Talking Movies

November 10, 2015

An Alternative Abbey 2016 Programme

I’d been waiting for the Abbey’s new season, and was disappointed by it. I didn’t think much of their commission choices, and felt their other selections betrayed a peculiarly apologetic and almost self-loathing attitude towards a celebration of our independence. So I thought about what I might have programmed instead…

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Here are the essentials of the Abbey’s 2016 programme to September:

 

*Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland

(dir: Vicky Featherstone)

The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey

(dir: Sean Holmes)

*New Middle East by Mutaz Abu Saleh

(dir: Bashar Murkus)

*Tina’s Idea of Fun by Sean P Summers

(dir: Gerry Stembridge)

Othello by William Shakespeare

(dir: Joe Dowling)

*Town is Dead by Philip McMahon & Ray Scannell

(dir: TBC)

The Wake by Tom Murphy

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness

(dir: Jeremy Herrin)

 

Here are the essentials of my alternative Abbey 2016 programme:

 

*Commissioned Work by Mark O’Rowe

(dir: Mark O’Rowe)

John Bull’s Other Island by George Bernard Shaw

(dir: Roisin McBrinn)

*Not I by Samuel Beckett, Play by Samuel Beckett, On Baile’s Strand by WB Yeats, Riders to the Sea by JM Synge

(dir: Annie Ryan)

*Delirium by Enda Walsh

(dir: Conall Morrison)

Making History by Brian Friel

(dir: Patrick Mason)

*The Effect by Lucy Prebble

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

Commissioned Work by Marina Carr

(dir: Selina Cartmell)

The Wake by Tom Murphy

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

 

*Plays marked with an asterisk are on the Peacock stage.

This alternative programme is of course a fantasy, because it takes no account of the availability of directors and playwrights, but it does utilise people who have done fine work at the Abbey in recent years. It commissions new plays from two of our finest playwrights, Mark O’Rowe and Marina Carr, and gives Enda Walsh’s exuberant Dostoevsky adaptation from 2008 the chance of a subtler interpretation. The Shavian elephant in the room is finally tackled, and what better time for Shaw’s exuberant interrogation of our capacity for self-government? The late Brian Friel is honoured with a timely production of his exploration of exile and myth-making in Irish history, while Tom Murphy’s more recent dissection of exile and return ends the summer season. The Abbey’s fullest spectrum is utilised: Revival classics are paired with two of Beckett’s trickiest works, and Comyn returns to her beginnings in directing a contemporary English play.

The Abbey perhaps stands at an odd angle to 1916. It is after all a national theatre older than its politically constituted nation, led in its early days by Anglo-Irish writers with a gift for enraging their Irish audience, and its seminal engagement with the decade of revolution was by a writer whose corrosive scepticism spared no institution. The Plough and the Stars is the obvious choice for marking the Rising, perhaps too obvious a choice. It has been staged too frequently to too little effect in the last decade to be wheeled out once again to throw cold water over Pearse’s dream. Not least when Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme is deliberately programmed against it, as if we’re apologising to Unionists for rebelling when we could have been nobly dying for the British Empire instead. As for Othello, one quote deployed by Haughey does not a state of the nation play make. Serious engagement with Shakespeare’s quatercentenary would be a post-colonial take on The Tempest.

1916 is to be celebrated like 1776 or 1789, not apologised for, agonised over, or disparaged. The only way to discuss a programme of plays is to parse it qualitatively play by play, because that’s how people choose to go to the theatre: play by play, depending on their particular artistic cost-benefit analysis of the actors, the playwright, the director, and the subject matter. I’ve felt compelled in disliking so many of the Abbey’s individual picks to present an alternative programme of plays. Consonant with my banishing O’Casey I say there’s little use tearing down everything and building up nothing.

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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.

February 4, 2014

A Skull in Connemara

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Director Andrew Flynn brought the second instalment of Martin McDonagh’s celebrated Leenane trilogy to skull-battering life in the Gaiety Theatre.

Mick Dowd (Garret Keogh) is our downtrodden protagonist, forgetful of the months since his wife died at his hands in a drink-driving accident seven years previously. He supplements his farming income with a macabre odd-job, digging up graves after seven years to allow new burials in the plots of the small local cemetery. This leads to a continuous niggling argument with his neighbour and poitin-cadging regular visitor Maryjohnny (Maria McDermottroe) – what has he done with the disinterred bones? Mick insists he can’t say, before quickly saying he buries them in the lake with prayers, after Maryjohnny’s obnoxious teenage grandson Mairtin (Jarlath Tivnan) volubly insists he heard Mick smashed the remains to skitters with a mallet… The local priest has foisted Mairtin on Mick as an assistant, and there’s worse – Mick’s wife is to be exhumed, and her bones disposed of…

Set designer Owen MacCarthaigh pulls off a spectacular scene change as Mick’s decrepit kitchen, which looks like its wall could fall down at any time given the cracks running thru it, actually does fall down, sending a whoosh of air and dust into the front rows, to reveal a cutaway of a graveyard behind it. This set is truly spectacular, slanting down so that graves are visible in the soil on one side, while Mairtin and Mick dig in an excavated pit at the other. Their toil is punctuated by some typical outrageous McDonagh arguments, not least when Mairtin’s older brother, paranoid Garda Thomas (Patrick Ryan) arrives, alternating between inhaler and cigarette, dropping hints that Mick bashed his wife’s head in before driving her into a wall without a seatbelt – leading to a distinction between ‘vague insinuations’ and ‘casting aspersions’.

After the interval and a stunning revelation Flynn goes to spraying-the-front-rows town on Mick and Mairtin’s gleeful approach to exhumation, and there are also some truly choice moments of absurdity as murder accusations, confessions and savagery are punctuated by vicious critiques of Maryjohnny’s conniving bingo habits. As Graham Price and I noted Tivnan’s hyperactive but slightly dim Mairtin is clearly a first cousin of both the indestructible Old Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World and of the equally irksome teenager in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, while Ryan is nicely restrained as his more sober but equally demented brother. But, amidst the comedy, Keogh also offers a genuinely moving depiction of a man burdened by the community’s continually muttered belief that he murdered a beloved wife, who is driven to violent extremes to prove his love for her.

A Skull in Connemara is revived less often than The Beauty Queen of Leenane, possibly because of its greater production requirements and its joyous tastelessness, but this production proves that it’s a fine romp.

4/5

December 4, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

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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.

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

December 3, 2011

Big Maggie

The Clinic star Aisling O’Sullivan stars as the titular monstrous matriarch in Druid’s production of John B Keane’s abrasive comedy-drama.

John B Keane’s 1969 play is remarkably explicit in its dissection of how ecclesiastical attitudes to sexuality were a rather useful enabler to the snuffing out of any romantic machinations that didn’t also satisfy cravings for social climbing thru land acquisition. Maggie opens the play smoking by an empty hearse rather than watch her husband be buried. A lengthy and tense scene in the family home sees her reveal that he had signed over to her all rights to money, house, shop and farm. She means to dominate now, and the children will get nothing unless they toe the line. Mick, the eldest son promised ½ the farm by his father, immediately leaves for England. Maurice is strung along with the promise that he might be allowed to marry and have the farm, if he waits. Maggie chillingly notes that he’s only 24, and his father (in this deranged society) was considered very young to be married at 35. Gert and Katie are to swap working in kitchen and shop as punishment for Katie being the father’s favourite.

Maggie’s determination to exercise absolute authority powers the resolution of this family struggle over four shocking scenes. Charlie Murphy is impressively haughty and saucy but also fragile as Katie, the eldest daughter who it’s implied might have had an incestuous relationship with the dead patriarch. The only member of the family who can land a verbal blow on Maggie, she is nevertheless forced into a loveless marriage by her mother for the sake of money and respectability. Sarah Greene is wonderfully jejune as Gert, the youngest daughter who is shocked by Katie’s early revelations but grows up quickly under the harsh tutelage of her mother’s cruelty in stifling her love life. John Olohan is again a terrifically funny presence as the monumental sculptor Byrne. He’s gifted the filthiest gags in the play as well as both delivering and receiving tremendously vicious putdowns in his flirtatious bantering with Maggie. Director Garry Hynes’s stunt-casting gamble pays off as Keith Duffy is surprisingly good as the playboy commercial traveller, trading on his boy-band looks and matinee idol romantic posturing to good comedic effect.

The bleak ending is both a quasi-reversal of Riders to the Sea, and, as Fiachra MacNamara pointed out to me, almost a nod towards Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Aisling O’Sullivan does a good Kerry accent and delivers biting lines with relish, but she has rarely made any of her characters particularly likeable, and it’s tempting to ask if Maggie’s motivations might have seemed more convincing with a different actress in the role. Would another actress have made Maggie’s marrying off of Katie, despite her complaints about the misery of her own marriage for the sake of financial security, seem tragic in its complicity with a hated socio-economic system rather than merely hypocritical? Despite the quality of the acting and sharpness of the writing this play becomes quite draining because of the sheer selfishness of Maggie, which appears in her final espousal of her ‘zero-sum world’ philosophy; a philosophy which she fails to note is contradicted by the continued support and affection her exiled children still afford each other, but will now justly deny to her…

Nevertheless this is a strong production of a play whose existence challenges the conventional wisdom about our recent past.

4/5

Big Maggie is on a nationwide tour, ending with its return to the Gaiety in February.

October 26, 2011

Demons Never Die

Robert Sheehan stars in a horror movie that very obviously wants to be a British Scream but just doesn’t have a sharp enough script to achieve that laudable goal.

X Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos is the Drew Barrymore stand-in disembowelled in the cold open. After that there’s a showy credits sequence as the whole cast glance at each other with their names underneath as they gather in an auditorium to hear the police talk about her murder. There are a number of attacks by a masked killer on various teenagers and red herrings flung about the place, but a major difference is the existence of a suicide pact among this group, masterminded by the obnoxious Kenny whose insistence on documenting everything and maintaining strict categorical distinctions seems to make him a version of Jamie Kennedy in Scream. The in-camera analysis of story-structure is confined to the heroine explaining the idea of obstacles keeping apart lovers rather than horror clichés, but then the finale takes place in a large house with a party where the police are keeping watch along with numerous hidden cameras…

Robert Sheehan, currently wowing the West End as Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, is quite good as Archie, effectively winning our sympathy as the hero trying to dismantle the suicide club, while also displaying enough flashes of darkness in doing so to convince us that he might also be the masked serial killer. There also appears to be a moment of homage to his role as Misfits’ clown prince when Jazz shouts at him, “You’re not a f******** superhero Arch, you can’t save me.” Heroine Jenni Jacques initially makes you think that a decade ago Keira Knightley would have landed her part but she doesn’t have Knightley’s hauteur and Jasmine’s physical and emotional transformation during the film is slightly unbelievable. The other supporting players with the exception of Jason Maza’s splenetic homicidal/suicidal Kenny never flesh out their one-dimensional characters.

Writer/director Arjun Rose achieves some praiseworthy effects. Ashley Walters and Reggie Yates have some good comedic moments as the cops conducting the world’s most inept murder inquiry, a split-screen web-conversation is nicely rendered as highly coloured Warholian friezes, a crucial dialogue scene by the Thames achieves an incredibly washed-out look, and there’s a very tense hand-held night-vision escape thru a sinister house. But the script is largely perfunctory, with intriguing ideas, like Jasmine wanting to kill herself before she starts suffering hereditary dissociative identity disorder, and the possibility of Arch’s personality having been psychotically warped by witnessing his father murdering his mother, never being properly explored. The ending is an illogical muddle, including a deeply pointless final frame.

This is basic horror with disappointingly little shlock, but, just as I praised the promise shown by Donkey Punch, I think Arjun Rose has the potential to make a much better film soon.

2/5

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

November 12, 2010

The Silver Tassie

Druid’s towering production of Sean O’Casey’s 1928 play was a triumph that should re-instate it in the Irish canon and was surely the apex of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

This was the play that infamously saw O’Casey sever his ties with the Abbey after Yeats rejected it – because O’Casey had not fought in WWI. O’Casey’s justly caustic retort, “Was GB Shaw present when St Joan made the attack that relieved Orleans? And someone, I think, wrote a poem about Tir na nOg, who never took a header into the Land of Youth”, obscured that, behind his bizarre hang-up regarding Art and WWI, Yeats’ bluster was probably hiding sheer panic at how badly such a mammoth production would expose his Abbey’s limited resources. And it is a mammoth production as O’Casey uses 19 actors and the 4 Acts beloved of Chekhov but now out of vogue to stage a dazzling array of situations.

The play opens in the archetypal O’Casey setting of a Dublin tenement, with neighbours intruding all the time on a customary self-deluding male double-act -Simon Norton (John Olohan) and Sylvester Heegan (Eamon Morrissey). Syl is quite possibly the most useless father in all O’Casey, and that’s saying something. He is awaiting the return of his son Harry’s football team from their championship game before the entire squad returns to the Western front. The comedy, however, is more abrasive than the endlessly performed Dublin trilogy. Simon and Syl are upbraided by Harry’s jilted girlfriend Susie Monican (Clare Dunne), who has become an evangelical, while their neighbour upstairs Mrs Foran (Derbhle Crotty) cooks in their flat to avoid her husband Teddy (Liam Carney), who she’s desperate to get rid of back to the front. He’s none too happy about this and, being a wife-beater, knocks a bit of the roof down onto the stage in his rage. No one really cares about him smashing her crockery, or giving her a bleeding cut under her eye, just as they didn’t care about her steak burning while they recounted Harry’s heroic drunken boxing exploits. They do care about Teddy appearing downstairs to menace them with a hatchet… Luckily for them the team arrives with the titular trophy won by Harry’s goal. Harry’s new girlfriend Jessie Taite (Aoife Duffin) taunts Susie with PDA of a suspiciously blatant nature for 1914, before Harry’s boasting in almost Syngean language of the game explodes into a musical number which ends with the team in uniform marching out. The 10 minute intermission is filled with groaning and then sulphurous dry ice floats across the audience in the Gaiety. What are they building back there? France…?

The curtain opens to reveal not France but billowing dry ice. Somewhere inside this fog is a green light, and suddenly we can see that a gun turret is trundling out from the side of the stage and over the front resting above the audience and pointed at them. The entire stage is taken up with an enormous tank. A man is tied to it by both arms on the right, and at the top of a ladder on the left Aaron Monaghan’s Harry sits looking like a character from Apocalypse Now with green camouflage face-paint and a red cross daubed on his chest. He begins to quote the ‘dry bones’ passage from Ezekiel and the soldiers beneath him rise up and dance. Having recently fallen in love with Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class I was delighted by these anti-musical numbers coming thick and fast, alternated with not-so-straightforward dialogue scenes with Simon and Syl, out of their bowler hats, as officers and a wonderful Bush Moukarzel as their cowardly superior, who complains in plummy tones about not being allowed to plunge into the action while giving every appearance of being terrified of even moderately loud noises. Pretty nurses arrive in carrying stretchers and lay down their burdens for a chanted lament, as the truth of Declan Kiberd’s observation that “the men’s chants attain an intensity reminiscent of Eliot’s religious poetry” becomes obvious. Everything ends in a panic as the Germans break through the line. The soldiers chant ‘to the guns, to the guns’, and they shin up the ladder on the stage-filling tank which then starts to move, towards the audience, before an almighty bang stops it and the curtain drops for the interval. Francis O’Connor’s set design is thus quite literally show-stopping and by far one of the most impressive sets I’ve ever seen. This act was the lightning rod for hostile commentary in the 1920s but I saw Journey’s End last year and was struck by how it had been utterly destroyed by Blackadder Goes Forth. The working-class characters as mere comic relief and the overall feel of self-pitying public-school tragedy felt antiquated, a time-capsule of a very different way of looking at the war. The Silver Tassie, by contrast, feels so modern in sensibility, so cynical and blackly comic, that if Stephen Fry’s Colonel were to pop up in this second act he wouldn’t be out of place at all. Its violent non-naturalism, especially after the revolution in British theatre in the 1960s, seems not only perfectly reasonable but also a more appropriate response to the horrors of the trenches than RC Sheriff’s stiff-upper lip officers’ quarters complete with servants.

Act three opens in an absurdist hospital. Absurdist, because all the characters from the opening act are here, for no discernible reason… Harry is in a wheelchair with crippled legs that will obviously never kick a football again. Susie has swapped evangelicalism for nursing and is now doing some serious social-climbing as she tries to impress the English doctor, leading to a hilariously scrambled accent which ranges from Gardiner Street to Grosvenor Square within a single sentence. This is plausible enough, but why on earth are Simon and Syl in hospital, still wearing bowler hats over their hospital gowns? Syl is in for an unspecified operation (minor to the point of trivial), while Simon appears to be merely keeping him company, but why are they in a military hospital and are we in Ireland or England? O’Casey gleefully doesn’t care, and neither should you. What you should care about is how quickly Harry the hero is abandoned once he’s wounded. Jessie isn’t visiting him and Susie’s pity is unbearable especially as she will never take him back now an English doctor is in her sights. Teddy makes an appearance, blind, and thus totally dependent on his now all-powerful wife. His honest comments about the minimal chances of Harry walking again after a spinal injury provide the blackest of comedy in this cruel scenario. Finally Brian Gleeson’s Barney arrives, he has an arm in a sling and it becomes obvious that Jessie has abandoned the maimed Harry for the unscathed Barney.

And so O’Casey roars into the final action at the Avondale football club. Another room visible behind the room on-stage presents us with merry dancing on the far side of the divide, while the audience is cut off from it, like the casualties of the war, who engage in desperate boozing on this side of the divide. Harry has no place anymore in this club for which he won the Silver Tassie, just as the wounded soldiers have no place in the world they fought for. Their attempts to remain in that world only discomfort it, exemplified by Teddy’s bandages being replaced by a face-mask with painted-on eyes which are incredibly disturbing. There is some incredibly funny slapstick comedy amidst this bitter tragedy with Simon, Syl and Mrs Foran attempting to answer a new-fangled telephone device, but O’Casey does not pull his emotional punches. Harry’s bitter attacks on Barney reveal Jessie to be as promiscuous as we suspected, Susie has become firmly attached to the English doctor and wishes Harry would leave, while when Harry finally storms off in his wheel-chair with his mother (Ruth Hegarty) following him at the end his once proud father Syl remains behind to enjoy the party. The ending speech of Harry to Teddy seems to offer some sort of Chekhovian wisdom like the closing speech of Three Sisters, but O’Casey has no intention of ending with anything approaching a noble sentiment. Instead Mrs Foran comes on-stage again, to get another bottle of booze, and falls down repeatedly while trying to open it before passing out drunk for the ultimate of low comedy endings.

This is a play which seems to occupy a central but largely unheralded place in the Irish dramatic tradition. The comedy double-act in their bowler hats anticipate the hyper-articulate sardonic tramps of Beckett and are granted routines as funny as their contemporaries Laurel & Hardy, while, as fellow academic Graham Price pointed out to me, the closing exit by the two crippled soldiers recalls the abrasive end of Synge’s Playboy with the two injured Mahons leaving mediocrity behind to strike out for a more heroic world. But O’Casey’s decision to leave us not even with a Pegeen Mike weeping but instead with a falling-down-drunk woman is a kick in the teeth for all but the most Schopenhauerian of audiences. It is little wonder Yeats preferred the Dublin trilogy but this incredibly funny but bleak play is more accomplished dramatically.

Garry Hynes’ direction creates theatrical magic yet again and demonstrates that Sean O’Casey’s forgotten play is arguably his masterpiece.

5/5

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