Sunday, June 20, 2004

REVIEW: Savoy (The Peacock, Dublin)

Signs are that playwright, Eugene O’Brien intends making his little bit of Ireland – Edenderry – as much of a creative resort as Brian Friel made of his imaginary Ballybeg. O’Brien’s last play, the slow-burning two-hander of marital implosion, Eden, was set there, and the characters in his latest fetch up in the same midlands small town.

Also present and correct this time around are all the mean-spiritedness and ancient wounds of the worst of claustrophobic small town life, as well as a powerful sense that life is elsewhere, just beyond the dual carriageway, where the early fruits of new prosperity are being harvested.

But back in Eden – in an echo of Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show – the local cinema is about to close. It cannot, it seems, survive until the new meat factory opens, with its promise of eager, moneyed punters.

The final reels of film – Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, a closing feature bemoaned by almost everyone – have been packed away into their metal boxes and a wake is underway. Officiating are Andy (Eamon Morrissey) the desiccated dreamer, collector of ticket stubs and wielder of the ceremonial torch in the darkness and David (Fergal McElherron) the son of the owner, now a small time TV soap actor whose star is in the decline.

Others drop by now and then to take a drink, or drop of metaphorical bombshell, most notably John Olohan, as Pax, the chipper realist who has just lost his job as projectionist. Essentially, however, Morrissey and McElherron are the focus of this evening of bitter recriminations and devastating revelations.

That O’Brien’s play moves is quite such a predictable ark is troubling, particularly as there is not nearly enough polish to the writing or to the production here to get away a plodding plot.

There is something deeply distracting about the way space is used on the Peacock stage. Blaithin Sheerin's stage design is neat enough – particularly a box office and red carpeted foyer in the first half -- but the actors seem to flail around it. People keep darting across the stage to address someone only to run straight back to their original marks and wait for their next call to action like overworked waiters.

As this frenetic action is pretty much out of register with the story (which unfolds with great leisure) the movement is confusing at best, and disruptive at worst.

Eamon Morrissey’s came late into the production late (after illness forced Jim Norton out), which goes some way towards explaining a sense that he never really inhabits his role. McElherron, however, has no such umbrella. The scenes between these two, which are the heart of the play, are hard, brittle and, consequently, weary exactly when they should most wrest attention. Like too much of this juddering production, the relationship feels oddly incomplete, unfinished even.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

REVIEW: Revenge (Project, Dublin)

No matter what the title might lead you to believe, Michael Duke's Revenge amounts to a dramatic inquiry into the possibility of truth and reconciliation. It is a play that poses massive questions about whether it is any more achievable to escape the past than it is to undo it, and imagines what the survivors will do with their fractured lives if neither is possible.

A terrible wrong has been done against one home in the North of Ireland. Specific references are few, but there is little doubt we are living in the aftermath of another in the catalogue of grim wrongs in a bad war. It is the suffering that counts rather than the flavour of politics that inspired it. And that suffering is so acute that nobody in the drama seems sure whether they are among the survivors, or the dead.

A wedding has been interrupted by a bomb, the young groom left blind and lame, his bride apparently killed in the explosion. But this anchor on the narrative only slowly becomes visible after we have spent some time in the company of a father and a mother (Kieran Ahern and Marcella Riordan).

Their marriage is clearly crumbling under the onslaught of grief and anger, when an old woman (superbly played Barbara Adair) arrives apparently offering some way out of their despair: a route which involves a kind of revenge.

It takes a fair portion of the first half even to come to grips with the theatrical language being spoken on stage. But as things move on that sense of disorientation begins to seem perfectly justified. Why after all given the emotional dark forest into which the characters have walked should the audience expect an old fashioned map?

Director, Anna Newell and designer, Stuart Marshall have created a stage which is physically sparse, allowing netherworldly atmosphere and busy lighting to lead the way. It is an approach that pays dividends, leaving the territory clear for some magnificent, wrenching performances.

Neil Martin’s music is used, perhaps, to give one more turn to the screw than is quite fair (hardened critics hardly like to be caught snuffling in the aisles). Duke’s writing never for a moment needs that extra twist, that extra comma even. It is glorious, fearless stuff, confidently shifting from colloquial banter to unworldly oratory without ever seeming in doubt of its next tone or half tone.

Duke’s rare ability to integrate an almost antique heightened language into his drama also lets him create theatre that is didactic to a degree now almost always uncomfortable for audiences. Only a production with extraordinary finesse could get away with blaring out its message so loudly; that, and one that is so clearly speaking something that resounds like truth.