Talking Movies

May 16, 2018

RIP Tom Murphy

I attended Dancing at Lughnasa at the 2015 Dublin Theatre Festival mere days after the death of Brian Friel. That production served almost as a wake, and Graham Price and I mused then that Tom Murphy was now Ireland’s greatest living playwright. Alas, now he is taken from us too.

I studied The Gigli Concert for my MA in Anglo-Irish Literature & Drama. I didn’t really get it, nor did I think that, despite patches of undoubted brilliance, it really worked overall. Only for Frank McGuinness to pronounce that often Murphy’s work didn’t read very well, it had to be performed to really come alive. I remember scratching my head at the time about that. My unspoken objection was: how would you ever know something was worth performing if you had to perform it first to see its quality? Frank McGuinness, of course, knew best. 2012 saw a feast of Murphy on the Dublin stage and I reviewed three of those productions here. First out of the blocks was Annabelle Comyn’s revival of The House, which dripped Chekhov, and a savagery in characterisation and theme when tackling emigration. But savagery in Murphy hit its high water-mark at the very beginning with A Whistle in the Dark, which formed part of DruidMurphy’s repertory at the Dublin Theatre Festival. The primal violence of A Whistle in the Dark brutalised the Gaiety’s substantial capacity into a stunned silence. It still remains one of my most vivid theatrical memories. And then, in a marvel of repertory, the same cast turned their hands to the serious comedy Conversations on a Homecoming; with Rory Nolan and Garrett Lombard morphing from the two scariest brothers in Whistle to an amiable duffer and the village intellectual scrapper respectively.

Druid returned to the Murphy well for a striking production of Bailegangaire a couple of years later. President Michael D Higgins was in attendance when I saw it with Graham Price and Tom Walker who summed it up perfectly as ‘Happy Days as Irish kitchen sink drama’. It is startling to think in retrospect that Murphy’s classic was packing out the Gaiety, when it represented such a collision of the avant-garde with the popular mainstream. When the Gate finally broke its duck and presented The Gigli Concert as its first foray into Murphy’s oeuvre the same thing happened: packed audiences, to the extent that the play was brought back for a second run. Graham Price reviewed it on the second run, to add a corrective to what he felt was my insufficiently admiring review from the first time round. I realised that it did work better in performance than it read, but still didn’t think it was the ne plus ultra of Irish drama. And then I ended my belated exploration of Murphy’s work where I began, with Annabelle Comyn directing on the Abbey stage in the summer. But The Wake was a very different proposition than The House.  Comyn threw practically every Bat-tool in the director’s utility belt at it but Murphy’s rambling script proved ungovernable. But for all that there was still much brilliance shining thru the wreckage. Not bad for a play written in his early sixties.

I have a personal hit-list of key Murphy plays left to see: A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer’s Assistant, The Morning after Optimism, and The Sanctuary Lamp. Now, whether anyone other than Druid will put them on in this current cultural climate is sadly quite another matter.

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/the-house/

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/a-whistle-in-the-dark/

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/conversations-on-a-homecoming/

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/bailegangaire/

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/the-gigli-concert/

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/the-gigli-concert-3/

https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/the-wake/

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April 30, 2018

On Urbanity

Prefacing my attack on Legion last month I noted decorum was important, and that urbanity was important as a stylistic and aesthetic goal, and noted one could stretch to call it an ethical goal too.

What then is urbanity? When I was writing for the University Observer I used to think our house style was aiming for the droll elegance of the New Yorker.  I’m not sure anybody else did. I’m not sure I would even have been able to pin down where I got that notion of the New Yorker from, possibly a refracted Dorothy Parker vibe from the Gilmore Girls. Having recently, deliriously enjoyed James Thurber’s The Years with Ross I think that I wasn’t far off in my peculiar sense of the magazine’s house style. Although it may have been just Thurber himself rather than the New Yorker writers en masse in possession of that style. Certainly the current New Yorker writers are en masse in possession of a house style, and the deployment of it by Gladwell, Gopnik & Co can be maddening in its repetition.

The New Yorker film reviews these days mostly overshoot urbanity and instead sound jaded, and snobbish. Richard Brody’s review of Ready Player One is a recent particular lowlight. Brody seems to have the shakiest of grasps on the commercial realities of movie-making, and indeed how movies are remembered by non-critics. His notion that a blockbuster themed around 1980s nostalgia should chuck The Shining for Jim Jarmusch’s oeuvre is tragicomic; once you stop laughing in astonishment, you realise he’s serious, and then need to lie down. But how should one write film reviews? I went from writing a movie column for the University Observer titled ‘Fergal’s Guide to Misanthropy’ to reviewing for InDublin. In thrall at the time to Hunter S Thompson I wrote reviews in a style that I would now never countenance. Hunter S Thompson is a great stylist, but he is not urbane.

It doesn’t matter that Hunter S Thompson is not urbane, because he is Hunter S Thompson. But it matters a great deal when people who are not Hunter S Thompson are neither urbane nor Thompsonian despite their best efforts. And those best efforts usually betray fierce labour as they attempt to do the Gonzo style without being the man who was Gonzo. As I wrote more and more film reviews for InDublin I began to appreciate that reinventing the wheel with snark and wildness each time was not sustainable. So, as I have recounted before, I turned to an earlier mentor, Michael Dwyer. I pored over his 300 review in an effort to understand how it worked, and especially how he could write so many reviews with such apparent ease; given their clarity and simplicity. I adopted my interpretation of his technique as my model.

Initially though the interpolated technique was all structural. It was only over time and ever more reviews for Dublinks.com and Talking Movies that the mature style revealed itself; borrowing a structure from Michael Dwyer had seamlessly led to an Augustan style. Films were reviewed without hyperbole over their strengths or hysteria over their weaknesses. As a result they could be reviewed with astonishing speed; my review of Prometheus took 26 minutes from first keystroke to published post. It wasn’t vitriolic, like so many reviews, it maintained an even keel. But it had taken 5 years to get to the point where that review could be penned in 26 minutes. What one looks for in urbanity is the appearance of effortlessness concealing much effort; the sprezzatura of Castiglione so promulgated by WB Yeats as the ideal of lyric poetry. Which brings us back to James Thurber…

Thurber’s droll story ‘The Bear Who Let It Alone’ concerns a bear that gets too fond of honey mead at the local bar:

He would reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

But our hero sees the error of his ways. He becomes a teetotaller, and a physical fitness freak, and boastful of how the two are connected:

To demonstrate this, he would stand on his head and on his hands and he would turn cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down on the floor, tired by his healthful exercise, and go to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

The simplicity of the gag makes you feel like you always knew it just after you first read it, and of course belies what must have been careful paring and paring by Thurber to get it just right. That is the key. It appears effortless; elegant, graceful, simple; and it took much effort to make it appear so. Thurber was in a contract with himself as much as the reader not to let go of the piece until he’d finely chiselled it to perfection and then polished it to remove all trace of the chisel marks. And it’s that determination to do oneself and others justice that I argue can move urbanity from aesthetics to ethics. To write urbanely is to do more, to be beneficent.

PG Wodehouse once wrote “The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well”. One might advance a similar notion when it comes to urbanity. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s painfully laboured non-apology apology for the Cambridge Analytica flap:

“I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago. But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it”

A billionaire, surrounded by expensive lawyers and media consultants, who can take five days (which I like to imagine were spent brainstorming on a luxury houseboat moored in the dead centre of Lake Tahoe), to write and/or approve something as inelegant as that italicised sentence… Well, I opine, in identical manner to the man who cheats at golf, a man capable of writing like that is capable of anything.

John McGahern is the endpoint of the notion of urbanity as an ethical goal. His description of fictional Leitrim farmer (and, as Graham Price persuasively has it, dandy) Jamesie sitting in Ruttledge’s passenger seat on their way to the market I have characterised in my Irish University Review article ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ as a Stoic benediction: “He praised where he could, but most people were allowed their space without praise or blame in a gesture of hands that assigned his life and theirs to their own parts in this inexhaustible journey”. That may be the ideal of urbanity I wish for in journalism. How it got muddled together with Thurber’s New Yorker drollness in my head is a puzzler, but there it is. Socrates said that nobody would willingly commit evil. An evil-doer is in possession of imperfect information. Nobody sets out to write badly, paint badly, compose badly, or to direct a bad film. In reviewing one should try to nudge where possible, and always offer solutions when identifying problems. One should only eviscerate if something is positively harmful, and even then try to do it with a light touch. A bad review done with urbanity is a judo flip. Identify what is obnoxious, and, if possible; and it is surprisingly often possible; see how the work can be read against itself, so that it is condemned out of its own mouth.

August 24, 2017

Arlington

Enda Walsh’s latest play hit the Abbey stage, a transfer from Galway Arts Festival, and provoked walkouts from people who just don’t do interpretive dance.

 

Isla (Charlie Murphy) is an institution, it seems. The stage is a vast room of sterile white walls with the odd potted plant and high windows. And to one side, visible to us but hidden from her by a wall, is Hugh O’Conor. He is the new psychiatrist or gaoler or interrogator in a pokey office filled with monitors and equipment with an unfortunate habit of going on fire. They talk through microphone and speaker, and then suddenly Murphy is freed. But then O’Conor takes her place, bloodied and beaten, unsure what he did wrong. We are equally unsure, and also as to what happened to his predecessor, or what post-apocalyptic solution to humanity’s violent impulses this sterile room and the video projections of meanderings through forests are meant to represent, or the meaning of Oona Doherty’s lengthy solo dance.

Enda Walsh is getting vaguer and vaguer, even as he’s becoming ever more extravagant with his staging. If Ballyturk was an abstracted rewrite of The Walworth Farce, but with added prop destruction and unexpectedly expansive set design, then this is even more puzzling, but even more extraordinary in its use of space. There is something wonderful about the sheer extravagance of filling most of the Abbey’s canvas with blank space, and focusing all the action on a tiny corner where two people separated by a wall talk to each other. Except that for a significant portion of the just about 90 minute running time the floor is held by Doherty performing Emma Martin’s choreography. And, having previously praised The Cherry Orchard and The Select: The Sun Also Rises, I realised suddenly that what I loved was their choreography en masse.

As my regular theatre cohort Graham Price and I discussed afterwards, perhaps instead of running straight thru the 90 minutes there should have been an interval at the very obvious curtain point to facilitate people who don’t like dance, with a later call to put down your G&Ts because “Charlie Murphy will be re-taking the stage in 5 minutes”. As it was some people simply got up and walked out, no longer willing to wait hopefully for the ticket machine on stage to dispense dialogue at some unspecified point in the future. O’Conor brought a wealth of comic tics and Murphy was winningly naive and curious but they were dwarfed, first by Jamie Vartan’s set, and then by the crushing feeling that this was a meditation on weighty but ill-defined themes as empty as the fish tank on the stage.

Enda Walsh’s work has been getting steadily more abstracted, but this may represent the tipping point where he literally loses interest in ‘play’-writing in favour of exploring other media.

2.75/5

November 23, 2015

The Gigli Concert

I enjoyed The Gigli Concert at the Gate in the summer, but wasn’t as wowed by it as some people were. Obviously many more people were in the wowed camp than not though as it returned for a sell-out reprise, as my regular theatre and conference cohort Graham Price writes:

DG the gigli concert

Last summer saw one of the most critically acclaimed productions to appear on an Irish stage in recent years: Tom Murphy’s seminal The Gigli Concert directed by David Grindley at the Gate. Such was the level of almost universal praise heaped on this drama that the Gate Theatre brought it back for a limited run this November. The story centres on JPW King, an English “Dynamatologist” (something approaching a quack psychologist and a faith healer) who has been sent to minister to the sick and disillusioned in Ireland, and his Irish “client” (just referred to in the script as “The Irish Man”) who wishes to sing like the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. The play is primarily concerned with their “therapy” sessions together and how they bond over their mutual problem; how on earth are they going to get through each day?

Such a summary does not really do justice to the magisterial power of the play or the amazing performances of the three actors who occupy the stage for the work’s three hours plus duration; Declan Conlon (King), Denis Conway (Irish Man), and Dawn Bradfield who plays King’s mistress Mona. Declan Conlon does an amazing job of conveying both the outward calm and the repressed torment of King, and Conway keeps the audience on the edge of their seats by playing The Irish Man like a coiled spring of rage and frustration that is always threatening to explode and overwhelm both himself and those around him. In a role oft criticised for being underwritten and largely superfluous, Bradfield is very powerful and moving as the woman whose secret traumas eventually inspire King to undertake the titular event. Anyone familiar with Murphy’s work will recognise Mona as a kind of dress rehearsal for the monumental and tragic women in Bailegangaire, the drama Murphy wrote immediately after The Gigli Concert which is as female-centred as Gigli is male-centred.

Gigli’s climax is one of the most challenging moments in the Irish canon in terms of what is demanded of both the director and the actor who must realise this scene onstage. Fintan O’Toole (in one of the few single-authored books on Murphy) has described this crescendo as “a daring moment in which the impossible becomes possible, not as an idea, but as an action on the stage.” As O’Toole asserts, this scene stands or falls depending on how well it is created as a theatrical occurrence, and Conlon’s acting and Grindley’s directing combine to create dramatic gold from a very slight stage direction: “he sings the aria to its conclusion—Gigli’s voice”. The physical and dramaturgical pyrotechnics on display in the concluding minutes of this production will not soon be forgotten by those lucky enough to see them. The tone created by Conlon and Grindley’s three minute scene-collaboration is one simultaneously of hope and painful sorrow that is captivating.

The Gigli Concert is rightly considered one of the most important Irish plays of the last thirty years and the Gate has done a fantastic job of translating Murphy’s script to stage in such a way as to honour this demanding, complex text. Provided its epic running time does not deter a playgoer, it is worth every second of its three hours. Ignore anyone who says Gigli is only relevant to the contemporary Irish moment because a main character is a corrupt developer; its focus on profoundly human concerns make it a work for our time and all time.

5/5

October 10, 2015

Dancing at Lughnasa

Dancing at Lughnasa premiered at Dublin Theatre Festival 25 years ago, but this anniversary production doubles as a posthumous tribute to its author Brian Friel.

Dancing at Lughnasa - credit Chris Heaney 800x400

The adult Michael (Charlie Bonner) narrates the summer of 1936 when he was 7 years old. The illegitimate son of the youngest daughter Chrissie (Vanessa Emme), he was doted on by her four sisters: messer Maggie (Cara Kelly), simple Rose (Mary Murray), quiet Agnes (Catherine Cusack), and schoolteacher Kate (Catherine McCormack). But this golden summer is the beginning of the end for the Mundy sisters, even though the return of their beloved brother Jack (Declan Conlon) after 25 years in the Ugandan Missions seems an unlikely catalyst for catastrophe. While the visit of Michael’s ne’er-do-well Welsh father Gerry Evans (Matt Tait) seems pivotal to the emotional turmoil that besets the house, it almost takes a ha’penny place in hindsight to the arrival of malfunctioning wireless Marconi; the ambassador of the industrial revolution finally reaching Ballybeg that will sweep away all.

Director Annabelle Comyn strips away the misplaced nostalgia that has gathered around Friel’s Tony-winning script; there are no fields of wheat crying out for Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold’ to soundtrack memories of halcyon summer here. Instead Paul O’Mahony’s domestic table, chests and stove yield seamlessly to the outside of rocks, kites and leaves strewn on the ground while looming over all is a reflective triangle with a layer of gauzy fabric dulling its accuracy. Chahine Yavroyan’s lights frequently flash accompanied by a loud pop, as in her design for Comyn’s 2014 The Vortex, to jolt us back to fuller lighting after expressive dimming during monologues or sad moments. It also emphasises these are Michael’s memories, and he mayn’t be as scrupulously accurate as he believes. Indeed his penultimate narration of doom colours the final scenes as oblivious to coming tragedy.

As my academic cohort Graham Price noted this is not a production that masks the bleakness. The dance is not a joyous climax, a moment of healing. It is an abrupt explosion of energy, that can’t overwhelm the despair; even in their dancing the sisters are alone, their movements governed by the forces that entrap them. And no dance is as revealing as Kate’s energetic but strict Irish dance-steps. McCormack’s performance recalls Cathy Belton’s affecting Judith in Friel’s Aristocrats at the Abbey last year. Kate is intelligent, and loving towards Michael, but she is buckling under the strain of holding her family together by conforming to societal norms. And her priest sibling instead of a godsend proves an albatross, having gone wildly native. A stooped, bearded Conlon is magnificent. His English initially clipped, from long usage exclusively with British imperialists. His hair wet from malarial sweats, but then smarter as he regains his vocabulary. Jack’s enthusiasm for Riyangan rituals leaves you convinced he, not the fox, sacrificed Rose’s pet rooster.

It is odd that a production that began as a celebration of a living playwright become a eulogy, but a fitting one it is.

5/5

Dancing at Lughnasa continues its run at the Gaiety Theatre until the 11th of October.

October 7, 2014

Bailegangaire

DruidMurphy returns to the Dublin Theatre Festival with an enthralling revival of Tom Murphy’s 1985 play of storytelling and crisis.

bailegangaire

The ailing elderly Mommo (Marie Mullen) lies propped up against the pillows in her bed, which is in the middle of the kitchen of a small house. She is nursed by her granddaughter Mary (Catherine Walsh), who gets little thanks for her ministrations; Mommo does not recognise her, and treats her as a servant. Mommo’s mind is instead in the past, telling the same story every night, a story she never finishes; about how the town of Bochtan became known as Bailegangaire, and why no one there over the age of reason ever laughs. Mary is driven to distraction by this, and when her abrasive sister Dolly (Aisling O’Sullivan) arrives on her motorbike, they fight over Mary’s responsibilities towards Mommo, and Dolly’s abusive husband Stephen, until Dolly becomes oddly determined to make Mommo finally tell her story to its conclusion.

I wasn’t familiar with Bailegangaire, and so found the first act rather disorienting. Mommo’s continually interrupted story about Bochtan’s finest laugher and the challenge of a stranger at the fair that he had a better laugh was exceedingly hard to keep track of, but in the second act as Mommo is driven by Mary to finish the story and as Rick Fisher’s lights single in on Mommo it becomes quite mesmerising as the laughing competition is relayed; with its outcome told before its conduct in a charmingly perverse move. Bailegangaire is also quite scabrous. Mommo uses a bedpan at length, Dolly roars off on her motorbike for a quickie with her lover, and Murphy gifts Dolly, Mary, and Mommo a fair quota of earthy insults. Mullen alternates nicely between demanding requests, shy requests, and malicious moments in her challenging role.

But despite the monologist storytelling by Mommo, this is very much a three-hander. Walsh makes viscerally evident Mary’s despair; she needs to escape but she can’t escape because the conditions which create the need also prevent its execution – her crippling familial duty to care for the oblivious Mommo. O’Sullivan is on fine form as the swaggering but damaged Dolly, but her accent overplayed hoarse Whesth of Ireland. Francis O’Connor’s impeccably realist set disappears into darkness at roof level, and Gregory Clarke’s sound design renders passing cars practically just past its wall, but director Garry Hynes is focused on the performances. Murphy’s play has a Beckettian quality, with its narration that has to be continually forlornly attempted, but it’s rooted firmly in the 1980s; yet its zeitgeist undercurrents of new technology and crises with multinationals seem to collapse that thirty-year gap.

My fellow academics Graham Price and Tom Walker, both previously mentioned in dispatches here, dubbed Bailegangaire Happy Days as Irish kitchen sink drama’. I’m not about to disagree, Murphy’s unexpectedly redemptive storytelling is towering.

4/5

August 23, 2014

Heartbreak House

If it’s summer it must be Shaw at the Abbey. Annabelle Comyn, who helmed Pygmalion and Major Barbara, is replaced by Roisin McBrinn, but Nick Dunning returns for more Fassbendering.

art6

Ellie Dunn (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) has been invited to the Shotover residence by Hesione (Kathy Kiera Clarke), who then neglects her entirely. The irascible Captain Shotover (Mark Lambert) entertains Hesione’s guest, while disparaging to Ellie his other daughter Lady Ariadne Utterword (Aislin McGuckin), who thus arrives home after 20 years’ absence to a cold welcome. Receiving a baffling welcome is Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn (Chris McHallem), who Captain Shotover insists is an old shipmate who stole from him, but let bygones be bygones. Mazzini is attempting to marry Ellie off to his benefactor, vulgar capitalist Alfred ‘Boss’ Mangan (Don Wycherley), but Hesione is determined to marry Ellie off to her true love; except that unfortunately he turns out to be Hesione’s own husband Hector Hushabye (Nick Dunning). Add in Ariadne’s smitten brother-in-law Randall Utterword (Marcus Lamb) for universal delirious heartbreak.

At the interval I thought that Clarke was over-playing the eccentricity of Hesione, and that Wycherley was engaged in some oblique Python tribute with Mangan’s belly as bloated as M. Creosote and his delivery as hoarse and mentally exhausted as a Gumby. But after the interval I realised they were merely the advance troops for Shaw’s assault on realism. Heartbreak House positions Shaw far closer to Coward than I’d ever previously guessed. The spoilt aristocrats who ignore their guests, who get nervous, and then get some gumption, while romantic dalliances switch between partners with dizzying speed, must have been an influence on Hay Fever. But after the interval, as Lady Ariadne comes into her own, Shaw toys with Freudian complexes and zinging one-liners in a comedy increasingly far removed from any emotional verisimilitude and on its way to pure absurdism.

McBrinn, like Comyn before her, finds unexpected modernity in a 1920 script. The nautical-styled house by McBrinn’s Perve cohort Alyson Cummins is a wonderful creation, with a sliding floor effect startlingly used for a hypnosis sequence. That hypnosis leads to wonderful slapstick, but a sinister undercurrent finds release in the impressive bombing finale conjured by Paul Keogan’s flashing lights and Philip Stewart’s pyrotechnic sounds. My fellow academic Graham Price is not a fan of Shaw solving the world’s problems in four Acts, and did not appreciate that late lurch into political satire of the ruling class. But while Mangan’s entrepreneurship may be suspect, it cannot detract from the hilarity of sequences like catching an irksome burglar. McHallem’s performance is a nice complement to his Major Barbara turn, Lambert and Dunning Fassbender madly, and Hogg and McGuckin’s characters become impressively commanding.

Heartbreak House’s final lines and visual effect are chilling in this centenary summer and they startle by resembling something Joan Littlewood could have devised.

3/5

Heartbreak House continues its run at the Abbey until the 13th of September.

June 25, 2014

Aristocrats

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.

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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.

February 4, 2014

A Skull in Connemara

Director Andrew Flynn brought the second instalment of Martin McDonagh’s celebrated Leenane trilogy to skull-battering life in the Gaiety Theatre.

Skull-APP

 

Mick Dowd (Garret Keogh) is our downtrodden protagonist, forgetful of the months since his wife died at his hands in a drink-driving accident seven years previously. He supplements his farming income with a macabre odd-job, digging up graves after seven years to allow new burials in the plots of the small local cemetery. This leads to a continuous niggling argument with his neighbour and poitin-cadging regular visitor Maryjohnny (Maria McDermottroe) – what has he done with the disinterred bones? Mick insists he can’t say, before quickly saying he buries them in the lake with prayers, after Maryjohnny’s obnoxious teenage grandson Mairtin (Jarlath Tivnan) volubly insists he heard Mick smashed the remains to skitters with a mallet… The local priest has foisted Mairtin on Mick as an assistant, and there’s worse – Mick’s wife is to be exhumed, and her bones disposed of…

Set designer Owen MacCarthaigh pulls off a spectacular scene change as Mick’s decrepit kitchen, which looks like its wall could fall down at any time given the cracks running thru it, actually does fall down, sending a whoosh of air and dust into the front rows, to reveal a cutaway of a graveyard behind it. This set is truly spectacular, slanting down so that graves are visible in the soil on one side, while Mairtin and Mick dig in an excavated pit at the other. Their toil is punctuated by some typical outrageous McDonagh arguments, not least when Mairtin’s older brother, paranoid Garda Thomas (Patrick Ryan) arrives, alternating between inhaler and cigarette, dropping hints that Mick bashed his wife’s head in before driving her into a wall without a seatbelt – leading to a distinction between ‘vague insinuations’ and ‘casting aspersions’.

After the interval and a stunning revelation Flynn goes to spraying-the-front-rows town on Mick and Mairtin’s gleeful approach to exhumation, and there are also some truly choice moments of absurdity as murder accusations, confessions and savagery are punctuated by vicious critiques of Maryjohnny’s conniving bingo habits. As Graham Price and I noted Tivnan’s hyperactive but slightly dim Mairtin is clearly a first cousin of both the indestructible Old Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World and of the equally irksome teenager in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, while Ryan is nicely restrained as his more sober but equally demented brother. But, amidst the comedy, Keogh also offers a genuinely moving depiction of a man burdened by the community’s continually muttered belief that he murdered a beloved wife, who is driven to violent extremes to prove his love for her.

A Skull in Connemara is revived less often than The Beauty Queen of Leenane, possibly because of its greater production requirements and its joyous tastelessness, but this production proves that it’s a fine romp.

4/5

December 31, 2013

‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ published in the Irish University Review

In 2010 I delivered my paper ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun‘ to the Space, Technology & Modernity in Irish Literature & Culture conference in the Humanities Institute of Ireland, UCD. I’ve written about that very stimulating conference in a previous piece on this blog, and now I’m pleased to report that a revised version of my paper has just been published as an article in the 2013 Winter edition of the Irish University Review. The online version can be read here.

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This essay takes up the challenge of Joe Cleary’s provocative characterisation of John McGahern’s work as naturalism that retreats into pessimistic fatalism by instead considering Rising Sun as the end-point of a career-long journey fraught with Kierkegaardean implications. Kierkegaard’s concept of infinite resignation in Fear and Trembling is noted in McGahern’s characters Bill Evans and Johnny Murphy, but John Quinn raises ethical problems soluble only by considering the co-existent presence of precepts from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. This Stoicism, it is argued, is Aurelian through the prism of O Criomhthain’s An tOileanach, which McGahern greatly admired, so the characters are religiously Catholic and simultaneously philosophically Stoic in response to the harsh landscapes that order their lives. The inhabitants of this lakeside community lead messy spiritual lives that are Stoic and Kierkegaardean, with the Catholic Church continuing to be an important source of ritual. This eclectic but harmonious combination represents a hopeful new mode of life as play, exemplified by Jamesie, which is worth passing on. Rising Sun can thus be read as the end of a Kierkegaardean transition from infinite resignation to exulting in finitude through a vision of the absurd.

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