Thursday 19 April 2018

Theatre: Audiences enjoy a classic year

SCENE STEALERS: Marty Rae and, in particular Niall Buggy, right, put in tremendous performances in Frank McGuiness’s ‘The Hanging Gardens’ at The Abbey Theatre
SCENE STEALERS: Marty Rae and, in particular Niall Buggy, right, put in tremendous performances in Frank McGuiness’s ‘The Hanging Gardens’ at The Abbey Theatre

Emer O'Kelly

Probably the most notable factor in Irish theatre in the past year was the production of two of Shaw's works in his home city, notable in that he has been unaccountably neglected here.

The Gate gave us Mrs Warren's Profession directed by Patrick Mason, and with Sorcha Cusack in the title role. And the Abbey produced Major Barbara directed by Annabelle Comyn, with a particularly good set by Paul O'Mahony. It was nice to be reminded that intellect and humour are the hallmarks of Shaw's work, rather than the usual misconception of him as didactic and ponderous.

And overall, it was a good year for classics. We had King Lear at the Abbey and at the Gate it was Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, the Arthur Miller version, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. King Lear directed by Selina Cartmell, was a spectacularly successful interpretation, with Owen Roe towering as one of the finest Lears I've seen and certainly the finest ever in this country. It also had the year's most impressive support performances from Hugh O'Conor as the Fool and Sean Campion as Kent.

Wayne Jordan directed An Enemy of the People with (once again) Paul O'Mahony's set design taking the year's plaudits in a period which saw a lot of good design. Declan Conlon as Dr Stockmann and Denis Conway as Peter Stockmann were flawless, although the cast overall was also extremely impressive. Highlighting the play's message for our time without heavy-handed finger-pointing.

Streetcar was, to my mind less impressive, showing a lack of ensemble cohesion under Ethan McSweeeny's direction, and with Denis Conway and Catherine Walker in the secondary roles of Mitch and Stella deserving of most praise.

The Threepeenny Opera was enjoyable rather than impressive: too glossy and very superficial, at the expense of the Brechtian mood and message.

The final classic was on a smaller scale: Corn Exchange's production of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms at Smock Alley theatre for the Dublin Theatre Festival. Director Annie Ryan (mistakenly, in my opinion) gave her cast for the American tragedy an Irish border counties setting, creating a distracting creative clash. But this company's work is never less than intelligent and impressive and the production marked a move away from their usual commedia dell'arte genre.

The year began with Frank McGuinness's adaptation of Joyce's The Dead at the Abbey directed by Joe Dowling, and running into the new year as the Christmas offering. Stanley Townsend made a welcome return to the Dublin stage as Gabriel, with Derbhle Crotty as Gretta, both of them heartrendingly effective.

Crotty also featured in the "second best" (best comes later) new play of the year, Carmel Winters' Best Man, a co-production between Everyman in Cork and Project in Dublin. Directed by Michael Barker-Caven, it was a sad, funny take on modern sexual dysfunction, with Crotty as the wife who becomes besotted with her children's Bolivian nanny (Kate Stanley Brennan) and Peter Gowen as the frustrated stay-at-home husband.

Maeve's House, Eamonn Morrissey's one man play of tribute to the writer Maeve Brennan, which was in the Peacock during the Dublin Theatre Festival, was a small (in the best sense) joy, bringing the writer vividly to life through the story of the house in Ranelagh in Dublin where she and later Morrissey, grew up.

The Abbey courageously departed from type, if a national theatre should be said to have a type, in presenting Richard Dormer's Drum Belly, an extravaganza of New York Irish gangland crime. Not entirely successful, it was still splendidly directed by Sean Holmes, with Declan Conlon at his considerable best as a sinister and psychotic gangland boss and Karl Sheils throwing up a quirky cameo as a vicious enforcer.

The current Abbey production, Jimmy Fay's musical version of Jim Sheridan's 1968 version of Jim Plunkett's The Risen People may have been on a writing journey, but it has been worth it.

It has the best ensemble work from a cast I have seen in a long time, is cleverly choreographed by Colin Dunne, with the busy Conor Linehan in charge of music. And while unashamedly partisan in its interpretation of the 1913 lockout, (Plunkett, like his mentor James Larkin, was a Marxist) it is a stirring piece of history presented with verve and passion.

But two productions dominate the year. Druid Murphy was Garry Hynes's presentation (in his 75th year) of three of Tom Murphy's plays in repertory. They were A Whistle in the Dark, Famine and Conversations on a Homecoming. And they were, quite simply, breathtaking. They featured fine performances throughout, but Niall Buggy was devastatingly evil and terrifying as the vile patriarch Dada in Whistle.

And coincidentally, he followed it within months with, for me, the performance of the year from a male actor, as a monomaniacal writer drifting into the desolate world of Alzheimer's in Frank McGuinness's new and extraordinary play The Hanging Gardens.

It was at the Abbey, directed by Patrick Mason and was as chilling and moving a piece of work as I have seen in many years. Indeed, the play is by far McGuinness's finest accomplishment since Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.

And in a year where star parts for women were in short supply, Olwen Fouere made female stardom her domain with her own adaptation of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.

riverrun was the final section of the book, which she adapted and played for Galway Arts Festival and her own company The Emergency Room, and it was a glowing, electrifying piece of theatre.

Irish Independent

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