Talking Movies

April 8, 2015

The Man in Two Pieces: Interview with Gerard Adlum

 

The Man in Two Pieces, a new play starring Stephen Brennan and Gerard Adlum, premieres in Theatre Upstairs this week. It marks the beginning of a year-long residency in Theatre Upstairs for rising company Fast Intent (Nessa Matthews, Sarah Finlay, Gerard Adlum). I talked to actor and playwright Gerard Adlum ahead of his work’s debut.

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Here’s a taster of the full interview which will shortly appear on HeadStuff.org:

Q: The Man in Two Pieces premieres Tuesday April 7th in Theatre Upstairs. How would you describe your play about a young boy’s experiences with a ramshackle vaudeville troupe in 1920s Ireland?

A: I think it’s bittersweet, elegiac, a love-song to a lost way of life. Like The Boy in the play, the audience should get caught up in this whirlwind of a show.

It appeals, I hope, to the romantic inside all of us. Plus, it’s got a jittery strongman and a very serious hypnotist.

Q: Fast Intent take their name from King Lear’s first speech, their debut show was Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, and since then they’ve performed Macbeth and a Pinter double bill. Are Shakespeare and Pinter then the greatest theatrical influences, or are there other playwrights (or indeed directors) that are equally important: both to you as a playwright, and to the other members of the company?

A: Those two writers are, for me and most people really, about as good as it gets. There’s not a day goes by that one of their lines doesn’t pop into my head. I think all of us in the company hold them in high regard. There’s nothing worse, as an actor or director, than working with a poor script. You’re hamstrung from the beginning. You end up trying to hide the play, not celebrate it. Fast Intent like words. Pictures are important too, yes. But it begins with the written word.

Q: Fast Intent, apart from a Culture Night series of historical monologues in Dublin Castle, haven’t tackled Irish subjects. Was it important to begin the residency in Theatre Upstairs with a play set in Ireland?

A: It’s not something we were particularly conscious of at all. At the end of 2014 we did discuss certain themes we’d maybe like to explore during the residency, the notion of “Irishness” was one of them. Some of the others were “misfits and outsiders” and “togetherness”. This play does address all of that.

The Man in Two Pieces is now running at Theatre Upstairs.

February 18, 2015

The Caretaker

Gate regulars Marty Rea and Garrett Lombard are joined by Michael Feast for a rendition of Harold Pinter’s breakthrough play.

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An unnamed figure enters a ramshackle room and sits, looking around him with disfavour before leaving. Two other men then enter the room, one obviously proprietary towards it. And so begins the archetypal Pinterian battle for control of a space. Aston (Marty Rea) is the man at home in this disaster of a living space, who has, as a kindly gesture, invited in Michael Feast’s tramp Jenkins, or is it Davies? Davies is as garrulous as Aston is taciturn, and after some hesitation makes himself at home; even carping about the draught from a window next to the spare bed. But he soon finds himself left at a loss by the arrival of the first man we saw – Mick (Garrett Lombard), who actually owns this decrepit London house, is suspicious of Davies’s motives, and interrogates him with rapid-fire repeated questions.

Director Toby Frow lets the action unfurl at slightly too slow a pace initially, but when Mick and Davies meet sparks begin to fly. Lombard is vividly vicious as the game-playing teddy-boy, his harassment of Davies pure Pinter. And that’s before he turns the tables on Davies later with a magnificently indignant and absurd riff on interior decorating. Feast is tremendously nimble as Davies. Wheedling, whining, conniving, charming, he contradicts himself on a sixpence if he thinks there might be advantage to it. And he suspects that there might be considerable advantage in driving a wedge between the two brothers. Mick owns the house, and Aston is meant to be restoring it, but he makes no progress, obsessing over tools. Aston offers Davies the job of caretaker, but Davies, anticipating Pinter’s 1963 screenplay The Servant, has his sights set higher.

But in Pinter’s world, outlined by Davies in a speech about Aston, nothing is as it seems… Francis O’Connor’s set assembles a mighty amount of useful junk which Aston will never use, while rafters shoot out above the audience. Aston saved Davies from a cafe dust-up, but Davies is unnerved by Aston’s lengthy monologue about how his odd ideas got him electro-shock therapy. Now his broken gait keeps pace with his slow-moving ideas, and Mark Jonathan’s lights dim to just a spot on a mesmerising Rea as he trails away. Now all he has is an ambition to build a shed, which would be the starting point for restoring the house. But the grasping Davies is equally deluded; his refrain about his papers being in Sidcup, where he’ll never go, eventually renders Sidcup as illusory as Moscow in Three Sisters.

Pinter’s landscape of overt menace and covert battles for dominance hidden in subtexts and non-sequitirs can be deathly when played too slow, but once they get going these three actors traverse that landscape artfully.

3.5/5

The Caretaker continues its run at the Gate until the 21st of March.

January 20, 2015

The Walworth Farce

The Olympia Theatre stages its second star-studded Enda Walsh play in six months as the Gleeson family throw themselves into an extravaganza of physical theatre.

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The play opens with proud Corkman Dinny (Brendan Gleeson) in the living room, matching a hideous yellow tie to his hideous blue suit. In the bathroom of their quietly disintegrating London flat son Blake (Domhnall Gleeson) is shaving his legs. They are both preparing for their day while Dinny’s other son Sean (Brian Gleeson) is out shopping. Once Sean is back, wigs and dresses can be donned, and a ritual can begin: Dinny relates the story of his mother’s funeral and the reading of her will. His sons stand in for all other characters while he plays himself; possibly the sincerity of his interpretation is the reason that every day he wins the acting trophy. But today Sean has stage-managed badly, bringing home a sausage. “It’s just not working without the chicken,” laments Dinny – which made me think  of “This chicken is the only real thing here, so I’m going to work with it” – but not only has Sean not supplied the needful props, he’s also accidentally invited an audience…

The Walworth Farce becomes an acting showcase for the Gleesons. Brendan’s charisma is such that he’s able to maintain our sympathy as the overbearing Dinny, despite some horrendous physical abuse where slapstick moments result in real injuries. Brian is the straight man, performing the part of Dinny’s put-upon brother, while in reality he is the quiet, defeated son; horrified at having bungled the shopping, but also excited by the prospect of escaping this life. Domhnall is remarkable, his physicality encompasses sitting with his leg wrapped behind his head, and playing three female characters with three distinct voices (and three different wigs, and, thanks to Velcro, outfits); running from place to place to carry on conversations with himself in different guises. Aside from the manic comedy he also registers the fear Dinny has instilled in his boys of dangerous London – dead bodies waiting to rise up from the footpaths and grab you – and resentful fury when their routine is interrupted by frightfully enthusiastic Tesco assistant Hayley (Leona Allen), luring away Sean.

It’s odd seeing this 2006 play after 2014’s Ballyturk. In both plays manic enacting of absurdist small-town bickering is interrupted by a stranger. Hayley is initially amused, then bored, and finally terrified by the ritual – and, unlike Ballyturk, which remains defiantly oblique, we know that the trio perform the routine because Dinny needs to in order to function; so that her attempts to take Sean away are fraught with danger for both herself and Sean. Walworth is less abstract than Ballyturk. Paul Keogan brightly lights the performance, while reality is subdued and sinister. Alice Power’s set of half-shown walls convincingly depicts a decaying flat: a bathroom with a hole in the wall, a bedroom with a bunk-bed and a ‘dining room’ sign with a coffin laid over two chairs, a kitchen, a sitting room with a curious wheelchair. Yet, when a knife appears, your stomach knots in dread, and you realise that there is no rational way to predict where, or in whom, it will end up by the curtain.

Director Sean Foley’s track record in exuberant, slapstick comedy is a perfect match for Walsh’s mania, but he also brings out these trapped players’ tender desperation, and the almost Pinterish edge that Hayley’s arrival brings to this family dynamic.

4/5

The Walworth Farce continues its run at the Olympia Theatre until the 8th of February.

October 6, 2014

Our Few and Evil Days

Ciaran Hinds and Sinead Cusack, so successful in Juno and the Paycock back in 2011, reunite as a more contemporary but equally troubled married couple; whose headstrong daughter brings home an equally superficially attractive paramour.

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Michael (Hinds) and Margaret (Cusack) are a loving couple in a Dublin suburb who no longer share a bedroom. The wordless opening of both acts sees Michael come downstairs to wake her up, and then put away mattress and pillows and switch the pull-out bed back to a sofa while she dresses upstairs. Yet their obvious devotion to each other is noticed and commented on by unexpected visitor Dennis (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), who has been placed in the awkward position of meeting the parents solo by Adele (Charlie Murphy) running off to help her friend Belinda thru yet another crisis. Dennis inevitably makes a faux pas, about Adele’s absent brother, Jonathan; something teased out, along with Belinda’s crises, when Adele arrives for a very late dinner. But when Adele leaves again Dennis is convinced to stay over by Michael, and so when Dennis gets up for a drink of water he falls over Margaret; and their conversation about Jonathan becomes… disturbing.

Our Few and Evil Days is hard to review without ruining the effect of Mark O’Rowe’s mischievous structure. My lead-in was mischievous in mentioning O’Casey, because this is clearly in the vein of two other playwrights. The interrupting and sharply back and forth dialogue owes a debt to David Mamet, and the stellar cast, once they’ve warmed up to it (almost), embrace its rhythms with gusto. Meanwhile Harold Pinter’s comedy of menace rumbles under the attempts of naively nice guy Dennis to make a good impression. As director O’Rowe is also mischievous, casting Ian-Lloyd Anderson against type as Belinda’s abusive boyfriend Gary, by muting the physical menace he displayed in Major Barbara and instead playing up epic self-pity. This is a solidly middle-class setting courtesy of Paul Wills’ fully functioning set; with stairs behind the glass doors from the sitting room to the hall, a laundry area behind the kitchen, and a working sink (the final pre-Irish Water set design?).

Unfortunately such an impressive deeply layered set necessitates the removal of the first four rows of seats, so row E gets pasted up against the stage; and during Dennis and Margaret’s pivotal scene sitting at the kitchen table you are listening to a table emote because you can’t see Margaret’s face at all… O’Rowe’s play comprises three scenes either side of the interval; but where uncomfortable comedy dominates the first act, Freudian nightmares, shouting matches, and pop-analysis dominate the second. This gives the impression by the end that some characters have merely acted as plot devices to push the most important characters into dramatic screaming matches, and that much of the comedy has been a red herring. This doesn’t really matter though when actors of the calibre of Hinds, Cusack, Murphy and Vaughan-Lawlor are giving it their all. Vaughan-Lawlor clearly relishes playing against ‘Nidge’, Cusack is endearingly earthy, Hinds is sympathetically conflicted, and Murphy impressively alternates between wounded and wounding.

O’Rowe’s script has a fearful symmetry, great comedy, and touches on true darkness, but is perhaps a bit too full of misdirection. It’s possible to see future productions simply fall apart with lesser actors.

4/5

Our Few and Evil Days continues its run at the Abbey until the 25th of October.

May 26, 2014

Fast Intent presents Zelda

Before she was Zelda Fitzgerald, she was Zelda Sayre. Before she was a Riviera socialite, she was a Southern belle. Before she was F Scott’s crazy tormentor, she was his beloved muse. And both personae are explored in Eddie Naughton’s new play, Zelda, based on Zelda’s life and own writings.

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I’ve been poring over Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates (A Tragic Honesty) again recently, and was struck by the notion that Yates had modelled himself so much on the doomed F Scott as a writer that his entire life started to slide into equal drink-fuelled catastrophe. Yates, of course, was compounding his own mental illness with drinking that erased his medication’s benefit; and Zelda’s own slide into madness was not dissimilar. But there’s another striking note in Bailey’s book; the idea that every writer has some essential tale to tell, that can be disguised in any number of interesting ways – but will always be at the core of their best work. For F Scott, that was his love for the unattainable Zelda; and The Great Gatsby was F Scott spinning out that epic romance into a piercing continent-encompassing metaphor.

Naughton’s play strips away the Daisy Buchanan facade to examine the real woman in a script which puts Zelda in a hospital room telling her story. Zelda Sayre was a Southern belle who became internationally famous alongside her husband F Scott Fitzgerald whose stunning debut This Side of Paradise mythologised their romance; casting Zelda as the archetypal flapper. Their life together was a never-ending parade of alcohol-fuelled jazz-scored parties, with F Scott’s talent keeping them in a luxurious lifestyle; in New York, Paris and the Riviera; previously reserved for the self-indulgent robber barons. Friends with Cole Porter, Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, a writer and painter, dancer and mother, it should never have ended in a fiery death at a psychiatric hospital; but such was the price of alcoholism and escalating mental illness. Naughton resurrects the biting wit before that curtain.

Zelda seems a perfect fit for Fast Intent. Fast Intent was set up in 2011 by director Sarah Finlay and actors Ger Adlum and Nessa Matthews. Their previous productions include Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes (The Complex), Family Voices and One for the Road (New Theatre), Jean Anouilh’s The Lark and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (both Smock Alley), and an adaptation of Dracula for the Bram Stoker Festival at Dublin Castle; part of a residency there which included Shakespeare by Candlelight in December and a series of monologues for Culture Night in September. Zelda joins Joan of Arc as another radical heroine for Fast Intent to explore in their pared down style that focuses on ideas and emotions. Zelda is performed by Sharon Coade, directed by Sarah Finlay, and produced by Gerard Adlum and KH T’*, with Lights, Sound, and Set design by Eoghan Carrick, Nessa Matthews, and Aoife Fealy respectively.

Zelda runs at Theatre Upstairs from Tuesday the 3rd of June to Saturday 14th. Performances are at 1pm, Tuesday to Saturday, when the ticket price of €10 includes a light lunch. There are 7pm performances from Thursday to Saturday. Bookings can be made at http://www.theatreupstairs.ie.

November 14, 2013

The Counsellor

Ridley Scott reunites with his Prometheus scene-stealer Michael Fassbender for a brutal tale of drug trafficking; written directly for the screen by novelist Cormac McCarthy.

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Fassbender is ‘the counsellor’, the exact nature of whose practice is left as vague as his name. He buys a diamond in Amsterdam (from a cameoing Bruno Ganz) to propose to his naive girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). The money to finance this lavish lifestyle will come from going into business with his client Reiner (Javier Bardem), a cheetah-owning drug dealer with pretensions to being a nightclub impresario, and sagacious middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). Hovering around the edges of this one-time business arrangement though is Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who unnerves everyone. Unsurprisingly everything quickly goes sideways, and, with 20 million dollars worth of blow in the wind, scary people from Ciudad Juarez who don’t mess around are soon skipping over the border to El Paso to kill all concerned – this being McCarthy’s patented sprung-trap approach to the drugs trade…

The Counsellor’s dialogue is pure McCarthy in the way 2007’s Sleuth is pure Pinter. Sub-Hemingway shtick like the early “Are you really that cold?” “The truth has no temperature”, vies with unconscious quotations of Keats, and, in a lengthy scene with Ruben Blades’s Mexican drug-lord Jefe, a reworking of a Matrix Reloaded speech by The Oracle. McCarthy’s foreshadowing is hysterically blunt. When the hideous mechanical device the bolito is described, or a snuff movie involving necrophilia, the characters ought to lean in and say ‘It could happen to you! It probably will, in about 40 minutes…’ McCarthy’s interest, par No Country for Old Men, is apparently solely in the operation of the mechanical vice of the drugs trade that slaughters all involved for any misstep. Characters are introduced, and then slaughtered by new characters that we never learn anything about.

The Counsellor works best in its wordless sequences. People at work displaying their murderous tradecraft are absorbing, brutal, and vivid; an assault on a drugs truck and an intricately planned garrotting being the standout set-pieces. One could forgive McCarthy’s unrealistic dialogue in what purports to be an unflinchingly realistic observation of the mechanics of drug trafficking were it not for his troubling characterisation. Beginning with the uncomfortable cold open McCarthy displays a very bizarre interest in hyper-sexualised female characters. Diaz’s goofy grin is rendered pleasingly cruel, but her Malkina displays a very Puritan prurience in Catholics confessing about sexual sins, and that’s before we get to what, following Reiner’s lead, we will call ‘the catfish scene’ – which is WEIRD beyond belief. McCarthy’s lack of interest in his leads is exemplified by Fassbender’s titular lawyer being utterly irrelevant by the finale.

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s bizarre co-dependency ruined them both during the 2000s, we can only hope Fassbender is not about to be snared in the same glossy trap.

2.5/5

December 4, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

Martin McDonagh suffers from difficult second film syndrome as his unfocused follow-up to In Bruges falls between the stools of straightforward black comedy and meta-meditation.

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Marty (Colin Farrell) is a drunken Irish screenwriter living in Los Angeles and wrestling with his high-concept film about the nature of love and evil, Seven Psychopaths. His long-suffering girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) is reaching the end of her tether putting up with Marty, not helped by constant visits from his deranged friend Billy (Sam Rockwell); an actor with a penchant for blowing auditions by punching people and ‘helping’ Marty with research on psychopaths. Billy also has a sideline of kidnapping purebred dogs and letting his dog-loving friend Hans Kieslowksi (Christopher Walken) look after them and then return them and collect the reward which they split. But when Billy makes the mistake of kidnapping a dog belonging to mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson) all hell breaks loose. Charlie quickly identifies the dognappers, and so Marty, Billy, and Hans run for the hills.

It’s tempting to say that the best scene in this movie is the opening scene, because it’s such pure undiluted McDonagh. Michael Pitt and fellow Boardwalk Empire star Michael Stuhlbarg are jumpy hit-men waiting for their target who get into a furious and dementedly logical argument about the marksmanship that killed Dillinger. Tempting, but there are scenes of that calibre scattered throughout the movie. A Gandhi aphorism is dismantled for being illogical, Billy imitates Marty’s Irish accent with truly atrocious results, Marty freaks out when his drinking is condemned as problematic by a character high on peyote, and there is a sublime moment of paralysis involving the great Zeljko Ivanek (rocking a truly terrible moustache as Charlie’s mob lieutenant) when someone refuses to put up their hands because they don’t want to; leaving Ivanek holding a gun and feeling foolish.

But this is a scattershot movie. Marty’s screenplay keeps the film shooting off on tangents, about Quaker stalkers and homicidal Buddhists, which add little. Tom Waits, as a Dexter of the 1960s adds an amazingly gruesome thread of sadistic violence, even by Dexter standards. Abbie Cornish is pointlessly underused, as are Olga Kurylenko and Gabourey Sidibe; something referenced in criticism of Marty’s inability to write decent female characters. But surely writing a complex heroine, which McDonagh has done in his plays, would be a better tactic? McDonagh as playwright can generate unease like Pinter, comedy like Orton, and heightened language like Synge. But, bar a fraught scene with Charlie in a hospital waiting for Hans, this script fails to generate suspense. The desert finale is visually interesting, but the self-referential scripting can’t escape structural convention.

McDonagh has some interesting ideas, and even self-critique, in this script; but as a movie it wants to have its cake and eat it too, and so it never hits the heights it could.

3/5

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.

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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

July 27, 2012

Fast Intent celebrate Joan of Arc

BBC 2’s recent Hollow Crown Henriad may have focused attention on the looming 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, but 2012 actually sees the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc, and, while the occasion had a special commemoration in France, Fast Intent (a theatre company formed in late 2011 by director Sarah Finlay and actors Gerard Adlum and Nessa Matthews) are probably the only Irish arts organisation marking the occasion; with a staging of the perennially relevant story of an individual’s struggle against the hypocrisy of the institutions that surround them – Jean Anouilh’s classic The Lark.

Born mere years before the battle of Agincourt, in which the out-numbered Henry V heroically out-marshalled the French and established English claims to French territory, Joan was destined to eventually rout the English. At the age of 12, she stated that she had received visions from God telling her to drive the English powers from France. For two years, she led armies and a nation to war and to victory. But, captured by the English and tried for heresy, she was then condemned to death and burnt at the stake. Anouilh’s play is set during her trial, and we watch her extraordinary story played out and dramatised by the very people who wish to condemn her. Anouilh’s The Lark, in the celebrated translation by Christopher Fry, himself the author of legendary verse dramas The Lady’s Not for Burning and A Sleep of Prisoners, is receiving its Irish premiere under the direction of Sarah Finlay at the newly renovated Boys School space in Smock Alley Theatre.

The Lark is a dramatic account of the exceptional life of Joan of Arc. Over the centuries, Joan has taken on a mythological status, been utilised as a symbol and rarely recognised as a human being. She has been the subject of films of hysterically varying approach by Luc Besson and Carl Dreyer (among others), portrayed by actresses as different as Ingrid Bergman and Siobhan McKenna, and inspired Bernard Shaw’s St Joan which houses the most disturbing line of dialogue he ever wrote – “Must then a Christ die in every generation for those that have no imagination?” Claimed by the far right as a symbol of ultra-nationalism, by the Church as a Saint, and by the far left due to her ‘lowly’ beginnings as a shepherdess, Anouilh’s script seeks to recapture and explore rather than own or explain Joan’s story. Anouilh (1910-1987) and his 40 plays loom over French theatre because he had a rare facility for both high drama and absurdist farce. His 1952 play Waltz of the Toreadors was filmed with Peter Sellers, while his 1959 play Becket was filmed with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole giving intense performances as St Thomas a Becket and Henry II. Anouilh’s best known play is his version of Sophocle’s Antigone (1942), a pointed attack on Vichy government, and a forerunner of The Lark (1953), another tale of a young woman defying her society’s strictures to do what she believes is right.

Fast Intent seeks to inflect this text with questions essential to modern Ireland. Is there a place for youth and idealism? Do we have a desire for truth? Can one person’s actions make a difference? The Lark is a story of belief, passion and the struggle for a single voice to be heard as Joan fights the classic modes of abusive authority; the government, the church, and older people who fear her idealism. Directed by Sarah Finlay, the production features a cast of 7 (Ger Adlum, Shane Connolly, Dave Fleming, Ruairí Heading, Jennifer Laverty, Ian Toner, and Catriona Ennis as Joan), 4 of whom will play multiple roles, giving an often humorous edge to proceedings. Adlum and Finlay have collaborated before on a previously mentioned production of King Lear as well as Fast Intent’s debut production of Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes in The Complex, Smithfield in August 2011. That show was a riveting rendition of Pinter’s cryptic response to the Balkans Wars of the 1990s and was dubbed “thought-provoking and highly engaging” by DublinCulture.ie. The Boys School at Smock Alley has been a church, a brothel, a school-house and a theatre. Among these ghosts The Lark resurrects St Joan…

The Lark runs from Tuesday 31st July to Saturday 11th August at 8pm in The Boy’s School, Smock Alley Theatre, with matinees on Saturday 4th August and Saturday 11th August at 3pm. Ticket prices are €15 with concessions of €12.50, and a low price preview on 30th July with all tickets €10. Booking information is available at www.smockalley.com (01 – 6770014) and group rates are available.

For more information see https://www.facebook.com/events/413158028722025/

April 5, 2012

Stage v Page

I’ve noted that I tied myself up in absolute knots over the distinction between plays that really have to be seen rather than read, and plays that really have to be seen because they are the best that have ever been written. Here are some musings on it.

Anyone who’s done English at college or been involved in amateur dramatics will have read an awful lot of plays, far more than anyone outside of those little bubbles. But reading a play is not the same thing as experiencing a play. The script is the blueprint, and in most cases the reason a play works, but it needs the efforts of the actors and the crew to come alive and realise its potential. I’ve tried here to isolate three key areas where plays need to be seen on stage rather than just read: ambiguity, physicality, and, um, physicality (meant slightly differently). I’ve been trying to get to Chekhov plays whenever there’s a good production on because in performance the layers of his work are truly amazing. Chekhov thought he was writing uproarious comedy, Stanislavsky thought he was writing heartbreaking tragedy, and it’s a joy to see those two interpretations vie for control of the text. Many great plays can be enjoyed as reads, but in performance are additionally ambiguous. Patrick Marber’s production of Pinter’s The Caretaker received dazzling reviews for bringing out the black comedy of the material to a hilarious degree, while Hamlet can be played almost any way you want by judicious pruning of the unwieldy text. Then there’re the texts that are just deeply unstable. Kander & Ebbs’ Cabaret has had so many songs cut and pasted back and forth with equivalent scenes from Isherwood over the years that a stable version is impossible. The text is so fluid you never know what to expect. Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life deliberately locks in such fluidity by ensuring no two productions will be the same thru ultra-vague directions.

I’ve seen Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound twice, and both times the script’s brilliance and precision defeated its own realisation. I saw a cast corpse repeatedly towards the end, having performed After Magritte perfectly, as the jokes just became too funny for them. I then saw a director construct a minimalist set that bore no resemblance to Stoppard’s mirrored theatre and instead appeared to be a small cafe shut for the night with its chairs upside down on top of its tables. The overlapping and interrupting language deployed by Mamet is often impossible to really grasp on the page, so that I didn’t like Speed the Plow when I read it but found it hysterically funny when I saw it performed some years later, while for physicality Jez Butterworth’s live horse on stage in Jerusalem takes some beating. Some plays have to be seen because reading the stage directions alone can’t convey the experience they conjure. How can you properly imagine the farcical chaos of Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, in which people act normally in the dark, and then grope around the stage blindly when the lights are turned on? How funny in performance is the notorious stage direction in The Winter’s Tale, “Exit, pursued by a bear?” What precisely do harassed directors do when they stumble upon Peter Shaffer’s simple yet infuriating stage direction in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, “They cross the Andes”? How can you really feel the true Brechtian alienation reading thru The Life of Galileo when you don’t have the disconcerting physical presence of the director in the corner of the stage turning the pages of the script as the actors rattle thru their lines? How can you grasp the mischievous power of Anthony Shaffer’s 1975 play Murderer unless you actually see on stage the paragraph of stage directions which precede the dialogue on the opening page; a paragraph which we’re told takes 20 minutes of playing time as it describes protagonist Norman Bartholomew dismembering his lover’s naked body beside a window before the local police sergeant arrives following a neighbour’s complaint…

You can be familiar with a play from reading it, but you don’t really know it until you’ve seen it in performance.

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