Talking Movies

July 28, 2017

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan follows his longest film with his shortest since his 1998 debut Following, with which it shares a tricky approach to time and story.

France is sucker-punched and on its way to falling. The British Expeditionary Force is leaving it to its fate and retreating through the only open port, Dunkirk, that England might still have an army with which to fight on. On the Mole Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) spend a week organising the evacuation of soldiers, with the difficulty of a shallow beach and one quay making a perfect target for Stuka dive-bombers. On a Little Ship Dawson (Mark Rylance) pilots his way across the Channel over a long day, with son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and stowaway George (Barry Keoghan). On a ticking clock of one hour’s fuel RAF aces Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) attempt to fend off some of the Lutwaffe’s endless attacks on the beach and convoys. Their stories intersect tensely, complexly.

Nolan hasn’t made as abstract a film as this since Following. To a large degree the presence of some Nolan repertory and a host of familiar faces lends a degree of depth to the characterisation not perhaps there simply in the spare scripting. And it is spare. The majority of screen time belongs to Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), who meet on the desolate beach, and try to stay alive thru repeated attacks, and the dubious comradeship of Alex (Harry Styles). And for the majority of their screen time, they are silent. But the film is not. Viewed in IMAX this is absolutely deafening, with Hans Zimmer’s score interrogating the line with sound design as it throws anachronistic synth blasts amidst the ticking pocket-watch effect, and, startlingly, quotes Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ Variation at high points of tension and release.

On his second collaboration with Hoyte Van Hoytema it’s still unclear whether he and Nolan are less interested in the shadows and earth tones of Wally Pfister’s palate or simply have lucked into two stories that required large swathes of white and blue. One thing that looks unique is the aerial dogfights, IMAX cameras attached to Spitfires these have a dizzying sense of reality: this is a pilot’s eye-view of combat and it’s madly disorienting. And, as the inevitability of Hardy’s choice to not return from France approaches, symptomatic of this film’s remarkable sense of dread. You can no more criticise Nolan for not following the Blake Snyder beats than you could attack Jackson Pollock for failing at figurative art. He can do that supremely well, he’s choosing not to. And making you look, follow, and feel without using words.

And, without using any words, Nolan plays a game with time that makes Dunkirk a film that will amply repay repeat viewings. As the timelines intersect you realise that events that looked simple are a lot more complicated, sometimes even the reverse of what you thought you’d understood. And the same is true for characterisation. At times it feels like Nolan is answering the tiresome critics who attacked Inception and Interstellar for having too much exposition, even as they complained they couldn’t understand them – for all the explanations. And, if those critics insist on taking the ridiculous Billington on Stoppard line of Nolan being all head and no heart, he has the ultimate conjuring trick; Nolan makes us care, with our guts in knots, for people whose names we’re not even sure about, let alone their back-story and motivations.

Nolan has taken a touchstone of British culture and produced a film with a lean running time but a Lean epic quality by viewing the world-changing through the personal.

5/5

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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.

August 13, 2016

The Constant Wife

Alan Stanford directs Somerset Maugham’s 1920s comedy of marital infidelity and hypocrisy to amusing effect, but in a broad manner.

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Constance Middleton (Tara Egan Langley) has it all: rich, lovely house, delightful daughter at boarding school. But her friends and relations feel sorry for her. Well, some of them do. Her redoubtable mother Mrs Culver (Belinda Lang) most certainly does not; indeed she has called on her daughter expressly to prevent her spinster daughter Martha (Rachel O’Byrne) informing Constance that her husband John (Simon O’Gorman) is having an affair with Constance’s bubbly and vacuous best friend Marie-Louise (Caoimhe O’Malley). Both of them are surprised when they learn that Constance knew all along, and even more surprised when she manages to convince Marie-Louise’s husband Mortimer (Peter Gaynor) that he is a monstrous cad for suspecting his wife. Little do they realise that Constance has a plan, involving gossip, plausible deniability, and her former beau Bernard (Conor Mullen) just returned from China.

Constance takes a job with her entrepreneur friend Barbara (Ruth McGill), and emancipates herself from economic dependence on her husband; much to his fury. Indeed there’s a lot of comic male bluster in this play. The Constant Wife is quite funny, but is played as slapstick. Gaynor has a fantastic stride of determined and manly apology, while Mullen lurks in a doorway looking back and forth at the adulterous couple with the suspicious gaze of a man who’s just been told what’s going on (and leans back hilariously for one parting warning glance), and O’Gorman nearly blows a gasket in remaining dashed polite to a man he wholeheartedly desires to knock down and set to.  Given Constance’s Shavian speeches on economics and her mother’s Bracknellisms you wonder if Patrick Mason could elicit subtler laughs and trim the third act repetitions.

O’Malley Fassbenders as the callous airhead, and Lang is delightfully withering, but O’Byrne overplays her RP accent somewhat. Eileen Diss’ appropriately airy set design gives us a drawing room flooded with light, and Peter O’Brien pulls out all the stops in designing a whole wardrobe of glorious flapper era outfits for Maugham’s women to model. Programming this as high summer fare, for the second time in a decade, seemed an absurd exemplar of Michael Colgan’s latter sterility as artistic director, and news of his retirement followed soon after. Maugham’s play is good, but can one justify reviving it when the Gate has only produced three Stoppard shows since 1984? Being The Real Thing, and Arcadia twice. We know the Gate needs full houses but couldn’t an exuberant Stoppard like Night and Day, Indian Ink, or Jumpers pack a house too?

The Constant Wife is entertaining, but not of Cowardian calibre. It and the Abbey’s ramshackle The Wake have represented a veritable Scylla and Charybdis of commerce over aesthetics and ideology over aesthetics this summer.

3/5

The Constant Wife continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 3rd of September.

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.

April 15, 2015

A Little Chaos

Alan Rickman makes an unexpected return to directing nearly twenty years after his first effort, The Winter Guest, with a period drama about Versailles’ creation.

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In Versailles did King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) a stately pleasure-dome decree. And while the extravagant gardens he demands in 1682 are not quite measureless to man they are certainly too much for Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to construct single-handedly, so he takes on other landscape gardeners; the most unlikely of which is Madame Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), a widower who insults Le Notre’s preference for ordered landscapes in her job interview. With the practical help of blunt rival Duras (Steven Waddington), and the political support of the King’s brother Philippe, Duke of Orleans (Stanley Tucci), and Phillipe’s wife Palatine (Paula Paul), Sabine sets to work. But navigating court politics is complicated by her growing attraction to the doleful Le Notre, and the spiteful reaction to her presence by the manipulative and petty Madame Le Notre (Helen McCrory).

Praise first. A Little Chaos looks gorgeous. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras shoots to advantage the rococo production design of James Merifield, and art direction of Kat Law and Sarah Stuart. Joan Bergin’s costumes are sumptuous, Peter Gregson’s score has a memorable and rousing final cue, and supporting turns, from Tucci’s fabulous acerbity, to the impetuosity of Louis XIV’s mistress Madame De Montespan (Jennifer Ehle) and her lover (Rupert Penry-Jones), are delightful. It’s also nice to see Irish theatre star Cathy Belton appear as Sabine’s devoted servant Louise. But my God is it dull… Rickman co-wrote the screenplay with Alison Deegan and Jeremy Brock so he must take the blame for this. There’s a plodding well-made-screenplay feel to far too many scenes; with obnoxious flashbacks to a coach crash, and hallucinations by Sabine of her dead daughter, recalling another BBC film, Creation.

Nobody expects a discourse on the movement from classical garden design to the contrived pastoral of Capability Brown in the manner of Tom Stoppard’s intellectual investigations in Arcadia. But by the end of the film it remains utterly unclear exactly what is so radical about Sabine’s small garden with water feature in the grand scheme of Versailles. And that’s to say nothing of the script’s remarkable failure to establish that Louis XIV is the Sun King. The closing image gestures to it with some elegance, but unless you know your French history well the sharp point to Sabine’s truth-telling speech about needing a little warmth from the sun is completely lost. Schoenaerts and Winslet’s romance lacks spark, and Peaky Blinders’ McCrory is atrocious. McCrory hams like a panto villain as the script lazily instructs her to sneer from first appearance.

A Little Chaos is so perfectly respectable it’s hard to hate. Cute scenes and funny performances jostle with unmotivated villainy and terrible hamming, but who will remember either afterwards?

2/5

October 18, 2013

Axis Cinema

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Axis Cinema on Ballymun Main Street is home to The Pictures, which started as a monthly film club and has grown to become a great social network for the over 55s in Ballymun. The Pictures will be presenting a season of ‘book to film’ screenings, including The Commitments, in partnership with access>Cinema and, for the first time, Ballymun Library; who will be making copies of the books available to borrow the month before the film.

 

Dracula (with short film Suansceal)

Presented by Dublin City Council Arts Office and axis in association with access>Cinema and Ballymun Library

Date: 21st Oct 2.30pm

Tickets: €2 Members / €4 Non-Members / Membership: €3

October’s ‘Book to Screen’ film is, very appropriately, Hammer Horror’s Dracula starring an enigmatically terse Christopher Lee as Bram Stoker’s vampiric Count and Peter Cushing as his nemesis Van Helsing. Few actors have ever inhabited those parts to such indelible effect, and this is a rare opportunity to see Hammer’s lurid blood-soaked vision on a big screen. This screening will be preceded by Irish short Suanscéal, a visually beautiful, delicately told, tale of a young boy’s need for companionship and an old man’s need to leave his legacy. Director Colm Ó Foghlú will be in attendance on the day to introduce the short as part of Borradh Buan, axis’ Irish language festival; celebrating its 10th anniversary.

 

A Scare Before Bedtime: Axis Horror Screening

Presented by axis in association with access>Cinema

Date: 30th Oct 9pm

Tickets: €2

This is a chance for audiences to feel the fear at a secret screening of a favourite horror movie! As Halloween approaches, axis will be asking the people of Ballymun to vote for their favourite horror film to show on the big screen. I’d vote for Scream, but with the new Carrie coming out soon that could be a contender. What will win? All will be revealed on the night!

 

The Commitments

Presented by Dublin City Council Arts Office and axis in association with access>Cinema

Date: 25th Nov 2.30pm

Tickets: €2 Members / €4 Non-Members / Membership: €3

November’s ‘Book to Screen’ film is British director Alan Parker’s celebrated 1991 adaptation of The Commitments, Roddy Doyle’s 1980s novel of recessionary north side Dublin. Only the music scene is rich in this landscape, and so Jimmy Rabbitte envisions combining the raw talent of musicians, including Glen Hansard, Bronagh Gallagher and Maria Doyle Kennedy, with soul music to shake the Hibernian metropolis.

 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Presented by axis & Dublin City Council Arts Office in association with access>Cinema and Ballymun Library

Date: 16th Dec 2.30pm

Tickets: €2 Members/€4 Non-Members / Membership: €3

December’s ‘Book to Screen’ film is Blake Edwards’ 1961 toned-down adaptation of Truman Capote’s scandalous novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audrey Hepburn’s most iconic poses, costumes and (dubbed) singing are modelled against a fantasy NYC as Holly Golightly’s naive eccentricity bedazzles George Peppard’s struggling writer when he moves into her apartment building. Try to ignore Mickey Rooney’s outrageously racist Japanese character…

 

Anna Karenina

Presented by axis& Dublin City Council Arts Office in association with access>Cinema and Ballymun Library

Date: 27th Jan 2.30pm

Tickets: €2 Members/€4 Non-Members Membership: €3

January’s ‘Book to Screen’ screening is Joe Wright’s 2012 film of Anna Karenina. Anna (an on-form Keira Knightley) falls uncontrollably in love with Count Vronsky (a callow Aaron Johnson), with tragic consequences when she leaves husband (a surprisingly empathetic Jude Law). Leo Tolstoy’s classic story of doomed love is adapted by the great Tom Stoppard as a determinedly theatrical tour-de-force; to hit-and-miss effect.

 

axis: Ballymun is a creative hub of stage, galleries, workshop spaces and a recording studio. More information at http://axis-ballymun.ie/, and do follow @axisBallymun on Twitter.

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.

April 5, 2012

Stage v Page

I’ve noted that I tied myself up in absolute knots over the distinction between plays that really have to be seen rather than read, and plays that really have to be seen because they are the best that have ever been written. Here are some musings on it.
 
Anyone who’s done English at college or been involved in amateur dramatics will have read an awful lot of plays, far more than anyone outside of those little bubbles. But reading a play is not the same thing as experiencing a play. The script is the blueprint, and in most cases the reason a play works, but it needs the efforts of the actors and the crew to come alive and realise its potential. I’ve tried here to isolate three key areas where plays need to be seen on stage rather than just read: ambiguity, physicality, and, um, physicality (meant slightly differently). I’ve been trying to get to Chekhov plays whenever there’s a good production on because in performance the layers of his work are truly amazing. Chekhov thought he was writing uproarious comedy, Stanislavsky thought he was writing heartbreaking tragedy, and it’s a joy to see those two interpretations vie for control of the text. Many great plays can be enjoyed as reads, but in performance are additionally ambiguous. Patrick Marber’s production of Pinter’s The Caretaker received dazzling reviews for bringing out the black comedy of the material to a hilarious degree, while Hamlet can be played almost any way you want by judicious pruning of the unwieldy text. Then there’re the texts that are just deeply unstable. Kander & Ebbs’ Cabaret has had so many songs cut and pasted back and forth with equivalent scenes from Isherwood over the years that a stable version is impossible. The text is so fluid you never know what to expect. Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life deliberately locks in such fluidity by ensuring no two productions will be the same thru ultra-vague directions.
 
I’ve seen Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound twice, and both times the script’s brilliance and precision defeated its own realisation. I saw a cast corpse repeatedly towards the end, having performed After Magritte perfectly, as the jokes just became too funny for them. I then saw a director construct a minimalist set that bore no resemblance to Stoppard’s mirrored theatre and instead appeared to be a small cafe shut for the night with its chairs upside down on top of its tables. The overlapping and interrupting language deployed by Mamet is often impossible to really grasp on the page, so that I didn’t like Speed the Plow when I read it but found it hysterically funny when I saw it performed some years later, while for physicality Jez Butterworth’s live horse on stage in Jerusalem takes some beating. Some plays have to be seen because reading the stage directions alone can’t convey the experience they conjure. How can you properly imagine the farcical chaos of Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, in which people act normally in the dark, and then grope around the stage blindly when the lights are turned on? How funny in performance is the notorious stage direction in The Winter’s Tale, “Exit, pursued by a bear?” What precisely do harassed directors do when they stumble upon Peter Shaffer’s simple yet infuriating stage direction in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, “They cross the Andes”? How can you really feel the true Brechtian alienation reading thru The Life of Galileo when you don’t have the disconcerting physical presence of the director in the corner of the stage turning the pages of the script as the actors rattle thru their lines? How can you grasp the mischievous power of Anthony Shaffer’s 1975 play Murderer unless you actually see on stage the paragraph of stage directions which precede the dialogue on the opening page; a paragraph which we’re told takes 20 minutes of playing time as it describes protagonist Norman Bartholomew dismembering his lover’s naked body beside a window before the local police sergeant arrives following a neighbour’s complaint…
 
You can be familiar with a play from reading it, but you don’t really know it until you’ve seen it in performance.

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

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