Sunday 24 September 2017

A battle for the audience

One man show
One man show

Katy Hayes

This one-man show tells the story of the Irish who deserted the American army in 1846 to form the San Patricio Battalion and fight with the Mexicans in the three-year American-Mexican war. The Irish had found themselves treated as second-class citizens by the Yankees, and it slowly dawned on them they had more in common with the Catholic Mexicans who were peasant farmers. The basic story is a fascinating one and has attracted several Irish artistic interpretations, the best known of which is a superb album from the Chieftains.

The story is here told through the eyes of 12-year-old Thomas O'Byrne, who signs up to the American army to escape being charged with a crime. He switches sides shortly after the war starts, locates his two brothers fighting on the other side, and is eventually sentenced to be hanged by the victorious Americans: the punishment for deserters.

The script was written by Larry O'Loughlin, and adapted and performed by Stephen Jones.

The first problem here is there is never any sense that the character is a young teenager. He appears as a fully grown 30-year-old man. If the script hadn't indicated his age, you would really have no idea. This is an obvious theatrical opportunity missed.

Opening the show, Jones hits the material at a breakneck pace. There is no director credited, and a slowing down is urgently required. The material is dense and involves an explanation of the complex events that led to the American-Mexican war.

There is no real attempt to dramatise or recreate - no maps or proper design elements. A few good cameos by Jones, creating voices and little portraits of minor characters, are dramatically effective. But given the task in hand, a much greater visual concept is needed. As the Mexicans lose ground, so too does the performer.

The second half improves somewhat. The audience has lost its expectation of any dramatic sophistication, and resigned itself to straight-up storytelling. Jones's skill as a performer begins to shine through, now the story has become simpler. It all gets fairly gory with the executions and punishments, but at least these are easy to follow. A villain/idiot of the piece emerges in General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who demands a foolish enforced march through deserts by day, and freezing mountains by night, which ends up killing one-fifth of the army. But the general still retains the loyalty of his men, a fascinating idea but not one that is explored.

The script abounds with clichés about the homeland: "Not a day went by we didn't think of Ireland" and after they settle peacefully in Mexico after the war, "I just wish my mother could have seen it."

If ever a show was crying out for a director who had some kind of broad vision, this is it. Shows, like wars, require a battle plan, and this foot soldier is badly in need of a generalissimo.

BOOK IT NOW

1 SUMMER FESTIVAL OF OPERA

Killruddery House, July 9 & 16

This annual fundraiser for the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition features budding and blooming Irish opera talent, including soprano Sarah Brady, mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm and bass baritone Rob McAllister.

2 SILENT

An Grianán, Letterkenny, July 10; Holy Trinity Hall, Dunfanaghy, July 11

Pat Kinevane won several prizes, including an Olivier Award, with this show for Fishamble directed by Jim Culleton. A touching depiction of the human being behind every huddled homeless person on the side of the street.

3 ONCE

Olympia Theatre, Dublin, until August 26

This endlessly popular Tony Award-winning musical, with book by Enda Walsh and music and lyrics by Glenn Hansard and Markéta Irglová, takes up a summer residency. Based on the 2007 film by John Carney, it’s a charming Irish love story.

Stage Whispers...

The Gate Theatre is generally perceived as a comfortable venue for comfortable people, and so a new director naturally gets seized by a desire to rip the seats out. Selina Cartmell's first season kicks off next week with a promenade production of The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald - with all the seats removed. People with long memories will recall that, early in his tenure, Michael Colgan did something similar - it was a 1985 production of The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar, directed by Patrick Mason and designed by Joe Vanek. The seating in the front half of the auditorium was removed and replaced with hard benches. The place was decked with bunting and the chandeliers lowered to just above people's heads. The fire officer conducted 11 inspections before declaring himself satisfied with the set-up. The coffee staff were in fear of their lives as Eamon Morrissey stormed the entrance with a pike.

The Abbey Theatre hasn't been motivated to stage the plays of founders William Butler Yeats or Lady Gregory in recent times - but Sligo's Blue Raincoat Theatre Company have taken up the baton. An annual programme to coincide with the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo kicks off next week and a real highlight is The Cat and the Moon (inset) by the Shigeyama Family, one of only two traditional Noh Companies operating in Japan today.

Meanwhile Landmark Theatre Company announced a new Ross O'Carroll Kelly one-man show, Postcards from the Ledge, at the Gaiety Theatre in October, starring Rory Nolan and written by Paul Howard. This follows their great success with a trilogy of first-rate satirical comedies. It seems that a cast sizes in commercial theatre are shrinking, two-handers are becoming more frequent. Now we're down to one-man shows. Eventually we might do away with the middle-men altogether and stay at home to read the book.

Katy Hayes

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