Talking Movies

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.

August 11, 2017

A Statue for Bill Clinton

Tom McEnery, former mayor of San Jose, turns playwright with a whimsical take on the locals of Ballybunion attempting to crash the news-cycle in 1998.

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Jackie Costello (John Olohan) is trying to put some hope back into Ballybunion, but the other members of the local civic Committee aren’t much help. John Joe (Frank O’Sullivan) wants a statue of the O’Rahilly, Shamie (Enda Kilroy) doesn’t care, Hannah (Joan Sheehy) is preoccupied waiting for a mystical island to rise, and local politician Austin (Damien Devaney) is more concerned with the cost of preserving the local ruined castle than with the prestige of preserving it. Local enigma Ted provides a solution, which, with the help of visiting emigrant Jimmy (Mark Fitzgerald), might be a real boost for Ballybunion. Dedicate a statue to Bill Clinton to lure the President into town for a game of golf beside Costello’s pub while visiting to celebrate the Good Friday Agreement’s adoption. The only objections come from Kathy (Liz Fitzgibbon), Jackie’s cynical daughter.

Watching A Statue for Bill Clinton is a disconcerting experience. Everything feels made for export: Irish characters in Ireland, as written by an American for Americans. Much quoting of Wilde, Shaw, Heaney amid analyses of Ireland, while can-do American spirit provides the answer to all ills. Not that how hoping that getting POTUS to do a photo-op will magically rejuvenate the town’s economy is ever interrogated as dubious ‘self-help’. The pub setting, returning emigrants, and dreams of success and idealism recall Conversations on a Homecoming and Kings of the Kilburn High Road. Which is unfortunate as it clearly does not aspire to their depth. But then despite billing itself as a true Irish comedy, it doesn’t attack the comedic jugular either. Instead Jackie speechifies hopefully and Kathy speechifies cynically on the motion of the superstitious backwardness of dear old Ireland.

Things pick up in the second half as the characters wince their way thru radio reports on the deepening Lewinsky scandal, and shenanigans abound with dodgy sculptors and mischievous local rivals. You wish that McEnery had either concentrated on this material from the beginning, or done another draft to trim some of the thematic posturing and deepen the characters. At times it feels like he’s 80% towards a successful script, if only he would make the economic homilies a little less on the nose, the relationship between Jimmy and Kathy a little less of a homage to that Irish theatrical trope from John Bull’s Other Island to Translations of the instant romance between the Irish girl and the arriving foreigner, and stop making 1998 quite so anachronistic: pretending the Church is all-powerful, while also anticipating the demise of the Tiger.

A Statue for Bill Clinton is enjoyable, but it’s not quite a comedy and it’s not quite a proper drama either.

2.75/5

A Statue for Bill Clinton continues its run at Belvedere College until the 13th of August.

August 7, 2012

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

Beyond the Brooklyn Sky 25 Sep – 6 Oct Touring

Peter Sheridan directs a production that is touring between the Civic, Pavilion, Draoicht, and Axis theatres. Listowel Writers’ Award-winner Michael Hilliard Mulcahy has been supported by Fishamble in developing his debut play about returned emigrants who left Brandon, Kerry for Brooklyn, NY in the late 1980s. There are thematic similarities with Murphy’s The House as a visit by an emigrant who remained in Brooklyn ignites tensions.

Dubliners 26 Sep – 30 SepGaiety

Corn Exchange tackles Joyce’s short story collection in an adaptation by playwright Michael West and director Annie Ryan. Judging by Mark O’Halloran’s make-up this is an almost commedia dell’arte take on Joyce’s tales of paralysis in a dismally provincial capital. This features Talking Movies favourite Derbhle Crotty, who should mine the comedy of Joyce’s seam of dark, epiphany ladennaturalism. This is an experiment worth catching during its short run.

The Select (The Sun Also Rises) 27 Sep – 30 Sep Belvedere College

Hemingway’s 1926 debut novel gets adapted by Elevator Repair Service, the ensemble that performed F Scott epic Gatz in 2008. On a bottle-strewn stage America’s ‘Lost Generation’ carouses aimlessly around Paris and beyond. The maimed war-hero’s girlfriend Brett is as exasperating and alluring a character as Sally Bowles so it’ll be interesting to see how she’s handled. Her, and the Bull Run in Pamplona…

The Talk of the Town 27 Sep – 14 Oct Project Arts Centre

Annabelle Comyn, fresh from directing them in The House, reunites with Catherine Walker, Darragh Kelly and Lorcan Cranitch for Room novelist Emma Donoghue’s original script. Walker plays real life 1950s writer Maeve Brennan who swapped Ranelagh for Manhattan, becoming a New Yorker legend before fading into obscurity. The rediscovery of her chillingly incisive stories has revived her reputation, so Donoghue’s take on her intrigues.

The Picture of Dorian Gray 27 Sep – 14 Oct Abbey

Oscar Wilde’s only novel is adapted for the stage and directed by Neil Bartlett. Bartlett as a collaborator of Robert Lepage brings a flamboyant visual style to everything he does, and he has a cast of 16 to help him realise Wilde’s marriage of Gothic horror and caustic comedy. I’m dubious of the Abbey adapting Great Irish Writers rather than staging Great Irish Playwrights, but this sounds promising.

Tristan Und Isolde 30 Sep – 6 Oct Grand Canal Theatre

Wagner’s epic story of doomed romance between English knight Tristan (Lars Cleveman) and Irish princess Isolde (Miriam Murphy) comes to the Grand Canal Theatre boasting some remarkably reasonable prices for a 5 hour extravaganza. This production originates from Welsh National Opera, and if you’re unfamiliar with Wagner let me tell you that this houses the haunting aria Baz Luhrmann used to indelible effect to end Romeo+Juliet.

Politik 1 Oct– 6 Oct Samuel Beckett Theatre

I’m sceptical of devised theatre because I think it removes the playwright merely to privilege the director, but The Company are a five strong ensemble who won much acclaim for their energetic As you are now so once were we. This devised piece is a show not about living in the ruins after the economic tornado that hit us, or chasing that tornado for wherefores, but building anew.

DruidMurphy 2 Oct – 14 Oct Gaiety

Garry Hynes again directs the flagship festival show, 3 plays by Tom Murphy, which you can see back to back on Saturdays Oct 6th and 13th. Famine, A Whistle in the Dark, and Conversations on a Homecoming tell the story of Irish emigration.Famine is set in 1846 Mayo. The second crop of potato fails and the unfortunately named John Connor is looked to, as the leader of the village, to save his people. Whistle, infamously rejected by the Abbey because Ernest Blythe said no such people existed in Ireland, is set in 1960 Coventry where emigrant Michael Carney and his wife Betty are living with his three brothers when the arrival of more Carney men precipitates violence. Conversations is set in a small 1970s Galway pub where an epic session to mark Michael’s return from a decade in New York leads to much soul searching. The terrific Druid ensemble includes Rory Nolan, Marty Rea, John Olohan, Aaron Monaghan, Beth Cooke, Niall Buggy, Eileen Walsh, Garret Lombard, and Marie Mullen.

Hamlet 4 Oct – 7 Oct Belvedere College

The play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the Wooster Group making their Dublin debut. Founded in the mid 1970s by director Elizabeth LeCompte, who has led them ever since, this show experiments with Richard Burton’s filmed 1964 Broadway Hamlet. The film footage of perhaps the oldest undergraduate in history is rendered back into theatrical immediacy in a postmodern assault on Shakespeare’s text which includes songs by Casey Spooner (Fischerspooner).

Shibari 4 Oct – 13 Oct Peacock

This Abbey commission by Gary Duggan (Monged) slots perhaps just a bit too neatly into what seems to be one of the defining sub-genres of our time. A bookshop employee, a restaurateur, an English film star, a journalist, a Japanese florist, and a sales team leader fall in and out of love as they accidentally collide in an impeccably multi-cultural present day Dublin. Six Degrees of Separation meets 360?

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.

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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