Thursday, May 31, 2007

REVIEW: The Crucible (The Abbey, Dublin)

Are you with the Goodies, or the baddies? A follower of God, or a servant of Lucifer? Democrat or Republican? With us, or against us? And, yes, those are the only choices.

Arthur Millar's drama of Seventeenth century Massachusetts superstition was originally conceived in the wake of the anti-communist purges that dominated 1950s American. But as the current resurgence of homicidal groupthink across the Atlantic suggests, such spasms of hysterical bigotry are very much part of the American Way

It would probably be a mistake, all the same, to read Patrick Mason's thunderously emotional new production at the Abbey as a simple allegory for the current US regime's "War on Terrorism." For tucked into Millers drama are all sorts of intriguing ideas about knowledge and human society, obedience and progress.

The town of Salem (evoked effectively by Conor Murphy's harsh, scuffed-Goth design in tones of graphite and charcoal) is swept up in a familiar kind of madness, in which anything less than total acquiescence is read as an admission of guilt.

The girls of the village, lead by Abigail (Ruth Negga) are keen to explain away their naked midnight dancing, and pious Rev. Parris (Peter Hanly) is more than happy to have something to blame for the disintegration of his flock. And so the devil takes the rap.

Everyone, it soon becomes clear, is guilty of something; not to be would be a crime in itself. Once the deafening machinery of the witch trials starts up, you see, finding fuel, rather than separating the innocent from the sinner, becomes the true quest.

Mason's production brilliantly steers clear of preachy excess, while still giving Miller's play a humming emotional clarity. In the director's hands, the large set-pieces, such as when the village girls wheel around the stage in demented ecstasy, become as eloquent as the quiet suffering, or the ornate liturgical disputes that pepper the dialogue.

There are half a dozen extraordinarily good performances, but as the couple at the emotional centre of this maelstrom, Declan Conlon and Cathy Belton are nothing short of startling: restrained, quietly focussed, but ever-ready for the violent onset of the kind of integrity that can derail even a global crusade.

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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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