Thursday, January 12, 2006

Keano III (and other news)

Well, another year, another Keano. This time Denis Foley dons the ceremonial white kacks, replacing Pat Kinevan, who, of course, took over the role from Mario Rosenstock.

But this time around, the question is not how much Foley’s version of Roy Keane will differ from that of his predecessors. Instead, the real debate is around how much the Roy Keane of the present day resembles the figure portrayed in the musical. After all, Arthur Matthews and Co’s Keano is based on the heroic figure of the midfield general of Manchester United, a footballing warrior, a loyal and obedient servant of the great chieftain-god-dolphin, Alex Fergusson.

But that Keane doesn’t exist anymore. Instead, we have a heretic Keano, one who has denied the great god, Fergie, a fallen idol whose feet of clay are now all too visible. The sort of athlete, in short, who’d play for a team that gets knocked out of the Scottish Cup by lowly Clyde.

According to a spokesperson for the latest production, there are indeed some script changes in the latest instalment of the story. With previews starting next week, however, details are still sketchy. We know, however, that one Brian Kerrus has been airbrushed out of the story, while a new character, resurrected from the mist of footballing prehistory, will once more stalk the land, or at least the stage at the Olympia. This time around the dramatis personae for I, Keano will be swollen by the addition of the towering figure of somebody called “Big Jack”.

It was a long time coming, this one. Paul Mercier, whose stage productions have been one of the most enduring features of the capital’s theatre life, ever since the foundation of his Passion Machine theatre company in 1984, is finally opening a play on the National Theatre main stage. That company states its mission as creating “wholly indigenous populist theatre that depicts, challenges and celebrates the contemporary Irish experience” which might be a good aim for the new Abbey administration.

As it happens, the new director at the National Theatre, Fiach MacConghail, will most likely be familiar with Mercier’s views on Irish culture, having produced several films with the Dublin writer, including a version of the Passion Machine’s landmark production, Studs, which will be released later this year with Brendan Gleeson in the lead.

There will be Irish interest at a challenging-sounding opening night when a stage version of the JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings opens in Canada in March this year. The show is produced by Dublin-born impresario, Kevin Wallace, a protégée of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful organisation, as well the producer of Dublin shows, such as the Abbey’s revival of Eugene O’Brien’s Eden. The stage version of LOTR has a budget of C$27m (just over €19m) and modestly bills itself as “most ambitious theatrical event ever staged” No word yet on the running time…but it’s bound to fly by in any case.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

REVIEW: I, Keano (The Olympia, Dublin)

When a bust up with his manager during the final preparations for the 2002 World Cup saw Ireland and Man United's Cork-born midfield general, Roy Keane, head for home before a ball had been kicked, it also provoked a fissure in the Irish nation. That collective sense of hurt and confusion was all the more acute because had Roy Keane lead the team, Ireland would have, without even the faintest trace of doubt, won the World Cup.

While Keane headed for Cheshire and his team mates for Japan, back in Ireland, the why of it all became the source of a relentless dispute -- on TV and radio, in newspapers, on buses, in taxis, down dark alleys. If it did not quite oust the Civil War from national memory, it certainly made that violently divisive struggle seem like a minor, off-season friendly.

It was never a debate in which anybody struggled too hard to see both sides, and as such offers excellent dramatic material, jammed with epic clashes and ancient themes, almost classical in their clarity. But it took one more ingredient to produce I, Keano, Arthur Matthews and Michael Nugent’s masterfully-executed musical comedy on the events of that notorious Summer.

It is a curious fact of Irish life that the country possesses a standing army of comic actors who derive their notoriety almost exclusively from impersonating soccer stars. The manoeuvres of this legion have clearly not gone unnoticed by Nugent and Matthews (sire of Father Ted) who have leveraged all this formidably comic talent and energy into the funniest sports musical you are ever likely to see.

As it happens, they have also created a bristlingly intelligent, sophisticated show about masculinity, celebrity and the hall of mirrors and prisms that is the contemporary media. That they have done all this by transposing the Keane-McCarthy feud to ancient Rome, adding a touch of panto and some dangerously funny song and dance (with the help of songwriter, Paul Woodfull) makes for an even more remarkable achievement.

Even if belly laughs are the cherished prizes here, the writing is usually richly layered, with every gag apparently embedded in at least two more. A scene, for example, in which Keano (Mario Rosenstock) is enticed by Dumphia (gloriously played by Gary Cooke as Keane's "biographer," Eamon Dumphy, transformed into a wood nymph) turns into an unworldly love duet sung by a biographer and his subject. A creature called "Fergie" appears in the form of a dolphin, given to Gnostic pronouncements delivered in an impenetrable Scottish accent, pronouncements that leave the usually implacable Keano in transports of gurgling delight. (A mischievous homoerotic charge runs through the entire show).

I, Keano is just a little bit smarter, a little bit more resonant, a little bit funnier than anyone had the right to expect. Would that the soccer team had surprised Spain in quite the same way. As it happens, Ireland did not win the 2002 World Cup. But now at least one, fine, true thing has come out of that sad debacle. Now, at last, the healing can begin.

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