Monday 19 February 2018

Triumph of the will in Elysian Tower



FRANZ Xaver Kroetz's Request Programme dates from the early 1970s in a Germany that was still divided, and to an extent it is very much of its time and place.

Which means Corcadorca's update (in a translation by Katharina Hehn) has a few elements which jar, sociologically speaking. But it is still a remarkable piece, brilliantly played with intense, silent pathos by Eileen Walsh, and directed with huge subtlety and skill by Pat Kiernan.

Kroetz's work, particularly his early work, engages with the silent helplessness of the disempowered -- and lonely. Request Programme is a mute piece in which a woman (originally described as a spinster) goes through the sad evening rituals of an empty life, while listening to a radio request programme.

Dinginess is a given. But the Corcadorca production is staged in a flat in the Elysian Tower in Cork -- which is, visibly at the very least, upwardly mobile. And Walsh, elegant and in the prime of life, is no dingy spinster.

The flat is spacious, with three bedrooms, furnished soullessly and without any personality -- presumably with pieces that are recognisable to the label-conscious.

A giant TV screen is embedded in a wall which would have had a fireplace in more gracious surroundings, but the character spends her evening listening to John Creedon on the radio -- in Seventies Munich or Berlin there would have been little choice of television.

The woman is dressed very much as an executive as she enters, before changing into shabbily elegant lounge pants. It is immediately obvious that she is obsessive-compulsive: removing a dead insect from the kitchen window sill, she frantically scours the entire window length, and throughout the evening detergents and scouring pads are energetically and frequently deployed.

Even supper preparations are obsessive, the knives and chopping board lined up on the work surface with military precision... for a supper of pate and toast, the accompanying relish scraped into a perfect round on the plate. With each movement and step, she returns things to immaculate perfection.

This is a space which has never been invaded by any guest, friend or lover.

The guest rooms have never been inhabited, the dining table never set for anything other than her solitary snacks.

Ironically, she carries a mobile phone, though its ring will never -- has never -- disturbed the silence. The only extraneous sound will be her own half-stifled sobbing.

It is a picture of devastating, almost inhuman desolation and loneliness, and when the final moment comes and the champagne cork pops to allow its contents to accompany the carefully laid-out pills, it's only a snipe: there could never be somebody there to share a bottle.

But there is a tiny triumph, exquisitely delivered by Walsh, as she gulps it, and finally acknowledges the voyeurs of the audience. A tiny smile plays across her face as she engages each staring face. She has defeated us at last, and will escape our pity.


WHEN Andy Hinds gets it right with his Classic Stage Ireland, he gets it very right. But the opposite is also true: when he misses, he does so by a mile.

And unfortunately the latter is the case with his production of Euripedes' Iphigenia in Aulis (at the Project in Dublin) in a new version written by himself. He directs as well as produces, prompting the question as to whether this amount of personalised centrality damages theatrical projection.

The verse-patterned text actually works well. Objectively, it has clarity and verbal cohesion. What does not work is Hinds' interpretation of motivation in Greek tragedy.

The story is of Agamemnon's fleet becalmed at Aulis on the way to the siege of Troy, and the goddess Artemis promises a fair wind in return for the sacrificial death of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia. The sacrifice is referred to in this version as "murder" or even "butchery".

That is not how the Greeks saw human sacrifice. For them, it was a sacred and honourable religious rite. And the Hinds version depicts Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon (on whose behalf the war is being undertaken because the Trojan Prince Paris has seduced away his wife Helen) as wanting to resume marital bliss with the naughty beauty.

No such sugary fate would await Helen after the siege: the value of women as property was enhanced by the power to make them suffer for adultery or for anything else that offended their male society.

Brendan Kennelly got it right some years ago in his version of The Trojan Women with a gruesome description by Menelaus of his plans to hang Helen high above the decks all day in the blazing sun without food or water, only cutting her down each night to give her to his crew. But the main problem with this production is how appallingly static it is.

The actors stand motionless for most of the time, heads rigid, shoulders back for the men, the occasional ritual spread of the arms for the women. Other than that, nothing -- and it's matched by an emotionless bawling of the text at full throttle that completely fails to engage an audience, much less reduce it to cathartic tears. The six-member chorus is different: the members shriek several tones above resonance, and the efforts at choral speaking (which is used far too much to fill in the story line) are largely inaudible as a result. (One line I caught was their description of Achilles' "reedy flute" which struck me as an apt description of their own efforts).

Vincent Bell's set isn't one at all -- there's just a rather unstable tree plonked in a corner. And the costumes by David Houghton and Sarah McCann seem to be an attempt at Nazi pastiche (brown shirts for the men) and a Romanian folk dance ensemble for the women of the chorus.

Sunday Independent

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