Thursday, October 26, 2006

John Patrick Shanley's Doubt

A priest is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a young person in his care. Did he? Are you sure? How do you know? The Irish American writer behind Doubt, a play that features just such a Catholic priest, may know the answer. But he’s telling nobody. Almost.

“Well, it wouldn’t make much sense if there was no doubt in a play called Doubt,” says Shanley, in Dublin for the premier of his Broadway hit, which opened at the Abbey this week.

Doubt concerns a priest, Father Flynn (played in Dublin by Aidan Kelly) and a nun, Sister Aloysius (played in Dublin by Brid Brennan) who at war, they imagine, over the soul of a young boy.

But for Shanley, that scenario, and its specific setting in the American of the early 1960s, is one that lets him work outwards towards broader issues of faith, obedience and unreasoning adherence to simple explanations of complex issues. His play may deal with the hot button topic of clerical sexual abuse, but its import, he suggests, goes far wider, into the America of the present day, in which a mix of faith and propaganda has become a potent tool to stifle decent.

“Within the last six months in America, we have seen the stories unravelling the way they did after the Fifties. We realised that a lot of the simple explanations were inadequate, so we were going to have to go it alone, mentally…and people don’t like that. They want to be certain. They want to have it all wrapped up. But really, that’s a very adolescent emotion.”

Critics and audience stateside appear to agree that Shanely is offering them a timely and valuable analysis. Shanley, a first generation Irish-American, with a rake of relatives in Westmeath, won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer prize for the play -- to add to the Oscar he won with his script for 1988 Cher vehicle, Moonstruck. And Doubt has also broken box office records on Broadway.

All the same, leaving his play open-ended, also leaves the audience with questions. So, Shanley has been offering a back channel for them, putting his email address on the program and answering the mail he gets.

“I get a lots of mail from members of the clergy, and ex-members of the clergy, often telling me how much they enjoyed it. But most of the time people don’t really write reviews. They write to tell me their memories, to tell me stories about their time in church schools, often quite happy and fond stories.”

And as for the ever-hanging question, did Fr. Flynn do it? Well, Shanley isn’t telling. And if he is, he’s not swearing to tell the truth. The playwright admits that he told “the answer” to Brian O’Byrne, the New York based Irish actor who created the role of Fr. Flynn on Broadway.

“I did. But then I found out that Brian was lording it over the female members of the cast by saying he knew the answer. So I rang him up and told him that the answer I had told him was a lie…” Which should still leave at least Brian O’Byrne, after a little exercise in deduction, knowing the answer.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

REVIEW: Everyday (Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin)

Have you see this man? You’re bound to remember if you have. Strange fright wig, face painted all over in white, maniac grin carved out in shades of blue and red?

The Corn Exchange theatre company theatre company’s latest production in the trademark style – a hybrid of commedia del’arte, steeped in Chicago improv -- is set in a contemporary city rather like Dublin, and features a set of urban nomads who might just turn out to be me and you, and everyone we know.

There’s the abandoned starter wife of the successful property developer, drunk in city centre hotel: hasn’t she noticed she’s surplus to requirements? Get a load of the Bowie-loving muso who forgot to learn to play an instrument. He really should know better than to start teaching Lolita to his uncomprehending TEFL class. Look out for the Aussie office bitch terrorising her simpering staff: she’ll do the same for you if you come across her, four sheets to the wind in a snazzy bar. And – a word to the wise -- beware that new mother: there’s cocaine in the breast milk around here.

This fine set of characters roam the stage, sometimes performing little solos, sometimes miming in silhouette, sometimes stumbling across each other as they go about their business, in a series of short, sweetly interlocking scenes. At times, it can call to mind the Fast Show, or indeed Little Britain, with sadly human characters only partially obscured by the grotesque comic ticks and monstrous makeup.

Everyday is not, all the same, as deeply rewarding as some of the company’s previous shows. The contemporary setting accounts for part of this. For the first time since Carshow, the dramas, little triumphs and abject failures are rooted in a world around us, something that ends up grounding the excitement a little. Perhaps the grotesques are simply a little more familiar than is useful: after all, the gap between Rosaleen Lenihan or Twink at their worst and these cartoon exaggerations is not all that large.

All the same, performances from the ensemble cast (Corn Exchange first timers Derbhle Crotty, Louise Lewis and Simon Rice, along with old hands and true believers, Andrews Bennett, Janet Moran, Mark O’Halloran and Tom Murphy) are crisp and inventive, by turns poignant and very funny. And unfair as it is to single anyone out, O’Halloran’s big, head-to-toe performance may leave you with an grin on your face that just won’t wash off.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

REVIEW: Emilia Gallotti (The Gaiety, Dublin)

There are many ways a director might ask for attention at the start of a show, but it is hard to beat the one hit upon by Michael Thalheimer for the opening of Emilia Galotti. As Emilia (Katharina Schmalenberg) wanders down the centre of the Gaiety stage to the slow pulse of a string section, fireworks erupt behind her, unfurling a huge curtain of bright, white sparks over the stage. Ok, we're all sitting up straight: what now?

"What now" turns out to be one of the highlights of the festival, a version of the classic German drama polished and compressed, and told with a restraint that oozes style by Deutsches Theatre Berlin.

Lessing's eighteenth century drama concerns a young woman who catches the eye of a powerful prince and pays the ultimate price when the nobleman decides he must have her. But the production uses the play largely as a launch pad, stripping away obvious scene changes and letting the actors create moods and emotion through body movements, often wordless.

It is as though we have caught this play in the middle of changing into a dance piece, a sense that is underlined by the score (a version of music from Wong Kar-wai's film In the Mood for Love) which plays throughout, pausing only at the most intense moments. There are subtitles for the German spoken, but much of the communication is entrusted to poses, pokes of the finger, staggering walks, and even a long, violent kiss.

And to complete a well-spent 75 minutes, Thalheimer has a smart and attention grabbing ending, every bit as impressive as his opening moments. Not a puff of gunpowder in site, but emotional fireworks all the same. But I won't spoil that surprise.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

REVIEW: Product (Project, Dublin)

A man and a woman in a bare space. He speaks, she listens with all her
might. Sixty minutes elapse. Mark Ravenhill's self-drive vehicle (the
playwright wrote the piece and also stars) is pared down enough to be
a Beckett play, although its obsession with Hollywood, terrorism,
violence pretty much clears up any confusion.

Ravenhill, the author of that bain of posters everywhere, Shopping and
Fucking, has graduated from the enfant terrible of British theatre.
These days he is an artist with enough clout to tour widely in a show
that, without his presence it's easy to imagine, would be far less
widely seen. To put it mildly.

The playwright plays a slightly crazed film producer who has a script
– titled Mohamad and Me, we read on its cover – which promises to put
the "clash of civilisations" into Hollywood language, or at least play
around with some of the clichés and racism that lie behind it. To this
end, he has convinced a "name" actress (Joanne Mitchell) to hear his pitch.

The movie pitch, that hyperventilated spiel designed to attract the
attention and the favours of the gods of money, is an economical way
of evoking those big shots that will cost all the money if the movie
ever gets made. But there is also a growing trend, which Mark
Ravenhill's Product is another example, in which the movie pitch is
--despite suggesting the opposite -- is an end in itself.

As such, it is an illustration of the opposite of "don't tell, show".
It is all "tell, don't show"

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Michael West's "optimistic look at loneliness"

“We are always trying to scare the pants off ourselves every time we make something new,” says Michael West of Corn Exchange. “And we certainly did that this time. But the funny thing is, I think for a lot of people who like Corn Exchange shows, it might look quite familiar.”

How exactly their audience might react to a new show matters to Corn Exchange, not least because they are in the rare position (for a Dublin theatre company) of having a loyal audience. Achieving this has been greatly helped by the fact that the company also have a style and a look that is instantly recognisable. They are not quite the Blue Man Group, but when you see one of the company’s characters in full war paint – white faces with extravagant cheekbones, graphic eyebrows and a menagerie of weird lips – they are hard to mistake.

“It is funny, we always seem to start off deciding to do things very differently,” says West. “But then, after all the months of work, find that lots of familiar stuff has come in through the back door. We are always starting off on a show saying, ‘well, we won’t be using comedia, using makeup,’ but then ending up doing exactly that.”

“I think this is less of a feelgood show than Dublin by Lamplight, which was sort of a tragic farce, but which had a certain lift to it,” says West. Everyday, on the other hand is: “an optimistic look at loneliness.”

It was a show, West says, that that proved difficult to explain to people at first. “I told someone when we started that it was about alienation and despair,” he says. “But not to tell anyone.”

How exactly a Corn Exchange show will finally appear is, according to West, not at all certain when the process begins. This is not, after all, a company that traditionally takes a script, rehearses and presents it. Instead, intense periods of cast improvisation and discussion, which West, as the writer, then captures in regular drafts, have given rise to recent shows, such as their previous hit, Dublin by Lamplight.

One of the directions in which the company has been moving in recent times is towards applying their knowledge and experience of high-pressure collaborative projects to off stage areas. So this week, as well as opening their new Dublin Theatre Festival show, the company will also run this week the inaugural Corn Exchange Workshop for Business Leaders.

“We wanted to try to look at our own strategies and organisation, in a way that we have to if we want to work in the way we do, with long rehearsal periods,” says West, who is married to the company’s director, Chicago-born, Annie Ryan.

“We started on this show in February and there was absolutely nothing then, no script, nothing. And to get from that to here as quickly as we did involves dividing the work up very intelligently between different aspect of the production, like design, lighting, costume and having lots of different people working away. Then, when you bring all of that together again, you can get something enormous.”

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Monday, October 09, 2006

REVIEW: La Tempete/The Tempest (O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin)

Shakespeare's The Tempest has a particular place in theatre, offering what amounts to an invitation to treat for experimental theatre. In the story of a strange island presided over by the vengeful sorcerer, Prospero (Richard Theriault) sometimes what is required is closer to Harry Potter than Hamlet. Sure, there are some nice speeches, but what really counts here is how a production conjures up on stage The Tempest's corps of magic, monsters and storms.

Sometimes the job is pulled off with what might be called "rough magic", that type of theatre that chooses to create images almost with whatever is lying around. Regular Irish visitor's Footsbarn Theatre company toured a version of Tempest which did exactly that, with stormy seas, for example, created – effectively – from the admirably low tech of huge billowing sheets, flapped by cast members.

Canada's 4D Art theatre company French language version of the play takes the 'other' approach, using advanced digital technology to create the magic of Prospero's island. At the heart of their production lies a type of video projection which creates a successful impression of three dimensional forms on the stage, sometime glowing amorphous swirls, sometime life-sized figures, sometimes giant heads that seem to occupy the same space as the live action players.

The approach offers the three-handed directorial crew (Michel Lemieux, Victor Pilon and Denise Guilbault, two out of three of whom have been associated with Cirque du Soleil) a magnificent pallet of cinematic effects and techniques (such as the close-up) ready to deploy when the moment calls for a ghost, or a sudden maelstrom.

But while this is incredibly suggestive of future directions for the theatre, it is clear from La Tempete, smartly-handled as it is, that a completely engaging show still relies on a flash of magic that remains hard to pin down, or digitise. On a good night, the flapping sheet can still be mightier than the hologram.

REVIEW: Empress of India (The Abbey, Dublin)

Who is the aging madman striding the stage in his bed clothes, thinning white hair whipped up like a halo by his demented thrashing? Is it Hamlet or King Lear? Pozzo or Lucky? Or some charlatan channelling all of them? Who knows for sure. For Seamus Lamb (Sean McGinley) is such a distorted, mercurial character, he is equally likely to be pretending to be someone else or revealing himself.

Lamb is the central character in the second full length play from Stuart ‘Navan Man’ Carolan, the tale of an apparently mentally unwell, aging actor and his perfectly dysfunctional family, Martin (Aaron Moaghan), Matty (Tadgh Murphy) and their hovering, mute sister (Sarah Greene).

Empress of India is pretty much the last thing you might expect from Carolan, a writer with a good pedigree of creating populist entertainment. It is a difficult play in which naturalism and extreme theatrical poetry jostle for our attention, a play which demands that the audience work hard, and, when they have, offers them little in the way of conventional rewards.

Sean McGinley is an actor who does exteriors exquisitely well. He is at his best when asked to produce a surface below which an endless reservoir of emotion is suppressed. This, however, makes him something less than an ideal choice for Seamus Lamb, a character whose impact comes from his ability to move between his public face and his private pain with some agility, if not with much strategy.

No wonder the Abbey audience seemed confused. How many of them really find in their everyday lives that the uttering of an obscenity - particularly that ever-popular epithet for copulation - leaves them guffawing uncontrollably? Maybe, of course, there is something cleverer than that at play, and Carolan is simply tipping his audience off about how to react to his uncomfortable, abstract and occasionally overwrought drama.

The only unequivocally successful element here is the production design, by Druid regular, Francis O’Connor, which gives intense visual form to this family’s shattered personas. The centrepiece leaning over the action is a huge set of distorting mirrors, that also occasionally turn into a screen on which images created by the team of Evita Galanou, Ueli Nuesch and Thomas Wollenberger are projected from behind.

The switches between reflection and projection are beautifully poised, punctuating the live action and occasionally telling the part of the story. Scenes presented below the mirrored surface in particular create stunning distorted images, zooming and shrinking the actors as they move about, stylishly paralleling the anguished egos we see struggling with cosmic darkness.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

REVIEW: Empress of India (The Abbey, Dublin)

Who is the aging madman striding the stage in his bed clothes, thinning white hair whipped up like a halo by his demented thrashing? Is it Hamlet or King Lear? Pozzo or Lucky? Or some charlatan channelling all of them? Who knows for sure. For Seamus Lamb (Sean McGinley) is such a distorted, mercurial character, he is equally likely to be pretending to be someone else or revealing himself.

Lamb is the central character in the second full length play from Stuart ‘Navan Man’ Carolan, the tale of an apparently mentally unwell, aging actor and his perfectly dysfunctional family, Martin (Aaron Monaghan), Matty (Tadgh Murphy) and their hovering, mute sister (Sarah Greene).

Empress of India is pretty much the last thing you might expect from Carolan, a writer with a good pedigree of creating populist entertainment. It is a difficult play in which naturalism and extreme theatrical poetry jostle for our attention, a play which demands that the audience work hard, and, when they have, offers them little in the way of conventional rewards.

Sean McGinley is an actor who does exteriors exquisitely well. He is at his best when asked to produce a surface below which an endless reservoir of emotion is suppressed. This, however, makes him something less than an ideal choice for Seamus Lamb, a character whose impact comes from his ability to move between his public face and his private pain with some agility, if not with much strategy.

No wonder the Abbey audience seemed confused. How many of them really find in their everyday lives that the uttering of an obscenity – particularly that ever-popular epithet for copulation – leaves them guffawing uncontrollably? Maybe, of course, there is something cleverer than that at play, and Carolan is simply tipping his audience off about how to react to his uncomfortable, abstract and occasionally overwrought drama.

The only unequivocally successful element here is the production design, by Druid regular, Francis O’Connor, which gives intense visual form to this family’s shattered personas. The centrepiece leaning over the action is a huge set of distorting mirrors, that also occasionally turn into a screen on which images created by the team of Evita Galanou, Ueli Nuesch and Thomas Wollenberger are projected from behind.

The switches between reflection and projection are beautifully poised, punctuating the live action and occasionally telling the part of the story. Scenes presented below the mirrored surface in particular create stunning distorted images, zooming and shrinking the actors as they move about, stylishly paralleling the anguished egos we see struggling with cosmic darkness.

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REVIEW: The Bonefire (Project Cube, Dublin)

A Little World of Our Own , the title Gary Mitchell gave to his play about a community of paramilitary-leaning Loyalists, could equally be applied to Rosemarie Jenkinson's brutal comedy, which features another self-sufficient group of Lagansiders with a nasty predilection towards violent solutions.

Agoraphobic clean-freak, Leanne (Andrea Irvine) and her coke-sniffing, baseball-bat wielding brother, Tommy (Joe Rea) live high up in a block of flats affording fine views of the rabble of Taigs across the river waving their hurleys, as well as of the ever-growing bonny with which the locals are preparing to celebrate "the Twelfth".

They live in a world in which the ubiquity of violence and death has turned black into white, and insanity into everyday behaviour – that is just as long as it can be justified by some Loyalist objective. Like the wee lad who murdered a protestant girl: well, at least he thought she was a catholic. And thank god Dad had the foresight to disguise his suicide as a sectarian killing.

Onto this deranged shore arrives a fresh-faced stranger, whose homicidal credentials seem impeccable. But something about Davey (Gerald Jordan) just doesn't add up. And it's not just the fact that, as tracksuited UDA footsoldier, Warren (Ciaran Nolan) points out: "Everybody is called Davey." His wee friend Jane (Kathy Kiera Clarke) seems like one of us. But does her indignation at the anti-discrimination policies of the civil service represent bone fide biggotry?

Jenkinson writes some very funny, sharp patter, often in a style that harks back to British sitcoms of a bygone era. But Rough Magic director, Lynn Parker, hasn't completely discovered a way to allow the writer's bizarre and unsettling mix of comedy and violence work together. So as the comic book violence and the slapstick kneecappings begin to proliferate, The Bonefire sometimes looks more confused than surreal.

Sean McGinley's Return

Whatever works for you, I suppose. Writer Stuart Carolan's work as a playwright could hardly be further from the bawdy fun he used to create as the voice behind Navan Man, the Irish Essex man who once haunted the drive time airwaves. But that, all the same, is where actor, Sean McGinley, who takes the lead role in Carolan's Abbey debut, first came across the writer.

"Long before I knew it was him, I was a fan of Navan Man," says McGinley, who plays Seamus Lamb in Carolan's The Empress of India. The pair first came close to working together on the writer's last play, Defender of the Faith, a brutal tale of betrayal in a republican paramilitary cell. For various reasons, the final production featured Tom Hickey instead, but something was kindled between the pair.

And so The Empress of India, which centres on the troubled soul of a big name actor whose life has been destroyed by grief, and whose career is fairing little better, was written. The piece was, rumours have it, conceived with McGinley in mind. But that is, of course, rather different to be based on McGinley -- "Whatever the catalyst was," says McGinley, "The piece was already in his head." And the
character is more likely, in fact, to recall a different generation of larger than life Europeans who made their name in Hollywood, such as Richards Harris or Burton.

For McGinley, however, it doesn't matter which. "I didn't have other actors in mind when I was rehearsing the part. There may be certain things in the rhythms, but I deliberately didn't want it to be doing an impression of anyone."

The Empress of India marks the first time in five years that McGinley, who was one of the original member of Galway's Druid Theatre company, has appeared on the stage. All the same, he has been far from invisible in that period, giving flesh to Roddy Doyle's abusive husband, Charlo, in The Family, and working directors such as Michael
Winterbottom (on the 24 Hours Party People's directors hugely under-rated, The Claim) as well as joining the ranks of Irish actors roaming the streets of turn of the century hell's Kitchen in Gangs of New York.

"It wasn't a conscious choice," says McGinley. "it is just being a freelance actors there are all sorts of other factors involved. I didn't think the last time I was on stage that I wouldn't go on again for five years."

So how does it feel to be back, to plunge again into the routine of nightly shows – and even matinees?

"Amazingly, it felt like I'd never been away, the routine of doing a play every night it feels very like it always did. Very natural. When you're on the stage there are moments when its great and moments when you want to shoot yourself and everyone around you."

Surely there are none of the latter in this production?:

"Well, there are degrees…there are always moments…nights when you think 'shite.' …But that's just the normal cut and thrust of a night on the stage."

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REVIEW: The Vacationers (The Gaiety, Dublin)

Maxim Gorky's Summer Folk (on which The Vacationers is based) explores the first flowering of the Russian middle class enjoying the brand new concept of "holidays". Apparently. But for anyone showing up for Omsk State Theatre's Theatre Festival production without that foreknowledge, what exactly is being explored might remain infuriatingly difficult to know.

In a seaside resort, a group of well-to-do families gather for the vacation, a time during which they intend, it seems, to recite pompous poetry, confess undying love, spill their drinks, cheat on their spouses and generally act the maggot. As the summer wears on, a pitch of irritation builds until they are all squabbling with, wrestling and even shooting at their neighbours.

Director, Evgeny Marchelli's vision of how all this might fit into astage production is a faltering one. His main actors mostly play in a naturalistic manner that might have worked perfectly in the original productions of plays by Gorky, or indeed Checkov. But behind them, a whole other troupe of reserves, done up with mime-school- reject facepaint, keep appearing and dancing around on a second stage behind the action. Perhaps, like Chelsea's bench, their presence is supposed to spur the first team on to greater efforts. But the real problem at Omsk State Theatre FC is that the game plan is just too vague.

Billed as a hilarious physical comedy, most of the action was instead verbal, not to mention delivered in a Russian that the projected sur-titles often failed to keep up with, never mind capture. Most of the hilarity came instead from malfunctioning tech. These were so numerous that it was almost impossible to feel anything but sympathy for the actors who had to keep going in the face of emptying seats and growing sniggering from the audience. Everybody deserved better.