Talking Movies

October 8, 2013

Desire Under the Elms

Corn Exchange performs Eugene O’Neill’s 1924 play in Northern Irish accents, placing the emphasis very much on the first part of its hyphenate identity Irish-American.

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Peter (Peter Coonan) and Simeon (Luke Griffin) are hardworking brothers on a stony farm in 1850s New England. Their resentful half-brother Eben (Fionn Walton) is convinced the farm is really his thru his mother, their father’s second wife. But when their father Ephraim Cabot (Lalor Roddy) unexpectedly remarries, they realise the farm is nobody’s but his new wife Abby’s (Janet Moran) as when he finally dies she’ll inherit. Peter and Simeon, disgusted at this, sign over to Eben their shares in ‘his farm’, and head off to California’s gold rush. But when Abby realises the brooding Eben’s staying, and a threat to her marriage for social status, she promises to give Ephraim a son; to ensure her place on the farm. But she might prefer to have a child with her virile step-son, rather than her wizened husband. And if her manipulations are unmasked, then all hell will break loose…

Corn Exchange oddly abandons its commedia dell’arte style for this mash-up of Greek tragedy and Irish-American land-hunger, when you’d imagine the heightened nature of retelling the tortured romantic triangle of Phaedra, Hippolytus and Theseus would be perfectly suited for that technique. Director Annie Ryan strips the play to its core, reducing a cast of 20 to just 5 actors who play out the tragedy on Maree Kearns’ bare stage with just a table, a bed, and some firewood and building timbers running up against an abstract backdrop. O’Neill doesn’t leaven his plays with much humour though, and this approach means that the rawness of Desire Under the Elms can be overwhelming. Luke Griffin sports the best worst hair I’ve seen in some time, and he and Coonan are fantastically dishevelled and avaricious as the animalistic brothers Simeon and Peter. It is a loss after the interval when they don’t reappear.

The monstrous patriarch is so hyped that Roddy takes some time in living up to his billing when he arrives. But this feels like a John B Keane play relocated to Maine. Ephraim is as monomaniacal as Bull McCabe on the subject of how he sweated blood to tame nature. He wants to give his farm to a son, so that even when he’s dead, in  a way the land will still belong to him. O’Neill’s script reaches its apex of vivid imagery when Ephraim describes how otherwise he’d rather set fire to the farm and free the livestock. But opposite him Moran and Walton disappoint. Her unsubtle seduction doesn’t convince as patent manipulation leading to sincere love, his melodramatic contradictory reactions don’t ring true with his character’s rigidity hitherto, and after the interval their falling-out feels rushed – there’s too much of a steep descent to the brutally Greek climax.

It’s sometimes hard to square O’Neill, the Nobel laureate and Broadway intellectual, with the brutal toiling characters that populate his plays. This production, in emphasising the Irish elements, casts an interesting light on O’Neill.

3/5

Desire Under the Elms continues its run at Smock Alley Theatre until October 13th.

October 6, 2010

Phaedra

Rough Magic presents a version of Phaedra that incorporates live music into the unfolding tragedy but the results are sadly uneven…

Phaedra charts the downfall of one of those psychotically dysfunctional families that seemed to proliferate in ancient Greece. Phaedra (Catherine Walker) is a trophy wife married to the older and brutally abusive Theseus (Stephen Brennan) but she is mad with desire for his adult son Hippolytus (Allen Leech), ironically her emotional distance only increases Theseus’ infatuation with her. When news comes that Theseus has been killed champagne is spilled and secret desires are revealed, not only by Phaedra who provocatively poses in her underwear while asking Hippolytus to help her pick out a dress for the funeral, but by Aricia (Gemma Reeves) whose father traded the house to Theseus for his debts. Much like the Abbey’s recent production of Macbeth that attempted to situate the play in Cromwellian Ireland before giving up Phaedra is littered with the remains of a half-abandoned high-concept. Theseus is apparently a property developer and there are references to the entire country circling the drain on its way out. But there’s no sustained attempt to substantively re-imagine Phaedra for the Celtic Tiger so these moments feel like cheap zeitgeist-surfing beside the more pointed resonances to be found elsewhere in the festival with Enron and John Gabriel Borkman.

John Comiskey’s stainless steel set with tunnels leading underground and huge narrow windows and video screens worked by remote control nicely de-domesticises proceedings as the gods stalk this family. Euripides’ tragedy had previously been reworked by Seneca and Racine and this version reinstates the gods Racine discarded, as well as placing five musicians led by Ellen Cranitch and Cormac de Barra on-stage scoring the action. This conceit can be utterly stunning. Aphrodite (Cathy White), Artemis (Anuna co-founder Fionnuala Gill), and Poseidon (Rory Musgrave) sing while the characters move in a stylised fashion and the first act climax is amazing, as is a later sequence where Phaedra rehearsing a speech by repeating certain lines becomes live sampling scored by repetitive music which re-creates the ritualistic origins of Greek theatre. Composer Ellen Cranitch and director Lynne Parker were deeply involved in the extended development of this version so while they should be praised for such heights they must also accept blame for Hilary Fannin’s script which is deeply uneven and too eager to ‘shock’, why else open with Enone (Michele Forbes) discussing re-shaping the contours south of the female border? Fannin favours profanity over profundity to an extent that quickly becomes deeply tiresome, and a number of Theseus’ gynaecological-flavoured insults in the second act receive no laughs when they are clearly meant to be hi-larious.

Gate mainstay Brennan’s Theseus is absent for nearly half the play and when he does appear he is deeply over the top, rolling his voice and relishing his swearwords. Sarah Greene’s saucy Ismene, talking dirty in broadest Corkonian, matches him while Darragh Kelly’s subtle turn as the psychiatrist Theramenes provides a badly needed emotional anchor. Leech redeems himself for Man About Dog with a fine performance as the tortured Hippolytus but while Catherine Walker is strong as Phaedra, for all her dialogue you never feel allowed into her psyche, and that is a disappointing outcome for a classical heroine here re-created by women.

This is worth seeing but what should have been a highlight of the Dublin Theatre Festival only intermittently reaches the heights that were expected of it.

2.5/5

Phaedra continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until October 10th.

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