Talking Movies

May 31, 2018

Re-appraisers of the Lost Archives

It has been an odd experience this past six weeks trawling through the pre-Talking Movies archives, finding reviews of films I haven’t seen or even thought about in a decade.

It’s startling that of the 17 films I’ve re-posted the now deleted Dublinks.com reviews to Talking Movies, I’ve only watched 2 of them again since the press screening. And one of them was 10,000 BC. Which was kind of research for my 2010 Dramsoc one-act play Roland Emmerich Movie, but mostly just to share its delirious nonsensicality with friends. A DVD extra that nearly killed us all revealed Erich von Daniken as an official consultant. Erich von Daniken, who a court-appointed psychologist decades ago concluded ‘a pathological liar’ whose book Chariots of the Gods was ‘a marvel of nonsense’, was telling Roland Emmerich what was what on science and history. The other film was a recent re-watch – again in the cinema! There Will Be Blood appealed to me more second time round, and on a battered 35mm print it seemed far older than its actual vintage, which perhaps added to its mood. But, while I found more nuance in Day-Lewis’ turn this time round, I still don’t think the film deserves nearly as much adulation it receives. The only thing I would change about my sceptical review is noting how Greenwood’s score echoes the frenzied 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony; which allegedly represents the demonic energy of Stalin – not a bad counterpoint when you realise Plainview is Capitalism made flesh. And 10,000 BC, likewise, I wouldn’t change a thing. I would now claim that, like the first Velvet Underground album, it was seen by few people, but everybody who did see it went on to write a trashy screenplay in Starbucks. Per my own words; “It’s less a film and more of an illustrated guide on how to write a really cheesy, dumb blockbuster. This is a very bad film indeed but it’s gloriously ludicrous. I haven’t enjoyed myself this much watching rubbish in quite some time”; I certainly set to screenwriting after it.

There are several reasons I haven’t re-watched 15 of these films. I saw so very many films for reviewing purposes in 2007 and 2008 that I had little desire to revisit any of them, indeed I had a strong desire to explore older, foreign films as an antidote to the industrial parade of clichés emanating from the Hollywood dream factory. I then took a break from cinema for most of 2009, to the displeasure of one, which left me hungry to discover as many new films as possible rather than obsessively re-watch familiar ones. It was the same spirit that simultaneously motivated me to read The Crack-Up, This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night in quick succession rather than simply continuing to re-read an almost memorised Gatsby. I then moved on to wanting to round out certain directorial oeuvres. This impulse reached its zenith in 2012 when I substantially completed Woody Allen and made decent progress on Welles and Malle. Life then got in the way of such plans. That’s the macro perspective, but on a micro level I would only have wanted to revisit Stop Loss, Street Kings, Son of Rambow, Juno, and maybe Be Kind Rewind. Keanu’s disappearance from multiplexes put Street Kings out of my mind, Stop Loss disappeared from public view after the cinema, Son of Rambow was charming but I remembered the jokes too well, Juno suffered my increasing disenchantment with Jason Reitman, and Be Kind Rewind I remembered as being just about good – and it should never be a priority to knowingly watch bad movies when you could watch good movies. Talking of which… 27 Dresses, The Accidental Husband, and Fool’s Gold are high in the rogue’s gallery of why I hate rom-coms, Meet the Spartans is only of interest (and barely at that) as a time-capsule of internet memes c.2007, Sweeney Todd and The Cottage were unpleasant agonies to watch even once, Shine A Light verily bored me into a condition of coma, and Speed Racer, Jumper, and The Edge of Love were hard slogs by dint of dullness. Who would willingly re-watch any of them?

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May 5, 2018

From the Archives: 10,000 BC

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals what is stunningly the only Roland Emmerich movie I have ever reviewed, despite writing and co-directing a play called Roland Emmerich Movie.

One leaves the cinema at the end of 10,000 BC confident that a truly probing film-maker has left no cliché unused, no platitude un-uttered and no trace of logic intact. Roland Emmerich is the Jedi master of the cheesy blockbuster with this film being almost a summation of his entire career. Universal Soldier, Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot, and The Day After Tomorrow are here all rolled into one bombastic CGI-wrapped bundle. Emmerich has made a nonsense of cybernetics, Egyptology, patriotism, crypto-biology, patriotism again, and climatology and has now decided to add pre-history, geography and Egyptology (again) to the list of disciplines whose experts he has driven demented.

D’Leh (Steven Strait), a hunter of mammoths, is in love with Evolet (Camilla Belle) a girl with blue eyes (remember that, it’ll turn out to be important later on) but constantly broods over his father’s desertion of the tribe years earlier. When Evolet, who has perfect teeth but Groucho Marx eyebrows, is kidnapped along with half the tribe by vicious slave traders he sets out to find her guided by his mentor Tic-Tic (Cliff Curtis). Hilariously despite living in snowy mountains the entire tribe is obviously Aboriginal or Maori, except the Caucasian romantic leads. 2 days trek leads them from a mountain top to a jungle (go figure) where they encounter giant carnivorous ostriches. Introduced blatantly in the style of one of Spielberg’s velociraptor sequences Emmerich eventually pulls back the camera and has to admit they’re not actually dinosaurs, they’re giant birds, after all having dinosaurs co-exist alongside humans would be silly….

A few more days trek leads our heroes to the plains of Africa and the Masai Mara, two more days and they’re in Egypt (presumably why Omar Shariff is narrating) and pyramids are being built a mere 7,000 years before their actual construction. Our heroes have wandered into a PG-13 version of Apocalypto and encounter some effete Egyptians, which always signifies e-vil in an Emmerich film. Guess what? There are prophecies involving celestial constellations and The One (I’m not making this up), and a Spartacus style slave revolt with bad CGI mammoths. All of which should be enough to make your floating ribs part from their moorings under the strain of trying not to laugh or urge characters to check someone is really dead before turning their back on them.

Roland Emmerich doesn’t do subtle. Billy Wilder held that a film worked better if its plot points were not immediately obvious. Roland Emmerich likes to announce his plot points with a trumpet fanfare in the soundtrack. It’s less a film and more of an illustrated guide on how to write a really cheesy, dumb blockbuster. This is a very bad film indeed but it’s gloriously ludicrous. I haven’t enjoyed myself this much watching rubbish in quite some time.

2/5

August 27, 2017

The Dumb Waiter

Artistic director Michael Colgan bade a sentimental (and almost self-parodic) farewell to the Gate Theatre with a festival of Beckett, Friel, and Pinter one-act plays.

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Gus (Garrett Lombard) and Ben (Lorcan Cranitch) are waiting to go to work. Mind you, the nature of that work is not exactly specified. But Gus, the young partner, is impatient, and critical of falling standards in their accommodation for such waiting gigs. Ben, the older partner, is tired of his job, and possibly of Gus. So he tries to ignore Gus’ gripes about being stuck in a basement in Birmingham with tea bags but no gas to light up to boil water. But his attempts to read the newspaper are foiled by arguments about whether Aston Villa are playing at home, whether everyone is always playing away no matter where they get sent, and who really killed a cat in the news. And that’s before the antique dumb waiter in the basement starts acting up, leading to more aggro…

I’ve haven’t seen The Dumb Waiter since the UCD Dramsoc production directed by my friend Priscilla Ni Cheallaigh in 2000, starring Patrick Fitzgerald. Pinter done at anything but the right pace can drag to deathliness, even the Gate’s 2015 The Caretaker wobbled, but director Joe Dowling gets the pace here spot on; drawing out comedy. Cranitch’s raised eyebrows and shuffling newspaper at Lombard’s antics, including business with spare matches and shoes, bring out a level of slapstick that is amped up further when he starts howling “The larder is bare!” at the dumb waiter after they’ve loaded it with odds and ends of food. Oddly enough Cranitch and Lombard’s mania at satiating the unknown operator above actually reminded me of John Olohan and Eamon Morrissey’s ludicrous struggles with a mysterious telephone call in Druid’s 2010 production of The Silver Tassie.

Dowling and set designer Francis O’Connor utilise the full space of the Gate to create as much distance as possible between Gus and Ben, and make the stage very spare; almost a visual equivalent of how silence lingers between them, pregnant with tension and absurdity dependent on how Pinter’s dots on the page work. And Lombard continues to show a real flair for delivering Pinter’s absurdist speeches. Joan O’Clery’s costumes look down-at-heel until they’ve properly dressed; but even still these two are more Harry Palmer than James Bond. For the first time, instead of thinking of these characters as hit-men out of Pulp Fiction, as was inevitable back in 2000, I wondered – what if they’re cleaners? What if they’re plugging MI5 leaks MI5 with extreme prejudice, taking out the Burgesses and Macleans of the world; morose from that squalid task.

Lombard and Cranitch make a formidable double act, bringing Pinter’s early classic to humorous and doom-laden life. Oh, to see them as Mugsy and Stephen in Dealer’s Choice here.

4/5

August 24, 2017

The Pillowman

Decadent Theatre Company again took over the Gaiety stage with Martin McDonagh’s trademark blend of macabre madness, but set in Mitteleurope rather than the Wesht.

 

Katurian (Diarmuid Noyes) is in deep trouble. Somebody in this unnamed (and semi-mythical) totalitarian state has been acting out particularly horrible short stories by a writer, and he’s the writer so he’s the prime suspect. Abrasive policeman Tupolski (Peter Gowen) and his thuggish underling Ariel (Gary Lydon) have Katurian prisoner in their Spartan barracks. And by Lenin if they have to beat the eyes out of his head and unsettle him with asinine nonsense they are going to make him confess. Unless of course he didn’t do it, but if not him then who; could his brain-damaged brother Michael (Owen Sharpe) really have done such horrible things? Would Tupolski really torture innocent Michael just to make Katurian confess? Why does Katurian write such horrible stories in the first place? And what does horrible parenting have to do with it all?

Owen MacCarthaigh’s deceptively simple set; almost a bare stage with desk, seats, cabinet, and furnace in a circle; spectacularly splits to reveal a house or woodland behind, dependent on which of Katurian’s tales is being silently played out (very broadly) by Jarlath Tivnan, Kate Murray, Peter Shine, Tara Finn, and Rose Makela. Ciaran Bagnall’s lights and Carl Kennedy’s sounds combine to create tableau during the most disturbing of these glimpses into Katurian’s dark imagination, the origin of his creativity. I saw The Pillowman in UCD Dramsoc in 2006 as a spare four-hander, so director Andrew Flynn’s visual extravagance here took me aback. It amuses and horrifies effectively, but also leaves the audience with less work to do. Sharpe’s sometimes camp mannerisms were also in stark contrast to Michael’s defeated stillness back in 2006, akin to Marty Rea’s recent Aston.

Pinter is a strong presence in this play. The first act is comedy of menace as Katurian is bewildered and intimidated by Tupolski’s odd interrogation. The second act is arguably McDonagh’s most soulful material ever, as the two brothers share a cell. The dark and comic invention of Katurian’s reimagining of fairy tales throughout remains astonishing, a highlight being the Pied Piper of Hamlein. And then there’s the third act where McDonagh seems to mash together Pinter and Orton; “I’m sick of everyone blaming their behaviour on someone else. My father was a violent alcoholic. Am I a violent alcoholic? Yes. … But that was entirely my choice”; but then deliver a tour-de-force entirely his own, Tupolski’s short story – which I still remembered chunks of 11 years later. It is outrageously offensive, and sadly it was clear the audience in the Gaiety was self-censoring itself, whereas in Dramsoc we had recognised it was of a part with Tupolski’s character and, having made that recognition, thereafter stopped tut-tutting and let out ears back to fully enjoy the verbal marvel McDonagh was constructing. Cruelty and callousness are part of comedy, perhaps inextricably so; it’s hard to imagine Swift or Waugh without them.

I still prefer some of the notes struck by Andrew Nolan’s Tupolski in 2006, but Noyes’ sincerity, Gowen’s swagger, and Lydon’s hidden decency make for an impressive central trio.

4.5/5

October 29, 2016

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Druid revisit Martin McDonagh’s startling debut 20 years after its debut and the result is spellbinding.

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Maureen (Aisling O’Sullivan) lives a tormented life, continually at the beck and call of her dishevelled, demanding, hypochondriac mother Mag (Marie Mullen). There is little to look forward to this in emotionally barren Wesht. The visits of Aaron Monaghan’s easily bored neighbour are the only thing keeping the two women from each other’s throats. And then he arrives to invite Maureen to a do, at the behest of his brother Pato Dooley (Marty Rea). Pato and Maureen make a connection, much to the displeasure of Mag, and the stage is set for an attempt at escape and an attempt at confinement.

It’s been some years since I saw Nessa Matthews and Molly O’Mahony perform the script in UCD Dramsoc at a fast pace, so what was most noticeable about the playing here was the patience of Garry Hynes’ direction. Rea’s show-stopping monologue, writing the most rambling letter home from London imaginable, became a comic tour-de-force simply because he was allowed to pause so much effect. At the other end of the dramatic scale, the most disturbing scene in the entire play was allowed to build slowly, so that dread filled the Gaiety; the inimitable sound of 2,000 people holding their breath.

5/5

The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues its run at the Gaiety until the 29th of October before beginning a tour of North America.

June 15, 2016

The Trial

Disorientation seems to be an aim of No Drama’s production of Kafka’s The Trial. And from the issuing of pencils and paper on arrival for your first plea, to the actors running offstage eschewing a bow, disorientation is certainly achieved.

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Somebody must have been telling lies about Josef K (Daniel O’Brien), for he wakes up one morning in his boarding house to find instead of breakfast a brace of mysterious warders (Elaine Fahey, Amélie Laguillon) searching his room. Their senior supervisor (Greg Freegrove) tells K he’s been arrested, but this shouldn’t interfere with K’s work as a senior clerk at the bank; so long as he can make time on Sundays and evenings for interrogation. The charge…? Well, the supervisor’s not authorised to discuss such matters; best take that up with the judge. So begins K’s nightmarish journey thru the gallery of grotesques that surround the Law. ‘Helped’ by the enfeebled Advocate Huld (Louise Dunne), her degraded client eternal client Block and sultry nurse Leni (Sarah Maloney), and the court portrait artist Titorelli (Nikhil Dubey), it is little wonder he despairs.

There are memorable sequences; K’s decision to fire Huld being celebrated by means of a mid-90s rock-out, the actors pairing off and walking back and forth in a muted dance while narration and light jumps between actors. And some fine performances. O’Brien is initially over-indignant, but reins it in for an engagingly desperate K. Dunne eschews the usual hypochondriac bombast Huld, giving us genuine infirmity with a rasping whisper and outraged anger. Freegrove amusingly channels Berkoff as the menacing supervisor, Maloney vamps it up as Leni, and Siobhan Hickey is vivacious and knowing as K’s crush. But No Drama’s production runs for 2 hours 45 minutes with a 10 minute interval, as compared to the Young Vic’s 2015 The Trial which clocked in at 2 hours without an interval. This is absurdly long, and the good performances and sequences get lost in an increasing muddle.

Directors Noel Cahill and David Breen have crafted a very loud interpretation. Eardrums will be ringing from 10 people consistently shouting by the time the court chaplain climactically bawls at the audience mere inches away. The most effective moments are actually the quietest; Huld’s monologues, K’s isolation, or the chorus’ whispered “Josef K”; and starting out turned up to 11 leaves the show nowhere to go. The trip-hop musical introduction outstays its welcome, and a bit of business with everyone hanging on K’s words is protracted beyond the point of comedy – both emblematic of pacing problems that cannot all be blamed on the script. As for the script… The legendary travelator of Richard Jones’ Young Vic staging is obviously beyond the budget of an amateur company, but if the essential elements of Berkoff’s minimalist script (screens, costumes, and all actors save K to have their faces painted) are abandoned, is it really still Berkoff’s adaptation?

There is an astonishingly literal interpretation of K stumbling on pornographic pictures in the court which is far from the mime Berkoff intended. Reducing your staging to a rope, glasses, and one costumed actor in such a difficult space as the Boys School is self-defeating. An ecstatic Dramsoc production of East from Anna Simpson with future Fast Intent founder Nessa Matthews relied on basic props and costumes before launching into outré physicality. Far too often here attempting Berkoff’s physicality after abandoning his supports results in endless busyness of unclear meaning – shouting “I’m a train” may be funny but sadly it’s not redundant when the specified identifiers for it have been discarded. And can Kafka be Kafka if it’s not (to misapply Peter O’Toole’s Ruling Class descriptor) ‘black comedy with tragic relief’? All the elements of Kafka and Berkoff are present, but they do not cohere: we end up with neither paranoid hilarity nor expressionist vim.

The ensemble display admirable commitment and energy, but having set aside so much of Berkoff’s blueprint this production’s continued insistence on presenting a version of his physical theatre almost always gets in the way of this being good theatre.

2/5

The Trial continues its run at Smock Alley until the 18th of June.

December 5, 2015

Enjoy

The work of Rough Magic SEEDS participants Zoe Ni Riordain and Cait Corkery is showcased at the Project Arts Centre in this off-beat Japanese story.

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I’ll freely admit defeat in being able to remember the character names, but I’m in good company; the New York Times gave up on them too. There are three older workers in a comic-book cafe in downtown Tokyo (Gerard O’Keefe, Dylan Coburn Gray, John Doran). Two of them are in crisis because a new part-time worker (Ashley Xie) is dating the other member of their Gen X trio. And this girl is only 22. Which blows their minds. The younger workers at the store (Emmet Byrne, Daryl McCormack) don’t care that much, they’re more concerned about one of the Gen Xers melting down at them for their treatment of a homeless guy trying to shuffle into the store. And that’s a whole other story, involving that Gen Xer and his thirtysomething girlfriend (Erica Murray) breaking up with no small bitterness.

It’s kind of hard to keep track of the characters anyway, as playwright Toshiki Okada (translated by Aya Ogawa) mischievously has them narrate what other people say and conduct dialogue on someone else’s behalf to the point where you can momentarily forget whether or not someone is speaking as themselves. And that’s before you add in the disconcerting pre-recorded voiceover of the character’s thoughts which the actors loop into onstage. It’s quasi-reminiscent of Neutral Hero at the 2013 Theatre Festival, down to the long monotone pastiche Bret Easton Ellis narrations; but this is far livelier. John Doran’s long drones are played for huge laughs, his ability to keep going on nigh-endless tangent-heavy qualification-ridden over-elaborate interrogations of the simplest of actions like a Pinter character mashed up with Michael Cera’s Scott Pilgrim spectacular. Oh, plus the third act is largely karaoke.

Dylan Coburn Gray seemed on the brink of corpsing, hardly surprising given that he had to perform lyrics about mundane blanking by old friends to ‘With or Without You’ and societal pressure to ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby,’ but his was the stand-out performance as the most complicated Gen Xer. Alongside Murray and Breffni Holohan he imparted a growing emotional charge to the karaoke as ‘Someone Like You’ sound-tracked a brutal break-up injunction to just die already, before he revealed his character’s fear of the future. Corkery’s set sadly eschews any comic-book touches, but her costume designs delineate the characters’ attitudes: sharpness for the thirtysomething women, sober matching colours for the twentysomething men, and hipster colour clashes for the Gen Xers. Numerous flubbed lines suggest Ni Riordain could’ve used more rehearsals, but it also made the Cube feel like Dramsoc.

UCD Dramsoc at its best, in the old LG space, a clique of people passionate about theatre crowded into an over-heated cauldron to see a production give it everything.

3.5/5

Enjoy continues its run at Project Arts Centre until the 5th of December

June 18, 2015

The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939

I was lucky enough last night to attend the launch in the Abbey theatre of Professor Anthony Roche’s latest book The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939.

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Professor Patrick Lonergan of NUIG, who edited the book for Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, gave a generous introductory speech; noting as an undergraduate in UCD in 1993 he had been struck by the way Roche presented his lectures as if he’d just rushed from a good play either in the Gate or in UCD Dramsoc’s LG theatre and was eager to tell his students about it so they could experience it too. Indeed Lonergan claimed that he remembered lectures Roche gave then more vividly than lectures he’d heard in the last month. Roche’s interest in, and support for, UCD Dramsoc was attested to by the presence of former students Caitriona Ennis, Caitriona Daly, and Eoghan Carrick, now rising stars of the Dublin theatre scene as the founding members of We Get High On This theatre company.

Fiach Mac Conghail, the artistic director of the Abbey, praised Roche for inscribing performance into the study of the Revival. Yeats may have prioritised a literary theatre, but he still needed actors to speak his words, and Mac Conghail noted that without the Fay brothers and the Allgood sisters the early Abbey would not have succeeded. He also noted that Roche had a telling eye for gossip in detailing the power struggles by which Yeats managed to subvert a democracy of actors and writers, and instead form a smaller unit; centred on himself; who decided what plays to perform and who to cast in them. Mac Conghail observed that questions of art and commerce as were laid bare in the book still beset the current Abbey board, and that the duality of the theatre was captured by the term ‘show-business’.

Mac Conghail also praised Roche for matching his prioritisation of the collaborative nature of the Abbey repertory players and the Abbey writer/directors with a reinstatement of the influence on the Abbey writers, particularly JM Synge and Sean O’Casey, of Henrik Ibsen; a reinstatement practised in the Abbey’s current season which deliberately followed a new version of Hedda Gabler with a revival of The Shadow of a Gunman. Mac Conghail also promised that Shaw would return to the Abbey at Christmas (Which Shaw? Wait and See), and praised the work done by Roche, as well as Frank McGuinness, in writing Shaw back into the narrative of the Revival; ‘The Absent Presence’ as Roche’s chapter dubs him. Roche launched the book officially by noting that Bloomsbury’s offer to write a book accessible to general audiences gave him a chance he’d been waiting for – to tell the long narrative of the theatrical Revival.

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Director Patrick Mason and Prof. Tony Roche

The Irish Dramatic Revival: 1899-1939 by Professor Anthony Roche is published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

October 7, 2013

The Critic

Rough Magic strikes gold again with a hilarious production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1779 comedy in which they transpose the absurdist action to Georgian Dublin.

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Mrs Dangle (Eleanor Methven) is out of humour with Mr Dangle (Darragh Kelly). She sits reading about Lord North’s monumental failures while he amuses himself reading up on theatre gossip. Her mood is not improved when Mr Sneer (Ronan Leahy) arrives, and the two erstwhile theatre critics ignore the parlous state of the country. But then her beloved struggling writer Sir Fretful Plagiary (Rory Nolan) arrives, and she supports him thru the ‘helpful’ critiques of his latest rejected manuscript by Sneer and Dangle. Luckily for her she misses the arrival of the disreputable Mr Puff (Karl Shiels), who explains his various types of puff-pieces to an impressed Sneer before allowing the duo attend a rehearsal of his new tragedy. At which point a host of actors take to a different stage to perform, with constant interruption from the three gentlemen…

The unusual experience of sitting around in the Culture Box as if eavesdropping in the Dangles’ drawing room before trotting up to The Ark to follow them to a rehearsal of Puff’s tragedy of the Spanish Armada is inspired. In the intimate setting of the Culture Box Nolan’s prancing ninny Sir Fretful Plagiary richly deserved the solo round of applause he got for his harrumphing exit, while Karl Shiels makes a wonderful entrance as the lecherous and slightly tipsy Mr Puff who explains matters like ‘the puff collusive’ with bravura. Sneer and Dangle passing snide remarks from the Ark’s balcony makes you think that Sheridan may have created Statler and Waldorf two centuries before The Muppets: this is their take on Puff’s utterly random comic sub-plot – “Why, this under-plot would have made a tragedy itself” “Ay, or a comedy either”

Peter Daly narrates helpfully at the Culture Box, interrupting dialogue with helpful information for the audience, before stealing the silliest moment of the entire play in The Ark with the infamous silent meditation and preposterously meaningful shake of the head by Puff’s tragic antagonist. Sheridan’s abrupt ending is creatively expanded here with Puff being chased off-stage for criticising his actors and a baffled Dangle and Sneer taking to the vacated floor, reading the opening of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, dismissing it and then being taken by surprise (much like the audience) by the back wall of the theatre slowly rising to a light show, as the talented young ‘tragedy’ actors from UCD Dramsoc, Trinity Players and the Gaiety School of Acting stand in front of a montage of theatre troupe names and people flock into the square behind to observe – thus proving Brook’s point.

The Critic has never been out of repertory of since it premiered in 1779, largely because its well-turned jokes are as fresh as ever.

4/5

The Critic continues its run at the Culture Box until October 13th.

September 24, 2013

Berkhamsted Revisited

‘Only beggars and gypsies say that one must never return where one has been before’ – Soren Kierkegaard

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Prof. Peter Evans and Dr. Fergal Casey

The annual Graham Greene Festival at Greene’s birthplace (Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire) is about to kick off, so I thought I’d cast a belated backward glance at the 2012 Festival. I travelled to Berkhamsted at the end of September to collect two prizes in the Festival’s Creative Writing awards. I won best short screenplay for Sir Joshua’s Macaw, a comedy of bad art criticism, and best prose fiction for my comedy of workplace anxiety, ‘For Whom H.R. Tolls’. I had previously won the best prose thriller category in 2011 for my story of murderous identical brothers ‘Dieu et Mon Droit’.

The festival is organised by the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust as Berkhamsted was where two different branches of the extended Greene family lived, and Graham’s father was headmaster of the venerable public school which Graham reluctantly attended; a deeply unhappy experience immortalised in the 1971 autobiography A Sort of Life. Greene mellowed towards his hometown though and returned to it imaginatively in the last decades of his life in books like The Human Factor and The Captain and the Enemy. The four-day festival includes film screenings and gala dinners, and many talks by both academic Greene scholars and film-makers involved in adaptations of his work. It has become a venue for launching new works of Greene scholarship, and having completed a PhD on the Irish influence on GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc in 2007 in UCD such a milieu of intense discussion of an English Catholic writer feels very familiar.

I was aware of Greene’s great liking for Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill but had never studied Greene academically, remaining merely an avid reader and fan of works like The Ministry of Fear and The Third Man. I didn’t attend any lectures last year, but in 2011 I had the good fortune to hear Professor Michael Brennan’s lecture on Greene’s creative use of the Manichean heresy, in Brighton Rock and Stamboul Train among others, which was a truly stunning piece of scholarship. His patient explanation of the bizarre beliefs of the Manicheans and careful analysis of just how Greene used this good/evil, soul/body, man/woman set of dichotomies for his own (occasionally mischievous) purposes was one of the most dazzling lectures I’ve ever attended.

A major draw of the festival’s programme for me was a day-long creative writing workshop with two of the judges of the creative writing awards, novelist Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone and screenwriter William Ivory. The creative writing awards emulate Greene’s own range and include screenwriting, travel writing, and two prose categories – for fiction and thriller; much like Greene’s inimitable distinction between his novels and his ‘entertainments’. 2012 saw Lattin-Rawstrone and Ivory focus on Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man and his short story ‘The Basement Room’ to examine the importance of story and character in their talks on how to write convincing characters, who are then sent on meaningful journeys. The importance of tactile detail in communicating emotion was hammered home, as was the equal importance that when an important event befalls a character the reader should also viscerally feel just how important it is. The workshop includes an intense practical component in the afternoon. I did the screenplay option with Made in Dagenham screenwriter Ivory, who is a true disciple of Greene in his use of philosophical and theological concepts in his gritty screenplays. He also throws his pupils in at the deep end, plotting out an original movie scenario and characters from some pictures of actors; and then asking everyone to write a sample scene after some group discussion to fine-tune the characters and plot.

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Lee Langley and Fergal Casey

Away from this intensive writing in the basement theatre of Berkhamsted School (irresistibly reminiscent of UCD Dramsoc’s now lost LG1 space), in the Civic Centre I greatly enjoyed seeing on a big screen Lee Langley’s 1980s adaptation of Greene’s lost 1940s ‘scriptment’ into the complex and tense film The Tenth Man starring Anthony Hopkins and Kristin Scott Thomas; not least as Langley had presented me with my Creative Writing prize in 2011 and the exhortation to keep writing. As an added bonus director Jack Gold was on hand to discuss the film, revealing some of Anthony Hopkins’ acting mannerisms along the way. Once all the prizes had been given out, the birthday toast proposed, and the talks concluded it was time for the Gala Dinner in the luxurious surroundings of Berkhamsted’s venerable Public School, with an after-dinner talk by actor Clive Francis. I had the good fortune to be seated for it alongside Cathy Hogan, a previous winner in the writing awards, and Dermot Gilvary, previous director of the Festival.

I think everyone will find that there is one Graham Greene work that speaks to them. For me it’s The Ministry of Fear, for other people I know I could say The End of the Affair or Twenty One Short Stories. Why not find out which one speaks to you?

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