Talking Movies

August 27, 2017

The Dumb Waiter

Artistic director Michael Colgan bade a sentimental (and almost self-parodic) farewell to the Gate Theatre with a festival of Beckett, Friel, and Pinter one-act plays.

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Gus (Garrett Lombard) and Ben (Lorcan Cranitch) are waiting to go to work. Mind you, the nature of that work is not exactly specified. But Gus, the young partner, is impatient, and critical of falling standards in their accommodation for such waiting gigs. Ben, the older partner, is tired of his job, and possibly of Gus. So he tries to ignore Gus’ gripes about being stuck in a basement in Birmingham with tea bags but no gas to light up to boil water. But his attempts to read the newspaper are foiled by arguments about whether Aston Villa are playing at home, whether everyone is always playing away no matter where they get sent, and who really killed a cat in the news. And that’s before the antique dumb waiter in the basement starts acting up, leading to more aggro…

I’ve haven’t seen The Dumb Waiter since the UCD Dramsoc production directed by my friend Priscilla Ni Cheallaigh in 2000, starring Patrick Fitzgerald. Pinter done at anything but the right pace can drag to deathliness, even the Gate’s 2015 The Caretaker wobbled, but director Joe Dowling gets the pace here spot on; drawing out comedy. Cranitch’s raised eyebrows and shuffling newspaper at Lombard’s antics, including business with spare matches and shoes, bring out a level of slapstick that is amped up further when he starts howling “The larder is bare!” at the dumb waiter after they’ve loaded it with odds and ends of food. Oddly enough Cranitch and Lombard’s mania at satiating the unknown operator above actually reminded me of John Olohan and Eamon Morrissey’s ludicrous struggles with a mysterious telephone call in Druid’s 2010 production of The Silver Tassie.

Dowling and set designer Francis O’Connor utilise the full space of the Gate to create as much distance as possible between Gus and Ben, and make the stage very spare; almost a visual equivalent of how silence lingers between them, pregnant with tension and absurdity dependent on how Pinter’s dots on the page work. And Lombard continues to show a real flair for delivering Pinter’s absurdist speeches. Joan O’Clery’s costumes look down-at-heel until they’ve properly dressed; but even still these two are more Harry Palmer than James Bond. For the first time, instead of thinking of these characters as hit-men out of Pulp Fiction, as was inevitable back in 2000, I wondered – what if they’re cleaners? What if they’re plugging MI5 leaks MI5 with extreme prejudice, taking out the Burgesses and Macleans of the world; morose from that squalid task.

Lombard and Cranitch make a formidable double act, bringing Pinter’s early classic to humorous and doom-laden life. Oh, to see them as Mugsy and Stephen in Dealer’s Choice here.

4/5

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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.

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