Talking Movies

February 25, 2016

Austerity and the Arts

The Journal has compiled a handy guide to various political pledges on arts funding. But take all with the caveat of Pat Rabbitte’s infamous slip on farcically utopian bait-and-switches, “Sure isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”

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Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture at the British Library last year excoriated politicians, especially the Tories, for wanting to bask in the reflected glamour of cultural icons, and boast about the money such activity makes for Britain, both in its own right and in attracting tourists via a sheen of national creativity, without ever wanting to invest in it. According to him these people believed artists magically appear, and start providing a return without requiring any initial capital outlay; an impressive economic conjuring trick to be sure. Whereas, he pointed out, Roxy Music would not have come about without a previous generation establishing a whole gamut of public investment in the future: the NHS, Arts Schools, libraries, galleries, museums, and the dole. According to the Social Democrats there has been a 55% cut in arts funding since 2008 in Ireland. Such cuts dramatically change the cultural current. Take Annabelle Comyn.

Annabelle Comyn was the founding artistic director of Hatch Theatre Company in 2004. She directed a number of contemporary British plays (by Martin Crimp, Dennis Kelly, David Greig, and Zinnie Harris) with regular collaborators including set designer Paul O’Mahony, sound designer Philip Stewart, and actor Peter Gaynor. Then in 2009 Hatch Theatre Company saw its grant slashed from €90,000 to €20,000. After that there was no funding for any projects submitted, and Comyn, who had also directed Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Caryl Churchill’s A Number for the Peacock in 2006 and 2007, took the hint. As she told the Irish Times in a 2014 interview “I remember thinking that the work I had done with Hatch – predominantly contemporary British plays – wouldn’t get funding.” So began two years in which one of Ireland’s best theatre directors didn’t work as a director.

And then Abbey artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail offered her the chance to direct Pygmalion at the Abbey’s main stage in 2011. So began a new phase of Comyn’s career. Her version of Shaw’s comedy emphasised that Henry Higgins really is stripping Eliza Doolittle not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims. The coldness of Charlie Murphy’s Eliza to Higgins in their final scenes captured the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on, and was an unexpected touch. 2012 saw her back on the Abbey main stage reviving Tom Murphy’s 2000 Abbey commission The House. This Chekhovian tale of social climbing and the frustrations of returned emigrants in the 1950s saw Comyn add new strings to her bow as she blocked 13 people for a chaotic drunken speech and fight. Comyn’s interpretation of Murphy’s melancholic character study with barbed commentary on societal failure saw her win Best Director at the Irish Times Theatre Awards. And yet…

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A director who specialised in premiering contemporary British plays is now (with the exception of 2012’s The Talk of the Town) exclusively reviving classic texts. A cultural current in Irish theatre has been diverted, and you can be sure that nobody returned to Dail Eireann after tomorrow will have as a priority allowing it to resume its original course. Does it matter? Well, John McGahern, the Irish novelist par excellence, would not have become the writer he was had he not been exposed to the works of Flaubert, Camus, and Hemingway. It matters if our theatrical landscape suddenly has a Berlin wall of austerity erected cutting off consistent interaction with new British writing. In the grand scheme of things cutting a €90,000 grant has had a larger effect than the latter-day Gladstone who made that retrenchment could ever have imagined.

To quote the two voices at the end of GK Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The other voice replied—

“The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost.”

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May 25, 2011

Pygmalion

The Abbey, almost a century belatedly, premieres Shaw’s popular masterpiece in a sparkling production.

Pygmalion, or My Fair Lady without the music as some people will insist on regarding it, sees arrogant Professor of Phonetics Henry Higgins take in hand a flower-girl who comes to him for elocution lessons after he’s alarmed her by transcribing her dialect in Covent Garden. He will do much more than change her screeching Cockerney accent into serviceable shop girl King’s English though, as, to win a bet with fellow phonetician Colonel Pickering, he undertakes to transform Eliza Doolittle into an imitation Duchess within six months and pass her off at a Royal Ball as such. Director Annabelle Comyn’s oddly revealing staging of the bathroom scene emphasises that Higgins really is stripping Eliza not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims.

Charlie Murphy, who impressed in Kenneth Lonergan’s three-hander This Is Our Youth at the Project in 2009, makes a wonderful Eliza Doolittle. Her physical transformation from filthy flower-girl to elegant faux-duchess is archetypal, while vocally her transition from East End to RP tones is impeccable and includes a coldness to Higgins in their final scenes that captures the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on. Nick Dunning, who Fassbendered his way across the Abbey stage in summer 2009 as Sir Anthony Absolute in The Rivals, enjoys himself greatly as the mild-mannered Colonel Pickering. He’s outdone though by Risteard Cooper who whoops it up as Henry Higgins, adopting an almost permanent squint and crouching impetuousness to convey a man intellectually so above his company as to be permanently impatient with their opinions and manners.

Shaw’s comedic highlights come before the interval, as after the ball Eliza and Henry go at each other in terrific arguments about class, identity, equality and manners, and what highlights they are. Lorcan Cranitch makes a hilarious appearance as Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle, self-proclaimed member of the undeserving poor wha’ can’t afford middle-class morali’y, and Hugh O’Connor (in a surprisingly small role after Valentine in last year’s Arcadia) is painfully funny as a Freddy so inept that he seems on the point of being overwhelmed by his own suit. Higgins’ many outrageous insults are delivered with gusto, while Eliza’s first appearance as a lady at Mrs Higgins’ ‘at-home’ is painfully funny; especially her wonderful dismissal of the idea of walking home as she exits, ‘Not bloody likely!’, and Clara’s declaration that she will use this ‘new small talk’ at her next ‘at-home’ – a prospect Higgins vigorously encourages, ‘Don’t be afraid to pitch it in strong!’

I’ve often complained that Shaw’s characters can sound less like human beings and more like power-point presentations of rival debating positions when they clash intellectually, but here, just as Paul O’Mahony’s realistic set slides apart on its top layer to reveal the bathroom of Higgins’ house and the sun-windows of his mother’s house, the play of ideas is never allowed to escape from its emotional origins in Eliza’s anguish and Higgins’ arrogance. Eliza’s reproaches sting, but Higgins’ closing creed of equality – ‘I treat a duchess as if she were a flower-girl’ – has oddly never sounded more meritocratic…

Comyn’s directorial resume is chock-full of contemporary plays, which is a testament to how incisive Shaw’s comic dissection of the intersections of class and speech was – people can still make other people despise them merely by opening their mouths…

4/5

Pygmalion continues its run at the Abbey until the 11th of June.

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