Talking Movies

February 25, 2016

Austerity and the Arts

The Journal has compiled a handy guide to various political pledges on arts funding. But take all with the caveat of Pat Rabbitte’s infamous slip on farcically utopian bait-and-switches, “Sure isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”


Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture at the British Library last year excoriated politicians, especially the Tories, for wanting to bask in the reflected glamour of cultural icons, and boast about the money such activity makes for Britain, both in its own right and in attracting tourists via a sheen of national creativity, without ever wanting to invest in it. According to him these people believed artists magically appear, and start providing a return without requiring any initial capital outlay; an impressive economic conjuring trick to be sure. Whereas, he pointed out, Roxy Music would not have come about without a previous generation establishing a whole gamut of public investment in the future: the NHS, Arts Schools, libraries, galleries, museums, and the dole. According to the Social Democrats there has been a 55% cut in arts funding since 2008 in Ireland. Such cuts dramatically change the cultural current. Take Annabelle Comyn.

Annabelle Comyn was the founding artistic director of Hatch Theatre Company in 2004. She directed a number of contemporary British plays (by Martin Crimp, Dennis Kelly, David Greig, and Zinnie Harris) with regular collaborators including set designer Paul O’Mahony, sound designer Philip Stewart, and actor Peter Gaynor. Then in 2009 Hatch Theatre Company saw its grant slashed from €90,000 to €20,000. After that there was no funding for any projects submitted, and Comyn, who had also directed Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Caryl Churchill’s A Number for the Peacock in 2006 and 2007, took the hint. As she told the Irish Times in a 2014 interview “I remember thinking that the work I had done with Hatch – predominantly contemporary British plays – wouldn’t get funding.” So began two years in which one of Ireland’s best theatre directors didn’t work as a director.

And then Abbey artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail offered her the chance to direct Pygmalion at the Abbey’s main stage in 2011. So began a new phase of Comyn’s career. Her version of Shaw’s comedy emphasised that Henry Higgins really is stripping Eliza Doolittle not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims. The coldness of Charlie Murphy’s Eliza to Higgins in their final scenes captured the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on, and was an unexpected touch. 2012 saw her back on the Abbey main stage reviving Tom Murphy’s 2000 Abbey commission The House. This Chekhovian tale of social climbing and the frustrations of returned emigrants in the 1950s saw Comyn add new strings to her bow as she blocked 13 people for a chaotic drunken speech and fight. Comyn’s interpretation of Murphy’s melancholic character study with barbed commentary on societal failure saw her win Best Director at the Irish Times Theatre Awards. And yet…

DG declan conlon and Catherine Walker

A director who specialised in premiering contemporary British plays is now (with the exception of 2012’s The Talk of the Town) exclusively reviving classic texts. A cultural current in Irish theatre has been diverted, and you can be sure that nobody returned to Dail Eireann after tomorrow will have as a priority allowing it to resume its original course. Does it matter? Well, John McGahern, the Irish novelist par excellence, would not have become the writer he was had he not been exposed to the works of Flaubert, Camus, and Hemingway. It matters if our theatrical landscape suddenly has a Berlin wall of austerity erected cutting off consistent interaction with new British writing. In the grand scheme of things cutting a €90,000 grant has had a larger effect than the latter-day Gladstone who made that retrenchment could ever have imagined.

To quote the two voices at the end of GK Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The other voice replied—

“The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost.”


April 5, 2012

Stage v Page

I’ve noted that I tied myself up in absolute knots over the distinction between plays that really have to be seen rather than read, and plays that really have to be seen because they are the best that have ever been written. Here are some musings on it.
Anyone who’s done English at college or been involved in amateur dramatics will have read an awful lot of plays, far more than anyone outside of those little bubbles. But reading a play is not the same thing as experiencing a play. The script is the blueprint, and in most cases the reason a play works, but it needs the efforts of the actors and the crew to come alive and realise its potential. I’ve tried here to isolate three key areas where plays need to be seen on stage rather than just read: ambiguity, physicality, and, um, physicality (meant slightly differently). I’ve been trying to get to Chekhov plays whenever there’s a good production on because in performance the layers of his work are truly amazing. Chekhov thought he was writing uproarious comedy, Stanislavsky thought he was writing heartbreaking tragedy, and it’s a joy to see those two interpretations vie for control of the text. Many great plays can be enjoyed as reads, but in performance are additionally ambiguous. Patrick Marber’s production of Pinter’s The Caretaker received dazzling reviews for bringing out the black comedy of the material to a hilarious degree, while Hamlet can be played almost any way you want by judicious pruning of the unwieldy text. Then there’re the texts that are just deeply unstable. Kander & Ebbs’ Cabaret has had so many songs cut and pasted back and forth with equivalent scenes from Isherwood over the years that a stable version is impossible. The text is so fluid you never know what to expect. Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life deliberately locks in such fluidity by ensuring no two productions will be the same thru ultra-vague directions.
I’ve seen Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound twice, and both times the script’s brilliance and precision defeated its own realisation. I saw a cast corpse repeatedly towards the end, having performed After Magritte perfectly, as the jokes just became too funny for them. I then saw a director construct a minimalist set that bore no resemblance to Stoppard’s mirrored theatre and instead appeared to be a small cafe shut for the night with its chairs upside down on top of its tables. The overlapping and interrupting language deployed by Mamet is often impossible to really grasp on the page, so that I didn’t like Speed the Plow when I read it but found it hysterically funny when I saw it performed some years later, while for physicality Jez Butterworth’s live horse on stage in Jerusalem takes some beating. Some plays have to be seen because reading the stage directions alone can’t convey the experience they conjure. How can you properly imagine the farcical chaos of Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, in which people act normally in the dark, and then grope around the stage blindly when the lights are turned on? How funny in performance is the notorious stage direction in The Winter’s Tale, “Exit, pursued by a bear?” What precisely do harassed directors do when they stumble upon Peter Shaffer’s simple yet infuriating stage direction in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, “They cross the Andes”? How can you really feel the true Brechtian alienation reading thru The Life of Galileo when you don’t have the disconcerting physical presence of the director in the corner of the stage turning the pages of the script as the actors rattle thru their lines? How can you grasp the mischievous power of Anthony Shaffer’s 1975 play Murderer unless you actually see on stage the paragraph of stage directions which precede the dialogue on the opening page; a paragraph which we’re told takes 20 minutes of playing time as it describes protagonist Norman Bartholomew dismembering his lover’s naked body beside a window before the local police sergeant arrives following a neighbour’s complaint…
You can be familiar with a play from reading it, but you don’t really know it until you’ve seen it in performance.

May 25, 2011

‘I need to do more theatre’

I was struck, reading the Win Win press release, by the sheer amount of theatre work, and acclaimed theatre work at that, undertaken by the lead actors.


“I could be doing that new LaBute play right now”

Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor and Burt Young all have theatre resumes as long as your arm, while Bobby Cannavale, presumably feeling guilty about his lack of theatre work, finally hit Broadway in 2008, and won a Tony nod for his troubles. What’s interesting about the resumes of this particular clutch of actors is the picture it builds up of what good actors, interested in telling emotionally engaging human stories, really want to do. Looking at the plays that they’ve done you can expand out to include more related works to create a convincing picture of just what actors have in mind when they sigh in interviews for crummy films – ‘I need to do more theatre’.

The plays explicitly mentioned in the press release include works by Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Chekhov, Stoppard, Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Neil LaBute, Theresa Reback, David Rabe, and Lanford Wilson. You could add to that list a select clutch of other names: Mamet, Sophocles, Pinter, Beckett, Lorca, Moliere, Arthur Miller, Shaw, Ibsen, Shepard, Strindberg, Friel, Hare, Churchill, Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh, Jez Butterworth, Kenneth Lonergan, John Logan, Martin Crimp. There’s a hit list of great plays and juicy roles every actor wants to have a shot at, and it boils down to a desire to do both the classics (ancient and modern) and interesting new work, which is hilariously contradictory, and also would take up all your life for very little pay if you eschewed film and TV work to do it. But…you can’t help but think that sometimes actors feel, as when Aaron Eckhart lamented to the L&H in UCD ‘I need to do more theatre….’, that it might be a more fulfilling if far less lucrative choice to concentrate on theatre.

Those great plays are nearly always the things I think of when watching good actors in bad movies, when a look of despair/desperation that doesn’t belong to the character they’re playing seems to convey the inner thought process the actor has slipped into: “God. I killed as Teach in American Buffalo a few years ago, now I’m having a nightmare within a nightmare within a really crummy exploitation vampire noir; which in some categorisations might be a nightmare. I need to do more theatre.” I will neither confirm nor deny I have someone from the movie Rise: Blood Hunter in mind when I write that…

This is not to engage in the snobbery, that theatre is a purer art form than cinema, which drove cinephile Michael Fassbender to quit the Drama Centre. It’s merely to recognise that, bar exceptional roles like James Bond, Batman and their ilk, it’s not possible in cinema to measure yourself against the standard set by actors past by taking on an unchanging role. That compulsion, which drove Jude Law to play Hamlet, ensures theatre remains an off-screen siren call…

April 26, 2011

Revue: Attempts on Her Life: Review

A postmodern play is what we mean when we point at something and say, ‘This is what we mean by a postmodern play’…

A review of a play should be impartial and objective. It’s never a good idea to review a play when you know people acting in it. Having said which I’ve already done so to an extent when reviewing Death of A Salesman last summer. But of course I never knew Rory Nolan half as well back in 2001 when he was my Dramsoc committee liaison as I do some of the people in this play. Can we get around this? Perhaps..


BORIS, GODUNOV, and JOHNSON are onstage. They can be any age and either sex. They are panellists on a TV show, or maybe politicians at a debate, you decide.

BORIS: It’s weird beyond belief. I approve.

GODUNOV: But is it good-weird or bad-weird?

BORIS: Can one apply such banal terms to post-modern theatre? It exists, it breathes; one cannot pigeonhole it into such bourgeois categories as good or bad.

JOHNSON: But surely a play has to achieve something other than simply being?

BORIS: You would like a tidy linear plot and developed characters progressing along a satisfying and predictable emotional arc, would you? Anything else we can do for you while we’re rolling back theatrical history? Bring back the Lord Chamberlain? Maybe we could ban women from acting again…

GODUNOV: I think that what Johnson meant was that a post-modern play whose sole content is reiterations of how impeccably post-modernist it is becomes as self-defeating as a woman Irish poet whose sole subject for poetry is the trials of being a woman Irish poet, to the point where you must ask if it’s such a chore trying to fit into the patriarchal tradition of Yeats why not just chuck it for something more congenial like novel-writing. Seems to work out nicely for Emma Donoghue…

BORIS: There you go again. You have an obsession with every work of art being pre-digested for your facile consumption, rather than struggling against patriarchy.

JOHNSON: I fear Boris that we are getting away from the play.

BORIS: Yes. We are. I thought a triumphant scene was the superbly combative Aisling Flynn talking down Ian Toner in the panel discussion tentatively chaired by Sam McGovern.

GODUNOV: Yes, he did catch rather well the host awkwardly caught between both trying to start fights and defuse excess tension at the same time.

BORIS: Shut up, Godunov. Yes, it was a pitch-perfect parody of the sort of spats over modern art once catches on Newsnight Review of a Friday. I also admired the deranged quality of Fiachra MacNamara’s monologue while blindfolded and being whipped by a girl wearing a pig-mask and shouting thru a microphone.

JOHNSON: The blunt satire of the second scene with the children’s entertainment turning into a discussion of atrocities bothered me by its tremendous lack of subtlety. Does one need really need to jackhammer at obvious truths like that? But I must ask you one question Boris. Did it not bother you that for large chunks of the play you had absolutely no idea what was going on? I’m thinking of that amusing but baffling Pinter homage where Toner and McGovern seemed to be either ad-men or hit-men, writing a personal ad or an obituary, with a mysterious suitcase bothering their efforts.

BORIS: I understood everything that happened.

GODUNOV: I beg to differ. You turned to me during the scene with the six actresses doing the satirical car adverts in different languages to ask in a terrified whisper if that man was meant to be on stage or had he just wandered in off the street?

BORIS: I was merely adding to your confusion to amplify the intended artistic effect…

JOHNSON: The scene deconstructing pornography I thought was another highlight.

BORIS: It appealed to your low taste for moralism in art did it?

GODUNOV: Why must you constantly sneer at any attempts to find meaning in life?

BORIS: Because one cannot find meaning in life! Crimp’s entire gestalt is that no play can represent accurately even one person, so how on earth could a play seek not only to create multiple ‘realistic’ characters but then have the audacity to claim that they represent the universe in some sort of microcosm, and that the play can thus make ‘important’ points about society? The only point it can make is the inadequacy of its ability to make points.

JOHNSON: You ascribe a Beckettian impulse to Crimp then, the compulsion to speak, mixed with the awareness of the inability to say anything worth speaking of?

BORIS: Don’t bring your philosophical poppycock into this, Crimp is operating on a purely aesthetic level. I have no idea what I mean by that. Or do I? …

GODUNOV: Are you attempting to say that we must not look for any deeper meaning? That Attempts on Her Life represents merely post-modern theatre’s abdication of the urge to create versions of reality in favour of merely stringing together disparate scenes containing blunt anti-capitalist satire? Didn’t 9/11 make that sort of posturing an embarrassment? If western civilisation is not inviolable what is the point of deconstructing it?

BORIS: Well, one could say the same about resisting the Nazis after the tide turned in Africa or in Russia. The battle against patriarchal structures is never futile. Vive La Resistance. You will notice the ‘La’…

JOHNSON: I think Boris that you have lost your mind.

BORIS: I’m in the good company of Nietzsche in that case.

GODUNOV: And I keenly resent the implication that I am a Nazi.

It’s hard not to feel that Enron shows the influence of Attempts on Her Life while simultaneously abjuring it. They’re both Royal Court productions but separated by a traumatic decade. There are a number of inexplicable musical numbers in both plays although neither is a musical, in both actors double up and a huge cast run thru many different cipher characters, and multi-media is also a commonality with large screens bombarding the audience with subliminally fast images of modern life; but the differences are huge. The blunt satire of capitalism remains, but the generalised anxiety of Martin Crimp is replaced by a sharp focus on the fall of one company by Lucy Prebble, who also develops four stable characters amid the slapstick in order to give us an emotional anchor, and has a solid plot in the downfall of Enron’s insane accounting system to drive things forward in a semi-linear fashion. In other words Attempts on Her Life is an important play but it’s not a trailblazer, nothing can follow it, other writers can only plunder from it what they like best and incorporate it into their own more traditional work – after all if one actually wants to say something about society it’s not really that satisfying only having a dramatic framework that deconstructs the validity of any and all attempts to say anything about society.


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