Talking Movies

June 30, 2016

The Wake

Director Annabelle Comyn revives another late Tom Murphy play at the Abbey, but unlike The House in 2012 this chaotic script proves impossible to tame.

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Vera (Aisling O’Sullivan) returns unbidden to her home in the West for an auction of the hotel she has inherited. But a conversation with neighbour Mrs. Conneeley (Ruth McCabe) about the true circumstances of a death in the family leads her to decide on an unusual course of action. She falls back into the bed of disreputable ex-boyfriend Finbar (Brian Doherty), scandalising her siblings Mary Jane (Kelly Campbell), Tom (Lorcan Cranitch), and Marcia (Tina Kellegher). Their attempts at coming to a compromise are scuppered by Marcia’s husband Henry (Frank McCusker) appointing himself emissary, and making such a good job of his negotiations on behalf of the siblings that he ends up occupying the hotel with Finbar and Vera, and conducting a three day bacchanalia with all lights on and curtains open in the hotel located in the town’s main square.

The Wake is a marvel of clever staging, as a backdrop of stars at night becomes a map of Tuam, while a very narrow playing space progressively deepens, until eventually the fateful hotel itself rises out of the Abbey’s trapdoors. All typical of Comyn and her set designer Paul O’Mahony, but what’s atypical is this Murphy script; which is undoubtedly the least controlled and most chaotic of the six Murphy plays I’ve seen performed. Mary Jane and Tom never convince for a second as real characters, while Finbar and Henry, though both played with considerable charm, often lapse into (respectively) D’Unbelievables homage and speeches that sound like debating positions rather than The Gigli Concert’s character-driven philosophical musings. At times it appears Murphy is in some demented fashion mashing up Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession with his own Conversations on a Homecoming.

This feels like a rough draft rather than a completed piece. The depression afflicting Tom’s heavily medicated wife Caitriona (Nichola MacEvilly) is, barring one sinister moment, played for laughs. The priest Fr Billy (Pat Nolan) is an ineffectual hail-fellow-well-met eejit, a cleric currying favour with the bourgeoisie; sketched in by Tom and Mary Jane in the most primary colours imaginable. Vera’s American inflexions and catchphrases rehearse supporting character Goldfish’s confused cultural identity in Murphy’s subsequent play The House but are far less effective. And O’Sullivan is further ill-served by the woeful misjudgement of Vera repeatedly flashing the audience. The wake’s songs and recimitations are authentic but feel interminable as they drag out the running time, an insult made injurious when they don’t build to anything because Murphy flounces out of the promised destructive climax necessary to impose some dramatic purpose.

There are some fine performances in The Wake, and much good dramatic content, but it drowns beneath the state of the nation speechifying and dramatic flab of ramshackle scripting.

2.75/5

The Wake continues its run at the Abbey until the 30th of July.

October 8, 2014

Spinning

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Karl Shiels, Fiona Bell, Caitriona Ennis and Janet Moran are the weighty cast in Fishamble’s contribution to the Dublin Theatre Festival; a meditation on grief.

Conor (Shiels) arrives unannounced in an unnamed small town and heads for the seaside cafe run by Susan (Bell), who nearly collapses from shock – as he is the man responsible for the death of her teenage daughter Annie (Caitriona Ennis) some years before. Conor has just been released from prison for his role in her death, and has come to return Annie’s locket; and to try and explain what happened. Flashbacks that disrupt their confrontation help the audience piece together the closeness of Susan and Annie, and the courtship, marriage and divorce of Conor and Jen (Janet Moran). As more and more pieces of the puzzle are thrown at us the imminence and inevitability of tragedy weighs down on us; leading to a merciful lie and perhaps a suicide after that redemptive gesture – perhaps not; the crashing waves are ambiguous.

Sabine Dargent’s set impressionistically creates a seaside cafe with table and chairs on a raised platform; but for all other scenes the audience has to do the heavy lifting. Jim Culleton’s direction focuses attention on the great actors, but they’re not miracle workers. Deirdre Kinahan has crafted an intelligent structure, but unlike Our Few and Evil Days she hasn’t filled the structure with any surprising content. Susan and Annie’s close relationship is uncomfortably akin to Gilmore Girls, down to the decent absent father having proposed marriage and been rejected before fleeing; in this case to Melbourne. Annie is a less adorable and smart version of Rory Gilmore; and her plea that they should move to Melbourne because “Our life here is totally crap!” is unintentionally funny; even though Ennis essays a spirited teenager and Bell adeptly alternates tender with traumatised.

Spinning is so rife with cliché that it doesn’t reprise Kramer Vs Kramer or Blue Valentine so much as it descends to the level of soap opera. Moran is awful because she’s given a shrill social-climbing cipher to play. The pantomime ‘oooh!’ reaction of the audience to Conor’s “I let you go back to work” was particularly depressing. Jen insists they pay for a crèche rather than let Conor’s mother babysit, she volubly disparages his family business before happily snaffling up money and house derived from it, and full custody of daughter Kate to boot (odd that people still seriously talk about patriarchy when such sexism is legally enshrined by the courts daily isn’t it?). But all this was seemingly outweighed in the audience’s estimation by Conor’s line, even though she went back to work late hours with her ex-boyfriend.

Spinning is only 75 minutes long, yet I found myself almost checking a phantom wristwatch from its first scene; it was that quickly obvious that this wasn’t top drawer.

1/5

Spinning continues its run at Smock Alley until the 12th of October.

September 18, 2014

Noble

Stand-up Deirdre O’Kane tackles a weighty dramatic role as humanitarian Christina Noble in this biopic set in Ireland and Vietnam.

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Noble (O’Kane) arrives in Vietnam in 1989, on a mission from God – more or less. She had a dream about Vietnam and travelled there, quickly discovering that her calling is to make a difference in the lives of the buidoi, the despised street children. Flashbacks (with Gloria Cramer Curtis and Sarah Greene as the younger Noble) draw the parallel between her tenement childhood and institutionalised teenage years, and the plight of the Vietnamese children she takes under her wing. In Vietnam she attempts to cajole Irish and English businessmen Gerry Shaw (Brendan Coyle) and David Somers (Mark Huberman) into financing building works at the neglected orphanage run by Madame Linh (Nhu Quynh Nguyen). But as her experience with abusive husband Mario Pistola (David Mumeni) has taught her, charm can hide callous cruelty – and figures of authority everywhere disdain their buidoi.

Cinematographer Trevor Forrest’s location work in Saigon is fantastic, with familiar imagery of vegetation floating downriver right next to the modernising city of the Western businessman. Noble is also lit up by many great performances. Ruth Negga is winning as Joan, the best friend of Greene’s teenage Christine. Greene, a Talking Movies favourite for her great theatre work, has a meaty cinematic part here and renders Christina a punchy survivor. Sadly the great Karl Shiels is wasted in as cipherish a cameo as his Peaky Blinders role. This is doubly disappointing because Coyle and Huberman offer wonderfully nuanced turns, and Liam Cunningham as Christina’s drunken father is gloriously ambiguous. However, Cunningham’s self-mythologising father who veers between love and rage is a figure out of O’Casey; which draws attention to Christina Casali’s 1950s Dublin design seeming more suited to 1920s Dublin.

That design even drags us into Angela’s Ashes territory, because everything that can go wrong for Christina does go wrong. Even though it’s based on a true story you feel like writer/director Stephen Bradley’s script is hewing to established clichés of the misery memoir. And there are other problems: Christina’s constant recourse to charming singing feels forced, the practicalities of her living rough in the Phoenix Park and later gaining access to Vietnam are left unaddressed, and even her impassioned rant to God in a church recalls The West Wing. Quite worryingly, following Philomena’s unlovely lead, Bradley seems to deploy pre-Vatican II religious garb as a simplistic visual signifier of presumptive evil. Eva Birthistle’s nun is to be treated as a boo-hiss pantomime villain from her first appearance in a wimple; a veritable judas-goat for judicial, political and familial villains.

Noble has a number of committed performances, but the script doesn’t do them justice; it is too on the nose when it could have used more subtlety and humour in depicting Noble’s extraordinary efforts.

2.75/5

July 22, 2014

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

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Hamlet 25th – 27th September Grand Canal Theatre

You haven’t appreciated Shakespeare until you’ve heard him in the original German. Ahem. Berlin’s Schaubuhne theatre troupe returns under the direction of Thomas Ostermeier for an acclaimed production of the Bard’s magnum opus. 6 actors play 20 roles in a production characterised by a spectacular stage covered in loose earth, turning to mud as actors hose it, and film each other for projection.

 

Zoo 25th – 28th September Smock Alley

Teatro de Chile present a one-hour lecture, of sorts. Two scientists inform you of their astonishing discovery, the last two Tzoolkman people; and then bend their brains trying to figure out how to preserve a culture whose central feature is imitation. So far, so Monty Python, but this is intended to be a serious problematisation of the idea of academic ‘performance’ in serious lecturing.

 

The Mariner 25th September – October 11th Gate

Hugo Hamilton appears to be the Gate’s go-to guy for the theatre festival. Following an adaptation of his Speckled People memoir he unveils an original script about an Irish sailor traumatised by the Battle of Jutland whose mute state inspires very different reactions from his wife and his mother. Patrick Mason directs, but how much insight can novelist Hamilton deliver in 90 minutes?

 

After Sarah Miles 26th September – October 11th Axis/Civic/Pavilion/Draiocht

Don Wycherley’s received nothing but rave reviews for his solo performance as fisherman Bobeen in Michael Hilliard Mulcahy’s new play about a fisherman remembering his life from teenage days in 1969 to the present. As the touring element of this festival Wycherley will appear in four venues as the fisherman who worked as an extra on the filming of epic Ryan’s Daughter.

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Our Few and Evil Days 26th September – October 11th Abbey

Mark O’Rowe takes on directing duties for his first original play in some years and he has assembled a stunning cast for it: Charlie Murphy, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Sinead Cusack, and Ian Lloyd Anderson. We’re promised that a devoted daughter will find out a shocking secret about her parents from a menacing stranger. Violence and poetically abrasive language ensues…

 

Ganesh Versus The Third Reich 1st – 4th October Belvedere

The most ambitious of the three Australian plays at the festival sees the Hindu God Ganesh embark on a journey to reclaim the Swastika from the Nazis, only for things to lurch away from fantastical epic into behind the scenes bickering; as an overbearing director fights with his cast over their right to use the most sacred elements of other cultures.

 

DruidMurphy 1st – 5th October Olympia

DruidMurphy’s trilogy of plays was a highlight of the 2012 Festival, and Garry Hynes returns for a second helping with Marie Mullen and Marty Rea still in tow. Not only will Tom Murphy’s 1985 classic of a dying matriarch, Bailegangaire, be revived, but Murphy has also written a new play Brigit which acts as a prequel by filling in the back-story of matriarch Mommo’s husband.

 

Spinning 1st – 12th October Smock Alley

Fishamble presents the great Karl Shiels in a new play by Halcyon Days playwright Deirdre Kinihan. He plays a man trying to hold onto a life coming apart at the seams, who unexpectedly meets a woman coming to terms with the senseless murder of her daughter. With a cast that includes Caitriona Ennis and Janet Moran this looks set to be an absorbing production.

 

Jack Charles V The Crown 8th – 12th October Samuel Beckett

I can’t help but think of this Australian one-man show as being an eccentric kin to Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Jack Charles was part of the Stolen Generation, and then became part of Koori theatre in the 1970s and a film actor; having been a cat-burglar, heroin addict, and convict in the meantime. He performs his life-story with unrepentant brio.

 

Book Burning 8th – 11th October Project

Belgium story-teller Pieter De Buysser tells the story of Sebastian, a man he met at an Occupy demonstration. Sebastian had become embroiled in a WikiLeaks scandal; and from there De Buysser, and his visual artist Hans Op De Beeck, spin out the implications of one man’s struggles to make Sebastian’s story a synecdoche for a new mode of being in the impersonal globalised world.

November 19, 2013

Dracula

Dublin Castle marked their Hallowe’en weekend Bram Stoker Festival with a stripped down theatrical interpretation of Stoker’s original 1897 text in the Print Works space.

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Jonathan Harker (Patrick Doyle) travels to Transylvania to make the final legal arrangements for Carfax Manor being signed over to Count Dracula (Karl Shiels). He is warned off by the superstitious locals, and his coachman even attempts to dash past the rendezvous, but Harker’s perseverance pays off … to his misfortune. The Count is initially welcoming, but soon Harker realises he is trapped in a Gothic nightmare. His attempts to escape leave him a broken man in the care of Dr Seward (Neil Fleming) back in England. However, the mysterious death of Seward’s fiancé Lucy Westenra, and the ravings of another patient Renfield (Gerard Adlum) lead Seward to confess the truth to Harker’s wife Mina (Nessa Matthews); Lucy was killed by a vampire, and her emasculated husband was the first English victim of that ancient evil intent on conquest – Dracula…

The Print Works is a difficult space to stage Dracula, as the audience sits in a horseshoe arrangement of rows of chairs around a long raised runway. This works well for the initial scenes as Harker brushes off the peasants and makes his way down the runway towards Castle Dracula, and it allows Dracula some nice scares when he stalks among the audience to make his way onstage, but it makes it hard to be truly scary when there’s no grand guignol supply of squibs. Director Keith Thompson instead concentrates on using Stoker’s text to hypnotic effect. Patrick Doyle is a very effective Harker. His crisp English accent overlays a subtly played decline of Victorian confidence as grudging respect for the natives’ sincere concern morphs into panicked desperation and impotence. Karl Shiels is an impressive Count. His over-elaborate courtesy is deliciously played, and a nervous tic with his hand betrays the immense bloodlust he is restraining. The weird sister (sic) makes a creepy appearance indebted to The Ring, but the true power lies in Harker and Dracula’s twisted relationship. Mark Curry’s lighting dims to two spotlights on the pair in the large dark room, to focus the impressive sound design by Jody Trehy and Cian Murphy onto Stoker’s language of sensuous rush as Dracula attacks both Harker’s blood and being.

Stephen King dubs Dracula’s vanishing act from his own story one of “English literature’s most remarkable and engaging tricks”, but it breaks the spell of this performance. Jumping from Harker’s escape attempt to Mina visiting Lucy’s grave is disconcerting enough, but then Van Helsing, Godalming and Morris are composited into Dr Seward; and Dracula without Van Helsing is like the Brat Pack without Judd Nelson. This may not disconcert people unfamiliar with the novel, and it works structurally in creating a lean tale, but it also makes Seward and Harker look quite dim. Mina deduces Dracula’s powers and weaknesses not by mastering the chaotic journals and notes of five disorganised men, unaware that they’re working the same case, but by pointing out the obvious to a doctor and his patient. This tragically undermines the character’s strength, despite Nessa Matthews’ commanding presence. Adlum is an unexpectedly restrained Renfield, who’s delusional enough to delightfully fix his hair before meeting Mina, while Fleming exudes decency and gravitas as Seward. Matthews provides the best scare, shrieking when Seward tries (too late) to spell her against Dracula using a communion wafer, but once Dracula fades from the story the power of this production steadily ebbs away as well.

Thompson coaxes fine performances as he delivers half of an impressive adaptation here, mounted with gorgeous costumes by Sarah Finlay, but the complications of Stoker’s novel ultimately defeat him.

2.75/5

October 7, 2013

The Critic

Rough Magic strikes gold again with a hilarious production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1779 comedy in which they transpose the absurdist action to Georgian Dublin.

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Mrs Dangle (Eleanor Methven) is out of humour with Mr Dangle (Darragh Kelly). She sits reading about Lord North’s monumental failures while he amuses himself reading up on theatre gossip. Her mood is not improved when Mr Sneer (Ronan Leahy) arrives, and the two erstwhile theatre critics ignore the parlous state of the country. But then her beloved struggling writer Sir Fretful Plagiary (Rory Nolan) arrives, and she supports him thru the ‘helpful’ critiques of his latest rejected manuscript by Sneer and Dangle. Luckily for her she misses the arrival of the disreputable Mr Puff (Karl Shiels), who explains his various types of puff-pieces to an impressed Sneer before allowing the duo attend a rehearsal of his new tragedy. At which point a host of actors take to a different stage to perform, with constant interruption from the three gentlemen…

The unusual experience of sitting around in the Culture Box as if eavesdropping in the Dangles’ drawing room before trotting up to The Ark to follow them to a rehearsal of Puff’s tragedy of the Spanish Armada is inspired. In the intimate setting of the Culture Box Nolan’s prancing ninny Sir Fretful Plagiary richly deserved the solo round of applause he got for his harrumphing exit, while Karl Shiels makes a wonderful entrance as the lecherous and slightly tipsy Mr Puff who explains matters like ‘the puff collusive’ with bravura. Sneer and Dangle passing snide remarks from the Ark’s balcony makes you think that Sheridan may have created Statler and Waldorf two centuries before The Muppets: this is their take on Puff’s utterly random comic sub-plot – “Why, this under-plot would have made a tragedy itself” “Ay, or a comedy either”

Peter Daly narrates helpfully at the Culture Box, interrupting dialogue with helpful information for the audience, before stealing the silliest moment of the entire play in The Ark with the infamous silent meditation and preposterously meaningful shake of the head by Puff’s tragic antagonist. Sheridan’s abrupt ending is creatively expanded here with Puff being chased off-stage for criticising his actors and a baffled Dangle and Sneer taking to the vacated floor, reading the opening of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, dismissing it and then being taken by surprise (much like the audience) by the back wall of the theatre slowly rising to a light show, as the talented young ‘tragedy’ actors from UCD Dramsoc, Trinity Players and the Gaiety School of Acting stand in front of a montage of theatre troupe names and people flock into the square behind to observe – thus proving Brook’s point.

The Critic has never been out of repertory of since it premiered in 1779, largely because its well-turned jokes are as fresh as ever.

4/5

The Critic continues its run at the Culture Box until October 13th.

July 27, 2012

The House

Tom Murphy’s 2000 Abbey commissioned play about the frustrations of returned emigrants in the 1950s returned to the Abbey as its absorbing final show before shutting down for asbestos-removing renovation.

Murphy’s play echoes Chekhov on several levels. There is a decaying gentry family headed by Mrs DeBurca (Eleanor Methven), which is about to be usurped by the man who once laboured for them, Christy (Declan Conlon). Struggling to come to terms with their slide down the social ladder are her three daughters of contrasting personalities; the sensible Marie (Cathy Belton), the slatternly Louise (Niamh McCann), and the sinuous emigrant Susanne (Catherine Walker). And the action plays out in a series of fixed locations into which people flow and eddy; in one bar scene there are no fewer than 13 people on stage as a chaotic drunken speech and fight plays out. This might be a hauntingly tragic tale of a man who gets everything he ever wanted at the cost of destroying the very reason he ever wanted them, but that Murphy’s characters are more complex than they initially appear…

Christy appears to be a charming, salt of the earth type but he brutally sets upon his friend Jimmy (Aonghus Og McAnally) in the local bar for a perceived slight the audience will struggle to remember in their shock at this sudden eruption of violence. Marie’s initial snobbishness towards Christy may have been her nervousness at revealing her love for him, but then her later affection may be mere desperation to retain her social standing. Similarly Susanne’s initial flamboyance gets progressively more over the top as Walker heavies the affected English accent to convey Susanne’s growing panic that she belongs nowhere – failed in London, no longer respected in Ireland. Into this ambiguity of character motivation Murphy injects ambiguity of nationality in Christy’s fellow returned emigrants Goldfish (Karl Shiels) and Peter (Frank Laverty). Peter’s accent continually wanders towards England, while Goldfish’s life in New Jersey has corrupted not just his accent but his thoughts; a grab-bag of Western and gangster movie sentiments. ‘Home’ for the summer, they’re really at home nowhere.

This is a society that is eager to hoover up money from these emigrants, but even more eager that they leave again when they run out of cash. Paul O’Mahony’s set impressively furnishes the claustrophobic pub run by Bunty (Darragh Kelly), the house of sardonic lawyer Kerrigan (Lorcan Cranitch), and the patio and dining room of the Big House. (I unfortunately saw the second last performance which saw an enforced interval after the first scene as the revolving stage revolveth not.) Kelly and Cranitch are both hilarious as they embody the hypocrisy of hail fellow well met attitudes to emigrants whose unfocused energy discomforts them. Bosco Hogan, in a surprisingly small role as local Garda Tarpey, adds steel to their refusal to fix a society so broken that it exports its youth. Murphy’s play is always gripping, and often very funny, but it’s a good rather than a great piece of work, and the supposed post-property boom resonance is tangential to its dramatic success as a melancholic study with barbed commentary on societal failure.

Director Annabelle Comyn doesn’t quite reach the heights of last summer’s Abbey Pygmalion but she draws excellent performances from her cast in a quality show.

3/5

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