Talking Movies

April 8, 2017

Private Lives

The Gate celebrates its regime change by producing a Noel Coward play. Plus ca change, and all that drivel, darling.

Our man Elyot (Shane O’Reilly) arrives at a spiffy hotel in old Deauville for a second honeymoon, as it were, this being his second marriage. His present wife Sibyl (Lorna Quinn) tediously cannot stop talking about his previous wife Amanda (Rebecca O’Mara) and do you know the damndest thing happens; doesn’t she turn out to be staying in the very next room with her present husband, dear old Victor (Peter Gaynor). Whole thing is most extraordinary… Would you credit that their balconies even adjoin?! Sibyl and Victor make themselves so beastly when Elyot and Amanda both independently try to escape this positively sick-making set-up that it really serves them right when El and Am decide to simply decamp together to their old flat in Paris to avoid all the unpleasantness. But the course of true love never did run smooth…

Coward’s ‘intimate comedy’ is a sight too intimate for its own good here. One misses the variety afforded by recent hilarious outings by waspish ensembles for Hay Fever and The Vortex at the Gate. Instead we have a four-hander, and for the whole second act largely a two-hander, where you keep wondering if director Patrick Mason was foiled in casting his regular foil Marty Rea by the latter’s touring commitments. Mason and Rea have triumphed with Sheridan, Stoppard, Coward, Wilde, and you feel Rea urgently needs to play Elyot before he ages out. O’Mara and Quinn are patently too old for their parts, and it makes great bosh of Coward’s script if the naive 23 year old that Elyot flees to here is obviously thirtysomething, while instead of seeking the stolidity of an older man Amanda has married a contemporary.

O’Reilly is nicely abrupt as Elyot, but he and O’Mara never quite reach the heights for which these parts are constructed. But they deliver a wonderfully choreographed fight, chaos so exploding you feel it must topple offstage.  Tellingly the audience reacted with shock when he pushed her, but laughed when she broke an LP over his head… Francis O’Connor’s set design reuses familiar elements (The Father, Waiting for Godot) but its transformation from art deco hotel to primitive chic flat is a marvel and delight. There are also divine musical jokes as Coward’s ‘20th Century Blues’ plays between acts, and Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto (the soul of Coward’s Brief Encounter) mixes with Hitler on the wireless. And did anyone from the Gate see Gaynor in Hedda Gabler? He can do bombast well, but subtle even better; give him a chance!

This, then, is how the Gate Theatre as it was during the Age of Colgan ends, not with a bang but a whimper, and what rough beast slouches towards the Rotunda to be born?

3/5

Private Lives continues its run at the Gate for ever so long.

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May 3, 2016

Northern Star

Director Lynne Parker revisits her late uncle Stewart Parker’s 1984 script again, with a Brechtian touch, and the result is a theatrical tour de force.

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Henry Joy McCracken (Paul Mallon) is on the run. The 1798 Rebellion has failed miserably in Antrim as he has found himself leading literally dozens of men, to exaggerate slightly. And exaggerating slightly is something McCracken does a lot during a purgatorial night in a ruined house with his Catholic lover Mary (Charlotte McCurry). As he attempts to construct some sort of decent speech from the gallows for the citizens of Belfast he trawls through his memories of the 1790s, remembered in flashbacks that approximate to Shakespeare’s 7 Ages of Man and to the style of 7 different Irish playwrights. There is the ribald shenanigans of Sheridan in rooting out informers, the melodramatic balderdash of Boucicault in uniting Defenders and Orangemen, and the witty quips of Wilde in McCracken’s dealing with Wolfe Tone and Edward Bunting. But there’s also darkness…

Lynne Parker has spoken of adopting a Brechtian approach by having McCracken identified by his jacket, so Mallon can hand it over to other actors and sit back and observe himself in his own flashbacks; played by Ali White with gusto in the Boucicault flashback and with comic disbelief in the O’Casey flashback. This combined with Zia Holly’s design, confronting the audience with the wings of a theatre as the playing space, amps up the theatricality of Stewart Parker’s script, which was already reminiscent of Stoppard’s Travesties in its dialogue with and pitch-perfect parodies of older works. Rory Nolan is hilarious as a dodgy Defender played in the style of O’Casey’s Paycock, and as harp enthusiast Edward Bunting played as Algernon Moncrieff’s ancestor, in Stewart Parker’s two most acute ventriloquisms. But all these capers occur underneath an ever-present literal noose.

Mallon and McCurry scenes in McCracken’s long night of the soul are the emotional glue that binds together the fantastical flashbacks, and they are affecting as she tries to convince him that his sister’s plan to escape to America under false papers is a reprieve not banishment. The flashbacks become more contemplative after the interval with Darragh Kelly’s loyalist labourer challenging McCracken over his failure to rally Protestants to the United Irishmen’s standard, and a prison flashback revealing the desperation of McCracken’s situation. Richard Clements, Eleanor Methven, and Robbie O’Connor complete the ensemble, deftly portraying a dizzying array of characters in McCracken’s remembrances. Mallon is wonderfully melancholic during Parker’s most overtly state of the nation moments, and remarkably, even with the Troubles’ paramilitary iconography at work, a 1984 play about 1798 sounds like it’s addressing 1916 at a theatrical remove.

Rough Magic’s 2012 Travesties occasionally lost the audience with its intellectual bravura, but Lynne Parker through theatrical panache has indeed ‘liberated’ this equally clever meditation on history and culture.

4/5

Northern Star continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until the 7th of May.

February 6, 2016

My Own Personal Theatre Awards 2015

All aesthetic judgements are political, but some are more political than others; and if you cannot conceive of great art made by people whose political opinions you do not share, then just maybe you cannot conceive of art at all.

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It was ironic that the Irish Times released their Theatre Awards shortlist just after the death of Alan Rickman; whose performance in John Gabriel Borkman the Guardian valorised as one of his great stage achievements; as it drew the mind back to the Irish Times’ magisterial pronouncements on the state of Irish theatre in 2010. John Gabriel Borkman, a co-production between the Abbey and Southbank’s National Theatre, premiered in Dublin before transferring to London, and eventually Broadway. It was seen by around 20,000 people, got rave notices, and received … two nominations from the Irish Times: for costumes and set.

Meanwhile World’s End Lane, which could be seen by 3 people per performance, and so was seen by almost a hundred punters, as opposed to John Gabriel Borkman’s 20,000, received a nod for best production. And of course you ‘couldn’t’ sputter with outrage over this because, inevitably, you hadn’t seen World’s End Lane. Thus has it been lately with the Irish Times Theatre Awards. Such hipster valuations of theatrical worth downgraded the Gate and Abbey, and combined with a persistent boosting of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, and companies and plays that shared the politico-cultural preoccupations and prejudices of the Irish Times.

But, as with my objections to the Abbey’s 2016 programme, there is little point in speculative grousing. So here are my personal theatre awards for 2015, with the winners in bold. And let me anticipate objections. I did not see DruidShakespeare on tour or The Match Box in Galway. I did not travel up to Belfast to see a single play at the Lyric. But, when you strip out all DruidShakespeare’s nominations, the vast majority of nominations handed out by the Irish Times were for work performed in Dublin. So with more nominees and fewer categories let’s have at it…

Best Production

The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

 DG declan conlon and Catherine Walker

Best Director

Annabelle Comyn – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

David Grindley – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Selina Cartmell – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Conor McPherson – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Patrick Mason – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

 

Best Actor

Declan Conlon – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Marty Rea – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

James Murphy – The Importance of Being Earnest (Smock Alley)

Brendan Gleeson – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

Dylan Coburn Gray – Enjoy (Project Arts Centre)

DG the gigli concert

Best Actress

Catherine McCormack – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Aislin McGuckin – A Month in the Country (The Gate)

Catherine Walker – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Clare Dunne – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Lisa Dwyer Hogg – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

 

Best Supporting Actor

Declan Conlon – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Marty Rea – The Caretaker (The Gate)

Peter Gaynor – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Kevin Shackleton – The Importance of Being Earnest (Smock Alley)

Stijn Van Opstal – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Domhnall Gleeson – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

John Doran – Enjoy (Project Arts Centre)

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Best Supporting Actress

Marion O’Dwyer – By the Bog of Cats (The Abbey)

Minke Kruyver – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Kate Stanley Brennan – Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Deirdre Donnelly – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate)

Elodie Devins – By the Bog of Cats (The Abbey)

 

Best New Play

George Brant – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

Conor McPherson – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

Gerard Adlum – The Man in Two Pieces (Theatre Upstairs)

Enda Walsh – The Last Hotel (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Gerard Adlum, Nessa Matthews, Sarah Finlay – Bob and Judy (Theatre Upstairs)

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Best Set Design

tgSTAN & Damiaan De Schrijver – The Cherry Orchard (The O’Reilly Theatre)

Paul O’Mahony – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabler (The Abbey)

Francis O’Connor – The Importance of Being Earnest (The Gate) & The Caretaker (The Gate)

Liam Doona – You Never Can Tell (The Abbey)

Alice Power – The Walworth Farce (The Olympia)

Alyson Cummins – The Night Alive (The Lyric/The Gaiety)

 

Best Lighting Design

Chahine Yavroyan – Dancing at Lughnasa (The Lyric/The Gaiety) & Hedda Gabbler (The Abbey)

Sinead McKenna – The Gigli Concert (The Gate)

Davy Cunningham – Grounded (Project Arts Centre)

 

Best Sound Design

Dennis Clohessy – Through a Glass Darkly (Project Arts Centre) & A View From the Bridge (The Gate)

Mel Mercier – The Shadow of a Gunman (The Abbey)

Conor Linehan – You Never Can Tell (The Abbey)

December 4, 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

Director Patrick Mason reunites with Marty Rea and Rory Nolan, the double act from his 2009 production of The Rivals, for an elegant production of Wilde’s comedy of dual identities.

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Algernon Moncrieff (Rory Nolan) is a confirmed Bunburyist; evading formidable aunt Lady Bracknell (Deirdre Donnelly) by dint of imaginary invalid friend Bunbury, who is at death’s door whenever she issues invitations. Algernon is determined to unmask his friend Ernest Worthing (Marty Rea) as a secret Bunburyist after finding a card revealing him to be Ernest in town, but Jack in the country. Jack insists he is merely maintaining a high moral tone for the benefit of his ward Cecily (Lorna Quinn) by the invention of disreputable brother Ernest, whose outrages necessitate frequent trips to London. But when Jack’s new fiancé, Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (Lisa Dwyer Hogg), announces she could only love a man named Ernest, and Lady Bracknell declares Jack’s unknown parentage an insurmountable objection, Jack’s engagement seems doomed. And that’s before Algernon helpfully complicates matters with some absurdist Bunburying…

Designer Francis O’Connor spoke in his Gate Lab talk of producing a space of ‘vivid neutrality’ hiding playfulness and tricks; from Oscar’s visage faintly imprinted on the back wall, to a toy train running on tracks laid into the floor for Act 2’s shift to the country, to the startling ejection of rows of champagne or filing cabinets from a side wall when given a push. Panels in the back wall open to reveal Algy’s vases full of perfect green carnations, bucolic countryside impressions, and Jack’s massive portrait of Queen Victoria surrounded by eminent Victorians. O’Connor’s costumes visually cue Mason’s take on the characters: Algy is the perfect aesthete, his blue suit perfectly fitted to his decor, Gwendolen is a chip off the old block, her lavender outfit a variation on her mother’s dress, and Jack is trying too hard to pass as an Establishment worthy, his dark clothes always too sombre. Even Jack’s servant is off. Lane (Bosco Hogan) is in insouciant synch with Algy, but uncertain Merriman (a Fassbendering Des Keogh) is nearly clobbered by filing cabinets, makes heavy weather of clearing away Cecily’s books to lay the table, and runs away whimpering after serving Gwendolen detestable tea-cake.

It’s instructive to note the Rea/Nolan double act’s contrast to Shackleton/Murphy in Smock Alley’s recent Earnest. The business of the last muffin here sees Algy magnificently insouciant and inert, not mischievous and active, with Jack’s despairing throwing of a handkerchief over the muffin tray, rather than engaging in a tug-of-war for it, summarising Rea’s interpretation. This is a man at pains to be respectable but continually thwarted by others. Pushed on to the ground by Miss Prism (a droll Marion O’Dwyer), he attempts to muster an entirely imaginary dignity before asking Lady Bracknell if she’d mind awfully telling him who he is. Rea’s expression when Jack finds his real name in the Army Lists is a comic joy. Donnelly is a wonderful Lady Bracknell, eschewing outright scenery chewing for a forthright indomitability that makes quotable lines fresh putdowns, while Dwyer Hogg, the polar opposite of her Heartbreak House ingénue, vamps it up as Gwendolen, with a Brackenellian imperiousness towards Cecily. Mark Lambert, so rambunctious in that Heartbreak House, seems underused as Canon Chasuble; amusingly rendered a relation of Peter Cook’s Very Impressive Clergyman; but complaining that supporting players have too much star power clearly points to an embarrassment of riches.

Mason had wondered what he could bring to another production of Earnest; the answer was reforming an unbeatable trio of himself, Rea, and Nolan.

5/5

The Importance of Being Earnest continues its run at the Gate until the 30th of January.

August 21, 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

Smock Alley presents a spirited production of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy in which the setting of Victorian drawing room and garden receives an unusual interpretation.

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Algernon Moncrieff (Kevin Shackleton) is a confirmed Bunburyist; evading his formidable aunt Lady Bracknell (Valerie O’Leary) by dint of imaginary friend Bunbury, an invalid who lives in the country and is at death’s door whenever she issues invitations. Algernon is determined to unveil his friend Ernest Worthing (James Murphy) as a secret Bunburyist after finding a card revealing him to be Ernest in town and Jack in the country. Ernest, whose name is actually Jack, insists he is merely maintaining a high moral tone for the benefit of his ward Cecily (Aislinn O’Byrne) by the invention of disreputable brother Ernest, whose outrages necessitate frequent trips to London. But when Jack’s new fiancé, Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (Clodagh Mooney Duggan), announces she could only love a man named Ernest, and her acidic mother declares that Jack’s unknown ancestry is an insurmountable obstacle to marriage, Jack’s engagement seems doomed. And that’s before Algernon decides to helpfully complicate matters with his most ridiculous Bunburying…

Marcus Costello’s startlingly green set serves as garden and drawing room with shrubbery in the shape of a piano revealing itself as a functional piano. There is also the added surreal touch of dresses hanging with lights inside them as eccentric garden decoration. Olga Criado Monleon’s costumes foppishly cast Jack in beige and Algy in blue, but excessively render unfashionable Cecily in a dress that’s almost a repurposed table-cloth. Initially you fear that director Kate Canning is attempting a Jordan-style queering of the text, but that approach quickly dissipates; though Charlie Hughes playing Lane, Merriman, and Canon Chasuble, leads to a major quibble. Lane is rendered with a jiving walk that’s as disconcerting for the character as Jeeves being played as Riff Raff, and Merriman becomes Worzel Gummidge, for the purpose of physically differentiating from Hughes’ main role as the entertainingly nervous Canon. O’Byrne also overplays vocally the girlishness and exaggerated innocence of young Cecily to contrast Duggan’s sultry Gwendolen.

And yet such complaints stand as naught against the whole production, as any gripes are swept away by the accelerating comedic momentum of Wilde’s script, and a deluge of delirious nonsense from the double act of Jack and Algy. Canning contrives some wonderful business. Jack and Algy engage in a tug of war for the silver tray bearing the coveted last muffin as Jack grunts his pained dialogue, while Katie McCann follows up one of her deliciously fake social laughs as Miss Prism with a death-stare at Jack and Algy for their effrontery. Shackleton and Murphy faced the challenge of playing roles that Rory Nolan and Marty Rea take on in a few months in the Gate’s production, and they can proudly boast that they equalled that proven double act in moments such as Jack first meeting Algy at his country estate. Duggan meanwhile adds knowing sauciness to Gwendolen’s dialogue that unnerves Jack terrifically, and seems to rediscover Wilde’s subversiveness.

Plays that are as quotable and almost over-familiar as Wilde’s offer their own hazards, and it is to this company’s credit that they sparkle.

4/5

The Importance of Being Earnest continues its run in Smock Alley until August 22nd.

April 23, 2014

An Ideal Husband

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Oscar Wilde’s treatment of the related dangers of political corruption and the dangers of puritanical morality returns to the Gate under award-winning Ethan McSweeny’s direction.

Sir Robert Chiltern (Garrett Lombard) is hosting a party as the London season winds down. In a night of general aggravation Sir Robert’s sister Mabel (Siobhan Cullen) is infuriated by the inattention of her erstwhile suitor the foppish Lord Goring (Marty Rea), whose sloth equally enrages his Cabinet minister father Lord Caversham (David Yelland), while Sir Robert’s wife Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Lorna Quinn) is outraged when her friend Lady Markby (Marion O’Dwyer) arrives with Mrs Cheveley (Aoibheann O’Hara); whose latest surname change cleverly hid the identity of a despised schoolmate. Mrs Cheveley immediately blackmails Sir Robert to push through the Commons a speculative canal in Argentina that he knows to be a fraud: either he endorses it and makes her fortune, or she will publish an incriminating letter in which he sold state secrets years before to make his fortune…

Wilde’s curtain almost divides drama and comedy. Robert wrestles with his conscience as the surprisingly wise Goring advocates that he confess to his wife and ‘fight the thing out’ with Cheveley, but Lady Chiltern’s most hysterically puritanical judgements come in this serious first half when she forces Robert to sacrifice his career by refusing to aid Mrs Cheveley, and he hates her for it; not least because she has made him such a moral ideal that he knows he’s already lost her by having done wrong years before he met her. After the curtain Wilde careens towards farce. Marty Rea Fassbenders mightly as Goring: he shrieks with surprise when his stealthy valet Phipps (Simon Coury) surprises him, turns his portrait to the wall after being unnerved by lines on its face, insists on a trivial buttonhole to make himself appear younger, desperately tries to read without glasses, and verbally fences with a sublime David Yelland as his comically disappointed father.

Marion O’Dwyer matches Rea’s tour-de-force with her proto-Lady Bracknell turn as Lady Markby, while Siobhan Cullen’s Mabel is rendered as affected as her soul-mate Goring with her repeated posing to receive a proposal that Goring neglects to make. Under McSweeny’s direction Mrs Cheveley enjoys her dirty work more than I’ve seen before, and Aoibheann O’Hara’s breathy delivery emphasises the pleasure she takes in destroying Gertrude. Lady Chiltern and Robert are the most serious roles in the play, and. Peter O’Brien’s costumes provide Lombard with trappings of office that he wears with aplomb, and he makes Robert sympathetic thru a strangulated Etonian drawl that emphasises his politician’s social-climbing nature. Lorna Quinn makes Gertrude formidable in facing down Mrs Cheveley, but the script prevents her unbending nature being made sympathetic; perhaps why Wilde diverted her downfall toward mistaken identities and purloined letters.

Francis O’Connor’s mobile door-frames allow us see the truth of scenes other characters only superficially observe and Wilde’s script similarly hides pragmatic profundities on morality and politics behind epigrams.

4/5

An Ideal Husband continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 14th of June.

June 20, 2012

Travesties

Rough Magic bring Tom Stoppard’s 1975 play Travesties to the Pavilion Theatre to mark Bloomsday but Joyce is a minor character in a play too clever for its own good…
 
1975 finds aged British civil servant Henry Carr (Will Irvine) unreliably reminiscing about his time in the British consulate in Zurich in WWI. Carr really did act in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest staged by James Joyce (Ronan Leahy), and they really did get into an absurd lawsuit over a pair of trousers used in the show, but everything else Carr remembers … unreliably. Yes, Lenin (Peter Daly) and Tristan Tzara (Ciaran O’Brien) were in Zurich at the same time promoting Communism and Dadaism respectively. No, they weren’t intimate acquaintances of Carr, and they certainly weren’t all playing parts in a real life Earnest type romantic comedy of mistaken and assumed identities as everyone attempted to woo Joyce’s helper Gwendolyn (Camille Ross) and Lenin’s acolyte Cecily (Jody O’Neill). Carr remembers all this in a series of deliriously repeated scenes as his shellshock and a cuckoo clock restart the action to be ‘accurate’. It’s unnerving to sit thru a comedy where people aren’t laughing, but a delightful wordplay on Bosh and Bosch was just one of many of Stoppard’s hyper-literate gags, most involving Ulysses and Earnest, which proved too smart for the room.
 
The over-emphasis on Joyce in this show’s promotion probably accounts for the air of bemusement that greeted Carr’s dominating presence throughout as Joyce made only comedic cameos. Leahy milked comedy from his role but his accent roved mightily, and unsatisfactorily when it rendered the Clongowes and UCD old boy as a Roddy Doyle character. Irvine was on fine dramatic as well as comedic form, making Carr’s sudden surges of panic about being back on the Western front as important as his foppish obsession with his many stylish trousers that were ruined in the trenches. Jody O’Neill was equally impressive with magnificently clipped delivery as Cecily and superb timing in a scene where Bennett the butler (Philip Judge) beats time in the act of serving tea to Cecily and Gwendolyn as they fight in song lyrics. That scene occurs in the second act which houses all the play’s funniest scenes including Joyce quizzing Tzara over Dadaism in the style of the ‘Ithaca’ chapter of Ulysses and giving an impassioned speech on creating Ulysses.
 
Poor old Tzara also gets it in the neck from Carr with a devastating speech that makes a hilarious analogy with redefining the meaning of ‘flying’ to condemn modern art as shifting the goalposts of art to allow talentless people pass themselves off as artists. Art’s purpose is the main theme of a play constructed from other works and daffy showboating like dialogue in limericks. Tzara wants to make art random and democratic, Joyce regards the artist as having a sacred duty to speak truth, and Lenin the revolutionary privately likes his art conservative in form but publicly insists it be engaged in social critique. The momentum killing excessive quotation from Lenin in order to skewer his intellectual dishonesty by his own words seems a very 1970s brush-off to Soviet fellow travellers who attacked Stoppard for lack of political commitment, but Daly generates enormous melancholy from Lenin discovering that his beloved Pushkin, as a ‘bourgeois individualist’, has been supplanted by a futurist poet in curricula. Director Lynne Parker designed the set’s pitched platform which in representing Carr’s home and the Zurich library creates an appropriately surreal atmosphere in which she draws the best from her actors.
 
Stoppard’s plays always dazzle with their bravura mix of wit and learning but this is a solid production of a script that, unlike Arcadia, engages only the head, not the heart.
 
3/5
 
Travesties continues its run in the Pavilion Theatre until June 23rd.

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…

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