Monday, October 08, 2007

REVIEW: The Playboy of The Western World (The Abbey, Dublin)

On the surface, John Millington Synge's 1905 proto-Western has a great deal in common with your average cowboy movie. But when it comes to subtlety and equivocation, The Playboy of The Western World has few gun-slinging competitors.

Synge's stranger, of course, is not even an anti-hero. He is just good, sometimes, at making stuff up. Every power he possesses has been awarded him by the credulous and the desperate townsfolk. This, of course, shows their weakness and not his. But what society really wants to learn about its weaknesses from a visitor? It'll end in tears.

You might imagine, then, that Bisi Adigun and Roddy Doyle's new version, which turns 'the playboy' into Christopher (Giles Terera), a Nigerian asylum seeker, explores the attitudes of attitudes to "the newcomers". In practice, the play hardly seems to be concerned with race at all. This playboy hardly meets any prejudice at all. 'Cause round here, people are judged purely by their character and their actions. Surely, this Dublin is a fine place.

Adigin/Doyle's updating is sometimes very smart, but sometimes very dumb: as is traditional with Doyle's theatre, it doesn't feel obliged to write a great gag when a well-placed expletive will get the laugh. The new text, for example, quite literally replaces the line "I've lost him, the only playboy of the western world" with "Fuck off!"

Jimmy Fay's production has some pace problems, particularly towards the end of the first half, but comes up trumps after the interval, when, in a beautiful piece of slapstick, Joe Hanley's Jimmy 'creates' two pints of Guinness and Red Bull and the show finally discovers its correct comic pitch. Best of all -- as seems to be the rule these days -- is Eileen Walsh as Pegeen, a compass by which everyone can steer when it comes to bouncing agilely between comedy and passion.

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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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Saturday, June 21, 2003

REVIEW: Crestfall (The Gate, Dublin)

It’s your business to duck if things get messy in Mark O’Rowe’s fierce dramas of underclass Irish life, because this author certainly won’t be watching out for the sensibilities of the squeamish element. O’Rowe cannot – constitutionally it seems – offer his audience anything but blood, sweat and whatever other bodily fluids happen to spill, seep, bubble and gush from his stories.

All the same, he might expect to sidestep characterisation as a macho writer in this drama told via monologues by three women, with no male help. The monologues wind around each other much in the manner of the monologues in O’Rowe’s calling card show, Howie The Rookie. A tiny detail in one becomes a focal point in the next, until the story of one bloody day in the town of Crestfall crawls into view from just outside our peripheral vision.

The sub-bass rumbles a warning and the lights come up on Francis O’Connor’s strange, splattered mirror-box of a stage to reveal Olive (Aisling O’Sullivan) who begins to speak in a strange, heavily accented patter, unfurling a life of cold sex and brutality.

Soon afterwards, she is replaced by Alison (Marie Mullen) who witnesses many of the same events, though with a little more distance, before giving up the stage to the tale of Tilly (Eileen Walsh) who has had a bad day, even by the standards of a penniless, heroin-addicted prostitute.

The writing has a poetic bent that ought to sound self-conscious, but in these sure hands nothing of the sort occurs. It comes across, however, vaguely like what might result if Dylan Thomas were to land a screenwriting job on a remake of The Wild Bunch. Language is clipped. Two-word sentences. One even. Skips the pronouns. Timewasting.

O’Rowe’s women have the curt morality of Hemmingway big game hunters. In the end, everything is about stepping up, or wimping out and living life as the omega male. Animal metaphors, indeed, dominate: sometimes Crestfall seems more like a game reserve than a housing estate.

Garry Hynes production is one of the director’s more elliptical, plush in certain aspects (such as Paul Arditti’s brilliantly limpid electro-soundscapes) and almost evasive in others. It leaves the words and the performances to do all the work -- and nowhere for the actors to hide if things get shaky.

O’Sullivan meets the challenge with an outstanding performance, ricocheting dangerously around on her stilettos. Mullen’s work is mildly blunted by a sense that her character is not bound to the story tightly enough, while Walsh’s Tilly is a destabilising, but fully realised heart of this uncomfortable and grimly fascinating piece.

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Friday, October 04, 2002

REVIEW: Ariel (The Abbey, Dublin)

2002's Dublin Theatre Festival, which runs this month in the Irish capital, has few more intriguing prospects than the long-awaited return to the Abbey stage of Marina Carr. The playwright’s last outing here, By The Bog of Cats, a ravishing poetic drama, an excoriating visions of family life, full of shimmering classical resonances, announced the arrival of the mature voice of a major writer.

During the intervening four years, Carr brought her On Raferty’s Hill to Galway’s Druid Theatre and continued working on Ariel, a play she has had under way for many years. Now that that work has finally surfaced, it has, perhaps unsurprisingly, some trouble living up to expectations, not least because what Ariel has to offer looks remarkably like more of the same.

The play is, once more, set in Carr’s native midlands, a countryside ruled by lakes and their reservoirs of unsavoury secrets. We meet Ariel at her sixteenth birthday party, where her parents, Fermoy (Mark Lambert) and Frances (Ingrid Craigie) and her uncle Boniface (Barry McGovern) have all gathered for a slice of birthday cake.

Fermoy, an aspiring politician, is engaged in a viciously-contested election battle. But the squabbles of political life look like warm handshakes in comparison to his homelife, where his battles with his wife have the rancorous odour of old, old meat. By the next scene, 10 years have passed, Ariel has disappeared and Fermoy is showing off his shiny suit to the TV cameras on the eve of what looks likely to be his elevation to the head of the government.

The classical touchstone this time is Iphigenia at Aulis, the story of a leader willing to sacrifice everything – up to an including his teenage daughter – in the pursuit of power. But where By The Bog of Cats wore its learning lightly, Ariel at times becomes stymied in its attempt to touch all its antecedents plot points, turning the evening into something of a trudge.

With Carr insisting on getting so much of the original in, the integration of mythical and everyday contemporary – something of a speciality with the writer – becomes somewhat jerky. Every now and then, as though to stem the tide of literal readings among her audience, Carr seems to yell “it’s a metaphor, stupid…” at the audience, as suddenly the dead walk (and make phone calls) skulls are held aloft, enormous Stetson-baring shadows are cast and the stage begins to ooze with Kensington Gore.

Through the knifeplay, Eileen Walsh (the original Disco Pig) and Dylan Tighe, (as Ariel’s sister and brother) both newcomers here carve out sharp, exciting little spaces for themselves, making some of the old guard look more stolid than stately. Equally cutting and savvy is Caitríona Ní Mhurchú as a delicately probing TV interviewer.

Among the old order, Mark Lambert’s satanic patriarch has a suit stuffed full of warped power, even if the actor appeared to think, every now and then, that he had signed up for satire, rather than poetic tragedy.

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