Talking Movies

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.

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August 9, 2011

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

Peer Gynt 27 Sep – 16 Oct Belvedere College
Rough Magic’s writer Arthur Riordan updates Ibsen’s most fantastical play about loves lost and folkloric psychosis. Talking Movies favourite Rory Nolan plays the titular delusional hero and Tarab, not Grieg, provide a live musical accompaniment. Phaedra last year was a misfiring production with a similar blend of ingredients so this 3 hour show is a recommendation, with caveats…

The Lulu House 27 Sep – 16 Oct James Joyce House
Selina Cartmell, who wowed the Fringe last year directing Medea, returns with another femme fatale. Lorcan Cranitch and Camille O’Sullivan star in a mixture of musical, drama and film inspired by German playwright Wedekind’s original character and also Pabst’s silent film Pandora’s Box. This only lasts one hour, but it should be a visually rich experience.

Donka, A letter to Chekhov 29 Sep – 2 Oct Gaiety
The traditional circus spectacular at the Gaiety comes from Russia, and is one of two Festival shows about Chekhov. Clowns, acrobats and musicians not only create the world of Chekhov’s characters but, by using his diaries, portray his inner emotional world. Writer and director Daniele Finzi Pasca has previously helmed a Cirque de Soleil show and Broadway musical Rain so this should be dazzling.

Testament 29 Sep – 16 Oct Project Arts Centre
Colm Toibin writes a play, Garry Hynes directs it and Marie Mullen performs it. What could possibly go wrong? Well…. Toibin’s not a playwright, Druid do occasionally screw up, and Mullen destroyed 2007’s Long Day’s Journey into Night with her hammy turn. This is a 90 minute uninterrupted monologue with Mullen as the Virgin Mary (or maybe not, it’s vague) which could become very long…

Juno and the Paycock 29 Sep – 15 Oct Abbey
The Abbey team up with Southbank’s National Theatre for this co-production of Sean O’Casey’s old war-horse. A starry cast includes Ciaran Hinds as Captain Boyle, Risteard Cooper as his drinking buddy Joxer and Sinead Cusack as Mrs Boyle. Druid and Abbey regulars like Clare Dunne and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor fill out the ensemble grappling with melodramatic misfortunes in the middle of the Civil War.

The Speckled People 29 Sep – 15 Oct Gate
Patrick Mason is a great director, and Denis Conway, John Kavanagh and Tadhg Murphy accomplished actors, but it’s hard to regard Hugo Hamilton’s adaptation of his own memoir as anything but ‘ugh, complain theatre’, to paraphrase Clueless. Stephen Brennan will undoubtedly play the ultra-nationalist Irish father oppressing his son’s German identity, probably as a variant on his abrasive patriarch from Phaedra.

La Voix Humaine 29 Sep – 2 Oct Samuel Beckett Theatre
Jean Cocteau’s celebrated story of a desperate woman making a last-ditch phone call to her ex-lover is performed with surtitles by acclaimed Dutch actress Halina Reijn. This is a bit pricey (2 euro a minute) given that’s it’s an hour long monologue with minimalist set, but Ivo van Hove is a celebrated director and will play on the audience’s voyeuristic instincts to achieve catharsis.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets 29 Sep – 2 Oct Project Arts Centre
Theatre company 1927’s macabre cabaret style unfurls a bizarre tenement story that’s a mixture of Fritz Lang, Charles Dickens and Tim Burton. A mix of live music and performance with pre-recorded film and animation this might be the most distinctive show of the festival aesthetically. Again nearly 2 euro a minute…

16 Possible Glimpses 30 Sep – 15 Oct Peacock
Chekhov is highly regarded at this year’s festival, but that doesn’t stretch to any of his plays being performed. Instead a second play about his life and work sees Abbey favourite Marina Carr thankfully eschewing misery in the midlands for an imaginative fantasia on Chekhov, using a series of vignettes to throw his most haunting characters into his turbulent productive life.

Slattery’s Sago Saga 6 Oct – 16 Oct Rathfarnham Castle
In our end is our beginning, Arthur Riordan re-writing an old master, here adapting an unfinished novel by Flann O’Brien. Rathfarnham Castle? A dashed odd place for a play you’d say, unless you knew that this was the site-specific Performance Corporation unleashing a surreal political satire involving the quiet life of Poguemahone Hall being shattered by a T.D. with an insane plan. It involves sago…

March 12, 2011

The Cripple of Inishmaan

Druid fostered Martin McDonagh so it’s pleasing to see Garry Hynes belatedly directing his satirical play originally written for London’s National Theatre.

In 1934 the younger inhabitants of Inishmaan have their heads turned by the prospect of escape to America if they can only get a part in the filming of Man of Aran on Inis Mor and impress the director Robert Flaherty. Billy Claven, the titular cripple, is the most eager, desperate to escape a life of tedium living with his half-mad pretend aunts, where the only respite from shuffling to the doctor for his various ailments is staring at cows. McDonagh’s dialogue is as wonderful as always, with his trademark repetition and love of outrageously cruel black comedy everywhere. Babbybobby (Liam Carney) urges Billy to feck books at cows to liven them up a bit, while Helen and Bartley have a lengthy discussion in front of Billy of the conflicting accounts of whether his parents killed themselves by drowning rather than endure living with his deformities.

McDonagh has tremendous fun invoking Irish theatre past. The double-act of Billy’s ‘aunts’ Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy) are, given the strictures of the Beckett estate, probably the closest you’ll ever get to a female Vladimir and Estragon as they open the play standing behind their shop-counter looking at the audience and bickering over ritual dialogues and events, and means of making time pass. Local news-man Johnnypateenmike (Dermot Crowley) always announces he has three pieces of news, but unlike Hugh’s customary triptychs in Friel’s Translations, he not only remembers all three items but always keeps the best for last. In a nod to Synge there’s the assertive Irish colleen Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne) who domineers over her idiotic brother Bartley (Laurence Kinlan) and is secretly loved by Billy (Tadhg Murphy). But this rich theatrical past being invoked only increases the perceptiveness of McDonagh pointedly referencing the national inferiority complex with a terrific running gag; “Sure Ireland can’t be such a bad place after all if a German fella wants to come and live here”; which reaches its apotheosis while the characters watch the ludicrously fictional Man of Aran shark-hunt; “Sure Ireland can’t be such a bad place after all if sharks want to come and live here.”

The characters’ comedic obsessions, whether it is Kate talking to a stone, Eileen eating yalla-mallas when stressed, Bartley discussing telescopes, or Helen pelting eggs at people, give all these actors ample opportunity to deliver tremendous comedic turns, with the double-act of Crowley and Nancy E Carroll as Mammy O’Dougal Fassbendering for all their worth as Johnnypateenmike tries to aid his mother in her ongoing quest since 1871 to drink herself to death while she fervently hopes to see him in his grave first. But in McDonagh’s subversive finale the characters that seem most honourable turn out to be vicious and the most obviously vicious characters end up displaying some oddly tender hearts. As fellow academic Graham Price pointed out to me the ending, while tender towards the long-suffering Billy, is ultimately a negative version of Synge and Wilde’s belief in the power of a lie to transform the lives of their heroes.

McDonagh thus delivers his own verdict on whether lying really can transform a feckin’ eejit into a likely lad.

4/5

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