Thursday, October 04, 2007

REVIEW: Long Day's Journey Into Night (The Gaiety, Dublin)

Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night is an epic of unrelenting misery, all but devoid of any but the dimmest light, stripped of any emotion that isn't so mixed that it is hard, really, to give it a name at all. And every shred of that pain and meanness, every degree of recrimination, is in place in Garry Hynes' latest stern Druid production.

A former Shakespearean actor-turned-skinflint hack, James Tyrone (James Cromwell) and his deliriously dysfunctional family are about to enter four of their darkest hours. Mother Mary (Marie Mullen) is back on the morphine. For a while there, things were looking good; she seemed to have kicked for real this time. But now she's sneaking off again for a shot.

It's Dad's fault say the boys-who-might-be-men, Jamie (Aidan Kelly) and Edmund (Michael Esper), for being so mean. It's your fault for being such wastrels, counters the old man. No, it's yours -- for being born at all, honks mom from deep within the chemical, literal and metaphorical fog.

But that, of course, is the heart of the problem here: the Tyrones are addicted to blame. They will blame themselves if really forced, but, in general, they'd far rather lay the grief at each other's door. And what a lot of grief there is. Over the hours, scraps of injustice, rationalisation, hurbis and savage hurt pile up, until there is a monumental bonfire of human suffering filling the stage.

Hynes' approach on all this is, remarkably, to play it down, to take the epic bitterness and make it, somehow, everyday. It is a tack that makes sense, since allowing this play the full tilt emotional meltdown could easily leave contemporary audiences feeling rather detached. The alternative, however, which seems to happen here, is that the performances can seem a little small for the characters, so that even though there nothing here is short on quality, it sill feels as though everyone is trying on a suit that is simply a size too big.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Aidan Kelly's mini-marathon

“It’s a bit like a marathon,” says Aidan Kelly about preparing for his festival show this year, Druid’s epic production of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. “It’s not like you start out running 26 miles on the first day. You get one scene together, then two. And then you start running them together, and next thing you know…right now I’d say we’re match fit.”

Eugene O’Neil’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, is undoubtedly one of the biggies of the American theatre – in artistic stature, but also when judged by its running of around four hours. It ought to be, you might imagine, a pretty intimidating play to perform. While Kelly doesn’t spend quite as much time on stage over the course of the evening as James Cromwell, who plays the patriarch of a dysfunctional Irish American family, as Jamie, the most prodigal of sons, he is taking on the role that has made some notable careers.

“There have been so many great actors who have taken the part, Jason Robards was in the original, Kevin Spacey played Jamie, and Phillip Seamore Hoffman. Some really amazing actors…” Not that Kelly is intimidated. The actor, who is on something of a roll, after a barnstorming performance in Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus, figures any actor’s confidence would get a tremendous boost simply by getting cast in Druid’s production. “When someone like Gary Hynes offers you a part, that all the running start you need…”

Kelly’s experience with other festivals, such as at Edinburgh, where he has been with (among other things) the Abbey’s infamous production of The Barbaric Comedies, is that how ever impressive the bill of international theatre on offer, it’s still pretty unlikely he will be seeing very much of it. “It’s hard to imagine even. When you’re in the theatre all night, the last place you want to be, if you get any time off, is another theatre…”

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

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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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

REVIEW: Julius Caesar (The Abbey, Dublin)

It is startling to notice – after a decade's worth of TV phorensic drama – how the conventions of the CSI/Bones axis get an early outing in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. As he leans over the dead body of Ceasar (…oops, is that a spoiler..?) Mark Anthony leads us, and the good people of Rome, through his reconstruction of that most celebrated of literary crime scenes, offering us his specialist appraisal of the motives, the weapons, the wounds, even the blood-splatter evidence:


"As he pluck'd his cursed Steel away
Mark how the Blood of Cæsar follow'd it!"


instructs Dr. Mark Anthony.

But then, of course, the interesting question here is not so much whether the material is as good as you might find on a good episode of Bones (er, it is) but whether it might compete in the same world. Does Jason Byrne's chunky new Abbey production, which offers an extraordinarily dense catalogue of murders, suicides and bloody deaths, also offer an experience that is more marking, more communicative, more resonant than an evening in front of the telly.

Julius Caesar, particularly in Byrne's vision, is an ensemble piece, with formidable roles for Robert O'Mahoney, as the essentially frail Caesar; Frank McCusker as a fractious and frankly psychotic, Cassius; Declan Conlon, as a particularly unforgivable Brutus; and Aidan Kelly, as a Marc Anthony who is as unattractive as any of the conspirators. There may be winners and losers here, but there are no heroes.

Byrne's chunky [you've said that already...if you mean "long" say it --Schizoed] production has so much swagger its style, that is seems quite often to swamp the work of the actors, no more so than in the crowd scenes, which can have more than a whiff of a 80s Duran Duran video.

Jon Bausor's set is ambitious, but its grandeur does not always seem to be pitching in and helping out. It freely mixes style – togas and trousers, breastplates and jack boots, armies of swordsmen and gramophone discs – in a post-modern mash-up, but the effort does not, in the end, amplify the meanings or drive the momentum of the piece.

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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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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

REVIEW: The Ha’penny Bridge (The Point, Dublin)

You know you’re dealing with a class show when the writer’s program biog boasts The Production and Marketing of Beef in Europe among his previous works. And it is no joke: Alastair McGuckian, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for The Ha’penny Bridge spent most of his life in the cattle trade and currently owns the biggest dairy heard in the world. Now, can Andrew Lloyd Webber claim that?

McGuckian’s mega-musical seems to have been coming down the tracks for so many months now, it is hard to believe it’s only having its first night. Any show would have difficulty living up to that much marketing, but The Ha’penny Bridge is so obviously determined not to short-change anyone that it seems -- almost -- to justify the palaver. This is a big show.

Where recent Irish musical endeavours, such as Shay Healey’s The Wiremen, have been apt to look a little cash-strapped, The Ha’penny Bridge goes the whole hog – offering a whopping great orchestra with a stonking percussion section, thundering chorus, epic dance numbers, big sets and slightly bigger emotions. With that kind of bill of fare, is it surprising if there is very little room for subtlety?

The Ha’penny Bridge is also distinguished by a coherent (though hardly innovative) storyline, something that just about gives the show enough drive to keep going for its near three hours length.

In Civil War-torn Dublin, the feckless natives are busy drinking and ‘hooring, while their more engagé brethren are busy shooting each other. So far, so Plough and the Stars. One fine daughter of Monto, Molly (Annalene Beechey) gets mixed up with an English bloke who is attempting to buy her father greyhound, Fair City. Trouble and strife ensue.

McGuckian’s story has the clean lines that allow several characters to develop, but it is the staging and the music that remain in charge here, with some fine orchestral manoeuvres (directed by Gearoid Grant) and winning vocal work from Beechey and Flo McSweeney among others.

Various actors – including Aidan Kelly, Mark Lambert and Mark O’Regan – keep the dirty Dublin quotient high, despite some rather odd accents emanating from the international chorus.

There are, all the same, moments of dullness and paddywhackery that are hard to stomach. The particularly grating use of the world “macushla” was symptomatic of larger issues with the show. Scenes regularly lurched into excruciating stage Irishisms and demented blarney. Dub Dub Dub, for example, a song extolling the virtues of porter, is nothing short of hokum. A bit of a trimming of the otherwise strong herd might benefit here.

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Saturday, October 02, 1999

Trevor Griffiths' Comedians

How could Trevor Griffiths have known what he was creating when his play, Comedians opened in 1975? How could he have known that his drama about a group of hopeful entertainers in a Manchester bingo hall, would steer the course of his life in one way or another?

The play's many productions saw Griffiths fetch up in Chicago for an all-black version, and in Liverpool, where an all-female cast performed the play. It also lead, says Manchester-born Griffiths, to a number of productions "far too painful to remember". Before the latest production of the play, directed by Jimmy Fay as Bickerstaffe's contribution to the eircom Dublin Theatre Festival, Griffiths had already made a new rule: "Don't bugger around with it."

The new cast includes something of a cracking selection box of Irish acting talent, including Brian de Salvo, Dan Gordon from A Night in November and two Irish actors just returned from Edinburgh covered in glory, Karl Shiels and Aidan Kelly, the fast-talking stars of Howie the Rookie.

None of these people, as far as Griffiths can tell, have any intention of "buggering around" with the play. Indeed, when he first sat in on a rehearsal for the new show, Griffiths had only the vaguest inkling that not all the Mancunian accents he heard were real.

If the author exhibits an almost protective attitude towards Comedians, it is hardly surprising given the influence it has had on his working life. It was for example, his meeting with the young Stephen Rea, who appeared in the original production, that lead him many years later to direct the same actor in Field Day's Saint Oscar.

It was also Comedians that lead Griffiths to Broadway, where Mike Nichols directed the first American production. It was through Nichols that Griffiths became involved with Warren Beatty. "Nichols brought me to a wedding where I met Warren Beatty under a tree and it started there." That meeting resulting in Beatty asking Griffiths to write the script for Reds.

In the end, Griffiths says he accepted his screenplay credit only because there remained some fragments of his original script with which he was still happy. These days, Griffiths seems pretty sanguine about the experience. "I was always aware of the ironies of trying to make socialist art in that sess pit. But it's like Brecht says: You can't work in a sewer and refuse to handle shit."

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Friday, April 23, 1999

Howie The Rookie (Andrews Lane Theatre, Dublin)

I can't find the original review for Howie, but i thought i'd just post this short version...


If the Dublin stage ever saw a more gruesome and graphic description of violence than the one to which audiences of Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie have been treated, then few can have left the theatre that night with their dinners in their stomachs.

O’Rowe’s hyperviolent pair of linked monologues uses the burgeoning new town of Tallaght as its backdrop, and does absolutely nothing to defeat the location’s reputation for hardcore lifestyles.

Aidan Kelly and Karl Shiels develop an image of weekend of partying and mindless brutality with great finesse, with Shiels in particular turning in a hugely absorbing and charismatic performance as a handsome fool with a bad case of scabies.

As with that other young purveyor of monologues, Conor MacPherson, O’Rowe’s success is in simply telling a story, rather than in orchestrating complex on-stage relationships; that, however, hardly detracts from what is an exceptional – and exceptionally entertaining – night at the theatre.

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