Sunday 19 February 2017

Theatre: Through darkness and class war

Published 23/11/2015 | 02:30

Descent into madness: Beth Cooke and Peter Gowen in Through a Glass Darkly. Photo: Fiona Morgan
Descent into madness: Beth Cooke and Peter Gowen in Through a Glass Darkly. Photo: Fiona Morgan

Significantly, Ingmar Bergman was dead when permission was given for Jenny Worton to adapt his film Through a Glass Darkly for the stage. And at the risk of being accused of second-guessing, I don't think he would have been happy. Not that Worton's play, (given its Irish premiere by Annie Ryan for Corn Exchange at the Project in Dublin) is not a fine, indeed terrifying, piece of work. It is, but it completely lacks the sense of visual claustrophobia of Bergman's work.

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The play centres on the descent into total madness of a young woman over a 24-hour period. She is already unstable and has recently left hospital where she was being treated for schizophrenia. But she has hopes that she is better, even that she may be "cured" and that her holiday with her husband, her father and her teenage brother on a remote island off the Swedish coast may be the start of a fulfilled life.

Karin needs support; but she is surrounded by neurosis: her physician husband wants to care for her, but is wounded by her withdrawal of intimacy. Her father, a successful and intellectually obscure novelist, is insecure enough to seek constant affirmation through teaching and conferences abroad; and she discovers from reading his diary that his artist's self-obsession is leading him to use her as "material". And her brother, like all 16-year-olds, is teetering through hormonal confusion and obsession.

Karin finally goes over the edge in seeking spiritual ease when she believes god to be a spider crawling from the woodwork of an abandoned room at the top of the holiday house. Along the way, she has seduced her brother (in Worton's adaptation, explicitly played out on stage, the seduction is witnessed by her husband and father; Bergman left it indecisive). And finally, she believes that peace/spirituality are not to be found in the world: she returns to hospital permanently, having found out along the way that her husband has been told her illness is incurable and probably progressive.

Beth Cooke gives a suitably edgy and intense performance as the doomed Karin, but without the magic of film close-up to witness her disintegration, and in an open, minimalist grey set by Sarah Bacon, she is left floundering in trying to project the imprisoned terror of Karin's mind. Indeed, one wonders at director Annie Ryan's decision to fit the work into a visual that contrasts so violently with the spirit of Bergman's work.

But otherwise, Ryan's direction is intelligent, with a kind of detached compassion that brings out the best in her cast - Peter Gowen as the father, Peter Gaynor as the husband, and an impressive main stage debut from Colin Campbell as young Minus.

******

A new Enda Walsh play is a significant event, particularly when it is for Corcadorca, the company where he began his phenomenally successful career. And in the site-specific production Gentrification at the Cork Savings Bank premises, Walsh is as thought-provoking as ever. We are trailed through a series of rooms, all wired for closed-circuit television. Some are grubby, poorly and tastelessly furnished; others are comfortable and prosperous, including the cute bedroom of a four-year -old princess.

Then we discover their purpose. Seated around the High Victorian board room table of the equally impressive and elegant boardroom of the now-defunct bank, we witness a debate between two men, Barry and Enda. This is a Kafkaesque nightmare: the rooms through which we have come have been wired by Barry and his friends, the original working-class inhabitants of one of those "increasingly fashionable districts" to be found in all cities. Enda is one of the runners-in, fond of leisurely Saturday mornings over freshly bought pain-au-chocolat and freshly squeezed cranberries … with his wife and his little four-year-old daughter, now missing. What initially hits your churning stomach is a child molestation scenario.

But Barry has no such purpose: his Pied Piping is aimed at preserving the old district for the men and women of "his class".

And he obsessively taunts and torments Enda, serially reneging on his promise to reveal the little girl's whereabouts, and those of the 52 other children he and his friends have spirited away. The desirable district will never be desirable again, as Enda is forced into repetitive descriptions of breakfast on the sunny morning his little daughter disappeared.

The performances of Kieran Ahern as the obsessed Barry and Evan Lordan as the desperate Enda are as chilling as they are devastating, and the direction is beautifully understated by Pat Kiernan. But there is a caveat: Corcadorca may have felt that Walsh is now so eminent as to be beyond guidance. I would say nobody is that: and the piece would benefit hugely from some dramaturgical tightening up. But with its superbly complex sound by Peter Power and David Duffy, and overall design by Paul Keogan, Gentrification is a fine piece of theatre.

******

Arsehammers and Bonfire Night are two comedy shorts at Bewley's Lunchtime Café Theatre, at Powerscourt in Dublin. They're written by Claire Dowie for CallBack Theatre and performed by Cora Fenton. In the first she's a little boy who likes it when Granddad sometimes is arsehammers, because he becomes a war hero, and they save the world together.

Then Granddad has to go and live in a home with a lot of other people who are arsehammers. And it is explained to the little boy that arsehammers isn't fun at all, and Granddad isn't a hero. He's suffering from a brain disease called Alzheimer's, and it's going to get worse until he doesn't know who he is, or recognise anybody else. But the little boy knows he's gone to be arsehammers forever with Grandma in the sky. It has charm: but Fenton does not convince as a small boy.

She is far more successful in Bonfire Night, playing a crazed serial killer who once found a gun on waste ground. When her mother is killed by a drunk driver, she has to give up her own life to look after her father. And she is determined, after her own fashion, to ensure that nobody else's life is similarly ruined. So she goes around on successive bonfire nights, picking off people she sees as an impediment to the happy functioning of people she likes. It's fairly hilarious, and well directed by John Sheehy.

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