Talking Movies

September 28, 2011

Hay Fever

Director Patrick Mason expertly mines a classic comedy for laughs for the third summer in a row, with the help of regular collaborators including Marty Rea.

Designer Michael Pavelka furnishes a fabulously opulent 1920s country house set for Noel Coward’s comedy of deplorable manners, complete with absurdist touches like the classical bust above the door that bafflingly manages to hold a cigarette in its lips. Rea, a Mason regular after Arcadia and The Rivals, plays the spoilt toff Simon Bliss who invites femme fatale Myra to his country house for the weekend only to discover that his sister, father and mother have all invited a guest for the weekend too, and not told each other, never mind their put upon servant Clara. And that’s about as much plot as Coward bothers with, everything else is the interactions of the guests and their hosts. Highlights of these comically brusque encounters include a peeved Rea entreating his guest to have a seat by launching her in the direction of the sofa.

Ingrid Craigie Fassbenders as the retired actress matriarch Judith for whom all the world’s a stage, but who is continually wounded by references to her advanced years in connection to her inviting a star-struck gentleman caller. Beth Cooke essays a Cowardian rather than a Stoppardian teenager for a change as Sorel, the most self-aware of the Bliss family, who tries to rein in their bad manners but unconsciously seems to realise that such atrocious behaviour is just too much fun. Stephen Brennan is nicely scatterbrained as the novelist patriarch whose furious indignation, when his just finished book’s geographical accuracy is questioned, powers the final and funniest scene of the whole play. Coward’s play becomes progressively funnier as it proceeds, beginning with the guests arriving and being ignored by their hosts, before partner-swapping all round leads to romantic play-acting which terrifies the guests.

Stephen Swift, a blustering buffoon in Arcadia, here milks laughs as a simpering ninny (invited by Judith) whose over-enthusiastic delivery of the word ‘Rather’ repeatedly brought the house down. I’ve twice ripped screenwriter Mark O’Halloran for his devotion to misery so let me praise to the heights his turn as the diplomatist invited by Sorel. O’Halloran’s is by far the most stylised performance. His pencil ronnie, nervous smile, and exaggerated sitting movement and motions are almost commedia dell’arte, and his performance is comedic artistry. While Kathy Rose O’Brien’s flapper makes occasional hilarious outbursts against her treatment it is only Myra, the most acerbic guest, vampishly played by Jade Yourell, who forlornly rebukes the Bliss family. Behaving badly is so much fun that the Bliss family engage in deliriously enjoyable bickering oblivious to their guests nervously fleeing this madhouse.

Coward’s drawing-room comedy may not quite reach the heights of Wilde but such a feast of absurdist action and witty lines is to be relished.

4/5

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August 2, 2010

Death of a Salesman

Harris Yulin, familiar as a ‘That Guy’ from Looking for RichardBuffy, and 24, gets a chance to shine in a lead role in this revival of Arthur Miller’s coruscating 1949 play.

deathoas

Salesman was a devastating response to people embracing the post-war boom by forgetting that the last boom, driven by cheap credit and property speculation, had produced the intractable Great Depression. The American Dream requires both such collective amnesia and a self-delusion that everyone can succeed in a system whose rules only allow some succeed. Such self-defeating dreaming is articulately skewered by Miller in the self-deceptions of the titular salesman Willie Loman. Talking of dreams – “Who let Ellen Page loose in here?” asked fellow Inception fan Stephen Errity (stephenerrity.wordpress.com) as we first noticed Michael Pavelka’s set, which tilts towards the audience from a height of a few feet, even as the facade of a hideous apartment building with a tree growing through it topples towards the actors. This set communicates Willie’s loosening grip on reality. His sons complain that he is talking to himself at night, but really he is talking to them, his reality is slipping from the present to events from years gone by. He interacts with teenaged versions of his sons in scenes which start purely in his mind and then explode into physical life with the help of quick costume and hair-style changes. Director David Esbjornson also skilfully employs the mobile props on the stage to slide between locations and temporalities.

Willie raised his sons to believe they were leaders of men and he clings to delusions of his own importance despite being forced back on the road instead of receiving the office job he was promised for his trailblazing work for the firm as a younger man. Willie is a willing victim because he has been bewitched by the notion that everyone can end up like his brother Ben who boasts – “When I was 17 I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21 I walked out. And by God I was rich.” His implosion due to money worries, in particular a meltdown with his old boss’s feckless son, is incredibly raw as Yulin does justice to Miller’s script, which wraps an emotional knock-out punch around his politico-economic message.

Willie’s disintegration is given its pathos by the effect it has on his family. Garrett Lombard as Willie’s eldest son Biff (an aimless self-loathing drifter), Rory Nolan as the younger Happy (mildly successful in business but insanely successful in womanising), and Deirdre Donnelly as long-suffering wife Linda, make you care intensely for their flawed characters and their various efforts to save their everyman patriarch, particularly a heart-rending restaurant scene where Biff attempts to lay bare the lies he and Willie have told themselves over the years. Lombard’s accent became pure mule during some tense scenes but that problem should disappear as the run continues, while in minor support the Gate ‘repertory’ enjoy themselves with Stephen Brennan’s luminous white-suited Ben out-Fassbendering Barry McGovern’s droll waiter and John Kavanagh’s Charley.

Miller was sometimes criticised for letting his moral concerns trump naturalistic dialogue but this production is riveting theatre.

4/5

Death of a Salesman runs at the Gate Theatre until September 25th.

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