Tuesday, April 03, 2007

REVIEW: Talking to Terrorist (Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin)

The big question that hangs over verbatim theatre – theatre in which the words spoken on stage were all first spoken by real people – is why work this way? What more is achieved when the words don't come from the playwright's memory and imagination, but instead from the lips of real historical and contemporary figures?

The question is posed in an acute form by Robin Soans' latest foray into verbatim theatre, a rapid fire exploration of terrorism and its effects on both perpetrators and victims, using a range of testimonies from everybody from a former African child soldier to Norman Tebbit.

Soans has woven the testimony into short, pointed scenes, which are here sharply delivered by an expert cast of storytellers, including Helen Norton (who does nice Mo) and Michael Grennell, who adroitly leaps from an ex-member of the Al Asqua Matyrs Brigade to a well-starched British colonel, and David Pearse, who provides a couple of nice turns, particularly as the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan.

The problems here do not stem from the cast, Moggie Douglas' design or Bairbre Ni Chaoimh's direction, all of which skilfully mix panache and passion. Less sure-footed is Soans' play, in which the quest for truth seldom really moves beyond a liberal-ish received opinion.

The triumph of the best of verbatim theatre – let's say Richard Norton-Taylor's Scenes from the Saville Enquiry – is that it sifted and organised in dramatic form information that was originally (probably) intentionally dense and opaquely presented.

Because Talking to Terrorist assumes a more general job for itself, it is not nearly as powerful and corrosive a piece of work. Several of the people represented, for instance, are already media figures, which somewhat distorts matters.

And there is an argument, even, that to link violence is so many different global conflicts -- from Palestine, to Sierra Leone, Belfast to Uzbekistan -- is to foster a Bushist agenda, to see all conflicts, no matter how different their origins, as the actions of a homogenised enemy that must be annihilated.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

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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