Thursday, October 09, 2003

REVIEW: Kevin McAleer's Chalk and Cheese (Project, Dublin)

How anyone would choose to spend their time this Festival in the company of Brian Friel, Tom Kilroy, or almost anybody other than Kevin McAleer is a mystery.

The Omagh comic’s one-man comedy, Chalk and Cheese, is the definitive highlight of either of this year’s Festivals, one of those events recommended only to those content to find themselves rolling on the floor, breathless and speechless with delirious laughter.

On the face of it, Chalk and Cheese is the diary of a madman, a tour of some brand of paranoid psychosis narrated from the inside by Kevin (or at least by McAleer’s Kevin character.)

If we stop and look around for a moment, the subject matter of the show never strays far from insanity, murder and confinement. Stick with this extraordinary guide, however, and you’ll experience instead a glittering universe of ricocheting references, sudden reversals of logic, flickering verbal tricks, dizzying rocket trips of the imagination and sweet, fairytale surrealism.

All of the above is delivered with nanosecond perfect timing - if you want to see what dramatic shape is all about, check out McAleer’s pauses, not Kilroy’s plays. So even a momentary lapse in concentration can leave you lost down a sidestreet when the guide is back on the main thoroughfare of his wit.

It might be easy enough to transcribe fragments of that wit, but that would be depriving you of the chance to hear it directly from the mouth of a writer and performer of unique skills and rare, rare quality. You have until Saturday.

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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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Friday, October 03, 2003

REVIEW: Sharon's Grave (The Olympia, Dublin)

Evil is gathering around the homestead of the Conlees, seeping in through the cracks and under the doors as irresistibly as the emerald fog that swiftly follows everyone who enters.

Gary Hynes has followed up to her intense, revelatory version of John B. Keane’s Sive with another 1950s drama from the Kerry playwright in which an Irish farmhouse is besieged, apparently, by the wickedness of the universe made terrible flesh.

And wouldn’t you know it, that personification of evil, that indictment of the human race turns out to be an irresistibly attractive character. Frankie McCafferty’s take on Dinzie Conlee, the vicious “humpback ferret from Hell” forced by paralysis to mount his brother’s back to get about, is an extraordinary, warped and energetic performance that like it or not, forms the human heart of the play.

Ostensibly we are peeking in at the lives of Trassie (Catherine Walsh) her “touched” brother, Neelus (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Peader (David Herlihy) the thatcher who comes to patch up their lives in a number of ways. But the play cannot help but revolve around McCafferty’s Dinzie, a “cripple” whose mind is every bit as broken as his body, and who wishes no man well.

For all the liquid malevolence that flushes around the stage (and there is enough here to run your average slasher movie) the comic elements are perhaps played more broadly than before in Hynes work, with plenty of slapstick caricature and site gags. It is something of a surprise to see the director making these kinds of choices, but the search here seems to be for something unexpected.

Keane saw his play as an unsubtle struggled between good and evil and Hynes’ appears happy to follow his lead, creating a graphic exaggeration that looks to Victorian-style shock, rather than modern ambivalence. The result is an almost antique style of popular theatre, one that happily incorporates everything from limelight colouring to a follow-spot trained on Tom Hickey’s crooked shaman, Pats Bo Bwee. McCafferty’s Dinzie doesn’t pause for the audience to hiss on his entrance, but it would not have been a total surprise if he had.

But Sharon’s Grave is not as exquisitely controlled as Sive, and consequently the production has to work harder. Hynes, knows as much about handling – and rewarding – the audience as she does about eliciting blockbuster performances (which is a great deal!) but the weaknesses in Keane’s play mean that it was always going to be a struggle not to leave the gods a little less than satisfied with their evening at the Conlees.

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.