Talking Movies

February 15, 2018

Look Back in Anger

The Gate advertise the hell out of their doing John Osborne’s seminal 1956 play, and then refuse on point of principle to actually do it.

Jimmy Porter (Ian Toner) is an angry young man, indeed he is the angry young man. He watched his father die from wounds sustained in the Spanish Civil War, and now despite his college education he finds himself manning a sweet stall down the market, unable to escape his working class roots in this post-war Midlands city despite his formidable, vituperative mental and linguistic agility. His rage against the establishment lashes against his upper-middle-class wife Alison (Clare Dunne), and to a lesser degree their Welsh Irish lodger Cliff (Lloyd Cooney). But when Jimmy eventually pushes Alison too far, a visit from her snobbish friend Helena (Vanessa Emme) sees Alison finally desert her stormy marriage. Only for the damndest thing to happen in the continuing war of contempt, class consciousness, and the desire for a worthy opponent between Jimmy and Helena…

While the audience is coming in the actors amble onto Paul O’Mahony’s curious canted stage of a realistic attic apartment, as a box within the exposed walls of the Gate’s backstage area. Emme reads the stage directions while the others take their places, and Dunne is reluctant to don the particular shirt specified. So far so Brecht, kind of. But then it continues, on and on and on, adding God knows how long to the endless 2 hour 45 minute running time, and for one purpose, so that Alison and Helena can eschew the stated directions, even when they’re emphatically repeated. The female characters, like Taylor Swift, would like to be excluded from this narrative. Which doesn’t do much for the narrative. Jimmy ends on his knees cooing a redemptive moment to nobody, as Alison refuses to follow Osborne’s directions.

I saw Kenneth Branagh star in Osborne’s 1957 play The Entertainer on the West End in 2016. Some sequences were melodramatic, but mostly it was very effective; startlingly so indeed because, despite being about the post-imperial crisis of confidence the Suez crisis amplified, one line drew gasps from the crowd because it seemed about Brexit. I expected director Annabelle Comyn would do something of the same here; pare down Osborne’s text like her lean 2015 Hedda Gabler, and bring out the impotent rage against an aloof establishment that would seem apposite to the Brexit moment. Instead I got leaden pacing, and a bad academic workshop exercise gone rogue. Give me a few days and I can furnish you with a version of Hamlet focused on his abusiveness towards Gertrude and Ophelia. But then we wouldn’t have Hamlet anymore would we?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Homecoming would not exist without this play. When Toner leans into Michael Caine in his characterisation of Porter he unconsciously directs attention to how this play aided the explosion of the working class into British culture in the 1950s and 1960s. In short Osborne’s work deserves a modicum of respect. Instead gags and clues to Porter’s left-wing politics are clipped, so Toner is left in the bizarre, thankless and pointless position of playing a charismatic character who is purposefully being denied laughs or attraction by the disapproving staging, while Tom Lane’s sound design and Chahine Yavroyan’s harsh lighting is used to accentuate the most malicious of his rants, and Alison’s father is no-platformed (with his part being read from a script) because he sympathises with Jimmy’s frustration. Dunne kisses Cooney on the lips far too passionately to deny Osborne’s script its intent, while you suspect Cooney and Emme are being deliberately theatrical in their delivery as a further distancing measure. But why bother?

If you are so contemptuous of this play, and contempt comes washing off the stage in great waves, then for heaven’s sake why are you doing it? Who exactly is forcing Selina Cartmell and Annabelle Comyn to do this (sigh) problematic play? Why not do The Children’s Hour or A Taste of Honey or Oh! What a Lovely War or Our Country’s Good or Blasted or Enron or Posh or The Flick instead? It is odd to prioritise doing a ‘bad’ play by a male playwright over doing a good play by a female playwright. It is odder to ask people to pay 35e to see a play deliberately done poorly because the company wishes to complain about its place in the canon. The Gate is not doing itself any favours with this tedious approach to its commercial stock-in-trade, revivals.

This is easily the worst production I have ever seen at the Gate, and sadly it is also the worst show I have ever seen directed by Comyn.

1/5

Look Back in Anger continues its run at the Gate until the 24th of March.

February 6, 2016

My Own Personal Theatre Awards 2015

All aesthetic judgements are political, but some are more political than others; and if you cannot conceive of great art made by people whose political opinions you do not share, then just maybe you cannot conceive of art at all.

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It was ironic that the Irish Times released their Theatre Awards shortlist just after the death of Alan Rickman; whose performance in John Gabriel Borkman the Guardian valorised as one of his great stage achievements; as it drew the mind back to the Irish Times’ magisterial pronouncements on the state of Irish theatre in 2010. John Gabriel Borkman, a co-production between the Abbey and Southbank’s National Theatre, premiered in Dublin before transferring to London, and eventually Broadway. It was seen by around 20,000 people, got rave notices, and received … two nominations from the Irish Times: for costumes and set.

Meanwhile World’s End Lane, which could be seen by 3 people per performance, and so was seen by almost a hundred punters, as opposed to John Gabriel Borkman’s 20,000, received a nod for best production. And of course you ‘couldn’t’ sputter with outrage over this because, inevitably, you hadn’t seen World’s End Lane. Thus has it been lately with the Irish Times Theatre Awards. Such hipster valuations of theatrical worth downgraded the Gate and Abbey, and combined with a persistent boosting of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, and companies and plays that shared the politico-cultural preoccupations and prejudices of the Irish Times.

But, as with my objections to the Abbey’s 2016 programme, there is little point in speculative grousing. So here are my personal theatre awards for 2015, with the winners in bold. And let me anticipate objections. I did not see DruidShakespeare on tour or The Match Box in Galway. I did not travel up to Belfast to see a single play at the Lyric. But, when you strip out all DruidShakespeare’s nominations, the vast majority of nominations handed out by the Irish Times were for work performed in Dublin. So with more nominees and fewer categories let’s have at it…

Best Production

The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

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Best Director

Annabelle Comyn – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

David Grindley – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Selina Cartmell – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Conor McPherson – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Patrick Mason – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

 

Best Actor

Declan Conlon – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Marty Rea – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

James Murphy – The Importance of Being Earnest (Smock Alley)

Brendan Gleeson – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

Dylan Coburn Gray – Enjoy (Project Arts Centre)

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Best Actress

Catherine McCormack – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Aislin McGuckin – A Month in the Country (The Gate)

Catherine Walker – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Clare Dunne – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Lisa Dwyer Hogg – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

 

Best Supporting Actor

Declan Conlon – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Marty Rea – The Caretaker (The Gate)

Peter Gaynor – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Kevin Shackleton – The Importance of Being Earnest (Smock Alley)

Stijn Van Opstal – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Domhnall Gleeson – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

John Doran – Enjoy (Project Arts Centre)

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Best Supporting Actress

Marion O’Dwyer – By the Bog of Cats (The Abbey)

Minke Kruyver – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Kate Stanley Brennan – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Deirdre Donnelly – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

Elodie Devins – By the Bog of Cats (The Abbey)

 

Best New Play

George Brant – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Conor McPherson – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Gerard Adlum – The Man in Two Pieces (Theatre Upstairs)

Enda Walsh – The Last Hotel (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Gerard Adlum, Nessa Matthews, Sarah Finlay – Bob and Judy (Theatre Upstairs)

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Best Set Design

tgSTAN & Damiaan De Schrijver – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Paul O’Mahony – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Francis O’Connor – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate) & The Caretaker (The Gate)

Liam Doona – You Never Can Tell (The Abbey)

Alice Power – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

Alyson Cummins – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

 

Best Lighting Design

Chahine Yavroyan – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabbler (The Abbey)

Sinead McKenna – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Davy Cunningham – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

 

Best Sound Design

Dennis Clohessy – Through a Glass Darkly (Project Arts Centre) & A View From the Bridge (The Gate)

Mel Mercier – The Shadow of a Gunman (The Abbey)

Conor Linehan – You Never Can Tell (The Abbey)

July 16, 2015

A Month in the Country

Ethan McSweeny directs Brian Friel’s version of Ivan Turgenev’s classic comedy-drama concerning the complicated romantic entanglements on a 19th Century Russian estate in high summer.

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Natalya (Aislin McGuckin) is married to the much older Arkady (Nick Dunning), a man too distracted with improvements to his estate to notice that his permanent houseguest and best friend Michel (Simon O’Gorman) is plainly in love with Natalya. Other residents of the Arkady house include bombastic German Herr Schaff (Peter Gaynor), long-suffering Lizaveta (Ingrid Craigie), Arkady’s formidable mother Anna (Barbara Brennan), new tutor Aleksey (Dominic Thorburn), and Natalya’s teenage ward Vera (Caoimhe O’Malley). Local doctor Shpigelsky (Mark O’Regan) doesn’t actually live there, but he might as well given that he spends as much time there as the eternally distracted bickering servants Matvey (Dermot Magennis) and Katya (Clare Monnelly). But when Vera falls in love with Aleksey and Natalya becomes madly infatuated with him, and blind to the counsel of Michel, the stage is set for betrayal, heartbreak, and reproach.

ADP Briggs has convincingly argued that the parallels in characters and relationships between A Month in the Country and Uncle Vanya are too close to be coincidental; Chekhov as we know him is unthinkable without Turgenev’s exemplar. Certainly a scene of total chaos in the final act as several characters wander into the drawing room to resolve several sub-plots anticipates Chekhov’s fondness for rattling several scenes through one set. Friel’s 1992 version gives the servants Northern Irish leanings against an RP aristocracy, and Bolshintsov (Pat McGrath) is amusingly rendered as a 1950s Irish bachelor farmer. An interesting echo is a devastated Arkady’s lament that he needed a measure of discretion from Natalya and Michel in order to successfully not know what he does know, which seems to speak to Judith’s speech in Aristocrats on how her circumscribed life is possible to endure so long as its limits are not hammered home. Oddly enough there are anticipations of another playwright Friel has translated, Ibsen, in Natalya’s manipulations and impulsive scheming. It’s as if Judge Brack had never cornered Hedda Gabler and she continued to relieve her boredom by insulting people, thwarting romances, and impulsively manipulating people.

Aislin McGuckin who had some imperious moments in Heartbreak House at the Abbey last summer rises to the challenge of such a figure, and alternates knowing vocal sultriness, with epic self-pity, blind fury, and vulnerable self-awareness. Natalya’s proto-Chekhovian soliloquies baffled 1850 audiences, but their psychological quality is very modern; although they can seem repetitious, especially if you saw Mark O’Rowe’s lean version of Ibsen in April. O’Gorman’s Michel is a study in defeat, while Dunning’s Arkady comes into his own after the interval as a comic character in his obliviousness who is tragic in that he needs to be oblivious to function. O’Malley slightly overdoes the girlishness of Vera, before maturing under the machinations of Natalya, while O’Regan hoovers up good lines as punning peasant made good Shpigelsky. Gaynor meanwhile lets rip in support. The expected silliness he suppressed in his Hedda Gabler character in April appears here in spades.

Francis O’Connor’s clever set and Peter O’Brien elegant costumes are the perfect visual palette for Turgenev’s tale of misplaced affections and quiet acceptances in a production of bittersweet comedy.

3/5

A Month in the Country continues its run at the Gate until August 22nd.

June 18, 2015

The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939

I was lucky enough last night to attend the launch in the Abbey theatre of Professor Anthony Roche’s latest book The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939.

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Professor Patrick Lonergan of NUIG, who edited the book for Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, gave a generous introductory speech; noting as an undergraduate in UCD in 1993 he had been struck by the way Roche presented his lectures as if he’d just rushed from a good play either in the Gate or in UCD Dramsoc’s LG theatre and was eager to tell his students about it so they could experience it too. Indeed Lonergan claimed that he remembered lectures Roche gave then more vividly than lectures he’d heard in the last month. Roche’s interest in, and support for, UCD Dramsoc was attested to by the presence of former students Caitriona Ennis, Caitriona Daly, and Eoghan Carrick, now rising stars of the Dublin theatre scene as the founding members of We Get High On This theatre company.

Fiach Mac Conghail, the artistic director of the Abbey, praised Roche for inscribing performance into the study of the Revival. Yeats may have prioritised a literary theatre, but he still needed actors to speak his words, and Mac Conghail noted that without the Fay brothers and the Allgood sisters the early Abbey would not have succeeded. He also noted that Roche had a telling eye for gossip in detailing the power struggles by which Yeats managed to subvert a democracy of actors and writers, and instead form a smaller unit; centred on himself; who decided what plays to perform and who to cast in them. Mac Conghail observed that questions of art and commerce as were laid bare in the book still beset the current Abbey board, and that the duality of the theatre was captured by the term ‘show-business’.

Mac Conghail also praised Roche for matching his prioritisation of the collaborative nature of the Abbey repertory players and the Abbey writer/directors with a reinstatement of the influence on the Abbey writers, particularly JM Synge and Sean O’Casey, of Henrik Ibsen; a reinstatement practised in the Abbey’s current season which deliberately followed a new version of Hedda Gabler with a revival of The Shadow of a Gunman. Mac Conghail also promised that Shaw would return to the Abbey at Christmas (Which Shaw? Wait and See), and praised the work done by Roche, as well as Frank McGuinness, in writing Shaw back into the narrative of the Revival; ‘The Absent Presence’ as Roche’s chapter dubs him. Roche launched the book officially by noting that Bloomsbury’s offer to write a book accessible to general audiences gave him a chance he’d been waiting for – to tell the long narrative of the theatrical Revival.

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Director Patrick Mason and Prof. Tony Roche

The Irish Dramatic Revival: 1899-1939 by Professor Anthony Roche is published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

May 28, 2015

The Gigli Concert

David Grindley directs the first ever production of a Tom Murphy play at the Gate, and it’s one of Murphy’s oddest works that he presents.

DG the gigli concert

JPW King (Declan Conlon) is a hard-drinking Englishman, reduced to sleeping in his office in 1980s Dublin. How he can afford the office itself is a mystery given the non-existent patient list for his practice. But then he is a ‘Dynamatologist’, which can sound oddly like Scientology in some of King’s explanations of it. It would take someone truly desperate to enlist his professional help, someone like The Irishman (Denis Conway), a developer in the midst of a tremendous nervous breakdown who has become obsessed with singing like the Italian tenor Gigli. The Irishman is truculent, uneducated, violent, and, despite King’s belief, as told to his Irish mistress Mona (Dawn Bradfield), that qualified psychiatrists are needed, insistent that his unerring instinct has led him to the right man to solve his problem. But can King rise to the insane challenge?

Grindley has been acclaimed for his revivals of RC Sheriff’s museum-piece Journey’s End, so perhaps it’s inevitable he’d been drawn to Murphy’s 1983 puzzler that immediately precedes Conversations on a Homecoming and Bailegangaire, both recent DruidMurphy revivals. The thankless role of Mona is occasional relief from the intense two-hander in which the identity of patient and therapist is in constant transference from the moment both men end up saying “Christ, how am I going to get thru today?” in the exact same spot. But what is the play’s purpose? The publicity talks of ‘the endurance of the human spirit and our ability to achieve the impossible’, which seems delusional given that every character onstage displays alarming mental health, and the climactic ‘singing like Gigli’ is a drug-fuelled Tony Kushneresque ‘bit of wonderful theatrical illusion’, complete with a rush of red lights by Sinead McKenna for the Mephistophelian bargain being struck.

The acting is assured. Bradfield makes Mona an earthy cousin of Bailegangaire’s female triptych, but it is a minor part, notable only for Mona’s apparent coming to terms with her dire situation in a healthy way. Conway is initially dangerous and latterly assured as the developer regains a burlesque of prosperous wellbeing, but his silent screams and hanging, musical ‘Aaaand’ seem slightly mannered when exploring the Irishman’s emotional vulnerability. Conlon, in a startling change of pace from his urbanity in the just-finished Hedda Gabler, makes King a defeated figure who suddenly finds his heroic possibilities. Staying up all night reading books to try and help the Irishman, he makes Dynamatology akin to Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith in a pivotal speech; and is hilarious in the second act when relaying some actual leaps taken as Murphy amps up the black comedy.

Murphy probes some of the darkest recesses of the 1980s Irish psyche here, with notable asides about planning corruption and political ambition, but his actual conclusions remain eternally unclear.

3/5

The Gigli Concert continues its run at the Gate until June 27th

May 14, 2015

Hedda Gabler on HeadStuff

Hedda Gabler finishes its run in the Abbey on Saturday night, so if you’re still undecided about catching Annabelle Comyn’s production here’s a teaser for my review for HeadStuff.org.

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Hedda has just returned from honeymooning with her dull academic husband Tesman (Peter Gaynor). As they settle into a new house she idly insults Tesman’s devoted Aunt Julle (Jane Brennan), threatens to fire his long-suffering maid Berte (Deirdre Molloy), and takes a pot-shot at former lover Judge Brack (Declan Conlon). Brack, however, takes bullets whistling past his ears in stride, he knows he is the only person to whom Hedda can confide her utter boredom with bourgeois life, and her love of manipulating people for her amusement. And then former schoolmate Thea Elvsted (Kate Stanley Brennan) arrives, seeking help in tracking down another of Hedda’s former lovers, the once dissolute but now reformed Ejlert Lovborg (Keith McErlean). When Brack reveals that the now sober Lovborg is Tesman’s only rival for a professorship the scene is set for Hedda’s greatest chicanery.

Read the full review of how Mark O’Rowe produces a lean version of Henrik Ibsen’s text by clicking the link below:

http://www.headstuff.org/2015/05/hedda-gabler-review/

April 16, 2015

Hedda Gabler

Director Annabelle Comyn reunites with her The Talk of the Town leading lady Catherine Walker for Mark O’Rowe’s new version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 classic.

DG declan conlon and Catherine Walker

Hedda Gabler (Walker) returns from a six-month honeymoon with husband Jorge Tesman (Peter Gaynor), who has tried her patience with research trips to libraries. But at least in libraries she didn’t have to endure Tesman’s beloved Aunt Julle (Jane Brennan) or maid Berte (Deirdre Molloy). Life in this new house looks set fair to be awful, apart from the visits of her former lover Judge Brack (Declan Conlon), and then the forecast gets even stormier. Former schoolmate Thea Elvsted (Kate Stanley Brennan), who Hedda despised, arrives desperately seeking Ejlert Lovborg (Keith McErlean). Hedda is initially intrigued, Lovborg being a lover she’d once threatened to shoot, but then quickly appalled when Brack reveals Lovborg’s new-found sobriety has enabled him publish a book so acclaimed he may pip Tesman to the professorship he was promised, and so ruin Hedda’s prospect of prosperity.

O’Rowe’s version brings a Mametian sensibility to bear on Ibsen’s dialogue, which suddenly erupts in overlapping, interruptions, and back-tracking. He also dials down the black comedy that Brian Friel memorably mined from the script. O’Rowe’s Hedda Gabler remains darkly humorous, but not as riotously funny as Anna Mackmin’s production of the Friel version I saw in the Old Vic in 2012. Half the fun of seeing the classics is seeing how different elements are highlighted by different productions. Peter Gayor is very impressive as Tesman. Whereas Adrian Scarborough rendered Tesman a joyous figure of fun, childlike in his enthusiasms and disappointments, Gaynor makes Tesman comically oblivious to Hedda’s pregnancy, but a serious academic whose conscience-stricken anger is sincere and fiery. Darrell D’Silva Fassbendered as a thoroughly roguish Brack, whereas Conlon renders him as a droll, urbane, and, eventually, inert presence.

The performances follow the version: where Daniel Lapaine emphasised the depraved menace of Lovborg, McErlean is a chastened, sensitive presence as the academic in search of redemption. Sheridan Smith brought her comedy chops to bear on the part, but Walker’s Hedda is a more tragic figure. O’Rowe’s provocative addition that everything she touches ends up “grotesque, vulgar, and f****** farcical” underscores her exhaustion at the bourgeois world she’s trapped in despite her best machinations. Comyn’s regular set designer Paul O’Mahony eschews his usual impressively realised sets and places the furniture of a drawing room centre-stage, with free-standing doors delineating where an imaginary garden and hallway exist on either side. It’s reminiscent of the nightmare of an open-plan house in the finale of Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo movie, and makes lighting designer Chahine Yavroyan’s ‘sun’ streaming in from the garden particularly striking.

The backdrop is a giant video screen on which Hugh O’Connor’s images and sounds, which fatally reminded me of U2’s ZOO TV, appear during scene changes. Perhaps it’s the white noise inside the head of Hedda? Who knows? Par the poster where Hedda sits on a chair under a plastic cover, no matter how well we can see Hedda, we can never see her clearly. O’Rowe’s version hammers home that Hedda is not as brilliant a manipulator as she thinks: she has been trapped in this house by an idle remark, just as an impulsive gesture with Lovborg will trap her. And the gesture which she thinks secures her position as a professor’s wife backfires spectacularly as this production makes it plain that Thea is the perfect wife for an academic, and her seriousness is the perfect match for Tesman.

Annabelle Comyn draws impressive performances from her cast as always, but she also zips the action along as Hedda is brought low by her own headstrong nature; rendered on farce and tragedy’s uneasy borderline.

4/5

Hedda Gabler continues its run at the Abbey until May 16h.

April 5, 2012

Top 10 Plays to see on stage before you die

It’s caused an awful lot of angst and wide consultation to try and do it justice but this 200th blog post is devoted to meeting Stephen Errity’s specially requested topic.

Having tied myself up in absolute knots over the question of whether this was about plays that really have to be seen rather than read, or plays that had to be seen because they were the best that have ever been written, I plumped for the latter interpretation. A separate blog about the first option is Blog #201 for anyone interested in that. But, having nailed down what I was doing I immediately had a spanner thrown in the works by Keith Thompson who tied me up in even more knots about how I was going to do what I was going to do – was I going to choose the plays that best interrogated the society of the day, or the plays that most change you as a person on a deep level? I never made myself particularly clear on the issue to him, but I hope that I have gone for the latter of his two options. So, after that lengthy preamble about the tortured selection process, here’re the Top 10 Plays to see on stage before you die…

(10) The Rivals by Sheridan
“She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile!” A perfect comedy that anticipates Wilde’s Bunburying in Captain Jack Absolute’s invention of a second persona for romancing, Ensign Beverly, this, along with Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, is damn near the only thing worth salvaging from British theatre between 1710 and 1890, and jumped the footlights via Mrs Malaprop’s inimitable verbal gaffes to coin a new word – Malapropism. Sheridan quickly rewrote the role of Sir Lucius O’Trigger after an initial savaging for being stage-Irish, and made it as deliriously silly as everything else in this satire on duelling, female education, pride and excessive sentimentality.

(9) Hedda Gabler by Ibsen
“I will not have anyone holding power over me” A role quite often referred to as a female Hamlet, Ibsen’s tragic heroine has been essayed on Broadway by both Cate Blanchett and Mary Louise Parker in recent years; and neither nailed it, it’s that hard. Ibsen may have been meanly caricaturing Strindberg as the rival academic to Hedda’s husband, but who cares? A heroine who is either Freudian neurotic basket-case, feminist warrior, or sociopathic villain trumps such considerations. Ibsen’s late run of masterpieces are all worth seeing but few combine his devotion to realism, and tragic plots, with such a complicated and powerful lead.

(8) The Homecoming by Pinter
“Don’t call me that, please” “Why not?” “That’s the name my mother gave me.” Pinter’s trademark comedy of menace reaches a sort of mythic height in this unnerving story of an ill-advised visit home by expatriate university professor Teddy to the East End. Ill-advised because Teddy brings with him his attractive wife Ruth, who quickly enters a twisted psychodrama with Teddy’s wide-boy brother Lenny, naive brother Joey, and aged father Max. The dialogue at first glance appears banal, until you feel the subtext crackling under every innocuous remark as everyone circles each other in a battle for control. The controversial ending is somewhere between absurdist and a Greek legend.

(7) The Crucible by Miller
“I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” Miller’s allegorical attack on McCarthyism thru the prism of the 1692 Salem witch-hunts is extremely scary at the moments when Abigail and her accomplices fake attacks by evil spirits, and is incredibly emotionally draining as the plot inexorably tightens with a vice-like grip around decent everyman John Proctor. Proctor reluctantly signs his death warrant by daring to speak up for the truth against the self-delusions of petty vindictive people. Remarkably Miller prepared for this script by adapting Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and yet produced a Greek catharsis that Aristotle would sign off on.

(6) Endgame by Beckett
“Sir, look – [Disdainful gesture, disgustedly.] – at the world – [pause] and look – [Loving gesture, proudly.] – at my TROUSERS!” Almost for that anecdote alone, possibly the funniest punch-line in Beckett’s dramatic works, this play is my pick of his output that reshaped 20th Century drama. 1958’s Endgame might be the satirical last word in Irish Big House decay, a response to the Irish Famine (look at Hamm’s adoption of Clov near a place called Kov [Cobh] while people obsess about corn) or the Cold War, or simply a characteristically inexplicable drama in which after the word ends life, such as it is, continues on as it was, bickering and ridiculous, although with people in dustbins.

(5) As You Like It by Shakespeare
“Sweet are the uses of adversity.” Rosalind is Shakespeare’s most likeable heroine, and her practical use of her male alter-ego Ganymede to teach the overly sentimental Orlando how to conduct a romance the most sensible use of the endless cross-dressing to be found in the comedies. A play about defeat, and the over-indulgence in cultural compensation that it can engender in Duke Senior in the forest of Arden, and about idealised romance, and the stupid behaviour it can provoke, this touches on serious matters – yet always with a feather’s weight; the melancholy Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” monologue.

(4) Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
“It’s all chance, Oedipus, chance rules our lives!” Archetypal stories don’t come much greater than Freud’s go-to Greek tragedy. The heroic Oedipus defeats the Sphinx’s riddling, unwittingly kills the King of Thebes, and then marries his stunning widowed Queen, Jocasta; only for his investigations into provenance of the King’s murderer to unexpectedly and traumatically rebound on him. I’ve managed to see this in Robert Fagle’s peerless translation, but without masks, and the effect of the Greek chorus is eerie and memorable. Can we escape destiny, or does that very attempt bring out the destiny thus eluded? Fate/Free Will – drama’s original and greatest preoccupation…

(3) Arcadia by Stoppard
“Do not indulge in paradox Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit…” Stoppard has an unparalleled gift for constructing hysterically funny romantic comedies that also elucidate a knotty subject. This 1993 masterpiece casually tackles chaos theory and bad literary/intellectual history theorising. Set in 1809 and 1993 a clever Regency Coverly seems to have anticipated the new breakthroughs of mathematics of the present, while dodgy academic Bernard Nightingale’s outrageously shoddy scholarship makes a travesty of the connection between Byron and his friend Septimus Hodge, the tutor of said clever Regency chaotician Thomasina Coverly. Stoppard constructs a play about rationality and imagination with enormous warmth, wit, and unexpectedly overwhelming poignancy.

(2) Three Sisters by Chekhov
“In a little while all this living and all this suffering will make sense, if only we could know!” Chekhov’s small opus of plays contains immensities. The tale of Olga, Masha and Irina’s economic and social decline and fall at the hands of their impecunious brother Andrei and his grasping wife Natasha began the 20th Century with a startlingly prescient meditation on the crippling nature of dreams, the impossibility of escape (to Moscow, or any other equivalent idyllic past), the inexorable change of social orders, and the redemptive possibilities that could be gleaned from simply enduring the chaos of a world incapable of being ordered effectively or decently by human action. Yet that’s only half of it. Chekhov’s play disrupts the realism of Ibsen with characters not listening to each other and thinking out loud, creates dizzying movement as characters wander in and out of each of the four act’s distinct locations, and mines absurdist comedy from dark material.

(1) Hamlet by Shakespeare
“Thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied oe’r with the pale cast of thought.” The definition of a play full of quotable quotes, a leading role that every young actor wants to test himself against, a meditation on the nature of revenge and its futility, a satire on bad acting, a tragic love story, a pitch-black comedy of errors, a geo-political thriller, an oblique statement on the survival of Catholic belief in Tudor England, a wisdom text that teaches us how to live even as its hero learns how to die, the play that made black clothes cool – all these are valid ways of interpreting Shakespeare’s titanic 1601 magnum opus. Hamlet is the most important play to see on stage before you die because it has inspired so many subsequent artists, and it always will. It is full of memorable characters, who have become types, dialogue that despite its familiarity retains its profundity, and a challenge, “This above all, to thine own self be true,” that could serve as the final statement on the Greek dilemma of being a self-willed individual against powerful external forces.

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