Talking Movies

April 20, 2016

The Plough and the Stars

The Abbey curtains up second in the curious case of the duelling Sean O’Casey productions for the 1916 centenary, but their rendition of his 1926 provocation surpasses the Gate’s Juno.

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O’Casey’s final Abbey play depicts the Rising exploding the lives of the extended Clitheroe family and their tenement neighbours. The socially ambitious Nora Clitheroe (Kate Stanley Brennan) is cordially disliked by her neighbours Mrs Gogan (Janet Moran) and Bessie Burgess (Eileen Walsh). Voluble dislike exists within the Clitheoroe clan as preening Citizen Army peacock Uncle Peter (James Hayes) is tormented by the Young Covey (Ciaran O’Brien) for his ignorance of true socialism, and ridiculous garb. Ignoring these political spats is Jack Clitheroe (Ian-Lloyd Anderson) who resigned from the Citizen Army on being passed over. However, when it’s revealed he was promoted, but Nora hid the letter from him, Jack furiously leaves her to join a monster rally whose Pearse-derived rhetoric stirs the patriotism of even the disreputable Fluther (David Ganly). The Rising sets the scene for looting and Nora’s undoing…

English director Sean Holmes has spoken of how he approached the text as if it was a Shakespeare play, not bound by its period. This aesthetic is evident everywhere, from Jon Bausor’s intimidating steel staircase with multiple landings, to Catherine Fay’s modern dress costumes including hardhats, via Paul Keogan’s disruptive lights which render the Figure in the Window a glare from a big screen in a pub, to Philip Stewart’s thumping music between acts, and it pays off in spades. Needless to say this is all very much ‘Not Chekhov’ to reference the multiple audience walkouts back in October at a similarly radical take on The Cherry Orchard. But it works, and works gloriously. Consumptive Mollser (Mahnoor Saad) singing the national anthem at the start of the show (in a transparent bid to bring the audience to their feet at every performance) before coughing blood; Fluther, Mrs Gogan, and Mrs Burgess all directly cajoling and heckling the audience; Fluther robbing cans and puncturing one which sprays the audience before he desperately tries to drink it hands free – all these touches bring a Shakespearean vividness and rambunctiousness that casts these characters in a new light. Fluther’s drinking, whoring, and disdain of piety and patriotism becomes Falstaffian, Hotspur and Lady Percy hover over the abrupt parting of the Clitheroes, and King Lear shimmers over the finale’s madness and dead bodies, not least because O’Casey’s final kick in the teeth does in his more abrasive version of Cordelia.

4.5/5

The Plough and the Stars continues its run at the Abbey Theatre until the 23rd of April.

Have you read Jenersky’s Thesis on the Origin, Development, and Consolidation of the Evolutionary Idea of the Proletariat?

December 31, 2015

1916 without 1916

By now we’ve all seen the Government’s video about the 1916 Rising that somehow forgets the Rising. I’m not sure I’ve seen something so straight-facedly absurd since Brad Dourif preached “The Church of Christ … without Christ” in Wise Blood.

Enda-Kenny

From the suggestively chosen imagery it’s tempting to conclude (apropos of Interstellar) that we’re commemorating when David Cameron, Ian Paisley, and Queen Elizabeth II travelled back via a handily placed wormhole to Dublin 1916 in order to ensure a docklands fit for Google and Facebook to live in. Sadly the truth is less imaginative, and depressing; because this fiasco was entirely predictable. The Proclamation being rendered as Gaeilge via Google Translate was a perfect statement of intent. Nobody cared enough to flag that it ought to be double-checked before it went live. It is unthinkable that in 2004 a Polish text could have been given such haphazard treatment while our government was hosting the EU’s big expansion into Eastern Europe; Bertie Ahern cared deeply about that Farmleigh event. It is unthinkable that a German would text would not be excruciatingly parsed if Angela Merkel were to visit next week; because Enda Kenny would care deeply about such a visit. But for the literal genesis of our political consciousness as a modern state? To appropriate the current Rabobank ad’s stylings: “Any translation” “Any translation?” “Any translation…” That attitude expresses a political weltanschauung: Labour gives the distinct impression of being embarrassed by our Constitution; which Eamon Gilmore liked to dub outdated (ignore the awkward fact the Americans are still using their 1780s constitutional settlement); and Fine Gael, despite their self-definition (as Pat Leahy has put it) as the party of “Law and Order. Law’n’Order and the Foundation of the State!”, are ashamed of 1916 – which is to primarily be remembered, whereas they celebrated the 75th anniversary of winning the Civil War…

Labour’s Aodhán O’Ríordáin, while insisting that the video was a preview of what the entirety of 2016 would be like (apparently a never-ending bacchanalia of Macnas and BOD coming out of retirement to score tries), offered a non-apology apology: “If we got it wrong, we got it wrong and we should look at something else.” (If? If?? IF?! Yes, ye got it wrong. This has been made abundantly clear by now, so lose the “if”.) He went on to offer the official version of the mindset behind the video: “The point is that we’re trying not to present a very stiff and stale and unimaginative and cold depiction of what happened 100 years ago, which can almost turn some people off immediately.” Maybe he sincerely believes this, maybe not; to my mind this defeatist insistence that marking the events of 100 years ago is impossible because it’s all deathly dull so let’s just talk about the Queen’s visit in 2011 is a disingenuous cover for the fact that it is the government itself who are the people turned off immediately by the idea of celebrating 1916. The BBC spent 2014 producing radio and television documentaries and fictional serials about WWI. If you could watch 37 Days’ dramatisation of the failed diplomacy of July 1914 and find it very stiff, stale, unimaginative, and cold, then the problem lies not with history or its recreation but with you. If you could watch Niall Ferguson’s provocative arguing for WWI being a mistake and the hostile reaction of his academic audience and find it very stiff, stale, unimaginative, and cold then presumably you find newspapers insupportable because they’re about events from distant yesterday. It is telling that the video’s themes; Remember, Reconcile, Imagine, Present, Celebrate; visually remove ‘celebration’ from the revolutionary past…

The video’s visual cues for ‘remember’, ‘reconcile’, and ‘imagine’ taken together imply sorrow for having had the bad taste to rebel against Britain, and a desire to plot how to go forward together. As approaches to celebrating a country’s independence from its colonial masters go it’s got the merit of originality. But it cannot go uncontested. How does marking 1916 by mentioning Ian Paisley and not Padraig Pearse make sense? How is it even acceptable to prioritise, over a man who gave up his life as a blood sacrifice (of the type Rupert Brooke valorised) to start a fire whose flame would burn a hole in the map of the British Empire, a man who became a big avuncular bear once he’d made it to the top of the greasy pole having first done considerable damage in his life-long climb to the top in his capacity as venomous firebrand? (When Seamus Mallon dubbed the Good Friday Agreement ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’ who did he have in mind?) I have walked some of the battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front, where Irish and British soldiers died together in 1914, and remembered them. It does not preclude me from celebrating 1916.

French historian Francois Furet rescued 1789 from the grasp of communists who wanted to make it a proto-1917, by instead inflecting 1917 as the culmination of 1793’s Terror; and the Terror as the betrayal of the Revolution. Terence Brown has argued that Kevin Whelan’s The Tree of Liberty was vital in allowing 1798 to be celebrated here as a good thing, instead of mumbling embarrassedly about it. We need something of the same now. It doesn’t matter that we’re an indebted country who’ve signed away our sovereignty to the Troika. America in 1976 was hardly in a wonderful state. Vietnam, Inflation, Watergate, Roe V Wade: if ever a country was having a crisis of confidence and identity it was America then. And they still pulled off a celebratory bicentennial instead of sitting around bemoaning lost opportunities and how the Brits would have given them parliamentary representation if they’d just waited longer…

The government’s video suggests that we celebrate the future, and take inspiration from … whatever. That’s completely wrong, but completely in character. We should celebrate the past, and be inspired by it. We should not look back at 1916 and be embarrassed by it, we should look back at 1916 and be embarrassed by ourselves. We need to mark 2016 as a combination of July the 4th and Gettysburg. It is both a cause for celebration, and a time for serious discussion. And if there’s anything in our national poet’s complicated canon that best sums up conflicted Irish identities in a triumphal way it’s this watchword for the coming centenary year:

“Sing the peasantry, and then

Hard-riding country gentlemen,

The holiness of monks, and after

Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;

Sing the lords and ladies gay

That were beaten into the clay

Through seven heroic centuries;

Cast your mind on other days

That we in coming days may be

Still the indomitable Irishry.”

November 10, 2015

An Alternative Abbey 2016 Programme

I’d been waiting for the Abbey’s new season, and was disappointed by it. I didn’t think much of their commission choices, and felt their other selections betrayed a peculiarly apologetic and almost self-loathing attitude towards a celebration of our independence. So I thought about what I might have programmed instead…

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Here are the essentials of the Abbey’s 2016 programme to September:

 

*Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland

(dir: Vicky Featherstone)

The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey

(dir: Sean Holmes)

*New Middle East by Mutaz Abu Saleh

(dir: Bashar Murkus)

*Tina’s Idea of Fun by Sean P Summers

(dir: Gerry Stembridge)

Othello by William Shakespeare

(dir: Joe Dowling)

*Town is Dead by Philip McMahon & Ray Scannell

(dir: TBC)

The Wake by Tom Murphy

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness

(dir: Jeremy Herrin)

 

Here are the essentials of my alternative Abbey 2016 programme:

 

*Commissioned Work by Mark O’Rowe

(dir: Mark O’Rowe)

John Bull’s Other Island by George Bernard Shaw

(dir: Roisin McBrinn)

*Not I by Samuel Beckett, Play by Samuel Beckett, On Baile’s Strand by WB Yeats, Riders to the Sea by JM Synge

(dir: Annie Ryan)

*Delirium by Enda Walsh

(dir: Conall Morrison)

Making History by Brian Friel

(dir: Patrick Mason)

*The Effect by Lucy Prebble

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

Commissioned Work by Marina Carr

(dir: Selina Cartmell)

The Wake by Tom Murphy

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

 

*Plays marked with an asterisk are on the Peacock stage.

This alternative programme is of course a fantasy, because it takes no account of the availability of directors and playwrights, but it does utilise people who have done fine work at the Abbey in recent years. It commissions new plays from two of our finest playwrights, Mark O’Rowe and Marina Carr, and gives Enda Walsh’s exuberant Dostoevsky adaptation from 2008 the chance of a subtler interpretation. The Shavian elephant in the room is finally tackled, and what better time for Shaw’s exuberant interrogation of our capacity for self-government? The late Brian Friel is honoured with a timely production of his exploration of exile and myth-making in Irish history, while Tom Murphy’s more recent dissection of exile and return ends the summer season. The Abbey’s fullest spectrum is utilised: Revival classics are paired with two of Beckett’s trickiest works, and Comyn returns to her beginnings in directing a contemporary English play.

The Abbey perhaps stands at an odd angle to 1916. It is after all a national theatre older than its politically constituted nation, led in its early days by Anglo-Irish writers with a gift for enraging their Irish audience, and its seminal engagement with the decade of revolution was by a writer whose corrosive scepticism spared no institution. The Plough and the Stars is the obvious choice for marking the Rising, perhaps too obvious a choice. It has been staged too frequently to too little effect in the last decade to be wheeled out once again to throw cold water over Pearse’s dream. Not least when Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme is deliberately programmed against it, as if we’re apologising to Unionists for rebelling when we could have been nobly dying for the British Empire instead. As for Othello, one quote deployed by Haughey does not a state of the nation play make. Serious engagement with Shakespeare’s quatercentenary would be a post-colonial take on The Tempest.

1916 is to be celebrated like 1776 or 1789, not apologised for, agonised over, or disparaged. The only way to discuss a programme of plays is to parse it qualitatively play by play, because that’s how people choose to go to the theatre: play by play, depending on their particular artistic cost-benefit analysis of the actors, the playwright, the director, and the subject matter. I’ve felt compelled in disliking so many of the Abbey’s individual picks to present an alternative programme of plays. Consonant with my banishing O’Casey I say there’s little use tearing down everything and building up nothing.

August 7, 2012

The Plough and the Stars

Director Wayne Jordan reprises his acclaimed 2010 production of O’Casey’s old warhorse, but, even with returning stars Joe Hanley and Gabrielle Reidy on good form, this fails to ever soar…

O’Casey’s final Abbey play sees the 1916 Rising explode into the lives of the extended Clitheroe family and their tenement neighbours. The socially ambitious Nora Clitheroe (Kelly Campbell) is cordially disliked by her neighbours Mrs Gogan (Deirdre Molloy) and Bessie Burgess (Gabrielle Reidy). Cordial dislike also exists within the extended Clitheoroe clan as the preening Citizen Army member Uncle Peter (Frankie McCafferty) is tormented by the Young Covey (Laurence Kinlan) for placing nationalism above socialism. Ignoring these political discussions is Jack Clitheroe (Barry Ward) whose pride has seen him resign from the Citizen Army on being passed over for promotion. However, when it’s revealed that he was promoted, but Nora hid the letter because she wanted him out of danger, Jack furiously leaves her to join a monster rally that stirs the patriotism of even the disreputable Fluther (Joe Hanley). But though the Rising has begun Nora isn’t finished yet…

This show lacks the comic vim of recent O’Casey productions, and this makes it feel slow-paced. Peter and the Covey just don’t strike sparks the way they should, and without that relationship being totally anarchic Nora is no longer trying to keep order in a madhouse but is merely trying to social climb within a tenement, which makes it difficult to empathise with her. Nora’s line “What do I care for th’ others? I can only think of me own self”; an attitude that would’ve brought the French Revolution to a shuddering halt; becomes uncomfortably emblematic, especially as it immediately precedes her pleading with Jack to come home,utterly oblivious to the disturbing squib-enhanced suffering of his dying comrade. Thankfully Hanley is very funny as Fluther, and Reidy very skilfully executes O’Casey’s most complicated character as she lifts the curtain on Burgess’ constant abrasiveness to reveal an equally generous heart.

Kate Brennan’s grimly realistic costume and make-up as the prostitute Rosie Redmond is contradicted by the overly self-performative turn she gives alongside Tony Flynn’s complementarily pouting barman. The effect is disorienting, and when the viciously combative Burgess and Gogan arrive into this milieu it defeats Casey’s satiric intent in juxtaposing Pearse’s rhetoric with poverty the new republic would not ameliorate. The high-flown idealism of the Man in the Window becomes a relief from such petty squalor. The unflattering juxtaposition caused riots in 1926 but here the blood-thirsty speech is instead rendered only slightly more extreme than Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Oddly enough its genuinely rousing effect is counterpointed by the production’s most moving moments being the unseen troops singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ as they march past on their way back to the hell of the trenches, and the two English Tommies climactically crooning ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. The latter moment saves an act almost ruined by an imaginary window within Tom Piper’s steel scaffolding set being established then sloppily ignored…

This is a decent show overall albeit with serious flaws, but in the wake of tremendous renditions of The Silver Tassie and Juno and the Paycock ‘decent’ can only disappoint.

2.5/5

The Plough and the Stars continues its run at Belvedere College until the 15th of September.

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