Talking Movies

October 6, 2011

Juno and the Paycock

This Abbey co-production with Southbank’s National Theatre of Sean O’Casey’s 1924 classic is a star-studded flagship show for this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival.

Ciaran Hinds and Risteard Cooper are fantastic as O’Casey’s trademark self-deluding male comedy double-act. Hinds is the self-proclaimed nautical veteran ‘Captain’ Boyle, a work-shy layabout who once crewed a boat to Liverpool and now infuriates his long-suffering wife Juno (Sinead Cusack) by continually carousing with ne’er-do-well neighbour Joxer (Cooper) and pleading mysterious pains in his legs whenever the prospect of a job appears. Tony-winning designer Bob Crowley has created a startlingly realistic decaying tenement set, with its own decrepit roof, and rooms partially glimpsed thru open doors as well as an expansive window-ledge just visible off-stage. Director Howard Davies exploits this grimy set with rain sound effects, and increasingly bleak lighting and sparse furnishing, to heighten O’Casey’s successive disillusioning of the audience as he skewers reverence for institutions including the Church, the IRA, and Trade Unions.

Davies though also handles the slapstick elements of the play better than any previous production I’ve ever seen. A moustachioed Hinds is fantastic in a role that combines a lot of hilariously self-deceiving bombast with scary moments of self-righteous fury. He makes his eyes bulge in terror at the prospect of being trapped in a job, hesitates infinitely over giving Joxer a sausage for breakfast when he realises with horror it’s bigger than the one he’s already put on his own plate, and excels at the physical business of throwing a reluctant Joxer out the window before desperately trying to hide the evidence of their breakfast when he hears Juno’s steps on the stairs. Cooper is every inch his equal in a performance that likewise mixes wonderful comedy with a harder edge. Joxer is the kind of fair-weather friend who will loyally back up all your most nonsensical poses, especially when you start contradicting yourself, but who revels in your misfortunes behind your back and would literally steal your last coin…

Sinead Cusack anchors the play emotionally as the embattled matriarch battling the equivalent fecklessness of her husband’s irresponsibility, daughter’s Trade Union enthusiasms, and son’s IRA principles. Her affecting displays of grief and empathy are O’Casey’s redemptive hope. I’ve long complained the supporting parts in Juno are mere ciphers, with crippled IRA veteran Johnny Boyle being the worst offender. Clare Dunne as Mary Boyle and Nick Lee (a dead ringer for Cripple of Inishmaan‘s Tadhg Murphy) as Theosophist boyfriend Charlie Bentham milk some laughs, as does Janet Moran’s saucy Masie Madigan, but the supporting players could never prevent this play belonging to the central trio. Juno’s famous exit line offers the stoicism of Chekhov’s Three Sisters peroration, but O’Casey purposely ends with low comedy instead as the Captain and Joxer stagger back into a now empty room.

It may be over-reaching to see in O’Casey’s presentation of a family in inescapable poverty who are magically granted wealth only to have it cruelly taken away again not just subversion of 1920s audience expectations but also a type of Ireland’s fate in the last 25 years, but it is not over-reaching to say this production demands attendance.

4/5

Juno and the Paycock continues its run at the Abbey until November 5th.

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June 10, 2011

On Fassbendering

“To Fassbender: To very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work”. That’s the Urban Dictionary definition at any rate. But, like the residents of Madison Avenue advertising firms in the 1960s being termed Mad Men, I defined it myself…

So, where on earth did I get the concept of Fassbendering from? Well, I first really noticed Michael Fassbender when he played Azazeal in Hex, and my reaction to the show was pretty much “meh, pale Buffy rip-off, but serious kudos to that guy who’s really enjoying himself far too much as the Big Bad”. Later on I realised that he was the actor from Guinness ad who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. The fact that Fassbender had ended that ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again, suggested a trend – this was a guy who just couldn’t stop grinning mischievously because he was always enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender fell off my radar for a while so I only belatedly noticed that he grinned with some malevolence in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, as he got to be both an impeccably impassive servant and a sadistic serial killer; who, several years before Heath Ledger’s Joker, took a distinct pleasure in being tortured by Holmes. I also later caught up with ITV’s Poirot and discovered that Fassbender had smoked, drank, drawled and grinned his way thru After the Funeral.

But his ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where I really started to take this nonsense seriously, if you will. I have found among my circle that whoever watched 300 as a serious action drama thought it was unbearably bad, but whoever watched it thru the absurd prism of Fassbender (on my prompting) thought it was a deliriously great black comedy. Watching the film with Fassbender as your focus you realise just how much fun he’s obviously having. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning… Later he jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Well then, we shall fight in the shade”, with the air of a man once again enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender gets to be half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and, in his definitive moment of gleefulness, when the Persian mystics are throwing bombs Fassbender runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. In the darkness lit only by bomb blasts we can’t see Fassbender’s face underneath his helmet until we see his teeth, as he grins. Fassbender does something awesome in the denouement to allow Leonidas to do something even more awesome, before holding hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines; where even dying becomes a blast…

But, daft as it sounds, it was Fassbender’s subsequent role in Hunger that led me to go online and define Fassbendering, because, when announcing the casting news from Cannes the Irish Times, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to accompany the story that Fassbender was taking on this big serious role in what one would expect to be a grim sombre film, with a photo of Fassbender cracking up on set – as if there was nothing on this planet, not decency, not logic, that could prevent Fassbender from enjoying himself too much… And indeed Hunger did provide one moment which I deemed Fassbendering above and beyond the call of duty. In the midst of a serious performance in a serious film he still managed to sneak in a scene where, after being beaten up and then dropped naked and bloodied on the floor of his cell, his Bobby Sands rolls over, blood streaming from his mouth, and slowly grins at the camera… On retrospect this is obviously the moment where Sands realises he can defeat his captors by doing this to himself by going on hunger strike, but would anyone but Fassbender dare to do communicate this by a grin, that also serves to indicate that he knows he is doing a great job with this role and still can’t quite believe his luck.

Fassbender had a straight man role in Inglourious Basterds opposite Mike Myers’ absurdist British officer, and then in one of the tensest sequences in the film, but I argue that he was able to play things straight because he didn’t need to Fassbender, he’d already infected the entire ensemble. Christoph Waltz’s ecstatic glee at his role is pure Fassbendering, especially his appreciation of the musical qualities of Italian names and Diane Kruger’s explanation of her leg injury, during which he has to go off to one side to laugh himself sick. The trailer for Jonah Hex left me in tears of laughter as Fassbender’s first appearance as henchman Burke saw him grinning manically while dressed as a droog and setting fire to a barn with someone trapped in it. You can only hope that one day Fassbender gets to truly cut loose with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films.

So what is Fassbendering? I used 300 for the definition because it’s the supreme example of a man just obviously enjoying himself far too much for something that’s meant to be paid work, hence my quip – “On being handed the cheque he probably said ‘No, really I couldn’t. It’s just been such a blast. Can I keep the cape?” Now, Fassbendering is not unique to Fassbender, but only in one sense as I will argue in a minute. I would argue that the Red Hot Chili Peppers can be audibly heard Fassbendering their way thru BloodSugarSexMagik because when you listen to it you feel that they would do this for free, they are so obviously deriving too much enjoyment from their paid work. But Fassbendering always has a positive undertone, what is enjoyable for the performer is enjoyable for the audience too, unlike fiascos like Ocean’s 12 where a group of actors obviously having a ball does not translate into the warm hug of the audience that the same actors having a ball provides in Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 13. Fassbendering therefore is high praise when I use it for another actor, as I have occasionally done (Iron Man, Speed Racer, The Importance of Being Lady Bracknell, Death of A Salesman, 7 Reasons to Love Scott Pilgrim, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Pygmalion, X-Men: First Class).

The part of Erik Lensherr is dark and vengeful, but there is some Fassbendering. The most obvious moments come in the recruitment and training montages where Erik suddenly reveals a hitherto unsuspected sardonic side. These are where any actor would grin widely at how much fun they’re having, even if Fassbender grins wider than most. The true moment that defines Fassbendering as something that only Michael Fassbender truly personifies comes in the extremely tense sequence in the Argentinian German Bar. Fassbender smiling widely drops loaded hints to the ex-Nazis, “They had no name. It was taken from them, by pig-farmers, and tailors”, his smile confusing the hell out of them, even as he slowly drains his drink, still looking affable, but perhaps to be feared. Fassbender is obviously enjoying himself far too much in this scene, but what’s more, to paraphrase Werner Herzog, he’s conveying an inner thought process of his character that other actors would not attempt – Erik really is obviously enjoying this Nazi-hunting business far too much…

June 2, 2011

The First Saturday Book Club

I thought I’d drop in a plug here for a radio appearance I’m making this weekend.

Regular readers will have noticed my fellow academic Graham Price providing a final thought in my theatre reviews of The Silver Tassie and The Cripple of Inishmaan. Well now I’m following in his footsteps by appearing on Dublin South FM’s The First Saturday Book Club. The show will be broadcast from Dundrum Town Centre this Saturday June 4th at 12:30pm. A critical mass of ex-University Observer writers will be present given that I’ll be joined by editor emeritus Sorcha Nic Mhathuna and that the show is hosted by Eve Rowan.

The book under discussion this month is One Day by David Nicholls. BBC scriptwriter Nicholls previously wrote the novel Starter for Ten, and then the screenplay of its film adaptation, and One Day starts off similarly as a class conscious romantic comedy in the late 1980s focused on the intense friendship between two recent graduates Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley, before it develops into something a good deal more ambitious. The story of Dexter and Emma becomes nothing less than the story of Britain itself in the last 20 years.

The gimmick blazoned on the title ‘Twenty Years. Two People. One Day’ refers to Nicolls’ audacious decision to surf in and out of the lives of this odd couple by focusing on them for only one day of each year, and always the same day; St Swithin’s Day, the day they graduated and finally talked to each other. Does this technique work, or does it become contrived? Can an unrequited platonic love story really handle being burdened with the symbolic significance of representing a nation’s recent social and political history?

Well, if you want to hear what we all made of the book, tune in to 93.9FM, or listen to the podcast later at http://dublinsouthfm.ie/shows/95/The-First-Saturday-Book-Club.

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