Talking Movies

August 11, 2017

A Statue for Bill Clinton

Tom McEnery, former mayor of San Jose, turns playwright with a whimsical take on the locals of Ballybunion attempting to crash the news-cycle in 1998.

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Jackie Costello (John Olohan) is trying to put some hope back into Ballybunion, but the other members of the local civic Committee aren’t much help. John Joe (Frank O’Sullivan) wants a statue of the O’Rahilly, Shamie (Enda Kilroy) doesn’t care, Hannah (Joan Sheehy) is preoccupied waiting for a mystical island to rise, and local politician Austin (Damien Devaney) is more concerned with the cost of preserving the local ruined castle than with the prestige of preserving it. Local enigma Ted provides a solution, which, with the help of visiting emigrant Jimmy (Mark Fitzgerald), might be a real boost for Ballybunion. Dedicate a statue to Bill Clinton to lure the President into town for a game of golf beside Costello’s pub while visiting to celebrate the Good Friday Agreement’s adoption. The only objections come from Kathy (Liz Fitzgibbon), Jackie’s cynical daughter.

Watching A Statue for Bill Clinton is a disconcerting experience. Everything feels made for export: Irish characters in Ireland, as written by an American for Americans. Much quoting of Wilde, Shaw, Heaney amid analyses of Ireland, while can-do American spirit provides the answer to all ills. Not that how hoping that getting POTUS to do a photo-op will magically rejuvenate the town’s economy is ever interrogated as dubious ‘self-help’. The pub setting, returning emigrants, and dreams of success and idealism recall Conversations on a Homecoming and Kings of the Kilburn High Road. Which is unfortunate as it clearly does not aspire to their depth. But then despite billing itself as a true Irish comedy, it doesn’t attack the comedic jugular either. Instead Jackie speechifies hopefully and Kathy speechifies cynically on the motion of the superstitious backwardness of dear old Ireland.

Things pick up in the second half as the characters wince their way thru radio reports on the deepening Lewinsky scandal, and shenanigans abound with dodgy sculptors and mischievous local rivals. You wish that McEnery had either concentrated on this material from the beginning, or done another draft to trim some of the thematic posturing and deepen the characters. At times it feels like he’s 80% towards a successful script, if only he would make the economic homilies a little less on the nose, the relationship between Jimmy and Kathy a little less of a homage to that Irish theatrical trope from John Bull’s Other Island to Translations of the instant romance between the Irish girl and the arriving foreigner, and stop making 1998 quite so anachronistic: pretending the Church is all-powerful, while also anticipating the demise of the Tiger.

A Statue for Bill Clinton is enjoyable, but it’s not quite a comedy and it’s not quite a proper drama either.

2.75/5

A Statue for Bill Clinton continues its run at Belvedere College until the 13th of August.

October 11, 2011

Peer Gynt

Director Lynne Parker follows last year’s misfiring Phaedra with another deeply frustrating combination of theatre and live music…

Arthur Riordan’s rhymed version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 farewell to verse drama is underscored by a constant live soundtrack from traditional/jazz quintet Tarab which renders his script as bad rap at its worst and good beat poetry at its best. Talking Movies’ favourite Rory Nolan is our hero Peer Gynt, incarcerated in a lunatic asylum for his Baron Munchausen tendencies, but who continues to spins yarns of his adventures (which are oddly identical to heroic Norwegian folklore) to the disdain of inmates and staff alike. Riordan’s script never addresses this set-up directly though, it’s all only suggested by the costumes. John Comiskey follows last year’s massive stainless steel set with tunnels, narrow windows and video screens for Phaedra with an imposing, stately lunatic asylum set designed with Alan Farquharson. It is equally irrelevant as the characters largely stalk up and down the narrow playing space imagining, and inhabiting, outdoor locations.

Three hours is a hefty running time for a misfiring production, but hysterically the longer second half is far better as it largely dispenses with the conceits that sink the first half. There are only two scenes that work brilliantly in the 75 minute first half, the first and last. Peer’s opening account of chasing a deer thrillingly uses the rhythm of verse and music to conjure up a vivid hunt complete with a hilarious fabulist anti-climax, while his comforting of his dying mother Aase (Karden Ardiff) with a recreation of a childhood fantasy she told him is genuinely tear-jerking. Everything in between doesn’t work. Hilary O’Shaughnessy is too arch for her own good as runaway bride Ingrid, and the slapstick comedy Trolls are merely pointlessly silly. It all leaves you thinking Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite is a better adaptation. The best moments come later on when Tarab’s music stops.

Silence allows the 90 minute second half to begin with hilarious sequences of Nolan and Co discussing demented imperialist plans in half-British accents, before Peer becomes a false prophet, leading to a wonderful sequence in a Cairo lunatic asylum. These sequences, jam-packed with quick costume changes and absurdist props, see Will O’Connell display great comedic flair across multiple roles, before delivering a powerful eulogy at a draft-dodger’s funeral. Fergal McElherron and Peter Daly have their best moments in their smallest roles as the Devil and the Button Moulder, one rejecting Peer for not having sinned enough, the other condemning him to Purgatory for never truly having been himself. Sarah Greene is again scene-stealing, moving wonderfully between the demure Solveig, whose unshakeable love for Peer may yet save him, and an Egyptian dancing-girl alter-ego. Riordan half-attempts to Hibernicise Ibsen but never makes the obvious link to Translations, that escaping material poverty by imaginative fantasy can be equally imprisoning. His script, in its vagueness and prioritisation of rhyme, ultimately resembles Peer’s famous peeling of the onion that symbolises his fabulist personality – no core.

This is slightly better than Phaedra, but Seneca, Racine and Ibsen aren’t to blame when a classic play doesn’t work. Rough Magic’s insertion of pointless live music into half-updated scripts performed on extravagant but irrelevant sets has disappointed two years in a row. Henceforth, this Rough Magic I here abjure…

2.75/5

Peer Gynt continues its run at Belvedere College until October 16th.

July 6, 2011

Translations

It’s impossible for me to review Translations without first confessing that I know the script inside out, having both studied it at college and then taught it…

1833 in Friel’s eternal Donegal setting of Baile Beag finds a hedge school run by drunken master Hugh (Denis Conway) and his lame son Manus (Aaron Monaghan), specialising in Latin and Greek, being menaced by the arrival of a new English speaking National School, specialising in English. This off-stage menace is accompanied by the on-stage arrival of English sappers conducting an ordnance survey of the area for military purposes. But, as their work proceeds with the aid of Hugh’s other son Owen (Barry Ward) returned from Dublin, one of the British soldiers Yolland (Tim Delap) begins to question the morality of his task, even as he falls in love with local girl Maire (Aoife McMahon). The conflict between high civilisation and base commerce, Irish and English, and the noble rhetoric of progress and its low activities of expropriation, are all layered around these emotional conflicts. Maire’s love triangle with Manus and Yolland is very obviously a choice between a maimed native culture and a confident foreign culture…

Naomi Wilkinson’s set design heavily emphasises the squalor of this hedge-school, while Joan O’Clery’s costumes fit in with this approach by clothing the students in tattered earth tones, with the rebellious Maire in bright yellow and Hugh sporting a burnt orange jacket, while Hugh’s successful son Owen returns dressed in a spiffy blue overcoat, closer to the English military’s colour-scheme. Director Conall Morrison, who I’m still wary of on account of his late 1990s adaptation of Tarry Flynn, predictably brings sauciness to Friel’s comedy in the opening act. In the second act, however, he changes gears as the blue sky above the barn-set darkens, so that the rain sound effect heightens a chillingly conveyed sense of doom that anticipates the impending Famine. Rory Nolan as Doalty and Janet Moran as Bridget carry the bulk of Morrison’s slapstick; Nolan does a glorious mime of the English sappers’ baffled reaction to their ‘malfunctioning’ equipment, a result of his mischief; but they also imbue the off-stage Donnelly twins, often interpreted as proto-IRA figures in their campaign against the British presence, with the appropriate menace by their subdued reaction to their names being mentioned.

The inevitable Aaron Monaghan is very sympathetic as the brother whose half-hearted resistance to the British breaks down under personal contact, even as Ward convincingly travels the opposite arc as Owen grasps the political implications of his linguistic ‘collaboration’ with Yolland. McMahon is surprisingly flirtatious as Maire rather than simply determined, and there is a level of anger by Hugh towards her dismissal of his classics that seems alien to the script, as is his appearance as utterly decrepit. It seems absurd to accuse someone with an Irish Times Best Actor Theatre Award of lacking the necessary stature for a role, but Denis Conway is no Ray MacAnally, and he fails to dominate the stage as Hugh should. As a result Hugh’s final speeches to a drenched Maire, which should be tragic, raised some laughs. Conway effectively mixes bombast with moments of self-awareness, but if Hugh’s paraphrasing of George Steiner’s linguistic theories do not grip as the central statement of the self-defeating cultural delusions that colonisation can foist on a materially defeated civilisation then the focus of the play becomes diffuse.

This is well worth seeing, but there are quibbles…

3.5/5

Translations continues its run at the Abbey until the 13th of August.

March 12, 2011

The Cripple of Inishmaan

Druid fostered Martin McDonagh so it’s pleasing to see Garry Hynes belatedly directing his satirical play originally written for London’s National Theatre.

In 1934 the younger inhabitants of Inishmaan have their heads turned by the prospect of escape to America if they can only get a part in the filming of Man of Aran on Inis Mor and impress the director Robert Flaherty. Billy Claven, the titular cripple, is the most eager, desperate to escape a life of tedium living with his half-mad pretend aunts, where the only respite from shuffling to the doctor for his various ailments is staring at cows. McDonagh’s dialogue is as wonderful as always, with his trademark repetition and love of outrageously cruel black comedy everywhere. Babbybobby (Liam Carney) urges Billy to feck books at cows to liven them up a bit, while Helen and Bartley have a lengthy discussion in front of Billy of the conflicting accounts of whether his parents killed themselves by drowning rather than endure living with his deformities.

McDonagh has tremendous fun invoking Irish theatre past. The double-act of Billy’s ‘aunts’ Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy) are, given the strictures of the Beckett estate, probably the closest you’ll ever get to a female Vladimir and Estragon as they open the play standing behind their shop-counter looking at the audience and bickering over ritual dialogues and events, and means of making time pass. Local news-man Johnnypateenmike (Dermot Crowley) always announces he has three pieces of news, but unlike Hugh’s customary triptychs in Friel’s Translations, he not only remembers all three items but always keeps the best for last. In a nod to Synge there’s the assertive Irish colleen Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne) who domineers over her idiotic brother Bartley (Laurence Kinlan) and is secretly loved by Billy (Tadhg Murphy). But this rich theatrical past being invoked only increases the perceptiveness of McDonagh pointedly referencing the national inferiority complex with a terrific running gag; “Sure Ireland can’t be such a bad place after all if a German fella wants to come and live here”; which reaches its apotheosis while the characters watch the ludicrously fictional Man of Aran shark-hunt; “Sure Ireland can’t be such a bad place after all if sharks want to come and live here.”

The characters’ comedic obsessions, whether it is Kate talking to a stone, Eileen eating yalla-mallas when stressed, Bartley discussing telescopes, or Helen pelting eggs at people, give all these actors ample opportunity to deliver tremendous comedic turns, with the double-act of Crowley and Nancy E Carroll as Mammy O’Dougal Fassbendering for all their worth as Johnnypateenmike tries to aid his mother in her ongoing quest since 1871 to drink herself to death while she fervently hopes to see him in his grave first. But in McDonagh’s subversive finale the characters that seem most honourable turn out to be vicious and the most obviously vicious characters end up displaying some oddly tender hearts. As fellow academic Graham Price pointed out to me the ending, while tender towards the long-suffering Billy, is ultimately a negative version of Synge and Wilde’s belief in the power of a lie to transform the lives of their heroes.

McDonagh thus delivers his own verdict on whether lying really can transform a feckin’ eejit into a likely lad.

4/5

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