Sunday 11 December 2016

Theatre: Bill and Tom (S and M) lead 2015

Emer O'Kelly

Published 28/12/2015 | 02:30

Superb: Druid Shakespeare. Photo: Matthew Thompson.
Superb: Druid Shakespeare. Photo: Matthew Thompson.
Marty Rea. Photo: Brian McEvoy.

I saw 91 theatrical productions in the calendar year of 2015. And of those, I would classify only four as fairly or fully disastrous, making it a good year.

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And five productions count as truly magnificent achievements. The list, not surprisingly, is topped by Druid Shakespeare, Garry Hynes's monumental staging of the four plays of the Henriad: Richard II; Henry IV Parts One and Two; and Henry V.

There has been a lot about the "daring concept of cross-gender casting" and an "Irish" interpretation of four of England's most revered plays by its most revered playwright, who also happens to be the greatest playwright who ever lived.

What it actually was was a stunningly engrossing, powerfully emotional immersion in England's history in all its nobility, treachery and barbarity. It surmounted, as it should, preconception and prejudice.

It also featured a performance which I shall remember to the day I die: Marty Rea's chillingly touching portrayal of the depraved (and ultimately tragic) Richard II. It gives Rea the award for the year's acting triumph, (particularly when accompanied by his Aston in Pinter's The Caretaker at the Gate and, currently, his Jack Worthing in Patrick Mason's The Importance of Being Earnest.)

There must also be special mention of Derbhle Crotty's stunning tracking of Henry IV's lifetime through three of the four plays, although it is perhaps unfair even to single out a performance, as it was hard to find a weakness in this spine-chilling evocation of the past, gloriously served by Francis O'Connor's weltering, mud-spattered design.

Second only to it was the Gate revival of Tom Murphy's increasingly relevant meditation on masculine identity and the power of music in our lives The Gigli Concert. It was a deserved triumph for director David Grindley as well as for arguably the most unselfish performance of the year from Declan Conlon as JPW King, brilliantly feeding into Denis Conway's bravura, disintegrating, bullying Irish Man. (Conway also excels currently as the delightfully malicious Mr Bohun in the Abbey's You Never Can Tell).

Olwen Fouere confirmed her mastery of Beckett, performing her own version of Lessness for Galway Arts Festival, an unforgettable and terrifying experience, its burning immediacy defying one to find its greyness a cold distance.

Also in the list of near perfection come two small gems: the short run at Project of Simon Stephens' Sea Wall, the extraordinary one-man play of tragedy and loss written especially for the wonderful Andrew Scott and produced by UK company Paines Plough; and Beckett in the City: the Women Speak, Sarah Jane Scaife's continued exploration of Beckett's work, staged in the almost derelict Colaiste Mhuire in Parnell Square during the Fringe Festival - a treat that would, like Fouere's work, persuade anyone of the accessibility of Beckett.

A new production of A View from the Bridge at the Gate marked Arthur Miller's centenary, directed with faithful finesse by his great admirer Joe Dowling. And this production featured a remarkable, complex, and extraordinarily evocative set by Beowulf Boritt.

Other directors whose work stood out for me included Conor McPherson for his own The Night Alive in the Dublin Theatre festival, a wonderfully funny, touching piece of near-reality slice of life that also featured superb performances from Adrian Dunbar and Kate Stanley Brennan.

Patrick Mason offered seamless work on Wilde in the current production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Gate, so seamless indeed, that it appears invisible; except that every inch, line, and hidden subtlety of Wilde's attitudes, observations, and insecurities are given wicked weight by a fine cast. You could call it an object lesson in direction.

For this critic, the current production at the Abbey, Shaw's You Never Can Tell, was also something of a treat. It has had a mixed reception, perhaps because director Conall Morrison has not been afraid to have fun with it. Fun? With Shaw? seems to be the reaction, as the director turns upside down the stone-set notion that GBS is pedantic even when he's being funny. Morrison has made the malicious comedy of sexual politics at the turn of the twentieth century into a romp in Liam Doona's exuberant carousel set - and it works.

Smaller productions which stay in my mind include Cathy Belton's searing portrait of a woman consumed by pain and hatred in Frank McGuinness' The Match Box at the Galway Arts Festival, under remarkably fine direction from Joan Sheehy; and Amy Conroy's Luck Just Kissed You Hello, a serious/impish exploration of the nature of masculinity in which she herself played a transgendered man, again at GIAF.

Searing is also the word for Bryan Burroughs' one-man work, revived at Project. He directed his own performance in Beowulf: the Blockbuster, a depiction of a dying father trying to tell his small son about the reality of death. It was a thing of profound beauty.

Impressive and interesting in their different ways were: George Brant's Grounded at the Tiger Fringe festival, which featured an excellent performance from Clare Dunne under Selina Cartmell's direction; Corcadorca's' Gentrification, a site-specific Enda Walsh critical work about urban decay and renewal; Eska Riada's production of Jennifer Johnston's Moonlight and Music, one-woman works which featured Geraldine Plunkett and a particularly welcome return of Lise Ann McLoughlin to the Dublin stage; and Moliere's School for Wives, staged by AC productions with verve and wicked humour under Peter Reid's direction at the New Theatre.

Owen McCafferty's Death of a Comedian marked a co-production between London's Soho Theatre, the Abbey, and the Belfast Lyric: a clever piece of work splendidly played by Brian Doherty.

Mistake of the year featured, sadly, at the Abbey, where director Wayne Jordan's decision to stage O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman in a sixties/seventies setting, in a frankly ghastly post- modern design by Sarah Bacon, tore the heart out of the piece.

And finally, heart, liver and lights needed to be torn out of four productions: Hilary Fannin's Famished Castle (abysmal construction and plastic stereotype characters); Dick Walsh's Newcastlewest (pretentious, immature posturing and unrecognisable as drawn from War and Peace as apparently was the intent); Noelle Brown's Foxy (more a turgid if well-meant lecture on the evils of racism than a play); and Fiona Looney's Are You There, Garth? It's Me, Margaret (an unbelievably flimsy and unfunny take on the saga of the Garth Brooks Dublin fiasco).

Foxy was leadenly polemical, but the other three should never even have reached the stage.

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