Monday 24 October 2016

Theatre: Riotous 'Seagull' revels in irreverence

Nasty seducers dominate in Emer O'Kelly's Festival choices for the week.

Published 10/10/2016 | 02:30

Imogen Doel, Louis Lovett, Stephen Mullan, Derbhle Crotty, Rory Keenan, Anna Healy in The Seagull. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Imogen Doel, Louis Lovett, Stephen Mullan, Derbhle Crotty, Rory Keenan, Anna Healy in The Seagull. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Brendan Collins, John Molloy and Daire Halpin (Zerlina) in Don Giovanni. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

To guy a classic ever so slightly, and get away with it, requires scholarship as well as talent; and both are present in spades in Michael West's new version of Chekhov's The Seagull at the Gaiety.

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Set more or less vaguely in Ireland (although it could be anywhere) and more or less in the 21st- century (although it could be at the end of the 19th) Annie Ryan's production for Corn Exchange is a riotously funny tour de force. The main snook cocked (if it can be called so) is the turning of the tragi-comic anti-hero Konstantin into the lesbian Constance, as tortured and neurotic as the original, but far more belligerent and angry in the hands of Jane McGrath's portrayal. The turnaround also manages to make even more ironic and touching her abandonment by the love object Nina: for a gay lover to be dumped for a heterosexual one as Constance is abandoned by Nina for the effortlessly seductive Trigorin, is a sardonic twist unimagined by Chekhov, but one suspects, is one he would have approved of.

The sub-theme of literary popularity twisting the knife in the open wounds of unrecognised real artistic worth is less obvious in West's realisation of the play than in the original, but it is there, superbly handled by Rory Keenan as Trigorin, languidly and cynically seducing Nina's innocence with a pretence of artistic anguish while secretly relishing the spoils of pulp-writing.

But arguably the glory (and it is a glory) of this production is the wildly comic performances throughout: Ryan seems to have got 500pc from her actors, and they are a line-up which can dazzle even at 75pc of their best.

Stephen Brennan plays the valetudinarian landowner Sorin as a doddering old bore in a joyous piece of camp which reminded this critic irresistibly of the late Cyril Cusack in full flight . . . something which I suspect may have been deliberate . . . while Derbhle Crotty is Arkadina, re-named Eileen rather than Irina: strutting, vamping, and languishing by turns on a surface laid over a core of indestructible theatrical steel. (And that portrayal reminds one irresistibly of more than one eminent lady of the boards . . .).

Louis Lovett as Dr. Dorn is splendidly disenchanted and disgruntled (as well as gloriously comic) and operates as an effective chorus- master for the drama being played out before his detached eyes. Imogen Doel is the misanthropic, bitter Masha; Stephen Mullen her put-upon, misused husband; and Anna Healy her mother Paulina.

If there is a weak link it's Genevieve Hulme-Beaman as Nina: effective enough in the early scenes, her final defeated appearance doesn't manage to convince that she has been reduced to the edge of madness, ruined and heartbroken at the hands of the callous Trigorin.

Paul O'Mahony's spare set is dominated by a greygreen backdrop suggestive of a dreary lakeside landscape, and it is lit by Sinead Wallace to complete a memorable production.

THERE are many people who would say opera is the purest form of theatre/drama; so it might be considered that the inclusion of an opera in the Dublin Theatre Festival programme is long overdue. And there is a wily flourish worthy of the Don himself in the choice of Mozart's Don Giovanni for Opera Theatre Company's production this year, since it is often considered the greatest opera ever composed, and certainly Mozart's masterpiece.

At the Gaiety, and transferring to the Opera House in Cork, this Don Giovanni is lavish by OTC standards; the emphasis is usually on easily "portable" productions that will adapt to touring smaller venues around the country.

Brendan Collins, John Molloy and Daire Halpin (Zerlina) in Don Giovanni. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Brendan Collins, John Molloy and Daire Halpin (Zerlina) in Don Giovanni. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

The Austrian designer Bruno Schwengl is responsible for the set and costumes, and has chosen a vaguely industrial/warehouse background with the singers brought up to date as peopling a gangster-style underworld, with the Don as a Mafia boss. The visual theme is strong, but does seem rather uneasily detached from the music, and the costumes do no favours to Tara Erraught's vocally erotic Donna Elvira.

The Welsh baritone David Kempster makes an impressive Don Giovanni; nonetheless he is almost dwarfed by John Molloy's truly magnificent Leporello, his vocal achievement aided by a good acting performance (sadly unique in this production, in which director Gavin Quinn seems totally to have lost his way, with the artists strung across the stage for much of the time, without emotional contact or even physical interaction).

Maire Flavin sings the vengeful Donna Anna, seeking the destruction of her father's murderer and her own seducer, and Daire Halpin is Zerlina, the Don's further prey, with Alexander Prague as the faithful Don Ottavio and Brendan Collins slightly weak in the role of the cuckolded Masetto. Jonathan May is the Commendatore, coming splendidly into his own as he comes back to life to drag the great seducer down to hell.

Talking point for the new production is Roddy Doyle's libretto which succeeds admirably most of the time; cheekily slangy and far racier than even an 18th century librettist would have got away with, it moulds itself well to the score although does occasionally lapse into more traditional language which breaks the continuity.

Fergus Shiels, the OTC artistic director, conducts the RTE Concert Orchestra which responds with real Mozartean flourish to his baton.

It's likely that this Don Giovanni will have been the first opera experience for many in the audience, since theatre and opera audiences don't necessarily overlap: and it should prove an enticing introduction.

IN 1996, I left the world premiere in Galway of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane. All around me, people were rapturously proclaiming a new "Irish" voice; even a new Synge. I, on the other hand, was wondering who this English writer was: I had seldom watched such a quintessentially antagonistic and contemptuous English take on Ireland. The myth of McDonagh's Irishness continued for several years; until, in fact, he achieved fame as a screen writer, when it became clear that he was indeed English, born and reared in London to immigrant Irish parents.

The weakness of his early work remains: to satirise something you have to understand it and to base it in a core of reality, which was notably lacking in McDonagh's work. But now, along comes Carmel Winters with The Remains of Maisie Duggan, seeming to draw vast amounts of inspiration from McDonagh, and indeed with a couple of flashes of Synge thrown in (notably Christy Mahon taking the "shlap of a loy" to his Da).

The difference is that despite similar weaknesses of construction in both, unlike McDonagh's, Winters's Ireland can be recognised through the layers of shlock: the set (Fly Davis) of a filthy kitchen with rusted unusable fixtures and complete with Sacred Heart and Virgin Mary images; the relentless sledge-hammer use of four-letter words and profanity; and the sub-text of marital violence widely known locally, but unchecked and accepted within the community. In a less theatrical scenario, let's say the reality of the Six-One News on RTE, the tragedy would trigger interviews with neighbours claiming "a close-knit community" and "a lovely family." In other words, Winters has not made the mistake of separating her black satire from reality.

She tells the story of Kathleen, home from London after 20 years for her mother's funeral, only to find that Mam is alive as well as dead, a ghost who can join in and re-direct the world around her. What is not clear is whether or not Maisie intends to wreak vengeance on the husband who has raped and beaten her throughout their lives together, and whether her death was at his hands, or at her own through a staged road accident. Either way, now she wants to be buried respectably, and depends on Kathleen to achieve this.

In other words, it's surreal; but then we descend into reality as in a barely interrupted long monologue, we learn that Kathleen has repeated the pattern with which she grew up, and has not only been incarcerated in a mental asylum, but has persistently beaten up and tormented her girlfriend. And the awkwardness of the play's structure takes over: the two elements don't meld, a division not helped by Ellen McDougall's visibly inept direction which leaves her cast without cohesion.

Despite this, the performances are well worked through, with Brid Ni Neachtain (when will this splendid actor be allowed to play within her own age range?) as Maisie, John Olohan as Himself, and Cillian O'Gairbhi as the half-saved brother Tadhg. Rachel O'Byrne looks and plays right as Kathleen, but her voice projection leaves a lot to be desired, even in the relatively small space of the Peacock.

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