hint at Albee’s inheritance from Strindberg’s pioneering psychodramas. Conway bounces about this tight space in a masterly agile performance. George effortlessly swings from slothful self-pity to sprightly spitefulness via notes of camp and anger, and almost seems to be the conductor of this concerto of callousness. Bell, however, gives the standout performance. Her slovenly Martha is a masterpiece in drunken physicality, with her thwarted ambition producing caustic kvetching in a slumming accent, before Bell delivers a tearful and wonderfully affecting monologue in the finale.

Sophie Robinson as the none too bright Honey is a revelation. She failed to project the necessary comic vivacity as Viola in the Abbey’s 2014 Twelfth Night, but under Grindley’s direction she is this production’s comedic ace in the hole. Honey’s ability to turn on her husband with sharp rejoinders alternates ecstatically with total obliviousness (such as not realising that George is narrating her own life story to her) and non sequiturs (such as egging on a potential fight between George and Nick with “Violence! Violence!”). Mark Huberman has the least rewarding role as Nick, but he hits the right note as the stolid scientist with just a touch of the jock in his make-up: pompously standing on his dignity when he’s not trying to hump the hostess. The performances are further testament to Grindley’s skill as an actor’s director.

This is a wonderful production, yet Grindley’s consistent skill in investing static psychodramas with terrific performances can make it hard to discern his overall artistic intent in these plays.

4/5

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 11th of June.

January 27, 2016

You Never Can Tell

Conall Morrison directs his second consecutive Abbey Christmas show, but with a less fabled script than She Stoops to Conquer the result is less sparkling.

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Struggling dentist Valentine (Paul Reid) extracts his first tooth from a paying customer with relief. Said paying customer Dolly (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman) invites him to lunch at her seaside hotel, a proposal loudly seconded by her equally forthright sibling Philip (James Murphy). Through a series of Shavian coincidences he ends up bringing his bitter landlord Mr Crampton (Eamon Morrissey) as his guest, and Mr Crampton turns out to be the husband that Mrs Clandon (Eleanor Methven) ran out on; and whose identity she has refused to reveal to her children Dolly, Philip, and Gloria (Caoimhe O’Malley) as none of their business… Luckily Finch McComas (Nick Dunning), an old friend of both warring spouses, is on hand to mediate. And redoubtable waiter Walter (Niall Buggy) is on hand to smooth over any marital strife and hurry along Valentine’s impetuous courtship of Gloria.

You feel Shaw would not remember specifically writing the two most memorable elements: Liam Doona’s set, a circular playing space encased by a moat with two drawbridges, and Walter given to bellowing “THANK YOU SIR!” at patrons from a distance of inches. The former is playful (and wonderfully matched by Conor Linehan’s jaunty incidental music), the latter begins baffling, becomes endearing, and ends hysterically. It also underpins Walter’s almost tearful acceptance of drinks orders in the finale lest he lose his waiting existential raison d’etre by sitting down. Elsewhere the direction is less sure. As regular theatre cohort Stephen Errity noted a very different version of this play exists in which, rather than Morrisey’s befuddled old geezer, that you feel sympathy for God love him, you get the Nietzschean Crampton (‘Dost visit with women? Remember thy whip!’) other characters recall.

There’s also, by Shaw’s own hand, Major Barbara, in which he successfully reworked in 1905 some of this 1897 material. Methven’s part thus becomes the even more acerbic Lady Britomart, which she played on this stage in 2013. O’Malley, who slightly overdid the girlishness in the Gate’s recent A Month in the Country, is magnificent here as imperious Gloria who goes comically to pieces under the pressure of Valentine’s impudent courtship and Crampton’s badgering. Reid is insouciance personified, while Dunning is amusingly overwhelmed, so Hulme-Beaman and Murphy provide the bombast. That is until Denis Conway appears… Joan O’Clery’s designs reach their apotheosis of spectacle in a costume ball, which allows Morrison again end on a musical number, and swishing about in a cape and  medico della peste is Conway as the lawyer Bohun who will sort out everything with epigrams. Shaw might as well have written ‘Enter Bohun. He Fassbenders’.

You Never Can Tell loses its way after the interval but Morrison’s general air of good humour sustains it until Shaw realises he needs some vim and introduces Bohun.

3/5

You Never Can Tell continues its run at the Abbey Theatre until the 6th of February.

November 23, 2015

The Gigli Concert

I enjoyed The Gigli Concert at the Gate in the summer, but wasn’t as wowed by it as some people were. Obviously many more people were in the wowed camp than not though as it returned for a sell-out reprise, as my regular theatre and conference cohort Graham Price writes:

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Last summer saw one of the most critically acclaimed productions to appear on an Irish stage in recent years: Tom Murphy’s seminal The Gigli Concert directed by David Grindley at the Gate. Such was the level of almost universal praise heaped on this drama that the Gate Theatre brought it back for a limited run this November. The story centres on JPW King, an English “Dynamatologist” (something approaching a quack psychologist and a faith healer) who has been sent to minister to the sick and disillusioned in Ireland, and his Irish “client” (just referred to in the script as “The Irish Man”) who wishes to sing like the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. The play is primarily concerned with their “therapy” sessions together and how they bond over their mutual problem; how on earth are they going to get through each day?

Such a summary does not really do justice to the magisterial power of the play or the amazing performances of the three actors who occupy the stage for the work’s three hours plus duration; Declan Conlon (King), Denis Conway (Irish Man), and Dawn Bradfield who plays King’s mistress Mona. Declan Conlon does an amazing job of conveying both the outward calm and the repressed torment of King, and Conway keeps the audience on the edge of their seats by playing The Irish Man like a coiled spring of rage and frustration that is always threatening to explode and overwhelm both himself and those around him. In a role oft criticised for being underwritten and largely superfluous, Bradfield is very powerful and moving as the woman whose secret traumas eventually inspire King to undertake the titular event. Anyone familiar with Murphy’s work will recognise Mona as a kind of dress rehearsal for the monumental and tragic women in Bailegangaire, the drama Murphy wrote immediately after The Gigli Concert which is as female-centred as Gigli is male-centred.

Gigli’s climax is one of the most challenging moments in the Irish canon in terms of what is demanded of both the director and the actor who must realise this scene onstage. Fintan O’Toole (in one of the few single-authored books on Murphy) has described this crescendo as “a daring moment in which the impossible becomes possible, not as an idea, but as an action on the stage.” As O’Toole asserts, this scene stands or falls depending on how well it is created as a theatrical occurrence, and Conlon’s acting and Grindley’s directing combine to create dramatic gold from a very slight stage direction: “he sings the aria to its conclusion—Gigli’s voice”. The physical and dramaturgical pyrotechnics on display in the concluding minutes of this production will not soon be forgotten by those lucky enough to see them. The tone created by Conlon and Grindley’s three minute scene-collaboration is one simultaneously of hope and painful sorrow that is captivating.

The Gigli Concert is rightly considered one of the most important Irish plays of the last thirty years and the Gate has done a fantastic job of translating Murphy’s script to stage in such a way as to honour this demanding, complex text. Provided its epic running time does not deter a playgoer, it is worth every second of its three hours. Ignore anyone who says Gigli is only relevant to the contemporary Irish moment because a main character is a corrupt developer; its focus on profoundly human concerns make it a work for our time and all time.

5/5

June 18, 2015

The Gigli Concert on HeadStuff

The Gigli Concert is coming to the end of its run, so if you need any further encouragement to rush now to the Gate Theatre here’s a teaser for my review for HeadStuff.org.

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The play takes place entirely within the dingy office of JPW King (Declan Conlon), an Englishman who has washed up in Dublin as a ‘Dynamatologist’. King’s quackery has reduced him to sleeping on his office’s pull-out sofa, from where he is roused by a possible patient, the unnamed Irishman (Denis Conway). A property developer in the midst of a psychotic break, the Irishman has become transfixed by a vinyl record of the Italian tenor Gigli, and needs to sing like the great man. King realises he is out of his depth, and wants to refer this potentially dangerous man to a real psychiatrist, someone who will prescribe drugs instead of talking quasi-scientific motivational palaver about atomic realignment. But the Irishman insists King is the man for the job, and King becomes obsessed himself – with proving dynamatology can achieve the impossible.

Click here to read the full review on HeadStuff.

May 28, 2015

The Gigli Concert

David Grindley directs the first ever production of a Tom Murphy play at the Gate, and it’s one of Murphy’s oddest works that he presents.

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JPW King (Declan Conlon) is a hard-drinking Englishman, reduced to sleeping in his office in 1980s Dublin. How he can afford the office itself is a mystery given the non-existent patient list for his practice. But then he is a ‘Dynamatologist’, which can sound oddly like Scientology in some of King’s explanations of it. It would take someone truly desperate to enlist his professional help, someone like The Irishman (Denis Conway), a developer in the midst of a tremendous nervous breakdown who has become obsessed with singing like the Italian tenor Gigli. The Irishman is truculent, uneducated, violent, and, despite King’s belief, as told to his Irish mistress Mona (Dawn Bradfield), that qualified psychiatrists are needed, insistent that his unerring instinct has led him to the right man to solve his problem. But can King rise to the insane challenge?

Grindley has been acclaimed for his revivals of RC Sheriff’s museum-piece Journey’s End, so perhaps it’s inevitable he’d been drawn to Murphy’s 1983 puzzler that immediately precedes Conversations on a Homecoming and Bailegangaire, both recent DruidMurphy revivals. The thankless role of Mona is occasional relief from the intense two-hander in which the identity of patient and therapist is in constant transference from the moment both men end up saying “Christ, how am I going to get thru today?” in the exact same spot. But what is the play’s purpose? The publicity talks of ‘the endurance of the human spirit and our ability to achieve the impossible’, which seems delusional given that every character onstage displays alarming mental health, and the climactic ‘singing like Gigli’ is a drug-fuelled Tony Kushneresque ‘bit of wonderful theatrical illusion’, complete with a rush of red lights by Sinead McKenna for the Mephistophelian bargain being struck.

The acting is assured. Bradfield makes Mona an earthy cousin of Bailegangaire’s female triptych, but it is a minor part, notable only for Mona’s apparent coming to terms with her dire situation in a healthy way. Conway is initially dangerous and latterly assured as the developer regains a burlesque of prosperous wellbeing, but his silent screams and hanging, musical ‘Aaaand’ seem slightly mannered when exploring the Irishman’s emotional vulnerability. Conlon, in a startling change of pace from his urbanity in the just-finished Hedda Gabler, makes King a defeated figure who suddenly finds his heroic possibilities. Staying up all night reading books to try and help the Irishman, he makes Dynamatology akin to Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith in a pivotal speech; and is hilarious in the second act when relaying some actual leaps taken as Murphy amps up the black comedy.

Murphy probes some of the darkest recesses of the 1980s Irish psyche here, with notable asides about planning corruption and political ambition, but his actual conclusions remain eternally unclear.

3/5

The Gigli Concert continues its run at the Gate until June 27th

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.

The 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.

August 9, 2011

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

Peer Gynt 27 Sep – 16 Oct Belvedere College
Rough Magic’s writer Arthur Riordan updates Ibsen’s most fantastical play about loves lost and folkloric psychosis. Talking Movies favourite Rory Nolan plays the titular delusional hero and Tarab, not Grieg, provide a live musical accompaniment. Phaedra last year was a misfiring production with a similar blend of ingredients so this 3 hour show is a recommendation, with caveats…

The Lulu House 27 Sep – 16 Oct James Joyce House
Selina Cartmell, who wowed the Fringe last year directing Medea, returns with another femme fatale. Lorcan Cranitch and Camille O’Sullivan star in a mixture of musical, drama and film inspired by German playwright Wedekind’s original character and also Pabst’s silent film Pandora’s Box. This only lasts one hour, but it should be a visually rich experience.

Donka, A letter to Chekhov 29 Sep – 2 Oct Gaiety
The traditional circus spectacular at the Gaiety comes from Russia, and is one of two Festival shows about Chekhov. Clowns, acrobats and musicians not only create the world of Chekhov’s characters but, by using his diaries, portray his inner emotional world. Writer and director Daniele Finzi Pasca has previously helmed a Cirque de Soleil show and Broadway musical Rain so this should be dazzling.

Testament 29 Sep – 16 Oct Project Arts Centre
Colm Toibin writes a play, Garry Hynes directs it and Marie Mullen performs it. What could possibly go wrong? Well…. Toibin’s not a playwright, Druid do occasionally screw up, and Mullen destroyed 2007’s Long Day’s Journey into Night with her hammy turn. This is a 90 minute uninterrupted monologue with Mullen as the Virgin Mary (or maybe not, it’s vague) which could become very long…

Juno and the Paycock 29 Sep – 15 Oct Abbey
The Abbey team up with Southbank’s National Theatre for this co-production of Sean O’Casey’s old war-horse. A starry cast includes Ciaran Hinds as Captain Boyle, Risteard Cooper as his drinking buddy Joxer and Sinead Cusack as Mrs Boyle. Druid and Abbey regulars like Clare Dunne and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor fill out the ensemble grappling with melodramatic misfortunes in the middle of the Civil War.

The Speckled People 29 Sep – 15 Oct Gate
Patrick Mason is a great director, and Denis Conway, John Kavanagh and Tadhg Murphy accomplished actors, but it’s hard to regard Hugo Hamilton’s adaptation of his own memoir as anything but ‘ugh, complain theatre’, to paraphrase Clueless. Stephen Brennan will undoubtedly play the ultra-nationalist Irish father oppressing his son’s German identity, probably as a variant on his abrasive patriarch from Phaedra.

La Voix Humaine 29 Sep – 2 Oct Samuel Beckett Theatre
Jean Cocteau’s celebrated story of a desperate woman making a last-ditch phone call to her ex-lover is performed with surtitles by acclaimed Dutch actress Halina Reijn. This is a bit pricey (2 euro a minute) given that’s it’s an hour long monologue with minimalist set, but Ivo van Hove is a celebrated director and will play on the audience’s voyeuristic instincts to achieve catharsis.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets 29 Sep – 2 Oct Project Arts Centre
Theatre company 1927’s macabre cabaret style unfurls a bizarre tenement story that’s a mixture of Fritz Lang, Charles Dickens and Tim Burton. A mix of live music and performance with pre-recorded film and animation this might be the most distinctive show of the festival aesthetically. Again nearly 2 euro a minute…

16 Possible Glimpses 30 Sep – 15 Oct Peacock
Chekhov is highly regarded at this year’s festival, but that doesn’t stretch to any of his plays being performed. Instead a second play about his life and work sees Abbey favourite Marina Carr thankfully eschewing misery in the midlands for an imaginative fantasia on Chekhov, using a series of vignettes to throw his most haunting characters into his turbulent productive life.

Slattery’s Sago Saga 6 Oct – 16 Oct Rathfarnham Castle
In our end is our beginning, Arthur Riordan re-writing an old master, here adapting an unfinished novel by Flann O’Brien. Rathfarnham Castle? A dashed odd place for a play you’d say, unless you knew that this was the site-specific Performance Corporation unleashing a surreal political satire involving the quiet life of Poguemahone Hall being shattered by a T.D. with an insane plan. It involves sago…

July 6, 2011

Translations

It’s impossible for me to review Translations without first confessing that I know the script inside out, having both studied it at college and then taught it…

1833 in Friel’s eternal Donegal setting of Baile Beag finds a hedge school run by drunken master Hugh (Denis Conway) and his lame son Manus (Aaron Monaghan), specialising in Latin and Greek, being menaced by the arrival of a new English speaking National School, specialising in English. This off-stage menace is accompanied by the on-stage arrival of English sappers conducting an ordnance survey of the area for military purposes. But, as their work proceeds with the aid of Hugh’s other son Owen (Barry Ward) returned from Dublin, one of the British soldiers Yolland (Tim Delap) begins to question the morality of his task, even as he falls in love with local girl Maire (Aoife McMahon). The conflict between high civilisation and base commerce, Irish and English, and the noble rhetoric of progress and its low activities of expropriation, are all layered around these emotional conflicts. Maire’s love triangle with Manus and Yolland is very obviously a choice between a maimed native culture and a confident foreign culture…

Naomi Wilkinson’s set design heavily emphasises the squalor of this hedge-school, while Joan O’Clery’s costumes fit in with this approach by clothing the students in tattered earth tones, with the rebellious Maire in bright yellow and Hugh sporting a burnt orange jacket, while Hugh’s successful son Owen returns dressed in a spiffy blue overcoat, closer to the English military’s colour-scheme. Director Conall Morrison, who I’m still wary of on account of his late 1990s adaptation of Tarry Flynn, predictably brings sauciness to Friel’s comedy in the opening act. In the second act, however, he changes gears as the blue sky above the barn-set darkens, so that the rain sound effect heightens a chillingly conveyed sense of doom that anticipates the impending Famine. Rory Nolan as Doalty and Janet Moran as Bridget carry the bulk of Morrison’s slapstick; Nolan does a glorious mime of the English sappers’ baffled reaction to their ‘malfunctioning’ equipment, a result of his mischief; but they also imbue the off-stage Donnelly twins, often interpreted as proto-IRA figures in their campaign against the British presence, with the appropriate menace by their subdued reaction to their names being mentioned.

The inevitable Aaron Monaghan is very sympathetic as the brother whose half-hearted resistance to the British breaks down under personal contact, even as Ward convincingly travels the opposite arc as Owen grasps the political implications of his linguistic ‘collaboration’ with Yolland. McMahon is surprisingly flirtatious as Maire rather than simply determined, and there is a level of anger by Hugh towards her dismissal of his classics that seems alien to the script, as is his appearance as utterly decrepit. It seems absurd to accuse someone with an Irish Times Best Actor Theatre Award of lacking the necessary stature for a role, but Denis Conway is no Ray MacAnally, and he fails to dominate the stage as Hugh should. As a result Hugh’s final speeches to a drenched Maire, which should be tragic, raised some laughs. Conway effectively mixes bombast with moments of self-awareness, but if Hugh’s paraphrasing of George Steiner’s linguistic theories do not grip as the central statement of the self-defeating cultural delusions that colonisation can foist on a materially defeated civilisation then the focus of the play becomes diffuse.

This is well worth seeing, but there are quibbles…

3.5/5

Translations continues its run at the Abbey until the 13th of August.

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