Tuesday 12 December 2017

Review: 'Way to Heaven' and 'Assassins'

Project Arts Centre, Dublin

John McKeown

If there's a common theme to these two very different productions from Rough Magic's SEEDS programme it's injustice: those who do nothing about it and those who do too much.

In Rosemary McKenna's production of Juan Mayorga's Holocaust play Way to Heaven, a Red Cross inspector is shown around a Jewish concentration camp in 1943 but sees nothing to suggest industrial-scale ethnic cleansing. As the inspector (Daniel Reardon) tells us, it's his job to report only what he sees, no more, and since what he sees of the rural camp is fanatically stage-managed by its theatre-loving commandant (Karl Quinn), he isn't really to blame. Or is he?

Daniel Reardon's monologue is softly spoken but wavers tremulously between guilt and self-justification. Like those SS camp guards, he was "only doing his job". Gershom (Will O'Connell), the Jewish prisoner chosen to help the commandant fabricate his rustic paradise, is passive too, but he's a prisoner, and helping on the understanding that by doing so he and his family will avoid the gas chamber.

Seen from the differing positions of the three characters before, during, and after the inspection, the production has a symphonic feel, its repetitious movements intensifying the almost exquisite horror of the situation of Jews forced to fake idyllic confinement for the benefit of the eyes of the world.

Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, though they each have different grievances and wildly different characters, are all united by a refusal to accept the perceived injustice of their lot, and come up with the same answer: shoot the president. From John Wilkes Booth to Samuel Byck who planned to crash a plane into Nixon's White House and culminating in Lee Harvey Oswald, Ronan Phelan's brash and brilliant production is a roll-call of self-pity, leftist angst, thwarted love, and gleeful dementia.

Sondheim's sardonic lyrics cut both ways, mocking the assassins as frustrated celebrants of a system they hate and condemning that system along with them. The songs, played by a live band, are performed in a hybrid cabaret/vaudeville style in which each assassin tells his story, with the Balladeer (Ray Scannell, left) as a scathing singing MC, and frequently interrupted by the group's theorist John Wilkes Booth.

The two plays make an intriguing contrast. The assassins' individual direct action, however deranged, is a tonic to the impersonal genocide of Mayorga's play which still goes on and in which, McKenna's production implies, we are all implicated.

Irish Independent

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