Wednesday, December 20, 2006

2006's Best Shows

The mix of theatre and music is hardly a new one, but in 2006 the sound of it all was at least as important as the words. But more than ever this year, music one was of the key pleasures offered by a trip to the theatre. And this was true from the more experimental shows that turned up for the festivals this year, to the mass-market products. Indeed, sometimes it seemed that the experimental companies has more in common with those who set out simply to entertain, than Dublin's dreary old guard, still besotted "great writing," "great writers" and the interminable Beckett Centenary.

So without further they are, the best shows seen in Dublin 2006, I'd say...

The Neighbourhood Watch This Award
"John Moran and his Neighbour Saori" (John Moran and Saori)
When they get together composer, John Moran and his Neighbour Saori sure must light up their Brooklyn neighbourhood, and for a few short nights this autumn they did the same for The Dublin Fringe Festival. The pair's hallucinogenic mix of sampledelic composition, storytelling and dance routines choreographed to the sound of car horns, cash tills, snatches of mobile phone conversations, Bach and Neil Young, effortlessly lived up to Saori's promise that "We do stuff that isn't really like anything you've seen before."

The Night of the Living Dead Award
This is Elvis (Laurie Mansfield/Bill Kenwright)
This is Elvis, a hyperreal recreation of Elvis' 68 Comeback Special and first 1969 concert in Las Vegas, was a bizarre, brilliant night of the undead that turned the business of Elvis impersonating into a vital, breathing art form. Irredeemably kitsch and undeniably haunting, Simon Bowman's hip-shaking monster formed the centrepiece of a show that was just this side of an orgiastic voodoo ritual.

The Literally Theatrical Fireworks Award
Emilia Galotti (Deutsches Theatre, Berlin)
When it came to grabbing our attention, German director, Michael Thalheimer, had the year's best answer. His version of the classic, Emilia Galotti, opened with the Gaiety stage filled with torrents of bright, white fireworks. Luckily enough, he had plenty of other tricks up his sleeve – including pinching the theme music from Hong Kong director, Wong Kar-wai's film, In the Mood for Love – to create a startling mix of music, stage design and movement that burned into the memory.

The Whist Awhile, Girleen, Good Things Come to Them That Does Be Waiting Award
The Playboy of the Western World (Pan Pan)
They left it right until the end, but Pan Pan's sublime Mandarin take on Synge's story of the man who (almost) killed his Da provided two hours worth of the best fun to be had in a Dublin theatre this year and improved our Beijing street slang no end. Unstintingly sassy and frequently smart-arsed, the production breathed homemade 65% alcohol-soaked breath into the classic. Niu Be (Mandarin for the dog's, we believe).

The So Much Better Than It Sounds It's A Miracle Award
Exquisite Pain (Forced Entertainment)
How come a show based on one little story from French conceptual artist, Sophie Calle – moreover, a story about getting dumped over the phone – told over and over again by two actors sitting at desks, reading, turns out to be one of the performance events of the year? Blame British troupe, Forced Entertainment for conceiving something so strong and so simple that it had the power to break your world into little pieces.

The I Must Go On (and on and on and on) Boobie Prize
The Beckett Centenary (The chancers, everywhere, forever)
They came to praise Foxrock's favourite son, but in the end they pretty much buried him. The year-long event (surely it was much, much longer than that?) did irreparable damage to the writer's reputation, uniting in infamy all manner of wideboys, hucksters and hangers on, and ensuring that if nobody stages another Beckett play / reading / interpretive encounter for another 100 years, it won't seem too long.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Gavin Quinn's Mandarin Playboy

First off, the question that must, of course, be uppermost in the minds of readers here: Tell me now and tell me true: what is the Mandarin for “loy”?

Why Tie Qiao, of course.

It took nearly four years for Pan Pan’s latest production to see the light of day. But then, heading to China to produce a Mandarin version of The Playboy of the Western World, always sounded like a courageous idea. By the time the company had been through no less than seven different Chinese partners, commissioned a new translation of the play and found somewhere to perform in Beijing, the years had just flown by.

“We always thought it would be a bit of an adventure,” says the show’s director, Gavin Quinn. “So we decided to just stick with it and not worry too much about the timescale.”

In China, the adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is enshrined in the idea of Guan Xi, according to Quinn. “It means contacts. And without contact there is no way to do anything there.”

But even with Guan Xi, way to first night paved with many traps. “One of our partners were originally very happy with us when they thought we were a kind of Riverdance outfit. Someone who was going to make them millions with some sort of global touring product,” says Quinn. “But when they realised we were doing things on a very small scale, they lost interest. They even told off the person who had put us into contact with them.”

Working on a small scale, had some advantages in China however. The complex business of securing the correct licences, permits and permissions, the company discovered, would be much harder if they were not an experimental theatre company. Had Pan Pan’s Playboy played to more than 1000 people, it would have been considered a “mass media” event and received intense official scrutiny.

Eventually, however, a partner was found and the company set about the old business of finding a venue, casting and even creating that new translation of Synge’s story of patricide in the West of Ireland. Synge has never been big in China, it seems, and the only existing translation was from the 1930s, and written in a classical Chinese that even the younger Chinese actors could hardly read. The answer was to make a new one, one which, according to Quinn, was steeped in the street language of cotemporary Beijing.

The action of the new version happens on the outskirts of the capital, where the old China of the country meets the new China of the cities, and where a rather unusual type of business operates: “It’s set in a whore-dressers, which is a kind of hairdressers that is also a brothel…it is usually identifiable by pictures of feet outside. And, lots of village girls in miniskirts hanging around, not cutting hair.”

As a company that works exclusively in experimental styles – for example, producing a show in which 100 actors were stationed in 100 little rooms and each visited, for a chat, by one member of the audience – Pan Pan found the rather, er, traditional flavour of actor training in China, something of a hurdle.

“They don’t really have freelance actors. Most actors would be attached to a company, or else on contracts to make TV shows. They are taught a kind of old fashioned Stanislavski style of acting, they learn to sing and dance, and it can take seven years or more to finish the course.”

“We had to convince the actors that we wanted was to see something of themselves in the performances. The older actors could adapt to that more easily, but the younger actors thought we wanted the very standard type of very earnest American TV acting. They found it all much more difficult.”

After performing the show in Chinas earlier this year, the challenge now is to install the Mandarin-speaking version of Synge’s classic in Ireland. The job has involved re-translating the show back into English for the subtitles often using the playwright’s original language, but also providing a Chinese glossary for the Dublin audience.

“I just realised when I wrote an explanation of one term – Lei Feng – it took me a whole paragraph to explain….”

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In the future...

...all theatre shows in Dublin will feature Joe Roch & Megan Riordan.
Hello...? Like, everywhere!

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REVIEW: The School For Scandal (Abbey Theatre, Dublin)

When Lady Sneerwell and the other gossips of her school for scandal swing into action, it takes a few moments to adjust to the highfalutin buzz of eighteenth century English in the Abbey’s Christmas show. Or perhaps, the slight delay is just a moment of confused recovery from staring at the retina-zapping red set that strafes the audience before the actors arrive.

Luckily enough, when the cast set to work the performances have the kind of torrential flow that soon enough makes you feel as at home with Lady Candour, Joseph Surface and Sir Benajmin Backbite as you might be in the company of Felicity Shagwell.

Sheridan’s vicious comedy was first staged in 1777, but here gets the kind of ridiculously ramped up production that makes it look like, if not a teenager, at least as sprightly a 223-year-old as you are likely to meet. The plan here is clearly seasonal fun – and seasonal colour. But the quality of the material means the show refuses to lie down and simply entertain. Jimmy Fay, not a director you might immediately associate with rollicking good fun, gives the production the shape and momentum it needs to capture both the farce and the frightening viciousness of it all.

The ensemble cast is pretty much uniformedly on the money. So it is entirely unfair to single out some top quality mincing from David Pearse, whose grandiloquent clown, Sir Benjamin Backbite is timelessly grotesque, or Mark Lambert’s dry old stick, Sir Peter Teazle, or the crowd-pleasing Rory Keenan, with his Colin Farrell badboy act as the wastrel, Charles Surface.

Ferdia Murphy’s set (a half sister to the one for Emilia Galloti at this year’s theatre festival) is an startling white, cartoon box decorated with simple graphics, providing a clever ground for Paul Keogan’s scene-setting lighting and the multicar pile-up of Leonore McDonagh’s ever more nauseously clashing costumes. Nicely done.

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