Talking Movies

March 4, 2018

Why shouldn’t Fast & Furious 8 win the Best Picture Oscar?

The obvious answer is because it wasn’t nominated, but there’s an awful lot to be said about that obvious fact.

George Bernard Shaw once complained, after hearing one too many twits at dinner parties dismissing Wilde as facile, that he seemed to be the only man in London who could not sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will. Fast & Furious 8 would, Vin Diesel promised, star Dame Helen Mirren and win the Oscar for Best Picture. It achieved one of those impossible missions. And probably the one more worth achieving. Can one say that Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture because it was facile? Surely not, because, like Wilde, if it was really that easy then every studio would be able to make their own Fast & Furious at will, and they cannot. This film saga has liberated itself from realism, probability, physics, logic, and continuity in a manner that defines gleefulness. The only people who can save the world are petrol-heads, people escaping explosions or jumping off bridges or falling cars can always land just where someone is driving to pick them, cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, and again cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, the State is welcomed into the family after murdering one of the family because of insinuations that he has a forgiveness-worthy back story. This is glee incarnate.

And glee does not win Oscars.  Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture for the same reason that The Dark Knight was nominated on the understanding that nobody was to actually vote for it. One of my regular theatre cohorts dropped the Freudian slip/zinger “The Dark Knight is great but obviously it wouldn’t the Oscar” when discussing Fast 8 and the Oscars. Think about that, a film is great, but obviously it can’t win the Oscar. Why? Well, because it’s just, um, too popular… A mantra here at Talking Movies is that is what good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good. That would ring alien to Oscar voters, and that’s not my opinion, it’s an empirically observable trend.

Consider the 1980s. Here are the films that topped the North American Box Office and the films that were awarded Best Picture year by year:

1980 The Empire Strikes Back

1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark

1982 E.T.

1983 Return of the Jedi

1984 Beverly Hills Cop

1985 Back to the Future

1986 Top Gun

1987 Three Men and a Baby

1988 Rain Man

1989 Batman

 

1980 Ordinary People

1981 Chariots of Fire

1982 Gandhi

1983 Terms of Endearment

1984 Amadeus

1985 Out of Africa

1986 Platoon

1987 The Last Emperor

1988 Rain Man

1989 Driving Miss Daisy

Only Rain Man won both the commercial and Oscar stakes, but some of the others were damn close. Ordinary People was 11th, Chariots of Fire 7th, Gandhi 12th, Terms of Endearment 2nd, Amadeus 12th, Out of Africa 5th, Platoon 3rd, The Last Emperor 25th, and Driving Miss Daisy 8th at the North American box office in their year of release.

Consider the 1990s, when two films topped the North American box office and were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour.

1990 Home Alone

1991 Terminator 2

1992 Aladdin

1993 Jurassic Park

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Toy Story

1996 Independence Day

1997 Titanic

1998 Saving Private Ryan

1999 The Phantom Menace

 

1990 Dances with Wolves

1991 The Silence of the Lambs

1992 Unforgiven

1993 Schindler’s List

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Braveheart

1996 The English Patient

1997 Titanic

1998 Shakespeare in Love

1999 American Beauty

Oscars were still going to reasonably popular films. Dances with Wolves was 3rd, The Silence of the Lambs 4th, Unforgiven 11th, Schindler’s List 11th, Braveheart 18th, The English Patient 19th, Shakespeare in Love 18th, and American Beauty 13th at the North American box office in their year of release. But the Weinstein campaign that successfully prevented the seminal, serious, and popular Saving Private Ryan from taking the Oscar in favour of their slight but aggressively campaigned for confection bode ill.

Consider the 2000s, and you’ll see the people’s choices at the North American box office getting worryingly and increasingly ever further from the Oscar’s choices.

2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas

2001 Harry Potter 1

2002 Spider-Man

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Shrek 2

2005 Revenge of the Sith

2006 Pirates of the Caribbean 2

2007 Spider-Man 3

2008 The Dark Knight

2009 Avatar

 

2000 Gladiator

2001 A Beautiful Mind

2002 Chicago

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Million Dollar Baby

2005 Crash

2006 The Departed

2007 No Country for Old Men

2008 Slumdog Millionaire

2009 The Hurt Locker

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The Oscars now start to veer sharply away from reality… Gladiator was 4th, A Beautiful Mind 11th, Chicago 10th, Million Dollar Baby 24th, Crash 49th, The Departed 15th, No Country for Old Men 36th, Slumdog Millionaire 16th, and The Hurt Locker 116th at the North American box office in their year of release. Where The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier in the 1980s when all other 9 films placed 12 or higher, now we find Million Dollar Baby at 24, and then beyond it Crash, No Country for Old Men, and The Hurt Locker. Where in the 1990s only 4 films placed lower than 12, now only 4 films placed 12 or higher – something is definitely up.

Consider the 2010s, a decade in which the Oscars have for eight years ostentatiously disdained the North American box office.

2010 Toy Story 3

2011 Harry Potter 7

2012 The Avengers

2013 Catching Fire

2014 American Sniper

2015 The Force Awakens

2016 Rogue One

2017 The Last Jedi

 

2010 The King’s Speech

2011 The Artist

2012 Argo

2013 12 Years a Slave

2014 Birdman

2015 Spotlight

2016 Moonlight

2017 The Shape of Water (?)

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Oh dear… The King’s Speech was 18th, The Artist 71st, Argo 22nd, 12 Years a Slave 62nd, Birdman 78th, Spotlight 62nd, Moonlight 92nd, and (sic) The Shape of Water 46th at the North American box office in their year of release. Remember the good old days in the 1980s when The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier as all the other films were placed 12 or higher? Remember the 1990s when only 4 films placed lower than 12? Or the 2000s when 4 films placed 12 or higher? Now only 1 film out of 8 has even broken into the top 20, and 5 films out of 8 couldn’t even crack the top 50.

What is good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good, clearly has no currency as a mantra for the Oscar voters.

Bret Easton Ellis on his Podcast has persuasively trashed the Oscars from their inception as a ruse to pretend that the Hollywood studios were interested in art not money by parading a social conscience and worthy/boring movies for public notice. Talking Movies some years ago argued the Oscars were out of step, with many awards effectively do-overs, such as James Stewart winning Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story not Mr Smith Goes to Washington. But the Ellis verdict doesn’t sit with the notion in this piece that films which top the North American box office were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour. Boxofficemojo.com only has detailed figures going back to 1980, the less documented Filmsite.org has errors that render it unreliable, so we’re forced to Wikipedia to allow us tentatively examine if there is a basis for saying that the biggest film of a year once customarily won the biggest Oscar prize, not just occasionally.

1930 Tom Sawyer

1931 Frankenstein

1932 Shanghai Express

1933 Cavalcade

1934 Viva Villa!

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 Modern Times

1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

1938 Alexander’s Ragtime Band

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

1930 All Quiet on the Western Front

1931 Cimarron

1932 Grand Hotel

1933 Cavalcade

1934 It Happened One Night

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 The Great Ziegfeld

1937 The Life of Emile Zola

1938 You Can’t Take It with You

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 Sergeant York

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 For Whom the Bell Tolls

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Bells of St Mary’s

1946 Song of the South

1947 Unconquered

1948 The Red Shoes

1949 Samson and Delilah

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 How Green Was My Valley

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 Casablanca

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Lost Weekend

1946 The Best Years of Our Lives

1947 Gentlemen’s Agreement

1948 Hamlet

1949 All the King’s Men

 

1950 King Solomon’s Mines

1951 Quo Vadis

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 The Robe

1954 Rear Window

1955 Cinerama Holiday

1956 The Ten Commandments

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 South Pacific

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1950 All About Eve

1951 An American in Paris

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 From Here to Eternity

1954 On the Waterfront

1955 Marty

1956 Around the World in 80 Days

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 Gigi

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1960 Spartacus

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Cleopatra

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 The Bible

1967 The Graduate

1968 2001: Space Odyssey

1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

 

1960 The Apartment

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Tom Jones

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 A Man for All Seasons

1967 In the Heat of the Night

1968 Oliver!

1969 Midnight Cowboy

1970 Love Story

1971 Fiddler on the Roof

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 Blazing Saddles

1975 Jaws

1976 Rocky

1977 Star Wars

1978 Grease

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

 

1970 Patton

1971 The French Connection

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 The Godfather: Part II

1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

1976 Rocky

1977 Annie Hall

1978 The Deer Hunter

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

Now then, while there are a lot of boring/worthy films crowding out crowd-pleasers in those years, my impression wasn’t entirely unfounded. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s the Best Picture Oscar went to the North American box office champion a regulation 3 times per decade. In the 1960s and 1970s that rose to a regulation 4 times per decade. And then from 1980 to 2018 reverse all engines: instead of 4 times per decade, it has happened 4 times in 4 decades. Something has changed… The Dark Knight would probably have picked up the Best Picture Oscar had it been a film of the 1960s or 1970s, been as great as it was, and been as popular as it was. Unfortunately it arrived a truly obscurantist time for the Oscars, as the very next year the Oscars suckered viewers by nominating Avatar, a genuinely phenomenally popular film, and then awarding the Oscar to The Hurt Locker, which set a new record for unpopularity; being the 116th most popular film at the North American box office in the year of its release. You have to go to the second page of the 2009 statistics on Boxofficemojo.com to find it.

What seemed a deliberate slap in the face to the audience set up this current decade’s obstinate obscurantism and has reaped the appropriate result, fewer and fewer people watching. Now, one shouldn’t automatically equate popularity with artistic merit, but I can’t see that Fast & Furious 8’s glee is completely alien to 1963’s Oscar-winner Tom Jones, nor can I see that its crowd-pleasing is markedly different to 1976’s Oscar-winner Rocky. If it is well-crafted and pleases so many people globally why is it treated like the damn plague? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to announce that the winner at the North American box office would automatically be given the Best Picture Oscar? Or that the nominees for Best Picture would simply be the top 10 films at the box office? Instead the Oscars wring their hands: Why is nobody watching? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters not young and hip enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters too young and hip? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the nominations not diverse enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Yes! We must make the voters more diverse to produce more diverse nominations, that will make people watch, yes? (No, nobody saw the movies)

The Oscars have tied themselves into knots responding to vitriolic campaigns about their supposed racism lest, in the pompous Guardian terminology, they become increasingly insular and irrelevant if they ignore these sorts of institutional biases. And yet, even just going with the rigorously documented last 4 decades, the Oscars have already demonstrably become insular and irrelevant over these recent decades by becoming like a snooty waiter who when asked what’s good on the menu, laughs and says “Well, we have some fine fare for ourselves in the kitchen, but that’s not for the likes of you, eat the slop you’re given”, and clearly have no intention doing anything about that. It’s almost comical after the viewing figures turn out poorly every year to see them scrabble for any and all solutions except the actual, obvious one: nominate popular films, and not just for show, to win, like in the 1970s.

It might concentrate a few minds in Hollywood to automatically give the Oscar to the box office winners, because if you don’t value your stock in trade, and thereby show your contempt for your audience, how exactly do you expect the audience to feel about that – it’s pretty remarkable to expect them to tune in in their billions to watch you slap yourself on the back for movies nobody saw because in large part nobody wanted or would want to see them. It might also make global blockbusters a bit better to have people not simply start shooting with a shoddy script because they know all they need is CGI visuals when this is going to sell mostly in foreign language markets. The decline of the North American box office in its importance to Hollywood is fodder for a whole series of posts, but re-attaching the Oscars to domestic popularity might work on ego if pride is not enough to get people to stand over their work for the masses.

Fast & Furious 9 needs to win the Best Picture Oscar as a grand apology for the ridiculous conduct of the Oscars for many, many years. Make it happen, Hollywood.

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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.

April 8, 2017

Private Lives

The Gate celebrates its regime change by producing a Noel Coward play. Plus ca change, and all that drivel, darling.

Our man Elyot (Shane O’Reilly) arrives at a spiffy hotel in old Deauville for a second honeymoon, as it were, this being his second marriage. His present wife Sibyl (Lorna Quinn) tediously cannot stop talking about his previous wife Amanda (Rebecca O’Mara) and do you know the damndest thing happens; doesn’t she turn out to be staying in the very next room with her present husband, dear old Victor (Peter Gaynor). Whole thing is most extraordinary… Would you credit that their balconies even adjoin?! Sibyl and Victor make themselves so beastly when Elyot and Amanda both independently try to escape this positively sick-making set-up that it really serves them right when El and Am decide to simply decamp together to their old flat in Paris to avoid all the unpleasantness. But the course of true love never did run smooth…

Coward’s ‘intimate comedy’ is a sight too intimate for its own good here. One misses the variety afforded by recent hilarious outings by waspish ensembles for Hay Fever and The Vortex at the Gate. Instead we have a four-hander, and for the whole second act largely a two-hander, where you keep wondering if director Patrick Mason was foiled in casting his regular foil Marty Rea by the latter’s touring commitments. Mason and Rea have triumphed with Sheridan, Stoppard, Coward, Wilde, and you feel Rea urgently needs to play Elyot before he ages out. O’Mara and Quinn are patently too old for their parts, and it makes great bosh of Coward’s script if the naive 23 year old that Elyot flees to here is obviously thirtysomething, while instead of seeking the stolidity of an older man Amanda has married a contemporary.

O’Reilly is nicely abrupt as Elyot, but he and O’Mara never quite reach the heights for which these parts are constructed. But they deliver a wonderfully choreographed fight, chaos so exploding you feel it must topple offstage.  Tellingly the audience reacted with shock when he pushed her, but laughed when she broke an LP over his head… Francis O’Connor’s set design reuses familiar elements (The Father, Waiting for Godot) but its transformation from art deco hotel to primitive chic flat is a marvel and delight. There are also divine musical jokes as Coward’s ‘20th Century Blues’ plays between acts, and Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto (the soul of Coward’s Brief Encounter) mixes with Hitler on the wireless. And did anyone from the Gate see Gaynor in Hedda Gabler? He can do bombast well, but subtle even better; give him a chance!

This, then, is how the Gate Theatre as it was during the Age of Colgan ends, not with a bang but a whimper, and what rough beast slouches towards the Rotunda to be born?

3/5

Private Lives continues its run at the Gate for ever so long.

August 13, 2016

The Constant Wife

Alan Stanford directs Somerset Maugham’s 1920s comedy of marital infidelity and hypocrisy to amusing effect, but in a broad manner.

4_The_Constant_Wife

Constance Middleton (Tara Egan Langley) has it all: rich, lovely house, delightful daughter at boarding school. But her friends and relations feel sorry for her. Well, some of them do. Her redoubtable mother Mrs Culver (Belinda Lang) most certainly does not; indeed she has called on her daughter expressly to prevent her spinster daughter Martha (Rachel O’Byrne) informing Constance that her husband John (Simon O’Gorman) is having an affair with Constance’s bubbly and vacuous best friend Marie-Louise (Caoimhe O’Malley). Both of them are surprised when they learn that Constance knew all along, and even more surprised when she manages to convince Marie-Louise’s husband Mortimer (Peter Gaynor) that he is a monstrous cad for suspecting his wife. Little do they realise that Constance has a plan, involving gossip, plausible deniability, and her former beau Bernard (Conor Mullen) just returned from China.

Constance takes a job with her entrepreneur friend Barbara (Ruth McGill), and emancipates herself from economic dependence on her husband; much to his fury. Indeed there’s a lot of comic male bluster in this play. The Constant Wife is quite funny, but is played as slapstick. Gaynor has a fantastic stride of determined and manly apology, while Mullen lurks in a doorway looking back and forth at the adulterous couple with the suspicious gaze of a man who’s just been told what’s going on (and leans back hilariously for one parting warning glance), and O’Gorman nearly blows a gasket in remaining dashed polite to a man he wholeheartedly desires to knock down and set to.  Given Constance’s Shavian speeches on economics and her mother’s Bracknellisms you wonder if Patrick Mason could elicit subtler laughs and trim the third act repetitions.

O’Malley Fassbenders as the callous airhead, and Lang is delightfully withering, but O’Byrne overplays her RP accent somewhat. Eileen Diss’ appropriately airy set design gives us a drawing room flooded with light, and Peter O’Brien pulls out all the stops in designing a whole wardrobe of glorious flapper era outfits for Maugham’s women to model. Programming this as high summer fare, for the second time in a decade, seemed an absurd exemplar of Michael Colgan’s latter sterility as artistic director, and news of his retirement followed soon after. Maugham’s play is good, but can one justify reviving it when the Gate has only produced three Stoppard shows since 1984? Being The Real Thing, and Arcadia twice. We know the Gate needs full houses but couldn’t an exuberant Stoppard like Night and Day, Indian Ink, or Jumpers pack a house too?

The Constant Wife is entertaining, but not of Cowardian calibre. It and the Abbey’s ramshackle The Wake have represented a veritable Scylla and Charybdis of commerce over aesthetics and ideology over aesthetics this summer.

3/5

The Constant Wife continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 3rd of September.

July 25, 2016

Jamie & Spencer Need Movie Dates

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life” said Oscar Wilde, and so to celebrate the release of Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates on August 10th, eligible bachelors Jamie Laing and Spencer Matthews are looking for two friends to join them as their dates to a preview screening of the film in London on August 2nd.

To enter the competition, applicants must comment on Jamie Laing’s post on Twitter or Instagram, tagging 1 friend that they would like to enter the competition with, explaining why they would make the best dates for Jamie and Spencer.

Entry for the competition is open now and closes Wednesday 27th of July at 11:59pm GMT.

See here for terms and conditions. Entrants must be 18 or older.

Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates sees hard-partying brothers Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) place an online ad to find the perfect dates for their sister’s Hawaiian wedding. They’re looking for respectable girls at the insistence of their father (Stephen Root) who doesn’t want them ruining the wedding. But the ad soon goes viral and instead of respectable girls they get a conniving and uncontrollable duo (Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick) and find themselves outsmarted and out-partied.

Kendrick’s 50/50 director Jonathan Levine produces a script by Bad Neighbours creators Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien as SNL and Funny Or Die director Jake Szymanski makes his cinematic debut.

May 3, 2016

Northern Star

Director Lynne Parker revisits her late uncle Stewart Parker’s 1984 script again, with a Brechtian touch, and the result is a theatrical tour de force.

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Henry Joy McCracken (Paul Mallon) is on the run. The 1798 Rebellion has failed miserably in Antrim as he has found himself leading literally dozens of men, to exaggerate slightly. And exaggerating slightly is something McCracken does a lot during a purgatorial night in a ruined house with his Catholic lover Mary (Charlotte McCurry). As he attempts to construct some sort of decent speech from the gallows for the citizens of Belfast he trawls through his memories of the 1790s, remembered in flashbacks that approximate to Shakespeare’s 7 Ages of Man and to the style of 7 different Irish playwrights. There is the ribald shenanigans of Sheridan in rooting out informers, the melodramatic balderdash of Boucicault in uniting Defenders and Orangemen, and the witty quips of Wilde in McCracken’s dealing with Wolfe Tone and Edward Bunting. But there’s also darkness…

Lynne Parker has spoken of adopting a Brechtian approach by having McCracken identified by his jacket, so Mallon can hand it over to other actors and sit back and observe himself in his own flashbacks; played by Ali White with gusto in the Boucicault flashback and with comic disbelief in the O’Casey flashback. This combined with Zia Holly’s design, confronting the audience with the wings of a theatre as the playing space, amps up the theatricality of Stewart Parker’s script, which was already reminiscent of Stoppard’s Travesties in its dialogue with and pitch-perfect parodies of older works. Rory Nolan is hilarious as a dodgy Defender played in the style of O’Casey’s Paycock, and as harp enthusiast Edward Bunting played as Algernon Moncrieff’s ancestor, in Stewart Parker’s two most acute ventriloquisms. But all these capers occur underneath an ever-present literal noose.

Mallon and McCurry scenes in McCracken’s long night of the soul are the emotional glue that binds together the fantastical flashbacks, and they are affecting as she tries to convince him that his sister’s plan to escape to America under false papers is a reprieve not banishment. The flashbacks become more contemplative after the interval with Darragh Kelly’s loyalist labourer challenging McCracken over his failure to rally Protestants to the United Irishmen’s standard, and a prison flashback revealing the desperation of McCracken’s situation. Richard Clements, Eleanor Methven, and Robbie O’Connor complete the ensemble, deftly portraying a dizzying array of characters in McCracken’s remembrances. Mallon is wonderfully melancholic during Parker’s most overtly state of the nation moments, and remarkably, even with the Troubles’ paramilitary iconography at work, a 1984 play about 1798 sounds like it’s addressing 1916 at a theatrical remove.

Rough Magic’s 2012 Travesties occasionally lost the audience with its intellectual bravura, but Lynne Parker through theatrical panache has indeed ‘liberated’ this equally clever meditation on history and culture.

4/5

Northern Star continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until the 7th of May.

December 31, 2015

‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ published in Irish Studies Review

I’m pleased to belatedly report that my essay ‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ has been published in a special issue of the Irish Studies Review edited by Catherine Wilsdon and Giulia Bruni.

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G.K. Chesterton’s 1936 Autobiography affectionately re-creates his first meetings with W.B. Yeats, whose critical thought Chesterton parsed in his 1905 book Heretics. Chesterton was dubious about Yeats’s occultism, but attracted by the Irish Revival’s linking of cultural reawakening with small-scale economic independence. His criticism of Yeats’s linking of nationalism and mysticism anticipates Benedict Anderson’s seminal theorising of nationalism. P.J. Mathews’s Revival locates texts in the context of separatist agitation against Joseph Chamberlain’s Boer War. Chesterton’s 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill can be read as a parallel text, explicitly rebutting Chamberlain’s imperialist philosophy, but also repurposing elements of Yeats’s critique of Matthew Arnold’s Celt/Teuton cultural binaries for application to English classes. Declan Kiberd’s idea that Wilde exposed England as deeply colonised by the British Empire usefully situates Notting Hill‘s anti-imperialism. Chesterton grants the English populace the Hellenistic spontaneity of consciousness Arnold denied them, and sets forth a vision of English nationalism that even contains a critique of Anderson’s “official nationalism”. Notting Hill‘s politico-cultural revolution, led by Wayne, a poet-warrior, and Turnbull, a visionary shop-keeper, defeats the forces of imperialist politics, plutocratic economics, and empiricist philistinism, and acts as an English parallel in its concerns to Yeats’s decolonising process.

December 4, 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

Director Patrick Mason reunites with Marty Rea and Rory Nolan, the double act from his 2009 production of The Rivals, for an elegant production of Wilde’s comedy of dual identities.

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Algernon Moncrieff (Rory Nolan) is a confirmed Bunburyist; evading formidable aunt Lady Bracknell (Deirdre Donnelly) by dint of imaginary invalid friend Bunbury, who is at death’s door whenever she issues invitations. Algernon is determined to unmask his friend Ernest Worthing (Marty Rea) as a secret Bunburyist after finding a card revealing him to be Ernest in town, but Jack in the country. Jack insists he is merely maintaining a high moral tone for the benefit of his ward Cecily (Lorna Quinn) by the invention of disreputable brother Ernest, whose outrages necessitate frequent trips to London. But when Jack’s new fiancé, Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (Lisa Dwyer Hogg), announces she could only love a man named Ernest, and Lady Bracknell declares Jack’s unknown parentage an insurmountable objection, Jack’s engagement seems doomed. And that’s before Algernon helpfully complicates matters with some absurdist Bunburying…

Designer Francis O’Connor spoke in his Gate Lab talk of producing a space of ‘vivid neutrality’ hiding playfulness and tricks; from Oscar’s visage faintly imprinted on the back wall, to a toy train running on tracks laid into the floor for Act 2’s shift to the country, to the startling ejection of rows of champagne or filing cabinets from a side wall when given a push. Panels in the back wall open to reveal Algy’s vases full of perfect green carnations, bucolic countryside impressions, and Jack’s massive portrait of Queen Victoria surrounded by eminent Victorians. O’Connor’s costumes visually cue Mason’s take on the characters: Algy is the perfect aesthete, his blue suit perfectly fitted to his decor, Gwendolen is a chip off the old block, her lavender outfit a variation on her mother’s dress, and Jack is trying too hard to pass as an Establishment worthy, his dark clothes always too sombre. Even Jack’s servant is off. Lane (Bosco Hogan) is in insouciant synch with Algy, but uncertain Merriman (a Fassbendering Des Keogh) is nearly clobbered by filing cabinets, makes heavy weather of clearing away Cecily’s books to lay the table, and runs away whimpering after serving Gwendolen detestable tea-cake.

It’s instructive to note the Rea/Nolan double act’s contrast to Shackleton/Murphy in Smock Alley’s recent Earnest. The business of the last muffin here sees Algy magnificently insouciant and inert, not mischievous and active, with Jack’s despairing throwing of a handkerchief over the muffin tray, rather than engaging in a tug-of-war for it, summarising Rea’s interpretation. This is a man at pains to be respectable but continually thwarted by others. Pushed on to the ground by Miss Prism (a droll Marion O’Dwyer), he attempts to muster an entirely imaginary dignity before asking Lady Bracknell if she’d mind awfully telling him who he is. Rea’s expression when Jack finds his real name in the Army Lists is a comic joy. Donnelly is a wonderful Lady Bracknell, eschewing outright scenery chewing for a forthright indomitability that makes quotable lines fresh putdowns, while Dwyer Hogg, the polar opposite of her Heartbreak House ingénue, vamps it up as Gwendolen, with a Brackenellian imperiousness towards Cecily. Mark Lambert, so rambunctious in that Heartbreak House, seems underused as Canon Chasuble; amusingly rendered a relation of Peter Cook’s Very Impressive Clergyman; but complaining that supporting players have too much star power clearly points to an embarrassment of riches.

Mason had wondered what he could bring to another production of Earnest; the answer was reforming an unbeatable trio of himself, Rea, and Nolan.

5/5

The Importance of Being Earnest continues its run at the Gate until the 30th of January.

August 21, 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

Smock Alley presents a spirited production of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy in which the setting of Victorian drawing room and garden receives an unusual interpretation.

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Algernon Moncrieff (Kevin Shackleton) is a confirmed Bunburyist; evading his formidable aunt Lady Bracknell (Valerie O’Leary) by dint of imaginary friend Bunbury, an invalid who lives in the country and is at death’s door whenever she issues invitations. Algernon is determined to unveil his friend Ernest Worthing (James Murphy) as a secret Bunburyist after finding a card revealing him to be Ernest in town and Jack in the country. Ernest, whose name is actually Jack, insists he is merely maintaining a high moral tone for the benefit of his ward Cecily (Aislinn O’Byrne) by the invention of disreputable brother Ernest, whose outrages necessitate frequent trips to London. But when Jack’s new fiancé, Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (Clodagh Mooney Duggan), announces she could only love a man named Ernest, and her acidic mother declares that Jack’s unknown ancestry is an insurmountable obstacle to marriage, Jack’s engagement seems doomed. And that’s before Algernon decides to helpfully complicate matters with his most ridiculous Bunburying…

Marcus Costello’s startlingly green set serves as garden and drawing room with shrubbery in the shape of a piano revealing itself as a functional piano. There is also the added surreal touch of dresses hanging with lights inside them as eccentric garden decoration. Olga Criado Monleon’s costumes foppishly cast Jack in beige and Algy in blue, but excessively render unfashionable Cecily in a dress that’s almost a repurposed table-cloth. Initially you fear that director Kate Canning is attempting a Jordan-style queering of the text, but that approach quickly dissipates; though Charlie Hughes playing Lane, Merriman, and Canon Chasuble, leads to a major quibble. Lane is rendered with a jiving walk that’s as disconcerting for the character as Jeeves being played as Riff Raff, and Merriman becomes Worzel Gummidge, for the purpose of physically differentiating from Hughes’ main role as the entertainingly nervous Canon. O’Byrne also overplays vocally the girlishness and exaggerated innocence of young Cecily to contrast Duggan’s sultry Gwendolen.

And yet such complaints stand as naught against the whole production, as any gripes are swept away by the accelerating comedic momentum of Wilde’s script, and a deluge of delirious nonsense from the double act of Jack and Algy. Canning contrives some wonderful business. Jack and Algy engage in a tug of war for the silver tray bearing the coveted last muffin as Jack grunts his pained dialogue, while Katie McCann follows up one of her deliciously fake social laughs as Miss Prism with a death-stare at Jack and Algy for their effrontery. Shackleton and Murphy faced the challenge of playing roles that Rory Nolan and Marty Rea take on in a few months in the Gate’s production, and they can proudly boast that they equalled that proven double act in moments such as Jack first meeting Algy at his country estate. Duggan meanwhile adds knowing sauciness to Gwendolen’s dialogue that unnerves Jack terrifically, and seems to rediscover Wilde’s subversiveness.

Plays that are as quotable and almost over-familiar as Wilde’s offer their own hazards, and it is to this company’s credit that they sparkle.

4/5

The Importance of Being Earnest continues its run in Smock Alley until August 22nd.

April 23, 2014

An Ideal Husband

Oscar Wilde’s treatment of the related dangers of political corruption and the dangers of puritanical morality returns to the Gate under award-winning Ethan McSweeny’s direction.

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Sir Robert Chiltern (Garrett Lombard) is hosting a party as the London season winds down. In a night of general aggravation Sir Robert’s sister Mabel (Siobhan Cullen) is infuriated by the inattention of her erstwhile suitor the foppish Lord Goring (Marty Rea), whose sloth equally enrages his Cabinet minister father Lord Caversham (David Yelland), while Sir Robert’s wife Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Lorna Quinn) is outraged when her friend Lady Markby (Marion O’Dwyer) arrives with Mrs Cheveley (Aoibheann O’Hara); whose latest surname change cleverly hid the identity of a despised schoolmate. Mrs Cheveley immediately blackmails Sir Robert to push through the Commons a speculative canal in Argentina that he knows to be a fraud: either he endorses it and makes her fortune, or she will publish an incriminating letter in which he sold state secrets years before to make his fortune…

Wilde’s curtain almost divides drama and comedy. Robert wrestles with his conscience as the surprisingly wise Goring advocates that he confess to his wife and ‘fight the thing out’ with Cheveley, but Lady Chiltern’s most hysterically puritanical judgements come in this serious first half when she forces Robert to sacrifice his career by refusing to aid Mrs Cheveley, and he hates her for it; not least because she has made him such a moral ideal that he knows he’s already lost her by having done wrong years before he met her. After the curtain Wilde careens towards farce. Marty Rea Fassbenders mightly as Goring: he shrieks with surprise when his stealthy valet Phipps (Simon Coury) surprises him, turns his portrait to the wall after being unnerved by lines on its face, insists on a trivial buttonhole to make himself appear younger, desperately tries to read without glasses, and verbally fences with a sublime David Yelland as his comically disappointed father.

Marion O’Dwyer matches Rea’s tour-de-force with her proto-Lady Bracknell turn as Lady Markby, while Siobhan Cullen’s Mabel is rendered as affected as her soul-mate Goring with her repeated posing to receive a proposal that Goring neglects to make. Under McSweeny’s direction Mrs Cheveley enjoys her dirty work more than I’ve seen before, and Aoibheann O’Hara’s breathy delivery emphasises the pleasure she takes in destroying Gertrude. Lady Chiltern and Robert are the most serious roles in the play, and. Peter O’Brien’s costumes provide Lombard with trappings of office that he wears with aplomb, and he makes Robert sympathetic thru a strangulated Etonian drawl that emphasises his politician’s social-climbing nature. Lorna Quinn makes Gertrude formidable in facing down Mrs Cheveley, but the script prevents her unbending nature being made sympathetic; perhaps why Wilde diverted her downfall toward mistaken identities and purloined letters.

Francis O’Connor’s mobile door-frames allow us see the truth of scenes other characters only superficially observe and Wilde’s script similarly hides pragmatic profundities on morality and politics behind epigrams.

4/5

An Ideal Husband continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 14th of June.

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