Monday 29 December 2014

Haunting lesson of 'The Dead School'

Published 09/11/2008 | 00:00

THEATRE

EMER O'KELLY

We still revere the old style of "education" in Ireland, and revere the men who presided over it. Their successful product was the child with an endless capacity for absorbing received prejudice as wisdom, and spewing it out undigested throughout life; the larger the "sponge", the greater the intellectual. Pat McCabe taught in that "rote and repetition" system, and he loathes it. The Dead School is his commentary on it and what it did to pupils and teachers alike.

But McCabe doesn't stop there: we've replaced the old system with a series of politically correct platitudes, he suggests, ticking off boxes as mindlessly as ever the old masters beat catechetical incantations into children.

We still don't know how to open minds; and we're still destroying children and their teachers.

McCabe has rewritten his play from the production for Macnas of a number of years ago, and it's now been given a touring production by Nomad and Livin' Dred, based in Longford and visiting Mullingar, Dundalk, Castleblaney, Roscommon, Virginia and Drogheda until Decem-ber 3. And it's a corker of a production, with Sean Campion heading the cast as Master Raphael Bell, a man uneasily at war with a system that has consumed him helplessly but hasn't given him the tools to resist in any meaningful manner.

It's a wonderful characterisation by author and actor alike as the old man sinks into confusion and misery, what he sees as the old decencies abandoned, while having to watch the embodiment of the new world, young Master Malachy Dudgeon, destroyed by his attempts at cool oneness with his pupils as surely as he himself has been destroyed by the old ways.

The entire cast of Eamon Owens as Dudgeon, Carrie Crowley as Mrs Bell, Gemma Reeves as Dudgeon's girlfriend, and Peter Daly as the priest and the menacing Little Beggarman of Death give seamlessly terrific support under Padraic McIntyre's direction. But the play is Campion's: the performance is haunting.

Maree Kearns designs with lighting by Barry McKinney, and Olwen Grindley is responsible for the successful subtleties of choreography.

TRYING for a new take on Shakespeare is nothing new; sometimes the take works, sometimes it doesn't. Joshua Edelman's take on The Merchant of Venice for Second Age emphatically doesn't.

It's all over the place, running in so many different directions that it's impossible even to imagine what the directorial concept is. There are a few Jewish motifs, a few masque motifs (neither category very well done) and a whole hodge podge of more or less contemporary costumes which simply look as though they've been salvaged from a children's dressing-up box.

Add on some playing that seldom goes below the neck emotionally, and you end up having to remind yourself which is Bassanio, which Gratiano, which Nerissa and which Jessica. The characterisation, despite perfectly competent techniques, never goes beyond the superficial.

And this is even true of the leads: Maeve Fitzgerald's Portia is undoubtedly being pursued for her money because her siren qualities make no impact, and her courtroom scene as the young lawyer Balthazar, while not entirely her fault (who the hell thought of one third of a wig, a grey lounge suit, a pony tail, and a crooked carnival mask?) is so unconvincing as to be ludicrous.

The same is true of the usually excellent David Heap as Antonio: his ridiculous and badly ironed costume makes him a joke rather than a decent, if anti-Semitic, human being. Enda Oates' shambling Shylock seems determined to abandon the implications of the text; perhaps the director was trying to rap Shakespeare over his politically incorrect knuckles and wipe out the rabid anti-Semitism of his era.

Add in a portrait scene so god-awful it makes you blush in the darkness, and you really don't have much left. But if you want to add some Jewish music, cast someone who can sing: on the evidence here, Robert Bannon can't.

It's at the Helix in Dublin until November 21, then at the new Wexford Opera House from November 25 to November 28.

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