Talking Movies

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.

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June 11, 2016

Othello

The Abbey joins in the Shakespeare 400 celebrations with its first ever production of Othello and it’s a vibrant cracker

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Beware my lord of jealousy, it is the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feed on

Respected soldier Othello (Peter Macon) has secretly married Desdemona (Rebecca O’Mara), to the dismay and fury of her father Brabantio (Peter Gowen) when he is roused with the news by failed suitor Rodrigo (Gavin Fullam). But the support Brabantio initially receives from his peers on the Council; Lodovico (Barry Barnes), Gratiano (Michael James Ford), and the Duke (Malcolm Douglas); evaporates when they realise his righteous indignation is directed at Othello, for the Ottomans are moving against Cyprus, and Othello is Venice’s indispensable man. Little does Othello realise that Cyprus will turn out to be a psy-ops front rather than a naval engagement. For despite being governed by his friend Montano (Des Cave) Cyprus will prove no home as his ensign Iago (Marty Rea) whispers poison in his ear in an attempt to usurp Cassio (John Barry O’Connor) as Othello’s lieutenant.

Director Joe Dowling seems to dispense with Coleridge’s celebrated ‘motiveless malignity’ of Iago for a fascinating interpretation; that Iago himself is acting throughout under the spell of the same species of madness he casts over Othello. While he is resentful of being passed over for promotion, his true anger seems to circle around his wife Emilia (Karen Ardiff) having betrayed him with the Moor. Iago’s cold treatment of Emilia thus seems a parallel to Othello’s rough abuse of Desdemona – having been turned against her. And his wail at the result of his handiwork adds to this impression; a man suddenly waking from a fugue state horrified at what he’s done. Macon’s performance is extremely impressive, and surprising. Instead of ‘the noble Moor’, dignifying every syllable, he gives us a soldier whose early scenes of camaraderie are rambunctious bordering on rowdy, and whose descent into madness involves howling, screaming, and an epileptic fit. Othello’s modesty about his linguistic skills can seem farcical given his poetic eloquence, but here it signals insecurity because English is his second language, as the American Macon delivers Shakespearean verse with some acutely noted notes and flourishes of sub-Saharan African speech. Rea, in a rare occurrence, is asked to act in his own Northern Irish accent, and this also strips away posturing. Instead of grandstanding in his own villainy in RP, Iago is a street-corner slouch of bored contempt and hidden spite; in which each soliloquy seems to expose a man trapped in his own world of hatred – given memorable visual expression by Sinead McKenna’s lights spotlighting a wordless conversation between Cassio and Desdemona while Iago creeps closer to them, railing at them, lost in solipsistic hate.

Desdemona’s passivity works best as a sheltered girl’s naivety about the world, but O’Mara is too old for the role. Desdemona is thus infuriatingly clueless, but O’Mara does gives full impact to James Cosgrove’s fight direction by selling one of the most shocking stage-punches I’ve seen. Ardiff is a highlight in support making Emilia a beacon of common sense and proto-feminist, but rendering Bianca (Liz Fitzgibbon) as an O’Casey streetwalker is a cheap and mean gag. Dowling’s staging is less naturalistic than previous returns from Minneapolis like 2003’s All My Sons or 2011’s The Field. Indeed Act 3’s celebrated temptation scene takes place against what becomes a blood-red backdrop of ocean upon which vast shadows are cast as Iago corrupts Othello. Before that Venice has been represented by a massive suspended plaque, and as Othello descends into psychosis the walls almost literally close in on him, as the ocean backdrop is truncated by successively closing over more and more of the wooden panelling of Riccardo Hernandez’s set which is identical to the Abbey’s off-stage decor.

It remains bizarre to have chosen this play because of one line, which elicited sustained tittering heedless of the dead and maimed littering the stage during its delivery, but Dowling affords the Bard’s tragedy of jealousy a bold debut.

4/5

Othello continues its run at the Abbey Theatre until the 11th of June.

September 19, 2013

Major Barbara

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Annabelle Comyn directs her third summer show in a row on the Abbey stage and, following 2011’s Pygmalion, makes a welcome return to Bernard Shaw.

Shaw’s 1905 play begins with the imperious Lady Britomart (Eleanor Methven) initiating her shallow son Stephen (Killian Burke) into the shameful history of his millionaire father, arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft (Paul McGann). Lady Britomart intends to tap Undershaft for marriage settlements for their daughters Sarah (Liz Fitzgibbon), engaged to upper class twit Charles Lomax (Aonghus Og McAnally), and Barbara (Clare Dunne), engaged to bohemian Greek scholar Adolphus Cusins (Marty Rea). She also hopes, by inviting Undershaft to meet his children for the first time in decades, to spark some paternal sentiment in him so that he will abandon the Undershaft tradition of disinheriting the lawful heirs in favour of settling the massive arms concern on a foundling. The unrepentant Undershaft, however, is more impressed by his daughter Major Barbara; who he makes swear to visit his arms factory if he visits her Salvation Army shelter. But which of their competing philosophies will overcome the other?

Major Barbara is dominated by the character of Undershaft and McGann rises boldly to the challenge. His entrance into Lady Britomart’s library, absolutely unsure as to which of the three men in it is his son, is expertly prolonged, and his delivery of his unscrupulous politico-economic philosophy jaded without being cynical; his very sincerity hinting at the need for new energy which the steely Barbara suddenly offers to him. Dunne’s fervour as Barbara, with undertones of despair, complements McGann’s nuance, while Methven Fassbenders as the Wildean matriarch insulting her son and prospective son-in-laws with arch put-downs. Burke does a fine job of Stephen’s indignation shading into admiration as he sees his father’s works, but comedic honours go to Aonghus Og McAnally and his repeated contention that whatever’s being discussed involves a good deal of tommyrot. Talking Movies favourite Rea makes his shady character a worthy foil to Undershaft, alternating between ecstatic acceptance and mulish rebellion.

But, far more than Pygmalion, this play engages with the poor of London. The elegant library, by Comyn’s regular set designer Paul O’Mahony, loses its refinement to become the facade of the Salvation Army shelter. Shaw presents the poor who despise being reliant on charity (Chris McHallem’s defeated Peter Shirley), the poor who play up their Christianity to cynically con charity (Emmet Kirwan’s sly Bronterre O’Brien Price), and the poor who only Barbara would tackle (Ian Lloyd Anderson’s truly menacing Bill Walker). This is a London haunted by the winter depression of 1886, and, even as Barbara and Walker clash rhetorically and physically over his rejection of salvation, the visiting Undershaft instructs the attentive Cusins in the employers’ interest in the Army keeping the poor content, but in their place. When Undershaft offers a massive donation to Mrs Baines (Fiona Bell) to help keep open the shelter, Barbara resigns rather than usefully employ tainted money.

And so the final act finds the library transforming into a munitions factory with a massive weapon as its centrepiece as Undershaft attempts to uphold the Undershaft tradition while yet employing his fiery daughter… Major Barbara runs for nearly three hours and is a dense play. Is Shaw satirising the Salvation Army as the acme of religious enthusiasm that horrified staid Victorians? Or merely challenging the Army to convert the rich because they will be more sincere as they do not need their charity? And then there’s the grenade he throws in of personal integrity getting in the way of the greater good. Does Barbara have a duty to accept money made from wrongdoing in order to serve the greater good? Given recent resignations of conscience and Trevor Sargeant’s 2007 resignation to allow his party enter government this is not an abstract Antigone dilemma. Undershaft’s seductive honesty is very Shavian, if he doesn’t believe something he won’t pretend to for the sake of social niceties; and so he magnificently flourishes the fact that his industry controls government. But are his actions consistent with his philosophy or is he as impetuous as Barbara, so Shaw’s calling for compromise not mad idealism?

These knotty questions can’t really be answered, and so this production of Major Barbara is to be commended for expertly maintaining the comedic undertone in its intense examination of the ever-relevant clash between private integrity and the public good.

4/5

Major Barbara continues its run at the Abbey until the 21st of September.

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