Friday 28 April 2017

Mischief at the Abbey, pain at the Gate

  • Dublin by Limelight, Abbey Theatre
  • Afterplay and One for the Road, Gate Theatre
Louis Lovett (Willy Hayes) and Karen Egan (Eva St John) in The Corn Exchange's Dublin by Lamplight by Michael West in collaboration with the company, directed by Annie Ryan, at the Abbey Theatre until April 1, 2017. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Louis Lovett (Willy Hayes) and Karen Egan (Eva St John) in The Corn Exchange's Dublin by Lamplight by Michael West in collaboration with the company, directed by Annie Ryan, at the Abbey Theatre until April 1, 2017. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Emer O'Kelly

Corn Exchange and Colgan's final Gate offering made for a memorable week.

When Corn Exchange first produced Dublin by Lamplight in 2004, it was the centenary year of the Abbey, and the play was a glorious parody of "all we hold dear" in art and nationalism. To revive it at the Abbey in 2017, so soon after our year of sticky self-glorification of the centenary of 1916 goes beyond parody. The new production by Corn Exchange's Annie Ryan for the national theatre is as stonkingly irreverent as the original - but it should perhaps give us rather more pause for self-examination.

It's 1904, and Willie and Frank Hayes are about to launch the Irish National Theatre of Ireland with the staging of Willie's play The Wooing of Emer. It's to be financed by a self-styled "leader of women", and will star a floppy haired poseur of a male actor. Sounds familiar? Of course it does.

Michael West has taken the Fay brothers, Maud Gonne, Yeats, Annie Horniman and a varied motley crew of Dublin "types" and stewed them gloriously together, to send them up as rotten as can be imagined. Maggie, the little amateur wardrobe mistress dreaming of stardom, is actually a hotel chambermaid about to run off with her lover Frank Hayes. Sharp eyes and ears will spot the Joycean allusions tumbling hard and fast: 1904 also saw the birth of Ulysses.

Jimmy Finnegan, the stage carpenter, is in love with Maggie, but she spurns his advances, only to find herself abandoned and pregnant. West outrageously even steals a few lines from Juno and the Paycock.

Staged in commedia dell'arte style, it's all a delightful romp of revolutionary fantasy (a bag of gelignite features prominently, along with a Royal Visit) as well as a side-splitting staging of the play within a play when Maggie gets her chance because the militant Eva St John (Maud/Annie/Augusta: take your pick) is in gaol.

But Michael West has a purpose here: and the second half takes a far darker turn of allegory, when Willy Hayes is pointlessly and accidentally shot by the military, and little Maggie fades into nothingness with her "shame". West leaves us to ask ourselves what we really have achieved with all our moralistic posturings.

The terrific ensemble cast is led by Louis Lovett and Catriona Ennis, and Kris Stone re-creates his original set, with wonderful costumes by Sinead Cuthbert.

*******

Old Russia died in the revolution of 1917, taking with it hundreds of years of Tsarist dominance. But the people were left, bewildered corpses whose mainstay of certainty had been removed. Stalinism took hold with hideous ease.

But there were cracks, as there had been cracks pre-1917. And it's in those cracks that Chekhov's characters lived their own individual lives, surviving as best they could to the beat of the soul.

Brian Friel took on a forensic examination of that survival with Afterplay, his 2002 work which thrusts Sonya, the lonely embattled and generous hearted anti-hero of Uncle Vanya, and Andre, the bewildered and hen-pecked son of the house from Three Sisters, into a rundown cafe in Moscow, 1922.

In the parlance of the time, they are old. They are certainly hopeless. But the emotional defiance of each remains intact as they describe to each other a life of equanimity, even comfortable acceptance. Both are inventions, of course. Andre is actually a street musician, not a member of the Opera House orchestra, and his son is in prison, not at medical school. Nor is Sonya's "old friend" Dr Astrov waiting for her back on the estate, just occasionally a little tipsy. Beloved, pathetic Uncle Vanya is dead, and Astrov only comes to her when he can no longer stand his humiliation at the hands of his viciously exploitative wife.

The broken two can keep up the fiction until destroyed by even a small glimmering of companionship and empathy, and the truth emerges. There can be no bond between them: their personal agony goes too deep.

Afterplay is a minor Friel masterpiece, and its short production at the Gate is a still, echoing graveyard of tragedy, exquisitely played by Denis Conway and Derbhle Crotty under Mark O'Rowe's direction.

Will Harold Pinter's plays speak to us 50 years from now? Will they speak to audiences of what generation 2067 will be living through? More than probably.

In 1984, Britain was in turmoil as Margaret Thatcher set herself the task of breaking the miners' strike. Their leader Arthur Scargill may not have had a democratic mandate when he pulled the men out of the pits, but Thatcher's response was brutal, and near anarchy reigned in the streets.

Harold Pinter's response was One for the Road, the play that tells us that freedom of expression is our only hope, and those who fear it in the name of "authority" and the "common good" will deny it to the point of ripping out a man's tongue because he has spoken unpopular truths, and brutally killing his wife because she has failed to toe the party line.

We may not live in such a nightmare State, but we face our own turmoil in 2017. And the play stands as a testament to the "dangerous" power of the independent intellect.

It is fearsome, brilliant, touching, and savage, as Nicholas, the "god-fearing" authority figure sighs and chats his way through his vilely triumphant task. Yes, Pinter is relevant to and for us all.

One for the Road is Michael Colgan's final offering in his final short season at the Gate Theatre, with Owen Roe superlative (as usual) in the role of the hideous Nicholas, and Rachel O'Byrne and Shadaan Felfeli as his hapless victims. They are directed by Doug Hughes.

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