Talking Movies

August 24, 2017

Arlington

Enda Walsh’s latest play hit the Abbey stage, a transfer from Galway Arts Festival, and provoked walkouts from people who just don’t do interpretive dance.

 

Isla (Charlie Murphy) is an institution, it seems. The stage is a vast room of sterile white walls with the odd potted plant and high windows. And to one side, visible to us but hidden from her by a wall, is Hugh O’Conor. He is the new psychiatrist or gaoler or interrogator in a pokey office filled with monitors and equipment with an unfortunate habit of going on fire. They talk through microphone and speaker, and then suddenly Murphy is freed. But then O’Conor takes her place, bloodied and beaten, unsure what he did wrong. We are equally unsure, and also as to what happened to his predecessor, or what post-apocalyptic solution to humanity’s violent impulses this sterile room and the video projections of meanderings through forests are meant to represent, or the meaning of Oona Doherty’s lengthy solo dance.

Enda Walsh is getting vaguer and vaguer, even as he’s becoming ever more extravagant with his staging. If Ballyturk was an abstracted rewrite of The Walworth Farce, but with added prop destruction and unexpectedly expansive set design, then this is even more puzzling, but even more extraordinary in its use of space. There is something wonderful about the sheer extravagance of filling most of the Abbey’s canvas with blank space, and focusing all the action on a tiny corner where two people separated by a wall talk to each other. Except that for a significant portion of the just about 90 minute running time the floor is held by Doherty performing Emma Martin’s choreography. And, having previously praised The Cherry Orchard and The Select: The Sun Also Rises, I realised suddenly that what I loved was their choreography en masse.

As my regular theatre cohort Graham Price and I discussed afterwards, perhaps instead of running straight thru the 90 minutes there should have been an interval at the very obvious curtain point to facilitate people who don’t like dance, with a later call to put down your G&Ts because “Charlie Murphy will be re-taking the stage in 5 minutes”. As it was some people simply got up and walked out, no longer willing to wait hopefully for the ticket machine on stage to dispense dialogue at some unspecified point in the future. O’Conor brought a wealth of comic tics and Murphy was winningly naive and curious but they were dwarfed, first by Jamie Vartan’s set, and then by the crushing feeling that this was a meditation on weighty but ill-defined themes as empty as the fish tank on the stage.

Enda Walsh’s work has been getting steadily more abstracted, but this may represent the tipping point where he literally loses interest in ‘play’-writing in favour of exploring other media.

2.75/5

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August 16, 2017

Dublin Theatre Festival: 5 Plays

This is the 60th anniversary of the Dublin Theatre Festival, but this year’s programme is not very good; in fact it’s the weakest I can remember since I started paying attention back in 2007 and the 50th anniversary iteration when Druid presented James Cromwell in Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Tribes 28th September – October 14th Gate

English playwright Nina Raine’s acclaimed work about a deaf youngster’s emotional battles with his highly-strung family gets a puzzling relocation from Hampstead to Foxrock, as if Hampstead was in a faraway country of whose people we knew little. Fiona Bell, Clare Dunne, Nick Dunning, and Gavin Drea are among the familiar faces throwing around hyper-articulate insults while director Oonagh Murphy makes her Gate debut.

Melt 28th September – October 8th Smock Alley Theatre

Lynne Parker directs a new script by Shane Mac an Bhaird which has attracted an impressive cast of Owen Roe, Rebecca O’Mara, Roxanna Nic Liam, and Charlie Maher. Set in Antarctica it follows rogue Irish ecologist Boylan, his young colleague Cook, his love interest Dr Hansen (ex-wife of Boylan), and their discovery from a sub-glacial lake – Veba. Rough Magic promise a fairytale!

The Second Violinist October 2nd – October 8th O’Reilly Theatre

Composer Donnacha Dennehy and writer/director Enda Walsh reunite following their opera The Last Hotel with Crash Ensemble again providing the music, while the chorus of Wide Open Opera and actor Aaron Monaghan join the fun. Jamie Vartan again provides a set on which for 75 minutes physical madness of a presumably ineffable nature can play out, to a Renaissance choral backdrop.

Her Voice October 10th – October 11th Samuel Beckett Theatre

A Japanese riff on Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days sees Keiko Takeya and Togo Igawa directed by Makoto Sato; who has also designed the set and stripped away all the words from Beckett’s scripts save his numerous stage directions to get to a new kernel of the piece as Takeya conveys Winnie’s rambling monologues of memory purely through gesture and facial expression.

King of the Castle October 11th – October 15th Gaiety

Director Garry Hynes and frequent collaborators designer Francis O’Connor and lighting maestro James F. Ingalls tackle Eugene McCabe’s 1964 tale of rural jealousy. Sean McGinley’s Scober MacAdam lives in a Big House in Leitrim, with a large farm and young wife, played by Seana Kerslake. But their childless marriage sees rumours swirl amidst neighbours Marty Rea, John Olohan, and Bosco Hogan.

October 6, 2015

The Last Hotel

Playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh adds another string to his bow with his first libretto, the opera being scored by his Misterman collaborator Donnacha Dennehy.

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Mikel Murfi’s silent hotel porter cares for a ramshackle two-star hotel. At least it’s ramshackle from what we see in Jamie Vartan’s set, which impressively fills the Belvedere College stage; a canted platform surrounded by the detritus of hotel cleaning and catering, with a series of ad hoc handholds to one side for Murfi to shin up the back wall to his tiny bedroom above the stage. From that perch he notices with horror a bloodstain on the platform and descends to clean it up. This cleaning their room is what holds up the opera’s characters: Soprano Claudia Boyle’s Irishwoman who cheerfully greets an English couple; baritone Robin Adams and his sullen wife, soprano Katherine Manley. Adams helped Boyle at an event; she’d underestimated the amount of wine that would be drunk; so she’s turned to him for darker help…

Walsh’s libretto isn’t quite as outré as his plays, but it’s still recognisably his world. Adams and Manley have been hired to murder Boyle with a gas canister, a plastic bag, and some rope to make it fast. Manley is reluctant, and sings sadly of her husband’s emotional distance from her. Adams, however, extols the joys of hotel food; “People tend to pile the plate, but not me, I respect the buffet”; exults in the extension Boyle’s blood money will finance; “A kitchen of substantial size”; and scolds Murfi over his lack of hygiene in preparing mashed potatoes. Boyle seems to be suicidal because her teenage daughter is moody, or because everyone’s always looking to her for leadership; pretty flimsy reasons for checking out. But in this strangely haunted last hotel, as Manley chillingly predicts, no one can ever leave.

Walsh also directs, which means not only showcasing Murfi’s physical acting and creating an elevator from spotlighting a square light and having Crash Ensemble play muzak, but also, after recent bafflingly squib-free stabbings in A View from the Bridge and By the Bog of Cats, that blood is properly spilt when Adams and Murfi have an altercation. It’s harder to judge Dennehy’s contribution. Nobody’s going to mistake this for a Verdi score, and yet, while plenty atonal, it’s not Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire either. The most unsettling moments, especially the climax, are driven by jagged, frenzied strings that almost combine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Herrmann’s Psycho. The prominent use of piano, flute, and xylophone gives an unusual texture to the music, while there are definite touches of Philip Glass in the minimalist repetition that Dennehy often uses to underpin arias.

The Last Hotel is a qualified success. It’s certainly an interesting meeting of minds between Enda Walsh and Landmark Productions and the other cultural world of Wide Open Opera.

3/5

August 14, 2014

Ballyturk

Cillian Murphy and playwright Enda Walsh reunite for their second collaboration in two years, following Misterman’s success, and Ballyturk is another extravaganza of physical theatre.

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Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi are trapped in a massive room, which, courtesy of designer Jamie Vartan, fills every inch of the stage, with a fold-down bed, a shower, a kitchen-space, and endless closets. The play begins with Murphy in a hurling helmet screaming his head off about the inhabitants of Ballyturk. Murfi, however, is not dressed yet – and so ABC’s ‘The Look of Love’ soundtracks their ritualised manic getting-dressed routine. It will be the first of many 1980s pop songs that they dance to amongst other performances. They listen to mysterious voices from next door, are terrified of a cuckoo clock, and, when their alarm clock rings, throw darts at a wall of sketches and then enact the interactions of the pinpointed inhabitants of Ballyturk. And writer/director Enda Walsh relishes the physical theatre of their recreations of Ballyturk’s denizens.

Murphy leaps around the stage, even nearing its roof as he perches on a ledge to portray the town’s waspish storekeeper, embittered by her loss at bingo to her hated rival Mrs Reynolds. He has frequent fits, which Murfi holds him during, and becomes despairing at the presence of a fly which makes their routines less satisfactory so that he bangs his head against a wall till he bleeds. Murfi joins Murphy in destroying their LP collection, and cycles manically through Ballyturk’s rogue’s gallery, but his calmer character is defined by his elaborate stacking of biscuits. Stephen Rea’s startling arrival into this closed space is an equally startling change of pace, as he engages in a lengthy monologue about ageing, parenthood, and both the necessity and purpose of death in creating meaning by bringing lives, and stories, to an end.

But what’s it all about? Are they brothers? Is Rea their father? Perhaps. Murfi protects Murphy, and says he as the eldest should be first to go when Rea threatens one must die. But Teho Teardo’s foreboding music, and a chilling final minute, suggest a different interpretation – perhaps this is a more manic and surreal Room-like depiction of abduction? Rea’s musical number, in which a mic is lowered down from above certainly suggests effortless control. Or maybe it’s Plato’s allegory of the cave? Rea offers a glimpse of the world outside, but are its flowers that bloom from nothing in minutes more real than the rich Ballyturk created by the neon sign over the gallery of sketches, and could Murphy and Murfi ever accept a world outside their own mental projections as being as satisfyingly real as their imaginative creations?

It could be a poetic vision of mental illness. Ultimately I have no idea what this play is about and I rather like that. It’s simply barmy and brilliant.

4/5

Ballyturk continues its run at the Olympia Theatre until the 23rd of August.

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