Talking Movies

October 16, 2017

King Lear

The Mill Theatre returns to the Shakespearean well in autumn once again with a spirited production of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy.

Lear (Philip Judge) has decided to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. But, while sycophantic siblings Goneril (Sharon McCoy) and Regan (Maureen O’Connell) flatter him to get their rightful shares, his truth-telling daughter Cordelia (Clodagh Mooney Duggan) refuses to lie or exaggerate, enraging the vain Lear; and her share is thus split between her sisters’ husbands Cornwall (Fiach Kunz) and Albany (Damien Devaney). Cordelia leaves England sans dowry to become the Queen of France, and the steadfast courtier Kent (Matthew O’Brien) is banished for taking her part in the quarrel. He ‘disguises’ himself to serve Lear, while the scheming bastard Edmund (Michael David McKernan) uses the fraught situation to eliminate his legitimate brother Edgar (Tom Moran) from the line of succession to Gloucester (Damien Devaney again); exploiting the political chaos that Lear’s wise Fool (Clodagh Mooney Duggan again) foresaw…

There is a certain Game of Thrones vibe to this production, from Kent’s ‘disguise’ being a Yorkshire swagger, through the furry ruff of Lear’s greatcoat, to the stylised throne amidst three massive complicated spikes making a crown that dominates Gerard Bourke’s set design. This delivers an unexpected visual payoff when near the finale the villainous Edmund sits on the throne to lean on his sword; so close to possessing absolute power… Comparisons to Selina Cartmell’s 2013 Abbey production are inevitable as that trafficked in medieval visuals, but this production is considerably less expansive; no galleries and wolfhounds here. Director Geoff O’Keefe, however, avoids the muddled paganism Cartmell attempted. But, in a play already replete with disguises, he has doubled a number of parts; most startlingly Cordelia and the Fool being the same actress. That bold choice pays off, as do most of the doublings, though there is one silly wig.

O’Keefe doesn’t quite achieve anything as revelatory as Neill Fleming’s Claudius in last year’s Hamlet, but he adds interesting notes to multiple characters. The Fool is the apex of an uncommon commitment to the bawdiness of the play, and when CMD returns as Cordelia she holds a sword almost as a signal that she has been hardened by her exile; which makes her reunion with the mad Lear, when he finally recognises her, all the more tear-jerking. McCoy’s Goneril is more nuanced than the pantomime villain oft presented, her glances at Regan and Cordelia in the opening scene suggest a panicked resort to flattery and encouragement to her sisters to do likewise to humour a mad old man. O’Keefe perhaps overeggs her late asides to the audience being spot-lit, but McCoy grows into villainy impressively; aided by O’Connell’s novel rendering of Regan as daffy malice, and McKernan bringing out the black comedy of their love triangle as an Edmund cut from Richard III’s gloating cloth.

Judge is a notably conversational Lear in his ‘fast intent’ speech; his decision already made there is no need for pomp or majesty. This is a king in flight from majesty. Whereas previous Lears that I have seen, Owen Roe and Gerard Adlum, favoured camp notes for their madness, Judge’s Lear is childish; running, hiding behind benches, playing games with imaginary friends. His retreat from responsibility while wishing to still enjoy kingship is after all a retreat to childishness, and his shocking spit on Goneril is of a part with the spite of children. The madness on the heath is wonderfully achieved with Kris Mooney’s blue lights raking the audience while Declan Brennan’s sound effects swirl queasily. Judge’s descent into second childhood is expressed through sudden rage that almost outstrips language, perhaps the impulse for the sound design of screeching animals between scenes. In support Tom Ronayne is wonderful comic relief as a put upon servant, fussing over benches and defending himself with a cloth.

This is a fine production that has a number of interesting interpretations, and succeeds in pulling off the extreme ending which still remains the ultimate kick in the guts.

3.5/5

King Lear continues its run at the Mill Theatre until the 28th of October.

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June 25, 2014

Aristocrats

Director Patrick Mason returns to the Abbey for a new production of 1979’s Aristocrats, Brian Friel’s Chekhovian study of a Catholic Big House in decline.

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The peculiarity of Ballybeg in having a Catholic Big House has attracted Chicagoan academic Tom Hoffnung (Philip Judge). As he researches the history of the well-to-do O’Donnell family since 1829, he is privy to gossip from helpful local fixer Willie Diver (Rory Nolan). Willie is devoted to the eldest daughter Judith (Cathy Belton), whose life is now spent caring for her invalided father (John Kavanagh) and the eccentric Uncle George (Bosco Hogan). Tom’s visit is peculiarly opportune for getting family gossip as youngest daughter Claire (Jane McGrath) is getting married, and so middle daughter Alice (Rebecca O’Mara) and oddball son Casimir (Tadhg Murphy) have returned to the fold. However, while Casimir has left wife Helga in Hamburg, Alice has brought acerbic husband Eamon (Keith McErlean). And Eamon is a truth-teller when it comes to his peasantry and the O’Donnell gentry…

Uncle George who shuffles about silently avoiding people is a character straight out of Chekhov. But Aristocrats, while it has some very funny moments (not least imaginary croquet), is primarily a very sad play. Judith’s speech about how she manages to be ‘almost happy’ within a strict routine of servitude, which she does not want disturbed, is made all the more heart-breaking by the ingratitude of her stroke-stricken father; who continually refers to Judith’s great betrayal, unaware that it is she who tends to him. Casimir’s relating how his father told him his eccentricities could be absorbed in the Big House whereas he would be the village idiot in Ballybeg is equally distressing as it has led him to narrowing his life to avoid pillory. And, in Sinead McKenna’s evocative lighting design, behind everything – Judith’s past role in the Troubles.

Francis O’Connor’s set, a detailed drawing room with abstracted staircases and doors behind it and an imaginary wall to a lawn, strikes a balance between verisimilitude and artifice that my sometime co-writer John Healy pointed out to me was reflected in the acting styles; naturalistic for the ‘native peasantry’ Willie and Eamon, more mannered for the self-conscious gentry in decline – especially Alice’s performative alcoholism and Casimir’s apologetic tics. The set also reflects Friel’s concern with the ghostly technology; absent daughter Anna (Ruth McGill) can record a message, Father’s rantings can be relayed downstairs. Catherine Fay’s 1970s costumes (especially for Alice and Willie) are impeccable, while Mason lives up to Eamon’s programmatic ‘This has always been a house of reticence, of things left unspoken’ by offering muted hints that Eamon fathered Judith’s child, and that Eamon and Alice will be happy.

My fellow academic Graham Price would no doubt note the contrast between McGahern’s vision of the Big House; a place of learning; and Friel’s vision; a place where objects are named after Chesterton, Hopkins and Yeats, but it is severely doubtful that the self-absorbed status-conscious O’Donnells who did so ever emulated their intellectual curiosity.

3.5/5

Aristocrats continues its run at the Abbey until the 2nd of August.

June 20, 2012

Travesties

Rough Magic bring Tom Stoppard’s 1975 play Travesties to the Pavilion Theatre to mark Bloomsday but Joyce is a minor character in a play too clever for its own good…

1975 finds aged British civil servant Henry Carr (Will Irvine) unreliably reminiscing about his time in the British consulate in Zurich in WWI. Carr really did act in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest staged by James Joyce (Ronan Leahy), and they really did get into an absurd lawsuit over a pair of trousers used in the show, but everything else Carr remembers … unreliably. Yes, Lenin (Peter Daly) and Tristan Tzara (Ciaran O’Brien) were in Zurich at the same time promoting Communism and Dadaism respectively. No, they weren’t intimate acquaintances of Carr, and they certainly weren’t all playing parts in a real life Earnest type romantic comedy of mistaken and assumed identities as everyone attempted to woo Joyce’s helper Gwendolyn (Camille Ross) and Lenin’s acolyte Cecily (Jody O’Neill). Carr remembers all this in a series of deliriously repeated scenes as his shellshock and a cuckoo clock restart the action to be ‘accurate’. It’s unnerving to sit thru a comedy where people aren’t laughing, but a delightful wordplay on Bosh and Bosch was just one of many of Stoppard’s hyper-literate gags, most involving Ulysses and Earnest, which proved too smart for the room.

The over-emphasis on Joyce in this show’s promotion probably accounts for the air of bemusement that greeted Carr’s dominating presence throughout as Joyce made only comedic cameos. Leahy milked comedy from his role but his accent roved mightily, and unsatisfactorily when it rendered the Clongowes and UCD old boy as a Roddy Doyle character. Irvine was on fine dramatic as well as comedic form, making Carr’s sudden surges of panic about being back on the Western front as important as his foppish obsession with his many stylish trousers that were ruined in the trenches. Jody O’Neill was equally impressive with magnificently clipped delivery as Cecily and superb timing in a scene where Bennett the butler (Philip Judge) beats time in the act of serving tea to Cecily and Gwendolyn as they fight in song lyrics. That scene occurs in the second act which houses all the play’s funniest scenes including Joyce quizzing Tzara over Dadaism in the style of the ‘Ithaca’ chapter of Ulysses and giving an impassioned speech on creating Ulysses.

Poor old Tzara also gets it in the neck from Carr with a devastating speech that makes a hilarious analogy with redefining the meaning of ‘flying’ to condemn modern art as shifting the goalposts of art to allow talentless people pass themselves off as artists. Art’s purpose is the main theme of a play constructed from other works and daffy showboating like dialogue in limericks. Tzara wants to make art random and democratic, Joyce regards the artist as having a sacred duty to speak truth, and Lenin the revolutionary privately likes his art conservative in form but publicly insists it be engaged in social critique. The momentum killing excessive quotation from Lenin in order to skewer his intellectual dishonesty by his own words seems a very 1970s brush-off to Soviet fellow travellers who attacked Stoppard for lack of political commitment, but Daly generates enormous melancholy from Lenin discovering that his beloved Pushkin, as a ‘bourgeois individualist’, has been supplanted by a futurist poet in curricula. Director Lynne Parker designed the set’s pitched platform which in representing Carr’s home and the Zurich library creates an appropriately surreal atmosphere in which she draws the best from her actors.

Stoppard’s plays always dazzle with their bravura mix of wit and learning but this is a solid production of a script that, unlike Arcadia, engages only the head, not the heart.

3/5

Travesties continues its run in the Pavilion Theatre until June 23rd.

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