Talking Movies

April 29, 2020

Any Other Business: Part LI

As the title suggests, so forth.

“It’s mandatory advisory, but it’s not compulsory”

And we’re back to this unloved Fine Gael gibberish again. Leo Varadkar, who’d like to remind you a few more times that he’s a medical doctor, thinks the science is uncertain when it comes to masks. It is not. The Atlantic tried to disentangle the miasma of confusion and scepticism around wearing a face mask. For some baffling reason it’s being led by the WHO, one hopes not simply for political reasons to avoid agreeing with Taiwan. There are two distinct concepts here that are endlessly conflated – ingress and egress. To prevent oneself getting infected you need medical-grade PPE, but to stop oneself infecting everyone else you simply need a cotton bandanna. A cotton mask will reduce virus particles emitted from your mouth by 99%, quite obviously reducing your chances of infecting anyone. “Models show that if 80% of people wear masks that are 60% effective, easily achievable with cloth, we can get to an effective R0 of less than one. That’s enough to halt the spread of the disease”. Sure, there are other factors at play, like social distancing and demographics, but “in every region that has adopted widespread mask-wearing, case and death rates have been reduced within a few weeks”. So the science here is uncertain in the same sense that George Bush Jr used to insist the science was uncertain on global warming. But whatever, just advise people to wear masks, and then watch so many Mike Pences float about the place boasting “I’m not infected”, oblivious to the fact that you can be infected after taking a test clearing you, the virus takes days to manifest, and you can be asymptomatic.

 

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time

We are now well into the fifth week of Status Burgundy lockdown. It is clear that the ‘caretaker’ government is softening us up by leak after leak for an extension for another 2 weeks, and adding insult to injury by blaming it on our complacency over social distancing rather than their strategic blindness over nursing homes being an obvious locus for COVID-19. But given the hysteria over policing this Bank Holiday does anyone seriously think that we will not be in lockdown for the June Bank Holiday too? Come Friday, Varadkar and Harris will trot out and regretfully inform us that because we got complacent, and our lax social distancing (inexplicably) caused a spike in transmission in nursing homes, that we will have to do penance for another two weeks. When those two weeks are nearly up, they will appear again, and announce another two week extension to take the June Bank Holiday out of play, lest all our good work be undone by dispersal to the seaside, and make this seem like a moment of buoyant optimism – this is how we beat COVID-19, can’t you see it? can’t you see it? One might think simply making it mandatory that everybody wear a mask at all times might allow us out of this national house arrest of not being allowed stray further than 2km on foot. One might equally think that a government clearly rejected by the people should not be making such consequential decisions for those people, all the while calling for national unity while openly disdaining 1/4 of voters. One would apparently be wrong on both fronts.

November 20, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXII

As the title suggests, so forth.

star-wars-episode-9-confirmed-cast-and-returning-characters.jpg

“There are now seven different drafts of the speech. The President likes none of them”

With apologies to The West Wing. It’s been pretty entertaining hearing about apparently unbridled panic in private at Disney as they try to fix Star Wars without ever admitting in public that they broke it. Reshoots continuing until within six weeks of release. Test screenings of five cuts of three entirely different endings. These are the rumours, and great fun they are if you checked out of this cash-grab when Han went for coffee and was never seen again as he got into a lively debate about whether he or Greedo shot first with some patrons of the Westeros Starbucks. A particularly entertaining rumour has people shouting abuse at the screen as they attempted to walk out of a test screening after a bold artistic decision. Said bold artistic decision synching up with everything that has gone wrong so far it seems almost plausible. And yet… I half wonder if Disney are faking footage of a mind-blowingly awful finale so that when by contrast a merely bad finale arrives people will be relieved, and forgiving. Call it the old Prince Hal gambit. If this bold artistic decision is actually real, and in the final cut, it constitutes a piece of cultural vandalism that puts one in mind of Thomas Bowdler correcting Shakespeare by giving King Lear the rom-com ending it so clearly needed.

 

Very poor choice of words

I was minding my own business in Dundrum Town Centre the other day when suddenly a large screen started cycling thru shots from the new Charlie’s Angels, before ending with the misguided tagline – ‘Unseen. Undivided. Unstoppable.’ As the Joker aptly put it, very poor choice of words, as indeed Americans have left the movie monumentally unseen. There are a lot of reasons you could proffer about why, but let’s start with the poster. Elizabeth Banks’ name appears THREE TIMES. From Director Elizabeth Banks. Screenplay by Elizabeth Banks. Directed by Elizabeth Banks. ‘From Director…’ usually is accompanied by old hits, like Fincher being dogged by Seven until The Social Network, but not in the case of Banks, for obvious reasons. This is her first credit on a screenplay. This is her second feature as a director. The first was Pitch Perfect 2. Perhaps easing back on the Banks angle might have been wise. Maybe it would have been even wiser to have realised the problem isn’t the poster, it’s the people on it. Kristen Stewart and… two other actresses. Think of the combined star power of Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu in the year 2000 when their Charlie’s Angels was 12th at the North American Box Office for the year. Now look at this poster again and think of the combined star power of Kristen Stewart and effectively two British television actresses. Things get even worse when you see the trailer and it presents Stewart, the star, as effectively being the quirky comic relief to two nobodies. This film needed a poster with Stewart flanked by Emma Stone and Maggie Q to even get to the same starting gate as the Barrymore-Diaz-Liu effort.

Terminator 6 or 24: Day 5?

Terminator: Dark Fate has bombed at the box office, and hopefully this third failed attempt to launch a new trilogy will be the end of that nonsense for the forseeable future. By the grace of God I did not have to review it, but I would have had no compunction in mentioning its opening shock while doing so. One of the frustrations of reviewing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was that the ending by dint of being the ending was considered unmentionable by good manners, even though it was an ending which made pigswill of much of the entire movie and it seemed Tarantino was deliberately taking advantage of such good manners in an act of tremendous bad faith. However, Terminator 6 in the opening minutes made an artistic decision that, once I had heard it as a rumour, struck me as entirely plausible given its similarity to the equally obnoxious opening of 24: Day 5. Denis Haysbert famously refused to return as President Palmer just to be killed off after mere seconds in the opening scene as a shock to launch the season until he was guilt-tripped into it by being told the entire season had been written around it. In retrospect he says he should have held out. That decision, to kill Palmer, was indicative of how Day 5 was going to lose its way to the point that I simply stopped watching; abandoning a show I had loved from its first episode on BBC 2 in 2002. The end of 24: Day 4, with Jack walking away into a hopeful sunrise after a phone call of mutual respect with President Palmer, was the perfect ending, for both those characters and for the show. But then the show had to keep going because money, so those character arcs were ruined, and, indeed, Day 1 of 24 (saving Palmer from assassination) became a complete and utter waste of time, and all emotional investment in his character over subsequent seasons was also a waste of time. Bringing back young Edward Furlong in CGI just to kill him off in the opening minutes of Terminator 6 was equally bone-headed. Suddenly the first two Terminator movies, the classics, were now a complete and utter waste of time. The last minutes of Terminator 2, which must rank among the greatest endings in cinema, were old hat to the eejits behind Terminator 6. If you want to make a mark on something you’re new to, it’s inadvisable to wildly antagonise all the fans who are the reason there is something for you to be a new writer or director to in the first place. If you want to create new and exciting characters, you have to write new and exciting characters, not just kill off important and beloved characters as if that magically and automatically made your new ciphers equally important and beloved. Tim Miller and Manny Coto. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.

Music based on themes originally whistled by…

To return to the catastrophic egomania of Elizabeth Banks you wonder if the situation was always doomed with her as director/producer of if a decent screenplay that she couldn’t have screwed up too badly could have been wrung from her pitch had she not donned that hat too, taking it upon herself to rewrite the shooting screenplay as her first ever screenwriting credit. The upcoming Harley Quinn movie is a paragon of the absurd idea that only women can now write for women. (As a corollary Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers would no doubt be surprised to find their creations Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey cancelled for the sake of consistency.) But even if you grant that absurd premise it doesn’t follow that this particular woman ought to write Charlie’s Angels. Off the top of my head I can think of seven screenwriters whose work I have enjoyed greatly over the years who might have done a splendid job had Banks stopped hiring herself for every job: Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Moira Kirland, Melissa Rosenberg, Stephanie Savage, Diane Ruggiero. It might be objected that their experience is largely on the small screen. Yes, it is. But Banks had no writing credits on any screen.

October 16, 2019

Hamlet

Director Geoff O’Keeffe presents his second production of Leaving Cert staple Hamlet in three years at the Mill Theatre Dundrum.

“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King”

Prince Hamlet (Kyle Hixon) is in mourning for his father, Old Hamlet. But the rest of the Danish court is celebrating as Old Hamlet’s brother Claudius (Gerard Byrne) has succeeded not only to the throne, but also to the royal bed, unexpectedly marrying the widowed Queen Gertrude (Caoilfhionn McDonnell). But Hamlet’s isolated mourning turns to bloody thoughts of vengeance when his friend Horatio (Harry Butler) reveals that Old Hamlet’s ghost has been haunting the battlements of Elsinore, and the ghost unmasks Claudius as a murderous usurper. As Hamlet feigns madness to better hatch his revenge, the guilt-ridden Claudius seeks the aid of foppish counsellor Polonius (Malcolm Adams), whose children Ophelia (Laoise Sweeney) and Laertes (Felix Brown) will become tragically ensnared in the mayhem that consumes the court, as will Hamlet’s untrustworthy university friends Rosencrantz (Jack Mullarkey) and Guildenstern (Rachel O’Connell).

There is an odd quality of déjà vu when the same director tackles the same play again so soon. 2016’s Claudius, Neill Fleming, appears in three minor roles as does the Laertes of that production, Matthew O’Brien. The pair bring some hi-viz vest business to grave-digging as well as doing a questionably saucy mime of the Murder of Gonzago to the strains of the Arctic Monkeys. Similarly attention-grabbing doubling occurs with Mullarkey and O’Connell as a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who, clad in red and green hoodies and leather jackets, project an oddly Bill & Ted vibe, while as Bernardo and Marcellus they are unrecognisable in flak vests and helmets, wringing an unexpected laugh from Horatio’s careless line next to two jumpy soldiers with rifles. O’Keeffe reprises a conceit, having Byrne play both Claudius and Old Hamlet, using Declan Brennan’s video projection to allow a shaven Byrne loom over proceedings while a hirsute Byrne stalks the stage as the surviving brother.

Byrne, however, is not a revelatory Claudius as Fleming was in 2016, a synecdoche of this production’s reined in ambitions, which extends even to the set design of Gerard Bourke utilising a smaller than usual playing space dominated by a platform and ramp. Likewise a solid Hixon does not emulate Shane O’Regan’s physical Hamlet; his is a subdued performance that blooms after the interval when he mines the black comedy of the madness. Hixon and Byrne often seem oddly rushed in their delivery, which draws attention to the more measured verse of House Polonius: Sweeney is an Ophelia of unusual tragic gravitas in her madness, Brown a charismatic Laertes, and Adams very entertaining as a self-regarding man in a spiffy three-piece suit, whose ritual platitudes are so familiar his children can finish them for him. The interval at 90 minutes could come earlier, but it then gallops to the finish.

This Hamlet becomes more sure-footed after the interval, but while it is always engaging it lacks the notes of unusual interest we have to come expect from these productions.

3/5

Hamlet continues its run at the Mill Theatre Dundrum until the 25th of October.

September 27, 2019

What the Hell is … An Objective Correlative?

I’m interested both in the origin of the term and its usage now, both actual and potential, and the difference between the two…

TS Eliot coined the term ‘objective correlative’ in his infamous critical essay ‘Hamlet and His Problems’ to describe an ideal objectivity that the artist would achieve between the impulse to create and the finished work of art.

More specifically, suppose that a dramatist wishes to write a play about war, having served in a war. Eliot would instantly insist that the dramatist distance themselves from what they’re proposing to create, for the play to have any value it must speak to people who have not been in a war, the playwright must find an objective correlative that converts their personal experience into universally accessible art. Eliot’s essay is infamous because in it he denied Hamlet masterpiece status because he claimed Shakespeare had been too close to the raw emotion of the loss of his son, to properly explore the theme of father-son grief, and so his play did not find an objective correlative of that emotional state, but was intensely subjective.

Eliot’s audacity is amazing but the same sentiment is found self-reflexively in John McGahern’s preface to the second edition of The Leavetaking: “I had been too close to the ‘Idea’, and the work lacked that distance, that inner formality or calm, that all writing, no matter what it is attempting, must possess.” McGahern thus rewrote the entire first half of his novel because he felt he had been too close emotionally to his subject and that it had been subjective more than it had been objective as art.

I think that objective correlative went from being used by people who’d read Eliot’s essay to other critics who’d only read it in the context of critical writings by those people, to eventually leaping from academia into popular criticism where it was used by people who hadn’t read any of the essays that came before them.

Barack Obama, in his discussion of religion and politics in The Audacity of Hope, invokes an equivalent of TS Eliot’s objective correlative, demonstrating its application not just to art but to any intellectual pursuit in which the subjective and the objective collide. Obama’s argument is that no argument on an emotive issue involving religion and politics can get anywhere if people merely quote Scripture or Thomas Jefferson at each other. What must be done to take the emotive heat out of the argument is to convert subjective religious values into their objective correlative – arguments invoking universal values, which can be accommodated in political discourse without everyone losing their minds.

July 15, 2019

Kate Crackernuts

No Drama Theatre returned to Smock Alley’s main stage with an eccentric fairytale by NYC playwright and screenwriter Sheila Callaghan.

The ever capable Kate (Megan Carter) faces a challenge when her beautiful step-sister Anne (Siobhan Hickey) comes to her with a blanket over her face to hide the fact that her beautiful head has been switched for that of a sheep. Kate’s own mother (Greg Freegrove) is the suspect, but this wicked stepmother may have done it by accident, as the local mystic (Darcy Donnelan) may have got her pickled and enchanted eggs all muddled. A headless sheep (Dave McGovern) is convinced that Anne has got his head, but finds it hard to get an opportunity to just ask for his head back when Kate and Anne fall into the orbit of brothers Paul (Shane Robinson) and Ralph (Daniel O’Brien). The path of true love is not smooth though, Kate needs to wean Paul away from Miss Prima (Sorcha Maguire)…

Callaghan’s play is apparently based on a Scottish fairytale, to which she has added some modern notes. Carter splendidly embodies the no-nonsense nature of Callaghan’s heroine, an early rapid-fire exchange with her sister typical: “What did you eat for breakfast?” “An omelette” “Mother made it?” “Yes” “What she did eat?” “…Cereal” “Ah..” But Callaghan includes a fake happy ending before the more ambiguous real one because this is a fairytale that isn’t interested in simple solutions. Ralph becomes besotted with Anne, sheep’s head and all, but you shouldn’t think of Shakespeare’s Bottom so much as Woody Allen’s EYAWTKAS* (BWATA) Gene Wilder vignette. O’Brien has a scene-stealing monologue on how it’s finally his turn for romance with Anne before hysterically unconcealed disappointment that Anne has got her human head back and therefore lost that furry quality that made her his soul-mate.

The vibrant lights and sound of Dan Donnelly, Suzie Cummins, and Hasan Kamal are very effective in transforming the sparsely furnished stage into a nightclub presided over by Prima. My regular theatre cohort Fiachra MacNamara and I thoroughly disagreed over the meaning of what happened there. I took it as an allegory for drug addiction – that the more Paul, rendered by Robinson almost as a Baz Luhrmann bohemian, fell under the spell of Prima, the further he became detached from his true self, his voice (Ali Keohane). Fiachra took it as an allegory for the dwindling influence over Paul of his dead mother, which is why his voice eventually saved Prima’s neglected Baby (Rahul Dewan), trusting him to Kate. Either interpretation fits the redemptive outcome desired by Paul and Ralph’s widowed father (Greg Freegrove again), a rich but clueless king.

3/5

June 26, 2019

Constructing a Theatrical To-Do List

Repetition has been on my mind lately via the Atlantic, and a morbid awareness of how little time is left to repeat anything courtesy of two people who’ve been mentioned hereabouts before. One had calculated they’d passed the tipping point where they’d now lived for longer than they had left to live. The other declared that they didn’t really re-read books – at 20 a year the odds were against reading another thousand of them. This was followed by a disavowal of angst over picking a thousand worthy books in favour of Jack Reacher whenever in felt right. There will now follow some characteristic angst on my part in which I try to pick not books but worthy plays to attend.

‘[INSERT NUMBER] [INSERT ARTWORKS] To See Before You Die’ books are two a penny, and I’ve fallen into their orbit once by request. But I’ve always found those titles superficially morbid. This piece aspires to be rigorously morbid. I’m not going to furnish a list of plays with blurbs, nor playwrights with blurbs, I’m going to be a bit more practical. Suppose that I have thirty years left of theatre-going. It’s not a bad supposition. I highly doubt that in my sixties I will have the interest, energy or ability to haunt theatres in the way I have in the past few years. It is therefore highly probable that the attendance of these plays will be frontloaded towards the first decade and a half. Suppose that I was to attend six plays a year. At an average price of 30e per play that’s 180e a year, or put another way those six plays have an opportunity cost of seeing 30 films a year for 6e in the Ormonde on Wednesdays.

I find that I have only ever been to twelve Shakespeare plays: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Richard III, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and As You Like It. But I have been to several different productions of several of those titles. That’s half the problem with Shakespeare in Dublin compared to Shakespeare in London, the struggle to get to more than a handful of titles. I have decided for myself thirteen more Shakespeare plays I aspire to see in the theatre, which group nicely as the Henriad, the Romans, and the somewhat comical: Richard II, Henry IV: Parts One and Two, Henry V, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, Love’s Labours’ Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Taming of the Shrew. And I can live with not making it to Troilus & Cressida, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the rest.

And this is before grasping the thorny issue of bad productions… I have seen superlative productions of Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. I consider those Chekhov boxes firmly ticked, leaving only Uncle Vanya and Ivanov to go. But… that the production I saw of The Seagull was less a production of Chekhov than a dumpster fire of an ensemble’s Chekhov scripts. So The Seagull goes out of the inbox and back into the To-Do List. And the same holds true for Shakespeare: Romeo and JulietMeasure for Measure, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and As You Like It all need revisiting to hit upon a production that feels halfway towards being definitive.

October 9, 2018

Richard III

DruidShakespeare finally makes it to the capital having kept the Henriad away, and yes, the wait has been well worth it.

Photo: Robbie Jack

Richard (Aaron Monaghan) has been sent into this world before his time, scarce half made up.  And in a time of peace after the Wars of the Roses he embraces the role of villain. With gusto, informing us of his scheming before he undertakes each deceit. His machinations against his brother Clarence (Marty Rea) are only the beginning of an escalating palace intrigue that will undo Buckingham (Rory Nolan), Hastings (Garrett Lombard), Rivers (Peter Daly), Lady Anne (Siobhan Cullen), and the little Princes in the Tower (Zara Devlin, Siobhan Cullen again), before it brings back a time of war and undoes Richard himself.

This is not a short production but its 150 minutes with interval gallops by so gripping does director Garry Hynes make the action. There are numerous moments throughout that change forever how you will read passages in the text. Whether it be Marty Rea’s incredible turn as Catesby, the fastidious assassin with his ritualised use of a captive bolt gun, or Garrett Lombard’s unexpected and sublime ‘Whoa’ worthy of Keanu Reeves as Hastings suddenly realises that the doors have shut, the extractor fan and fluorescent light has come on, and he’s the only one left on the stage along with Catesby – bogus.

5/5

Richard III continues its run at the Abbey until the 27th of October.

June 17, 2018

Notes on Jurassic World 2

Jurassic World 2, aka Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, certainly is the 800 pound gorilla at the moment. It was playing in the three biggest screens in Movies@Dundrum last night simultaneously. Here are some notes on’t, prepared for Dublin City FM’s breakfast show with the inimitable Patrick Doyle early this morning.

JA Bayona directed 2008 chiller The Orphanage so he knows his way around suspense horror. There is free-floating camera-work that made me dizzy when we follow the shiny new dinosaur Indoraptor. It clambers over the roof and then hangs down over the side to look in a window, and the camera floats with it, behind it, above it, in front of it… There are some delirious moments where characters can’t see dinosaurs just behind them in the shadows, but we keep glimpsing them in flashes of lightning or rains of lava, and so are fully aware there’s a dinosaur sneaking up behind the oblivious characters. Having mentioned shadow though, and aware that Bayona actually used a lot of animatronics, there’s a bit too much CGI vagueness going on. Always be suspicious in a modern creature feature when you end up at night in the rain for your big finale. It’s like Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, they don’t want you to see the monster too well because they have no confidence their graphics are up to snuff.

There’s a lack of crispness about this sequel despite having the same writers, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. They’ve lifted very heavily from the structure of The Lost World. A cold open where people encounter dinosaurs on an island that they are not prepared for. Cut to an old British Person guilt-tripping someone into going to said island to rescue the dinosaurs or something. They meet dodgy mercenary types, and then all hell breaks loose. They bring some dinosaurs back to the mainland, and then all hell breaks loose. They even have Jeff Goldblum for 3 minutes for heaven’s sake because he was in The Lost World. Let us have Goldblum to the full! This is the sort of fear of originality that also bedevilled Star Trek into Darkness with its mirror photocopy routine on Wrath of Khan. Except here, unlike JJ Abrams going big, Bayona goes small, and the dinosaurs don’t run amok in San Diego, they just do it in a stately home. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Bad Times at the Hearst Mansion.

I like The Lost World but why so slavishly follow its exemplar when an even older flaw is apparent? Since Henry IV: Part 2 400 odd years ago sequels have seen characters that went on an arc, reconciled with each other, and looked forward to a happier future together, start the sequel back at each other’s throats, because the writers only knew how to send them on the same character arc, again. Owen and Claire begin the film reset to where they began the last one, and it’s maddening when put beside a wider sense of dissatisfaction. If you read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre at an impressionable age its theory of horror becomes part of your mental architecture: Apollonian order being disrupted by Dionysian chaos until eventually order is re-established. Is it therefore more dramatically satisfying to witness a functioning park descend into chaos like in Jurassic Park and Jurassic World than just have characters walk into existing chaos and get jump-scared constantly? It’s zombies running: it makes it too easy to scare the audience.

I didn’t get to chat about all of these points, but we did cover most of them. Tune into 103.2 FM to hear Patrick Doyle’s breakfast show every Sunday on Dublin City FM, and catch up with his excellent Classical Choice programme on Mixcloud now.

February 15, 2018

Look Back in Anger

The Gate advertise the hell out of their doing John Osborne’s seminal 1956 play, and then refuse on point of principle to actually do it.

Jimmy Porter (Ian Toner) is an angry young man, indeed he is the angry young man. He watched his father die from wounds sustained in the Spanish Civil War, and now despite his college education he finds himself manning a sweet stall down the market, unable to escape his working class roots in this post-war Midlands city despite his formidable, vituperative mental and linguistic agility. His rage against the establishment lashes against his upper-middle-class wife Alison (Clare Dunne), and to a lesser degree their Welsh Irish lodger Cliff (Lloyd Cooney). But when Jimmy eventually pushes Alison too far, a visit from her snobbish friend Helena (Vanessa Emme) sees Alison finally desert her stormy marriage. Only for the damndest thing to happen in the continuing war of contempt, class consciousness, and the desire for a worthy opponent between Jimmy and Helena…

While the audience is coming in the actors amble onto Paul O’Mahony’s curious canted stage of a realistic attic apartment, as a box within the exposed walls of the Gate’s backstage area. Emme reads the stage directions while the others take their places, and Dunne is reluctant to don the particular shirt specified. So far so Brecht, kind of. But then it continues, on and on and on, adding God knows how long to the endless 2 hour 45 minute running time, and for one purpose, so that Alison and Helena can eschew the stated directions, even when they’re emphatically repeated. The female characters, like Taylor Swift, would like to be excluded from this narrative. Which doesn’t do much for the narrative. Jimmy ends on his knees cooing a redemptive moment to nobody, as Alison refuses to follow Osborne’s directions.

I saw Kenneth Branagh star in Osborne’s 1957 play The Entertainer on the West End in 2016. Some sequences were melodramatic, but mostly it was very effective; startlingly so indeed because, despite being about the post-imperial crisis of confidence the Suez crisis amplified, one line drew gasps from the crowd because it seemed about Brexit. I expected director Annabelle Comyn would do something of the same here; pare down Osborne’s text like her lean 2015 Hedda Gabler, and bring out the impotent rage against an aloof establishment that would seem apposite to the Brexit moment. Instead I got leaden pacing, and a bad academic workshop exercise gone rogue. Give me a few days and I can furnish you with a version of Hamlet focused on his abusiveness towards Gertrude and Ophelia. But then we wouldn’t have Hamlet anymore would we?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Homecoming would not exist without this play. When Toner leans into Michael Caine in his characterisation of Porter he unconsciously directs attention to how this play aided the explosion of the working class into British culture in the 1950s and 1960s. In short Osborne’s work deserves a modicum of respect. Instead gags and clues to Porter’s left-wing politics are clipped, so Toner is left in the bizarre, thankless and pointless position of playing a charismatic character who is purposefully being denied laughs or attraction by the disapproving staging, while Tom Lane’s sound design and Chahine Yavroyan’s harsh lighting is used to accentuate the most malicious of his rants, and Alison’s father is no-platformed (with his part being read from a script) because he sympathises with Jimmy’s frustration. Dunne kisses Cooney on the lips far too passionately to deny Osborne’s script its intent, while you suspect Cooney and Emme are being deliberately theatrical in their delivery as a further distancing measure. But why bother?

If you are so contemptuous of this play, and contempt comes washing off the stage in great waves, then for heaven’s sake why are you doing it? Who exactly is forcing Selina Cartmell and Annabelle Comyn to do this (sigh) problematic play? Why not do The Children’s Hour or A Taste of Honey or Oh! What a Lovely War or Our Country’s Good or Blasted or Enron or Posh or The Flick instead? It is odd to prioritise doing a ‘bad’ play by a male playwright over doing a good play by a female playwright. It is odder to ask people to pay 35e to see a play deliberately done poorly because the company wishes to complain about its place in the canon. The Gate is not doing itself any favours with this tedious approach to its commercial stock-in-trade, revivals.

This is easily the worst production I have ever seen at the Gate, and sadly it is also the worst show I have ever seen directed by Comyn.

1/5

Look Back in Anger continues its run at the Gate until the 24th of March.

October 16, 2017

King Lear

The Mill Theatre returns to the Shakespearean well in autumn once again with a spirited production of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy.

Lear (Philip Judge) has decided to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. But, while sycophantic siblings Goneril (Sharon McCoy) and Regan (Maureen O’Connell) flatter him to get their rightful shares, his truth-telling daughter Cordelia (Clodagh Mooney Duggan) refuses to lie or exaggerate, enraging the vain Lear; and her share is thus split between her sisters’ husbands Cornwall (Fiach Kunz) and Albany (Damien Devaney). Cordelia leaves England sans dowry to become the Queen of France, and the steadfast courtier Kent (Matthew O’Brien) is banished for taking her part in the quarrel. He ‘disguises’ himself to serve Lear, while the scheming bastard Edmund (Michael David McKernan) uses the fraught situation to eliminate his legitimate brother Edgar (Tom Moran) from the line of succession to Gloucester (Damien Devaney again); exploiting the political chaos that Lear’s wise Fool (Clodagh Mooney Duggan again) foresaw…

There is a certain Game of Thrones vibe to this production, from Kent’s ‘disguise’ being a Yorkshire swagger, through the furry ruff of Lear’s greatcoat, to the stylised throne amidst three massive complicated spikes making a crown that dominates Gerard Bourke’s set design. This delivers an unexpected visual payoff when near the finale the villainous Edmund sits on the throne to lean on his sword; so close to possessing absolute power… Comparisons to Selina Cartmell’s 2013 Abbey production are inevitable as that trafficked in medieval visuals, but this production is considerably less expansive; no galleries and wolfhounds here. Director Geoff O’Keefe, however, avoids the muddled paganism Cartmell attempted. But, in a play already replete with disguises, he has doubled a number of parts; most startlingly Cordelia and the Fool being the same actress. That bold choice pays off, as do most of the doublings, though there is one silly wig.

O’Keefe doesn’t quite achieve anything as revelatory as Neill Fleming’s Claudius in last year’s Hamlet, but he adds interesting notes to multiple characters. The Fool is the apex of an uncommon commitment to the bawdiness of the play, and when CMD returns as Cordelia she holds a sword almost as a signal that she has been hardened by her exile; which makes her reunion with the mad Lear, when he finally recognises her, all the more tear-jerking. McCoy’s Goneril is more nuanced than the pantomime villain oft presented, her glances at Regan and Cordelia in the opening scene suggest a panicked resort to flattery and encouragement to her sisters to do likewise to humour a mad old man. O’Keefe perhaps overeggs her late asides to the audience being spot-lit, but McCoy grows into villainy impressively; aided by O’Connell’s novel rendering of Regan as daffy malice, and McKernan bringing out the black comedy of their love triangle as an Edmund cut from Richard III’s gloating cloth.

Judge is a notably conversational Lear in his ‘fast intent’ speech; his decision already made there is no need for pomp or majesty. This is a king in flight from majesty. Whereas previous Lears that I have seen, Owen Roe and Gerard Adlum, favoured camp notes for their madness, Judge’s Lear is childish; running, hiding behind benches, playing games with imaginary friends. His retreat from responsibility while wishing to still enjoy kingship is after all a retreat to childishness, and his shocking spit on Goneril is of a part with the spite of children. The madness on the heath is wonderfully achieved with Kris Mooney’s blue lights raking the audience while Declan Brennan’s sound effects swirl queasily. Judge’s descent into second childhood is expressed through sudden rage that almost outstrips language, perhaps the impulse for the sound design of screeching animals between scenes. In support Tom Ronayne is wonderful comic relief as a put upon servant, fussing over benches and defending himself with a cloth.

This is a fine production that has a number of interesting interpretations, and succeeds in pulling off the extreme ending which still remains the ultimate kick in the guts.

3.5/5

King Lear continues its run at the Mill Theatre until the 28th of October.

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