Sunday 17 December 2017

Simmering tensions lack sexual heat

OUTRAGEOUS 'COME-ON': Fiona O'Shaughnessy in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' at the Gate in Dublin
OUTRAGEOUS 'COME-ON': Fiona O'Shaughnessy in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' at the Gate in Dublin

THEATRE EMER O'KELLY

IN 2008, Annie Ryan's Corn Exchange gave us Cat on a Hot Tin Roof set in contemporary Ireland, and performed in Commedia dell'Arte style. Amazingly, it worked. The new Gate theatre production of the play goes for no such experimentation; in Tennessee Williams' centenary year, Mark Brokaw's production is strictly by the book, faithful and solid.

That's the problem: it's rather too solid. There are so many simmering themes in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof of greed, insecurity, frustration, bigotry and self-loathing that choices need to be made by a director. With all being given the same weight, the emotion becomes static and unvaried, the subtleties lost as they struggle for space in the morass of teeming sexuality.

Because the work of Tennessee Williams is always a morass: as foetid as a Mississippi river-bed as his characters break through his own tormented vision of guilt-ridden sexuality.

Maggie the Cat yearns for husband Brick to return to their bed as much to secure her place in the family hierarchy as for the heat of his love-making. He howls silently for the "purity" of the long-ago locker-room tussles with his "friend" Skipper, now dead by his own hand in self-hatred after an inconclusive encounter with Maggie herself. Sex is the weapon; sex is the overlay; sex is the currency; sex is the methodology. And with it, Williams' homosexuality howls its anguish, a mark of Cain that will not allow the sex act to become part of an emotional whole. It's the template of his work: but the template needs embroidering in each individual play and circumstance.

And this is what Brokaw's production fails to do as it works through the sweltering night of Big Daddy's 65th birthday party, the shadow of his terminal cancer about to envelop the household; the steely wholesomeness of daughter-in-law Mae as she engulfs her beauty queen's persona in a mantle of predatory motherhood; the legal manipulation of her husband as he plots control of the old man's fortune; and at the heart of it (perhaps the only heart in the piece) Big Mama, the wife who has kept her strength coiled in waiting through the years of being disparaged and downtrodden.

Despite being variants well outside the cage of the separate sexual miseries of both Brick and Maggie the Cat, they are what will decide the outcome for both. And that is the real hopelessness, which the production fails to grapple with.

Fiona O'Shaughnessy plays Maggie, looking, as ever, exquisite, but despite a performance of almost outrageous "come-on" somehow fails to portray the panting, desperate voluptuousness required.

Richard Flood's Brick has great restraint, indeed a bit more seething wouldn't go amiss; but the problem lies in his appearance: no former quarter-back he.

Owen Roe's battered, bullying hulk of Big Daddy is physically and technically impressive, but the actor's usual depth of playing seems absent.

Star performances of the evening come from Donna Dent, a fluttering, horrendous Praying Mantis as Mae, and Marion O'Dwyer as Big Mama, the woman Maggie the Cat might have become were it not for the twists of nature.

The set by Francis O'Connor looks terrific, (although one suspects an architect would be struck off for building such a house) and his costume designs are even better, perfect in period mood.

**********

ANYONE who saw Aidan Dooley's enchanting and inspiring one-man play Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer will probably rush to see his new offering, O'Sullivan Beara; the Last Gaelic Chieftain. And even if it falls a little short of its predecessor, audiences won't be disappointed.

The O'Sullivan Beara (or the Count of Berehaven, as he preferred not to be called) stood with the O'Neill at Kinsale. He barely survived the subsequent siege of Dunboy, the last of his castle strongholds, and refusing to accept defeat at the hands of the woman he called "the Tudor Queen", he marched north through two weeks of the bitter winter of 1602/03, leading the ragged band of what had been his army, along with their hungry and bewildered families.

They scavenged along the way, slaughtering their fellow countrymen and their families where necessary, but in the Irish way, nursing the grievance of having received similar treatment themselves.

Elizabeth was a supreme politician, and knew when to "move on" as we call it now. The lords of Munster and many others were restored to their supremacy after their defeat; the O'Sullivan, perhaps vainglorious, but too stubborn to bend the knee, preferred to subject his people to exile and death than accept power from the queen.

He arrived at the gates of O'Rourke of Breffni, identified himself and his followers as the "army of Munster" and when the gates were hospitably opened to him, he marched in followed by only 35 people. It was not the end of his life; only the end of life as he knew and wanted it.

The O'Sullivan fled to Spain with his family and spent the rest of his life in more futile politicking, refusing to accept (like many before and after him) that foreigners, especially Catholic foreigners, saw Ireland as nothing other than a convenient weapon against the only country that was worthy of their enmity: England under Elizabeth, aka Gloriana, and later under her psychotic sister, Mary Tudor.

In Ireland we like our heroes tragic and defeated: and Aidan Dooley gives our preferences full and magnificent measure in his telling of O'Sullivan's last years.

I would argue with his "sideline" forays into quaint folklore, which distract somewhat from his sad thrust. But his performance (directed by Jonathan Kemp against a vibrant scenic backdrop by Elda Abramson and lit atmospherically by David Beaumont) is glowing and heartfelt. As an author, Dooley's heart is on his sleeve; as an actor, it is used with craft and skill. And the combination is pretty well irresistible.

O'Sullivan Beara; the Last Gaelic Chieftain was at the Civic in Tallaght, and tours countrywide until May 18.

Sunday Independent

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