Friday 19 January 2018

BGE theatre bags a coup with Harper Lee play

To Kill a Mockinbird by Harper Lee is sold out at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre.

Maggie Armstrong

Once, I went to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. I was very excited. I bought snacks and a soft drink, and sat in the copious window ledges looking onto new-fangled, blue-skied, Grand Canal Square.

The place boomed like it was boom-time. All human life was there: spirited old women clasping glasses of wine, surly teens with their parents, RTE newscasters rushing late to their seats, blind dates purring at each other.

The enormity of the place provided an anonymity that's missed in, say, The Gate or The Everyman, where cliques get cliqueier and you have to look good, pay attention and say perceptive things. Here, you could just hide, in a tracksuit if you wished.

The show started. I curled up as you do when you watch a Christmas film.

The scarlet curtains rose, the overture trilled and a body pranced out in period dress and broke into song. Everybody then pranced out and it really was a Christmas film, re-enacted for the billionth time, sleepwalking through the motions, its soul departed.

I thought of just getting out of there. But I couldn't leave. I was trapped in the centre of the stalls, surrounded. The stage was panoramic, the way out looked Kafkaesque.

The seats, some 2,111 of them, seemed to have planks for backs. Curling up was impossible. Air conditioning pervaded. As the play screeched on, fake cold got into my bones. I am 30, and became 80 during that show.

It (let's not name the show) was frightful. A cultural bad dream rivalled only by Billy Eliot in the West End.

I ducked out after the first half. It was not a good night at the theatre.

It was also just unlucky. The BGE has a fast-moving programme.

Its whirlwind of big-budget shows have continents to travel to, no time to hang around. You like the hits and lump the misses.

Since the theatre opened in 2010, critics have kept a distance, admired its ambition. It earned due respect when it brought the spectacular Lion King and War Horse to town. More recently, juke box musical Jersey Boys was approved by theatre folk and the masses one and all.

Now, Ireland's largest theatre is showing the play of the moment, To Kill a Mockingbird. The adaptation is by Regent's Park Open-Air Theatre, opening May 4. What a coup. It comes in the same summer that the author, Harper Lee, publishes her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, 55 years after Mockingbird.

When a big, skyscraper play like this comes to town, you realise how richer Dublin is to have its micro West End.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful story confronting racial inequality in 1930s Alabama. The play, allegedly faithful, is going to be wonderful. It's also sold out (sorry). But it might come back and Regent's Park Open Air Theatre bring Lord of the Flies here in November.

On the phone, bespectacled artistic director Timothy Sheader talked about the novel: "Harper Lee's tone of voice, her charm, her wit, her pathos, her intellect. It was difficult not to want to just stage a reading of the whole book."

Does he welcome the publication of Go Set a Watchman? He does not, he says in essence.

"It's such a controversial question. When I first heard, my heart stopped with excitement. I was in Denmark working when I got a plethora of texts.

Then I saw what it was about. It's not a brand new novel, it's a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. I feel a bit cynical as to why it was 'unearthed' in the first place. At the same time, I'll be at the top of the queues to buy it."

What about the novel's documentary worth as a "first draft"? "I completely see the benefit of that. But I'm not sure the rest of the world will - the bookshelves of Foyles and the trucks of Amazon. It's interesting for fanaticals, and historians, and artists like me, people with a very specialised interest. But I'm wondering if it's being mis-sold."

Meanwhile in Monroeville, Alabama, where the novel is set and where Harper Lee still lives, the townspeople are putting on their annual play of To Kill a Mockingbird in the courthouse, as they have done every year for the past 26 years.

No one can get tickets there either.

It's the year of the Mockingbird, and the Bord Gais Energy Theatre have their finger on the pulse.

To Kill a Mockingbird review, Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin - 'the kids steal the show in this brilliant production' 

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