Monday, October 09, 2006

REVIEW: Empress of India (The Abbey, Dublin)

Who is the aging madman striding the stage in his bed clothes, thinning white hair whipped up like a halo by his demented thrashing? Is it Hamlet or King Lear? Pozzo or Lucky? Or some charlatan channelling all of them? Who knows for sure. For Seamus Lamb (Sean McGinley) is such a distorted, mercurial character, he is equally likely to be pretending to be someone else or revealing himself.

Lamb is the central character in the second full length play from Stuart ‘Navan Man’ Carolan, the tale of an apparently mentally unwell, aging actor and his perfectly dysfunctional family, Martin (Aaron Moaghan), Matty (Tadgh Murphy) and their hovering, mute sister (Sarah Greene).

Empress of India is pretty much the last thing you might expect from Carolan, a writer with a good pedigree of creating populist entertainment. It is a difficult play in which naturalism and extreme theatrical poetry jostle for our attention, a play which demands that the audience work hard, and, when they have, offers them little in the way of conventional rewards.

Sean McGinley is an actor who does exteriors exquisitely well. He is at his best when asked to produce a surface below which an endless reservoir of emotion is suppressed. This, however, makes him something less than an ideal choice for Seamus Lamb, a character whose impact comes from his ability to move between his public face and his private pain with some agility, if not with much strategy.

No wonder the Abbey audience seemed confused. How many of them really find in their everyday lives that the uttering of an obscenity - particularly that ever-popular epithet for copulation - leaves them guffawing uncontrollably? Maybe, of course, there is something cleverer than that at play, and Carolan is simply tipping his audience off about how to react to his uncomfortable, abstract and occasionally overwrought drama.

The only unequivocally successful element here is the production design, by Druid regular, Francis O’Connor, which gives intense visual form to this family’s shattered personas. The centrepiece leaning over the action is a huge set of distorting mirrors, that also occasionally turn into a screen on which images created by the team of Evita Galanou, Ueli Nuesch and Thomas Wollenberger are projected from behind.

The switches between reflection and projection are beautifully poised, punctuating the live action and occasionally telling the part of the story. Scenes presented below the mirrored surface in particular create stunning distorted images, zooming and shrinking the actors as they move about, stylishly paralleling the anguished egos we see struggling with cosmic darkness.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Sean McGinley's Return

Whatever works for you, I suppose. Writer Stuart Carolan's work as a playwright could hardly be further from the bawdy fun he used to create as the voice behind Navan Man, the Irish Essex man who once haunted the drive time airwaves. But that, all the same, is where actor, Sean McGinley, who takes the lead role in Carolan's Abbey debut, first came across the writer.

"Long before I knew it was him, I was a fan of Navan Man," says McGinley, who plays Seamus Lamb in Carolan's The Empress of India. The pair first came close to working together on the writer's last play, Defender of the Faith, a brutal tale of betrayal in a republican paramilitary cell. For various reasons, the final production featured Tom Hickey instead, but something was kindled between the pair.

And so The Empress of India, which centres on the troubled soul of a big name actor whose life has been destroyed by grief, and whose career is fairing little better, was written. The piece was, rumours have it, conceived with McGinley in mind. But that is, of course, rather different to be based on McGinley -- "Whatever the catalyst was," says McGinley, "The piece was already in his head." And the
character is more likely, in fact, to recall a different generation of larger than life Europeans who made their name in Hollywood, such as Richards Harris or Burton.

For McGinley, however, it doesn't matter which. "I didn't have other actors in mind when I was rehearsing the part. There may be certain things in the rhythms, but I deliberately didn't want it to be doing an impression of anyone."

The Empress of India marks the first time in five years that McGinley, who was one of the original member of Galway's Druid Theatre company, has appeared on the stage. All the same, he has been far from invisible in that period, giving flesh to Roddy Doyle's abusive husband, Charlo, in The Family, and working directors such as Michael
Winterbottom (on the 24 Hours Party People's directors hugely under-rated, The Claim) as well as joining the ranks of Irish actors roaming the streets of turn of the century hell's Kitchen in Gangs of New York.

"It wasn't a conscious choice," says McGinley. "it is just being a freelance actors there are all sorts of other factors involved. I didn't think the last time I was on stage that I wouldn't go on again for five years."

So how does it feel to be back, to plunge again into the routine of nightly shows – and even matinees?

"Amazingly, it felt like I'd never been away, the routine of doing a play every night it feels very like it always did. Very natural. When you're on the stage there are moments when its great and moments when you want to shoot yourself and everyone around you."

Surely there are none of the latter in this production?:

"Well, there are degrees…there are always moments…nights when you think 'shite.' …But that's just the normal cut and thrust of a night on the stage."

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Thursday, May 18, 2006


Saying very much about a show that hasn't yet opened can be a thorny matter. That whole not-having-seen-it thing is more of a handicap than some think. Luckily, for the large number of shows that arrive this way after an opening run in Galway (courtesy of Druid theatre company) my Auntie Annette is often on hand to provide the early word on those out-of-town debuts.

This Connemara-based mother of five is dutiful in her attendance of Druid shows, but equally unstinting in her appraisals of what she sees. Not an ardent fan of Synge (despite living within sight of the Arran Islands) her word on Druid's extended cycle of the playwright's work last year was "I hope they get back to doing some ordinary plays soon." When the Druid returned, this year, to performing contemporary work, with Enda Walshe's The Walworth Farce, Annette's response was a slightly quizzical thumbs up. "It was hilarious, but mad."

And the Druid's latest show, Gary Hynes's version of John B Keane's The Year of The Hiker? When it opened in the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, earlier this month, Annette, bad knee and all, was on hand to encapsulate the evening. "I enjoyed it," she says. "But I didn't like it."


Monday, March 20, 2006

Mikel Murfi's Farce

“As an actor, I’m known for is shouting my lines and falling down holes,” says Mikel Murfi of his work with the clown troupe, Barabbas. “I enjoy the notion of as an actor you’re able to fire yourself across the stage and bang your head and then go straight on with what you’re doing.” Which will have come as mixed news to the cast of The Walworth Farce, which Murfi is currently directing for Druid Theatre Company in Galway.

Murfi style of performance is among the most demanding, the most full body, among Irish actors. In one Barabbas show, Hupnouse, a scene involved the Jacques LeCoq trained actor using his bare backside as a pair of giant puppet lips, delivering his lines while moving his cheeks in time with the words. Johnny Noxville would be proud.

In recent time, however, Murfi has appeared on stage less, instead looking to the draw the same sort of physical performances out of other actors. The change, he suggests, has something to do with the aging process.

“I have sometimes done things in terms of physical theatre that I’m not now maybe able to pull off with the same aplomb. It may even be true that I might have my best work done in that style, but I like that there are other types of challenges out there in terms of acting. And the great thing about working with other actors who are able to perform in a really physical style is that these actors can let you do things that at this stage you can’t do yourself.”

After directing comedian-turned-playwright, Mark O’Doherty’s first play, Trad, (which premiered at Galways Arts Festival and will open at the Bush Theatre in London later this year) he is back in Galway for Druid’s re-engagement with contemporary writing, follow the company’s epic Synge cycle.

Anyone who is familiar with the Walsh’s Bedbound (in which a father and daughter live their entire lives on top of a double bed) will know the territory of the Walworth Farce. The action may have been shifted to London’s Irish community, but the bizarre is still to the fore, as a father and his sons re-enact – again and again and with the help of a carrier bag of ritual Tesco’s nosh – a scene from their past.

“Enda is a fantasic man for getting straight to the core of very disturbed people,” says Murfi of the show which he suggests will offer something quite different from just another night at the theatre.

“He likes to examine the lives of broken people and that is what he is doing here. In this play, I think he puts the audience on three rollarcoaster but they only know they are on two. It’s a high risk strategy in terms of how it works, and the speed it goes at: I think for some people, it will be a great challenge. And some people will find it just crazy.”

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