Monday 19 February 2018

Festival myth and legend

Chilling: Barry John O'Connor and Fiona Bell in 'Oedipus' at the Abbey Theatre.
Chilling: Barry John O'Connor and Fiona Bell in 'Oedipus' at the Abbey Theatre.

Director Wayne Jordan has managed to envisage a highly personalised version of Oedipus, the greatest of all Greek tragedies, while remaining absolutely true to the spirit, tension and massive impact of Sophocles' work in his new production for the Abbey. His own text, from a literal translation by Michael Lloyd, has dignity, weight, and clarity. A chorus of 13 sing their doom-laden messages to a score composed by Tom Lane as they move around a set composed solely of schoolroom/chapel chairs (Ciaran O'Melia). It's threateningly reminiscent of a gladiatorial arena or even a courtroom without the legal restraint and expertise of a judge's presence.

The city-state of Thebes, Jordan suggests, is uneasily dysfunctional, imagining itself free because Oedipus has removed the Sphinx's curse and been rewarded with the hand of the widow-queen Jocasta. But the citizens are unaware of the greater curse which the new King carries.

Fated to murder his father and marry his mother, Oedipus has spent his young manhood running to prevent the curse; but believing in his own royal rights as the son of the King of Corinth (who has adopted him from the shepherd who saved him), in a fit of rage he has murdered a man at a crossroads. Unknown to him, it is an act of revenge, because the man is King Laius of Thebes, his natural father, who had him abandoned as a baby, the baby's feet nailed together, so that Laius himself, who also knew of the prophecy, could avoid being murdered by him.

Jordan has turned the play into a warning for our political time. Oedipus struts his royal (governmental) stuff, but it is Creon, Jocasta's brother, who senses the world beyond the palace and manipulates it, because, he tells them "I am equal to you both (….) I don't have to watch my back." It is the voice of the shadowy backroom boy, the lobbyist, the spin-doctor, who stands between the leader and reality to become the real power. And, as Jordan/Sophocles has it, contributes to the ghastly outcome, with Jocasta hanging herself in despair, her husband/son putting out his eyes with the sharp pins of the jewellery he has torn from her dead body.

Barry John O'Connor has a good balance of vainglory and uneasy statesmanship as Oedipus, with Fiona Bell a counterpoint of mature steadiness as Jocasta (although more passion would be welcome in the performance: this is a woman, after all, who has taken a much younger man to her bed in the immediate wake of her husband's murder).

There is a fine, truculent Tiresias, the blind seer who knows all, from Peter Gowen, and a fiery Creon from Mark Huberman. The weak link among the leads is a somewhat inaudible and entirely un-phased messenger from Charlotte McCurry, who relates the hideous death of the Queen and the unspeakable maiming of the King as though reporting on a court tea-party.

But overall, this is a chilling, powerful production, and well worth seeing.

* * * * *

THE most accurate description of Gavin Kostick's At the Ford would be to call it a 21st-century version for Ireland of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. It's violent, complex, and full of confused loyalties and warped ambitions between two brothers as they fight (literally) for survival in the all-encompassing financial crash of their father's business empire.

And they are called Chulainn and Ferdia. Their dead father has left no will, but in his attempt to outdo his own brother, he had come crashing down in his determination to "go global."

Now the brothers face ruin as the joint inheritors of the mountain of debt which the various companies represent. They lie exhausted in a blood-spattered room, on the third day of their epic battle: If Ferdia wins, Chulainn must sign the companies over to the creditors. But in a blind rage, Chulainn finally puts Ferdia in hospital with a wired jaw and in an induced coma; and he faces down the courts to emerge triumphant.

Enter a creature from another legend: Morgana, the Welsh witch, now re-incarnated as the men's sister Mags, the creature of Uncle Rua who has leaked a poisonous scandal to the newspapers: unwittingly, their father and mother's marriage was incestuous, and they must all bear its shame, the shame that caused their mother's suicide as well as their father's, although the latter is found to be inconclusive at inquest.

Kostick's mastery of dialogue is phenomenal, as is his ability to create hardline modern realities, even out of myth and legend. The play never flags for a moment, the characters' conversational asides building dimensions of Ireland's crass vulgarity and greed that are as ugly as they are undeniable.

Legend tells us that the waters of the Ford ran red with the blood of the foster brothers Cuchulainn and Ferdia as they were tricked into single combat over four days by the treachery of Maeve of Connacht: the blood of moral outrage spatters Kostick's play, as his blood brothers (played to physical and emotional perfection by Aonghus Og McAnally and Ian Toner) pound out an hour-long sporadic fight sequence directed by Bryan Burroughs that is as brutal and perfectly staged as anything I have seen in a very long time. And when Rachel O'Byrne makes her appearance in the second act to reveal (as Mags) the sickness at the heart of the family, her performance is equally chilling.

It's a Rise Production at the New Theatre, designed by Alyson Cummins, lit by Colm Maher, with sound by Denis Clohessy; and it is a fascinating and absorbing piece of theatre.

* * * * *

MARYA is lame and lives in Newcastlewest with her hyper-critical ("It's for your own good") father. She has no qualifications and no job, and given that it's Newcastlewest, is unlikely to find one. Her friend Katie moves in with them. Then Katie's lover appears on the scene. He works in Brussels, and apparently has the giving of jobs there willy-nilly. Marya seems vaguely to fancy him; he offers her a job. She's tempted, but turns it down in favour of staying with her dear old dad.

Given that Newcastlewest is a PanPan production directed by Gavin Quinn, one would expect to find something unexpected, and possibly magical in this. One would be wrong. On reading the programme note after seeing the piece, I discovered that Dick Walsh's play (he also plays the lover) is apparently a "post-dramatic aesthetic approach", and, after a year, he found that "adherence to objectivity had itself become an egotistical endeavour, but thankfully there are no rules in art."

This is what can only be described as his excuse for an apparent rendering of the Princess Bolkonskaya section of War and Peace. I've read War and Peace…three times, as it happens.... and nah, didn't spot the resemblance.

The text is a colourless, disjointed (presumably post-modern?) amalgam delivered tonelessly, interspersed with a lot of "like, you knows" in a blank shallow orange set, references to "the man above" offering a spurious nod to contemplation of god's supposed purpose in it all, while two silent figures in tomato-coloured jumpsuits shadow the characters at various times, occasionally intervening to reposition their arms.

Only Des Nealon as the father (who has presumably been in the business too long to be subsumed into totally pretentious, intellectually immature posturing), escapes the dead hand of the self-regarding twaddle this play represents.

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