Saturday, January 12, 2008

REVIEW: Vive La! (Project Cube, Dublin)

Donal O'Kelly's work since Catalpa has not always been as focused and unequivocally successful as that shining chapter in the history of Irish theatre. But with the latest incarnation of his company, featuring regular collaborator Sorcha Fox, alongside a troupe composed of Ciaran Kenny, Sinead Murphy and composer and musician, Trevor Knight, the actor's theatrical language sees a mature flowering.

The show, which is devised by the company after a tale from a collection of Fingal folk tales, tells the story of intrigue and treachery North of Dublin, in the era of the United Irishmen's rising of 1798. A lad from Stoneybatter is coerced into spying for the Crown, enlisted to uncover the leaders of the group on pain of death. But his heart isn't it, even if he takes to the role of a monoglot French soldier, who ardently backs the men – and women – of 98.

O'Kelly's style has always had a Brechtian flavour to it, and here that it successfully incorporated into the action, as the company tramp on stage, eyeballing the audience and announcing their status as a traveling company of mummers, here to tell us a story. It is not a revolutionary set up, but it seems to give a kind of coherence to all that follows, as the performers dance, rhyme, sing, play instruments, create special effects and melt into and out of character.

O'Kelly and co conjure up this vicious world of plots, betrayals, ideals, love and spies with a broad physical acting style and a smooth, playful, lyrical but never over-egged language. The arte povera costumes from Miriam Duffy threadbare, lacy, or slashed, in shades of wet and dry blood, gently assist in giving the company of mummers a look and feel that is part gothic, part circus. All of which assists in producing a classy show that delivers on its promises.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Donal O'Kelly's Vive La!

"Stanislavski would go green in the gills if he saw what we were doing," says Donal O'Kelly, of his latest venture, Vive La!, a show in the style of a traditional mummers company.

"But you know, performance is a huge rainbow of styles that you can use, and we are all just trying to pretend with as much truth as possible. Which is pretty much what every actor does."

And in the case of Vive La!, finding the correct style of truth has meant dipping back into the native performance tradition, to a folk style always associated with the Christmas season, The Mummers plays. These rough folk performances, which leant heavily on rhythm, rhyme and music, previously provided the inspiration for Druid's in At the Black Pig's Dyke, in 1992, which used the mumming style to look at trouble and strife in the Irish borderlands.

"The mummers' plays also always had a bit of satirical steel in them, way before Boucicault or the Abbey, or anything like that came along. There was often a bit of hand-biting directed at the powers that be, the local landlord or bigwig. And we wanted to put a bit of that metal into the show."

The metal in Vive La!, the story of a Frenchman who fetched up in the village of Naul in North Dublin, in 1798, is, according to O'Kelly, about the great Irish tradition of spies.

"Because it certainly is a tradition, something that is really part of what we are. And I'm not just talking about 1798 and all that, but also part of what has been happening in the North in the last 30 years. Spying is something that we do as a species, and I suppose the play is about pointing to that and suggesting maybe, that there might be other ways of doing things…"

O'Kelly, devised Vive La! with Sorcha Fox, Ciaran Kenny and Sinead Murphy, a group which now forms the company in residence at the Glen's Arts Centre, Co Leitrim, near where the Dublin actor now lives.

"I brought the original story, which came from a book of Fingal folk tales by Patrick Archer. And then together we all had to work out what would be the best way of telling this particular story, the best way of pretending. And we decided that the mummer's style was what was going to work best, so we developed it from there."

If you were going to trust anyone to discover the useful contemporary aspects of mummers, O'Kelly, the performer behind some of the most lyrically inventive acting seen on the Irish stage, would seem like a very good bet, especially when he pegs his motivation so far from the realm of academic exercise.

"To tell a good story is always the main thing…"

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