Talking Movies

October 11, 2011

Peer Gynt

Director Lynne Parker follows last year’s misfiring Phaedra with another deeply frustrating combination of theatre and live music…

Rough Magic Peer Gynt

Arthur Riordan’s rhymed version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 farewell to verse drama is underscored by a constant live soundtrack from traditional/jazz quintet Tarab which renders his script as bad rap at its worst and good beat poetry at its best. Talking Movies’ favourite Rory Nolan is our hero Peer Gynt, incarcerated in a lunatic asylum for his Baron Munchausen tendencies, but who continues to spins yarns of his adventures (which are oddly identical to heroic Norwegian folklore) to the disdain of inmates and staff alike. Riordan’s script never addresses this set-up directly though, it’s all only suggested by the costumes. John Comiskey follows last year’s massive stainless steel set with tunnels, narrow windows and video screens for Phaedra with an imposing, stately lunatic asylum set designed with Alan Farquharson. It is equally irrelevant as the characters largely stalk up and down the narrow playing space imagining, and inhabiting, outdoor locations.

Three hours is a hefty running time for a misfiring production, but hysterically the longer second half is far better as it largely dispenses with the conceits that sink the first half. There are only two scenes that work brilliantly in the 75 minute first half, the first and last. Peer’s opening account of chasing a deer thrillingly uses the rhythm of verse and music to conjure up a vivid hunt complete with a hilarious fabulist anti-climax, while his comforting of his dying mother Aase (Karden Ardiff) with a recreation of a childhood fantasy she told him is genuinely tear-jerking. Everything in between doesn’t work. Hilary O’Shaughnessy is too arch for her own good as runaway bride Ingrid, and the slapstick comedy Trolls are merely pointlessly silly. It all leaves you thinking Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite is a better adaptation. The best moments come later on when Tarab’s music stops.

Silence allows the 90 minute second half to begin with hilarious sequences of Nolan and Co discussing demented imperialist plans in half-British accents, before Peer becomes a false prophet, leading to a wonderful sequence in a Cairo lunatic asylum. These sequences, jam-packed with quick costume changes and absurdist props, see Will O’Connell display great comedic flair across multiple roles, before delivering a powerful eulogy at a draft-dodger’s funeral. Fergal McElherron and Peter Daly have their best moments in their smallest roles as the Devil and the Button Moulder, one rejecting Peer for not having sinned enough, the other condemning him to Purgatory for never truly having been himself. Sarah Greene is again scene-stealing, moving wonderfully between the demure Solveig, whose unshakeable love for Peer may yet save him, and an Egyptian dancing-girl alter-ego. Riordan half-attempts to Hibernicise Ibsen but never makes the obvious link to Translations, that escaping material poverty by imaginative fantasy can be equally imprisoning. His script, in its vagueness and prioritisation of rhyme, ultimately resembles Peer’s famous peeling of the onion that symbolises his fabulist personality – no core.

This is slightly better than Phaedra, but Seneca, Racine and Ibsen aren’t to blame when a classic play doesn’t work. Rough Magic’s insertion of pointless live music into half-updated scripts performed on extravagant but irrelevant sets has disappointed two years in a row. Henceforth, this Rough Magic I here abjure…

2.75/5

Peer Gynt continues its run at Belvedere College until October 16th.

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October 6, 2010

Phaedra

Rough Magic presents a version of Phaedra that incorporates live music into the unfolding tragedy but the results are sadly uneven…

Phaedra charts the downfall of one of those psychotically dysfunctional families that seemed to proliferate in ancient Greece. Phaedra (Catherine Walker) is a trophy wife married to the older and brutally abusive Theseus (Stephen Brennan) but she is mad with desire for his adult son Hippolytus (Allen Leech), ironically her emotional distance only increases Theseus’ infatuation with her. When news comes that Theseus has been killed champagne is spilled and secret desires are revealed, not only by Phaedra who provocatively poses in her underwear while asking Hippolytus to help her pick out a dress for the funeral, but by Aricia (Gemma Reeves) whose father traded the house to Theseus for his debts. Much like the Abbey’s recent production of Macbeth that attempted to situate the play in Cromwellian Ireland before giving up Phaedra is littered with the remains of a half-abandoned high-concept. Theseus is apparently a property developer and there are references to the entire country circling the drain on its way out. But there’s no sustained attempt to substantively re-imagine Phaedra for the Celtic Tiger so these moments feel like cheap zeitgeist-surfing beside the more pointed resonances to be found elsewhere in the festival with Enron and John Gabriel Borkman.

John Comiskey’s stainless steel set with tunnels leading underground and huge narrow windows and video screens worked by remote control nicely de-domesticises proceedings as the gods stalk this family. Euripides’ tragedy had previously been reworked by Seneca and Racine and this version reinstates the gods Racine discarded, as well as placing five musicians led by Ellen Cranitch and Cormac de Barra on-stage scoring the action. This conceit can be utterly stunning. Aphrodite (Cathy White), Artemis (Anuna co-founder Fionnuala Gill), and Poseidon (Rory Musgrave) sing while the characters move in a stylised fashion and the first act climax is amazing, as is a later sequence where Phaedra rehearsing a speech by repeating certain lines becomes live sampling scored by repetitive music which re-creates the ritualistic origins of Greek theatre. Composer Ellen Cranitch and director Lynne Parker were deeply involved in the extended development of this version so while they should be praised for such heights they must also accept blame for Hilary Fannin’s script which is deeply uneven and too eager to ‘shock’, why else open with Enone (Michele Forbes) discussing re-shaping the contours south of the female border? Fannin favours profanity over profundity to an extent that quickly becomes deeply tiresome, and a number of Theseus’ gynaecological-flavoured insults in the second act receive no laughs when they are clearly meant to be hi-larious.

Gate mainstay Brennan’s Theseus is absent for nearly half the play and when he does appear he is deeply over the top, rolling his voice and relishing his swearwords. Sarah Greene’s saucy Ismene, talking dirty in broadest Corkonian, matches him while Darragh Kelly’s subtle turn as the psychiatrist Theramenes provides a badly needed emotional anchor. Leech redeems himself for Man About Dog with a fine performance as the tortured Hippolytus but while Catherine Walker is strong as Phaedra, for all her dialogue you never feel allowed into her psyche, and that is a disappointing outcome for a classical heroine here re-created by women.

This is worth seeing but what should have been a highlight of the Dublin Theatre Festival only intermittently reaches the heights that were expected of it.

2.5/5

Phaedra continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until October 10th.

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