Friday, February 02, 2007

Karen Egan's Cabaret

“Sorry if I sound a bit incoherent, but my day began a long time ago, on a ferry in the West Indies,” says the very coherent Karen Egan, now back in the safety of her Dublin home.

Egan has just returned from the island of Becquia, whose Music Festival has just played host to the Irish singer and comedian’s particular take on “cabaret.”

“It was kind of odd: picture if you will a stage looking out onto a beach, with people picnicking on the shore. How in the name of god did you end up there, people ask me…”

The answer, very roughly, is via Edinburgh. Egan took her cabaret show, long a staple of these shores, to the Scottish capital’s Festival, where good reviews saw her winning fans in the most unexpected corners of the globe.

Since she left comedy girl band, the Nualas, Egan has (alongside the odd bit of acting) been performing shows which generally go under the heading cabaret, mixing songs from Kurt Weil, Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel with her own often very funny compositions. But what is it, this thing called cabaret?

“The more I use the word cabaret, the more I become loathed to pin it down…I think it can be quite a dirty word, or an off-putting one at least,” says Egan. “I suppose it is one I’ll have to drop eventually. I don't want to be the old lady lying on the piano on a cruise ship…”

“And for some people, “cabaret” just conjures up something awful. Honestly, people have come up to me after a show and said: "Wow! I thought I was going to hate it! It really sounded like an awful night's entertainment! And it wasn’t bad at all!” which is not exactly the way I'd like things to work.”

On stage, Egan has claimed to be "half German" "half French" or indeed “half Turkish”. She is, in fact, the full Irish. So is all the joking around about her nationality an indication that there something about being all-Irish that is, well, not very cabaret?

”Oh god yes! If you think of all the singers who are out there. Maria Tecce, Susannah de Wrixon, Camille O'Sullivan, Caroline Moreau…and I just thought [putting on best all-purpose rural Irish accent] “Karen Egan” coming out and doing her songs? Who was going to take her seriously..?

What Egan brings to the cabaret concept, of course, are the skills of a comic actress, which as it turns out, are frequently what’s required to deal with the distinctly artificial character of a night of songs from the 1930s.

The same skills are put to use in her other current project, acting in Corn Exchange’s deservedly durable production, Dublin By Lamplight, with which she will soon by off to the islands once more, touring to Tasmania.

This time around, by the way, the cast of DbyL does not contain Mark O’Halloran, but does contain Tadhg Murphy, last seen in a very fetching frock and blonde wig in Stuart Carolan’s Empress of India. Egan, who attended the Gaiety School of Acting alongside O’Halloran (and devised the very funny Lovely Betty with Adam and Joe auteur) is sanguine about O’Halloran’s absence from the piece.

How could anyone ever yell “Up the Republic!” with the correct degree of campy Geal-ish bravado, you might imagine. “I’m sure Tadhg will just make the character his own in a different way,” says Egan.

“But before any of that,” says Egan, “I myself, Karen Egan, am going on a tour…Also, I have a new guna,” she says, disappearing into the ether.

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Friday, October 06, 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 Monaghan), 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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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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