Talking Movies

October 3, 2016

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Director Sean Holmes returns to the Dublin after his bold version of The Plough and the Stars some months back, but this show seems to indicate he was on his very best behaviour for that…

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The implacable Duke of Athens Theseus (Harry Jardine) is distracted from his upcoming nuptials to Hippolyta (Cat Simmons) by romantic problems in his court, specifically the complaint of Egeus (Ferdy Roberts) that Lysander (John Lightbody) has wooed his daughter Hermia, despite Egeus sanctioning her betrothal to Demetrius. Hermia and Lysander run away to the forest beyond the writ of Theseus, but a jealous Helen (Clare Dunne) betrays her erstwhile friend Hermia by telling Demetrius of this deception. As the four lovers stumble thru the forest they fall foul of the machinations of quarrelling fairy royal couple, Oberon and Titania (Jardine and Simmons again). Oberon, aided by his faithful spirit Puck (Roberts again), amuses himself toying with the mortals’ affections, and humiliates his Queen into the bargain by making her fall in love with Bottom (Fergus O’Donnell), transformed into a donkey.

Well, that’s the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Holmes and co-director Stef O’Driscoll don’t seem to have much interest in that. Instead the focus is on Ed Gaughan as Peter Quince, Fergus O’Donnell as Bottom, and Keith De Barra as Keith the gentlest drummer in Wicklow three years running – aka The Mechanicals. Who doesn’t love a high concept ditched at the first sign of trouble? Well, I don’t when a large portion of the running time is spent in setting up the conceit that O’Donnell is a Mancunian musician stepping in from the audience to keep the show going after we’ve been told guest star Brendan Gleeson is trapped in a lift and can’t play Bottom so the show can’t go on, and that concept then fades into air, thin air, after generating too much ‘meta-fiction’ hot air.

To paraphrase GK Chesterton, I will not say that what occurred at the Grand Canal Theatre the other night was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but rather a mixture of stand-up comedy, slapstick nonsense, sub-D’Unbelievables audience interaction, and musical numbers, into which iambs from A Midsummer Night’s Dream were introduced from time to time with a decent show of regularity. If, like Blackadder, you cannot find comedy in Shakespeare’s comedies, you don’t have to do them; you can do something else instead, maybe something that’s more your cup of tea, like Noises Off. I gave tgSTAN’s Cherry Orchard and Holmes’ Plough & Stars enthusiastic standing ovations, but I did not stand and clap this, because to deliver a bold and vibrant interpretation of a classic it is first necessary to engage with the actual text of the classic.

Cat Simmons was magnificently cast as Titania, someday I hope to see her perform the role in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

2.5/5

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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.”

December 31, 2015

‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ published in Irish Studies Review

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I’m pleased to belatedly report that my essay ‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ has been published in a special issue of the Irish Studies Review edited by Catherine Wilsdon and Giulia Bruni.

G.K. Chesterton’s 1936 Autobiography affectionately re-creates his first meetings with W.B. Yeats, whose critical thought Chesterton parsed in his 1905 book Heretics. Chesterton was dubious about Yeats’s occultism, but attracted by the Irish Revival’s linking of cultural reawakening with small-scale economic independence. His criticism of Yeats’s linking of nationalism and mysticism anticipates Benedict Anderson’s seminal theorising of nationalism. P.J. Mathews’s Revival locates texts in the context of separatist agitation against Joseph Chamberlain’s Boer War. Chesterton’s 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill can be read as a parallel text, explicitly rebutting Chamberlain’s imperialist philosophy, but also repurposing elements of Yeats’s critique of Matthew Arnold’s Celt/Teuton cultural binaries for application to English classes. Declan Kiberd’s idea that Wilde exposed England as deeply colonised by the British Empire usefully situates Notting Hill‘s anti-imperialism. Chesterton grants the English populace the Hellenistic spontaneity of consciousness Arnold denied them, and sets forth a vision of English nationalism that even contains a critique of Anderson’s “official nationalism”. Notting Hill‘s politico-cultural revolution, led by Wayne, a poet-warrior, and Turnbull, a visionary shop-keeper, defeats the forces of imperialist politics, plutocratic economics, and empiricist philistinism, and acts as an English parallel in its concerns to Yeats’s decolonising process.

June 25, 2014

Aristocrats

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Director Patrick Mason returns to the Abbey for a new production of 1979’s Aristocrats, Brian Friel’s Chekhovian study of a Catholic Big House in decline.

The peculiarity of Ballybeg in having a Catholic Big House has attracted Chicagoan academic Tom Hoffnung (Philip Judge). As he researches the history of the well-to-do O’Donnell family since 1829, he is privy to gossip from helpful local fixer Willie Diver (Rory Nolan). Willie is devoted to the eldest daughter Judith (Cathy Belton), whose life is now spent caring for her invalided father (John Kavanagh) and the eccentric Uncle George (Bosco Hogan). Tom’s visit is peculiarly opportune for getting family gossip as youngest daughter Claire (Jane McGrath) is getting married, and so middle daughter Alice (Rebecca O’Mara) and oddball son Casimir (Tadhg Murphy) have returned to the fold. However, while Casimir has left wife Helga in Hamburg, Alice has brought acerbic husband Eamon (Keith McErlean). And Eamon is a truth-teller when it comes to his peasantry and the O’Donnell gentry…

Uncle George who shuffles about silently avoiding people is a character straight out of Chekhov. But Aristocrats, while it has some very funny moments (not least imaginary croquet), is primarily a very sad play. Judith’s speech about how she manages to be ‘almost happy’ within a strict routine of servitude, which she does not want disturbed, is made all the more heart-breaking by the ingratitude of her stroke-stricken father; who continually refers to Judith’s great betrayal, unaware that it is she who tends to him. Casimir’s relating how his father told him his eccentricities could be absorbed in the Big House whereas he would be the village idiot in Ballybeg is equally distressing as it has led him to narrowing his life to avoid pillory. And, in Sinead McKenna’s evocative lighting design, behind everything – Judith’s past role in the Troubles.

Francis O’Connor’s set, a detailed drawing room with abstracted staircases and doors behind it and an imaginary wall to a lawn, strikes a balance between verisimilitude and artifice that my sometime co-writer John Healy pointed out to me was reflected in the acting styles; naturalistic for the ‘native peasantry’ Willie and Eamon, more mannered for the self-conscious gentry in decline – especially Alice’s performative alcoholism and Casimir’s apologetic tics. The set also reflects Friel’s concern with the ghostly technology; absent daughter Anna (Ruth McGill) can record a message, Father’s rantings can be relayed downstairs. Catherine Fay’s 1970s costumes (especially for Alice and Willie) are impeccable, while Mason lives up to Eamon’s programmatic ‘This has always been a house of reticence, of things left unspoken’ by offering muted hints that Eamon fathered Judith’s child, and that Eamon and Alice will be happy.

My fellow academic Graham Price would no doubt note the contrast between McGahern’s vision of the Big House; a place of learning; and Friel’s vision; a place where objects are named after Chesterton, Hopkins and Yeats, but it is severely doubtful that the self-absorbed status-conscious O’Donnells who did so ever emulated their intellectual curiosity.

3.5/5

Aristocrats continues its run at the Abbey until the 2nd of August.

December 31, 2013

‘The “Greening” of Cardinal Manning’ published in Irish Catholic Identities

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I’m pleased to report that my essay ‘The “Greening” of Cardinal Manning’ has just been published as a chapter in the Manchester University Press book Irish Catholic Identities, edited by Oliver P Rafferty. My IRCHSS-funded thesis on the Irish influence on GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc delved into how they creatively used the English Catholic tradition of Cardinals Manning and Newman, both of whom had extensive dealings with Irish culture and politics. I delivered the papers ‘Same Time, Same Place: Manning & Marx’ and ‘Angry Letters to The Times‘ to successive Arts Postgraduate Colloquiums at UCD in 2004 and 2005, and ‘Strange Attraction: Cardinal Manning & Karl Marx’ to to the School of English Research Seminar in UCD in 2005, so it is a pleasure to see some of that material appear in print, alongside substantial new research, as part of the book chapter now published.

What does it mean to be Irish? Are the predicates Catholic and Irish so inextricably linked that it is impossible to have one and not the other? Does the process of secularisation in modern times mean that Catholicism is no longer a touchstone of what it means to be Irish? Indeed was such a paradigm ever true? These are among the fundamental issues addressed in this work, which examines whether distinct identity formation can be traced over time. The book delineates the course of historical developments which complicated the process of identity formation in the Irish context, when by turns Irish Catholics saw themselves as battling against English hegemony or the Protestant Reformation. Without doubt the Reformation era cast a long shadow over how Irish Catholics would see themselves. But the process of identity formation was of much longer duration. The twenty-two chapters of this work trace the elements which have shaped how the Catholic Irish identified themselves, and explore the political, religious and cultural dimensions of the complex picture which is Irish Catholic identity. The individual essays together represent a systematic attempt, unique in the literature, to explore the fluidity of the components that make up Catholic identity in the Irish context.

September 24, 2013

Berkhamsted Revisited

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Prof. Peter Evans and Dr. Fergal Casey

‘Only beggars and gypsies say that one must never return where one has been before’ – Soren Kierkegaard

The annual Graham Greene Festival at Greene’s birthplace (Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire) is about to kick off, so I thought I’d cast a belated backward glance at the 2012 Festival. I travelled to Berkhamsted at the end of September to collect two prizes in the Festival’s Creative Writing awards. I won best short screenplay for Sir Joshua’s Macaw, a comedy of bad art criticism, and best prose fiction for my comedy of workplace anxiety, ‘For Whom H.R. Tolls’. I had previously won the best prose thriller category in 2011 for my story of murderous identical brothers ‘Dieu et Mon Droit’.

The festival is organised by the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust as Berkhamsted was where two different branches of the extended Greene family lived, and Graham’s father was headmaster of the venerable public school which Graham reluctantly attended; a deeply unhappy experience immortalised in the 1971 autobiography A Sort of Life. Greene mellowed towards his hometown though and returned to it imaginatively in the last decades of his life in books like The Human Factor and The Captain and the Enemy. The four-day festival includes film screenings and gala dinners, and many talks by both academic Greene scholars and film-makers involved in adaptations of his work. It has become a venue for launching new works of Greene scholarship, and having completed a PhD on the Irish influence on GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc in 2007 in UCD such a milieu of intense discussion of an English Catholic writer feels very familiar.

I was aware of Greene’s great liking for Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill but had never studied Greene academically, remaining merely an avid reader and fan of works like The Ministry of Fear and The Third Man. I didn’t attend any lectures last year, but in 2011 I had the good fortune to hear Professor Michael Brennan’s lecture on Greene’s creative use of the Manichean heresy, in Brighton Rock and Stamboul Train among others, which was a truly stunning piece of scholarship. His patient explanation of the bizarre beliefs of the Manicheans and careful analysis of just how Greene used this good/evil, soul/body, man/woman set of dichotomies for his own (occasionally mischievous) purposes was one of the most dazzling lectures I’ve ever attended.

A major draw of the festival’s programme for me was a day-long creative writing workshop with two of the judges of the creative writing awards, novelist Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone and screenwriter William Ivory. The creative writing awards emulate Greene’s own range and include screenwriting, travel writing, and two prose categories – for fiction and thriller; much like Greene’s inimitable distinction between his novels and his ‘entertainments’. 2012 saw Lattin-Rawstrone and Ivory focus on Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man and his short story ‘The Basement Room’ to examine the importance of story and character in their talks on how to write convincing characters, who are then sent on meaningful journeys. The importance of tactile detail in communicating emotion was hammered home, as was the equal importance that when an important event befalls a character the reader should also viscerally feel just how important it is. The workshop includes an intense practical component in the afternoon. I did the screenplay option with Made in Dagenham screenwriter Ivory, who is a true disciple of Greene in his use of philosophical and theological concepts in his gritty screenplays. He also throws his pupils in at the deep end, plotting out an original movie scenario and characters from some pictures of actors; and then asking everyone to write a sample scene after some group discussion to fine-tune the characters and plot.

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Lee Langley and Fergal Casey

Away from this intensive writing in the basement theatre of Berkhamsted School (irresistibly reminiscent of UCD Dramsoc’s now lost LG1 space), in the Civic Centre I greatly enjoyed seeing on a big screen Lee Langley’s 1980s adaptation of Greene’s lost 1940s ‘scriptment’ into the complex and tense film The Tenth Man starring Anthony Hopkins and Kristin Scott Thomas; not least as Langley had presented me with my Creative Writing prize in 2011 and the exhortation to keep writing. As an added bonus director Jack Gold was on hand to discuss the film, revealing some of Anthony Hopkins’ acting mannerisms along the way. Once all the prizes had been given out, the birthday toast proposed, and the talks concluded it was time for the Gala Dinner in the luxurious surroundings of Berkhamsted’s venerable Public School, with an after-dinner talk by actor Clive Francis. I had the good fortune to be seated for it alongside Cathy Hogan, a previous winner in the writing awards, and Dermot Gilvary, previous director of the Festival.

I think everyone will find that there is one Graham Greene work that speaks to them. For me it’s The Ministry of Fear, for other people I know I could say The End of the Affair or Twenty One Short Stories. Why not find out which one speaks to you?

September 1, 2011

5 Reasons to salute Captain America

If its abrupt drop in showings in Dundrum is anything to go by Captain America is not getting much love from Irish cinemagoers. But here’re 5 reasons why it should…

“A Good Man
GK Chesterton memorably quipped that Nietzsche had never convincingly explained why, other than to gratify Nietzsche’s own perverse desires, anyone should desire that an ubermensch be modelled on Cesare Borgia rather than on Parsifal. This sentiment underscores all the scenes between Chris Evans and Stanley Tucci; “Do you want to kill Nazis?” “I don’t want to kill anyone, I just don’t like bullies, wherever they are”; but the scene in which Tucci explains why he chose Evans over the physically stronger candidates and entreats him to remain the same – “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man” – is the best fictional articulation I’ve seen of Greg Garrett’s joyous reading of the creation of Superman by two Jewish comic-book writers as a rebuttal of Hitler’s Aryan psychosis – protecting the weak is what a real ubermensch would do.

“Dr Herzog I Presume
I thought I was losing my mind and simply hearing Werner Herzog everywhere when Hugo Weaving’s boo-hiss Nazi villain first appeared, but it turns out that he did base Dr Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull’s accent on everyone’s favourite German auteur. It’s an uncannily accurate impersonation, and nice because it delivers an odd musicality to Weaving’s delivery, as well as being an actual German accent; not one dreamt up by RADA trained British actors in the 1940s…

Tommy Lee Jones
Tommy Lee Jones Fassbenders his way thru the film in his accustomed role as old Texan grouch. His fantastic one-liners include “I’m not kissing you” after the climactic clinch, “I better find two more then” after shooting a Hydra stormtrooper mid-way thru his ‘Cut off one head, and –’ mantra, and “He’s still skinny” after egregiously failing to make his point by throwing a dummy grenade at the potentials to see which are the brightest and best.

Doomed Romance
Hayley Atwell is becoming quite the specialist in doomed affairs after The Duchess and Brideshead Revisited. Her tentative romance with Evans here is a terrific antidote to Bay’s Pearl Harbor nonsense, and makes for a quite upsetting finale when the flagged from the beginning suicide mission finally comes to pass, complete with their final stoic radio exchange. The Captain’s despair that he’s woken up to a world in which she’s been dead for 30 years could be absolutely heartbreaking in The Avengers. Presuming Whedon manages to learn how to write again. I’m still bitter about Buffy Season Eight

Steampunk Nazis
From the first appearance of the Red Skull’s jaw-droppingly stylised car, there’s a determination to grant Hydra technology too advanced for the era, especially their District 9 rip-off guns, to heighten the threat they pose. Admittedly the steampunk element gets a bit out of control towards the end of the film, but it’s quite a nice addition to the Captain America mythos for most of the proceedings, and feels less contrived than most of Del Toro’s clockwork nonsense.

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