Talking Movies

December 4, 2012

The Talk of the Town

Emma Donoghue’s original script promised to be one of the highlights of the Dublin Theatre Festival but this much-hyped take on the life and work of New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan failed to do justice to its subject and cast.

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Director Annabelle Comyn reunites with her The House actors Catherine Walker, Darragh Kelly, and Lorcan Cranitch for another period piece. We meet Brennan (Walker) just as she has swapped Ranelagh for Manhattan and joined the New Yorker. But while cartoonist Addams (Kelly) and writer St Clair McKelway (Owen McDonnell) welcome their editor William Shawn (Cranitch)’s lippy new recruit, her ambition to write the Talk of the Town column staggers them.

Brennan though is good enough to quickly secure that coveted job, and then to start filing the magazine with chilling, incisive short stories about her miserable childhood. We glimpse that traumatic past complete with voiceover in scenes staged on a set within Paul O’Mahony’s set in which her parents (Barry Barnes, Michele Forbes) play out their psychodramas. But these flashbacks are quite overplayed, and, like the play, far too fragmentary.

This feels like a screenplay in disguise. There are scenes which last about a minute to play and are there purely for the sake of one good line. This approach largely kills any dramatic momentum, and a perverse decision is taken to ignore an obvious curtain at Brennan’s “atomic age marriage”. Kelly is nicely acerbic, McDonnell swaggers with some depth, and Cranitch has some wonderful moments as the long-suffering editor.

Walker is nicely acidic, but we never get a real feel for the quality of Brenna’s writing, which lessens her despair at writer’s block, while the happy ending is as perverse in its historical opportunism as Scorsese’s The Aviator.

3/5

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October 6, 2010

Phaedra

Rough Magic presents a version of Phaedra that incorporates live music into the unfolding tragedy but the results are sadly uneven…

Phaedra charts the downfall of one of those psychotically dysfunctional families that seemed to proliferate in ancient Greece. Phaedra (Catherine Walker) is a trophy wife married to the older and brutally abusive Theseus (Stephen Brennan) but she is mad with desire for his adult son Hippolytus (Allen Leech), ironically her emotional distance only increases Theseus’ infatuation with her. When news comes that Theseus has been killed champagne is spilled and secret desires are revealed, not only by Phaedra who provocatively poses in her underwear while asking Hippolytus to help her pick out a dress for the funeral, but by Aricia (Gemma Reeves) whose father traded the house to Theseus for his debts. Much like the Abbey’s recent production of Macbeth that attempted to situate the play in Cromwellian Ireland before giving up Phaedra is littered with the remains of a half-abandoned high-concept. Theseus is apparently a property developer and there are references to the entire country circling the drain on its way out. But there’s no sustained attempt to substantively re-imagine Phaedra for the Celtic Tiger so these moments feel like cheap zeitgeist-surfing beside the more pointed resonances to be found elsewhere in the festival with Enron and John Gabriel Borkman.

John Comiskey’s stainless steel set with tunnels leading underground and huge narrow windows and video screens worked by remote control nicely de-domesticises proceedings as the gods stalk this family. Euripides’ tragedy had previously been reworked by Seneca and Racine and this version reinstates the gods Racine discarded, as well as placing five musicians led by Ellen Cranitch and Cormac de Barra on-stage scoring the action. This conceit can be utterly stunning. Aphrodite (Cathy White), Artemis (Anuna co-founder Fionnuala Gill), and Poseidon (Rory Musgrave) sing while the characters move in a stylised fashion and the first act climax is amazing, as is a later sequence where Phaedra rehearsing a speech by repeating certain lines becomes live sampling scored by repetitive music which re-creates the ritualistic origins of Greek theatre. Composer Ellen Cranitch and director Lynne Parker were deeply involved in the extended development of this version so while they should be praised for such heights they must also accept blame for Hilary Fannin’s script which is deeply uneven and too eager to ‘shock’, why else open with Enone (Michele Forbes) discussing re-shaping the contours south of the female border? Fannin favours profanity over profundity to an extent that quickly becomes deeply tiresome, and a number of Theseus’ gynaecological-flavoured insults in the second act receive no laughs when they are clearly meant to be hi-larious.

Gate mainstay Brennan’s Theseus is absent for nearly half the play and when he does appear he is deeply over the top, rolling his voice and relishing his swearwords. Sarah Greene’s saucy Ismene, talking dirty in broadest Corkonian, matches him while Darragh Kelly’s subtle turn as the psychiatrist Theramenes provides a badly needed emotional anchor. Leech redeems himself for Man About Dog with a fine performance as the tortured Hippolytus but while Catherine Walker is strong as Phaedra, for all her dialogue you never feel allowed into her psyche, and that is a disappointing outcome for a classical heroine here re-created by women.

This is worth seeing but what should have been a highlight of the Dublin Theatre Festival only intermittently reaches the heights that were expected of it.

2.5/5

Phaedra continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until October 10th.

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