Wednesday, October 08, 2003

REVIEW: The Shape of Metal (Abbey Theatre, Dublin)

The thoughts of Henry Moore are given prominence in the program for latest play from Thomas Kilroy. The sculptor it seems, had a strong admiration for Michelangelo's last work, his Rondanini Pieta, because of – rather than despite – its apparently unfinished state.

On one level, the quotation relates to the subject of Kilroy's drama, a sculptor who also happens to admire Michelangelo's work. But on another impossible to ignore level, Moore appears forced into offering an apology for The Shape of Metal, a weak and disjointed effort that somebody clearly hopes will be seen as oozing with exquisite discords and intentional, deeply resonant awkwardness.

As far as functioning as drama is concerned, The Shape of Metal has a very clear handicap: Kilroy's central character, Nell Jeffrey (Sara Kestelman) is a thundering bore, full of self-admiration and given to dull meanderings delivered in a style that charitable critics might call heightened prose. She is also – given the evidence of the quality and wide stylistic variations of the pieces lying around her workshop – several truly terrible sculptors.

Nell has apparently been rather wicked to her two daughters (one of whom long ago disappeared and is presumed dead). We catch up on the sculptor in her dwindling days, as she sits on a throne in her workshop receiving visits from her living lesbian daughter, Judith (Eleanor Methven) and occasionally (both as an apparition and in flashback) from her deceased daughter, Grace (Justine Mitchell).

It's easy to see why neither daughter stays put. Nell conversations comprise almost totally of name-dropping anecdotes and dire sexist assessments of men she has, in her own words, “bedded”. Little surprise then that Kilroy’s main method of getting his characters off-stage is to have them running in exasperation through the upstage right door. More often than not, this signals the onset of another dreary, hallucinatory soliloquy.

Kilroy here (as Brian Friel does in Performances) seems to assume that anyone worthy our attention must spend an inordinate amount of their time worrying about the nature of greatness and their enduring legacy to the world. Or at least, if they don't then they jolly well should.

It has been an odd Theatre Festival this year in Dublin, with Friel writing a play about a 74-year old artist for the Gate, and Kilroy centring his Abbey outing on an 82-year old artist. This seems pretty much to indicate that neither is too bothered about attracting, or at least speaking to, sprightly young things of less than 60.

Of course, that is not to suggest that artists of mature years do not produce fascinating art, only that if the subject of that art is almost exclusively the thoughts, feelings and challenges experienced by elder academic artists, they are perhaps starting with an insurmountable handicap.

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