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)

 

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.

November 30, 2016

The Father

The Gate Theatre’s contribution to the Dublin Theatre Festival was the Irish premiere of Florian Zeller’s acclaimed play, in a spare translation by Christopher Hampton.

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4/5

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.

August 4, 2015

Dublin Theatre Festival: 12 Plays

Tickets go on sale for the 2015 Dublin Theatre Festival at 10:00am Wednesday August 12th. Here are 12 shows to keep an eye on.

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The Night Alive 22nd September – October 4th Gaiety

Trailing clouds of glory from Broadway does Conor McPherson come. His new play, a co-production with Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, stars Adrian Dunbar and Kate Stanley Brennan as damaged souls beginning a tentative romance in the dodgy-geezer-land of Dublin that McPherson has made his own. Laurence Kinlan and Ian-Lloyd Anderson lead the supporting cast, and while tickets have been on sale for a while, some seats are still available.

Bailed Out! 23rd September – 4th October Pavilion

In case you’re not depressed enough by the ongoing farce in Leinster House you can soon head to Dun Laoghaire to see Colin Murphy’s follow-up to Guaranteed; an unlikely hit that ended up being filmed. Rough Magic regular Peter Daly and others bring to life, under Conall Morrison’s direction, official documents and unguarded interviews revealing how Ireland was troika’d. But, pace Fintan O’Toole, can documentation as agit-prop achieve anything?

At the Ford 23rd September – 3rd October New Theatre

Political ruminations of a fictional stripe will occupy the intimate surroundings of the New Theatre. Aonghus Og McAnally and rising star Ian Toner headline Gavin Kostick’s new play about a family coming apart at the seams as they struggle with the future of their business dynasty. Said dynasty imploding because of the sins of the father, so we’re promised critical analysis of Celtic Tiger via Celtic mythology.

Oedipus 24th September – 31st October Abbey

Sophocles’ resonant tragedy returns to the Abbey, but not in WB Yeats 1926 text or Robert Fagles’ spare translation. It’s a new version by director Wayne Jordan, who casts his Twelfth Night’s Barry John O’Connor as the Theban King. The great Fiona Bell plays Oedipus’ wife Jocasta, but after Spinning that doesn’t reassure, especially as Jordan’s directorial failings (especially leaden pacing and poor staging) have become embedded through critical praise.

A View from the Bridge 24th September – 10th October Gate

Joe Dowling returns from his long exile in Minneapolis to direct Arthur Miller’s 1955 classic. Chicago actor Scott Aiello plays Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman in Brooklyn who shelters illegals Marco (Peter Coonan) and Rodolpho (Joey Phillips), but when Eddie’s niece Catherine (Lauren Coe) falls for Rodolpho jealousy and betrayal loom. Dowling’s 2003 production of All My Sons was typically solid, and this should be equally polished.

Star of the Sea 24th September – 26th September Draiocht

Joseph O’Connor’s 2004 best-seller belatedly comes to town. This was a sell-out hit at last year’s Galway Arts Festival, and has just three performances at the theatre festival as part of a nationwide tour. This racy production is ‘freely adapted’ from O’Connor’s tale of lust and murder on a famine ship fleeing to America, in Moonfish’s Theatre trademark bilingual approach of performing in English and as Gaeilge.

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Hooked! 25th September – 10th October Various

Director Don Wycherley’s apparently become the go-to guy for the festival for touring theatre productions about whimsical goings on in the Irish countryside. This is a three-hander about a Dublin woman (Seana Kerslake) who moves to the country and rubs her neighbours (Tina Kellegher, Steve Blount) up the wrong way. Hilarity ensues. Secrets and lies are laid bare. A bit of comedy, a bit of menace, in four different venues.

The Last Hotel 27th September – 3rd October O’Reilly Theatre

Enda Walsh has written an opera! Music by Donnacha Dennehy is performed by the Crash Ensemble and the singers are led by star soprano Claudia Boyle, who starred in Mahoganny last year. The production team is that which brought us the demented Ballyturk, and Mikel Murfi even appears in a plot revolving around a man cleaning a blood-soaked hotel room and a couple fighting in a car-park.

The Train 6th October – 11th October Project Arts Centre

Well, here’s a gamble and a half. Rough Magic premiere a musical: book by Arthur Riordan, direction by Lynne Parker, music by Bill (Riverdance) Whelan. Previous Rough Magic musical Improbable Frequency was a hoot, but DTF plays with music Phaedra and Peer Gynt were deeply unsatisfying. This could implode, especially as the subject; importing contraceptives on a 1971 train; seems tailor-made for ‘liberals backslapping each other’ smugness.

Dancing at Lughnasa 6th October – 11th October Gaiety

25 years ago Friel’s masterpiece premiered at the theatre festival, and director Annabelle Comyn brings her Lyric production to the Gaiety to mark the occasion. Comyn’s regular design team are on hand to revive the bittersweet story of the Mundy sisters (Catherine Cusack, Cara Kelly, Mary Murray, Catherine McCormack, Vanessa Emme) with Declan Conlon as their returned brother. Comyn excels at blocking large casts so the dance entices…

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time 6th October – 10th October Grand Canal

Tickets are becoming scarce for this flagship import from London’s National Theatre. Mark Haddon’s book was a masterful exercise in disguising almost total lack of substance behind flashy style, and writer Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott deploy every theatrical bell and whistle going to recreate the sleuthing mind of an autistic teenager, but can they add substance to the source?

The Cherry Orchard 7th October – October 10th O’Reilly Theatre

You haven’t experienced Chekhov till you’ve heard him in the original French. Ahem. Belgian collective tg STAN take on Chekhov’s final elegiac play, an obvious influence on Tom Murphy’s The House; as a peasant’s cunning sees him rise up to supplant the decaying aristocracy, then lament over the genteel way of life he destroyed. Playing straight through for 2 hours without an interval we’re promised unfussy intensity.

October 8, 2014

Spinning

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Karl Shiels, Fiona Bell, Caitriona Ennis and Janet Moran are the weighty cast in Fishamble’s contribution to the Dublin Theatre Festival; a meditation on grief.

Conor (Shiels) arrives unannounced in an unnamed small town and heads for the seaside cafe run by Susan (Bell), who nearly collapses from shock – as he is the man responsible for the death of her teenage daughter Annie (Caitriona Ennis) some years before. Conor has just been released from prison for his role in her death, and has come to return Annie’s locket; and to try and explain what happened. Flashbacks that disrupt their confrontation help the audience piece together the closeness of Susan and Annie, and the courtship, marriage and divorce of Conor and Jen (Janet Moran). As more and more pieces of the puzzle are thrown at us the imminence and inevitability of tragedy weighs down on us; leading to a merciful lie and perhaps a suicide after that redemptive gesture – perhaps not; the crashing waves are ambiguous.

Sabine Dargent’s set impressionistically creates a seaside cafe with table and chairs on a raised platform; but for all other scenes the audience has to do the heavy lifting. Jim Culleton’s direction focuses attention on the great actors, but they’re not miracle workers. Deirdre Kinahan has crafted an intelligent structure, but unlike Our Few and Evil Days she hasn’t filled the structure with any surprising content. Susan and Annie’s close relationship is uncomfortably akin to Gilmore Girls, down to the decent absent father having proposed marriage and been rejected before fleeing; in this case to Melbourne. Annie is a less adorable and smart version of Rory Gilmore; and her plea that they should move to Melbourne because “Our life here is totally crap!” is unintentionally funny; even though Ennis essays a spirited teenager and Bell adeptly alternates tender with traumatised.

Spinning is so rife with cliché that it doesn’t reprise Kramer Vs Kramer or Blue Valentine so much as it descends to the level of soap opera. Moran is awful because she’s given a shrill social-climbing cipher to play. The pantomime ‘oooh!’ reaction of the audience to Conor’s “I let you go back to work” was particularly depressing. Jen insists they pay for a crèche rather than let Conor’s mother babysit, she volubly disparages his family business before happily snaffling up money and house derived from it, and full custody of daughter Kate to boot (odd that people still seriously talk about patriarchy when such sexism is legally enshrined by the courts daily isn’t it?). But all this was seemingly outweighed in the audience’s estimation by Conor’s line, even though she went back to work late hours with her ex-boyfriend.

Spinning is only 75 minutes long, yet I found myself almost checking a phantom wristwatch from its first scene; it was that quickly obvious that this wasn’t top drawer.

1/5

Spinning continues its run at Smock Alley until the 12th of October.

July 22, 2014

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

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Hamlet 25th – 27th September Grand Canal Theatre

You haven’t appreciated Shakespeare until you’ve heard him in the original German. Ahem. Berlin’s Schaubuhne theatre troupe returns under the direction of Thomas Ostermeier for an acclaimed production of the Bard’s magnum opus. 6 actors play 20 roles in a production characterised by a spectacular stage covered in loose earth, turning to mud as actors hose it, and film each other for projection.

 

Zoo 25th – 28th September Smock Alley

Teatro de Chile present a one-hour lecture, of sorts. Two scientists inform you of their astonishing discovery, the last two Tzoolkman people; and then bend their brains trying to figure out how to preserve a culture whose central feature is imitation. So far, so Monty Python, but this is intended to be a serious problematisation of the idea of academic ‘performance’ in serious lecturing.

 

The Mariner 25th September – October 11th Gate

Hugo Hamilton appears to be the Gate’s go-to guy for the theatre festival. Following an adaptation of his Speckled People memoir he unveils an original script about an Irish sailor traumatised by the Battle of Jutland whose mute state inspires very different reactions from his wife and his mother. Patrick Mason directs, but how much insight can novelist Hamilton deliver in 90 minutes?

 

After Sarah Miles 26th September – October 11th Axis/Civic/Pavilion/Draiocht

Don Wycherley’s received nothing but rave reviews for his solo performance as fisherman Bobeen in Michael Hilliard Mulcahy’s new play about a fisherman remembering his life from teenage days in 1969 to the present. As the touring element of this festival Wycherley will appear in four venues as the fisherman who worked as an extra on the filming of epic Ryan’s Daughter.

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Our Few and Evil Days 26th September – October 11th Abbey

Mark O’Rowe takes on directing duties for his first original play in some years and he has assembled a stunning cast for it: Charlie Murphy, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Sinead Cusack, and Ian Lloyd Anderson. We’re promised that a devoted daughter will find out a shocking secret about her parents from a menacing stranger. Violence and poetically abrasive language ensues…

 

Ganesh Versus The Third Reich 1st – 4th October Belvedere

The most ambitious of the three Australian plays at the festival sees the Hindu God Ganesh embark on a journey to reclaim the Swastika from the Nazis, only for things to lurch away from fantastical epic into behind the scenes bickering; as an overbearing director fights with his cast over their right to use the most sacred elements of other cultures.

 

DruidMurphy 1st – 5th October Olympia

DruidMurphy’s trilogy of plays was a highlight of the 2012 Festival, and Garry Hynes returns for a second helping with Marie Mullen and Marty Rea still in tow. Not only will Tom Murphy’s 1985 classic of a dying matriarch, Bailegangaire, be revived, but Murphy has also written a new play Brigit which acts as a prequel by filling in the back-story of matriarch Mommo’s husband.

 

Spinning 1st – 12th October Smock Alley

Fishamble presents the great Karl Shiels in a new play by Halcyon Days playwright Deirdre Kinihan. He plays a man trying to hold onto a life coming apart at the seams, who unexpectedly meets a woman coming to terms with the senseless murder of her daughter. With a cast that includes Caitriona Ennis and Janet Moran this looks set to be an absorbing production.

 

Jack Charles V The Crown 8th – 12th October Samuel Beckett

I can’t help but think of this Australian one-man show as being an eccentric kin to Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Jack Charles was part of the Stolen Generation, and then became part of Koori theatre in the 1970s and a film actor; having been a cat-burglar, heroin addict, and convict in the meantime. He performs his life-story with unrepentant brio.

 

Book Burning 8th – 11th October Project

Belgium story-teller Pieter De Buysser tells the story of Sebastian, a man he met at an Occupy demonstration. Sebastian had become embroiled in a WikiLeaks scandal; and from there De Buysser, and his visual artist Hans Op De Beeck, spin out the implications of one man’s struggles to make Sebastian’s story a synecdoche for a new mode of being in the impersonal globalised world.

February 19, 2014

The Vortex

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Director Annabelle Comyn forsakes the Abbey and Shaw for the Gate and Coward in this cutting 1920s comedy with an unexpectedly serious and intimate finale.

The Vortex opens with the sensible Helen (Fiona Bell) and acerbic Pawnie (Mark O’Regan), waiting in an opulent drawing room for vain and apparently ageless socialite Florence (Susannah Harker). Coward follows Chekhov’s lead in having a whirl of characters pass thru one location as we meet unsmiling servant Preston (Andrea Kelly), fatuous singer Clara (Rebecca O’Mara), and, after Florence’s belated arrival, her devoted young lover Tom (Ian Toner), her defeated aged husband David (Simon Coury), her histrionic coke-stoked pianist son Nicky (Rory Fleck Byrne), and Nicky’s calculating flapper fiancé Bunty (Katie Kirby)… A Freudian frisson instantly shivers between Florence and Bunty over Nicky’s undivided love, and when it transpires Bunty and Tom knew each other intimately years before the scene is set for emotional carnage when all concerned up sticks to Florence’s country house for a Charleston-and-cocktails fuelled weekend party.

Comyn’s regular designer Paul O’Mahony provides an elegant crescent of mirrors and walls which slide along to reveal a staircase for the second act in the country, which begins with a literal bang as Chahine Yavroyan’s dramatically surging lighting design provides the effect of old flashbulbs for keepsake pictures of the couples dancing. Comyn showed in The House her skill at blocking large chaotic ensembles, and 8 people bounce around the stage to the over-pumped gramophone recording of the Charleston in Philip Connaughton’s choreographed party, during which Nicky’s coke addiction becomes evident to Helen. Byrne is marvellous as the highly-strung Nicky, trying to overcome his terrible upbringing, while his self-absorbed mother makes a fool of herself as Tom and Bunty move closer together. Toner is impressive as the slowly awakening Tom, while Kirby makes Bunty somehow both cold and right.

O’Regan Fassbenders delightfully as Pawnie, aided by hoovering up the play’s best lines. It’s tempting to link Coward to Waugh and say the trick of 1920s dialogue is the casual use of ridiculously hyperbolic words. Bright Young Things only ever dub things, no matter how trivial, as ‘ghastly, gruesome, sick-making, beastly, horrid, deathly’ or ‘heavenly, divine, sublime’. Well-spoken but OTT-phrased bad behaviour became Coward’s trade-in-stock but, while the curtain anticipates Hay Fever’s flight of guests, this is a more serious work. The third act focuses on Nicky’s insistence, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, that Florence abandons her obsession with her continuing youth and instead acknowledges her blame in his failings as a person. But this once controversial scene echoes Hamlet and Gertrude’s bedroom contretemps, and leaves us hungry for an aftermath that is never analysed – to dissatisfying effect.

The Vortex may have been the ‘theatrical shocker of the Jazz Age’, but what shocks now is not its sex and drugs but its cavalier dismissal of its ensemble.

3/5

The Vortex continues its run at the Gate until the 17th of March.

September 19, 2013

Major Barbara

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Annabelle Comyn directs her third summer show in a row on the Abbey stage and, following 2011’s Pygmalion, makes a welcome return to Bernard Shaw.

Shaw’s 1905 play begins with the imperious Lady Britomart (Eleanor Methven) initiating her shallow son Stephen (Killian Burke) into the shameful history of his millionaire father, arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft (Paul McGann). Lady Britomart intends to tap Undershaft for marriage settlements for their daughters Sarah (Liz Fitzgibbon), engaged to upper class twit Charles Lomax (Aonghus Og McAnally), and Barbara (Clare Dunne), engaged to bohemian Greek scholar Adolphus Cusins (Marty Rea). She also hopes, by inviting Undershaft to meet his children for the first time in decades, to spark some paternal sentiment in him so that he will abandon the Undershaft tradition of disinheriting the lawful heirs in favour of settling the massive arms concern on a foundling. The unrepentant Undershaft, however, is more impressed by his daughter Major Barbara; who he makes swear to visit his arms factory if he visits her Salvation Army shelter. But which of their competing philosophies will overcome the other?

Major Barbara is dominated by the character of Undershaft and McGann rises boldly to the challenge. His entrance into Lady Britomart’s library, absolutely unsure as to which of the three men in it is his son, is expertly prolonged, and his delivery of his unscrupulous politico-economic philosophy jaded without being cynical; his very sincerity hinting at the need for new energy which the steely Barbara suddenly offers to him. Dunne’s fervour as Barbara, with undertones of despair, complements McGann’s nuance, while Methven Fassbenders as the Wildean matriarch insulting her son and prospective son-in-laws with arch put-downs. Burke does a fine job of Stephen’s indignation shading into admiration as he sees his father’s works, but comedic honours go to Aonghus Og McAnally and his repeated contention that whatever’s being discussed involves a good deal of tommyrot. Talking Movies favourite Rea makes his shady character a worthy foil to Undershaft, alternating between ecstatic acceptance and mulish rebellion.

But, far more than Pygmalion, this play engages with the poor of London. The elegant library, by Comyn’s regular set designer Paul O’Mahony, loses its refinement to become the facade of the Salvation Army shelter. Shaw presents the poor who despise being reliant on charity (Chris McHallem’s defeated Peter Shirley), the poor who play up their Christianity to cynically con charity (Emmet Kirwan’s sly Bronterre O’Brien Price), and the poor who only Barbara would tackle (Ian Lloyd Anderson’s truly menacing Bill Walker). This is a London haunted by the winter depression of 1886, and, even as Barbara and Walker clash rhetorically and physically over his rejection of salvation, the visiting Undershaft instructs the attentive Cusins in the employers’ interest in the Army keeping the poor content, but in their place. When Undershaft offers a massive donation to Mrs Baines (Fiona Bell) to help keep open the shelter, Barbara resigns rather than usefully employ tainted money.

And so the final act finds the library transforming into a munitions factory with a massive weapon as its centrepiece as Undershaft attempts to uphold the Undershaft tradition while yet employing his fiery daughter… Major Barbara runs for nearly three hours and is a dense play. Is Shaw satirising the Salvation Army as the acme of religious enthusiasm that horrified staid Victorians? Or merely challenging the Army to convert the rich because they will be more sincere as they do not need their charity? And then there’s the grenade he throws in of personal integrity getting in the way of the greater good. Does Barbara have a duty to accept money made from wrongdoing in order to serve the greater good? Given recent resignations of conscience and Trevor Sargeant’s 2007 resignation to allow his party enter government this is not an abstract Antigone dilemma. Undershaft’s seductive honesty is very Shavian, if he doesn’t believe something he won’t pretend to for the sake of social niceties; and so he magnificently flourishes the fact that his industry controls government. But are his actions consistent with his philosophy or is he as impetuous as Barbara, so Shaw’s calling for compromise not mad idealism?

These knotty questions can’t really be answered, and so this production of Major Barbara is to be commended for expertly maintaining the comedic undertone in its intense examination of the ever-relevant clash between private integrity and the public good.

4/5

Major Barbara continues its run at the Abbey until the 21st of September.

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