Talking Movies

August 24, 2017

The Pillowman

Decadent Theatre Company again took over the Gaiety stage with Martin McDonagh’s trademark blend of macabre madness, but set in Mitteleurope rather than the Wesht.

 

Katurian (Diarmuid Noyes) is in deep trouble. Somebody in this unnamed (and semi-mythical) totalitarian state has been acting out particularly horrible short stories by a writer, and he’s the writer so he’s the prime suspect. Abrasive policeman Tupolski (Peter Gowen) and his thuggish underling Ariel (Gary Lydon) have Katurian prisoner in their Spartan barracks. And by Lenin if they have to beat the eyes out of his head and unsettle him with asinine nonsense they are going to make him confess. Unless of course he didn’t do it, but if not him then who; could his brain-damaged brother Michael (Owen Sharpe) really have done such horrible things? Would Tupolski really torture innocent Michael just to make Katurian confess? Why does Katurian write such horrible stories in the first place? And what does horrible parenting have to do with it all?

Owen MacCarthaigh’s deceptively simple set; almost a bare stage with desk, seats, cabinet, and furnace in a circle; spectacularly splits to reveal a house or woodland behind, dependent on which of Katurian’s tales is being silently played out (very broadly) by Jarlath Tivnan, Kate Murray, Peter Shine, Tara Finn, and Rose Makela. Ciaran Bagnall’s lights and Carl Kennedy’s sounds combine to create tableau during the most disturbing of these glimpses into Katurian’s dark imagination, the origin of his creativity. I saw The Pillowman in UCD Dramsoc in 2006 as a spare four-hander, so director Andrew Flynn’s visual extravagance here took me aback. It amuses and horrifies effectively, but also leaves the audience with less work to do. Sharpe’s sometimes camp mannerisms were also in stark contrast to Michael’s defeated stillness back in 2006, akin to Marty Rea’s recent Aston.

Pinter is a strong presence in this play. The first act is comedy of menace as Katurian is bewildered and intimidated by Tupolski’s odd interrogation. The second act is arguably McDonagh’s most soulful material ever, as the two brothers share a cell. The dark and comic invention of Katurian’s reimagining of fairy tales throughout remains astonishing, a highlight being the Pied Piper of Hamlein. And then there’s the third act where McDonagh seems to mash together Pinter and Orton; “I’m sick of everyone blaming their behaviour on someone else. My father was a violent alcoholic. Am I a violent alcoholic? Yes. … But that was entirely my choice”; but then deliver a tour-de-force entirely his own, Tupolski’s short story – which I still remembered chunks of 11 years later. It is outrageously offensive, and sadly it was clear the audience in the Gaiety was self-censoring itself, whereas in Dramsoc we had recognised it was of a part with Tupolski’s character and, having made that recognition, thereafter stopped tut-tutting and let out ears back to fully enjoy the verbal marvel McDonagh was constructing. Cruelty and callousness are part of comedy, perhaps inextricably so; it’s hard to imagine Swift or Waugh without them.

I still prefer some of the notes struck by Andrew Nolan’s Tupolski in 2006, but Noyes’ sincerity, Gowen’s swagger, and Lydon’s hidden decency make for an impressive central trio.

4.5/5

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June 11, 2016

Othello

The Abbey joins in the Shakespeare 400 celebrations with its first ever production of Othello and it’s a vibrant cracker

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Beware my lord of jealousy, it is the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feed on

Respected soldier Othello (Peter Macon) has secretly married Desdemona (Rebecca O’Mara), to the dismay and fury of her father Brabantio (Peter Gowen) when he is roused with the news by failed suitor Rodrigo (Gavin Fullam). But the support Brabantio initially receives from his peers on the Council; Lodovico (Barry Barnes), Gratiano (Michael James Ford), and the Duke (Malcolm Douglas); evaporates when they realise his righteous indignation is directed at Othello, for the Ottomans are moving against Cyprus, and Othello is Venice’s indispensable man. Little does Othello realise that Cyprus will turn out to be a psy-ops front rather than a naval engagement. For despite being governed by his friend Montano (Des Cave) Cyprus will prove no home as his ensign Iago (Marty Rea) whispers poison in his ear in an attempt to usurp Cassio (John Barry O’Connor) as Othello’s lieutenant.

Director Joe Dowling seems to dispense with Coleridge’s celebrated ‘motiveless malignity’ of Iago for a fascinating interpretation; that Iago himself is acting throughout under the spell of the same species of madness he casts over Othello. While he is resentful of being passed over for promotion, his true anger seems to circle around his wife Emilia (Karen Ardiff) having betrayed him with the Moor. Iago’s cold treatment of Emilia thus seems a parallel to Othello’s rough abuse of Desdemona – having been turned against her. And his wail at the result of his handiwork adds to this impression; a man suddenly waking from a fugue state horrified at what he’s done. Macon’s performance is extremely impressive, and surprising. Instead of ‘the noble Moor’, dignifying every syllable, he gives us a soldier whose early scenes of camaraderie are rambunctious bordering on rowdy, and whose descent into madness involves howling, screaming, and an epileptic fit. Othello’s modesty about his linguistic skills can seem farcical given his poetic eloquence, but here it signals insecurity because English is his second language, as the American Macon delivers Shakespearean verse with some acutely noted notes and flourishes of sub-Saharan African speech. Rea, in a rare occurrence, is asked to act in his own Northern Irish accent, and this also strips away posturing. Instead of grandstanding in his own villainy in RP, Iago is a street-corner slouch of bored contempt and hidden spite; in which each soliloquy seems to expose a man trapped in his own world of hatred – given memorable visual expression by Sinead McKenna’s lights spotlighting a wordless conversation between Cassio and Desdemona while Iago creeps closer to them, railing at them, lost in solipsistic hate.

Desdemona’s passivity works best as a sheltered girl’s naivety about the world, but O’Mara is too old for the role. Desdemona is thus infuriatingly clueless, but O’Mara does gives full impact to James Cosgrove’s fight direction by selling one of the most shocking stage-punches I’ve seen. Ardiff is a highlight in support making Emilia a beacon of common sense and proto-feminist, but rendering Bianca (Liz Fitzgibbon) as an O’Casey streetwalker is a cheap and mean gag. Dowling’s staging is less naturalistic than previous returns from Minneapolis like 2003’s All My Sons or 2011’s The Field. Indeed Act 3’s celebrated temptation scene takes place against what becomes a blood-red backdrop of ocean upon which vast shadows are cast as Iago corrupts Othello. Before that Venice has been represented by a massive suspended plaque, and as Othello descends into psychosis the walls almost literally close in on him, as the ocean backdrop is truncated by successively closing over more and more of the wooden panelling of Riccardo Hernandez’s set which is identical to the Abbey’s off-stage decor.

It remains bizarre to have chosen this play because of one line, which elicited sustained tittering heedless of the dead and maimed littering the stage during its delivery, but Dowling affords the Bard’s tragedy of jealousy a bold debut.

4/5

Othello continues its run at the Abbey Theatre until the 11th of June.

November 17, 2015

Through A Glass Darkly

The Corn Exchange takes on an Ingmar Bergman film in Jenny Worton’s stage adaptation of a woman’s struggle against madness.

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Karin (Beth Cooke) has recently been released from a mental hospital after a breakdown. Her prognosis is grim, she can only look forward to lucid intervals during a downward spiral, but her doctor husband Martin (Peter Gaynor) has kept her in the dark. He believes there may still be hope. What she needs is rest, and a holiday with her novelist father David (Peter Gowen) and her teenage brother Minus (Colin Campbell) on their idyllic island summer home is the key to curing her psychosis. The self-involved David, however, is struggling to finish a novel, and almost instantly announces his intention to travel to Croatia to lecture on his works for a term. Meanwhile Minus is having a total hormonal meltdown: alternating between frenzied creativity, desperate masturbation, and raging about his father’s emotional distance. And then Karin discovers her prognosis…

Director Annie Ryan relies heavily on Denis Clohessy’s immersive sound design to conjure up Bergman’s deceptively attractive Swedish pastoral; a deluge in particular is emotionally as well as aurally devastating. Sarah Bacon’s set design of tables, chairs, and a bed, with screens shifting along furrows on the stage, creates the pared back world of this psychodrama. But, for all the actors moving screens and props about to create fluid scene changes, the 90 minutes without an interval of Through A Glass Darkly pass with you always keenly aware that you are watching a stage version of a film rather than a play proper. You worry about what visual metaphors might be missing which Bergman used to convey Karina’s delusions about a room of souls waiting for God, just behind the wall. You even worry if Bergman’s landscape shots were important.

Such concern with the filmic origins is because as a play there is something lacking about Bergman’s script, short scenes fail to acquire dramatic flesh. Gaynor’s hapless husband is sympathetically played as a kindly man out of his depth. Gowen follows his overbearing patriarch in By the Bog of Cats this summer with a nuanced portrayal of a father running away from all family problems; whether they be wife, daughter, or son; excusing himself by devotion to his art, even though he is horrified at finding the splinter of ice in his heart when observing his daughter’s disintegration. Newcomer Campbell acquits himself well in perhaps the most challenging role, as the petulant and easily manipulated teenager. Cooke’s accent strikes Nordic notes, accentuating Karin’s increasing distance from her family, and her initial playfulness makes her later hysteria all the more disturbing.

Through A Glass Darkly is affecting and well performed but where Corn Exchange’s Man of Valour brought computer game and comic-book fantasies to vivid theatrical life this remains in thrall to its cinematic source.

3/5

Through A Glass Darkly continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until the 5th of December.

August 23, 2015

By the Bog of Cats

Selina Cartmell directs Marina Carr’s relocation of Medea to the Midlands for its first revival since its 1998 Abbey premiere.

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We meet Hester Swane (Susan Lynch) in what seems a disused quarry next the titular bog, dragging a dead black swan, a prophetic bird from which the blind Catwoman (Brid Ni Neachtain) divines Hester’s death by sundown. This emphasises the earlier omen of Hester meeting the Ghost Fancier (David Shannon) in the morning fog, who apologised for being early… Hester’s day was already set to be bad as Carthage Kilbride (Barry John O’Connor), the father of her child Josie (Eve Maher/Elodie Devins), is marrying the much younger Caroline Cassidy (Rachel O’Byrne), the daughter of big farmer Xavier Cassidy (Peter Gowen). The vinegary Mrs Kilbride (Marion O’Dwyer) is delighted at this advantageous match, that will ‘knock some semblance of legitimacy’ into her granddaughter. But Hester is determined not to go quietly, despite her neighbour Monica Murray (Jane Brennan) begging Hester to keep her signed promise to leave the bog for the new house in the town that Xavier has bought her…

Monica Frawley’s set is impressively stark, the craggy rocks being relieved only by a tent in the background for the raucous wedding sequence. This channels the intensity of Greek tragedy which Carr smashes into Irish archetypes. Catwoman the Tiresian blind seer mingles with an Irish mammy from Hell in Mrs Kilbride, Hester’s Tinker blood is the barbarian origins that Greeks despise, while Creon banishing Medea from Corinth is Xavier moving Hester off the bog; except that Xavier is also a monstrous patriarch out of John McGahern’s work. Irish country and western music floats over proceedings, even inflecting the cowboy-outfitted drawling Ghost Fancier, but Kilian Waters’ AV design is oddly under-used, indeed largely abandoned after a prologue in which Hester’s sunken caravan is investigated by a character who disappears out of sight but whose point-of-view is relayed on a big screen. This play is about passion, mostly the thirst for revenge, as conveyed by Lynch in a performance of snarling intensity.

But, as Euripides’ 1960s translator Philip Vellacott noted, Medea presents “an oppressed victim claiming sympathy” until “the punishment shows itself twice as wicked as the crime, sympathy changes sides; and we are left with only one comfort, that since the worst has been reached, there can be no worse thing to follow.” After the interval Carr unduly prolongs Hester’s embittered rampage, as we’ve lost sympathy by dint of her past before she proves childishly and murderously unwilling to distinguish between death and exile. Hester’s most affecting scenes come before the interval: lamenting her betrayal by Carthage, making fun of Mrs Kilbride with her daughter Josie. O’Dwyer is hilariously spiteful before the interval as Mrs Kilbride, but raises the roof as a Freudian nightmare against the double-act of Ni Neachtain’s Catwoman and Des Nealon’s Fr Willow at the memorable wedding bacchanalia. O’Byrne evinces a quiet sadness, while special mention must go to the young actress playing Josie with bright, phenomenal confidence.

By the Bog of Cats is a production of admirable commitment which loses its way latterly because of its repetitious focus on Hester but lingers long in the mind.

3.5/5

By the Bog of Cats continues its run at the Abbey until September 12th.

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