Talking Movies

December 4, 2012

A Whistle in the Dark

Druid stunned the brutalised Gaiety audience into silence at the Dublin Theatre Festival with Tom Murphy’s coruscating 1961 debut. Depicting violent Irish immigrants in Coventry trapped in self-mythologies of violence’s utility and “learning”’s futility it still packs an emotional sucker-punch.

A Whistle In the Dark

Michael (Marty Rea) is married to a Coventry girl and living there, but in a tense situation. His house is being shared with three of his brothers. The brutishly violent and ignorant Hubert (Garrett Lombard) and Ignatius (Rory Nolan) are intimidating presences but Michael’s wife Betty (Eileen Walsh) is rightly most frightened of Harry (Aaron Monaghan), the street-smart brother who is running a prostitution ring. But there’re more Carneys yet…

A Whistle in the Dark was infamously rejected by the Abbey because Ernest Blythe said no such people existed in Ireland, yet the novels of John McGahern attest to the baneful reality of monsters like Michael Senior (Niall Buggy), who arrives to visit with the youngest son Des (Gavin Drea). The battle of wills to mould Des’ future is an incredibly tense and bleak affair essentially pitting barbarity against civilisation.

Nolan and Lombard are terrifying as primitive thugs, in their second outing as brothers after 2010’s Death of A Salesman, but while the ensemble was uniformly flawless Buggy’s self-pitying and savage turn as the patriarch must be singled out as being truly remarkable, while Rea was agonisingly sympathetic as the good man inexorably being dragged down to his father’s level. Garry Hynes’ direction rendered a realistic set a febrile battleground.

Graham Price and I couldn’t help but note how indebted Pinter’s The Homecoming is to Murphy’s primal scream of familial power plays, but while both have the resonance of Greek myth this is not black comedy but darkest tragedy.

5/5

June 2, 2011

The First Saturday Book Club

I thought I’d drop in a plug here for a radio appearance I’m making this weekend.

Regular readers will have noticed my fellow academic Graham Price providing a final thought in my theatre reviews of The Silver Tassie and The Cripple of Inishmaan. Well now I’m following in his footsteps by appearing on Dublin South FM’s The First Saturday Book Club. The show will be broadcast from Dundrum Town Centre this Saturday June 4th at 12:30pm. A critical mass of ex-University Observer writers will be present given that I’ll be joined by editor emeritus Sorcha Nic Mhathuna and that the show is hosted by Eve Rowan.

The book under discussion this month is One Day by David Nicholls. BBC scriptwriter Nicholls previously wrote the novel Starter for Ten, and then the screenplay of its film adaptation, and One Day starts off similarly as a class conscious romantic comedy in the late 1980s focused on the intense friendship between two recent graduates Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley, before it develops into something a good deal more ambitious. The story of Dexter and Emma becomes nothing less than the story of Britain itself in the last 20 years.

The gimmick blazoned on the title ‘Twenty Years. Two People. One Day’ refers to Nicolls’ audacious decision to surf in and out of the lives of this odd couple by focusing on them for only one day of each year, and always the same day; St Swithin’s Day, the day they graduated and finally talked to each other. Does this technique work, or does it become contrived? Can an unrequited platonic love story really handle being burdened with the symbolic significance of representing a nation’s recent social and political history?

Well, if you want to hear what we all made of the book, tune in to 93.9FM, or listen to the podcast later at http://dublinsouthfm.ie/shows/95/The-First-Saturday-Book-Club.

March 12, 2011

The Cripple of Inishmaan

Druid fostered Martin McDonagh so it’s pleasing to see Garry Hynes belatedly directing his satirical play originally written for London’s National Theatre.

In 1934 the younger inhabitants of Inishmaan have their heads turned by the prospect of escape to America if they can only get a part in the filming of Man of Aran on Inis Mor and impress the director Robert Flaherty. Billy Claven, the titular cripple, is the most eager, desperate to escape a life of tedium living with his half-mad pretend aunts, where the only respite from shuffling to the doctor for his various ailments is staring at cows. McDonagh’s dialogue is as wonderful as always, with his trademark repetition and love of outrageously cruel black comedy everywhere. Babbybobby (Liam Carney) urges Billy to feck books at cows to liven them up a bit, while Helen and Bartley have a lengthy discussion in front of Billy of the conflicting accounts of whether his parents killed themselves by drowning rather than endure living with his deformities.

McDonagh has tremendous fun invoking Irish theatre past. The double-act of Billy’s ‘aunts’ Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy) are, given the strictures of the Beckett estate, probably the closest you’ll ever get to a female Vladimir and Estragon as they open the play standing behind their shop-counter looking at the audience and bickering over ritual dialogues and events, and means of making time pass. Local news-man Johnnypateenmike (Dermot Crowley) always announces he has three pieces of news, but unlike Hugh’s customary triptychs in Friel’s Translations, he not only remembers all three items but always keeps the best for last. In a nod to Synge there’s the assertive Irish colleen Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne) who domineers over her idiotic brother Bartley (Laurence Kinlan) and is secretly loved by Billy (Tadhg Murphy). But this rich theatrical past being invoked only increases the perceptiveness of McDonagh pointedly referencing the national inferiority complex with a terrific running gag; “Sure Ireland can’t be such a bad place after all if a German fella wants to come and live here”; which reaches its apotheosis while the characters watch the ludicrously fictional Man of Aran shark-hunt; “Sure Ireland can’t be such a bad place after all if sharks want to come and live here.”

The characters’ comedic obsessions, whether it is Kate talking to a stone, Eileen eating yalla-mallas when stressed, Bartley discussing telescopes, or Helen pelting eggs at people, give all these actors ample opportunity to deliver tremendous comedic turns, with the double-act of Crowley and Nancy E Carroll as Mammy O’Dougal Fassbendering for all their worth as Johnnypateenmike tries to aid his mother in her ongoing quest since 1871 to drink herself to death while she fervently hopes to see him in his grave first. But in McDonagh’s subversive finale the characters that seem most honourable turn out to be vicious and the most obviously vicious characters end up displaying some oddly tender hearts. As fellow academic Graham Price pointed out to me the ending, while tender towards the long-suffering Billy, is ultimately a negative version of Synge and Wilde’s belief in the power of a lie to transform the lives of their heroes.

McDonagh thus delivers his own verdict on whether lying really can transform a feckin’ eejit into a likely lad.

4/5

December 15, 2010

Space, Technology & Modernity in Irish Literature & Culture

I delivered my paper ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ to the ‘Space, Technology & Modernity in Irish Literature & Culture’ conference held in University College Dublin in May this year. With that paper now revised and submitted as a journal article I thought I’d look back at the proceedings held at the Humanities Institute of Ireland in UCD and organised by Graham Price and Liam Lanigan.

HI

Friday 21 May

Panel 1: Beckettian Aesthetics
Chair: Dr Stanley van der Ziel (University College Dublin)

‘‘‘Antiquarians and Others”: Beckett’s Irish Modernists’
Alan Graham (University College Dublin)

‘The Phenomenology of Pain in Beckett: The Tedium and the Message’
Siobhan Purcell (University College Dublin)

Panel 2: Gender, Culture & Society in Ireland
Chair: Dr Anne Mulhall (University College Dublin)

‘Desire Lost and Found: Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris and Kate O’Brien’s As Music and Splendour’
Maggie O’Neill (NUI Maynooth)

‘Kate O’Brien’s Modernism – Selves, Subtexts, “Mixed Media”’
Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka (Independent Scholar)

‘“A Sweet Colleen and a Salty Sinner”: Conceptions of Irishness, Catholicism, Homosexuality and Modernity in the Fiction of Emma Donoghue’
Annie Galvin (Trinity College Dublin)

Panel 3: Comparative Modernisms
Chair: Dr Sharae Deckard (University College Dublin)

‘“A Place on the Road to Somewhere Else”: The Fictional Writing of Colm Toibin in the “World Republic of Letters
Sonia Howell (NUI Maynooth)

This Side of Princeton: Ireland and F Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise’
Gavan Lennon (University College Dublin)

‘Adding “new beauties”: Joyce and Rushdie’s critical works’
Pauric Havlin (University College Dublin)

Keynote Address: Moynagh Sullivan (NUI Maynooth)
‘Space & Interspace: Medbh McGuckian’s Poetics, Maternal Aesthetics, and Matrixial Borderspaces’
Chair: Dr Graham Price (University College Dublin)

957894

Saturday May 22

Panel 4: The Evolution of an Irish Modernist Aesthetic
Chair: Dr Lucy Collins (University College Dublin)

‘Modernism and Modernity in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland
Stanley van der Ziel (University College Dublin)

‘“Pealing out a living message”: Sean O’Faolain, The Bell and The Artist’s New Ireland’
Muireach Shankey (University College Dublin)

‘“Dear Dirty Dublin” or “The Parable of the [Fair Trade] Plums”: Representing Dublin in Ulysses
George Legg (Trinity College Dublin)

Panel 5: Consumption, Globalisation and Tradition in Recent Irish Fiction
Chair: Dr Graham Price (University College Dublin)

‘“A Simple and Genuine Sense of Homecoming”: Transition in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer
Eoin Delap (Trinity College Dublin)

‘Binge and Purge: Excess, Ekstasis, and the Celtic Tiger’
Niamh Campbell (Trinity College Dublin)

‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’
Fergal Casey (University College Dublin)

There were a number of universities represented at the proceedings and an even greater number of writers. Beckett finally triumphed over Joyce by getting his own panel which illuminated his off-beat early literary criticism and the philosophy of pain in his mature work. Kate O’Brien, Elizabeth Bowen and Emma Donoghue were usefully placed in a continuum of female writers complicating received notions of gender and sexuality. Joseph O’Neill justified the Gatsby comparisons for Netherland by not feeling out of place after a paper on F Scott which brought out his Irishness to a surprising degree. Moynagh O’Sullivan’s keynote address meanwhile was a suitably dazzling display of theoretical fireworks used to illuminate the dense rich poetry of Medbh McGuckian. My own panel looked at work by Brian Friel, Kevin Power, John McGahern and Paul Murray, proving that not only is Irish literature engaging with modernity, despite the constant complaints by some commentators, but that a hefty reading list of must-read Irish novels of the last decade could be jotted down from texts cited in discussion of any one panel of this conference.

Ireland remains a republic of letters…

November 12, 2010

The Silver Tassie

Druid’s towering production of Sean O’Casey’s 1928 play was a triumph that should re-instate it in the Irish canon and was surely the apex of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

This was the play that infamously saw O’Casey sever his ties with the Abbey after Yeats rejected it – because O’Casey had not fought in WWI. O’Casey’s justly caustic retort, “Was GB Shaw present when St Joan made the attack that relieved Orleans? And someone, I think, wrote a poem about Tir na nOg, who never took a header into the Land of Youth”, obscured that, behind his bizarre hang-up regarding Art and WWI, Yeats’ bluster was probably hiding sheer panic at how badly such a mammoth production would expose his Abbey’s limited resources. And it is a mammoth production as O’Casey uses 19 actors and the 4 Acts beloved of Chekhov but now out of vogue to stage a dazzling array of situations.

The play opens in the archetypal O’Casey setting of a Dublin tenement, with neighbours intruding all the time on a customary self-deluding male double-act -Simon Norton (John Olohan) and Sylvester Heegan (Eamon Morrissey). Syl is quite possibly the most useless father in all O’Casey, and that’s saying something. He is awaiting the return of his son Harry’s football team from their championship game before the entire squad returns to the Western front. The comedy, however, is more abrasive than the endlessly performed Dublin trilogy. Simon and Syl are upbraided by Harry’s jilted girlfriend Susie Monican (Clare Dunne), who has become an evangelical, while their neighbour upstairs Mrs Foran (Derbhle Crotty) cooks in their flat to avoid her husband Teddy (Liam Carney), who she’s desperate to get rid of back to the front. He’s none too happy about this and, being a wife-beater, knocks a bit of the roof down onto the stage in his rage. No one really cares about him smashing her crockery, or giving her a bleeding cut under her eye, just as they didn’t care about her steak burning while they recounted Harry’s heroic drunken boxing exploits. They do care about Teddy appearing downstairs to menace them with a hatchet… Luckily for them the team arrives with the titular trophy won by Harry’s goal. Harry’s new girlfriend Jessie Taite (Aoife Duffin) taunts Susie with PDA of a suspiciously blatant nature for 1914, before Harry’s boasting in almost Syngean language of the game explodes into a musical number which ends with the team in uniform marching out. The 10 minute intermission is filled with groaning and then sulphurous dry ice floats across the audience in the Gaiety. What are they building back there? France…?

The curtain opens to reveal not France but billowing dry ice. Somewhere inside this fog is a green light, and suddenly we can see that a gun turret is trundling out from the side of the stage and over the front resting above the audience and pointed at them. The entire stage is taken up with an enormous tank. A man is tied to it by both arms on the right, and at the top of a ladder on the left Aaron Monaghan’s Harry sits looking like a character from Apocalypse Now with green camouflage face-paint and a red cross daubed on his chest. He begins to quote the ‘dry bones’ passage from Ezekiel and the soldiers beneath him rise up and dance. Having recently fallen in love with Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class I was delighted by these anti-musical numbers coming thick and fast, alternated with not-so-straightforward dialogue scenes with Simon and Syl, out of their bowler hats, as officers and a wonderful Bush Moukarzel as their cowardly superior, who complains in plummy tones about not being allowed to plunge into the action while giving every appearance of being terrified of even moderately loud noises. Pretty nurses arrive in carrying stretchers and lay down their burdens for a chanted lament, as the truth of Declan Kiberd’s observation that “the men’s chants attain an intensity reminiscent of Eliot’s religious poetry” becomes obvious. Everything ends in a panic as the Germans break through the line. The soldiers chant ‘to the guns, to the guns’, and they shin up the ladder on the stage-filling tank which then starts to move, towards the audience, before an almighty bang stops it and the curtain drops for the interval. Francis O’Connor’s set design is thus quite literally show-stopping and by far one of the most impressive sets I’ve ever seen. This act was the lightning rod for hostile commentary in the 1920s but I saw Journey’s End last year and was struck by how it had been utterly destroyed by Blackadder Goes Forth. The working-class characters as mere comic relief and the overall feel of self-pitying public-school tragedy felt antiquated, a time-capsule of a very different way of looking at the war. The Silver Tassie, by contrast, feels so modern in sensibility, so cynical and blackly comic, that if Stephen Fry’s Colonel were to pop up in this second act he wouldn’t be out of place at all. Its violent non-naturalism, especially after the revolution in British theatre in the 1960s, seems not only perfectly reasonable but also a more appropriate response to the horrors of the trenches than RC Sheriff’s stiff-upper lip officers’ quarters complete with servants.

Act three opens in an absurdist hospital. Absurdist, because all the characters from the opening act are here, for no discernible reason… Harry is in a wheelchair with crippled legs that will obviously never kick a football again. Susie has swapped evangelicalism for nursing and is now doing some serious social-climbing as she tries to impress the English doctor, leading to a hilariously scrambled accent which ranges from Gardiner Street to Grosvenor Square within a single sentence. This is plausible enough, but why on earth are Simon and Syl in hospital, still wearing bowler hats over their hospital gowns? Syl is in for an unspecified operation (minor to the point of trivial), while Simon appears to be merely keeping him company, but why are they in a military hospital and are we in Ireland or England? O’Casey gleefully doesn’t care, and neither should you. What you should care about is how quickly Harry the hero is abandoned once he’s wounded. Jessie isn’t visiting him and Susie’s pity is unbearable especially as she will never take him back now an English doctor is in her sights. Teddy makes an appearance, blind, and thus totally dependent on his now all-powerful wife. His honest comments about the minimal chances of Harry walking again after a spinal injury provide the blackest of comedy in this cruel scenario. Finally Brian Gleeson’s Barney arrives, he has an arm in a sling and it becomes obvious that Jessie has abandoned the maimed Harry for the unscathed Barney.

And so O’Casey roars into the final action at the Avondale football club. Another room visible behind the room on-stage presents us with merry dancing on the far side of the divide, while the audience is cut off from it, like the casualties of the war, who engage in desperate boozing on this side of the divide. Harry has no place anymore in this club for which he won the Silver Tassie, just as the wounded soldiers have no place in the world they fought for. Their attempts to remain in that world only discomfort it, exemplified by Teddy’s bandages being replaced by a face-mask with painted-on eyes which are incredibly disturbing. There is some incredibly funny slapstick comedy amidst this bitter tragedy with Simon, Syl and Mrs Foran attempting to answer a new-fangled telephone device, but O’Casey does not pull his emotional punches. Harry’s bitter attacks on Barney reveal Jessie to be as promiscuous as we suspected, Susie has become firmly attached to the English doctor and wishes Harry would leave, while when Harry finally storms off in his wheel-chair with his mother (Ruth Hegarty) following him at the end his once proud father Syl remains behind to enjoy the party. The ending speech of Harry to Teddy seems to offer some sort of Chekhovian wisdom like the closing speech of Three Sisters, but O’Casey has no intention of ending with anything approaching a noble sentiment. Instead Mrs Foran comes on-stage again, to get another bottle of booze, and falls down repeatedly while trying to open it before passing out drunk for the ultimate of low comedy endings.

This is a play which seems to occupy a central but largely unheralded place in the Irish dramatic tradition. The comedy double-act in their bowler hats anticipate the hyper-articulate sardonic tramps of Beckett and are granted routines as funny as their contemporaries Laurel & Hardy, while, as fellow academic Graham Price pointed out to me, the closing exit by the two crippled soldiers recalls the abrasive end of Synge’s Playboy with the two injured Mahons leaving mediocrity behind to strike out for a more heroic world. But O’Casey’s decision to leave us not even with a Pegeen Mike weeping but instead with a falling-down-drunk woman is a kick in the teeth for all but the most Schopenhauerian of audiences. It is little wonder Yeats preferred the Dublin trilogy but this incredibly funny but bleak play is more accomplished dramatically.

Garry Hynes’ direction creates theatrical magic yet again and demonstrates that Sean O’Casey’s forgotten play is arguably his masterpiece.

5/5

February 25, 2010

Adjusted for Inflation

Avatar will be discussed in this blog next week but the coverage of its success inspires this related and very simple question – why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Who could forget what summer 2007 felt like: “Shrek 3 has the biggest ever opening weekend, beating the previous record-holder Spider-Man 3, which beat the previous record-holder Pirates of the Caribbean 2”. Notice something suspicious here? How it seems that nearly all the records were set by recent blockbusters? Suspect that there’s an unholy alliance of lazy journalism and cynical PR operating? It’s a painfully easy headline to just rehash the press release from a studio boasting that its latest masterpiece has just “broken the record for the most takings between a Tuesday and a Thursday, before the 4th of July weekend, EVER!” It saves having to think about the quality of the film and its importance, if any. But box-office returns do not a classic make…

There are legions of now revered films from Citizen Kane to Fight Club that did disastrously on release. Critics and studios fought on for them though as prestige movies, and, over time, quality prevailed as their reputations soared while bad films that were more commercially successful were forgotten. Cameron Crowe almost anticipated that his excellent film would do badly at the box office by inserting Gonzo rock journalist Lester Bangs into Almost Famous in a fashion that says as much about film criticism as it does about rock journalism. Art, this fictionalised Bangs argues, is where the uncool can hide their ugliness and transcend themselves. Artists hide behind their work, but rock stars have to be beautiful – they are always centre-stage. In the sphere of rock music the only place the uncool can hide is behind the byline. The journalists are the true custodians of something pure and high-minded that gets lost out there in the hype of tours and record sales. When the sales figures are forgotten enough journalists hammering on about artistic integrity and how something neglected really was great can provide a weird afterlife, like that of The Velvet Underground, who couldn’t give records away and have now entered our consciousness as a pivotal and important 1960s band. So it is that film critics can hammer home the virtues of neglected works and chip away at popular trash.

The obsession with opening weekends, which sees a film sink or swim by whether it can make enough money to be an easy headline for Monday’s papers, is not just a betrayal of this function of journalism it is lobotomising cinema. Quality is not important, as 2007’s summer of the threequel proved. If you throw enough eye candy and CGI at the screen it can, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend. Once word of mouth gets out it’ll collapse precipitously but who cares? It’s not like you’re crafting anything of lasting value, certainly not a sleeper film that will make money for months on end like When Harry Met Sally did as more and more people heard about its charms.

The banner headlines about record-breaking opening weekend box-office grosses become hilarious if you do the unthinkable and adjust the figures for inflation. Titanic is the only film from the last 15 years that appears in the list of Top 10 Films of all time once you adjust their box-office gross for inflation. No Spider-Man 3 or Shrek 3 trouble the Top 10 despite shrill protestations of their record-breaking popularity. Odd, huh? But this note of reality destroys not only tabloid journalism but recent serious journalism. Peter Biskind has created a grand narrative that 1960s Hollywood was losing money precipitously because it was making films like The Sound of Music instead of Easy Rider. Well Easy Rider‘s box office isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit next to that of The Sound of Music. This grand narrative, which is almost an origin myth for sex, violence and drugs equating to serious drama and less explicit fare being censored triviality, falls apart as the figures prove that when given a choice audiences went to polished escapist crowd-pleasers over bleak grimy slices of nihilism. Star Wars was greeted as the Second Coming after a decade of films like Taxi Driver and Chinatown which critics revered but audiences, reeling from Watergate, Vietnam and stagflation rightly regarded as downers. Spielberg, derided by Biskind as a mere entertainer, has two entries in the Top 10 Films of all time!!

All of which raises questions that will be dealt with next week in discussing Avatar. Adjusting for inflation raises uncomfortable questions about what appeals to audiences by suggesting that people now are in fact historically disinterested in cinema-going despite sensational headlines about record box-office business. So let’s remember, it’s called show-business. Let’s have a little more focus on the show and a little less on the business. Leave the opening weekend financial statistics where they belong, on the back pages, of the Hollywood trade papers…

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