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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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.

January 8, 2015

She Stoops to Conquer

Oliver Goldsmith’s classic 1773 comedy gets an extremely exuberant production as the Abbey Theatre’s Christmas production directed by Conall Morrison.

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Miss Hardcastle (Caroline Morahan) is threatened with a lover. Her father, the amiable Mr Hardcastle (Jon Kenny), is looking to marry her off to Marlow (Marty Rea); the son of his dear friend Sir Charles (Mark Lambert). She, however, is put off by Marlow’s reputation for extreme diffidence with women. The diffidence, however, only applies to women of his own class; Marlow is a rake with bar-wenches. And when her half-brother Tony Lumpkin (David Pearse) decides to play a trick on the conceited Marlow and his travelling companion Hastings (Rory Nolan) by directing them to chez Hardcastle as the local inn, Miss Hardcastle gets to see both sides of her putative suitor as Marlow and Hastings live it up to the dismay of Mr Hardcastle. Hastings, meanwhile, is wooing Miss Neville (Janet Moran), who is trying to get her inheritance of jewels out of the clutches of Mrs Hardcastle (Marion O’Dwyer) without having to marry her cousin Tony for them.

The play is puzzlingly relocated to Ireland by changing some references, but, unlike Rough Magic’s take on The Critic, this seems a half-abandoned high concept. There’s a sort of dangerous ahistoricity in thinking that the Big House represents the same thing in England and Ireland in 1773. And when Marlow, Hastings, and Miss Hardcastle all speak in RP tones it’s easiest to just deem it an eccentric method of representing the English urban/rural divide. Goldsmith’s comedy is played extremely broadly, with an emphasis on slapstick, and a fourth wall that never stood a chance against direct appeals to the audience by Morahan and Kenny (clearly relishing this D’Unbelievables touch). The double-act of Nolan and Rea that made 2009’s The Rivals such a hoot is firing on all cylinders, with Hastings forcing Marlow to conduct an interview with Miss Hardcastle a joy to behold; ending with a despairing Marlow dispensing with cups to slurp, arms out-stretched, directly from the punch bowl.

Morahan fares well in such an approach, presiding over the terrified servants who Kenny has attempted to instruct in the art of appearing genteel; so that Diggory (Sean Murphy) holds his hands stiff at all times, while Bryan Quinn literally throws himself around the stage in the service of his master. Lisa Fox and Charlotte McCurry also stand out musically and comedically in the ensemble who double as the denizens of Lumpkin’s local The Three Pigeons and the servants of his house. O’Dwyer’s imperious matriarch is as pompously dragonish as her Mrs Malaprop in 2009, with Pearse an effective foil. Liam Doona’s set design deserves a special mention for its ingenious rendering of inn and house as identical save for a sign lowered from the ceiling instead of a chandelier, with glass windows letting us glimpse characters pursue each other behind the set, while that garden comes to vivid life via a trapdoor pond and some trees lowered from above.

The period music by Conor Linehan which culminates in a joyous song and dance finale renders Goldsmith unexpectedly Shakespearean and fitting for the season.

3.5/5

She Stoops to Conquer continues its run at the Abbey until the 31st of January.

July 27, 2013

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

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Maeve’s House 24th September – October 12th Peacock

Another theatre festival, another show about Ranelagh native and New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan. Gerry Stembridge directs Eamon Morrisey’s one-man show about growing up in the house that Brennan set many of her biting short stories in. Morrissey promises to properly incorporate some of her stories into the performance, something which was quite badly needed in last year’s The Talk of the Town.

Winners and Losers 26th – 29th September Project

This sounds like a contemporary spin on Louis Malle’s 1981 film My Dinner with Andre. Canadian actors and writers James Long and Marcus Youssef sit at a table and play a friendly game; dubbing people, places and things winners or losers. Friendly, until making monetary success the sole nexus of human relations gets too close to home, and things get personal and ugly…

The Threepenny Opera 26th September – October 12th Gate

Mack the Knife graces the Gate stage, but in this instance Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s classic scabrous Weimar Republic musical has been given a makeover by Mark O’Rowe and Wayne Jordan. The combination of the writer of Perrier’s Bounty and director of Alice in Funderland doesn’t entice, but Aoibhinn McGinnity belting out Weill’s fusion of jazz and cabaret is practically irresistible.

riverrun 2nd – 6th October Project

Actress Olwen Foure’s premiere of Sodom, My Love at the Project underwhelmed so expectations should be lowered for her new one-woman show. Now that Joyce is finally out of the dead hand of copyright she adapts Finnegans Wake with an emphasis on the voice of the river, Anna Livia Plurabelle. Expect some physical theatre to complement and parallel the ‘sound-dance’ of Joyce’s complicated linguistic punning.

Three Fingers below the Knee 2nd – 5th October Project

As Portugal lurches about in renewed economic crisis this is a salient reminder of how dark many of our fellow PIIGS’s recent past is. Writer Tiago Rodrigues directs Isabel Abreu and Goncalo Waddington in an exploration of power and expression based on the records of the censorship commission of Salazar’s dictatorship; thoughtfully probing their editing decisions for plays old and new.

Waiting for Godot 2nd – 6th October Gaiety

Probably, along with The Threepenny Opera, the flagship show of the festival as Conor Lovett and his Gare St Lazare players take on Beckett’s most celebrated play. It’s always worth seeing Vladimir and Estragon bicker as they wait for the unreliable Godot, and be driven mad by Lucky and Pozzo’s eruption onto their desolate stage, but you feel Barry McGovern has copyright here…

Desire under the Elms 2nd – 13th October Smock Alley

Corn Exchange bring their signature commedia dell’arte style to Eugene O’Neill’s early masterpiece about a love triangle akin to Greek tragedy playing out in an 1850s New England farm. Druid came a cropper with Long Day’s Journey into Night at the 2007 festival and Corn Exchange’s 2012 show Dubliners was incredibly uneven. This could be great, but let’s employ cautious optimism.

The Critic 2nd – 13th October Culture Box/Ark

Well, this looks eccentric. Rough Magic throws Talking Movies favourites Rory Nolan and Darragh Kelly at a Richard Brinsley Sheridan script. Nolan was superb in 2009’s Abbey production of The Rivals, but director Lynne Parker is going for a far more postmodern effect here as the characters leave the theatre to watch Dublin’s premier college troupes perform the preposterous play within a play!

Neutral Hero 9th – 12th October Project

Writer/director Richard Maxwell made the New York Times’ Top 10 Plays of 2012 with this picaresque tale of a young man searching for his father in the contemporary Midwest. New York City Players are known for their experimental style fusing text, movement and music; and the 12 cast members play characters that are all revealed to hide mythic importance behind their initially humdrum facades.

The Hanging Gardens 3rd – 12th October Abbey

Frank McGuinness’ adaptation of John Gabriel Borkman stole the 2010 Festival, but does he really have a great new original play in him? Talking Movies favourite Marty Rea reunites with his DruidMurphy sparring partner Niall Buggy. Three children competing for their parents’ approval sounds like a parody, but so did Tom Murphy’s The House which then revealed itself to be far more layered.

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.

September 28, 2011

Hay Fever

Director Patrick Mason expertly mines a classic comedy for laughs for the third summer in a row, with the help of regular collaborators including Marty Rea.

Designer Michael Pavelka furnishes a fabulously opulent 1920s country house set for Noel Coward’s comedy of deplorable manners, complete with absurdist touches like the classical bust above the door that bafflingly manages to hold a cigarette in its lips. Rea, a Mason regular after Arcadia and The Rivals, plays the spoilt toff Simon Bliss who invites femme fatale Myra to his country house for the weekend only to discover that his sister, father and mother have all invited a guest for the weekend too, and not told each other, never mind their put upon servant Clara. And that’s about as much plot as Coward bothers with, everything else is the interactions of the guests and their hosts. Highlights of these comically brusque encounters include a peeved Rea entreating his guest to have a seat by launching her in the direction of the sofa.

Ingrid Craigie Fassbenders as the retired actress matriarch Judith for whom all the world’s a stage, but who is continually wounded by references to her advanced years in connection to her inviting a star-struck gentleman caller. Beth Cooke essays a Cowardian rather than a Stoppardian teenager for a change as Sorel, the most self-aware of the Bliss family, who tries to rein in their bad manners but unconsciously seems to realise that such atrocious behaviour is just too much fun. Stephen Brennan is nicely scatterbrained as the novelist patriarch whose furious indignation, when his just finished book’s geographical accuracy is questioned, powers the final and funniest scene of the whole play. Coward’s play becomes progressively funnier as it proceeds, beginning with the guests arriving and being ignored by their hosts, before partner-swapping all round leads to romantic play-acting which terrifies the guests.

Stephen Swift, a blustering buffoon in Arcadia, here milks laughs as a simpering ninny (invited by Judith) whose over-enthusiastic delivery of the word ‘Rather’ repeatedly brought the house down. I’ve twice ripped screenwriter Mark O’Halloran for his devotion to misery so let me praise to the heights his turn as the diplomatist invited by Sorel. O’Halloran’s is by far the most stylised performance. His pencil ronnie, nervous smile, and exaggerated sitting movement and motions are almost commedia dell’arte, and his performance is comedic artistry. While Kathy Rose O’Brien’s flapper makes occasional hilarious outbursts against her treatment it is only Myra, the most acerbic guest, vampishly played by Jade Yourell, who forlornly rebukes the Bliss family. Behaving badly is so much fun that the Bliss family engage in deliriously enjoyable bickering oblivious to their guests nervously fleeing this madhouse.

Coward’s drawing-room comedy may not quite reach the heights of Wilde but such a feast of absurdist action and witty lines is to be relished.

4/5

May 25, 2011

Pygmalion

The Abbey, almost a century belatedly, premieres Shaw’s popular masterpiece in a sparkling production.

Pygmalion, or My Fair Lady without the music as some people will insist on regarding it, sees arrogant Professor of Phonetics Henry Higgins take in hand a flower-girl who comes to him for elocution lessons after he’s alarmed her by transcribing her dialect in Covent Garden. He will do much more than change her screeching Cockerney accent into serviceable shop girl King’s English though, as, to win a bet with fellow phonetician Colonel Pickering, he undertakes to transform Eliza Doolittle into an imitation Duchess within six months and pass her off at a Royal Ball as such. Director Annabelle Comyn’s oddly revealing staging of the bathroom scene emphasises that Higgins really is stripping Eliza not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims.

Charlie Murphy, who impressed in Kenneth Lonergan’s three-hander This Is Our Youth at the Project in 2009, makes a wonderful Eliza Doolittle. Her physical transformation from filthy flower-girl to elegant faux-duchess is archetypal, while vocally her transition from East End to RP tones is impeccable and includes a coldness to Higgins in their final scenes that captures the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on. Nick Dunning, who Fassbendered his way across the Abbey stage in summer 2009 as Sir Anthony Absolute in The Rivals, enjoys himself greatly as the mild-mannered Colonel Pickering. He’s outdone though by Risteard Cooper who whoops it up as Henry Higgins, adopting an almost permanent squint and crouching impetuousness to convey a man intellectually so above his company as to be permanently impatient with their opinions and manners.

Shaw’s comedic highlights come before the interval, as after the ball Eliza and Henry go at each other in terrific arguments about class, identity, equality and manners, and what highlights they are. Lorcan Cranitch makes a hilarious appearance as Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle, self-proclaimed member of the undeserving poor wha’ can’t afford middle-class morali’y, and Hugh O’Connor (in a surprisingly small role after Valentine in last year’s Arcadia) is painfully funny as a Freddy so inept that he seems on the point of being overwhelmed by his own suit. Higgins’ many outrageous insults are delivered with gusto, while Eliza’s first appearance as a lady at Mrs Higgins’ ‘at-home’ is painfully funny; especially her wonderful dismissal of the idea of walking home as she exits, ‘Not bloody likely!’, and Clara’s declaration that she will use this ‘new small talk’ at her next ‘at-home’ – a prospect Higgins vigorously encourages, ‘Don’t be afraid to pitch it in strong!’

I’ve often complained that Shaw’s characters can sound less like human beings and more like power-point presentations of rival debating positions when they clash intellectually, but here, just as Paul O’Mahony’s realistic set slides apart on its top layer to reveal the bathroom of Higgins’ house and the sun-windows of his mother’s house, the play of ideas is never allowed to escape from its emotional origins in Eliza’s anguish and Higgins’ arrogance. Eliza’s reproaches sting, but Higgins’ closing creed of equality – ‘I treat a duchess as if she were a flower-girl’ – has oddly never sounded more meritocratic…

Comyn’s directorial resume is chock-full of contemporary plays, which is a testament to how incisive Shaw’s comic dissection of the intersections of class and speech was – people can still make other people despise them merely by opening their mouths…

4/5

Pygmalion continues its run at the Abbey until the 11th of June.

September 3, 2010

Arcadia

Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s 1993 masterpiece, received a towering treatment by the Gate theatre a couple of months ago.

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Director Patrick Mason, as well as re-uniting with two of his stars from last summer’s Abbey production of The Rivals, Marty Rea and Aoibheann O’Hara, found roles for Gate regular Barry McGovern and the go-to girl for Stoppardian teenagers (after last year’s The Real Thing) Beth Cooke in his elegant production. At nearly three hours long the play unfurls a romantic comedy in two acts (set in two different centuries) that is really about chaos theory, bad academic scholarship, and the conflict between imagination and rationality. Stoppardian theatre is always just such a theatre of ideas, and duller critics dislike it for that reason because he makes them feel rightly stupid, but Stoppard has an unrivalled capacity to integrate abstract concepts into highly personal conflicts and to present complex ideas accurately but as high comedy.

Stoppard introduces us to two sets of characters inhabiting the same English stately home in 1809-1812 and 1993. In the 19th century sequences arrogant tutor Septimus Hodge (the superb Rea) tries to deflect his mathematically gifted student Thomasina Coverly (Cooke) from seeking a definition of ‘a carnal embrace’ by introducing her to Fermat’s Last Theorem. He is less successful in distracting Donna Dent’s imperious Lady Croom and visiting poet Ezra Chater (a wonderfully blustering Stephen Swift) from the said carnal embrace between Septimus and Mrs Chater. In 1993 Bernard Nightingale (patron saint of dodgy academics) arrives to investigate a possible visit by Lord Byron to the house just before he abruptly left England. He spars with Valentine Coverly (a delightful Hugh O’Connor), who is using statistics to map animal populations on the estate, and Hannah Jarvis (a spirited Ingrid Craigie), who is researching the history of the house in the Regency period for a book on the decline of the Enlightenment into mere feeling. Over their strenuous objections Nightingale speculates his way to absolute certainty that Byron killed Chater in a duel and fled the country, contrary to what we actually see transpire between Chater, Septimus and his unseen visiting friend Byron…

Stoppard’s celebrated wit is given full rein in numerous sparkling lines such as Lady Coverly’s put down of her brother; “As her tutor it is your duty to keep her in ignorance”, “Do not indulge in paradox Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit”; and Septimus’ “I will not kill one of the few poets England has produced for the sake of a woman whose honour could not be adequately defended by a platoon of musketry deployed by rota”. Septimus’ ingenious praise eventually leads Chater to emotionally convince himself that in fact his wife loved him so much that she slept with Septimus for the sake of a good review by Septimus in the ‘Piccadily Review’. She didn’t .

Joe Vanek’s unfussy set was dominated by a large table on which characters from both eras deposited props so that past and present blurred as the play proceeded towards a surprisingly emotional ending as a careless line by Hannah revealed the tragic fate of characters joyously alive in the earlier period as both times collapsed into the same physical space. The ensemble was impeccable but special mention must go to Andrew Whipp as Bernard Nightingale who, especially in his repeated rejoinder of “I don’t know, I wasn’t bloody there” to all requests for more detail on his conclusions and his exit line of “Oh just publish!” on being told by Hannah that she knows something but can’t prove it, mined pure comedic gold.

5/5

June 11, 2010

The Importance of Being Lady Bracknell

The advertising campaign flooded radio-waves with trumpeting worthy of an A-list movie star. “Stockard Channing, the star of Grease and (copy-writer thinks hard, skips 30 years) The West Wing, Oscar-nominated for (copy-writer checks IMDb quickly, hoping she was indeed nominated once) Six Degrees of Separation, is starring as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Gaiety, for a limited run only”. The more subdued poster campaign promised Earnest ‘With Stockard Channing’, though she was still the only actor on the poster…

The truth is that Lady Bracknell just isn’t that big a role. Is she structurally important for the tightly-wound farce? Absolutely. Does she have a plethora of disgustingly good lines? Undoubtedly. Is she on-stage for more than three scenes? Nope. Basing your advertising around the actress playing Lady Bracknell is like playing up who’s doing Caesar in Julius Caesar… You can be damn sure that Anthony Asquith when directing the definitive 1952 screen Earnest secured Michael Redgrave for the lead role before he went looking for Dame Edith Evans to do an ‘And Dame Edith Evans’ exercise in scenery-chewing as Lady Bracknell. It’s a part that grand dames of theatre from Margaret Rutherford to Judi Dench could do in their sleep, but wake up for because it’s so much fun. But it’s a fun supporting role.

Marketing the play around Channing, inevitable because of the coup of securing star-power standard in the West End, is an adoption by theatre of the bait and switch marketing trick so sadly prevalent in cinema. But theatregoers tend to be better informed, if for no other reason than the price differential and the smaller capacity venues mean more thought and planning goes into attending a play than the aimless drifting into a multiplex screen when your preferred option is sold out that is so much cinema-going. Channing will sell more tickets for Rough Magic, who wouldn’t have stepped up to a venue the size of the Gaiety otherwise, but most people attending will know she’s not going to be the leading attraction, and those who don’t may well experience the sort of annoyance at being misled that destroyed Sweeney Todd when, after a spectacularly deceitful trailer, Americans audiences discovered to their horror that it was actually a musical.

Personally I’m bemused by the hype, as even within the cast of The West Wing, while I would run to the theatre to see Martin Sheen, Bradley Whitford or Allison Janney, I would never have been that pushed about Channing. I’m also annoyed that the hype surrounding Channing distracts from the home-grown talent on show. I am perhaps biased (he was my committee liaison when I directed my first show in UCD’s Dramsoc in 2001) but it irks me that Rory Nolan, who was superb as Jack Absolute in Brinsley Sheridan’s equally ridiculous classic The Rivals in the Abbey last summer and will undoubtedly Fassbender across the Gaiety stage with Algernon’s splendid paeans to Bunburying, will receive little attention because of the media circus surrounding Channing. Yes, it is nice to see Hollywood movie-stars doing theatre here occasionally but it’s nicer to see Irish theatre actors doing theatre here every week.

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