Thursday, April 27, 2006

Declan Gorman's "trilogy"

“You’ll notice that I don’t use the word trilogy about it,” says playwright and director Declan Gorman about his company’s latest venture. This game of three parts features plays spanning a decade of work by Drogheda’s Upstate Theatre company. “I must have used every other available word – series, cycle, whatever. But the truth is, it was a kind of unintentional trilogy.”

There are, of course, other reasons why Gorman isn’t keen to get into the trilogy business. “I suppose when you think of all the activity in this area, the Synge cycle, the Friel Festival, well, it has really become quite a popular way of presenting work. But I felt a bit nervous. Putting myself into that company, as a much less known playwright, is just a bit strange…”

In Gorman’s take, the Irish independent theatre scene has been very bad about re-appraising its own work. “Certainly, there are exceptions, and Paul Mercier and Passion Machine have done a good job of looking again at their legacy. But in general, productions just get lost,” he says. The Border Chronicle is an attempt, he suggest, to prevent this happening with Upstate’s decade-long period of independent work.

Upstate began performing in 1997, with Gorman’s new translation of Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Weavers, but by the next year has begun the project which now lives under the title The Border Chronicles, with Hades, a episodic drama, in which dramas from ancient Greece were magically finding themselves re-enacted in the Irish borders of the late twentieth century.

That play was followed by another Gorman show, this time centring on life on the Cooley peninsula during the foot and mouth outbreak. It is these two play, along with a third as yet unperformed piece, At Peace, which now form the Border Chronicles. In this final piece of the trilogy, now planned for next year, Gorman and the company have turned their attention to the changing face of their locale, an area hardly exempt from the population shifts which the rest of the country is enjoying.

The new diversity has, according to Gorman, meant the incorporation of some surprising elements into his fictionalised version of the Borders.

“I’ve been back and forward to Latvia quite a bit, because I wanted to incorporate Latvian mythological sources into At Peace. What I wanted to do this time is really ask: what does Monaghan looks like to Latvian eyes to the people who are increasingly coming to live there?”

Saturday, April 22, 2006

REVIEW: Beckett’s Ghosts (Project, Dublin)

Beckett’s ghosts have been roaming the city day and night in recent weeks, as every venue in the capital (or so it seems) is given over to events marking the centenary of the Irish writer’s birth.

The event is so monolithic, indeed, that it proves impossible to square with a playwright who displayed such a persistent lack of interest in events of civic consequence, and whose dramas are so consistently anti-heroic, so full of unloved souls living invisible lives. The point is reinforced by Bedrock Theatre company’s contribution to the program, an evening of shorter pieces from the author, all one-handers (or one-facers), mostly monologues, mostly arid, stern and visually austere.

First up, Andrew Bennett takes to the stage, alone, with only his head fully lit and only the halo of an old-fashioned oil lamp for company. He has come to tread through A Piece of Monologue, a thirty minutes plus monologue of intricate repetitions and minute details, delivered in a manner that is distant to the point of dismissive of the audience. Next, Ned Dennehy’s floating head appears in Beckett’s That Time). It’s the only thing we get to watch while a tape of another tightly introverted monologue plays. The overall experience is somewhere in the dryer regions of bloodless.

Things pick up a little in the second half, as Amanda Coogan’s version of Breath, the celebrated piece which lasts around half a minute and features a little celticy moan, the sound of a breath and a light coming up and going down on a pile of rubbish (or, in this case, some mannequin carcasses). At least here, the audience felt empowered to laugh, rather than remain cowed into reverent silence.

Things were finally rescued by Deirdre Roycroft’s performance (or, more precisely, the performance of Deirdre Roycroft’s mouth, the only part of the performer visible on the darkened stage) in Not, I. Here, for once, we seemed to be witnessing a living performance, an actor using her skill to communicate, rather than a priest declaiming an atrophied liturgy.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Desperate Optimists' Films

Why exactly did Irish performance troupe, Desperate Optimists, switch from making theatre to producing flabbergastingly lush movies? It is a question that Joe Lawlor, one half of Desperate Optimists (the other half is Christine Molloy) finds very easy to answer. “We had a feeling that we had completed what we were doing in our performance work,” says Lawlor. “We were getting dissatisfied and we just wanted to stop before we started making bad work.”

It is such an easy answer. But Desperate Optimists’ great coup has been not just to take what they do into another area – the glossy world of big screen cinema -- but to instantly create a splash. In recent times, the pair have been winning commissions up and down the UK, as well as in Ireland, to create their striking and often delightful short films.

Like many artists in recent times, their work spring from locals organisations and groups and looks at how communities work and live together. But though its roots are folksy, the duo produce films that challenge mainstream cinema for sheer slick beauty. Often, they consist of one long, editless take, during which dozens of people move in a massive and often mysterious choreography.

“We tend to under-direct people, we tell them where to be and what to do, but not how to do it,” says Lawlor, of working with non-professional performers. “The way we work is very much informed by our performance work, so we don't think in a film school way. We have a much greater sense of theatricality of the thing…we try not to cut things up into little bits.”

In their most recent work, set in Ballymun, a camera follows a young man who has recently become a father around a spanking new leisure as he meets co-workers and faces up to his new life.

“We weren’t looking to get all urban and grimy, we are looking for something more poetical and beautiful. The tower blocks had been done to death. And the local people were wary of sticking in a syringe for the sake of it. We wanted to be the first to make a film of the new Ballymun. The couple in the film have a new baby, but they’re worried about whether the future will work out, which we think is how people are feeling in Ballymun.”

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Beckett's Wireless

Some of you may have thought I was being a little rough on poor old Sam Beckett recently when I suggested that most people – despite the onslaught of the Beckett Centenary Festival which is happening all around us – would pass up on the chance for their own, er, personal encounter with one of his plays.

And press images of Bono cosying up to the writer (or at least, a giant photo of him) may have put even more people off. OK, I know Beckett is dead, but really, he should be more careful about the company he’s keeping these days. Anyone, dead or alive, whose big chums include Bono and Michael Colgan has got issues…except Paul McGuinness, of course, he’s cool.

But the truth is, Beckett himself was not so bound to the theatre that he was blind to the mass media all around him. In particular, he wrote some of his finest work for… radio. Now all of his radio writings – a total of six original plays – will be broadcast on RTE1 as part of the Beckett Centenary, in productions created with the Gare St Lazare Players and directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett.

It was John Gielgud (via the BBC) who first inspired Beckett to write specifically for the radio in 1956. But as soon as the idea was implanted, Beckett himself seemed to grasp what was required as surely as greedy Chris Moyles. He told a friend that in the dead of the night following Gielgud’s hint, he had “a nice gruesome idea, full of cartwheels and dragging feet and puffing and panting.”

When it came to it, there was so much innovation required to record All That Fall, Beckett’s first radio play at the BBC, that it gave birth to a whole new department, the now famous Radiophonic Workshop. Yes, the very same organisation that was later responsible for the sound of Doctor Who.

But having taken all that trouble creating a new world of sound, Beckett became typically fussy about how an audience would experience it. At one stage, he was so irritated by the poor reception, he even planned to travel from Paris to London just so that he could get better reception for a broadcast of one of his works.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

REVIEW: The Walworth Farce (The Helix, Dublin)

A father and his two adult sons are holed up in a South London, in a Walworth Road tower block, to be precise. And you have to be precise around here. Otherwise Pa, that is Dinny, may just whack your ignorant head with the saucepan.

Together the trio (Denis Conway as Dinny, with Garrett Lombard and Aaron Monaghan as his troubled offspring) are preparing for what has, apparently for some time now, been a daily ritual.

They are about to re-enact a shaggy story that somehow explains how this distorted family ended up in the downright miserable situation in which we find it. But, of course, the little drama they are playing under Dinny’s direction (the play within the play) explains nothing of the sort.

Enigmatic is a word that relatively easily covered earlier efforts by the Walsh, such as Bedbound. But here, it doesn’t even come close. Here, the more we see, the more fragments of ‘the Walworth Farce’ that the trio perform, the less we understand of anything.

Walsh’s stroke is to use the speed and energy of farce, with its silly costumes and its broad physical comedy, not to provoke laughter, but instead to induce a kind of nauseous psychic disorientation.

The reaction of many members of the audience to all this is apparently to roll along with the slapstick and laugh. It will not be everyone’s response. If, say, you think of Hitchcock’s Psycho as a kind of high camp masterpiece, then you may indeed rack up the yucks.

But for the rest of us, the claustrophobic psychodrama will have other payoffs. Looking into Walsh’s tenement of demented mirrors, through the brilliant mist of director Mikel Murfi’s production, we are offered a glimpse of a family whose eccentricities have become perversions, whose malaise has become both murderous and terminal. Noises Off it ain’t.