Saturday 15 December 2018

Gate's dazzling Assassins hits the target

  • Assassins, Gate Theatre, Dublin
  • The Dumb Waiter, Viking Theatre, Clontarf, Dublin
  • The Marriage of Figaro, Gaeity Theatre, Dublin
Matthew Seadon-Young as John Wilkes Booth in 'Assassins'
Matthew Seadon-Young as John Wilkes Booth in 'Assassins'

Emer O'Kelly

Our reviewer on a Sondheim musical aiming at Uncle Sam.

Assassins is very American. That certainly doesn't take away from its punch, its wonderful score and lyrics and, in the current case at the Gate theatre, its stunningly impressive production values.

But there is a strong feeling that its overall values, or more properly its innate criticism of lack of values, is probably being lost on any audience that isn't American, so that it comes across as more superficial than it actually is, or is intended to be.

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman take nine presidential assassins - or would-be assassins - and give thumb-nail sketches of their mindsets and motivations (except for Lee Harvey Oswald, who gets a thorough "inspection"). Their conclusion insofar as there is one, is that they actually form a kind of family, or mindset, of a large part of American life.

What emerges is a strong undercurrent of criticism of the American dream. Assassins posits that the seven men and two women represent more than deranged/delusional paranoia - they are another part of "the American way", a part of society which wants none of it: not the universal rights of all humanity; not the leader of the free world; not the defender of the oppressed (however aspirational or delusional all that may actually be).

They are not outsiders, they are the mass of "the other" in American life. No wonder the musical play was met with dismay when it premiered on Broadway 14 years ago.

It's a disturbing theme and of course, in 2018, the next thought is "and then came Trump", even more disturbing in its resonance.

Director Selina Cartmell has assembled a cracker of an ensemble for her Gate production, all of whom give immaculately slick and energetic performances in their individual "spots" and in ensemble work, with Matthew Seadon-Young pulling the strands together musically and chronologically as John Wilkes Booth, and Aoibheann McCann and Kate Gilmore as Sara Jane Moore and Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme, (both of whom made unsuccessful attempts to shoot Gerald Ford).

Sam McGovern makes a pitiably convincing Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who shot William McKinley in 1901, and Mark O'Regan a chirpily unrepentant Charles Guiteau, the preacher lawyer who 20 years earlier wanted to be Ambassador to France - but when he didn't get the job, he shot James Garfield.

Gerard Kelly doubles as the "common man" commentator and impressively as Lee Harvey Oswald, interpreted here as being motivated by being the classic loser. The Sondheim score is as superb and musically varied as all of his work in this era of monotonous, repetitively trite musical stage offerings, and it's terrifically interpreted under musical direction by Cathal Synnott.

With design by Sarah Bacon, lighting by Sinead McKenna, sound by Alexis Nealon, choreography by David Bolger and a cast of 15, Assassins can be said to dazzle.

And just a thought: three of the would-be assassins, Lynette Fromme, Sara Jane Moore and John Hinckley (who shot Ronald Reagan), are all free on parole, having served their sentences - a vindication of the American way?

*******

Harold Pinter's plays are deceptively simple - or so it seems. But they are notoriously difficult to stage successfully. The apparent simplicity of the dialogue, counter-pointed by pauses, and underscored by seeming banality, is actually vicious, penetrating, threatening and, of course, wildly, evilly funny. When it's all pulled off, it's a theatrical treat of no short order.

And nowhere are all the directorial and playing requirements more obvious than in the early The Dumb Waiter, in which a pair of hit-men, one rather slow on the uptake, wait in an isolated basement for their target to arrive. Their only contact with the "outside" world is by dint of a dumb waiter, which crashes down from time to time from the floor above, with requests for various dishes ranging from Italian to Asian. Ben and Gus attempt to appease whatever figures may be upstairs with their own supplies: half a packet of stale biscuits, a bottle of sour milk and not much else.

The only movement is by the dopily wide-eyed Gus, who makes frequent trips to the adjoining kitchen/lavatory. Ben contents himself with reading out snippets from a newspaper: a little girl has killed a cat. Gus is of the opinion that her older brother did it: it's deep.

The Loose Tea Company have staged The Dumb Waiter at the Viking in Clontarf, and they very nearly pull it off. But Pinter depends on what's left out, and there's too much in evidence here.

Director Elyn Friedrichs has her two actors putting it all "out there" with David Fennelly as Gus disintegrating into shaking fear from early on, and Andrew Murray as Ben losing his temper almost to breaking point of impatience with his dopey partner.

It's equivalent to putting colour into a Beckett production. It needs to be internalised: if there is fear and anger, the actor must show, not tell.

Liam O'Neill does a good job of design in the limited space. The production is well worth a look, but one wonders about the dramaturg credit in the programme. Was there a plan for Peter Krauch to improve the work of the Nobel Prize-winning master?

*******

Irish National Opera completed the run of its first full production last week at the Gaiety. Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is one of the world's most popular operas, which leaves a lot of room to get things wrong.

But the INO have emerged triumphantly. The production - with a largely Irish cast of singers, the Irish Chamber Orchestra in the pit conducted by Peter Whelan, and with direction by Patrick Mason - is likely to remain in the hearts and minds of Irish opera lovers as one of their most joyous and satisfying experiences.

Tara Erraught (mentioned on RTE radio as "a rising star" during the week: one would be inclined to say she is well risen!) sang Susannah with a glorious finesse and verve to Jonathan Lemalu's beautifully mischievously modulated Figaro, with Maire Flavin as the Countess, Ben McAteer as Count Almaviva, and Aoife Miskelly as Cherubino.

To add to the pleasure, audiences had the opportunity to welcome Suzanne Murphy back to the Irish opera scene in the role of Marcellina.

Add faultless production values, and it's obvious the newly launched INO are aiming high, and are already well up the ladder.

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