Friday, March 31, 2006

Beckett's Simplicity

I can’t help thinking that among the many reasons theatre companies like to stage the works of Samuel Beckett is the simplicity of it all. Ok, his ‘dramaticule’ Breath which lasts just a couple of seconds and features no onstage actors is on the extreme end of things. But that piece (which will be performed as part of the Beckett Centenary event by Amanda Coogan) is only one of many in which the playwright’s famous barebones style leads to eminent stageability.

There’s Not I, which features one performer, of whom only the lips are visible. There’s Come and Go, which contains just over 100 words. And who could forget Act Without Words, which true to its word, has none.

Two of the most resilient of Irish theatre production are back doing the rounds at the moment, both of which employ an economy of style of which Beckett might be proud, if, that is, he were ever to turn his attention to speed dating or the Munster rugby team.

John Breen’s clearly immortal, Alone It Stands, (which returns to the Olympia on 24 April) uses a cast of six to conjure up not just the Muster first IX, but also the entire All Blacks team and a retinue of wives, girlfriends and alicados; while only two performers, Iseult Golden and Carmel Stephens bring to life the many hopefuls in attendance at a Dublin speed dating event in Tick My Box (The Helix). These hilarious shows have been on so many times, there seems little chance you have not already seen one or both, but if you haven’t, then perhaps Beckett can wait.

O'Kelly's Operation Easter

Donal O’Kelly – the man who put the “act” into “activist” – is set to put theatre at the heart of the debate about the 90th Anniversary of the Easter Rising. The writer-performer behind shows like Catalpa and The Hand has now written Operation Easter a play that promises to “casts a searing light on the 1916 Rising.” The play, which is a collaboration with the OPW, will be staged at Kilmainham Gaol and star O’Kelly alongside, among others, Arthur Riordan and Ruaidhri Conroy.

The Irish media’s resident neo-con appeasers now seem to require everyone to regard the events of Easter 1916 as somehow related to the activities of the Bush regime’s “global war on terror” and those who took part as, quite literally, terrorists. From the past evidence of O’Kelly’s political leanings, it seems unlikely that the playwright will take that tack.

For the moment we know only that he sees the Rising as “a visionary and violent act that was to be the conceptual act of our nation,” (see?! lots of acting there!) But was that a good thing or bad thing? As Zhou Enlai remarked when he asked in 1949 to assess the impact of the French revolution: “It’s too soon to say”. Operation Easter opens 24 April.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Sam Beckett's Brand Image

In case any of you missed it, National Worship Samuel Beckett Month (known to its friends as the Beckett Centenary Festival) is almost upon us. For people who will not be attending any of the plays, films and lectures that will take place around Dublin in April – that is to say most of the population – the festival will exist largely in the form of a piece of street furniture. You’ve probably seen them already: huge black and white billboard images of an elderly gentleman that have sprung up where your ads for pension and breakfast energy bars should be.

The poster features two photographs (taken by Richard Avedon, himself a sturdy artistic brand) of Beckett standing, in a nice tweed jacket, looking craggy and not a little bit crabby. The poster does not mention any of Beckett’s work, never mind quote from it. All of which confirms, of course, what we should know by now: Beckett these days is not so much a writer as a brand icon.

But building the brand of a Nobel Prize winning author is a fiddly business. Not least because it begs the question: why are we trying to build the brand of a Nobel Prize winning author? And what happens if we succeed? In any case, the job has been assigned to a new style ad agency, GospelTM, whose promotional literature gets quickly to the core of Beckett today: “The big prizes in brand building come from continuity and consistency.”

One thing that certainly happens when you shoot for “continuity and consistency” is that Beckett brand finds himself in some unexpected places. In Fairview, for example, where one example of the Beckett poster watches over the thundering traffic heading North, bizarrely another poet watches over the traffic descending from the Clontarf and beyond. This other writer, however, is represented not just by a slick black and white photo, but by some of the inspiring words he has written. That writer is Mike Skinner, of the Streets. What is striking here is that somebody (Reebok in this case) still believes that the writer’s words as at least as important as his face.

Of course, advocates of the festival will quickly point out, that if you happen to want to hear – and indeed read – some Beckett words, then April in Dublin is a pretty good spot.

They’ll point you to everything from the work of American Artist, Jenny Holzer, who will project Beckett’s words around the city of Dublin after dark (30 March-3 April). And they direct you to performances of Molloy, Malone Dies & The Unnamable by Ireland’s current greatest Beckett interpreter, Conor Lovett. To lectures on the man, organised by his hometown Foxrock Local History Club. But is such miscellaneousness really good for the brand?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Mikel Murfi's Farce

“As an actor, I’m known for is shouting my lines and falling down holes,” says Mikel Murfi of his work with the clown troupe, Barabbas. “I enjoy the notion of as an actor you’re able to fire yourself across the stage and bang your head and then go straight on with what you’re doing.” Which will have come as mixed news to the cast of The Walworth Farce, which Murfi is currently directing for Druid Theatre Company in Galway.

Murfi style of performance is among the most demanding, the most full body, among Irish actors. In one Barabbas show, Hupnouse, a scene involved the Jacques LeCoq trained actor using his bare backside as a pair of giant puppet lips, delivering his lines while moving his cheeks in time with the words. Johnny Noxville would be proud.

In recent time, however, Murfi has appeared on stage less, instead looking to the draw the same sort of physical performances out of other actors. The change, he suggests, has something to do with the aging process.

“I have sometimes done things in terms of physical theatre that I’m not now maybe able to pull off with the same aplomb. It may even be true that I might have my best work done in that style, but I like that there are other types of challenges out there in terms of acting. And the great thing about working with other actors who are able to perform in a really physical style is that these actors can let you do things that at this stage you can’t do yourself.”

After directing comedian-turned-playwright, Mark O’Doherty’s first play, Trad, (which premiered at Galways Arts Festival and will open at the Bush Theatre in London later this year) he is back in Galway for Druid’s re-engagement with contemporary writing, follow the company’s epic Synge cycle.

Anyone who is familiar with the Walsh’s Bedbound (in which a father and daughter live their entire lives on top of a double bed) will know the territory of the Walworth Farce. The action may have been shifted to London’s Irish community, but the bizarre is still to the fore, as a father and his sons re-enact – again and again and with the help of a carrier bag of ritual Tesco’s nosh – a scene from their past.

“Enda is a fantasic man for getting straight to the core of very disturbed people,” says Murfi of the show which he suggests will offer something quite different from just another night at the theatre.

“He likes to examine the lives of broken people and that is what he is doing here. In this play, I think he puts the audience on three rollarcoaster but they only know they are on two. It’s a high risk strategy in terms of how it works, and the speed it goes at: I think for some people, it will be a great challenge. And some people will find it just crazy.”

Labels: ,

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Rodney Lee's Gist

The most shocking thing for screenwriter Rodney Lee about his first foray into theatre was the speed at which a production happened. “This play took about a year to put together,” says Lee. “An incredibly short amount of time, when you think it might take five years to get a film project together.”

Or longer. Lee first came to the attention of Fishamble theatre company when he won the Tiernan MacBride International Screenwriting Award in 2003 for his script, 69. After reading that script, Fishamble commissioned Lee to write The Gist of It, rehearsed the play and are staging it. Meanwhile, that award winning script is still in development.

The Gist of It, however, does not leave the world of film behind completely. The story is based on the end of term rush to finish a student film as experienced by two film students, one a popular, artful dodger, the other a troubled would-be avant garde filmmaker. Lee, who studied film in Dun Laoghaire, couldn’t help but draw on his own experience in film school for the play.

“A lot of what’s in the play is based on personal experience of working with very self-absorbed people,” says Lee. “But sometimes the films that came out were quite good. But I just felt that it doesn’t really justify them behaving the way they do.”

Not that the experience was a bad one overall.

“I remember one film I worked on, being out in a field at 3am, being hosed by the fire brigade to simulate rain over a dead body. Twenty crew out there trying to get this one shot! All together, trying to make this happen. And the feeling, the spirit of it was amazing. You feel like laughing, but the awfulness of it all is almost irrelevant. You feel like you’re alive when it’s happening.”

Coming from a film background, and by his own admission, not being a particular fan of the theatre, he was startled quite how flexible the live form could be.

“When I started writing the play, I had quite a fixed idea of what theatre was and what I could do there and how different it was for film,” he says.

“I realised there wasn’t really much that you couldn’t do in the theatre. If you look at something like Stones In His Pockets – with 100s and 100s of edits and scene changes – that’s more than you would get in a film even. So I learned that you can do most things in the theatre, but you have to do it in the heads of the audience”