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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October 16, 2016

Hamlet

Director Geoff O’Keeffe fashions an intriguing interpretation of Claudius in an energetic production of Hamlet at the Mill Theatre Dundrum.

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Prince Hamlet (Shane O’Regan) is in mourning for his father, Old Hamlet. But the rest of the court is celebrating as Old Hamlet’s brother Claudius (Neill Fleming) has succeeded not only to the throne, but also to the royal bed, unexpectedly marrying the widowed Queen Gertrude (Claire O’Donovan). But Hamlet’s isolated mourning turns to bloody thoughts of vengeance when his friend Horatio (Stephen O’Leary) reveals that Old Hamlet’s ghost has been haunting the battlements of Elsinore, and the ghost reveals Claudius as a murderous usurper. As Hamlet feigns madness to better hatch his revenge, the guilt-ridden Claudius seeks the aid of pompous counsellor Polonius (Damien Devaney), whose children Ophelia (Clara Harte) and Laertes (Matthew O’Brien) will become tragically ensnared in the mayhem that consumes the court, as will Hamlet’s untrustworthy university friends Rosencrantz (Paul Quinn Jr) and Guildenstern (Graeme Coughlan).

All Hamlets are alike; each Claudius is Claudius in its own way. O’Keeffe has Fleming play both Claudius and Old Hamlet, using Declan Brennan’s video projection to allow a hirsute Fleming loom over proceedings while a shaven Fleming commands the stage as the surviving brother.  Fleming is inspired as an unpredictable King. Laertes almost flinches when begging permission to leave, as if Claudius might react violently. This is a man the court has yet to take the measure of, and he is given an unexpectedly hot-blooded relationship with Gertrude, as well as a jaw-dropping moment where he joins Hamlet’s laughing at his own bad pun before dispassionately punching him. Fleming’s Claudius edges close to Macbeth, possibly a good man before ambition and adulterous desire undid him. He is also surprisingly funny, many facial expressions giving a ‘Dear God, why must everything be so difficult?!’ exasperation at the courtiers he has won, culminating in a sardonic toast with the poisoned chalice.

O’Regan is a very physical Hamlet, dashing Ophelia to the ground in a rage that shocks himself, and later performing a flying leap on to Gertrude’s bed to pin her to it while he harangues her for marrying Claudius. But he also shrinks into a haunted crouch to deliver ‘To be or not to be’, as Kris Mooney’s lights dim and adopt one colour (blue, green, orange) during each soliloquy to bring us a privileged glimpse inside the mind of Hamlet or Claudius. O’Regan and O’Brien are noticeably youthful, believable as university students rather than the customary thirtysomethings. Gerard Bourke’s ingenious set design, steps leading down from a tall castle wall and a shorter glass-panelled wall, enables fluid movement between scenes, and O’Keeffe wrings some great laughs from offhand moments in the text. But where Keith Thompson chopped famous lines in his 2012 production, O’Keefe is less willing to wield scissors. Harte is a patient Ophelia, and Devaney conveys how sensible Polonius believes himself, but strict fidelity to their lines is a synecdoche of the show sacrificing pace for completeness.

This Hamlet undeniably loses momentum after the interval when it could use trimming, but its central disputants Hamlet and Claudius are given memorable life.

3.5/5

Hamlet continues its run at the Mill Theatre Dundrum until the 28th of October.

February 15, 2012

Hamlet

Regular readers will remember previous worries about the possibility of an unbiased review if you know actors in a play. The problem is magnified with a play directed by Keith Thompson; my sometime co-writer, co-director, and leading man. This is a semi-unbiased review of his production of Hamlet in UCD’s Astra Hall last month with Sam McGovern playing the Dane.

Alas poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio, a man of infinite jest

Thompson has form with Shakespeare at the Astra Hall as UCD’s Leaving Cert production. In 2007 his swaggering turn as Banquo alongside Ciara Gough’s charismatically domineering Lady Macbeth upended the text completely by reducing a slightly nervous Macbeth to interloper status in his own play. Thompson also upended expectations in Sarah Finlay’s King Lear with a lecherous and camp interpretation of Gloucester that superbly heightened the pain of that character’s grisly fate at the hands of Cornwall. Here, Thompson cut the text drastically to showcase naturalistic comedy and an arrestingly physical central performance from Sam McGovern. Patrick Doyle’s Macbeth in 2009 was an incredibly original performance that saw Macbeth as a distrait hero who, touched by magic, sees things others can’t before descending into psychosis. McGovern’s Hamlet was less determinedly uncanny but displayed an equally confident mastery of the verse.

Doyle threw away his most quotable quotes as mumbles to wrong-foot the audience expecting a scholastic reading, and Thompson simply chopped many of the most famous lines. Polonius becomes a very serious character because of his ‘advice’ to Laertes disappearing completely. This approach worked eventually but made the first act hard going. A minimalist set of clinical white drapes, and sparse props being wheeled in, made Sam McGovern’s first black-clad appearance very arresting; but his emo-Hamlet, grieving furiously in this anti-septic arena, led to overwrought scenes with the ghost which suggested that five acts played at a level of such painfully overdone earnestness, without any comic relief, would become unbearable. Far from it. The second act began with Hamlet in a red football shirt wheeling in a child’s sled of picture books and soft toys which he threw at Polonius…

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lingered in the memory because, from the moment Russ Gaynor as a drunkenly buffonish Guildenstern and Jackie Murphy as the sober sister Rosencrantz arrived, they were saucy, hilarious, and conveyed that they really were old friends of Hamlet, and that they had old shared comic routines and in-jokes. That feel of naturalistic comedy is what made this production sparkle. Murphy’s stunt casting as a female Rosencrantz paid off by making her plea to Hamlet to yield up Polonius’ body, ‘My lord, you once did love me’, unexpectedly affecting. The jokiness developing naturally from the text consistently allowed incredible depth to suddenly emerge as a counterpoint; most notably during the arrival of the players when a tableau was formed and a spot-lit, visibly stunned Hamlet turned to haltingly deliver the ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave’ soliloquy.

Joking aside, the tragedy was streamlined by textual cuts; foregrounding Hamlet as a stalking avenger rather than chronic ditherer. This Prince was truly menacing in his madness, his murder of Polonius seemed to have been long in the making from his violent threats against Ophelia, Gertrude, and even Guildenstern, with his ever present and very nasty pocket knife. Colm Kenny-Vaughan’s antagonist Claudius deserves special mention. Gill Lambert and Niamh O’Nolan’s costumes were inexplicably New Romantic but Kenny-Vaughan worked their wizened make-up job to suggest a character decaying from the inside as guilt eats away his soul. He imported a huge amount of complexity into Claudius’s guilt, his delivery of the devastating couplet ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below/Words without thoughts never to heaven go’ deeply regretful, and his assenting to drink the poisoned chalice becoming an atoning gesture.

Less showy supporting turns from Molly O’Mahony as a subdued but concerned Gertrude, and John Kelly as a nicely simmering Laertes, fleshed out a convincingly naturalistic Court. McGovern’s impressive madness was able to fly between high comedy, touching pathos, and startling violence in large part because of the grounding effect of Ben Waddell’s stalwart turn as Horatio. But, while there was much to praise in the interpretation of the text and the performances coaxed from the youthful cast, the default minimalist staging adopted by Thompson and producer Niall Lane never fully utilised the full playing space of the Astra Hall, and in its white-out effect was too reminiscent of Finlay’s 2010 staging of King Lear which offered late Kurosawa style colour coded royal houses against an icily austere backdrop. The climactic fencing duel, however, was thrillingly realised within this space.

Thompson and McGovern are unlikely to do another Astra Hall Shakespeare production but any future collaboration between them should be eagerly anticipated.

4/5

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