Sunday 20 January 2019

85-year-old homeless story still resonates

Likeable presence: Phelim Drew
Likeable presence: Phelim Drew

Katy Hayes

The New Theatre is an intimate 66-seat cosy space located at the back of Connolly Books, the left-wing bookshop in Temple Bar. It is a fitting place to encounter the mind of George Orwell, the British writer most closely associated with the awakening of the popular imagination to the political ideologies embedded all around us. Orwell's pugnacious engagement with the mechanisms of society, allied with his deft ability with language, has given us concepts like: doublethink, thoughtcrime, and the concepts of Big Brother and the Thought Police. His writing has deeply affected the way we think.

Actor Phelim Drew has adapted Orwell's first full-length work, a creative memoir, for the stage. The book was originally published in 1933 when the writer was near 30. Drew has excerpted all the best bits, and created a treat of a show, which lucidly conveys the difficulties and horrors of this marginal existence that Orwell experienced within the two cities. The show has two halves: the first details his experience of working in kitchens in Paris; the second follows time spent on the streets of London, living amongst the homeless population that sleeps in shelters and under the Embankment. A key to survival everywhere is the formation of friendships.

Simply staged with a table, two chairs and a glass of wine, the show runs to a brisk 80 minutes. Drew is a likeable presence on stage. His rich voice controls the material well; a light English accent falters occasionally, but no matter. With direction by Michael Toumey, the production is full of energetic life and, indeed, lives: Drew peoples the stage with a host of other characters, various tramps and misfits, Romanians and Italian waiters and Irishmen of the road: the Frenchman who is a communist when sober, but becomes a roaring nationalist when drunk; the Russian Boris who declares: "It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you." A memorable sequence recounts the narrator and Boris writing out dinner menus on the back of envelopes, sating their imaginations with rich food, if not their hunger. The story goes into some dark places, including an Englishman, Charlie, who attacks a girl in a brothel and experiences a delirious exultation as he wants to kill her. Women, indeed, feature very little, mainly as an absence, and sometimes as an object of hatred. Orwell is acutely aware their absence is part of the poverty.

Though 85 years old, the text still illuminates and gives a sense of the interior lives of all homeless people. Like Irish writer/performer Pat Kinevane's Olivier Award-winning play, Silent, it is a reminder of how easy it is for people to slip into marginal lives, and how blind a passer-by can be to the humanity of homeless people. Orwell brings his searing intelligence to bear on the subject: hunger makes you "not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessories" and the line: "poverty - it annihilates the future." This is thinking theatre at its best.

Stage whispers

The Gate announced the remains of its Outsider programme this week and it features Academy Award-nominee Ruth Negga (inset) as Hamlet in their Dublin Theatre Festival show, with South African directing star Yaël Farber at the helm. Negga memorably appeared as Lavinia in Selina Cartmell’s hit production of Titus Andronicus at the Project Arts Centre in 2005, but that was before the actor’s movie career had really taken off. She has done an impressive list of stage roles both in Ireland and the UK, as well as a strong turn in TV show Love/Hate.

Casting a woman in this iconic male role may look like a WakingTheFeminists moment; if there aren’t enough decent roles written for women, why not borrow some that have been written for men? The axis of Irish theatre is tilting in the distaff direction, and young male actors who might aspire to play Hamlet might be muttering a little amongst themselves.

Here in Ireland there is a long tradition of women playing the Dane, stretching back to Fanny Furnival in the 18th Century in Smock Alley. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, actress Mrs Bandmann-Palmer is immortalised: “Hamlet, she played last night. Male impersonator. Perhaps he was a woman.” Bandmann-Palmer did indeed perform the part in the Gaiety in June 1904. Siobhán McKenna played the Dane in 1957 in New York. And Olwen Fouéré took a turn as the tortured one in 1993 in the Project Arts Centre, where she memorably performed some of the material on a tightrope.

We don’t get many Academy Award-nominees on the Irish stage; the few we’ve had include Stephen Rea, John Hurt, and Ralph Fiennes. But it is a sure-fire way to get people into the theatre. Stars are a draw, and Negga’s nominated performance in Loving last year is still fresh in the mind. Luring Negga back for a substantial home-town stage gig is a coup for Gate director Cartmell.

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