Talking Movies

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.

 

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October 8, 2013

Desire Under the Elms

Corn Exchange performs Eugene O’Neill’s 1924 play in Northern Irish accents, placing the emphasis very much on the first part of its hyphenate identity Irish-American.

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Peter (Peter Coonan) and Simeon (Luke Griffin) are hardworking brothers on a stony farm in 1850s New England. Their resentful half-brother Eben (Fionn Walton) is convinced the farm is really his thru his mother, their father’s second wife. But when their father Ephraim Cabot (Lalor Roddy) unexpectedly remarries, they realise the farm is nobody’s but his new wife Abby’s (Janet Moran) as when he finally dies she’ll inherit. Peter and Simeon, disgusted at this, sign over to Eben their shares in ‘his farm’, and head off to California’s gold rush. But when Abby realises the brooding Eben’s staying, and a threat to her marriage for social status, she promises to give Ephraim a son; to ensure her place on the farm. But she might prefer to have a child with her virile step-son, rather than her wizened husband. And if her manipulations are unmasked, then all hell will break loose…

Corn Exchange oddly abandons its commedia dell’arte style for this mash-up of Greek tragedy and Irish-American land-hunger, when you’d imagine the heightened nature of retelling the tortured romantic triangle of Phaedra, Hippolytus and Theseus would be perfectly suited for that technique. Director Annie Ryan strips the play to its core, reducing a cast of 20 to just 5 actors who play out the tragedy on Maree Kearns’ bare stage with just a table, a bed, and some firewood and building timbers running up against an abstract backdrop. O’Neill doesn’t leaven his plays with much humour though, and this approach means that the rawness of Desire Under the Elms can be overwhelming. Luke Griffin sports the best worst hair I’ve seen in some time, and he and Coonan are fantastically dishevelled and avaricious as the animalistic brothers Simeon and Peter. It is a loss after the interval when they don’t reappear.

The monstrous patriarch is so hyped that Roddy takes some time in living up to his billing when he arrives. But this feels like a John B Keane play relocated to Maine. Ephraim is as monomaniacal as Bull McCabe on the subject of how he sweated blood to tame nature. He wants to give his farm to a son, so that even when he’s dead, in  a way the land will still belong to him. O’Neill’s script reaches its apex of vivid imagery when Ephraim describes how otherwise he’d rather set fire to the farm and free the livestock. But opposite him Moran and Walton disappoint. Her unsubtle seduction doesn’t convince as patent manipulation leading to sincere love, his melodramatic contradictory reactions don’t ring true with his character’s rigidity hitherto, and after the interval their falling-out feels rushed – there’s too much of a steep descent to the brutally Greek climax.

It’s sometimes hard to square O’Neill, the Nobel laureate and Broadway intellectual, with the brutal toiling characters that populate his plays. This production, in emphasising the Irish elements, casts an interesting light on O’Neill.

3/5

Desire Under the Elms continues its run at Smock Alley Theatre until October 13th.

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