Talking Movies

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.

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December 3, 2011

Big Maggie

The Clinic star Aisling O’Sullivan stars as the titular monstrous matriarch in Druid’s production of John B Keane’s abrasive comedy-drama.

John B Keane’s 1969 play is remarkably explicit in its dissection of how ecclesiastical attitudes to sexuality were a rather useful enabler to the snuffing out of any romantic machinations that didn’t also satisfy cravings for social climbing thru land acquisition. Maggie opens the play smoking by an empty hearse rather than watch her husband be buried. A lengthy and tense scene in the family home sees her reveal that he had signed over to her all rights to money, house, shop and farm. She means to dominate now, and the children will get nothing unless they toe the line. Mick, the eldest son promised ½ the farm by his father, immediately leaves for England. Maurice is strung along with the promise that he might be allowed to marry and have the farm, if he waits. Maggie chillingly notes that he’s only 24, and his father (in this deranged society) was considered very young to be married at 35. Gert and Katie are to swap working in kitchen and shop as punishment for Katie being the father’s favourite.

Maggie’s determination to exercise absolute authority powers the resolution of this family struggle over four shocking scenes. Charlie Murphy is impressively haughty and saucy but also fragile as Katie, the eldest daughter who it’s implied might have had an incestuous relationship with the dead patriarch. The only member of the family who can land a verbal blow on Maggie, she is nevertheless forced into a loveless marriage by her mother for the sake of money and respectability. Sarah Greene is wonderfully jejune as Gert, the youngest daughter who is shocked by Katie’s early revelations but grows up quickly under the harsh tutelage of her mother’s cruelty in stifling her love life. John Olohan is again a terrifically funny presence as the monumental sculptor Byrne. He’s gifted the filthiest gags in the play as well as both delivering and receiving tremendously vicious putdowns in his flirtatious bantering with Maggie. Director Garry Hynes’s stunt-casting gamble pays off as Keith Duffy is surprisingly good as the playboy commercial traveller, trading on his boy-band looks and matinee idol romantic posturing to good comedic effect.

The bleak ending is both a quasi-reversal of Riders to the Sea, and, as Fiachra MacNamara pointed out to me, almost a nod towards Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Aisling O’Sullivan does a good Kerry accent and delivers biting lines with relish, but she has rarely made any of her characters particularly likeable, and it’s tempting to ask if Maggie’s motivations might have seemed more convincing with a different actress in the role. Would another actress have made Maggie’s marrying off of Katie, despite her complaints about the misery of her own marriage for the sake of financial security, seem tragic in its complicity with a hated socio-economic system rather than merely hypocritical? Despite the quality of the acting and sharpness of the writing this play becomes quite draining because of the sheer selfishness of Maggie, which appears in her final espousal of her ‘zero-sum world’ philosophy; a philosophy which she fails to note is contradicted by the continued support and affection her exiled children still afford each other, but will now justly deny to her…

Nevertheless this is a strong production of a play whose existence challenges the conventional wisdom about our recent past.

4/5

Big Maggie is on a nationwide tour, ending with its return to the Gaiety in February.

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