Talking Movies

March 27, 2017

My Own Personal Theatre Awards 2016

It seems odd that Irish theatre should be so ruled by just one set of awards, especially when they have such transparent biases. Someday perhaps someone with the necessary money, reach, and prestige will set up an alternative to the Irish Times Theatre Awards. In the meantime here’s my 2nd annual Theatre Awards, pitched as a corrective; like the Film Top 10 is pitched somewhere between the mid-1990s Oscars and MTV Movie Awards; operating under the fervent aspiration that what is good ought be popular and what is popular ought be good.

Best Production

The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Othello (The Abbey)

 

Best Director

Lynne Parker – Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

Sean Holmes – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Garry Hynes – The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Jeremy Herrin – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Joe Dowling – Othello (The Abbey)

Annabelle Comyn – The Wake (The Abbey)

Ethan McSweeny – The Father (The Gate)

Best Actor

Denis Conway – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

Marty Rea – Othello (The Abbey)

Owen Roe – The Father (The Gate)

Peter Macon – Othello (The Abbey)

Phelim Drew – Kings of the Kilburn High Road (The Gaiety)

Gary Lydon – The Weir (The Pavilion)

 

Best Actress

Fiona Bell – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

Aisling O’Sullivan – The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Cathy Belton – Helen & I (Civic Theatre)

Derbhle Crotty – Juno and the Paycock (The Gate)

Lisa Dwyer Hogg – After Miss Julie (Project Arts Centre)

 

Best Supporting Actor

Marty Rea – Juno and the Paycock/The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gate/The Gaiety)

Rory Nolan – Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

Darragh Kelly – Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

David Ganly – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Paul Kennedy – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Aaron Monaghan – The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Neill Fleming – Hamlet (The Mill Theatre)

Brian Doherty – The Wake (The Abbey)

 

Best Supporting Actress

Marie Mullen – The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gaiety)

Janet Moran – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Eileen Walsh – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Ali White – Northern Star (Project Arts Centre)

Sophie Robinson – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

Caoimhe O’Malley – Juno and the Paycock/The Constant Wife (The Gate/The Gate)

Darcy Donnellan – Nowhere Now (Players Theatre)

 

Best New Play

The Father by Florian Zeller (The Gate)

The Meeting by Grainne Curistan (Players Theatre)

Nowhere Now by Daniel O’Brien (Players Theatre)

 

Best Set Design

Paul O’Mahony – The Wake (The Abbey)

Jonathan Fensom – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The Gate)

Francis O’Connor – The Father/The Beauty Queen of Leenane (The Gate/The Gaiety)

Ciaran Bagnall – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Riccardo Hernandez – Othello (The Abbey)

Gerard Bourke – Hamlet (The Mill Theatre)

 

Best Lighting Design

Paul Keogan – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme/The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey/The Abbey)

Sinead McKenna – Othello/Juno and the Paycock (The Abbey/The Gate)

Rick Fisher – The Father (The Gate)

Kris Mooney – Hamlet (The Mill Theatre)

 

Best Sound Design

Emma Laxton – Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (The Abbey)

Philip Stewart – The Plough and the Stars (The Abbey)

Denis Clohessy – The Father (The Gate)

Ferdy Roberts & Filter Theatre – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Grand Canal Theatre)

 

Special Mention

Pippa Nixon – The Tempest (The Globe)

I’m loath to include anything I saw in London in these awards, but an exception must be made here.

Nixon’s commanding turn as Ariel was one of those performances that upend your perception of a play.

June 30, 2016

The Wake

Director Annabelle Comyn revives another late Tom Murphy play at the Abbey, but unlike The House in 2012 this chaotic script proves impossible to tame.

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Vera (Aisling O’Sullivan) returns unbidden to her home in the West for an auction of the hotel she has inherited. But a conversation with neighbour Mrs. Conneeley (Ruth McCabe) about the true circumstances of a death in the family leads her to decide on an unusual course of action. She falls back into the bed of disreputable ex-boyfriend Finbar (Brian Doherty), scandalising her siblings Mary Jane (Kelly Campbell), Tom (Lorcan Cranitch), and Marcia (Tina Kellegher). Their attempts at coming to a compromise are scuppered by Marcia’s husband Henry (Frank McCusker) appointing himself emissary, and making such a good job of his negotiations on behalf of the siblings that he ends up occupying the hotel with Finbar and Vera, and conducting a three day bacchanalia with all lights on and curtains open in the hotel located in the town’s main square.

The Wake is a marvel of clever staging, as a backdrop of stars at night becomes a map of Tuam, while a very narrow playing space progressively deepens, until eventually the fateful hotel itself rises out of the Abbey’s trapdoors. All typical of Comyn and her set designer Paul O’Mahony, but what’s atypical is this Murphy script; which is undoubtedly the least controlled and most chaotic of the six Murphy plays I’ve seen performed. Mary Jane and Tom never convince for a second as real characters, while Finbar and Henry, though both played with considerable charm, often lapse into (respectively) D’Unbelievables homage and speeches that sound like debating positions rather than The Gigli Concert’s character-driven philosophical musings. At times it appears Murphy is in some demented fashion mashing up Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession with his own Conversations on a Homecoming.

This feels like a rough draft rather than a completed piece. The depression afflicting Tom’s heavily medicated wife Caitriona (Nichola MacEvilly) is, barring one sinister moment, played for laughs. The priest Fr Billy (Pat Nolan) is an ineffectual hail-fellow-well-met eejit, a cleric currying favour with the bourgeoisie; sketched in by Tom and Mary Jane in the most primary colours imaginable. Vera’s American inflexions and catchphrases rehearse supporting character Goldfish’s confused cultural identity in Murphy’s subsequent play The House but are far less effective. And O’Sullivan is further ill-served by the woeful misjudgement of Vera repeatedly flashing the audience. The wake’s songs and recimitations are authentic but feel interminable as they drag out the running time, an insult made injurious when they don’t build to anything because Murphy flounces out of the promised destructive climax necessary to impose some dramatic purpose.

There are some fine performances in The Wake, and much good dramatic content, but it drowns beneath the state of the nation speechifying and dramatic flab of ramshackle scripting.

2.75/5

The Wake continues its run at the Abbey until the 30th of July.

February 25, 2016

Austerity and the Arts

The Journal has compiled a handy guide to various political pledges on arts funding. But take all with the caveat of Pat Rabbitte’s infamous slip on farcically utopian bait-and-switches, “Sure isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”

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Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture at the British Library last year excoriated politicians, especially the Tories, for wanting to bask in the reflected glamour of cultural icons, and boast about the money such activity makes for Britain, both in its own right and in attracting tourists via a sheen of national creativity, without ever wanting to invest in it. According to him these people believed artists magically appear, and start providing a return without requiring any initial capital outlay; an impressive economic conjuring trick to be sure. Whereas, he pointed out, Roxy Music would not have come about without a previous generation establishing a whole gamut of public investment in the future: the NHS, Arts Schools, libraries, galleries, museums, and the dole. According to the Social Democrats there has been a 55% cut in arts funding since 2008 in Ireland. Such cuts dramatically change the cultural current. Take Annabelle Comyn.

Annabelle Comyn was the founding artistic director of Hatch Theatre Company in 2004. She directed a number of contemporary British plays (by Martin Crimp, Dennis Kelly, David Greig, and Zinnie Harris) with regular collaborators including set designer Paul O’Mahony, sound designer Philip Stewart, and actor Peter Gaynor. Then in 2009 Hatch Theatre Company saw its grant slashed from €90,000 to €20,000. After that there was no funding for any projects submitted, and Comyn, who had also directed Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Caryl Churchill’s A Number for the Peacock in 2006 and 2007, took the hint. As she told the Irish Times in a 2014 interview “I remember thinking that the work I had done with Hatch – predominantly contemporary British plays – wouldn’t get funding.” So began two years in which one of Ireland’s best theatre directors didn’t work as a director.

And then Abbey artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail offered her the chance to direct Pygmalion at the Abbey’s main stage in 2011. So began a new phase of Comyn’s career. Her version of Shaw’s comedy emphasised that Henry Higgins really is stripping Eliza Doolittle not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims. The coldness of Charlie Murphy’s Eliza to Higgins in their final scenes captured the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on, and was an unexpected touch. 2012 saw her back on the Abbey main stage reviving Tom Murphy’s 2000 Abbey commission The House. This Chekhovian tale of social climbing and the frustrations of returned emigrants in the 1950s saw Comyn add new strings to her bow as she blocked 13 people for a chaotic drunken speech and fight. Comyn’s interpretation of Murphy’s melancholic character study with barbed commentary on societal failure saw her win Best Director at the Irish Times Theatre Awards. And yet…

DG declan conlon and Catherine Walker

A director who specialised in premiering contemporary British plays is now (with the exception of 2012’s The Talk of the Town) exclusively reviving classic texts. A cultural current in Irish theatre has been diverted, and you can be sure that nobody returned to Dail Eireann after tomorrow will have as a priority allowing it to resume its original course. Does it matter? Well, John McGahern, the Irish novelist par excellence, would not have become the writer he was had he not been exposed to the works of Flaubert, Camus, and Hemingway. It matters if our theatrical landscape suddenly has a Berlin wall of austerity erected cutting off consistent interaction with new British writing. In the grand scheme of things cutting a €90,000 grant has had a larger effect than the latter-day Gladstone who made that retrenchment could ever have imagined.

To quote the two voices at the end of GK Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The other voice replied—

“The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost.”

February 6, 2016

My Own Personal Theatre Awards 2015

All aesthetic judgements are political, but some are more political than others; and if you cannot conceive of great art made by people whose political opinions you do not share, then just maybe you cannot conceive of art at all.

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It was ironic that the Irish Times released their Theatre Awards shortlist just after the death of Alan Rickman; whose performance in John Gabriel Borkman the Guardian valorised as one of his great stage achievements; as it drew the mind back to the Irish Times’ magisterial pronouncements on the state of Irish theatre in 2010. John Gabriel Borkman, a co-production between the Abbey and Southbank’s National Theatre, premiered in Dublin before transferring to London, and eventually Broadway. It was seen by around 20,000 people, got rave notices, and received … two nominations from the Irish Times: for costumes and set.

Meanwhile World’s End Lane, which could be seen by 3 people per performance, and so was seen by almost a hundred punters, as opposed to John Gabriel Borkman’s 20,000, received a nod for best production. And of course you ‘couldn’t’ sputter with outrage over this because, inevitably, you hadn’t seen World’s End Lane. Thus has it been lately with the Irish Times Theatre Awards. Such hipster valuations of theatrical worth downgraded the Gate and Abbey, and combined with a persistent boosting of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, and companies and plays that shared the politico-cultural preoccupations and prejudices of the Irish Times.

But, as with my objections to the Abbey’s 2016 programme, there is little point in speculative grousing. So here are my personal theatre awards for 2015, with the winners in bold. And let me anticipate objections. I did not see DruidShakespeare on tour or The Match Box in Galway. I did not travel up to Belfast to see a single play at the Lyric. But, when you strip out all DruidShakespeare’s nominations, the vast majority of nominations handed out by the Irish Times were for work performed in Dublin. So with more nominees and fewer categories let’s have at it…

Best Production

The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

 DG declan conlon and Catherine Walker

Best Director

Annabelle Comyn – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

David Grindley – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Selina Cartmell – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Conor McPherson – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Patrick Mason – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

 

Best Actor

Declan Conlon – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Marty Rea – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

James Murphy – The Importance of Being Earnest (Smock Alley)

Brendan Gleeson – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

Dylan Coburn Gray – Enjoy (Project Arts Centre)

DG the gigli concert

Best Actress

Catherine McCormack – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Aislin McGuckin – A Month in the Country (The Gate)

Catherine Walker – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Clare Dunne – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Lisa Dwyer Hogg – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

 

Best Supporting Actor

Declan Conlon – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Marty Rea – The Caretaker (The Gate)

Peter Gaynor – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Kevin Shackleton – The Importance of Being Earnest (Smock Alley)

Stijn Van Opstal – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Domhnall Gleeson – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

John Doran – Enjoy (Project Arts Centre)

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Best Supporting Actress

Marion O’Dwyer – By the Bog of Cats (The Abbey)

Minke Kruyver – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Kate Stanley Brennan – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Deirdre Donnelly – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

Elodie Devins – By the Bog of Cats (The Abbey)

 

Best New Play

George Brant – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Conor McPherson – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Gerard Adlum – The Man in Two Pieces (Theatre Upstairs)

Enda Walsh – The Last Hotel (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Gerard Adlum, Nessa Matthews, Sarah Finlay – Bob and Judy (Theatre Upstairs)

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Best Set Design

tgSTAN & Damiaan De Schrijver – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Paul O’Mahony – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Francis O’Connor – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate) & The Caretaker (The Gate)

Liam Doona – You Never Can Tell (The Abbey)

Alice Power – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

Alyson Cummins – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

 

Best Lighting Design

Chahine Yavroyan – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabbler (The Abbey)

Sinead McKenna – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Davy Cunningham – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

 

Best Sound Design

Dennis Clohessy – Through a Glass Darkly (Project Arts Centre) & A View From the Bridge (The Gate)

Mel Mercier – The Shadow of a Gunman (The Abbey)

Conor Linehan – You Never Can Tell (The Abbey)

October 10, 2015

Dancing at Lughnasa

Dancing at Lughnasa premiered at Dublin Theatre Festival 25 years ago, but this anniversary production doubles as a posthumous tribute to its author Brian Friel.

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The adult Michael (Charlie Bonner) narrates the summer of 1936 when he was 7 years old. The illegitimate son of the youngest daughter Chrissie (Vanessa Emme), he was doted on by her four sisters: messer Maggie (Cara Kelly), simple Rose (Mary Murray), quiet Agnes (Catherine Cusack), and schoolteacher Kate (Catherine McCormack). But this golden summer is the beginning of the end for the Mundy sisters, even though the return of their beloved brother Jack (Declan Conlon) after 25 years in the Ugandan Missions seems an unlikely catalyst for catastrophe. While the visit of Michael’s ne’er-do-well Welsh father Gerry Evans (Matt Tait) seems pivotal to the emotional turmoil that besets the house, it almost takes a ha’penny place in hindsight to the arrival of malfunctioning wireless Marconi; the ambassador of the industrial revolution finally reaching Ballybeg that will sweep away all.

Director Annabelle Comyn strips away the misplaced nostalgia that has gathered around Friel’s Tony-winning script; there are no fields of wheat crying out for Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold’ to soundtrack memories of halcyon summer here. Instead Paul O’Mahony’s domestic table, chests and stove yield seamlessly to the outside of rocks, kites and leaves strewn on the ground while looming over all is a reflective triangle with a layer of gauzy fabric dulling its accuracy. Chahine Yavroyan’s lights frequently flash accompanied by a loud pop, as in her design for Comyn’s 2014 The Vortex, to jolt us back to fuller lighting after expressive dimming during monologues or sad moments. It also emphasises these are Michael’s memories, and he mayn’t be as scrupulously accurate as he believes. Indeed his penultimate narration of doom colours the final scenes as oblivious to coming tragedy.

As my academic cohort Graham Price noted this is not a production that masks the bleakness. The dance is not a joyous climax, a moment of healing. It is an abrupt explosion of energy, that can’t overwhelm the despair; even in their dancing the sisters are alone, their movements governed by the forces that entrap them. And no dance is as revealing as Kate’s energetic but strict Irish dance-steps. McCormack’s performance recalls Cathy Belton’s affecting Judith in Friel’s Aristocrats at the Abbey last year. Kate is intelligent, and loving towards Michael, but she is buckling under the strain of holding her family together by conforming to societal norms. And her priest sibling instead of a godsend proves an albatross, having gone wildly native. A stooped, bearded Conlon is magnificent. His English initially clipped, from long usage exclusively with British imperialists. His hair wet from malarial sweats, but then smarter as he regains his vocabulary. Jack’s enthusiasm for Riyangan rituals leaves you convinced he, not the fox, sacrificed Rose’s pet rooster.

It is odd that a production that began as a celebration of a living playwright become a eulogy, but a fitting one it is.

5/5

Dancing at Lughnasa continues its run at the Gaiety Theatre until the 11th of October.

May 14, 2015

Hedda Gabler on HeadStuff

Hedda Gabler finishes its run in the Abbey on Saturday night, so if you’re still undecided about catching Annabelle Comyn’s production here’s a teaser for my review for HeadStuff.org.

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Hedda has just returned from honeymooning with her dull academic husband Tesman (Peter Gaynor). As they settle into a new house she idly insults Tesman’s devoted Aunt Julle (Jane Brennan), threatens to fire his long-suffering maid Berte (Deirdre Molloy), and takes a pot-shot at former lover Judge Brack (Declan Conlon). Brack, however, takes bullets whistling past his ears in stride, he knows he is the only person to whom Hedda can confide her utter boredom with bourgeois life, and her love of manipulating people for her amusement. And then former schoolmate Thea Elvsted (Kate Stanley Brennan) arrives, seeking help in tracking down another of Hedda’s former lovers, the once dissolute but now reformed Ejlert Lovborg (Keith McErlean). When Brack reveals that the now sober Lovborg is Tesman’s only rival for a professorship the scene is set for Hedda’s greatest chicanery.

Read the full review of how Mark O’Rowe produces a lean version of Henrik Ibsen’s text by clicking the link below:

http://www.headstuff.org/2015/05/hedda-gabler-review/

April 16, 2015

Hedda Gabler

Director Annabelle Comyn reunites with her The Talk of the Town leading lady Catherine Walker for Mark O’Rowe’s new version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 classic.

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Hedda Gabler (Walker) returns from a six-month honeymoon with husband Jorge Tesman (Peter Gaynor), who has tried her patience with research trips to libraries. But at least in libraries she didn’t have to endure Tesman’s beloved Aunt Julle (Jane Brennan) or maid Berte (Deirdre Molloy). Life in this new house looks set fair to be awful, apart from the visits of her former lover Judge Brack (Declan Conlon), and then the forecast gets even stormier. Former schoolmate Thea Elvsted (Kate Stanley Brennan), who Hedda despised, arrives desperately seeking Ejlert Lovborg (Keith McErlean). Hedda is initially intrigued, Lovborg being a lover she’d once threatened to shoot, but then quickly appalled when Brack reveals Lovborg’s new-found sobriety has enabled him publish a book so acclaimed he may pip Tesman to the professorship he was promised, and so ruin Hedda’s prospect of prosperity.

O’Rowe’s version brings a Mametian sensibility to bear on Ibsen’s dialogue, which suddenly erupts in overlapping, interruptions, and back-tracking. He also dials down the black comedy that Brian Friel memorably mined from the script. O’Rowe’s Hedda Gabler remains darkly humorous, but not as riotously funny as Anna Mackmin’s production of the Friel version I saw in the Old Vic in 2012. Half the fun of seeing the classics is seeing how different elements are highlighted by different productions. Peter Gayor is very impressive as Tesman. Whereas Adrian Scarborough rendered Tesman a joyous figure of fun, childlike in his enthusiasms and disappointments, Gaynor makes Tesman comically oblivious to Hedda’s pregnancy, but a serious academic whose conscience-stricken anger is sincere and fiery. Darrell D’Silva Fassbendered as a thoroughly roguish Brack, whereas Conlon renders him as a droll, urbane, and, eventually, inert presence.

The performances follow the version: where Daniel Lapaine emphasised the depraved menace of Lovborg, McErlean is a chastened, sensitive presence as the academic in search of redemption. Sheridan Smith brought her comedy chops to bear on the part, but Walker’s Hedda is a more tragic figure. O’Rowe’s provocative addition that everything she touches ends up “grotesque, vulgar, and f****** farcical” underscores her exhaustion at the bourgeois world she’s trapped in despite her best machinations. Comyn’s regular set designer Paul O’Mahony eschews his usual impressively realised sets and places the furniture of a drawing room centre-stage, with free-standing doors delineating where an imaginary garden and hallway exist on either side. It’s reminiscent of the nightmare of an open-plan house in the finale of Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo movie, and makes lighting designer Chahine Yavroyan’s ‘sun’ streaming in from the garden particularly striking.

The backdrop is a giant video screen on which Hugh O’Connor’s images and sounds, which fatally reminded me of U2’s ZOO TV, appear during scene changes. Perhaps it’s the white noise inside the head of Hedda? Who knows? Par the poster where Hedda sits on a chair under a plastic cover, no matter how well we can see Hedda, we can never see her clearly. O’Rowe’s version hammers home that Hedda is not as brilliant a manipulator as she thinks: she has been trapped in this house by an idle remark, just as an impulsive gesture with Lovborg will trap her. And the gesture which she thinks secures her position as a professor’s wife backfires spectacularly as this production makes it plain that Thea is the perfect wife for an academic, and her seriousness is the perfect match for Tesman.

Annabelle Comyn draws impressive performances from her cast as always, but she also zips the action along as Hedda is brought low by her own headstrong nature; rendered on farce and tragedy’s uneasy borderline.

4/5

Hedda Gabler continues its run at the Abbey until May 16h.

February 19, 2014

The Vortex

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Director Annabelle Comyn forsakes the Abbey and Shaw for the Gate and Coward in this cutting 1920s comedy with an unexpectedly serious and intimate finale.

The Vortex opens with the sensible Helen (Fiona Bell) and acerbic Pawnie (Mark O’Regan), waiting in an opulent drawing room for vain and apparently ageless socialite Florence (Susannah Harker). Coward follows Chekhov’s lead in having a whirl of characters pass thru one location as we meet unsmiling servant Preston (Andrea Kelly), fatuous singer Clara (Rebecca O’Mara), and, after Florence’s belated arrival, her devoted young lover Tom (Ian Toner), her defeated aged husband David (Simon Coury), her histrionic coke-stoked pianist son Nicky (Rory Fleck Byrne), and Nicky’s calculating flapper fiancé Bunty (Katie Kirby)… A Freudian frisson instantly shivers between Florence and Bunty over Nicky’s undivided love, and when it transpires Bunty and Tom knew each other intimately years before the scene is set for emotional carnage when all concerned up sticks to Florence’s country house for a Charleston-and-cocktails fuelled weekend party.

Comyn’s regular designer Paul O’Mahony provides an elegant crescent of mirrors and walls which slide along to reveal a staircase for the second act in the country, which begins with a literal bang as Chahine Yavroyan’s dramatically surging lighting design provides the effect of old flashbulbs for keepsake pictures of the couples dancing. Comyn showed in The House her skill at blocking large chaotic ensembles, and 8 people bounce around the stage to the over-pumped gramophone recording of the Charleston in Philip Connaughton’s choreographed party, during which Nicky’s coke addiction becomes evident to Helen. Byrne is marvellous as the highly-strung Nicky, trying to overcome his terrible upbringing, while his self-absorbed mother makes a fool of herself as Tom and Bunty move closer together. Toner is impressive as the slowly awakening Tom, while Kirby makes Bunty somehow both cold and right.

O’Regan Fassbenders delightfully as Pawnie, aided by hoovering up the play’s best lines. It’s tempting to link Coward to Waugh and say the trick of 1920s dialogue is the casual use of ridiculously hyperbolic words. Bright Young Things only ever dub things, no matter how trivial, as ‘ghastly, gruesome, sick-making, beastly, horrid, deathly’ or ‘heavenly, divine, sublime’. Well-spoken but OTT-phrased bad behaviour became Coward’s trade-in-stock but, while the curtain anticipates Hay Fever’s flight of guests, this is a more serious work. The third act focuses on Nicky’s insistence, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, that Florence abandons her obsession with her continuing youth and instead acknowledges her blame in his failings as a person. But this once controversial scene echoes Hamlet and Gertrude’s bedroom contretemps, and leaves us hungry for an aftermath that is never analysed – to dissatisfying effect.

The Vortex may have been the ‘theatrical shocker of the Jazz Age’, but what shocks now is not its sex and drugs but its cavalier dismissal of its ensemble.

3/5

The Vortex continues its run at the Gate until the 17th of March.

September 19, 2013

Major Barbara

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Annabelle Comyn directs her third summer show in a row on the Abbey stage and, following 2011’s Pygmalion, makes a welcome return to Bernard Shaw.

Shaw’s 1905 play begins with the imperious Lady Britomart (Eleanor Methven) initiating her shallow son Stephen (Killian Burke) into the shameful history of his millionaire father, arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft (Paul McGann). Lady Britomart intends to tap Undershaft for marriage settlements for their daughters Sarah (Liz Fitzgibbon), engaged to upper class twit Charles Lomax (Aonghus Og McAnally), and Barbara (Clare Dunne), engaged to bohemian Greek scholar Adolphus Cusins (Marty Rea). She also hopes, by inviting Undershaft to meet his children for the first time in decades, to spark some paternal sentiment in him so that he will abandon the Undershaft tradition of disinheriting the lawful heirs in favour of settling the massive arms concern on a foundling. The unrepentant Undershaft, however, is more impressed by his daughter Major Barbara; who he makes swear to visit his arms factory if he visits her Salvation Army shelter. But which of their competing philosophies will overcome the other?

Major Barbara is dominated by the character of Undershaft and McGann rises boldly to the challenge. His entrance into Lady Britomart’s library, absolutely unsure as to which of the three men in it is his son, is expertly prolonged, and his delivery of his unscrupulous politico-economic philosophy jaded without being cynical; his very sincerity hinting at the need for new energy which the steely Barbara suddenly offers to him. Dunne’s fervour as Barbara, with undertones of despair, complements McGann’s nuance, while Methven Fassbenders as the Wildean matriarch insulting her son and prospective son-in-laws with arch put-downs. Burke does a fine job of Stephen’s indignation shading into admiration as he sees his father’s works, but comedic honours go to Aonghus Og McAnally and his repeated contention that whatever’s being discussed involves a good deal of tommyrot. Talking Movies favourite Rea makes his shady character a worthy foil to Undershaft, alternating between ecstatic acceptance and mulish rebellion.

But, far more than Pygmalion, this play engages with the poor of London. The elegant library, by Comyn’s regular set designer Paul O’Mahony, loses its refinement to become the facade of the Salvation Army shelter. Shaw presents the poor who despise being reliant on charity (Chris McHallem’s defeated Peter Shirley), the poor who play up their Christianity to cynically con charity (Emmet Kirwan’s sly Bronterre O’Brien Price), and the poor who only Barbara would tackle (Ian Lloyd Anderson’s truly menacing Bill Walker). This is a London haunted by the winter depression of 1886, and, even as Barbara and Walker clash rhetorically and physically over his rejection of salvation, the visiting Undershaft instructs the attentive Cusins in the employers’ interest in the Army keeping the poor content, but in their place. When Undershaft offers a massive donation to Mrs Baines (Fiona Bell) to help keep open the shelter, Barbara resigns rather than usefully employ tainted money.

And so the final act finds the library transforming into a munitions factory with a massive weapon as its centrepiece as Undershaft attempts to uphold the Undershaft tradition while yet employing his fiery daughter… Major Barbara runs for nearly three hours and is a dense play. Is Shaw satirising the Salvation Army as the acme of religious enthusiasm that horrified staid Victorians? Or merely challenging the Army to convert the rich because they will be more sincere as they do not need their charity? And then there’s the grenade he throws in of personal integrity getting in the way of the greater good. Does Barbara have a duty to accept money made from wrongdoing in order to serve the greater good? Given recent resignations of conscience and Trevor Sargeant’s 2007 resignation to allow his party enter government this is not an abstract Antigone dilemma. Undershaft’s seductive honesty is very Shavian, if he doesn’t believe something he won’t pretend to for the sake of social niceties; and so he magnificently flourishes the fact that his industry controls government. But are his actions consistent with his philosophy or is he as impetuous as Barbara, so Shaw’s calling for compromise not mad idealism?

These knotty questions can’t really be answered, and so this production of Major Barbara is to be commended for expertly maintaining the comedic undertone in its intense examination of the ever-relevant clash between private integrity and the public good.

4/5

Major Barbara continues its run at the Abbey until the 21st of September.

July 27, 2012

The House

Tom Murphy’s 2000 Abbey commissioned play about the frustrations of returned emigrants in the 1950s returned to the Abbey as its absorbing final show before shutting down for asbestos-removing renovation.

Murphy’s play echoes Chekhov on several levels. There is a decaying gentry family headed by Mrs DeBurca (Eleanor Methven), which is about to be usurped by the man who once laboured for them, Christy (Declan Conlon). Struggling to come to terms with their slide down the social ladder are her three daughters of contrasting personalities; the sensible Marie (Cathy Belton), the slatternly Louise (Niamh McCann), and the sinuous emigrant Susanne (Catherine Walker). And the action plays out in a series of fixed locations into which people flow and eddy; in one bar scene there are no fewer than 13 people on stage as a chaotic drunken speech and fight plays out. This might be a hauntingly tragic tale of a man who gets everything he ever wanted at the cost of destroying the very reason he ever wanted them, but that Murphy’s characters are more complex than they initially appear…

Christy appears to be a charming, salt of the earth type but he brutally sets upon his friend Jimmy (Aonghus Og McAnally) in the local bar for a perceived slight the audience will struggle to remember in their shock at this sudden eruption of violence. Marie’s initial snobbishness towards Christy may have been her nervousness at revealing her love for him, but then her later affection may be mere desperation to retain her social standing. Similarly Susanne’s initial flamboyance gets progressively more over the top as Walker heavies the affected English accent to convey Susanne’s growing panic that she belongs nowhere – failed in London, no longer respected in Ireland. Into this ambiguity of character motivation Murphy injects ambiguity of nationality in Christy’s fellow returned emigrants Goldfish (Karl Shiels) and Peter (Frank Laverty). Peter’s accent continually wanders towards England, while Goldfish’s life in New Jersey has corrupted not just his accent but his thoughts; a grab-bag of Western and gangster movie sentiments. ‘Home’ for the summer, they’re really at home nowhere.

This is a society that is eager to hoover up money from these emigrants, but even more eager that they leave again when they run out of cash. Paul O’Mahony’s set impressively furnishes the claustrophobic pub run by Bunty (Darragh Kelly), the house of sardonic lawyer Kerrigan (Lorcan Cranitch), and the patio and dining room of the Big House. (I unfortunately saw the second last performance which saw an enforced interval after the first scene as the revolving stage revolveth not.) Kelly and Cranitch are both hilarious as they embody the hypocrisy of hail fellow well met attitudes to emigrants whose unfocused energy discomforts them. Bosco Hogan, in a surprisingly small role as local Garda Tarpey, adds steel to their refusal to fix a society so broken that it exports its youth. Murphy’s play is always gripping, and often very funny, but it’s a good rather than a great piece of work, and the supposed post-property boom resonance is tangential to its dramatic success as a melancholic study with barbed commentary on societal failure.

Director Annabelle Comyn doesn’t quite reach the heights of last summer’s Abbey Pygmalion but she draws excellent performances from her cast in a quality show.

3/5

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