Monday 10 December 2018

Death of an addict - and life of a genius

Punt New Theatre, Temple Bar, Dublin

Pius McGrath's control of the stage is exemplary in 'Punt'
Pius McGrath's control of the stage is exemplary in 'Punt'

It starts with irresistible charm: a man reminding his audience of the glorious day when, aged six, his uncle Jim gave him a pound at the races (somehow, they sound like Listowel...) and sent him off to the Tote with a tip for a sure thing.

He mimes reaching up to place his bet, and receive his slip; being hoisted on to Uncle Jim's shoulders, and watching Molly's Choice (I think) romping home. A golden childhood moment.

And then Jack gets involved in school sports: small and geekish, he's not too popular, but football aptitude changes all that. Until the day he walks away, having seen from the inside the brutality and ruin the insider culture of gambling on matches can wreak even in a small town. The GAA is full of it, he confides.

But college and freedom beckon: five lads in a house together at the height of the spurious financial boom, money in their pockets from eager banks. Friday night poker. He's a good accountancy student, however.

Graduation, and he and his best mate set up house together in a horrendously glamorous and expensive apartment. His mate, who has a job, agrees to cover the cost, although Jack's name is on the lease. Days and nights on the laptop; the heady joy of winning €60,000 in a single sitting. The feverish downs; the ups which are remembered. Until.

Back home, Uncle Jim, now running the family pub, bails him out, and forces him to Gamblers Anonymous, puts his nose to the grindstone and tells him if it's the last thing he does he'll see Jack doesn't go the same way as his dead father. Jack is 26. Uncle Jim is tough, but gambling is tougher.

And no, it doesn't end happily, as so many ruinous addiction stories don't end happily. Like the gambler's winning streaks, we only hear about the lucky few who escape its destructiveness.

Written by Pius McGrath and Tara Doolin, Punt could be a sanctimonious cautionary tale. That it isn't is a tribute to the veracity with which it deals with the many hues of its subject, its elements of quirky humour, and above all McGrath's performance as the ruinously punting Jack. His body choreography is a joy to watch, his range of emotions as varied as betting fortunes, and his control of the stage exemplary.

Punt is directed by co-author Tara Doolan; and if the credit for "composition" for Aine Doolan means she's responsible for the impressive electronic set and the doom-laden exhortation to "bet now", she's an extremely good sound and vision designer.

Punt is an Honest Arts production and is at the New Theatre in Dublin.

*******

If you have even a mild interest in the history of theatre, you are aware of the late Tyrone Guthrie as a seminal figure in the art form, not just in these islands, but around the world. His contribution to the development of 20th Century theatre in the English language (and indeed to opera worldwide) was immense.

And if you want a guided tour around theatre history that is wildly entertaining as well as wickedly irreverent and clear-sighted, a perusal of Guthrie's letters over his adult life (he died in 1971 at his family home, Annaghmakerrig, in Co Monaghan) will provide it.

Based in London for most of his working life, he travelled the world as work called and his reputation as a groundbreaking director and inspired, trustworthy producer grew. And wherever he was, no matter how busy, he stayed in touch with his mother Norah back at Annaghmakerrig, clearly keenly aware of the deprivation her life suffered when she went blind comparatively early.

He also kept up a fairly voluminous correspondence with his sister, Peggy, who had married one of Ireland's leading liberal thinkers, the great Hubert Butler of Co Kilkenny.

These letters, as well as many of those he wrote to his wife Judy when she didn't accompany him on his travels (they had no children) form the bulk of Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie, edited by academic, critic and former artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, Christopher Fitz-Simon.

Fitz-Simon is suitably shadowy in the background of the work (he has always been a writer who wears scholarship lightly), but his own legendary wit and good humour have clearly influenced his approach to the work. The result is a compendium which tracks world theatre establishments such as the Old Vic and the British National Theatre (in both of which Guthrie was a founding director) as well as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, which he almost single-handedly founded and where the theatre established his revolutionary apron stage; and, of course, the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, the major US theatre outside New York (directed for many years by Joe Dowling).

But while documenting both his trials and achievements, Guthrie is an hilarious commentator and almost evilly funny judge of character; and those "characters" are the greats of the second half of the 20th Century.

The reader ends up having a seat in the wings and the rehearsal room as well as the audience. (His description of going to Buckingham Palace to be knighted for his services to art is tear-inducingly funny.)

It's engrossing, revelatory, joyously entertaining, a portrait of a complex, fascinating man who never under-estimated his own worth, but was also almost missionary-like in his willingness to put his genius at the service of others.

'Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie' is published by Lilliput

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