Talking Movies

February 15, 2018

Look Back in Anger

The Gate advertise the hell out of their doing John Osborne’s seminal 1956 play, and then refuse on point of principle to actually do it.

Jimmy Porter (Ian Toner) is an angry young man, indeed he is the angry young man. He watched his father die from wounds sustained in the Spanish Civil War, and now despite his college education he finds himself manning a sweet stall down the market, unable to escape his working class roots in this post-war Midlands city despite his formidable, vituperative mental and linguistic agility. His rage against the establishment lashes against his upper-middle-class wife Alison (Clare Dunne), and to a lesser degree their Welsh Irish lodger Cliff (Lloyd Cooney). But when Jimmy eventually pushes Alison too far, a visit from her snobbish friend Helena (Vanessa Emme) sees Alison finally desert her stormy marriage. Only for the damndest thing to happen in the continuing war of contempt, class consciousness, and the desire for a worthy opponent between Jimmy and Helena…

While the audience is coming in the actors amble onto Paul O’Mahony’s curious canted stage of a realistic attic apartment, as a box within the exposed walls of the Gate’s backstage area. Emme reads the stage directions while the others take their places, and Dunne is reluctant to don the particular shirt specified. So far so Brecht, kind of. But then it continues, on and on and on, adding God knows how long to the endless 2 hour 45 minute running time, and for one purpose, so that Alison and Helena can eschew the stated directions, even when they’re emphatically repeated. The female characters, like Taylor Swift, would like to be excluded from this narrative. Which doesn’t do much for the narrative. Jimmy ends on his knees cooing a redemptive moment to nobody, as Alison refuses to follow Osborne’s directions.

I saw Kenneth Branagh star in Osborne’s 1957 play The Entertainer on the West End in 2016. Some sequences were melodramatic, but mostly it was very effective; startlingly so indeed because, despite being about the post-imperial crisis of confidence the Suez crisis amplified, one line drew gasps from the crowd because it seemed about Brexit. I expected director Annabelle Comyn would do something of the same here; pare down Osborne’s text like her lean 2015 Hedda Gabler, and bring out the impotent rage against an aloof establishment that would seem apposite to the Brexit moment. Instead I got leaden pacing, and a bad academic workshop exercise gone rogue. Give me a few days and I can furnish you with a version of Hamlet focused on his abusiveness towards Gertrude and Ophelia. But then we wouldn’t have Hamlet anymore would we?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Homecoming would not exist without this play. When Toner leans into Michael Caine in his characterisation of Porter he unconsciously directs attention to how this play aided the explosion of the working class into British culture in the 1950s and 1960s. In short Osborne’s work deserves a modicum of respect. Instead gags and clues to Porter’s left-wing politics are clipped, so Toner is left in the bizarre, thankless and pointless position of playing a charismatic character who is purposefully being denied laughs or attraction by the disapproving staging, while Tom Lane’s sound design and Chahine Yavroyan’s harsh lighting is used to accentuate the most malicious of his rants, and Alison’s father is no-platformed (with his part being read from a script) because he sympathises with Jimmy’s frustration. Dunne kisses Cooney on the lips far too passionately to deny Osborne’s script its intent, while you suspect Cooney and Emme are being deliberately theatrical in their delivery as a further distancing measure. But why bother?

If you are so contemptuous of this play, and contempt comes washing off the stage in great waves, then for heaven’s sake why are you doing it? Who exactly is forcing Selina Cartmell and Annabelle Comyn to do this (sigh) problematic play? Why not do The Children’s Hour or A Taste of Honey or Oh! What a Lovely War or Our Country’s Good or Blasted or Enron or Posh or The Flick instead? It is odd to prioritise doing a ‘bad’ play by a male playwright over doing a good play by a female playwright. It is odder to ask people to pay 35e to see a play deliberately done poorly because the company wishes to complain about its place in the canon. The Gate is not doing itself any favours with this tedious approach to its commercial stock-in-trade, revivals.

This is easily the worst production I have ever seen at the Gate, and sadly it is also the worst show I have ever seen directed by Comyn.

1/5

Look Back in Anger continues its run at the Gate until the 24th of March.

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August 10, 2016

Edfringe Lift-off

At Large Theatre Company are taking three one-act shows to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and they did a warm-up in Players Theatre before leaving Dublin.

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Beryl

Beryl (Lesley-Ann Reilly) offers a very specialised service to gentlemen callers to her modest flat, but not what you think…

Frank (Alan Rogers) is an extremely diffident man, who seems continually on the point of bolting as if this was all a bad idea. Beryl meanwhile has more bonhomie than is needed for the two of them. The early interchanges in Lesley-Ann Reilly’s script entice us to understand this as a man paying for sex for the first time, before we realise it’s something entirely different: Beryl’s services are allowing men to dress in women’s clothes for the first time. But as Beryl draws Frank out of his taciturn shell, and he stalks about in high heels that remind him of his mother, proceedings take a dark twist as his guilt-ridden motive for availing of her services is laid bare.

Director Grainne Curistan keeps the potentially lurid subject matter nicely underplayed for the most part; a tense exchange where Beryl presses a glass of wine on Frank who does not want it recalls the power-plays in Pinter’s The Homecoming concerning a glass of water. A moment where Frank adjusts a scarf around Beryl becomes extremely menacing because Rogers is so successful at keeping Frank an enigma, lost in the mazes of his own mind – he may confess to past misdeeds but in the present he remains unknowable. Reilly’s turn is less cryptic. She is amusing and believable as a chatty Cathy but when Beryl forces Frank to confront his sins and competes with his guilt the performance becomes too outré.

Beryl is always engaging, but ultimately Beryl’s need to trump Frank’s crime by confessing a minor infraction of her own undermines its dramatic impact.

3/5

 

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The Meeting

Writer/director Grainne Curistan unfurls a perfectly normal, perfectly tedious business meeting that starts to go decidedly sideways to delirious effect.

The chairwoman (Elaine Reynolds) begins the meeting with all the confidence of Josh Lyman briefing the White House Press Corps in The West Wing, and it’s just as misplaced as her attempts to canter thru the agenda late on a Friday evening fall foul of her co-workers. Professional absentee Linda (Ann Hogan) is intent on querying a directive on actually replying to emails, Italian Antoine (David Breen) wants something actually done about the stupid f****** doors that keep hitting him in the face and he doesn’t care about not putting bad language on the agenda, and permanently out to lunch assistant Daisy (Kate Feeney) wants to create a taskforce to name the photocopiers to improve morale; the photocopiers’ morale. As squabbling intensifies Linda’s friend Stephanie Morris-Ni Shuilleabhain (Gillian Fitzgerald) arrives late and asks to be recorded as present, only to be trumped by an even later entrant – an enraged boss…

Linda and Daisy are delightful comic creations. Linda’s commitment to union procedures taken to the brink of madness could stand next to Peter Sellers’ I’m All Right, Jack shop steward without raising eyebrows. Indeed her devotion has taken boss Owen (Daniel O’Brien) over the brink of madness, hence his drunken arrival with a baseball bat. If one wants to quibble the lighting design leaves Owen in shadow too often and his roaring indignation runs out of dramatic road, but it transmutes into wonderful groaned apologies and acquiescence in the finale. Michael O’Kelly, Brendan Rooney, and John O’Rourke keep the more farcical elements grounded with their straight men. O’Kelly’s double act with Breen is a particular joy, as he repeatedly is forced to act as translator when Linda affects not to understand Antoine. Curistan’s script builds to a logically demented climax with a sensational and unexpected pay-off of an earlier element.

The Meeting is a hilarious one-act play, fleshing out nine characters whose grains of truth are magnified to comical proportions and loosed in absurdity.

4/5

 

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Nowhere Now

Writer/director Daniel O’Brien satirises international trade, media saturation, and macho posturing in a bizarre, inexplicable, theatrical, and memorable fever dream.

A trade deal is being done. A preposterous amount of beef is to be sold. Many people will make a lot of money. Other people will have no beef to eat. Everything waits upon the arrival of the Prime Minister. And so the Ambassador (Darcy Donnellan), the CEO (Kate Cosgrave), and the Minister (Yalda Shahidi) wait around a table for the PM to arrive and bring all their mind-bending travails to fruition. Meanwhile journalists and victims of the deal (played by Grainne Curistan, Noel Cahill, and Ciaran Treanor) eat from bowls, lie on the ground despairingly, and run about the stage with angel wings strapped to their backs – all part of the colour scheme of red and white that dominates.

Nowhere Now does not have a driving plot. What it does have is lashings of theatrical mood in the cod-Beckettian set-up of people waiting for an important individual who stubbornly refuses to appear as scheduled. Shahidi’s hapless functionary contrasts wonderfully with the swagger with which Donnellan dominates the stage. Donnellan’s interactions with Cosgrave, both women wearing white shirts, red braces and ties, flip from macho aggressiveness to a hyper-theatrical incantation praising the cows that form the meat of the deal; ending with a kiss that further complicates the gender-swapped Mametian shapes being thrown as Cosgrave seems both the secretary and the betraying executive from Speed the Plow. Curistan, Cahill, and Treanor meanwhile act out bizarre scenarios ranging from a lengthy list of excuses to go home that get increasingly demented, to a horrifying way to get your beef hit, and, in, a climax that is hysterically funny, the PM explaining ‘live’ (ahem) on radio that he’s come rather a cropper.

Daniel O’Brien’s hour of madness may not be everyone’s cup of tea. There are undeniably longueurs, indeed it probably doesn’t need to be an hour. Cahill and Treanor can be a bit too shouty at times, and in the finale resort to arm-clenching gurning in the background which distracts from the main action. But even with these reservations, O’Brien conjures spectacle from a colour scheme, draws out some great performances, and asserts the theatricality of not needing to make sense.

Nowhere Now in its most coherent moments resembles Speed the Plow assaulted by The League of Gentlemen, and betimes it’s visually striking and memorable.

3/5

December 4, 2012

A Whistle in the Dark

Druid stunned the brutalised Gaiety audience into silence at the Dublin Theatre Festival with Tom Murphy’s coruscating 1961 debut. Depicting violent Irish immigrants in Coventry trapped in self-mythologies of violence’s utility and “learning”’s futility it still packs an emotional sucker-punch.

A Whistle In the Dark

Michael (Marty Rea) is married to a Coventry girl and living there, but in a tense situation. His house is being shared with three of his brothers. The brutishly violent and ignorant Hubert (Garrett Lombard) and Ignatius (Rory Nolan) are intimidating presences but Michael’s wife Betty (Eileen Walsh) is rightly most frightened of Harry (Aaron Monaghan), the street-smart brother who is running a prostitution ring. But there’re more Carneys yet…

A Whistle in the Dark was infamously rejected by the Abbey because Ernest Blythe said no such people existed in Ireland, yet the novels of John McGahern attest to the baneful reality of monsters like Michael Senior (Niall Buggy), who arrives to visit with the youngest son Des (Gavin Drea). The battle of wills to mould Des’ future is an incredibly tense and bleak affair essentially pitting barbarity against civilisation.

Nolan and Lombard are terrifying as primitive thugs, in their second outing as brothers after 2010’s Death of A Salesman, but while the ensemble was uniformly flawless Buggy’s self-pitying and savage turn as the patriarch must be singled out as being truly remarkable, while Rea was agonisingly sympathetic as the good man inexorably being dragged down to his father’s level. Garry Hynes’ direction rendered a realistic set a febrile battleground.

Graham Price and I couldn’t help but note how indebted Pinter’s The Homecoming is to Murphy’s primal scream of familial power plays, but while both have the resonance of Greek myth this is not black comedy but darkest tragedy.

5/5

April 5, 2012

Top 10 Plays to see on stage before you die

It’s caused an awful lot of angst and wide consultation to try and do it justice but this 200th blog post is devoted to meeting Stephen Errity’s specially requested topic.

Having tied myself up in absolute knots over the question of whether this was about plays that really have to be seen rather than read, or plays that had to be seen because they were the best that have ever been written, I plumped for the latter interpretation. A separate blog about the first option is Blog #201 for anyone interested in that. But, having nailed down what I was doing I immediately had a spanner thrown in the works by Keith Thompson who tied me up in even more knots about how I was going to do what I was going to do – was I going to choose the plays that best interrogated the society of the day, or the plays that most change you as a person on a deep level? I never made myself particularly clear on the issue to him, but I hope that I have gone for the latter of his two options. So, after that lengthy preamble about the tortured selection process, here’re the Top 10 Plays to see on stage before you die…

(10) The Rivals by Sheridan
“She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile!” A perfect comedy that anticipates Wilde’s Bunburying in Captain Jack Absolute’s invention of a second persona for romancing, Ensign Beverly, this, along with Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, is damn near the only thing worth salvaging from British theatre between 1710 and 1890, and jumped the footlights via Mrs Malaprop’s inimitable verbal gaffes to coin a new word – Malapropism. Sheridan quickly rewrote the role of Sir Lucius O’Trigger after an initial savaging for being stage-Irish, and made it as deliriously silly as everything else in this satire on duelling, female education, pride and excessive sentimentality.

(9) Hedda Gabler by Ibsen
“I will not have anyone holding power over me” A role quite often referred to as a female Hamlet, Ibsen’s tragic heroine has been essayed on Broadway by both Cate Blanchett and Mary Louise Parker in recent years; and neither nailed it, it’s that hard. Ibsen may have been meanly caricaturing Strindberg as the rival academic to Hedda’s husband, but who cares? A heroine who is either Freudian neurotic basket-case, feminist warrior, or sociopathic villain trumps such considerations. Ibsen’s late run of masterpieces are all worth seeing but few combine his devotion to realism, and tragic plots, with such a complicated and powerful lead.

(8) The Homecoming by Pinter
“Don’t call me that, please” “Why not?” “That’s the name my mother gave me.” Pinter’s trademark comedy of menace reaches a sort of mythic height in this unnerving story of an ill-advised visit home by expatriate university professor Teddy to the East End. Ill-advised because Teddy brings with him his attractive wife Ruth, who quickly enters a twisted psychodrama with Teddy’s wide-boy brother Lenny, naive brother Joey, and aged father Max. The dialogue at first glance appears banal, until you feel the subtext crackling under every innocuous remark as everyone circles each other in a battle for control. The controversial ending is somewhere between absurdist and a Greek legend.

(7) The Crucible by Miller
“I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” Miller’s allegorical attack on McCarthyism thru the prism of the 1692 Salem witch-hunts is extremely scary at the moments when Abigail and her accomplices fake attacks by evil spirits, and is incredibly emotionally draining as the plot inexorably tightens with a vice-like grip around decent everyman John Proctor. Proctor reluctantly signs his death warrant by daring to speak up for the truth against the self-delusions of petty vindictive people. Remarkably Miller prepared for this script by adapting Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and yet produced a Greek catharsis that Aristotle would sign off on.

(6) Endgame by Beckett
“Sir, look – [Disdainful gesture, disgustedly.] – at the world – [pause] and look – [Loving gesture, proudly.] – at my TROUSERS!” Almost for that anecdote alone, possibly the funniest punch-line in Beckett’s dramatic works, this play is my pick of his output that reshaped 20th Century drama. 1958’s Endgame might be the satirical last word in Irish Big House decay, a response to the Irish Famine (look at Hamm’s adoption of Clov near a place called Kov [Cobh] while people obsess about corn) or the Cold War, or simply a characteristically inexplicable drama in which after the word ends life, such as it is, continues on as it was, bickering and ridiculous, although with people in dustbins.

(5) As You Like It by Shakespeare
“Sweet are the uses of adversity.” Rosalind is Shakespeare’s most likeable heroine, and her practical use of her male alter-ego Ganymede to teach the overly sentimental Orlando how to conduct a romance the most sensible use of the endless cross-dressing to be found in the comedies. A play about defeat, and the over-indulgence in cultural compensation that it can engender in Duke Senior in the forest of Arden, and about idealised romance, and the stupid behaviour it can provoke, this touches on serious matters – yet always with a feather’s weight; the melancholy Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” monologue.

(4) Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
“It’s all chance, Oedipus, chance rules our lives!” Archetypal stories don’t come much greater than Freud’s go-to Greek tragedy. The heroic Oedipus defeats the Sphinx’s riddling, unwittingly kills the King of Thebes, and then marries his stunning widowed Queen, Jocasta; only for his investigations into provenance of the King’s murderer to unexpectedly and traumatically rebound on him. I’ve managed to see this in Robert Fagle’s peerless translation, but without masks, and the effect of the Greek chorus is eerie and memorable. Can we escape destiny, or does that very attempt bring out the destiny thus eluded? Fate/Free Will – drama’s original and greatest preoccupation…

(3) Arcadia by Stoppard
“Do not indulge in paradox Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit…” Stoppard has an unparalleled gift for constructing hysterically funny romantic comedies that also elucidate a knotty subject. This 1993 masterpiece casually tackles chaos theory and bad literary/intellectual history theorising. Set in 1809 and 1993 a clever Regency Coverly seems to have anticipated the new breakthroughs of mathematics of the present, while dodgy academic Bernard Nightingale’s outrageously shoddy scholarship makes a travesty of the connection between Byron and his friend Septimus Hodge, the tutor of said clever Regency chaotician Thomasina Coverly. Stoppard constructs a play about rationality and imagination with enormous warmth, wit, and unexpectedly overwhelming poignancy.

(2) Three Sisters by Chekhov
“In a little while all this living and all this suffering will make sense, if only we could know!” Chekhov’s small opus of plays contains immensities. The tale of Olga, Masha and Irina’s economic and social decline and fall at the hands of their impecunious brother Andrei and his grasping wife Natasha began the 20th Century with a startlingly prescient meditation on the crippling nature of dreams, the impossibility of escape (to Moscow, or any other equivalent idyllic past), the inexorable change of social orders, and the redemptive possibilities that could be gleaned from simply enduring the chaos of a world incapable of being ordered effectively or decently by human action. Yet that’s only half of it. Chekhov’s play disrupts the realism of Ibsen with characters not listening to each other and thinking out loud, creates dizzying movement as characters wander in and out of each of the four act’s distinct locations, and mines absurdist comedy from dark material.

(1) Hamlet by Shakespeare
“Thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied oe’r with the pale cast of thought.” The definition of a play full of quotable quotes, a leading role that every young actor wants to test himself against, a meditation on the nature of revenge and its futility, a satire on bad acting, a tragic love story, a pitch-black comedy of errors, a geo-political thriller, an oblique statement on the survival of Catholic belief in Tudor England, a wisdom text that teaches us how to live even as its hero learns how to die, the play that made black clothes cool – all these are valid ways of interpreting Shakespeare’s titanic 1601 magnum opus. Hamlet is the most important play to see on stage before you die because it has inspired so many subsequent artists, and it always will. It is full of memorable characters, who have become types, dialogue that despite its familiarity retains its profundity, and a challenge, “This above all, to thine own self be true,” that could serve as the final statement on the Greek dilemma of being a self-willed individual against powerful external forces.

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