Wednesday, October 01, 2003

REVIEW: Performances (The Gate, Dublin)

Brevity appears the hallmark of Brian Friel's late style. The writer’s most recent plays have tended towards what, if they appeared in the work of Samuel Beckett, would have been labelled "dramaticules". And if ever there were an outing worthy of the term it is Friel's latest, a bare hour of a drama which tapers off into a performance of the final movement of Janácek's Second String Quartet.

Once more Friel is examining the artistic process, uncovering what makes artists do what they do, and reckoning the costs back on earth among the mortals. This time the artist figure is Czech composer, Leos Janácek (Ion Caramitru) who famously enjoyed a relationship with a much younger married woman. Although largely epistolary in substance, for the composer the relationship was, it seems, a crucial one: the woman, Kamilla, was said to have inspired many of the composer's finest works. Friel here sets about exploring her role in Janácek's Second string Quartet.

Anezka (Niamh Linehan) a PhD student researching the artist's work (an overworked plot device that should now be placed under a 50 year moratorium) comes to visit and pose questions. Her questions force the composer to consider once more his life and his work, and the fraught and cryptic relationship of one to the other in a manner that, at times, recalls a Ken Russell movie re-written by a seminary student.

But even Friel seems rather dissatisfied with this humdrum scene and attempts simultaneously to spice, egg and sex things up by framing the stolidly elaborated conversation between researcher and subject as a discussion between the living and the dead.

The playwright lets the setting disintegrate into a sort of dream of a Janácek museum, haunted by the man himself. Designer Joe Vanek’s set dots some hyper-large monochrome photographs and a museum case around a dilapidated space, and the costumes of Caramitru and the members of the Alba String Quartet (who play and have small speaking parts) are of washed-out, ghostly hues.

But no real attempt is made either to explain away the setting, or to establish it as a certainty within the play’s own logic. It's as though real life simply wont hold to the bones of this slight story, so Friel lets it slip away, almost unnoticed.

Performances is a decidedly underpowered, ambling Friel. The writer may be dealing with eternal passions and transcendence through art, but the conflicts here seem musty and forced, already well hashed out in previous Friel plays. Perhaps in the coming years, the academics will enjoy mulling the play and relating it to Friel’s own biography, but audiences in the here and now may find only small rewards for their attention.

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