Sunday 15 December 2019

Cartmell's Carol makes our hearts sing

A Christmas Carol

Gate Theatre, Dublin

Blood in the Dirt

New Theatre, Dublin

Niamh Moriarty as Tiny Tim, Hugh O'Conor as Bob Cratchit, and Catriona Ennis as Mrs Cratchit in A Christmas Carol at the Gate
Niamh Moriarty as Tiny Tim, Hugh O'Conor as Bob Cratchit, and Catriona Ennis as Mrs Cratchit in A Christmas Carol at the Gate

Having seen countless Christmas Carols over the years, Emer O'Kelly reckons this inventive production is the best of the lot.

'I don't want him to be me" moans an anguished Scrooge as the ghost of Christmas yet to come shows him his boyhood self leaping joyously across the coffin that holds his now dead self. It's the core of Jack Thorne's version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, making the perennial Christmas favourite a serious morality tale of redemption.

There's another twist to director Selina Cartmell's production for the Gate in Dublin: that same ghost of Christmas to come is also a regret-torn shadow of the past, speaking as it does in the voice and person of Scrooge's little sister, his beloved Fan who barely survived into adulthood, and now, in his bitter old age, is long in her own grave.

For the rest, everything is as traditional as the heart could desire in this production, played in traverse by a superbly energetic and musically adept cast in a heartfelt paean of praise for the spirit of fellowship, generosity and brotherly love.

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As poor Bob Cratchit sheds the cares of his joyless clerk's job for the warmth of family life, somehow we believe that grinding poverty is no bar to happiness and that faith and generosity can work miracles - even bring tiny crippled Tim back from the brink of the grave, to pipe "God bless us everyone".

Owen Roe is heartbreaking as Scrooge, the miseries of his unloved life close to the surface at every turn as he confronts what might have been and the chances that remain.

And in the faultless ensemble, Simon O'Gorman's doubling as Marley and Scrooge's vicious father, Hugh O'Conor's meek Bob Cratchit, Kevin Olohan as Nephew Fred, and Rachel O'Byrne as Scrooge's lost love Belle, are especially compelling.

And of course, the take on the Christmas ghosts is irresistible, with Fionnula Flanagan as a rancid Past, Camille O'Sullivan as a merciless dominatrix Present, and Kate Gilmore sorrowful as Future/Little Fan.

Cartmell's direction is as inventive as it is perfect, aided by David Bolger's glorious choreography, with music and sound by Denis Clohessy, enhanced in their turn by the musical supervision by Cathal Synnott which gives us tear-inducing renditions of every favourite carol in the calendar. Ciaran Bagnall designs the set and lighting, and the impressionistic costumes are by Katie Donovan.

This is a Christmas production to be missed at your peril.

*******

Ireland, this tiny windswept island lying battered on the edge of Europe, has inspired an intensity of land hunger in its people over the generations, perhaps due to its inability to sustain enough of them. And those inadequate acres have often managed also to sustain dour hatred across the generations.

In Rory Gleeson's new play for Landmark, Blood in the Dirt, the bitter heritage is explored not so much for justification as explanation as Francis Donnelly crouches in his Tipperary barn, filthy and bloodstained, to howl his despair in the face of the black-hooded men who came to beat him out of this last stronghold. They left. But they will be back.

It's 2019 and as the now near-insane Francis approaches what he knows is the end, a kind of irony takes over his thoughts.

He thinks back to 1880, to another branch of his family in Ontario, Canada. Big Jim Donnelly, a figure of legend, led the clan of the Black Donnellys, determined to hold to the few acres which he had farmed since squatting there years earlier and raising a family of sons. He believed in the right of husbandry against the legal owner who left the land fallow. But the townspeople saw things differently: Big Jim and his family were butchered by hooded men, their cabin and barn set alight, with only a lame 11-year-old son left to tell the tale.

Recalling his family's history in a frantic attempt to husband his own righteous anger, as he sees it, Francis is waiting as his great-grandfather waited, nothing left save a few sacks of grain. Grain, and a can of petrol.

Is there a right and a wrong side in this piece? Gleeson seems not to care; and he ensures we don't either. He shows us the shadows… and the hoods and the flames. They represent the lust for land, and how it burns out the soul of a man until only a husk remains.

The play could easily be a disaster, a melodrama of snigger-worthy proportions. Instead it is chilling as pictures come into our minds (as they must) of men in hoods stalking the land today as they did in 1880 in Canada, in the United States… and in Ireland.

And Lorcan Cranitch, under Caitriona McLaughlin's direction, gives a performance that grabs us by our throats, spitting in rage at our complacency. Is this what we call humanity, he bellows and weeps in turn. It is, to our shame. Once again, greed is in the dock.

Designed and lit by Paul Keogan, with sound by Sinead Diskin and music composed by Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, Blood in the Dirt is at the New Theatre in Dublin.

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