Talking Movies

February 14, 2013

King Lear

The Abbey amazingly hasn’t staged King  Lear since the early 1930s. Director Selina Cartmell thus has no  legendary productions of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy to outshine.

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All dark, and comfortless

The aged Lear (Owen Roe) has decided to split his kingdom between his three  daughters. But, while the scheming diabolical siblings Regan (Caoilfhionn Dunne)  and Goneril (Tina Kellegher) flatter him to get their rightful shares, Lear’s  only good-hearted daughter Cordelia (Beth Cooke) refuses to lie or exaggerate,  enraging the vain Lear; and her share is thus split between her sisters’ husbands Cornwall (Phelim Drew) and Albany (John Kavanagh). Cordelia leaves  without a dowry to become the Queen of France and the noble courtier Kent (Sean  Campion) is banished for taking her part in the quarrel. He disguises himself to  serve Lear, but the scheming bastard Edmund (Ciaran Mcmenamin) uses the fraught  situation to eliminate his legitimate brother Edgar (Aaron Monaghan) from the  line of succession to Gloucester (Lorcan Cranitch); exploiting the political  chaos that Lear’s wise Fool (Hugh O’Connor) foresaw…

I found myself comparing Cartmell’s interpretation of the text to Sarah Finlay’s 2010 production  starring Ger Adlum because Gaby Rooney’s costume design replicated its  colour-coded royal houses, both productions being indebted to Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. But instead of Finlay’s icily  austere minimalism Cartmell offered rich medieval costuming, wolfhounds lurching  around between scenes, and a second storey built onto the Abbey stage to add a  period gallery to the drunken carousing in castles below. Garance Marnuer’s  layered set design sends a triangle into the audience for characters to deliver  their monologues, so that in the front rows the eye is caught by actors on three  levels; and that’s before the triangle spectacularly rises for the heath scene.  Given such impressive staging the climactic fight with long-staffs between  Edmund and Edgar surprises with its sheer inertness and lack of ambition in  clashing choreography…

Cartmell’s commitment to visual  medievalism though clashes with her highlighting of the paganism in  Shakespeare’s most nihilistic play. ‘Nothing comes from nothing’ proclaims Lear  in a famously pre-Christian thought, and the illuminated paganism is truly  chilling in one scene in which Lear, holding an antler skull to channel power,  calls down a curse on the heavily pregnant Goneril to make her miscarry for her  ill treatment of him. But… there are constant references to Greek philosophers  and Roman gods, and why would they be invoked if you believed in animist gods or  pantheism? Especially as Gloucester’s “As flies are to wanton boys so are we to  the gods/They kill us for their sport” screams of the capricious Greek  divinities. And that’s before you wonder what historical neverland Cartmell has  situated her post-Roman but pre-Christian nations of France and England in…

Cartmell coaxes many strong  performances. Roe is appropriately magisterial as Lear, while Monaghan is  fiercely committed as Edgar’s alter-ego Poor Tom (even if John Healy was not the  only one coughing Gollum), and Cooke’s Cordelia shedding a tear when Lear  finally recognises her in his madness is extremely affecting. Dunne makes  Regan’s villainy a progressive revelation, while Drew gives some richness to the  oft one-note psychotic Cornwall, and Ronan Leahy stands out from the ensemble  with empathetic nuance as he counsels Gloucester and Cordelia. Kellegher’s  Goneril though lacks subtlety, and Mcmenamin’s Edmund, emphasising his  discordant Northern accent and swanking around in black, at times appears to be  in an entirely different play. Cranitch’s straightforward Gloucester meanwhile  failed to match Keith Thompson’s 2010 camp lecherous interpretation, making his  eye-gouging less traumatic despite some truly horrific gouged eye-socket makeup.  He certainly wasn’t helped though by both beard and gouged-eye makeup peeling  off on the night I went…

This is a good production that has a  number of great performances, but some disappointing turns and an  inconsistency in tackling the text hold it back from true greatness.

3/5

King Lear continues its run at the Abbey  until the 23rd of March.

February 15, 2012

Hamlet

Regular readers will remember previous worries about the possibility of an unbiased review if you know actors in a play. The problem is magnified with a play directed by Keith Thompson; my sometime co-writer, co-director, and leading man. This is a semi-unbiased review of his production of Hamlet in UCD’s Astra Hall last month with Sam McGovern playing the Dane.

Alas poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio, a man of infinite jest

Thompson has form with Shakespeare at the Astra Hall as UCD’s Leaving Cert production. In 2007 his swaggering turn as Banquo alongside Ciara Gough’s charismatically domineering Lady Macbeth upended the text completely by reducing a slightly nervous Macbeth to interloper status in his own play. Thompson also upended expectations in Sarah Finlay’s King Lear with a lecherous and camp interpretation of Gloucester that superbly heightened the pain of that character’s grisly fate at the hands of Cornwall. Here, Thompson cut the text drastically to showcase naturalistic comedy and an arrestingly physical central performance from Sam McGovern. Patrick Doyle’s Macbeth in 2009 was an incredibly original performance that saw Macbeth as a distrait hero who, touched by magic, sees things others can’t before descending into psychosis. McGovern’s Hamlet was less determinedly uncanny but displayed an equally confident mastery of the verse.

Doyle threw away his most quotable quotes as mumbles to wrong-foot the audience expecting a scholastic reading, and Thompson simply chopped many of the most famous lines. Polonius becomes a very serious character because of his ‘advice’ to Laertes disappearing completely. This approach worked eventually but made the first act hard going. A minimalist set of clinical white drapes, and sparse props being wheeled in, made Sam McGovern’s first black-clad appearance very arresting; but his emo-Hamlet, grieving furiously in this anti-septic arena, led to overwrought scenes with the ghost which suggested that five acts played at a level of such painfully overdone earnestness, without any comic relief, would become unbearable. Far from it. The second act began with Hamlet in a red football shirt wheeling in a child’s sled of picture books and soft toys which he threw at Polonius…

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lingered in the memory because, from the moment Russ Gaynor as a drunkenly buffonish Guildenstern and Jackie Murphy as the sober sister Rosencrantz arrived, they were saucy, hilarious, and conveyed that they really were old friends of Hamlet, and that they had old shared comic routines and in-jokes. That feel of naturalistic comedy is what made this production sparkle. Murphy’s stunt casting as a female Rosencrantz paid off by making her plea to Hamlet to yield up Polonius’ body, ‘My lord, you once did love me’, unexpectedly affecting. The jokiness developing naturally from the text consistently allowed incredible depth to suddenly emerge as a counterpoint; most notably during the arrival of the players when a tableau was formed and a spot-lit, visibly stunned Hamlet turned to haltingly deliver the ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave’ soliloquy.

Joking aside, the tragedy was streamlined by textual cuts; foregrounding Hamlet as a stalking avenger rather than chronic ditherer. This Prince was truly menacing in his madness, his murder of Polonius seemed to have been long in the making from his violent threats against Ophelia, Gertrude, and even Guildenstern, with his ever present and very nasty pocket knife. Colm Kenny-Vaughan’s antagonist Claudius deserves special mention. Gill Lambert and Niamh O’Nolan’s costumes were inexplicably New Romantic but Kenny-Vaughan worked their wizened make-up job to suggest a character decaying from the inside as guilt eats away his soul. He imported a huge amount of complexity into Claudius’s guilt, his delivery of the devastating couplet ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below/Words without thoughts never to heaven go’ deeply regretful, and his assenting to drink the poisoned chalice becoming an atoning gesture.

Less showy supporting turns from Molly O’Mahony as a subdued but concerned Gertrude, and John Kelly as a nicely simmering Laertes, fleshed out a convincingly naturalistic Court. McGovern’s impressive madness was able to fly between high comedy, touching pathos, and startling violence in large part because of the grounding effect of Ben Waddell’s stalwart turn as Horatio. But, while there was much to praise in the interpretation of the text and the performances coaxed from the youthful cast, the default minimalist staging adopted by Thompson and producer Niall Lane never fully utilised the full playing space of the Astra Hall, and in its white-out effect was too reminiscent of Finlay’s 2010 staging of King Lear which offered late Kurosawa style colour coded royal houses against an icily austere backdrop. The climactic fencing duel, however, was thrillingly realised within this space.

Thompson and McGovern are unlikely to do another Astra Hall Shakespeare production but any future collaboration between them should be eagerly anticipated.

4/5

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