Talking Movies

October 10, 2015

Dancing at Lughnasa

Dancing at Lughnasa premiered at Dublin Theatre Festival 25 years ago, but this anniversary production doubles as a posthumous tribute to its author Brian Friel.

Dancing at Lughnasa - credit Chris Heaney 800x400

The adult Michael (Charlie Bonner) narrates the summer of 1936 when he was 7 years old. The illegitimate son of the youngest daughter Chrissie (Vanessa Emme), he was doted on by her four sisters: messer Maggie (Cara Kelly), simple Rose (Mary Murray), quiet Agnes (Catherine Cusack), and schoolteacher Kate (Catherine McCormack). But this golden summer is the beginning of the end for the Mundy sisters, even though the return of their beloved brother Jack (Declan Conlon) after 25 years in the Ugandan Missions seems an unlikely catalyst for catastrophe. While the visit of Michael’s ne’er-do-well Welsh father Gerry Evans (Matt Tait) seems pivotal to the emotional turmoil that besets the house, it almost takes a ha’penny place in hindsight to the arrival of malfunctioning wireless Marconi; the ambassador of the industrial revolution finally reaching Ballybeg that will sweep away all.

Director Annabelle Comyn strips away the misplaced nostalgia that has gathered around Friel’s Tony-winning script; there are no fields of wheat crying out for Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold’ to soundtrack memories of halcyon summer here. Instead Paul O’Mahony’s domestic table, chests and stove yield seamlessly to the outside of rocks, kites and leaves strewn on the ground while looming over all is a reflective triangle with a layer of gauzy fabric dulling its accuracy. Chahine Yavroyan’s lights frequently flash accompanied by a loud pop, as in her design for Comyn’s 2014 The Vortex, to jolt us back to fuller lighting after expressive dimming during monologues or sad moments. It also emphasises these are Michael’s memories, and he mayn’t be as scrupulously accurate as he believes. Indeed his penultimate narration of doom colours the final scenes as oblivious to coming tragedy.

As my academic cohort Graham Price noted this is not a production that masks the bleakness. The dance is not a joyous climax, a moment of healing. It is an abrupt explosion of energy, that can’t overwhelm the despair; even in their dancing the sisters are alone, their movements governed by the forces that entrap them. And no dance is as revealing as Kate’s energetic but strict Irish dance-steps. McCormack’s performance recalls Cathy Belton’s affecting Judith in Friel’s Aristocrats at the Abbey last year. Kate is intelligent, and loving towards Michael, but she is buckling under the strain of holding her family together by conforming to societal norms. And her priest sibling instead of a godsend proves an albatross, having gone wildly native. A stooped, bearded Conlon is magnificent. His English initially clipped, from long usage exclusively with British imperialists. His hair wet from malarial sweats, but then smarter as he regains his vocabulary. Jack’s enthusiasm for Riyangan rituals leaves you convinced he, not the fox, sacrificed Rose’s pet rooster.

It is odd that a production that began as a celebration of a living playwright become a eulogy, but a fitting one it is.

5/5

Dancing at Lughnasa continues its run at the Gaiety Theatre until the 11th of October.

December 1, 2012

Dubliners

Corn Exchange’s flagship production of Dubliners at the Gaiety for the Dublin Theatre Festival was desperately uneven as overplayed slapstick often trounced Joyce’s muted epiphanies.

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Performed under heavy face-paint on a minimalist set by Joe Vanek (that relied on expressive lighting and shadows) the show distractingly had characters narrate their own dialogue, drowning conversations with endless, unnecessary, and literal instances of he said/she said. In its defence this strategy allowed the narrator of ‘Two Sisters’ to deliver Joyce’s delicate prose, and he was cleverly also made the narrator of the next vignette, ‘An Encounter’. But the encounter is with a paedophile, played with malicious suavity by Mark O’Halloran, and the commedia dell’arte exaggerations deployed to create a crippled predator resulted in the unnerving spectacle of the audience of Joyce newcomers laughing heartily at this creation before being audibly horrified as they realised he’s not a mere eccentric. This misjudgement presaged later missteps but the painful yearning of ‘Eveline’ expertly played by Janice Byrne quickly dispelled any misgivings, and ‘Two Gallants’ saw Stephen Jones on fine swaggering form, which he continued in the ‘The Boarding House’ as the landlady’s menacing son. O’Halloran was on top comedic form opposite him as the rent-skiving actor, while the heightened slapstick style elevated the black comedy of Joyce’s hapless lodger Doran being trapped into proposing onto a much funnier plane.

After the interval that slapstick approach was imposed on stories that it defiantly did not suit. ‘Counterparts’ was rendered as stark nonsense. It was amusing to see O’Halloran never finish a sentence and dash about panic-stricken as the chief clerk, but there are things that one must not do to get a laugh, and among these is going so far over the top as to end in low-earth orbit. At first I was prepared to grant Mark Lambert as domineering lawyer Mr Alleyne the same privileges of blustering abusiveness as Will Forte as Ted Turner on Conan, but when he actually chicken-stepped around the stage in a comic fury at a slight from his subordinate I had exhausted any possible exculpatory comparisons. This was too OTT to amuse, but not his fault. Ruth McGill as his secretary used the same leer as she did as The Duchess in Alice in Funderland, and if the same expression can find equal purchase in Alice in Funderland and an adaptation of Joyce then it’s a sure sign that the adaptation of Joyce by Michael West and director Annie Ryan has strayed farcically far from the ‘scrupulous meanness’ and understated compassion of Dubliners.

Which leads one to conclude that Mark O’Halloran as an actor is truly immense. By sheer force of personality he dismissed ‘Counterparts’ to make the audience feel the tragedy of ‘A Painful Case’ as his fastidious Duffy sabotaged a relationship with Derbhle Crotty’s neglected housewife. O’Halloran made you so empathise with this cold character that when he spoke the final words of Joyce’s narration you could hear a pin drop, and hearts break. But then ‘A Mother’ painfully wasted the great Crotty’s talents by piling on the excessive slapstick to produce a painfully protracted skit devoid of any dramatic momentum, though at least it lacked the cognitive dissonance of the bungled traumatic ending of child abuse after clowning of ‘Counterparts’. ‘The Dead’ began with McGill’s performance of ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ as the story was pared down to Greta’s revelations after a party that leave her husband Gabriel stunned at how his wife was loved before she met him. O’Halloran’s delivery of the famous closing monologue ended the play on a triumphant note, and highlighted O’Halloran’s towering pre-eminence in the ensemble, the emotional power of Joyce’s material, and the frustratingly inconsistent fidelity to Joyce which held back the show.

Throughout, actors delivered their dialogue to the audience and then looked at the actor they’d been addressing, a technique Corn Exchange use in rehearsal; which made this feel like a quasi-workshop. Replacing ‘Counterparts’ and ‘A Mother’ with ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ and ‘Clay’ would immeasurably strengthen reprises…

2.5/5

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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