Talking Movies

April 30, 2018

On Urbanity

Prefacing my attack on Legion last month I noted decorum was important, and that urbanity was important as a stylistic and aesthetic goal, and noted one could stretch to call it an ethical goal too.

What then is urbanity? When I was writing for the University Observer I used to think our house style was aiming for the droll elegance of the New Yorker.  I’m not sure anybody else did. I’m not sure I would even have been able to pin down where I got that notion of the New Yorker from, possibly a refracted Dorothy Parker vibe from the Gilmore Girls. Having recently, deliriously enjoyed James Thurber’s The Years with Ross I think that I wasn’t far off in my peculiar sense of the magazine’s house style. Although it may have been just Thurber himself rather than the New Yorker writers en masse in possession of that style. Certainly the current New Yorker writers are en masse in possession of a house style, and the deployment of it by Gladwell, Gopnik & Co can be maddening in its repetition.

The New Yorker film reviews these days mostly overshoot urbanity and instead sound jaded, and snobbish. Richard Brody’s review of Ready Player One is a recent particular lowlight. Brody seems to have the shakiest of grasps on the commercial realities of movie-making, and indeed how movies are remembered by non-critics. His notion that a blockbuster themed around 1980s nostalgia should chuck The Shining for Jim Jarmusch’s oeuvre is tragicomic; once you stop laughing in astonishment, you realise he’s serious, and then need to lie down. But how should one write film reviews? I went from writing a movie column for the University Observer titled ‘Fergal’s Guide to Misanthropy’ to reviewing for InDublin. In thrall at the time to Hunter S Thompson I wrote reviews in a style that I would now never countenance. Hunter S Thompson is a great stylist, but he is not urbane.

It doesn’t matter that Hunter S Thompson is not urbane, because he is Hunter S Thompson. But it matters a great deal when people who are not Hunter S Thompson are neither urbane nor Thompsonian despite their best efforts. And those best efforts usually betray fierce labour as they attempt to do the Gonzo style without being the man who was Gonzo. As I wrote more and more film reviews for InDublin I began to appreciate that reinventing the wheel with snark and wildness each time was not sustainable. So, as I have recounted before, I turned to an earlier mentor, Michael Dwyer. I pored over his 300 review in an effort to understand how it worked, and especially how he could write so many reviews with such apparent ease; given their clarity and simplicity. I adopted my interpretation of his technique as my model.

Initially though the interpolated technique was all structural. It was only over time and ever more reviews for Dublinks.com and Talking Movies that the mature style revealed itself; borrowing a structure from Michael Dwyer had seamlessly led to an Augustan style. Films were reviewed without hyperbole over their strengths or hysteria over their weaknesses. As a result they could be reviewed with astonishing speed; my review of Prometheus took 26 minutes from first keystroke to published post. It wasn’t vitriolic, like so many reviews, it maintained an even keel. But it had taken 5 years to get to the point where that review could be penned in 26 minutes. What one looks for in urbanity is the appearance of effortlessness concealing much effort; the sprezzatura of Castiglione so promulgated by WB Yeats as the ideal of lyric poetry. Which brings us back to James Thurber…

Thurber’s droll story ‘The Bear Who Let It Alone’ concerns a bear that gets too fond of honey mead at the local bar:

He would reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

But our hero sees the error of his ways. He becomes a teetotaller, and a physical fitness freak, and boastful of how the two are connected:

To demonstrate this, he would stand on his head and on his hands and he would turn cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down on the floor, tired by his healthful exercise, and go to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

The simplicity of the gag makes you feel like you always knew it just after you first read it, and of course belies what must have been careful paring and paring by Thurber to get it just right. That is the key. It appears effortless; elegant, graceful, simple; and it took much effort to make it appear so. Thurber was in a contract with himself as much as the reader not to let go of the piece until he’d finely chiselled it to perfection and then polished it to remove all trace of the chisel marks. And it’s that determination to do oneself and others justice that I argue can move urbanity from aesthetics to ethics. To write urbanely is to do more, to be beneficent.

PG Wodehouse once wrote “The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well”. One might advance a similar notion when it comes to urbanity. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s painfully laboured non-apology apology for the Cambridge Analytica flap:

“I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago. But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it”

A billionaire, surrounded by expensive lawyers and media consultants, who can take five days (which I like to imagine were spent brainstorming on a luxury houseboat moored in the dead centre of Lake Tahoe), to write and/or approve something as inelegant as that italicised sentence… Well, I opine, in identical manner to the man who cheats at golf, a man capable of writing like that is capable of anything.

John McGahern is the endpoint of the notion of urbanity as an ethical goal. His description of fictional Leitrim farmer (and, as Graham Price persuasively has it, dandy) Jamesie sitting in Ruttledge’s passenger seat on their way to the market I have characterised in my Irish University Review article ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ as a Stoic benediction: “He praised where he could, but most people were allowed their space without praise or blame in a gesture of hands that assigned his life and theirs to their own parts in this inexhaustible journey”. That may be the ideal of urbanity I wish for in journalism. How it got muddled together with Thurber’s New Yorker drollness in my head is a puzzler, but there it is. Socrates said that nobody would willingly commit evil. An evil-doer is in possession of imperfect information. Nobody sets out to write badly, paint badly, compose badly, or to direct a bad film. In reviewing one should try to nudge where possible, and always offer solutions when identifying problems. One should only eviscerate if something is positively harmful, and even then try to do it with a light touch. A bad review done with urbanity is a judo flip. Identify what is obnoxious, and, if possible; and it is surprisingly often possible; see how the work can be read against itself, so that it is condemned out of its own mouth.

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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.

March 25, 2016

Reflect. Remember. Reimagine. … … Celebrate?

On New Year’s Eve I posted a lengthy piece on my misgivings about how 1916 was being handled, and now with a Luas strike timed to disrupt the commemoration things have turned out even worse than I feared.

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The official tagline for marking the centenary of the Rising is ‘Reflect. Remember. Reimagine.’ It took me a while to figure out what sounded off about that. ‘Reflect’ seemed odd from the get-go, because it put me in mind of RTE’s Angelus visuals; the idea of people actually praying is verboten, so instead people stare off into the middle distance like so many Ingmar Bergman characters. The Irish Times and RTE do enough navel-gazing as it is, we don’t need as a nation to start ‘reflecting’ about 1916; indeed it encourages passivity, rather than activity – the endless refrain of ‘Oh, isn’t X awful, how can the Rising have be said to have fulfilled its promise?’ needs to be answered a bit more with a sharp ‘So, what do you plan to do about X, beyond using it as a rhetorical gambit?’ ‘Remember’ seemed odd, yet also oddly familiar. Then it hit me, ‘The Nation Remembers’, every year at the Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Sunday. What on earth are we doing remembering? Do the French remember Bastille Day? Do the Americans remember the 4th of July? Or could they be more correctly characterised as celebrating? By all means if you lost millions of men to a war that was not quite the ‘great war for civilisation’ that the medal given to Robert Fisk’s father had it. But if you kickstarted an end to monarchy and colonialism then you celebrate; just ask the Americans if they feel the need to solemnly reflect on and somberly remember Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration. ‘Reimagine’ meanwhile sees RTE recast 1916, in a jaw-dropping cinema advert, as an event that jumps straight to its logical conclusions: Mary Robinson’s election, the Good Friday Agreement, and Panti winning a referendum. History, once its got that embarrassing patriotic glitch out of the way, literally starting in 1990 with the election of the first Labour President, the prelude to Labour’s signature referendum, is beyond a parody of the Labour party’s self-serving narrative of Irish progress. History qua history is to be glossed over to get to the glorious present, all of a piece with the downgrading of history in schools, and above all we must never actually place 1916 in the sort of context Ronan Fanning does in Fatal Path – actual history.

Celebrating the Rising is something that’s not acceptable, apparently. We must wring our hands, not set off fireworks. And so we come to a moment, where patriotism has been so deliberately discredited that the Luas drivers are prepared to destroy a once in a century event in a manner that would have been unthinkable for MTA workers in 1976 during the American bicentennial. SIPTU have been only too happy to cloak themselves in the garb of James Connolly of late, but it’s to be doubted that a man who gave his life for Ireland would endorse the galling obliviousness of their posturing: “The proposal itself contains a very, very regressive concept, which is the idea that the people who are recruited between now and when the Luas extension is ready to go, that they would be paid on a new entry lower rate – which is considerably lower than the lowest rate which applies to workers when they join the company at the moment and this is a concept which has been objected to strenuously.” It is to be applauded that Jack O’Connor has finally realised that this concept is regressive, not to say abhorrent. Perhaps now, instead of trying to traduce the 1916 centenary and the best public transport operation in the country, he might share his misgivings with his friends across the union movement who spent the last 5 years mercilessly pulling up the ladder on new entrants to protect their own privileges.

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave”

December 31, 2015

‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ published in Irish Studies Review

I’m pleased to belatedly report that my essay ‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ has been published in a special issue of the Irish Studies Review edited by Catherine Wilsdon and Giulia Bruni.

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G.K. Chesterton’s 1936 Autobiography affectionately re-creates his first meetings with W.B. Yeats, whose critical thought Chesterton parsed in his 1905 book Heretics. Chesterton was dubious about Yeats’s occultism, but attracted by the Irish Revival’s linking of cultural reawakening with small-scale economic independence. His criticism of Yeats’s linking of nationalism and mysticism anticipates Benedict Anderson’s seminal theorising of nationalism. P.J. Mathews’s Revival locates texts in the context of separatist agitation against Joseph Chamberlain’s Boer War. Chesterton’s 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill can be read as a parallel text, explicitly rebutting Chamberlain’s imperialist philosophy, but also repurposing elements of Yeats’s critique of Matthew Arnold’s Celt/Teuton cultural binaries for application to English classes. Declan Kiberd’s idea that Wilde exposed England as deeply colonised by the British Empire usefully situates Notting Hill‘s anti-imperialism. Chesterton grants the English populace the Hellenistic spontaneity of consciousness Arnold denied them, and sets forth a vision of English nationalism that even contains a critique of Anderson’s “official nationalism”. Notting Hill‘s politico-cultural revolution, led by Wayne, a poet-warrior, and Turnbull, a visionary shop-keeper, defeats the forces of imperialist politics, plutocratic economics, and empiricist philistinism, and acts as an English parallel in its concerns to Yeats’s decolonising process.

1916 without 1916

By now we’ve all seen the Government’s video about the 1916 Rising that somehow forgets the Rising. I’m not sure I’ve seen something so straight-facedly absurd since Brad Dourif preached “The Church of Christ … without Christ” in Wise Blood.

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From the suggestively chosen imagery it’s tempting to conclude (apropos of Interstellar) that we’re commemorating when David Cameron, Ian Paisley, and Queen Elizabeth II travelled back via a handily placed wormhole to Dublin 1916 in order to ensure a docklands fit for Google and Facebook to live in. Sadly the truth is less imaginative, and depressing; because this fiasco was entirely predictable. The Proclamation being rendered as Gaeilge via Google Translate was a perfect statement of intent. Nobody cared enough to flag that it ought to be double-checked before it went live. It is unthinkable that in 2004 a Polish text could have been given such haphazard treatment while our government was hosting the EU’s big expansion into Eastern Europe; Bertie Ahern cared deeply about that Farmleigh event. It is unthinkable that a German would text would not be excruciatingly parsed if Angela Merkel were to visit next week; because Enda Kenny would care deeply about such a visit. But for the literal genesis of our political consciousness as a modern state? To appropriate the current Rabobank ad’s stylings: “Any translation” “Any translation?” “Any translation…” That attitude expresses a political weltanschauung: Labour gives the distinct impression of being embarrassed by our Constitution; which Eamon Gilmore liked to dub outdated (ignore the awkward fact the Americans are still using their 1780s constitutional settlement); and Fine Gael, despite their self-definition (as Pat Leahy has put it) as the party of “Law and Order. Law’n’Order and the Foundation of the State!”, are ashamed of 1916 – which is to primarily be remembered, whereas they celebrated the 75th anniversary of winning the Civil War…

Labour’s Aodhán O’Ríordáin, while insisting that the video was a preview of what the entirety of 2016 would be like (apparently a never-ending bacchanalia of Macnas and BOD coming out of retirement to score tries), offered a non-apology apology: “If we got it wrong, we got it wrong and we should look at something else.” (If? If?? IF?! Yes, ye got it wrong. This has been made abundantly clear by now, so lose the “if”.) He went on to offer the official version of the mindset behind the video: “The point is that we’re trying not to present a very stiff and stale and unimaginative and cold depiction of what happened 100 years ago, which can almost turn some people off immediately.” Maybe he sincerely believes this, maybe not; to my mind this defeatist insistence that marking the events of 100 years ago is impossible because it’s all deathly dull so let’s just talk about the Queen’s visit in 2011 is a disingenuous cover for the fact that it is the government itself who are the people turned off immediately by the idea of celebrating 1916. The BBC spent 2014 producing radio and television documentaries and fictional serials about WWI. If you could watch 37 Days’ dramatisation of the failed diplomacy of July 1914 and find it very stiff, stale, unimaginative, and cold, then the problem lies not with history or its recreation but with you. If you could watch Niall Ferguson’s provocative arguing for WWI being a mistake and the hostile reaction of his academic audience and find it very stiff, stale, unimaginative, and cold then presumably you find newspapers insupportable because they’re about events from distant yesterday. It is telling that the video’s themes; Remember, Reconcile, Imagine, Present, Celebrate; visually remove ‘celebration’ from the revolutionary past…

The video’s visual cues for ‘remember’, ‘reconcile’, and ‘imagine’ taken together imply sorrow for having had the bad taste to rebel against Britain, and a desire to plot how to go forward together. As approaches to celebrating a country’s independence from its colonial masters go it’s got the merit of originality. But it cannot go uncontested. How does marking 1916 by mentioning Ian Paisley and not Padraig Pearse make sense? How is it even acceptable to prioritise, over a man who gave up his life as a blood sacrifice (of the type Rupert Brooke valorised) to start a fire whose flame would burn a hole in the map of the British Empire, a man who became a big avuncular bear once he’d made it to the top of the greasy pole having first done considerable damage in his life-long climb to the top in his capacity as venomous firebrand? (When Seamus Mallon dubbed the Good Friday Agreement ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’ who did he have in mind?) I have walked some of the battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front, where Irish and British soldiers died together in 1914, and remembered them. It does not preclude me from celebrating 1916.

French historian Francois Furet rescued 1789 from the grasp of communists who wanted to make it a proto-1917, by instead inflecting 1917 as the culmination of 1793’s Terror; and the Terror as the betrayal of the Revolution. Terence Brown has argued that Kevin Whelan’s The Tree of Liberty was vital in allowing 1798 to be celebrated here as a good thing, instead of mumbling embarrassedly about it. We need something of the same now. It doesn’t matter that we’re an indebted country who’ve signed away our sovereignty to the Troika. America in 1976 was hardly in a wonderful state. Vietnam, Inflation, Watergate, Roe V Wade: if ever a country was having a crisis of confidence and identity it was America then. And they still pulled off a celebratory bicentennial instead of sitting around bemoaning lost opportunities and how the Brits would have given them parliamentary representation if they’d just waited longer…

The government’s video suggests that we celebrate the future, and take inspiration from … whatever. That’s completely wrong, but completely in character. We should celebrate the past, and be inspired by it. We should not look back at 1916 and be embarrassed by it, we should look back at 1916 and be embarrassed by ourselves. We need to mark 2016 as a combination of July the 4th and Gettysburg. It is both a cause for celebration, and a time for serious discussion. And if there’s anything in our national poet’s complicated canon that best sums up conflicted Irish identities in a triumphal way it’s this watchword for the coming centenary year:

“Sing the peasantry, and then

Hard-riding country gentlemen,

The holiness of monks, and after

Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;

Sing the lords and ladies gay

That were beaten into the clay

Through seven heroic centuries;

Cast your mind on other days

That we in coming days may be

Still the indomitable Irishry.”

November 10, 2015

An Alternative Abbey 2016 Programme

I’d been waiting for the Abbey’s new season, and was disappointed by it. I didn’t think much of their commission choices, and felt their other selections betrayed a peculiarly apologetic and almost self-loathing attitude towards a celebration of our independence. So I thought about what I might have programmed instead…

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Here are the essentials of the Abbey’s 2016 programme to September:

 

*Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland

(dir: Vicky Featherstone)

The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey

(dir: Sean Holmes)

*New Middle East by Mutaz Abu Saleh

(dir: Bashar Murkus)

*Tina’s Idea of Fun by Sean P Summers

(dir: Gerry Stembridge)

Othello by William Shakespeare

(dir: Joe Dowling)

*Town is Dead by Philip McMahon & Ray Scannell

(dir: TBC)

The Wake by Tom Murphy

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness

(dir: Jeremy Herrin)

 

Here are the essentials of my alternative Abbey 2016 programme:

 

*Commissioned Work by Mark O’Rowe

(dir: Mark O’Rowe)

John Bull’s Other Island by George Bernard Shaw

(dir: Roisin McBrinn)

*Not I by Samuel Beckett, Play by Samuel Beckett, On Baile’s Strand by WB Yeats, Riders to the Sea by JM Synge

(dir: Annie Ryan)

*Delirium by Enda Walsh

(dir: Conall Morrison)

Making History by Brian Friel

(dir: Patrick Mason)

*The Effect by Lucy Prebble

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

Commissioned Work by Marina Carr

(dir: Selina Cartmell)

The Wake by Tom Murphy

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

 

*Plays marked with an asterisk are on the Peacock stage.

This alternative programme is of course a fantasy, because it takes no account of the availability of directors and playwrights, but it does utilise people who have done fine work at the Abbey in recent years. It commissions new plays from two of our finest playwrights, Mark O’Rowe and Marina Carr, and gives Enda Walsh’s exuberant Dostoevsky adaptation from 2008 the chance of a subtler interpretation. The Shavian elephant in the room is finally tackled, and what better time for Shaw’s exuberant interrogation of our capacity for self-government? The late Brian Friel is honoured with a timely production of his exploration of exile and myth-making in Irish history, while Tom Murphy’s more recent dissection of exile and return ends the summer season. The Abbey’s fullest spectrum is utilised: Revival classics are paired with two of Beckett’s trickiest works, and Comyn returns to her beginnings in directing a contemporary English play.

The Abbey perhaps stands at an odd angle to 1916. It is after all a national theatre older than its politically constituted nation, led in its early days by Anglo-Irish writers with a gift for enraging their Irish audience, and its seminal engagement with the decade of revolution was by a writer whose corrosive scepticism spared no institution. The Plough and the Stars is the obvious choice for marking the Rising, perhaps too obvious a choice. It has been staged too frequently to too little effect in the last decade to be wheeled out once again to throw cold water over Pearse’s dream. Not least when Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme is deliberately programmed against it, as if we’re apologising to Unionists for rebelling when we could have been nobly dying for the British Empire instead. As for Othello, one quote deployed by Haughey does not a state of the nation play make. Serious engagement with Shakespeare’s quatercentenary would be a post-colonial take on The Tempest.

1916 is to be celebrated like 1776 or 1789, not apologised for, agonised over, or disparaged. The only way to discuss a programme of plays is to parse it qualitatively play by play, because that’s how people choose to go to the theatre: play by play, depending on their particular artistic cost-benefit analysis of the actors, the playwright, the director, and the subject matter. I’ve felt compelled in disliking so many of the Abbey’s individual picks to present an alternative programme of plays. Consonant with my banishing O’Casey I say there’s little use tearing down everything and building up nothing.

August 4, 2015

Dublin Theatre Festival: 12 Plays

Tickets go on sale for the 2015 Dublin Theatre Festival at 10:00am Wednesday August 12th. Here are 12 shows to keep an eye on.

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The Night Alive 22nd September – October 4th Gaiety

Trailing clouds of glory from Broadway does Conor McPherson come. His new play, a co-production with Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, stars Adrian Dunbar and Kate Stanley Brennan as damaged souls beginning a tentative romance in the dodgy-geezer-land of Dublin that McPherson has made his own. Laurence Kinlan and Ian-Lloyd Anderson lead the supporting cast, and while tickets have been on sale for a while, some seats are still available.

Bailed Out! 23rd September – 4th October Pavilion

In case you’re not depressed enough by the ongoing farce in Leinster House you can soon head to Dun Laoghaire to see Colin Murphy’s follow-up to Guaranteed; an unlikely hit that ended up being filmed. Rough Magic regular Peter Daly and others bring to life, under Conall Morrison’s direction, official documents and unguarded interviews revealing how Ireland was troika’d. But, pace Fintan O’Toole, can documentation as agit-prop achieve anything?

At the Ford 23rd September – 3rd October New Theatre

Political ruminations of a fictional stripe will occupy the intimate surroundings of the New Theatre. Aonghus Og McAnally and rising star Ian Toner headline Gavin Kostick’s new play about a family coming apart at the seams as they struggle with the future of their business dynasty. Said dynasty imploding because of the sins of the father, so we’re promised critical analysis of Celtic Tiger via Celtic mythology.

Oedipus 24th September – 31st October Abbey

Sophocles’ resonant tragedy returns to the Abbey, but not in WB Yeats 1926 text or Robert Fagles’ spare translation. It’s a new version by director Wayne Jordan, who casts his Twelfth Night’s Barry John O’Connor as the Theban King. The great Fiona Bell plays Oedipus’ wife Jocasta, but after Spinning that doesn’t reassure, especially as Jordan’s directorial failings (especially leaden pacing and poor staging) have become embedded through critical praise.

A View from the Bridge 24th September – 10th October Gate

Joe Dowling returns from his long exile in Minneapolis to direct Arthur Miller’s 1955 classic. Chicago actor Scott Aiello plays Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman in Brooklyn who shelters illegals Marco (Peter Coonan) and Rodolpho (Joey Phillips), but when Eddie’s niece Catherine (Lauren Coe) falls for Rodolpho jealousy and betrayal loom. Dowling’s 2003 production of All My Sons was typically solid, and this should be equally polished.

Star of the Sea 24th September – 26th September Draiocht

Joseph O’Connor’s 2004 best-seller belatedly comes to town. This was a sell-out hit at last year’s Galway Arts Festival, and has just three performances at the theatre festival as part of a nationwide tour. This racy production is ‘freely adapted’ from O’Connor’s tale of lust and murder on a famine ship fleeing to America, in Moonfish’s Theatre trademark bilingual approach of performing in English and as Gaeilge.

Dancing at Lughnasa - credit Chris Heaney 800x400

Hooked! 25th September – 10th October Various

Director Don Wycherley’s apparently become the go-to guy for the festival for touring theatre productions about whimsical goings on in the Irish countryside. This is a three-hander about a Dublin woman (Seana Kerslake) who moves to the country and rubs her neighbours (Tina Kellegher, Steve Blount) up the wrong way. Hilarity ensues. Secrets and lies are laid bare. A bit of comedy, a bit of menace, in four different venues.

The Last Hotel 27th September – 3rd October O’Reilly Theatre

Enda Walsh has written an opera! Music by Donnacha Dennehy is performed by the Crash Ensemble and the singers are led by star soprano Claudia Boyle, who starred in Mahoganny last year. The production team is that which brought us the demented Ballyturk, and Mikel Murfi even appears in a plot revolving around a man cleaning a blood-soaked hotel room and a couple fighting in a car-park.

The Train 6th October – 11th October Project Arts Centre

Well, here’s a gamble and a half. Rough Magic premiere a musical: book by Arthur Riordan, direction by Lynne Parker, music by Bill (Riverdance) Whelan. Previous Rough Magic musical Improbable Frequency was a hoot, but DTF plays with music Phaedra and Peer Gynt were deeply unsatisfying. This could implode, especially as the subject; importing contraceptives on a 1971 train; seems tailor-made for ‘liberals backslapping each other’ smugness.

Dancing at Lughnasa 6th October – 11th October Gaiety

25 years ago Friel’s masterpiece premiered at the theatre festival, and director Annabelle Comyn brings her Lyric production to the Gaiety to mark the occasion. Comyn’s regular design team are on hand to revive the bittersweet story of the Mundy sisters (Catherine Cusack, Cara Kelly, Mary Murray, Catherine McCormack, Vanessa Emme) with Declan Conlon as their returned brother. Comyn excels at blocking large casts so the dance entices…

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time 6th October – 10th October Grand Canal

Tickets are becoming scarce for this flagship import from London’s National Theatre. Mark Haddon’s book was a masterful exercise in disguising almost total lack of substance behind flashy style, and writer Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott deploy every theatrical bell and whistle going to recreate the sleuthing mind of an autistic teenager, but can they add substance to the source?

The Cherry Orchard 7th October – October 10th O’Reilly Theatre

You haven’t experienced Chekhov till you’ve heard him in the original French. Ahem. Belgian collective tg STAN take on Chekhov’s final elegiac play, an obvious influence on Tom Murphy’s The House; as a peasant’s cunning sees him rise up to supplant the decaying aristocracy, then lament over the genteel way of life he destroyed. Playing straight through for 2 hours without an interval we’re promised unfussy intensity.

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.

June 25, 2014

Aristocrats

Director Patrick Mason returns to the Abbey for a new production of 1979’s Aristocrats, Brian Friel’s Chekhovian study of a Catholic Big House in decline.

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The peculiarity of Ballybeg in having a Catholic Big House has attracted Chicagoan academic Tom Hoffnung (Philip Judge). As he researches the history of the well-to-do O’Donnell family since 1829, he is privy to gossip from helpful local fixer Willie Diver (Rory Nolan). Willie is devoted to the eldest daughter Judith (Cathy Belton), whose life is now spent caring for her invalided father (John Kavanagh) and the eccentric Uncle George (Bosco Hogan). Tom’s visit is peculiarly opportune for getting family gossip as youngest daughter Claire (Jane McGrath) is getting married, and so middle daughter Alice (Rebecca O’Mara) and oddball son Casimir (Tadhg Murphy) have returned to the fold. However, while Casimir has left wife Helga in Hamburg, Alice has brought acerbic husband Eamon (Keith McErlean). And Eamon is a truth-teller when it comes to his peasantry and the O’Donnell gentry…

Uncle George who shuffles about silently avoiding people is a character straight out of Chekhov. But Aristocrats, while it has some very funny moments (not least imaginary croquet), is primarily a very sad play. Judith’s speech about how she manages to be ‘almost happy’ within a strict routine of servitude, which she does not want disturbed, is made all the more heart-breaking by the ingratitude of her stroke-stricken father; who continually refers to Judith’s great betrayal, unaware that it is she who tends to him. Casimir’s relating how his father told him his eccentricities could be absorbed in the Big House whereas he would be the village idiot in Ballybeg is equally distressing as it has led him to narrowing his life to avoid pillory. And, in Sinead McKenna’s evocative lighting design, behind everything – Judith’s past role in the Troubles.

Francis O’Connor’s set, a detailed drawing room with abstracted staircases and doors behind it and an imaginary wall to a lawn, strikes a balance between verisimilitude and artifice that my sometime co-writer John Healy pointed out to me was reflected in the acting styles; naturalistic for the ‘native peasantry’ Willie and Eamon, more mannered for the self-conscious gentry in decline – especially Alice’s performative alcoholism and Casimir’s apologetic tics. The set also reflects Friel’s concern with the ghostly technology; absent daughter Anna (Ruth McGill) can record a message, Father’s rantings can be relayed downstairs. Catherine Fay’s 1970s costumes (especially for Alice and Willie) are impeccable, while Mason lives up to Eamon’s programmatic ‘This has always been a house of reticence, of things left unspoken’ by offering muted hints that Eamon fathered Judith’s child, and that Eamon and Alice will be happy.

My fellow academic Graham Price would no doubt note the contrast between McGahern’s vision of the Big House; a place of learning; and Friel’s vision; a place where objects are named after Chesterton, Hopkins and Yeats, but it is severely doubtful that the self-absorbed status-conscious O’Donnells who did so ever emulated their intellectual curiosity.

3.5/5

Aristocrats continues its run at the Abbey until the 2nd of August.

July 27, 2012

A Thought of Sligo: Yeats on Film @ Tread Softly…

Tread Softly… (www.seasonofyeats.com) is the inaugural festival celebrating the link between the Yeats brothers, William Butler and Jack B, and Sligo. Featuring a mix of theatre, music, film, readings and visual art the festival runs from the 29th of July to the 11th of August.The film strand comprises of three separate elements which will be screened at The Model in Sligo throughout the course of the festival. Featuring collaborations between visual artists and musicians, as well as intriguing theatre and readings, the festival will also host a vintage day where the whole of Sligo town will come out dressed in Edwardian style. The festival will welcome some amazing talent to Sligo for 10 days of high summer, including musicians from Kíla and Dervish as well as The Waterboys who recently released An Appointment with Mr Yeats, an acclaimed album of interpretations of various poems by WB. Writers such as Nobel laureate poet Seamus Heaney, Solace novelist Belinda McKeon, and versatile writer and Waterboys collaborator Brian Leyden, will also to help celebrate Sligo’s artistic heritage.
 Film Listings:

Date: Sunday 29th July, Sunday 5th August.Venue: The Model, The Mall, Sligo.

Time: 4pm Tickets: €4

Soul of Ireland, Sean O’Mordha’s two-part 2007 documentary telling the story of the evolution and development of landscape painting in Ireland through the experience of six living artists: Sean McSweeney, Barrie Cooke, James O’Connor, Mary Lohan, Martin Gale and Dorothy Cross. Each part is 52 minutes and there is a 15-minute break between the first and second part.

Date: Wednesday 1st August, Wednesday 8th August.

Venue: The Model, The Mall, Sligo.

Time: 6pm Tickets: €4

A series of short films including the Oscar-nominated and Golden Bear-winning documentary Yeats Country (1965) directed by Patrick Carey. Also included are Bat Eyes, the beautifully made Australian finalist in this year’s YouTube short film competition, which revolves around Yeats’ poem ‘When You Are Old and Grey’, and archive footage of Yeats in Stockholm accepting his Nobel Prize for Literature (1923), and of his funeral in Sligo at Drumcliff Churchyard (1948). Sinead Dolan’s short film Sligo, Yeats and Me; which explores the relationship between ordinary Sligo people, young and old, and W.B. Yeats’ poetry; rounds off this hour long programme.

Date: Friday 3rd August, Friday 10th August.

Venue: The Model, The Mall, Sligo.

Time: 6pm Tickets: €4

Another programme of short films connected with the Yeats family. The Art of Ireland (1950s) produced by Brian O’Doherty, who was a friend of Jack Yeats, traces the development of visual art and architecture in Ireland over 20 minutes. W.B.Yeats – A Tribute (1950) is a 21 minute a film by George Fleishmann and J.D. Sheridan in which readings of WB Yeats’ poems are set to striking visuals of the Sligo countryside, Dublin and London.

Tread Softly… is an initiative of Blue Raincoat Theatre, The Hawk’s Well Theatre, The Model and Sligo Live. Bookings can be made at Hawk’s Well Theatre, Temple Street, Sligo (www.hawkswell.com)  and for more festival information contact Sligo Tourist Office, O’Connell Street, Sligo (+353 71 9161201).

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