Talking Movies

February 15, 2018

Look Back in Anger

The Gate advertise the hell out of their doing John Osborne’s seminal 1956 play, and then refuse on point of principle to actually do it.

Jimmy Porter (Ian Toner) is an angry young man, indeed he is the angry young man. He watched his father die from wounds sustained in the Spanish Civil War, and now despite his college education he finds himself manning a sweet stall down the market, unable to escape his working class roots in this post-war Midlands city despite his formidable, vituperative mental and linguistic agility. His rage against the establishment lashes against his upper-middle-class wife Alison (Clare Dunne), and to a lesser degree their Welsh Irish lodger Cliff (Lloyd Cooney). But when Jimmy eventually pushes Alison too far, a visit from her snobbish friend Helena (Vanessa Emme) sees Alison finally desert her stormy marriage. Only for the damndest thing to happen in the continuing war of contempt, class consciousness, and the desire for a worthy opponent between Jimmy and Helena…

While the audience is coming in the actors amble onto Paul O’Mahony’s curious canted stage of a realistic attic apartment, as a box within the exposed walls of the Gate’s backstage area. Emme reads the stage directions while the others take their places, and Dunne is reluctant to don the particular shirt specified. So far so Brecht, kind of. But then it continues, on and on and on, adding God knows how long to the endless 2 hour 45 minute running time, and for one purpose, so that Alison and Helena can eschew the stated directions, even when they’re emphatically repeated. The female characters, like Taylor Swift, would like to be excluded from this narrative. Which doesn’t do much for the narrative. Jimmy ends on his knees cooing a redemptive moment to nobody, as Alison refuses to follow Osborne’s directions.

I saw Kenneth Branagh star in Osborne’s 1957 play The Entertainer on the West End in 2016. Some sequences were melodramatic, but mostly it was very effective; startlingly so indeed because, despite being about the post-imperial crisis of confidence the Suez crisis amplified, one line drew gasps from the crowd because it seemed about Brexit. I expected director Annabelle Comyn would do something of the same here; pare down Osborne’s text like her lean 2015 Hedda Gabler, and bring out the impotent rage against an aloof establishment that would seem apposite to the Brexit moment. Instead I got leaden pacing, and a bad academic workshop exercise gone rogue. Give me a few days and I can furnish you with a version of Hamlet focused on his abusiveness towards Gertrude and Ophelia. But then we wouldn’t have Hamlet anymore would we?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Homecoming would not exist without this play. When Toner leans into Michael Caine in his characterisation of Porter he unconsciously directs attention to how this play aided the explosion of the working class into British culture in the 1950s and 1960s. In short Osborne’s work deserves a modicum of respect. Instead gags and clues to Porter’s left-wing politics are clipped, so Toner is left in the bizarre, thankless and pointless position of playing a charismatic character who is purposefully being denied laughs or attraction by the disapproving staging, while Tom Lane’s sound design and Chahine Yavroyan’s harsh lighting is used to accentuate the most malicious of his rants, and Alison’s father is no-platformed (with his part being read from a script) because he sympathises with Jimmy’s frustration. Dunne kisses Cooney on the lips far too passionately to deny Osborne’s script its intent, while you suspect Cooney and Emme are being deliberately theatrical in their delivery as a further distancing measure. But why bother?

If you are so contemptuous of this play, and contempt comes washing off the stage in great waves, then for heaven’s sake why are you doing it? Who exactly is forcing Selina Cartmell and Annabelle Comyn to do this (sigh) problematic play? Why not do The Children’s Hour or A Taste of Honey or Oh! What a Lovely War or Our Country’s Good or Blasted or Enron or Posh or The Flick instead? It is odd to prioritise doing a ‘bad’ play by a male playwright over doing a good play by a female playwright. It is odder to ask people to pay 35e to see a play deliberately done poorly because the company wishes to complain about its place in the canon. The Gate is not doing itself any favours with this tedious approach to its commercial stock-in-trade, revivals.

This is easily the worst production I have ever seen at the Gate, and sadly it is also the worst show I have ever seen directed by Comyn.

1/5

Look Back in Anger continues its run at the Gate until the 24th of March.

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August 21, 2017

The Great Gatsby

When I came back from the Gate I wanted the whole theatrical world at a sort of attention to, providing seats. I wanted no more riotous excursions into costume parties.

Nick Carraway (Marty Rea) has just arrived in West Egg, and is invited by Jay Gatsby (Paul Mescal) to attend one of his Prohibition-be-damned ragers. There he meets his cousin Daisy (Charlene McKenna), her husband Tom Buchanan (Mark Huberman); an old Yale classmate; and their golfer friend Jordan (Rachel O’Byrne). Also floating around the Charleston’d chaos is the shady Meyer Wolfsheim (Owen Roe), Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Aoibheann McCann), her sister Kitty (Kate Gilmore),  Myrtle’s defeated husband George (Ger Kelly), and the protean one-man Repertory (Raymond Scannell). Over the course of an extremely long night (which makes pigswill of the chronology, content, and nuance of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel) Jay meets Daisy, Jay re-woos Daisy, but his insistence on breaking Tom’s romantic hold on her backfires completely, and Jay loses Daisy all over again. And then his business and life too.

Designer Ciaran Bagnall has raised the floor, brought forward the Gate stage; creating a double staircase and a dummy roof; and floored over the back area to create two lobbies; one for piano, one for a bar. Into this space fit maybe 170 people, instead of the usual 371, but that’s probably recouped by selling themed cocktails to the audience; roughly 70% women, who were nearly 100% decked out in full flapper garb. And therein is one problem with this production – as my regular theatre cohort Stephen Errity put it: trying to make a fun night out from one of art’s great downers. Another is the ‘choose your own adventure’ book come to life aspect: we were led into Tom’s NYC apartment, Gatsby’s bedroom, and, after the interval, Wolfsheim’s gambling den. Only the first, mostly using Fitzgerald’s actual words, worked…

Fitzgerald…  If you think his point was decadent parties then you probably didn’t finish the novel, and should be at Film Fatale’s annual Gatsby party at IMMA. Rea and O’Byrne excel at athletically dancing the Charleston, but does it gain enough from the audience playing dress-up next to it to justify staging it this way and not on the stage as Elevator Repair Service did for their choreographed bacchanalia in The Select: The Sun Also Rises? Does it make sense to segue from Carraway’s opening speech to the closing peroration, and repeatedly mash together lines from anywhere, an egregious offender being George’s decontextualised references to God seeing everything? Does it make sense to have George Wilson be a barman, yet still have Tom’s yellow Rolls-Royce that he knows as a mechanic kill Myrtle? Does it make sense to pretend this is one night when Tom, Nick, and Daisy are observed (by some people) travelling to NYC, and Jay and Daisy’s agonised tea thus apparently happens in the wee small hours? We’re into Baz Luhrmann flashy incoherence here before we reach the musical numbers that pad the 2nd act as if a half-abandoned Moulin Rouge! musical of Gatsby is poking through.

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The interval, 80 minutes in, found me sick of standing. 70 minutes later I was aghast that the handful of remaining scenes had been fleshed out by unnecessary musical numbers, the party had definitively gone on too long. Audience interaction had started highly amusingly when actors had to go with Nick being rumoured out of the Midwest by ‘a whole 4 people’, gone downhill with the utterly pointless preparation of the tea service, and degenerated to literal pantomime boos for Tom’s denunciation of the audience as uninvited and uninteresting. Actors bellowing at each other across a milling audience doesn’t synch with large parties being intimate nor make sense for Wolfsheim offering Gatsby a gonnegtion; indeed poor Roe’s main function appeared to be glad-handing groups of theatregoers. Scannell excelled at the piano providing mood music for Daisy and Jay’s fretful tea.

The costumes, designed by Peter O’Brien, are terrific; especially Gatsby’s spiffy pink suit. Yet the point of this show, imported from the Guild of Misrule’s original production with Alexander Wright still directing, seems to be that you, the audience member, dressed in your best flapper gear, are the show as much as the actors. Which rather deflates the great performances: Rea finds all new notes of nervousness as Carraway, who’s not as sardonic as he presents himself in narration, while O’Byrne is incredibly effective as Jordan, registering a disdain for the world which shines through her musical performances, and a fearless McCann renders her sultry Myrtle as the physical embodiment of Nelly Furtado’s ‘Maneater’. Huberman doesn’t have the hulking physique but is a startlingly good Tom replete with habitual dominance (and his moustache and projection reminded me of Keith Thompson!).

Nobody amidst the rave reviews for this bold and brave use of the Gate space seems willing to acknowledge the atavistic cruelty at work. The Gate audience, as has been widely remarked, is older, there are usually a notable number of walking sticks; and the new regime welcomes them by shouting – there are no seats, dance! What exactly did they do to deserve this opprobrium? They didn’t like Crestfall, which the Irish Times just savaged for depravity. They did like Ralph Fiennes in Faith Healer and Michael Gambon in No Man’s Land. They appreciate opulent costumes, clever set design, and, recently, acclaimed productions of titanic Albee and Murphy classics. Yet for these hanging offences they must be run off the premises, the Gate is trying to run a the-a-tre here! It is strange to burn your audience while feigning bonhomie…

Rea, O’Byrne, McCann, and Huberman were all splendidly cast, but I’d liked to have seen them in a coherent adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

3/5

 

The Great Gatsby continues its run at the Gate until the 16th of September.

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.

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