Thursday, July 28, 2005

Conal Morrison's Importance

[I don't normally put in the little standfirst bit here, but so much of it was missing from today's paper that i just feel like doing it this time.]


What is it?

The Importance of Being Earnest, an effervescent gay comedy by the notable Irish dramatist, and bunburyista, Oscar Wilde.

What's it about?
A man who leads a double life. Guess what? There are consequences. But like all the best consequences, they’re hilarious.

Author! Author!
Oscar Wilde’s fall from grace began, you might say, on the night that the original production of TIOBE opened. Soon, he tumbled from his perch as the darling wit of the Empire to become instead its whipping boy. But not in the way you’re thinking.

Star qualities?
Alan Stanford’s Lady Bracknell looks likely to go down in the annals. Yes, I said annals. You’re incorrigible, you are.

Now read on
If Oscar Wilde had been able to cast The Importance of Being Earnest any way he wanted, would he have cast men in every role? Possibly, according to director Conal Morrison, who is currently fulfilling Wilde’s unspoken wish in his new Abbey production, in which such beloved roles as Ms Prism and Lady Bracknell are played by strapping fellas.

“I’d be dismayed if nobody objected,” says Morrison. “But I think we have actually be very faithful to the play…For Wilde it was an act of gentle revenge against ”

Morrison’s smart strategy to frame his concept has been to write some new bookend scenes for the play. As the show opens, we find Wilde in Paris, approaching the end, but still swinging absinth and champagne, still receiving snubs and suffering street urchins to come unto him. But when this particular carnival of nasty Parisian blokes walks off stage, it is only to re-appear soon afterwards as the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest. “The play ensues,” to quote Morrison’s stage directions.

“It is hard not to see the play as weirdly autobiographical,” says Morrison. “There are so many correspondences to Wilde’s own life that appear in the play…mentions of “indiscreetly engraved cigarette cases” – which were, of course, involved in Wilde’s own downfall – it’s all these in this play.”

Does the play not, all the same, lose something by not having any women taking part?: “Well, to be arrogantly honest, I think it only gains. It seems to fit in with Wilde’s ideas about artifice and enhances the comedy. People have seen the play so often now that this way of doing it seems to be quite refreshing for them…”

Despite the cross-casting – and despite those overwhelming photographs of Alan Stanford dresses in a capacious ball gown – his production is not, according to Morrison, “…burdened with knowing camp.”

As for directing his show while the boardroom blood-letting went on and the very ceiling of the abbey seemed to be collapsing around his ears, Morrison says this turned out to be “rather energising”.

“We were hearing all sort of extremist talk and gossip. It was quite strange. I found myself making all sorts of Yeatsian speeches to the cast. But I do think it is true that the only answer to all the gossip and the criticism has to be in the work. If the people come and they laugh, well, that will be an answer…”

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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Pan Pan's One(ce again)

Don’t you love it when a plan comes together? Two years ago, sitting alone in a hotel in Frankfurt, Gavin Quinn of Pan Pan theatre first had the germ of idea for a show performed by one actor to an audience of one.

Now – after visiting 100 actors in their homes, interviewing and filming them, creating a film and a book from the visits – a live show finally hits the stage.

Things have been ramped up considerably from the initial thought. Now there are one hundred of these little one-on-one performances happening simultaneously, each taking place in one room of a massive 100-room set.

The beautiful set features a long, orange corridor, lined with translucent, softly-glowing doors. Behind each numbered door, it’s possible to make out a dark shape that must be a person. But not just any person: an actor. Fresh faces or crusty stalwarts, they all sit, waiting to explain why they entered this strange profession.

All they need now is someone to listen. Luckily enough, there are 100 people ready to do just that. Here's what happened inside one cell...


Room Four
“How much interaction would you like?” I ask Clare Barrett, the nice woman from Galway who is telling me about her childhood, her former career as a nurse and the momentous decision to become an actor. “Not much,” she smiles. So, I lean back on the couch and try to remember if I’ve seen her in anything.

But the tone of our encounter is not completely conducive to relaxing. Not quite performance, not quite heart-to-heart chat, it reminds me of telesales, or a job interview. “You’ve got the job,” I say, applauding as she finishes. Now her smile contains a wisp of irritation.

She wants to do her an audition piece, something by Pinter. But when she starts pretending to be someone else, I become distinctly uneasy. Acting to just one person is a bit too close to lying.

Clare puts on some soothing music and tells me to look at a yellow light. I try to be soothed, but panic takes me. Clare keeps saying “close your eyes when you feel relaxed”. I feel like I will never be truly relaxed again. Ever.

Afterwards, as she walks me out to a de-briefing session with all the other actors and their guests, she touches me on the back once or twice more than I really want. (I really want to be touched on the back zero times.) I have to resist looking around each time she does it.

It turns out I have seen something she was in: that Rudolph children’s play that Annie Ryan directed at The Ark. Clare noticed at the time, she says as I sip my beer, that I didn’t seem very comfy in the tiny seats at The Ark. Which was also true.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Double Jepordy

That's twice now. Two shows that I've seen in the tent on George's Dock, the place that they say might be the new Abbey.* And twice the evening has turned disasterous. When i went to see Perchance to Dream, some demented people in the row in front of us decided to talk all the way through the second half. They even start taking little cam clips and adding live audio commentaries there and then. It nearly ended in "a mill" as Alison put it.

Then i goes back again. This time it's to see the Tempest, with Emily, her sister and her mother. This time the entire family is so outraged/bored/disgusted that they leave half way through (after one too many nob jokes, I reckon). And I'm left all alone to comtemplate that little thing that is surrounded with a sleep. JAYZUZ!

In any case, is there bad juju on this spot? Will the Abbey be effected? Will any of us be here to see it?

* Still haven't worked out how the geography of that might work out. Surely they're not going to cover over the water? And surely if they only used the same space that the Speigeltent and Footsbarn tents had used, it would be way, way, way too small...

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Pan Pan's One

Why would anybody become an actor? It’s a dog’s life, innit? Endless auditions, mostly leading either to nothing, or a couple of weeks of bad pay. And if that weren’t enough, when it all goes well, you get a gig, a little steady money, and a sense of doing some good work, then those bitter, know-nothing critics start spilling their bile all over you. Sheesh!

The question of why exactly anyone would choose this lifestyle is what Pan Pan explore in their latest intriguing show, One, which is subtitled “Healing Through Theatre”.

One will be performed in a set featuring one hundred little rooms. Inside each room, one of 100 actors will explain to one member of the audience why exactly they became an actor. The actor may also perform their favourite audition piece, if you’re lucky. Which actor you get to spend time with will be decided at random.

It all sounds rather, well, Amsterdam, doesn’t it?

“Well, I think it’s more like a little soothing ritual,” says actor Brendan Conroy, one of the hundred actors who will perform the show. “It will be funny to work there, without the protection of the lights. And for the audience, I suppose, they’ll also be without the protection of being separated from the actor.”

Conroy’s own involvement with the project began when the crew from Pan Pan called around to his house to begin collecting material for the book and film that accompany the project.

“They came and looked around our house, and picked a room to film in – some people chose the bathroom, the kitchen, wherever – and then began filming as we talked about why we became actors.”

Those films, captured in the actors’ homes, surrounded by their own possession, have been edited into a film, which is currently showing nightly at Meeting House square (at 10pm). There is also a book. But the Digital Hub element of the project, when the “healing” part happens live and direct, is easily the most intriguing

“There is no way to be an actor without suffering a bit of pain. There is much more rejection in the acting business than there is in any other profession, I think,” says Conroy. “People develop there own ways of dealing with that, it’s really sometimes remarkable to see an actor go onstage after a review has just taken the earth from under his feet and perform like it never happened.”

Feedback on each actor’s work in One may be even more rapid – and more market-orientated – than usual. As audience members are assigned their performer at random, Conroy can imagine an active market opening up.

“Can’t you see it? There’ll be a lot of trading off. Y’know ‘I’ll give you twenty-five Euro for her…’”

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Footsbarn's Floating Tempest

We’re going into our 35th year of doing this,” says Paddy Hayter of Footsbarn theatre company, “and it’s still tough to survive.” The life of any theatre company can be precarious, but as Hayter and Footsbarn have built a company to produce theatre built to travel the world, that achievement seems even more admirable.

“We spent ten years when we were completely nomadic, so when a gap came in our schedule we would rest up, or go out perform on the street. But now everything has become much more formal, there are salaries and social contributions to be paid, we have to approach thing quite differently. Now any gaps can be quite frightening,” says Hayter.

In 1990, the company bought an old farmhouse in Hérisson in France, when, through good fortune, they happened to meet a local landowner with an interest in acting and a building for sale. It became La Chaussée, Footsbarn’s home base.

The origins of the company, however, lay in a post-sixties experimental theatre based around Cornwell. Many cast changes later – Hayter is the only direct line to those days -- the company still manages to maintain strong elements of a family business, while at the same time welcoming new talent from around the globe. What everyone in the company hold in common is a belief in the particular merits of the travelling show.

“In France the travelling theatre companies survived for quite a long time. In the 1950s, there were still 200 of them moving about the country, putting on show wherever they stopped. But I think the thing that killed it off in the end was the paperwork. There just started to be too much regulation…it seems it’s getting a bit like that in Ireland now…”

The company’s style has always been strong on physically theatre, using extravagant acting and brash storytelling techniques that hark back to bawdy Elizabethan theatre. But what Footsbarn aren’t famous for is using high-tech techniques to tell their stories. But that has been changing. Perchance to Dream, which has played at George’s Dock over the last few weeks, and now The Tempest, see the company incorporating little films into the drama, cleverly integrating them live action.

“My stepdaughter, Sophie Lascelles, who has performed in previous Footsbarn shows and now works as a visual artist, makes films as her gallery work. So we had the idea of using of her films in a production and it turned out to work very well. We use a real 16mm projection – no video, or anything like that – and all the films are made back on the farm in Hérisson.

But while the company has been updating its arsenal of theatrical techniques, there are some things that Hayter and company feel are working just fine. “That Shakespeare guy, he seemed to know what he was doing. There don’t seem to be a lot of complaints about his work. You don’t hear people saying it’s gone off…”

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

REVIEW:Annie (The Olympia, Dublin)

Now, here’s one in the “they wouldn’t get away with that now” category. A mega-rich elder business leader sends his PA to an orphanage to pick him out a suitably appealing young child to come and live with him in his mansion and get showered with gifts and affection. Isn’t this exactly the kind of behaviour that got Michael Jackson into so much hot water?

But back in the 1920s, when the original orphan Annie cartoons appeared, things were much more innocent. And even in 1976, when the cartoons were transformed into a stage musical, things were relaxed enough to let old Mr. Warbucks procure a nice young orphan to rear. And just as well, otherwise the world would have been deprived of a classic piece of entertainment.

Annie strikes an exquisite balance in kid-friendly entertainment, blending souped-up cuteness (look! here comes the doggie!) with some winning tunes and plenty of lithely written comic material to keep their elders amused.

This current British touring production handles these little asides about Dustbowl era American politics and society (as well as the clever radio show-within-a show) very adroitly, finding the humour where countless productions have failed.

It is hard, all the same, to feel quite the degree of affection for the sunny little orphan that everyone around her apparently does. But that is hardly the fault of young star, Megan Joyner.

Surprisingly, this poses no particular bar to enjoying the show. Little Annie’s role in the narrative, after all, is mostly as a blank canvas for the heroes, like nice Mr Warbucks (played with stern humour by Mark Wynter) and the villains like that delightful soak of gorgon, Miss Hannigan (played by Ruth Madoc) to reveal their true colours and, of course, to receive their rewards and comeuppances as appropriate.