Talking Movies

August 13, 2016

The Constant Wife

Alan Stanford directs Somerset Maugham’s 1920s comedy of marital infidelity and hypocrisy to amusing effect, but in a broad manner.

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Constance Middleton (Tara Egan Langley) has it all: rich, lovely house, delightful daughter at boarding school. But her friends and relations feel sorry for her. Well, some of them do. Her redoubtable mother Mrs Culver (Belinda Lang) most certainly does not; indeed she has called on her daughter expressly to prevent her spinster daughter Martha (Rachel O’Byrne) informing Constance that her husband John (Simon O’Gorman) is having an affair with Constance’s bubbly and vacuous best friend Marie-Louise (Caoimhe O’Malley). Both of them are surprised when they learn that Constance knew all along, and even more surprised when she manages to convince Marie-Louise’s husband Mortimer (Peter Gaynor) that he is a monstrous cad for suspecting his wife. Little do they realise that Constance has a plan, involving gossip, plausible deniability, and her former beau Bernard (Conor Mullen) just returned from China.

Constance takes a job with her entrepreneur friend Barbara (Ruth McGill), and emancipates herself from economic dependence on her husband; much to his fury. Indeed there’s a lot of comic male bluster in this play. The Constant Wife is quite funny, but is played as slapstick. Gaynor has a fantastic stride of determined and manly apology, while Mullen lurks in a doorway looking back and forth at the adulterous couple with the suspicious gaze of a man who’s just been told what’s going on (and leans back hilariously for one parting warning glance), and O’Gorman nearly blows a gasket in remaining dashed polite to a man he wholeheartedly desires to knock down and set to.  Given Constance’s Shavian speeches on economics and her mother’s Bracknellisms you wonder if Patrick Mason could elicit subtler laughs and trim the third act repetitions.

O’Malley Fassbenders as the callous airhead, and Lang is delightfully withering, but O’Byrne overplays her RP accent somewhat. Eileen Diss’ appropriately airy set design gives us a drawing room flooded with light, and Peter O’Brien pulls out all the stops in designing a whole wardrobe of glorious flapper era outfits for Maugham’s women to model. Programming this as high summer fare, for the second time in a decade, seemed an absurd exemplar of Michael Colgan’s latter sterility as artistic director, and news of his retirement followed soon after. Maugham’s play is good, but can one justify reviving it when the Gate has only produced three Stoppard shows since 1984? Being The Real Thing, and Arcadia twice. We know the Gate needs full houses but couldn’t an exuberant Stoppard like Night and Day, Indian Ink, or Jumpers pack a house too?

The Constant Wife is entertaining, but not of Cowardian calibre. It and the Abbey’s ramshackle The Wake have represented a veritable Scylla and Charybdis of commerce over aesthetics and ideology over aesthetics this summer.

3/5

The Constant Wife continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 3rd of September.

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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.

May 1, 2014

Twelfth Night

Wayne Jordan tackles Shakespeare’s serious comedy and the result is nearly three and a half hours of mystifying directorial decisions.

Viola (Sophie Robinson) and her ship’s Captain (Muiris Crowley) are washed up on the shores of Illyria. Her twin brother Sebastian having drowned, Viola adopts his wardrobe to become a male courtier to Duke Orsino (Barry John O’Connor); quickly being favoured above long-suffering Valentine (Elaine Fox). The Duke is in love with the widowed Olivia (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), who’ll have nothing to do with him. Olivia is also fending off the suit of Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Mark Lambert), friend of her dissolute cousin Sir Toby Belch (Nick Dunning). Her court is split between the punctiliousness of Malvolio (Mark O’Halloran) and the buffoonery of Sir Toby, with the Fool Feste (Ger Kelly) and Fabian (Lloyd Cooney) siding with Toby, especially when Olivia’s servant Maria (Ruth McGill) devises a prank to humble Malvolio. But Sebastian (Gavin Fullam) did not drown, he was saved by Antonio (Conor Madden), and their arrival causes comedic chaos…

That at least was what Shakespeare wrote, but it’s not what Jordan renders onstage. The opening line ‘If music be the food of love, play on’ is taken a bit … literally: 5 massive speakers are wheeled out onto the stage and Orsino plays raucous music on a mandolin plugged into them. It’s unfortunately reminiscent of the start of Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’ video… The speakers are (saving a fridge, table and chairs) all the set Ciaran O’Melia provides, and they’re redundant for most of the action. When active they provide comedy extraneous to the text: playing ‘Sexy Boy’ for the Duke parading his Freddie Mercury cloak, and Rage Against the Machine for Sir Toby standing on a table shouting profanities until the music is turned off. Sir Toby also gets a gong sounded when he does the crane pose during a fight, and he leads Feste and Sir Andrew in a barbershop version of ‘Firestarter’. These are all funny only by virtue of being inappropriate, but if you can’t find comedy within Shakespeare why stage him? Why not set Twelfth Night in Manhattan and sprinkle it with Woody Allen one-liners to get laughs?

This is the third Jordan Abbey production I’ve suffered thru after Alice in Funderland and The Plough and the Stars, and he apparently has no idea of pacing. Twelfth Night starts at 730 and runs until 1055 with one interval. It’s a romantic comedy, and it’s nearly 3 ½ hours long… The mark of a confident director of Shakespeare is their willingness to cut the Bard’s text. Instead Jordan inserts material: the insistence on having everyone listen while one character sings a song makes you feel you’ve wandered into some Cameron Crowe nightmare. The ‘brave’ anti-Catholicism of Alice is also in evidence, as, unheeding of Calvary’s critique of the blanket vilification of priests, Jordan decides that the priest interrogating Malvolio should be played by Feste adopting a thick Kerry accent. His appearance being preceded by a jibe from Shakespeare produces the bizarre spectacle of English Anti-Catholicism enacted via Irish Anti-Catholicism.

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And then there’s Jordan’s queering of Shakespeare and weak casting… Robinson fails to project the necessary comic vivacity as Viola, indeed by the finale Viola has become a petulant teenager, and her Northern accent does not synch with Fullam playing her ‘identical’ twin Sebastian at all. But internal logic isn’t much of a concern in this production. Sebastian is introduced in bed with Antonio (in their tiny whiteys, as everyone must appear in their underwear), as a very literal reading of a few lines of dialogue is used to make them a gay couple. But Jordan wants us to applaud this enlightened reading while at the same time having Valentine play pantomime shocked when she sees it, which is just ridiculously smug back-slapping: much like Alice’s ‘satire’, Jordan appears to think he’s scandalising an audience of Eisenhower and DeValera stalwarts. And then with massive illogicality Fullam’s fey mannerisms as Sebastian are instantly dropped for an enthusiastic sexual relationship with Olivia. Sebastian is either inconsistent or opportunistic, and faithful Antonio is totally shafted by Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia, who herself is played as obviously still in love with Viola in her female guise. Internal logic schlogic…

The obvious saving grace of this production is the great Mark O’Halloran as Malvolio. He is very funny, especially in convincing himself by crazy leaps of logic that Olivia has written him a love letter. His hysterical appearance in a full yellow-bodysuit underneath his suit is perhaps over-egging the comic pudding, but it’s saved by the perverse dignity with which he replaces his glasses over his hooded head. Radmall-Quirke also exudes that quality of perverse dignity in fending off Malvolio, and the gradual softening of her icy facade is well played. Ger Kelly is also a splendid physical presence as Feste, and his delivery of Fool’s wit sparkling. The impulse to go too far is intermittently present in Lambert’s drunken Sir Andrew, but his outraged vanity gets the biggest laugh out of the script Shakespeare actually wrote. Dunning, however, feels like he’s playing Aidan Gillen’s Sir Toby, not his own.

Dunning’s unexpectedly mean-spirited Sir Toby seems to feed into a bizarre interpretation of the text by Jordan, in which he wants to queer Shakespeare by having the traditional climatic heterosexual marriages be a parade of misery. Olivia and Antonio are unhappy at losing Viola and Sebastian. The Duke marries Viola for no apparent reason, making Valentine unhappy. Sir Toby is horrid to Sir Andrew, and loses his only friend, while Sir Andrew runs away from Illyria. And Malvolio runs thru the audience, with his face stained with tears. O’Halloran is so good you feel like crying at Malvolio’s humiliation, but his exit line could be high comedy as could Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s parting. Instead after 3 ½ hours nearly everyone ends up miserable. The finale is thus so muted that when Feste sings you half-expect the characters to come back. And then they all do, in their underwear … and gather under a giant shower-head, before running off to don bath-robes before bowing. As with so much else, such as the pointless drumming minor characters start before the audience has returned from the interval, I had no idea why that decision was taken.

This production will no doubt receive the acclaim that all Jordan’s projects get, but after three duds I can only protest such acclaim’s undeserved.

2/5

Twelfth Night continues its run at the Abbey until May 24th.

December 1, 2012

Dubliners

Corn Exchange’s flagship production of Dubliners at the Gaiety for the Dublin Theatre Festival was desperately uneven as overplayed slapstick often trounced Joyce’s muted epiphanies.

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Performed under heavy face-paint on a minimalist set by Joe Vanek (that relied on expressive lighting and shadows) the show distractingly had characters narrate their own dialogue, drowning conversations with endless, unnecessary, and literal instances of he said/she said. In its defence this strategy allowed the narrator of ‘Two Sisters’ to deliver Joyce’s delicate prose, and he was cleverly also made the narrator of the next vignette, ‘An Encounter’. But the encounter is with a paedophile, played with malicious suavity by Mark O’Halloran, and the commedia dell’arte exaggerations deployed to create a crippled predator resulted in the unnerving spectacle of the audience of Joyce newcomers laughing heartily at this creation before being audibly horrified as they realised he’s not a mere eccentric. This misjudgement presaged later missteps but the painful yearning of ‘Eveline’ expertly played by Janice Byrne quickly dispelled any misgivings, and ‘Two Gallants’ saw Stephen Jones on fine swaggering form, which he continued in the ‘The Boarding House’ as the landlady’s menacing son. O’Halloran was on top comedic form opposite him as the rent-skiving actor, while the heightened slapstick style elevated the black comedy of Joyce’s hapless lodger Doran being trapped into proposing onto a much funnier plane.

After the interval that slapstick approach was imposed on stories that it defiantly did not suit. ‘Counterparts’ was rendered as stark nonsense. It was amusing to see O’Halloran never finish a sentence and dash about panic-stricken as the chief clerk, but there are things that one must not do to get a laugh, and among these is going so far over the top as to end in low-earth orbit. At first I was prepared to grant Mark Lambert as domineering lawyer Mr Alleyne the same privileges of blustering abusiveness as Will Forte as Ted Turner on Conan, but when he actually chicken-stepped around the stage in a comic fury at a slight from his subordinate I had exhausted any possible exculpatory comparisons. This was too OTT to amuse, but not his fault. Ruth McGill as his secretary used the same leer as she did as The Duchess in Alice in Funderland, and if the same expression can find equal purchase in Alice in Funderland and an adaptation of Joyce then it’s a sure sign that the adaptation of Joyce by Michael West and director Annie Ryan has strayed farcically far from the ‘scrupulous meanness’ and understated compassion of Dubliners.

Which leads one to conclude that Mark O’Halloran as an actor is truly immense. By sheer force of personality he dismissed ‘Counterparts’ to make the audience feel the tragedy of ‘A Painful Case’ as his fastidious Duffy sabotaged a relationship with Derbhle Crotty’s neglected housewife. O’Halloran made you so empathise with this cold character that when he spoke the final words of Joyce’s narration you could hear a pin drop, and hearts break. But then ‘A Mother’ painfully wasted the great Crotty’s talents by piling on the excessive slapstick to produce a painfully protracted skit devoid of any dramatic momentum, though at least it lacked the cognitive dissonance of the bungled traumatic ending of child abuse after clowning of ‘Counterparts’. ‘The Dead’ began with McGill’s performance of ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ as the story was pared down to Greta’s revelations after a party that leave her husband Gabriel stunned at how his wife was loved before she met him. O’Halloran’s delivery of the famous closing monologue ended the play on a triumphant note, and highlighted O’Halloran’s towering pre-eminence in the ensemble, the emotional power of Joyce’s material, and the frustratingly inconsistent fidelity to Joyce which held back the show.

Throughout, actors delivered their dialogue to the audience and then looked at the actor they’d been addressing, a technique Corn Exchange use in rehearsal; which made this feel like a quasi-workshop. Replacing ‘Counterparts’ and ‘A Mother’ with ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ and ‘Clay’ would immeasurably strengthen reprises…

2.5/5

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