Wednesday, June 27, 2007

REVIEW: Who By Fire (The Olympia, Dublin)

The Nazi flags flying over the entrance to the Olympia Theatre were a bad sign, but the worst was confirmed by the greeters, dressed in Nazi uniforms, ordering the arriving crowd to their seats, after stamping each wrist with a number in blue ink.

Does somebody involved here really think the Holocaust makes a nice subject for a larky bit of audience participation?

A couple of hours later and the faint, dark blue stamp has faded a little, but not the impression of one of the most wrong-headed, theatrically flaccid, and constantly tasteless presentations the Olympia has ever seen.

A musical about the Holocaust is a pretty courageous endeavour, certainly, one that is fraught with many risks. But it still seems hardly credible that Who By Fire suffers from every single lapse of judgment imaginable under the circumstances, up to and including what looks very like prurience.

And that is even before the show fails by every theatrical standard.

The story, directed and written (from survivor testimony) by John McKenna, tells of a group of people brought to Auschwitz and forced into slave labour before being executed. The group includes (in perhaps the show's only interesting decision) not just Jews, but also, as did the camps, gays, communists, gypsies and, we are told, Jehovah's Witnesses.

As the group endures life at the camp, they (and their Nazi keepers) occasionally pause to sing a familiar Leonard Cohen song. Or a semi-familiar one. Because alterations have been made to Cohen's lyrics which seem like nothing short of vandalism.

"First we take the Reichstag / They we take Berlin" sings the camp commandant at one point, not for the first time stripping Cohen's work of the precise humour that makes it function.

Apparently Cohen gave permission for the inept re-writing of some of his better-known compositions, but he could hardly have understood how badly they would be performed. The daft tunes from Mel Brooks' The Producers would have resonated as usefully here.

A lean night on You're A Star would put to shame almost all the singing here. Stage design was pretty much non-existent, and the lighting plot was erratic, frequently leaving featured performers in the dark.

Who By Fire is an entirely risible endeavour, and yet impossible, given the subject matter, to respond to with laughter.

On 27.06.07,  Livelive with Joe Duffy on RTE Radio 1 hosted a debate about Who By Fire, with myself and the play's director/author, John McKenna, and several other contributors. A podcast of the program is available for download here:

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

David Horan's Hue and Cry

“My English teacher told me something in school about short stories that’s true about short plays too: unless you feel at the end you’ve seen a whole life, then it’s not working…”

The Gospel according to David Horan, director of – wouldn’t you know it – a new short play, Hue and Cry, written by Deirdre Kinahan.

Currently weighing in at around 42 minutes, Hue and Cry is part of Tall Tales Theatre company’s season of short plays by women writers, Txt, which will run lunchtimes at Bewley’s Café Theatre this summer.

As well as Kinahan’s show, there will be new work from Iseult Golden and TIC by Elizabeth Moynihan, both of whom are debuting their first full plays. None of these dramas will run to more than an hour.

Hue and Cry concerns a pair of cousins who meet at a funeral. One is a world-worn junky and Shamrock Rovers fan (Karl Shiels, of Semper Fi), the other a choreographer (Will O’Connell, last seen playing a rake of parts in the Abbey’s Julius Caesar). Different worlds, they agree, linked by the fact that neither contemporary dance nor the Hoops pull much of a crowd.

The script for their encounter reads almost like a comedy sketch it is so spare. And short.

“Yes,” says Horan. “The thing is when you leave plenty of space around the writing, you get to create everything else physically, through looks and gestures…”

Horan, director in residence at Inis, the theatre company that brought the world Tick My Box, is a master at making sure the maxim “less is more” holds true. That small comedy also started off in Bewley’s Café Theatre, but subsequently toured extensively for nearly three years.

“Touring for that long means you get into an awful lot of the administration that goes with it,” says Horan. “So, we decided that we would only write this year.”

First fruits of that approach should be the TV version of Tick My Box. The original production had Inis founders, Iseult Golden and Carmel Stephens, playing all the characters at a speed dating event, shapeshifting to hilarious effect between desperate punters and their dates.

The television version has been expanded to a four-parter during which we see the events of the night from the point of view of four different characters. “…”

So does Tick My Box the television show keep the theatre version’s magic trick, of having the two women play all the characters. “No, they won’t be playing them all. We thought about it doing it that way, but no: Iseult and Carmel have sort of chosen their favourite characters and we stick with them through the night.”

Next up for Inis at the theatre, however, is – you guessed again – another program of short plays, this time from the master of the miniature, David Ives, one of the few playwright’s who writes works so short you could catch a handful of them at lunchtime.

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REVIEW: Terminus (The Peacock, Dublin)

It is as easy to imagine someone walking out on Terminus as to imagine them loving the show with a passion. Everyone has their breaking point, and it’s quite possible that among the lovingly told beatings, garrottings and backstreet abortions in Mark O’Rowe’s new show, you might find yours.

But equally plausibly, you might find the writing here has the sort of explosion of imagination, sparks, muscle and purpose that keeps you drinking in the experience with wonder.

Once again using the monologue form from which he rarely departs, O’Rowe offers us a story of nighttown, of mutilation, of murder, of crazed, and orgiastic sex involving devilish flying creatures with bodies made entirely of worms.

While the Tallaght playwright’s previous works always had the glint of cinematic fantasy, his writing now fully welcomes the mythological, the supernatural and a whole pantheon of unearthly entities. And the effect proves liberating.

A serial killer (luciferianly charming, Aidan Kelly) who has – and we’re talking literally, here – sold his soul to the devil, a lonely spinster (Eileen Walsh) saved from death by that very soul, and a telephone counsellor (a slightly miscast, Andrea Irvine) take it in turns to speak. Each offers (in loose, bubbling verse) their take on one tumultuous night of mayhem. As these things should, their stories mesh in the most unexpected – and unearthly – ways.

Jon Bausor's design, with its black plinth for each actor, looks very like the set for an Olympic medal presentation – in Hell. Instead of a proscenium there is the suggestion of an enormous framed mirror which has been smashed to let us see the performers within. Some loud, glass-shattering type noises that announce the start of the show re-enforce the idea, as do jagged reflective shards hanging above the actors.

None of this, however, is particularly clever or interesting. But as the plan is to light each of the actors only when they are speaking, and to leave them -- and the rest of the stage -- semi-visible in the darkness, when they are not, it’s not all that important either. But even the lighting exists largely to manage our attention. This is a show about words, and the voices that speak them.

If this were an awards ceremony, then Eileen Walsh would be nabbing the gold. Her storytelling is so completely absorbing it feels like hypnotism, so completely embodied that you’ll feel vertigo as she talks about walking out on a crane high above twinkling Dublin.

Milton’s Paradise Lost (of all things) hovers around the edges of this punch-up between evil and more evil, but it is the spirit of that other English dissenter poet, Mike Skinner, that comes most forcefully to mind. All the same, O’Rowe’s flow – as adventurous, flippant, and mordant as the best freestyle -- doesn’t need a beatbox to shake the floor.

So, right now, the National Theatre has up and running two stellar productions. How long since that could be said?

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