Talking Movies

February 18, 2016

Juno and the Paycock

The Gate is first out of the traps in the curious case of the duelling Sean O’Casey productions to mark the 1916 centenary, as his 1924 classic is here directed by Crestfall playwright Mark O’Rowe.

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Declan Conlon and Marty Rea are a formidable pairing as O’Casey’s inimitable self-deluding male comedy double-act. Conlon is the self-proclaimed nautical veteran ‘Captain’ Boyle, a work-shy layabout who once crewed a boat to Liverpool and now infuriates his long-suffering wife Juno (Derbhle Crotty) by continually carousing with ne’er-do-well neighbour Joxer (Rea) and pleading medically mysterious pains in his legs whenever the prospect of a job appears. Juno’s uphill battle to maintain the family’s dignity takes place in a starkly decaying gray tenement room, with a staircase visible whenever the front door is left open. O’Rowe exploits this bleak space with increasingly dim lighting as the Boyle family is torn asunder by its own complexes of self-delusion, social climbing, and self-destructiveness; a matrix which O’Casey uses to skewer middle-class mores, the Catholic Church, Civil War Republicans, and the Trade Union movement.

It’s startling that in just 14 years Conlon has reached the age where people would think of him not for Hotspur but for Henry IV or Falstaff. He provides a Paycock long on voluble self-pity and contempt, but short on self-awareness and compassion. Conlon is terrific at waspish contempt, but his performance suffers by O’Rowe’s directorial choices. O’Rowe, possibly reacting to Howard Davies’ 2011 Abbey production of Juno, reins in the slapstick. Davies conjured business to emphasise O’Casey’s vaudeville clowning, but Ciaran Hinds’ self-deluding bombast made his later self-righteous fury truly scary. O’Rowe’s stricter fidelity to the text narrows Conlon’s range. And so Rea’s performance stays in the memory longer. He plays Joxer with an impish quality (as if he had flitted in from a Shakespearean fantasy to laugh at mortals), shrinking into as little space as possible, legs always coiled around each other, darting in and out of windows and across the stage startlingly quickly, and extending his final refrain of ‘A Daaaarlin book’ into an almost serpentine hiss.

Paul Wills’ austere set design tracks O’Rowe’s approach, a drab room with sparse and meagre furnishings in comparison to Bob Crowley’s sprawling 2011 Abbey set, whose vivid crumbling was akin to Tyler’s brownstone in Fight Club. In this setting Crotty’s turn as Juno is characterised by exhaustion above exasperation, not the Fassbendering turn one might have anticipated; instead Ingrid Craigie’s Maisie Madigan steals scenes. Juno’s valedictory ‘It’ll what have what’s far better, it’ll have two mothers’ is hollowed by Crotty’s hapless resignation towards crippled Republican son Johnny (Fionn Walton) and synchronicity with Union daughter Mary (Caoimhe O’Malley). O’Malley elevates Mary from cipher, layering cruelty towards her ex-boyfriend (Peter Coonan) with an initial startled adherence to and a later dogged rebellion against sexual morality that seems self-destructive compulsion. Given Juno’s self-pitying matrimonial rebukes that are both loudly performed and ineffectual O’Rowe hints at matrilineal failings that bode ill for Mary’s child.

The 2011 Abbey co-production with Southbank’s National Theatre remains the recent gold standard, but O’Rowe’s more subdued take features sufficient fresh unexpected insights to render it an interesting companion piece to Davies’ exuberant interpretation.

3.5/5

Juno and the Paycock continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 16th of April.

 

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August 6, 2015

A Month in the Country on HeadStuff

A Month in the Country has had its run in the Gate extended to the 29th of August, so if you’re wondering whether to catch Ethan McSweeney’s production at the last moment here’s a teaser for my review for HeadStuff.

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Natalya (Aislin McGuckin) dominates the life of an 1850s Russian country house. She is married to the older Arkady (Nick Dunning), who seems oblivious to the platonic love affair she’s conducting with his erstwhile friend Michel (Simon O’Gorman). Natalya herself has a blind spot though, she fails to spot that her teenage ward Vera (Caoimhe O’Malley) has fallen for new tutor Aleksey (Dominic Thorburn). When it’s pointed out to her, and ever-visiting doctor Shpigelsky (Mark O’Regan) approaches her with a proposal of marriage for Vera from the aged Bolshintsov (Pat McGrath), Natalya becomes consumed by jealousy and starts plotting to marry off Vera to leave herself without a romantic rival for the young tutor’s affections. Michel is unable to prevent these machinations, while Arkady’s mother Anna (Barbara Brennan), Herr Schaff (Peter Gaynor), and Lizaveta (Ingrid Craigie) have never stood up to Natalya.

Click here to read the full review on HeadStuff.org.

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.

September 28, 2011

Hay Fever

Director Patrick Mason expertly mines a classic comedy for laughs for the third summer in a row, with the help of regular collaborators including Marty Rea.

Designer Michael Pavelka furnishes a fabulously opulent 1920s country house set for Noel Coward’s comedy of deplorable manners, complete with absurdist touches like the classical bust above the door that bafflingly manages to hold a cigarette in its lips. Rea, a Mason regular after Arcadia and The Rivals, plays the spoilt toff Simon Bliss who invites femme fatale Myra to his country house for the weekend only to discover that his sister, father and mother have all invited a guest for the weekend too, and not told each other, never mind their put upon servant Clara. And that’s about as much plot as Coward bothers with, everything else is the interactions of the guests and their hosts. Highlights of these comically brusque encounters include a peeved Rea entreating his guest to have a seat by launching her in the direction of the sofa.

Ingrid Craigie Fassbenders as the retired actress matriarch Judith for whom all the world’s a stage, but who is continually wounded by references to her advanced years in connection to her inviting a star-struck gentleman caller. Beth Cooke essays a Cowardian rather than a Stoppardian teenager for a change as Sorel, the most self-aware of the Bliss family, who tries to rein in their bad manners but unconsciously seems to realise that such atrocious behaviour is just too much fun. Stephen Brennan is nicely scatterbrained as the novelist patriarch whose furious indignation, when his just finished book’s geographical accuracy is questioned, powers the final and funniest scene of the whole play. Coward’s play becomes progressively funnier as it proceeds, beginning with the guests arriving and being ignored by their hosts, before partner-swapping all round leads to romantic play-acting which terrifies the guests.

Stephen Swift, a blustering buffoon in Arcadia, here milks laughs as a simpering ninny (invited by Judith) whose over-enthusiastic delivery of the word ‘Rather’ repeatedly brought the house down. I’ve twice ripped screenwriter Mark O’Halloran for his devotion to misery so let me praise to the heights his turn as the diplomatist invited by Sorel. O’Halloran’s is by far the most stylised performance. His pencil ronnie, nervous smile, and exaggerated sitting movement and motions are almost commedia dell’arte, and his performance is comedic artistry. While Kathy Rose O’Brien’s flapper makes occasional hilarious outbursts against her treatment it is only Myra, the most acerbic guest, vampishly played by Jade Yourell, who forlornly rebukes the Bliss family. Behaving badly is so much fun that the Bliss family engage in deliriously enjoyable bickering oblivious to their guests nervously fleeing this madhouse.

Coward’s drawing-room comedy may not quite reach the heights of Wilde but such a feast of absurdist action and witty lines is to be relished.

4/5

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

September 3, 2010

Arcadia

Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s 1993 masterpiece, received a towering treatment by the Gate theatre a couple of months ago.

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Director Patrick Mason, as well as re-uniting with two of his stars from last summer’s Abbey production of The Rivals, Marty Rea and Aoibheann O’Hara, found roles for Gate regular Barry McGovern and the go-to girl for Stoppardian teenagers (after last year’s The Real Thing) Beth Cooke in his elegant production. At nearly three hours long the play unfurls a romantic comedy in two acts (set in two different centuries) that is really about chaos theory, bad academic scholarship, and the conflict between imagination and rationality. Stoppardian theatre is always just such a theatre of ideas, and duller critics dislike it for that reason because he makes them feel rightly stupid, but Stoppard has an unrivalled capacity to integrate abstract concepts into highly personal conflicts and to present complex ideas accurately but as high comedy.

Stoppard introduces us to two sets of characters inhabiting the same English stately home in 1809-1812 and 1993. In the 19th century sequences arrogant tutor Septimus Hodge (the superb Rea) tries to deflect his mathematically gifted student Thomasina Coverly (Cooke) from seeking a definition of ‘a carnal embrace’ by introducing her to Fermat’s Last Theorem. He is less successful in distracting Donna Dent’s imperious Lady Croom and visiting poet Ezra Chater (a wonderfully blustering Stephen Swift) from the said carnal embrace between Septimus and Mrs Chater. In 1993 Bernard Nightingale (patron saint of dodgy academics) arrives to investigate a possible visit by Lord Byron to the house just before he abruptly left England. He spars with Valentine Coverly (a delightful Hugh O’Connor), who is using statistics to map animal populations on the estate, and Hannah Jarvis (a spirited Ingrid Craigie), who is researching the history of the house in the Regency period for a book on the decline of the Enlightenment into mere feeling. Over their strenuous objections Nightingale speculates his way to absolute certainty that Byron killed Chater in a duel and fled the country, contrary to what we actually see transpire between Chater, Septimus and his unseen visiting friend Byron…

Stoppard’s celebrated wit is given full rein in numerous sparkling lines such as Lady Coverly’s put down of her brother; “As her tutor it is your duty to keep her in ignorance”, “Do not indulge in paradox Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit”; and Septimus’ “I will not kill one of the few poets England has produced for the sake of a woman whose honour could not be adequately defended by a platoon of musketry deployed by rota”. Septimus’ ingenious praise eventually leads Chater to emotionally convince himself that in fact his wife loved him so much that she slept with Septimus for the sake of a good review by Septimus in the ‘Piccadily Review’. She didn’t .

Joe Vanek’s unfussy set was dominated by a large table on which characters from both eras deposited props so that past and present blurred as the play proceeded towards a surprisingly emotional ending as a careless line by Hannah revealed the tragic fate of characters joyously alive in the earlier period as both times collapsed into the same physical space. The ensemble was impeccable but special mention must go to Andrew Whipp as Bernard Nightingale who, especially in his repeated rejoinder of “I don’t know, I wasn’t bloody there” to all requests for more detail on his conclusions and his exit line of “Oh just publish!” on being told by Hannah that she knows something but can’t prove it, mined pure comedic gold.

5/5

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