Talking Movies

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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November 24, 2010

Less than Glee-ful

I’ve finally been provoked into attacking Glee by its Gwyneth Paltrow episode, which showcased many of the reasons I dislike the show.

The endless hype is unbearable. Constant gossipy leaks about what songs will be used in forthcoming episodes and who’s going to appear in what role as a guest star. If a show advertises weekly who’s guest-starring and what they’re doing you would think it’s in trouble ratings-wise. Glee though seems to have made this its paradigm. But it is pathetic. If a show is good I will watch it, week after week. I wouldn’t tune into The Event randomly because they advertised that Bruce Campbell would be guest-starring. You know why? The Event is awful. Glee also cleaves to the approach of the film Chicago in apologising for being a musical. “Oh, it’s okay; they’re only singing because they’re in a choir or because it’s a fantasy sequence,” it seems to say. Well it’s not okay. I like musicals! I want characters to sing because they’re in a musical!! It is as if a gangster film had characters shrug apologetically at the camera every time someone ordered a hit or bribed a cop.

Glee is painfully formulaic. How many episodes wrap up with someone predictably learning a life-lesson through dialogue that you could guess almost from the cold open? Sure there are wincingly off-colour jokes along the way but on the macro level everything is staidly predictable. It’s like putting three drops of vinegar in an old wine bottle. Perhaps you need a different type of container… Even Talking Movies favourite Joss Whedon failed to puncture this bubble of self-satisfied obviousness in the episode he directed. When Matthew Morrison delivered a fatuous line about how much Glee meant to them at school and still meant now, and Neil Patrick Harris groaned and knocked his head against the bar, I waited for a wincing put-down of such sentimental shtick. Instead the god-like NPH merely moaned about missing Glee… Little wonder then that the season 1 finale scaled new peaks of cliché in juxtaposing Quinn’s labour with the rival club’s performance of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, before introducing an ocean of character inconsistency to allow Sue Sylvester ensure a second season before remembering who she was and confirming that she would remain their in-house villain.

Finally the show is an enormous live-action fax machine. Why re-stage David Fincher’s video for Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ shot for shot? Where precisely is the artistic achievement in replicating the ‘Timewarp’ from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or the closing number from Chicago, or the astounding ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ routine from Singin’ in the Rain? I’ve seen a theatrical Rocky Horror Show that gleefully diverged from the film’s over-familiar staging more than Glee ever dreamt of doing. A mere facsimile of an original adds nothing. The Bangles’ ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ pales next to Heathers’ ‘Float On’, which completely re-works that Modest Mouse original. Glee by contrast offers as a ‘re-working’ a ‘Singin’ in the Rain’/‘Umbrella’ mash-up, which ruined both songs. Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe was misfiring, but its sometimes inspired staging and re-working of incredibly familiar Beatles songs expose Glee’s lack of ambition. It begs the question is Glee a mere spark-notes, a substitute for people too lazy to watch the original musicals?

It’s like watching a teenager type out ‘The Dead’ on their laptop. Perfectly re-enacting something that didn’t need re-enacting because it was perfect the first time round will get you no respect. It shouldn’t. It deserves none. Just ask Gus Van Sant…

I can’t wait for people to get tired of this show.

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