Thursday 19 September 2019

Television: All the world's an agitprop stage under new Abbey regime


Neil Murray and Graham McLaren
Neil Murray and Graham McLaren

John Boland

The reason why Abbey Theatre director Graham McLaren doesn't heed reviews is that "I honestly would rather have bees up my arse" - which presumably means he wasn't stung when critic Emer O'Kelly described one of his recent productions as "extraordinarily dated" and the work of an "agitprop" director "wearing a political heart on his sleeve".

Both soundbites were to be found in The Abbey: A Riot of Their Own (RTÉ1), a documentary on what our national theatre has been up to since it appointed Scotsman McLaren and Welshman Neil Murray as joint directors of the institution, both of them recruited from the National Theatre of Scotland.

Mind you, we didn't get to hear much from Murray. In Maurice O'Brien's film, this was very much the Non-Stop McLaren Show, and it brought me back to my long-gone theatre reviewing days when agitprop was all the rage and when a somewhat ramshackle troupe like the Scottish touring ensemble 7:84 was regarded with awe by all self-respecting liberal socialists of my acquaintance.

Clearly, though, such reforming theatrical zeal is still around. I'd like to think that McLaren was taking the piss when he declared that the work involved in putting on plays was merely the "means to an end", that end being "changing the fucking planet", but it was said with all the fervour of a true believer, even one whose grey beard and grey locks suggested someone too long in the game for such fanciful notions.

There were interesting scenes of the Abbey on tour to community schools, pubs and other venues around the country, and it was good to be reminded of the various constraints, both physical and financial, in which the theatre has to operate. And there was no denying the ebullience of McLaren in enthusing the actors and other Abbey workers now under his charge.

But only time will tell whether these two men succeed in their mission to reach out to people with exciting and relevant productions or whether they'll go the way of so many other directors who've had to confront the daunting reality of trying to run our national theatre.

Snatched from a London street in broad daylight, Romanian student nurse Ana was flown to Ireland and forced to work as a sex slave in a Galway city brothel, before being moved to other brothels around the country.

This was the subject of Doing Money (RTÉ1), a 90-minute drama based on a true story and co-produced by RTÉ and the BBC. As written by Gwyneth Hughes and directed by Lynsey Miller, it was as relentlessly grim as it had to be, but it was also too slow for its own good.

Yet there was an arresting performance by Anca Dumitra in the central role and fine playing, too, from other Romanian actors, while also striking was Tom Glynn-Carney as a young petty criminal in Belfast who at the end acts as her saviour.

The gardaí came badly out of it and it was left to two PSNI detectives, very well played by Allen Leech and Karen Hassan, to actually pursue the case and find some justice for Ana. A hard watch but worth it.

James Grady's 1974 novel Six Days of the Condor was a paranoid thriller about CIA skulduggery and it became the fine (and underrated) 1975 movie, Three Days of the Condor, starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow. And now, four decades later, it's become the tersely titled Condor (Universal), an 11-episode series starring Max Irons as the hapless CIA analyst on the run from shadowy forces in his organisation. Whether or not it will bear this extended treatment remains to be seen, but it began arrestingly and has impressive playing by William Hurt, Bob Balaban and Brendan Fraser in key roles.

The Little Drummer Girl (BBC1) began well, too. This latest adaptation of a John le Carré novel is made by the same people who brought us the overpraised, indeed increasingly implausible, The Night Manager, but it looks as if it might be made of sterner stuff - even if the novel's basic premise of Mossad recruiting a young British actress to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell was always a bit far-fetched.

However, the actress here is sparkily played by Florence Pugh and her mysterious minder by the estimable Alexander Skarsgård, and last Sunday night's opener blended atmosphere and tension very well.

And Mr Mercedes (RTÉ2) is coming along nicely, though with a turn towards the occult - supposedly brain-dead psychopath Brady able to manipulate the actions of his nurse. Thankfully, there's the grounding presence of Brendan Gleeson as cranky retired detective Bill to keep things real.

Home Rescue (RTÉ1), which has returned for a second season, has architect Roisin Murphy and builder Peter Finn getting people's chaotic homes into shape. It's complete codology from start to end and I don't know why I've wasted a paragraph on it.

Imagine: Becoming Cary Grant (BBC1) was about how abandonment as a child in Bristol affected the life and personality of the great Hollywood star and how LSD therapy in his later years brought him psychological release from his demons. An absorbing film.

After weeks of bafflement at Amy Huberman's sitcom, Finding Joy (RTÉ1), and at how it got commissioned, I switched on The Podge and Rodge Show (RTÉ2), in which Rodge, mindful of last week's referendum, asked Podge to say something blasphemous.

"Okay, I will, I will, I will" he pledged, before declaring: "Amy Huberman isn't funny, and finally it's legal to say it."

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