Talking Movies

April 5, 2018

The Approach

Mark O’Rowe returns as both playwright and director with his first new play since 2014’s Our Few and Evil Days and it’s another intricate puzzle.

Cora (Cathy Belton) hasn’t seen Anna (Aisling O’Sullivan) for a while when they meet for a coffee. This is a recurring theme. Later Cora hasn’t seen Denise (Derbhle Crotty) for a while when they meet for a coffee. And when Anna and Denise finally meet for a coffee neither has seen Cora for a while. An awful lot of coffee might be drunk but this is not a physically rambunctious play, for all that chairs are hanging in mid-air like they’d been flung at the ceiling. The sisters Anna and Denise are estranged and Cora is engaged in the tricky task of trying to remain friends with both of them, and the even trickier task of maybe pushing them towards rapprochement. Although maybe that’s not what she’s doing, maybe she’s the source of their estrangement. This is O’Rowe after all.

It’s hard not to feel that O’Rowe is playing the same three card trick he successfully pulled off with Our Few and Evil Days.

3.5/5

November 6, 2016

The Seagull

Corn Exchange took over the Gaiety for a flagship show of the Dublin Theatre Festival; Anton Chekhov’s first masterpiece, The Seagull, in a new version.

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The impecunious teacher Semyon (Stephen Mullan) loves the sullen housekeeper’s daughter Masha (Imogen Doel), who loves the temperamental young artist Constance (Jane McGrath), who loves the flighty girl next door Nina (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman), who loves the cynical famous writer Trigorin (Rory Keenan), who is the lover of the self-absorbed great actress Arkadina (Derbhle Crotty), who had an affair with the dashing doctor Dorn (Louis Lovett), who the downtrodden housekeeper Polina (Anna Healy) still loves after all these years by the lake. No wonder the master of this chaotic Russian household, Sorin (Stephen Brennan), feels that he has never truly lived in his 60 years because he never got married or became an artist but ground away in the government bureaucracy till he had ground himself down. But grinding people down is what life does, as Constance and Nina painfully discover…

Eto Ne Chekhov.

When a company tweaks the work of Joyce, O’Neill, and Chekhov in successive festivals, and in each instance produces a misfiring production, the fault must lie with the company.

1.5/5

July 31, 2016

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

Tickets go on sale for the 2016 Dublin Theatre Festival at 10:00am on Tuesday August 16th. Here are 10 shows to keep an eye on.

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Helen & I 27th September – October 1st Civic Theatre

The great Annabelle Comyn decamps to Druid to direct an original script by newcomer Meadhbh McHugh. Rebecca O’Mara is the ‘I’, returning home to fence with older sister Helen (Cathy Belton) as their father lies dying. It’s always great when Druid tour, and hopefully this will be a return to form for Comyn after the bafflingly praised debacle of The Wake.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 28th September – October 1st Grand Canal

Sean Holmes, responsible for the recent, storming Plough & Stars in the Abbey, returns with co-director Stef O’Driscoll for a Shakespearean rampage. This looks to be very much a ‘This was not Chekhov’ production, but in the best sense, as the text is stripped down to 90 minutes, with live grunge band, nerf gun battle, and an epic food fight.

 

Don Giovanni 29th September – October 2nd Gaiety

Roddy Doyle has for some reason decided to update the libretto to Mozart’s opera about the womaniser par excellence. Eyebrows must be raised at the amount of ‘versions’ he’s doing versus original writing in recent years. Pan Pan’s Gavin Quinn will be directing, while Sinead McKenna follows up her acclaimed diabolist lighting design for The Gigli Concert’s finale with some bona fide operatics.

 

The Father 29th September – October 15th Gate

Just when Michael Colgan had lurched into self-parody by programming The Constant Wife he conjures an ace from nowhere: a piece of new writing from France that has swept all before it on Broadway and Piccadilly. Ethan McSweeney directs Owen Roe as a man suffering from Alzheimer’s, while the supporting cast includes Peter Gaynor and Charlotte McCurry, and Francis O’Connor is set designer.

 

Guerilla 30th September – October 2nd Project Arts Centre

It wouldn’t be a festival without some fellow PIIGS getting bolshy about neo-liberalism, the failure of Europe, and the age of austerity. This year it’s El Conde de Torrefiel company from Spain, presenting the confused inner universe of a group of people inhabiting the same city and collective consciousness, represented by projected text over an electronica concert, Tai Chi class, and conference.

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Death at Intervals 4th October – October 8th Smock Alley

Trailing clouds of glory from its Galway premiere comes an adaptation of Jose Saramango’s novel directed by Kellie Hughes. Olwen Fouere is the grim reaper in retirement, accompanied by her faithful musician Raymond Scannell. Death likes to dance too. A mixture of music, theatre, and dance, with Scannell also co-composing with Alma Kelliher; but he did also compose Alice in Funderland

 

Alien Documentary 4th October – October 8th Project Arts Centre

I’ve read this production’s pitch repeatedly and I’m damned if I can figure out what it is. Director Una McKevitt is apparently mixing transcriptions of real people’s conversations with invented dialogues of her own imagining, so that’s her writing credit sorted. But what exactly is this show? PJ Gallagher, James Scales, and Molly O’Mahony having unconnected deep/comic conversations for 90 minutes?

 

The Seagull 5th October – 16th October Gaiety

Writer Michael West and director Annie Ryan together fashion a modern version of Chekhov’s tale of unrequited loves starring the oft-Fassbendering Derbhle Crotty as well as Genevieve Hulme-Beaman who shone in support in the Abbey’s You Never Can Tell. But will this Corn Exchange production be as hit and miss as their version of Desire Under the Elms that severely downsized O’Neill’s ambition?

 

Donegal 6th October – 15th October Abbey

Frank McGuinness’s new musical/play with music/musical play sounds unfortunately like a pilot for the Irish version of Nashville, as a fading country music star is threatened by a new talent she must curry favour with for her own survival. Director Conall Morrison specialises in exuberance, and grand dames Deirdre Donnelly and Eleanor Methven appear beside Once’s Megan Riordan, but can McGuinness make a comeback?

 

First Love 12th October – 16th October O’Reilly Theatre

Reminding us why he was important before the age of austerity Michael Colgan directs Gate stalwart Barry McGovern in a solo Beckett outing. This time they head up the road to Belvedere College for a Beckett novella turned into a one-man show about a rather existentialist-sounding refusal of a man to fall in love with a woman who’s in love with him.

February 18, 2016

Juno and the Paycock

The Gate is first out of the traps in the curious case of the duelling Sean O’Casey productions to mark the 1916 centenary, as his 1924 classic is here directed by Crestfall playwright Mark O’Rowe.

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Declan Conlon and Marty Rea are a formidable pairing as O’Casey’s inimitable self-deluding male comedy double-act. Conlon is the self-proclaimed nautical veteran ‘Captain’ Boyle, a work-shy layabout who once crewed a boat to Liverpool and now infuriates his long-suffering wife Juno (Derbhle Crotty) by continually carousing with ne’er-do-well neighbour Joxer (Rea) and pleading medically mysterious pains in his legs whenever the prospect of a job appears. Juno’s uphill battle to maintain the family’s dignity takes place in a starkly decaying gray tenement room, with a staircase visible whenever the front door is left open. O’Rowe exploits this bleak space with increasingly dim lighting as the Boyle family is torn asunder by its own complexes of self-delusion, social climbing, and self-destructiveness; a matrix which O’Casey uses to skewer middle-class mores, the Catholic Church, Civil War Republicans, and the Trade Union movement.

It’s startling that in just 14 years Conlon has reached the age where people would think of him not for Hotspur but for Henry IV or Falstaff. He provides a Paycock long on voluble self-pity and contempt, but short on self-awareness and compassion. Conlon is terrific at waspish contempt, but his performance suffers by O’Rowe’s directorial choices. O’Rowe, possibly reacting to Howard Davies’ 2011 Abbey production of Juno, reins in the slapstick. Davies conjured business to emphasise O’Casey’s vaudeville clowning, but Ciaran Hinds’ self-deluding bombast made his later self-righteous fury truly scary. O’Rowe’s stricter fidelity to the text narrows Conlon’s range. And so Rea’s performance stays in the memory longer. He plays Joxer with an impish quality (as if he had flitted in from a Shakespearean fantasy to laugh at mortals), shrinking into as little space as possible, legs always coiled around each other, darting in and out of windows and across the stage startlingly quickly, and extending his final refrain of ‘A Daaaarlin book’ into an almost serpentine hiss.

Paul Wills’ austere set design tracks O’Rowe’s approach, a drab room with sparse and meagre furnishings in comparison to Bob Crowley’s sprawling 2011 Abbey set, whose vivid crumbling was akin to Tyler’s brownstone in Fight Club. In this setting Crotty’s turn as Juno is characterised by exhaustion above exasperation, not the Fassbendering turn one might have anticipated; instead Ingrid Craigie’s Maisie Madigan steals scenes. Juno’s valedictory ‘It’ll what have what’s far better, it’ll have two mothers’ is hollowed by Crotty’s hapless resignation towards crippled Republican son Johnny (Fionn Walton) and synchronicity with Union daughter Mary (Caoimhe O’Malley). O’Malley elevates Mary from cipher, layering cruelty towards her ex-boyfriend (Peter Coonan) with an initial startled adherence to and a later dogged rebellion against sexual morality that seems self-destructive compulsion. Given Juno’s self-pitying matrimonial rebukes that are both loudly performed and ineffectual O’Rowe hints at matrilineal failings that bode ill for Mary’s child.

The 2011 Abbey co-production with Southbank’s National Theatre remains the recent gold standard, but O’Rowe’s more subdued take features sufficient fresh unexpected insights to render it an interesting companion piece to Davies’ exuberant interpretation.

3.5/5

Juno and the Paycock continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 16th of April.

 

December 1, 2012

Dubliners

Corn Exchange’s flagship production of Dubliners at the Gaiety for the Dublin Theatre Festival was desperately uneven as overplayed slapstick often trounced Joyce’s muted epiphanies.

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Performed under heavy face-paint on a minimalist set by Joe Vanek (that relied on expressive lighting and shadows) the show distractingly had characters narrate their own dialogue, drowning conversations with endless, unnecessary, and literal instances of he said/she said. In its defence this strategy allowed the narrator of ‘Two Sisters’ to deliver Joyce’s delicate prose, and he was cleverly also made the narrator of the next vignette, ‘An Encounter’. But the encounter is with a paedophile, played with malicious suavity by Mark O’Halloran, and the commedia dell’arte exaggerations deployed to create a crippled predator resulted in the unnerving spectacle of the audience of Joyce newcomers laughing heartily at this creation before being audibly horrified as they realised he’s not a mere eccentric. This misjudgement presaged later missteps but the painful yearning of ‘Eveline’ expertly played by Janice Byrne quickly dispelled any misgivings, and ‘Two Gallants’ saw Stephen Jones on fine swaggering form, which he continued in the ‘The Boarding House’ as the landlady’s menacing son. O’Halloran was on top comedic form opposite him as the rent-skiving actor, while the heightened slapstick style elevated the black comedy of Joyce’s hapless lodger Doran being trapped into proposing onto a much funnier plane.

After the interval that slapstick approach was imposed on stories that it defiantly did not suit. ‘Counterparts’ was rendered as stark nonsense. It was amusing to see O’Halloran never finish a sentence and dash about panic-stricken as the chief clerk, but there are things that one must not do to get a laugh, and among these is going so far over the top as to end in low-earth orbit. At first I was prepared to grant Mark Lambert as domineering lawyer Mr Alleyne the same privileges of blustering abusiveness as Will Forte as Ted Turner on Conan, but when he actually chicken-stepped around the stage in a comic fury at a slight from his subordinate I had exhausted any possible exculpatory comparisons. This was too OTT to amuse, but not his fault. Ruth McGill as his secretary used the same leer as she did as The Duchess in Alice in Funderland, and if the same expression can find equal purchase in Alice in Funderland and an adaptation of Joyce then it’s a sure sign that the adaptation of Joyce by Michael West and director Annie Ryan has strayed farcically far from the ‘scrupulous meanness’ and understated compassion of Dubliners.

Which leads one to conclude that Mark O’Halloran as an actor is truly immense. By sheer force of personality he dismissed ‘Counterparts’ to make the audience feel the tragedy of ‘A Painful Case’ as his fastidious Duffy sabotaged a relationship with Derbhle Crotty’s neglected housewife. O’Halloran made you so empathise with this cold character that when he spoke the final words of Joyce’s narration you could hear a pin drop, and hearts break. But then ‘A Mother’ painfully wasted the great Crotty’s talents by piling on the excessive slapstick to produce a painfully protracted skit devoid of any dramatic momentum, though at least it lacked the cognitive dissonance of the bungled traumatic ending of child abuse after clowning of ‘Counterparts’. ‘The Dead’ began with McGill’s performance of ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ as the story was pared down to Greta’s revelations after a party that leave her husband Gabriel stunned at how his wife was loved before she met him. O’Halloran’s delivery of the famous closing monologue ended the play on a triumphant note, and highlighted O’Halloran’s towering pre-eminence in the ensemble, the emotional power of Joyce’s material, and the frustratingly inconsistent fidelity to Joyce which held back the show.

Throughout, actors delivered their dialogue to the audience and then looked at the actor they’d been addressing, a technique Corn Exchange use in rehearsal; which made this feel like a quasi-workshop. Replacing ‘Counterparts’ and ‘A Mother’ with ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ and ‘Clay’ would immeasurably strengthen reprises…

2.5/5

August 7, 2012

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

Beyond the Brooklyn Sky 25 Sep – 6 Oct Touring

Peter Sheridan directs a production that is touring between the Civic, Pavilion, Draoicht, and Axis theatres. Listowel Writers’ Award-winner Michael Hilliard Mulcahy has been supported by Fishamble in developing his debut play about returned emigrants who left Brandon, Kerry for Brooklyn, NY in the late 1980s. There are thematic similarities with Murphy’s The House as a visit by an emigrant who remained in Brooklyn ignites tensions.

Dubliners 26 Sep – 30 SepGaiety

Corn Exchange tackles Joyce’s short story collection in an adaptation by playwright Michael West and director Annie Ryan. Judging by Mark O’Halloran’s make-up this is an almost commedia dell’arte take on Joyce’s tales of paralysis in a dismally provincial capital. This features Talking Movies favourite Derbhle Crotty, who should mine the comedy of Joyce’s seam of dark, epiphany ladennaturalism. This is an experiment worth catching during its short run.

The Select (The Sun Also Rises) 27 Sep – 30 Sep Belvedere College

Hemingway’s 1926 debut novel gets adapted by Elevator Repair Service, the ensemble that performed F Scott epic Gatz in 2008. On a bottle-strewn stage America’s ‘Lost Generation’ carouses aimlessly around Paris and beyond. The maimed war-hero’s girlfriend Brett is as exasperating and alluring a character as Sally Bowles so it’ll be interesting to see how she’s handled. Her, and the Bull Run in Pamplona…

The Talk of the Town 27 Sep – 14 Oct Project Arts Centre

Annabelle Comyn, fresh from directing them in The House, reunites with Catherine Walker, Darragh Kelly and Lorcan Cranitch for Room novelist Emma Donoghue’s original script. Walker plays real life 1950s writer Maeve Brennan who swapped Ranelagh for Manhattan, becoming a New Yorker legend before fading into obscurity. The rediscovery of her chillingly incisive stories has revived her reputation, so Donoghue’s take on her intrigues.

The Picture of Dorian Gray 27 Sep – 14 Oct Abbey

Oscar Wilde’s only novel is adapted for the stage and directed by Neil Bartlett. Bartlett as a collaborator of Robert Lepage brings a flamboyant visual style to everything he does, and he has a cast of 16 to help him realise Wilde’s marriage of Gothic horror and caustic comedy. I’m dubious of the Abbey adapting Great Irish Writers rather than staging Great Irish Playwrights, but this sounds promising.

Tristan Und Isolde 30 Sep – 6 Oct Grand Canal Theatre

Wagner’s epic story of doomed romance between English knight Tristan (Lars Cleveman) and Irish princess Isolde (Miriam Murphy) comes to the Grand Canal Theatre boasting some remarkably reasonable prices for a 5 hour extravaganza. This production originates from Welsh National Opera, and if you’re unfamiliar with Wagner let me tell you that this houses the haunting aria Baz Luhrmann used to indelible effect to end Romeo+Juliet.

Politik 1 Oct– 6 Oct Samuel Beckett Theatre

I’m sceptical of devised theatre because I think it removes the playwright merely to privilege the director, but The Company are a five strong ensemble who won much acclaim for their energetic As you are now so once were we. This devised piece is a show not about living in the ruins after the economic tornado that hit us, or chasing that tornado for wherefores, but building anew.

DruidMurphy 2 Oct – 14 Oct Gaiety

Garry Hynes again directs the flagship festival show, 3 plays by Tom Murphy, which you can see back to back on Saturdays Oct 6th and 13th. Famine, A Whistle in the Dark, and Conversations on a Homecoming tell the story of Irish emigration.Famine is set in 1846 Mayo. The second crop of potato fails and the unfortunately named John Connor is looked to, as the leader of the village, to save his people. Whistle, infamously rejected by the Abbey because Ernest Blythe said no such people existed in Ireland, is set in 1960 Coventry where emigrant Michael Carney and his wife Betty are living with his three brothers when the arrival of more Carney men precipitates violence. Conversations is set in a small 1970s Galway pub where an epic session to mark Michael’s return from a decade in New York leads to much soul searching. The terrific Druid ensemble includes Rory Nolan, Marty Rea, John Olohan, Aaron Monaghan, Beth Cooke, Niall Buggy, Eileen Walsh, Garret Lombard, and Marie Mullen.

Hamlet 4 Oct – 7 Oct Belvedere College

The play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the Wooster Group making their Dublin debut. Founded in the mid 1970s by director Elizabeth LeCompte, who has led them ever since, this show experiments with Richard Burton’s filmed 1964 Broadway Hamlet. The film footage of perhaps the oldest undergraduate in history is rendered back into theatrical immediacy in a postmodern assault on Shakespeare’s text which includes songs by Casey Spooner (Fischerspooner).

Shibari 4 Oct – 13 Oct Peacock

This Abbey commission by Gary Duggan (Monged) slots perhaps just a bit too neatly into what seems to be one of the defining sub-genres of our time. A bookshop employee, a restaurateur, an English film star, a journalist, a Japanese florist, and a sales team leader fall in and out of love as they accidentally collide in an impeccably multi-cultural present day Dublin. Six Degrees of Separation meets 360?

February 2, 2011

The Field

Tony-winning actor Bryan Dennehy trades in Eugene O’Neill and Broadway for John B Keane and the Olympia and the results are impressive.

Keane’s play was held to be the archetypal depiction of the historic Irish hunger for land. The housing bubble demonstrated that the hunger hadn’t disappeared, just morphed into a more genteel but equally insane form. Director Joe Dowling takes new meaning from the tragedy of the Bull McCabe, a man faced with disaster when the precious field he has been renting and carefully cultivating is put up for sale at a reserve price far above his means, but not that beyond that of an outsider. Dowling focuses as much on the conflict between legal rights and natural justice as on the hunger for land. The Bull is not a clear-cut villain. Both he and William Dee, who’s blown-in from Galway via England to bid on the field, have good justifications for their actions; but the Bull has raised his son Tadhg (Garrett Lombard on perma-scowl) in such a way as to make inevitable the excessive violence he uses against Dee in attempting to scare him off. Dennehy’s imposing physique is what makes this Bull McCabe intimidating; he can still physically bully people just by his mere presence. A wonderful tic by Dennehy is to have the Bull repeatedly remove his cap and massage his head when explaining his right to the land as cultivator rather than owner, in seeming despair that other people just don’t get it…

Dennehy’s accent hits American at times of stress in the first act, and occasionally makes inexplicable sorties to Belfast, but for the most part, and crucially during his lengthy scene with Tadhg in the second act, it’s securely stowed in Munster. The omerta which his action imposes on the village fails to be broken by the powerful condemnatory speech by the Bishop. This seems to find expression in the complicated set. A facade lowers down in front of the very solid interior of the pub, which rushes forth to fill the stage after an initial glimpse of the titular field. This shop-front then pulls up as we dive into the machinations occurring in this pub/auctioneers. More than once as characters walk past the shop-front and its unheard conversations it seems that primal familial secrets of the pub can never find expression in the outside world of church and law. Dennehy carries the tragedy while around him the supporting cast Fassbender for all their worth, almost as if the only sane response to the presence of such darkness in a small closed community is black humour.

The comedy of the work is more apparent than usual, witness the magnificent shrug given by publican/auctioneer Mick Flanagan (Bosco Hogan) at one point. Derbhle Crotty (so good in The Silver Tassie) in particular makes the long-suffering Mamie Flanagan more of a jester than normal, satirising the alpha-males around her. All this unexpected levity only counterpoints the Bull’s desperation, and the germ of truth in what he says. As he justifies himself by demagoguery against the priest and garda you can see what enticed Dowling and Dennehy here for this play. Irish people may not live on the land anymore, but many of them do feel that there is one law for the establishment and another for everyone else. In synching in with David McWilliams’ insider/outsider analysis of our current woes Keane’s 1965 play is made startlingly of our times….

4/5

The Field continues its run at the Olympia Theatre until February 13th.

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

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