Thursday, December 07, 2006

REVIEW: The School For Scandal (Abbey Theatre, Dublin)

When Lady Sneerwell and the other gossips of her school for scandal swing into action, it takes a few moments to adjust to the highfalutin buzz of eighteenth century English in the Abbey’s Christmas show. Or perhaps, the slight delay is just a moment of confused recovery from staring at the retina-zapping red set that strafes the audience before the actors arrive.

Luckily enough, when the cast set to work the performances have the kind of torrential flow that soon enough makes you feel as at home with Lady Candour, Joseph Surface and Sir Benajmin Backbite as you might be in the company of Felicity Shagwell.

Sheridan’s vicious comedy was first staged in 1777, but here gets the kind of ridiculously ramped up production that makes it look like, if not a teenager, at least as sprightly a 223-year-old as you are likely to meet. The plan here is clearly seasonal fun – and seasonal colour. But the quality of the material means the show refuses to lie down and simply entertain. Jimmy Fay, not a director you might immediately associate with rollicking good fun, gives the production the shape and momentum it needs to capture both the farce and the frightening viciousness of it all.

The ensemble cast is pretty much uniformedly on the money. So it is entirely unfair to single out some top quality mincing from David Pearse, whose grandiloquent clown, Sir Benjamin Backbite is timelessly grotesque, or Mark Lambert’s dry old stick, Sir Peter Teazle, or the crowd-pleasing Rory Keenan, with his Colin Farrell badboy act as the wastrel, Charles Surface.

Ferdia Murphy’s set (a half sister to the one for Emilia Galloti at this year’s theatre festival) is an startling white, cartoon box decorated with simple graphics, providing a clever ground for Paul Keogan’s scene-setting lighting and the multicar pile-up of Leonore McDonagh’s ever more nauseously clashing costumes. Nicely done.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

REVIEW: Doubt (The Abbey, Dublin)

Doubt is a period drama in more ways than one. John Patrick Shanley's Broadway hit is set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in the 1960s, in a musty, priest-revering world. But the play's approach is also – on the surface at least – rather antique, with its stock clerical characters who might have arrived on the Abbey stage hot foot from The Bells of Saint Mary's.

If, for some reason, your own personal tells for a paedophile are a sweet tooth, long nails and a habit of shouting at crows, then a conviction can't be far away. For Fr. Flynn (Aidan Kelly) exhibits all of these traits, as well as a swaggering arrogance and great fondness for the patriarchal aspects of the Catholic church, even as he professes a new, more open and approachable clergy.

If Doubt were a film (which it soon will be) then Fr. Flynn would certainly be guilty of every charge laid at his door by Sister Aloysius. Or would he? Because this Sister Aloysius (played with impressive restraint by Brid Brennan), well, she's no saint neither. For her, any display of passion – even a passion for teaching – is tantamount to a sin. Human warmth must be extinguished, or at the very least hidden away, in the name of order.

If Shanley's drama offered nothing more than two characters that no audience could love, and a sweet novice (Gemma Reeves) to be ping-ponged between them, then it would fail. The writing, however, never allows either side of the argument to gather rhetorical steam, never mind claim victory.

This dangling resolution is enough to lift the play out of Bing Crosby territory, but the notion that contemporary substance must consist in uncertainty is less than satisfying, as sure-footedly as the playwright arrives at that conclusion.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

John Patrick Shanley's Doubt

A priest is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a young person in his care. Did he? Are you sure? How do you know? The Irish American writer behind Doubt, a play that features just such a Catholic priest, may know the answer. But he’s telling nobody. Almost.

“Well, it wouldn’t make much sense if there was no doubt in a play called Doubt,” says Shanley, in Dublin for the premier of his Broadway hit, which opened at the Abbey this week.

Doubt concerns a priest, Father Flynn (played in Dublin by Aidan Kelly) and a nun, Sister Aloysius (played in Dublin by Brid Brennan) who at war, they imagine, over the soul of a young boy.

But for Shanley, that scenario, and its specific setting in the American of the early 1960s, is one that lets him work outwards towards broader issues of faith, obedience and unreasoning adherence to simple explanations of complex issues. His play may deal with the hot button topic of clerical sexual abuse, but its import, he suggests, goes far wider, into the America of the present day, in which a mix of faith and propaganda has become a potent tool to stifle decent.

“Within the last six months in America, we have seen the stories unravelling the way they did after the Fifties. We realised that a lot of the simple explanations were inadequate, so we were going to have to go it alone, mentally…and people don’t like that. They want to be certain. They want to have it all wrapped up. But really, that’s a very adolescent emotion.”

Critics and audience stateside appear to agree that Shanely is offering them a timely and valuable analysis. Shanley, a first generation Irish-American, with a rake of relatives in Westmeath, won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer prize for the play -- to add to the Oscar he won with his script for 1988 Cher vehicle, Moonstruck. And Doubt has also broken box office records on Broadway.

All the same, leaving his play open-ended, also leaves the audience with questions. So, Shanley has been offering a back channel for them, putting his email address on the program and answering the mail he gets.

“I get a lots of mail from members of the clergy, and ex-members of the clergy, often telling me how much they enjoyed it. But most of the time people don’t really write reviews. They write to tell me their memories, to tell me stories about their time in church schools, often quite happy and fond stories.”

And as for the ever-hanging question, did Fr. Flynn do it? Well, Shanley isn’t telling. And if he is, he’s not swearing to tell the truth. The playwright admits that he told “the answer” to Brian O’Byrne, the New York based Irish actor who created the role of Fr. Flynn on Broadway.

“I did. But then I found out that Brian was lording it over the female members of the cast by saying he knew the answer. So I rang him up and told him that the answer I had told him was a lie…” Which should still leave at least Brian O’Byrne, after a little exercise in deduction, knowing the answer.

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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, February 09, 2006

Gerry Stembridge's New Voice

A new regime, a new voice. Or preferably, lots of them. Isn’t that what’s required from the change of management at the Abbey? While the old guard of Irish theatre – everyone from Brian Friel to Marian Carr and Conor McPherson – will presumably always find a home at say, The Gate, the National Theatre cries out for fresh voices to shake the institution awake.

The Abbey’s last offering – Paul Mercier’s Homeland – certainly takes a squint at the New Ireland, but Mercier has been squinting at Ireland for many years now without the Abbey’s help. However, according to Gerry Stembridge, a new hero has now arisen, if not in the west, at least from that general direction. Nicholas Kelly, whose The Grown Ups is directed by Stembridge at the Peacock, is that figure.

“He is clearly writing about Dublin – but he doesn’t mentioned Dublin once,” says Stembridge, on his lunch break from directing rehearsals. “But the city undergoing this Dionysian transformation is clearly Dublin.”

As it happens, that transformation was threatening the show somewhat until this very lunchtime. “You got me at a good time,” says Stembridge, “We just had a good, quiet runthrough. Up until now, every time we set to work the sounds of construction all around us kept getting into the space. But now I’ve really heard it, I think we’ve got something here.”

And what’s that?

“Well, there’s the sensation of a new theatrical voice coming onto the scene…a sense that he is moving things on.”

Thirty-three year old Kelly, Stembridge suggests, has a world view substantially different from his predecessors. Although it is not easy to pin down exactly what this entails (particularly without seeing a script) Stembridge contrast his own generation with a younger lot.

“I think he is looking at the spiritual harm that is coming to us. We read about it in the rising suicide rates and the binge drinking…I suppose the real differences lie in things like the desire to be pain free, to live the happy life. All the time.”

Taking on this kind of play – and taking it on quickly: it is only two months since Stembridge brought the play to the Abbey – may be part of the answer to national theatre’s woes. According to Stembridge “there is a real chance now that people might start going to the Abbey.” Eeek!

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

REVIEW:Homeland (The Abbey, Dublin)

Paul Mercier’s great strength as a writer and director is an ability to keep an eye on the entertainment value of his offerings, however strident their social critique. A Mercier play these days, like his latest, Homeland, seldom arrives without a fervent analysis of ‘where we are now’ – particularly when that we refers to ‘Dubliners’ – but also exhibits a humane attitude to the simple needs of an audience.

Like his previous show, Diarmuid and Grainne, Homeland takes a Celtic tale – this time the story of Oisin’s return from Tir na nog – and translates it to modern Ireland. In this case, the character of Oisin re-appears in the form of Gerry Newman (Liam Carney) a Dunlopian spin doctor-cum-lifecoach who has played (he keeps telling us) a big part in laying the foundations for the New Ireland.

Newman has been away and returns to a land of fellas keen to show you photos on their Motorola’s and wans who like nothing better than to bump ‘n’ grind with a shiny pole. When a flaxen-headed temptress robs him of every penny he owns, he is forced to get to know other strata of the country he helped to create, from its vast community of caricature comedy immigrants, to its junkies, nouveaus and born-agains.

There is plenty of good material scattered around Newman’s journey though his transformed homeland, and the tour is conducted with pace and energy. Things come alive particularly when fate transforms Gerry into a street preacher, bothering shopping centre patrons (with the help of the ever-ripening comic nous of David Pearse) calling everyone to join him on the road to salvation through a rasping battery amplifier.

The frenetic nature of the show sometimes appears to expose shortcomings in technique -- when it comes to moonwalking, Liam Carney is no Michael Jackson – with some performers appearing occasionally non-plussed by the physical style of acting the piece uses.

Homeland’s persistent flaw, however, is an unevenness which forces surprising images and ideas to rub shoulders too often with duller material. More than once in this road movie of a show a great image – such as the Night of the Living Dead-esque scene in which hoodied junkies surround the hero’s car – is pulled up short by the lifeless material that follows. Luckily enough, there is usually something better just around the next bend.

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Conal Morrison's Importance

[I don't normally put in the little standfirst bit here, but so much of it was missing from today's paper that i just feel like doing it this time.]


What is it?

The Importance of Being Earnest, an effervescent gay comedy by the notable Irish dramatist, and bunburyista, Oscar Wilde.

What's it about?
A man who leads a double life. Guess what? There are consequences. But like all the best consequences, they’re hilarious.

Author! Author!
Oscar Wilde’s fall from grace began, you might say, on the night that the original production of TIOBE opened. Soon, he tumbled from his perch as the darling wit of the Empire to become instead its whipping boy. But not in the way you’re thinking.

Star qualities?
Alan Stanford’s Lady Bracknell looks likely to go down in the annals. Yes, I said annals. You’re incorrigible, you are.

Now read on
If Oscar Wilde had been able to cast The Importance of Being Earnest any way he wanted, would he have cast men in every role? Possibly, according to director Conal Morrison, who is currently fulfilling Wilde’s unspoken wish in his new Abbey production, in which such beloved roles as Ms Prism and Lady Bracknell are played by strapping fellas.

“I’d be dismayed if nobody objected,” says Morrison. “But I think we have actually be very faithful to the play…For Wilde it was an act of gentle revenge against ”

Morrison’s smart strategy to frame his concept has been to write some new bookend scenes for the play. As the show opens, we find Wilde in Paris, approaching the end, but still swinging absinth and champagne, still receiving snubs and suffering street urchins to come unto him. But when this particular carnival of nasty Parisian blokes walks off stage, it is only to re-appear soon afterwards as the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest. “The play ensues,” to quote Morrison’s stage directions.

“It is hard not to see the play as weirdly autobiographical,” says Morrison. “There are so many correspondences to Wilde’s own life that appear in the play…mentions of “indiscreetly engraved cigarette cases” – which were, of course, involved in Wilde’s own downfall – it’s all these in this play.”

Does the play not, all the same, lose something by not having any women taking part?: “Well, to be arrogantly honest, I think it only gains. It seems to fit in with Wilde’s ideas about artifice and enhances the comedy. People have seen the play so often now that this way of doing it seems to be quite refreshing for them…”

Despite the cross-casting – and despite those overwhelming photographs of Alan Stanford dresses in a capacious ball gown – his production is not, according to Morrison, “…burdened with knowing camp.”

As for directing his show while the boardroom blood-letting went on and the very ceiling of the abbey seemed to be collapsing around his ears, Morrison says this turned out to be “rather energising”.

“We were hearing all sort of extremist talk and gossip. It was quite strange. I found myself making all sorts of Yeatsian speeches to the cast. But I do think it is true that the only answer to all the gossip and the criticism has to be in the work. If the people come and they laugh, well, that will be an answer…”

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Thursday, June 16, 2005

REVIEW: A Cry from Heaven, The Abbey

Ancient Irish myth is given a distinctly Greek overhaul in Vincent Woods’ A Cry from Heaven, a version of the Deirdre saga with Pimp My Ride style tricking up applied liberally to the story’s ancient chassis.

French director, Oliver Py and his designer Pierre-Andre Weitz, have worked with Woods on the production, giving the show a forceful visual style, overwhelmingly black and white, with rare touches of “sudden” red and gold.

The style, which seems to own a deal to Patrice Chereau’s celebrated post-industrial Phedre, is gloomy in the extreme, and, at its worst, rather adolescent in its gothy self-seriousness.

Certainly, the story of Deirdre and the war and death that results from her dalliance with Naoise, is a tragic tale, but in Wood’s version, there is not a glimmer of lightness or humour, just a relentless (and unduly protracted) shuffling towards its sad conclusion.

The cast respond to the bleakness with a succession of glowering performances, some steady and admirable, such as Denis Coway’s dependable stirrer, Fergus, others rather confused and unfocussed, such as Ciaran Taylor’s Conor, who seemed sometimes to be channelling the spirit of Dylan Moran.

There are bright flashes of power in Wood’s writing, but often the words feel half-buried in the dark fuzz of this production. The ending in particular – full of thwarted climaxes – cries out for more decisive, clearer handling.

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Saturday, July 03, 2004

REVIEW: The Shaughraun (The Abbey, Dublin)

Summer can be an awkward sport in the Dublin theatre calendar. Pressed by the needs of the flotillas of tourist buses that fill the city streets, something recognisably Irish and canonical is called for. But stick on another lazy Friel and the locals might just be revolting.

The Abbey’s play for its Centenary Summer should go somewhere to please home and away fans, giving Ireland’s successful export showman, John McColgan the reins for a production of Dion Boucicault’s 1874 stage-Irish workout, The Shaughraun. The show should be able to sell tickets on marquee appeal alone, and if it happens to be any good, the theory goes, then the sky’s the limit.

McColgan, it might be expected, should turn in something more closely related to Les Miz, than to the theatre usual output. And he can be expected to do that with some style and a bit of singing and dancing maybe. And nobody should be afraid of finding the whole experience too profound or moving.

Which is pretty much what you get: a show that is convincingly staged, energetic and reasonably good fun, performed by a cast that seems entirely convinced that they are appearing in one of the funniest productions ever to grace an Irish stage. If there is one thing impossible to fault here, it is the impression of esprit de corps.

Performers here seem to have been told to play as though their lives depended on the proportion of laughs per line, so big, broad strokes performances hail down from the opening moments when Hadley Fraser’s stiff-backed British officer springs onto the stage behind Fiona O’Shaughnessy’s Ms. Ffolliott. A certainty lack nuance is a hallmark of O’Shaughnessy’s performances in general, but here her propensity towards cheesiness is put to good use.

Adrian Dunbar has his charm on full beam in the title role and gags about with the regulation gusto, while as the evil Mr. Kinchela who is determined to keep the show’s young lovers apart, Don Wycherly eggs on the crowd with some despicably crisp physical acting.

McColgan’s presence has, in general, encouraged acting that involves the whole body, something that is rarer than in ought to be on the Abbey stage. It makes for several performances that are often little entertainments in themselves. But the result of all that collective physical endeavour is a show whose closest relative is high grade pantomime – complete with booing and hissing form the audience. Consumers who go in search of exactly that will certainly not go away disappointed.

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Tuesday, April 06, 2004

REVIEW:The Burial at Thebes (The Abbey, Dublin)

“He that is not with me is against me,” is how King Creon sees anyone who would side with Antigone, or would help in any way her struggle for justice.

And while pedants might point out that it is Matthew’s Gospel, rather than George W. Bush that takes credit for the coining the axiom, when Seamus Heaney blends the phrase into his 2004 version of Sophocles’ drama, its seems unlikely that he simply referring to the good book.

The poet whose political attitude was once defined as “whatever you say, say nothing” appears to be saying -- in the best chosen of words -- that he stands against the global tyranny of Bush and against those who fail to speak against it.

Certainly he’s saying through a literary artefact, and a complex and subtle one at that – but who really expected the Nobel Laureate to start chucking rocks. Instead, Heaney has given a classic tragedy a new translation, spiked it with smooth Irish linguistic figures and leant it a terrible, frighteningly global import.

Heaney’s translation has set every possible contemporary vibration of the drama humming, like so many wine glasses of water that have been just waiting for somebody to rub them in exactly the right fashion. Sometimes the resonances are so loud you expect the cast suddenly to stop and look around to see what that unearthly racket is.

For once any tense, unworldliness in the language allows the audience to notice that we are not hearing to Antigone speak, so much as listening to the universe speak through her.

Canadian director, Lorraine Pintal, provides a new incarnation (with elements of dance theatre) that usefully enhances Heaney’s contemporary urgency without sacrificing a deeply sophisticated sense of timeless rage. Carl Fillion – a frequent collaborator of Robert LePage – aids the campaign with a set of soaring “concrete” walls, at the bunker-like foot of which we find the people of Thebes.

Ruth Negga’s Antigone has the youth, stubbornness (and boots) of Kelly Osbourne, but with a vision of eternal rights and wrongs so firm and angst-free it could easily raise Beverly Hills to the ground. Lorcan Cranitch’s Creon should be able to tell from the messianic glow of her eyes that nothing good will come from tangling with this young women. But of course, the tyrant never does.

Efficient supporting work from Barry McGovern and Garrett Keogh among others, is capped by Aidan Kelly’s brilliant feckless guard, a jobsworth Dubliner happy to acquiesce in any toadiness his masters decree -- up to an including, one imagines, offering the use of Shannon Airport as a stopover for bombers.

In his version of Antigone, Heaney makes it clearer than ever that those who do nothing will face justice along with those who do evil. Where exactly that justice will come from – in the absence of intervention from Mount Olympus -- is less certain.

It is a harshly lit world Heaney calmly points to, one we might have thought long left behind. But as this timely and corrosive production brilliantly signals, the pagan world continues to seep through events around us.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2003

REVIEW: The Shape of Metal (Abbey Theatre, Dublin)

The thoughts of Henry Moore are given prominence in the program for latest play from Thomas Kilroy. The sculptor it seems, had a strong admiration for Michelangelo's last work, his Rondanini Pieta, because of – rather than despite – its apparently unfinished state.

On one level, the quotation relates to the subject of Kilroy's drama, a sculptor who also happens to admire Michelangelo's work. But on another impossible to ignore level, Moore appears forced into offering an apology for The Shape of Metal, a weak and disjointed effort that somebody clearly hopes will be seen as oozing with exquisite discords and intentional, deeply resonant awkwardness.

As far as functioning as drama is concerned, The Shape of Metal has a very clear handicap: Kilroy's central character, Nell Jeffrey (Sara Kestelman) is a thundering bore, full of self-admiration and given to dull meanderings delivered in a style that charitable critics might call heightened prose. She is also – given the evidence of the quality and wide stylistic variations of the pieces lying around her workshop – several truly terrible sculptors.

Nell has apparently been rather wicked to her two daughters (one of whom long ago disappeared and is presumed dead). We catch up on the sculptor in her dwindling days, as she sits on a throne in her workshop receiving visits from her living lesbian daughter, Judith (Eleanor Methven) and occasionally (both as an apparition and in flashback) from her deceased daughter, Grace (Justine Mitchell).

It's easy to see why neither daughter stays put. Nell conversations comprise almost totally of name-dropping anecdotes and dire sexist assessments of men she has, in her own words, “bedded”. Little surprise then that Kilroy’s main method of getting his characters off-stage is to have them running in exasperation through the upstage right door. More often than not, this signals the onset of another dreary, hallucinatory soliloquy.

Kilroy here (as Brian Friel does in Performances) seems to assume that anyone worthy our attention must spend an inordinate amount of their time worrying about the nature of greatness and their enduring legacy to the world. Or at least, if they don't then they jolly well should.

It has been an odd Theatre Festival this year in Dublin, with Friel writing a play about a 74-year old artist for the Gate, and Kilroy centring his Abbey outing on an 82-year old artist. This seems pretty much to indicate that neither is too bothered about attracting, or at least speaking to, sprightly young things of less than 60.

Of course, that is not to suggest that artists of mature years do not produce fascinating art, only that if the subject of that art is almost exclusively the thoughts, feelings and challenges experienced by elder academic artists, they are perhaps starting with an insurmountable handicap.

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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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Saturday, July 08, 2000

REVIEW: Medea (Abbey, Dublin)

Who wouldn't admire the industrial grade chutzpah of a show that demonstrates hubris through the burning of teddy bears? When Fiona Shaw's Medea takes a Zippo to the first little furry toy, we know that no act, even the murder of her two infant sons, will be too extreme for this woman.

Deborah Warner's version at the Abbey of Euripides's tale of jealousy and revenge run wild constantly takes this kind of step into the dark, and does so with a daredevil relish for everything that stands a good chance of not coming off, of having its meanings career completely out of control.

Warner's production moves naturalistically one moment, sidesteps into unaccompanied sean-nos singing the next, then heads off into a little sacrificial teddy-bear burning before climaxing with a couple of buckets of blood hitting a Perspex wall.

It is frequently Fiona Shaw's Medea that holds all this soaring recklessness together, that offers every risk the production takes a safe landing. Her tightly focused performance - which finally lends some credible continuity between Medea and the murderer she becomes - allows things to lean sometimes towards folksy, sometimes strict, sometimes passionate, sometimes ritualistic,
without ever toppling over.

Shaw has the control and the strength to bring the play continually into focus. Whether with naturalistic snuffles and quips or a stiff, tragic formality, she slowly beats out the shape of her character until there is enough space to say and do anything, from primal roaring to delivering anachronistic jibes straight out of nowhere. To Jason's grief-striken demand to kiss the lips of his dead sons she answers with a shockingly coquettish "Request denied".

Patrick O'Kane, as Jason, the husband Medea must torment, underlines the Brandoish traits of his performance in Murphy's The House by here donning the ceremonial vest of Marlon. There is, all the same, something missing in his portrayal, and he has a tendency to posture in a way that always seems overwrought next to Shaw's brilliant, easeful, flexible performance.

Euripides's drama is missing its original ending here but has gained so much in this translation, by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael, that it would be churlish to quibble. The further translation of elements of the chorus into Irish is not really explained by anything other than the production's Dublin location. But the amendments do not, however curious, significantly deflect the impact of the show.

Tom Pye's set, with a Perspex wall upstage and a paddling pool down, slices up the action into three vivid dimensions. His plastic wall's pristine shine always seems to yearn for a little desecration - and when Jvan Morandi's horrifying barrages of tempestuous lighting and Mel Mercier wall-of-noise soundscapes finally climax, it certainly gets it. As do the poor teddies.

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Monday, December 06, 1999

Conal Morrison's Tempest

"You can do what you like because you can never destroy the Tempest. The play is always still there," says director Conal Morrison of his new Abbey production of what is probably Shakespeare's last complete play. "The main thing is to make it something of your own and show what your version of magic in the theatre is like."

For some reason, The Tempest seems to encourage radical reinterpretation. From the 1952 sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet (in which the characters, including Robbie The Robot, find themselves on the surface of the planet Altair 4) to a 1982 version set in on a Greek holiday island (starring John Cassavetes, Susan Sarandon and Molly Ringwald) directors have attempted to put their own stamp on the play.

In taking on the Abbey's millennium production, Morrison says he has brought in a set of actors who are prepared work collaboratively, devising and creating their roles. In casting, for examples, Mikel Murfi and Donal O'Kelly, he certainly picked on actors whose abilities as physical performers separate them from most of their contemporaries and mark a break with the National Theatre’s word-based house style.

Newry-born Morrison is particularly interested in the play's local resonances. "I don't want to be heavy-handed about it," he says. "But you have the fact that all the characters are on an island. And there are other things too. People often think of the Tempest as Shakespeare's benign late plays. But when you look at it closely, it is really all about anger and the desire for revenge."

Morrison has had a busy year of it, hopping back and forth between directing the revival of Friel's Freedom of the City at the Abbey and working for musical impresario Cameron Mackintosh, re-directing the musical version of The Return of Martin Guerre. He has now directed an American cast in the show which is currently playing at Joe Dowling's Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, but which is set for a US tour.

Even though his commitments for next year tend towards "legit" (he is working on a version of Aristophenes’ the Birds for the National Theatre in London) offers to keep him working in musicals have been arriving steadily. "After Martin Guerre cassettes kept dropping though the door, but I wouldn't say I turned down anything that gave me much pause for thought. There was nothing that lifted my skirt. They all seemed to be things like musical versions of the life of Maude Gonne..."

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