Monday 19 November 2018

It's week two of the Dublin Theatre Festival... and the men don't come out of it well

Arthur Miller is well served - but James Joyce is not

Liv O'Donoghue, Gina Moxley and Zoe Ní Riordáin in The Patient Gloria by Gina Moxley at the Peacock
Liv O'Donoghue, Gina Moxley and Zoe Ní Riordáin in The Patient Gloria by Gina Moxley at the Peacock
Aoibhínn McGinnity and Aidan Kelly in The Misfits at Smock Alley

Emer O'Kelly

When you take on the staging of not merely the work of a 20th Century iconic playwright, but also an iconic film of his work, the iconic film legend who was then his wife, and two other iconic film legends, all of whom died shortly after completing the film, it's what is called ONE BIG TASK.

But producer/director Annie Ryan of Corn Exchange has never lacked courage, and her courage has seldom betrayed her. And with her staging of Arthur Miller's The Misfits (at Smock Alley for the Dublin Theatre Festival) she has scored an unmitigated triumph.

She calls it a "re-imagining", not of the 1961 film, but of the novella on which Miller based his film script; and the miracle, or perhaps more accurately the tragedy of it, is that in subtly bringing it up to date (a single reference to a character being out of credit for his cell phone) nothing has changed for the American macho male of the rural heartland.

Well, we know that - and should have known it long before Donald Trump appeared on the scene.

Ryan has chosen to put the piece on a bare stage, a long bar counter the only fixture, and the whole world's tragedy of the lost male, his arrogant braggadocio disguising the pain of bewilderment in a world that can't accommodate his longing for things to "remain the same", is played out around it. And with Justine Cooper's movement direction, she has managed to expand it into the vast remoteness of arid desert, and even the hot intensity of the rodeo ring. The characters are as effectively dwarfed as they would be in that reality.

Roslyn (Aoibhinn McGinnity), the newly-divorced bar dancer who is starting on her own road to god knows where, moves from being co-incidental in the lives of the three men, to being their nemesis. Their tragedy (that word again) is that they believe her to be peripheral to their lives.

All of them desire her, in the most basic meaning of the word: Gay (played by Aidan Kelly), the horse trader who sees the mountains and Nevada desert denuded of his stock in trade of wild horses; Guido (Patrick Ryan), the ageing wartime fighter pilot who returned to a now-dead wife who, in life, he never understood; and young Perce (Emmet Byrne), the rodeo rider wounded to his core by the death of his father and a family betrayal that left him to live as a derelict.

But all they see in the equally wounded Roslyn is "a fine woman". She is that terrible victim of male libido: a cat who like all cats, is grey in the dark. The three men all believe in their neediness that she can accommodate them. Instead, her humanity strips them of their bravado and leaves them striving unsuccessfully to preserve what is left of their souls. Roslyn's pain remains too: but then, she has always known "even when I win I lose in my heart".

With Una Kavanagh giving support as bartender Isabelle, Annie Ryan and her cast have paid a superlative homage to the man who more than any other playwright, portrayed the searing failure of the American dream. The Misfits is devastating theatre.

*******

Is Gloria patient; or is she a patient? Either way she's in trouble from the start: that's Gina Moxley's gleeful take on a piece of what can be called feminist history or betrayal of womanhood, whether feminist or not.

In California in 1964, a woman called Gloria, recently divorced and troubled by her continuing fondness for sexual activity, agreed to take part in a filmed experiment. She was to be analysed by three different therapists practising their differing pet theories. All of them had done well financially from those theories, having published widely and become darlings of the fad that said you're nobody without a therapist.

And that was Gloria's first mistake. She didn't need a therapist; at least not from what emerged in the exploitative film which became known as the Gloria Films. They had originally been called Three Approaches to Psychotherapy, and were intended for classroom distribution to psychology students. Instead, they were on general release to a sex-obsessed and prurient public.

All Gloria wanted was a straight answer as to how she could maintain honesty with her nine-year-old daughter while still having a perfectly legitimate sex life as a newly single woman. And early on in her first encounter she says "give me a direct answer".

How naive! That's not what therapy is for; it's for loading you down with a whole lorryload of further questions which, a cynic might think, is the purpose of the exercise as it keeps the tills ringing for the therapy industry.

That, at least is what emerges in Moxley's The Patient Gloria, in which she plays (wonderfully) all three male therapists, each separately dependent on aspects of penis obsession (his own), at the expense of the hapless Gloria (Liv O'Donoghue).

It could be 1960s pastiche - but Moxley brings it thundering into our own age by interspersing her reflections on an Irish childhood and girlhood under the domination of a penis-controlled world of exhibitionism, exploitation, ignorance, even abuse, all given the mild title of "paternalism".

Sex education, she recalls, was a booklet called Dear Daughter, heavily reliant on discussion of and reference to the Virgin Mary.

And now, as she is finally coming to terms with it all, she's reached the age of becoming invisible. (Oh no she's not!) But she effectively and skilfully manages to make the Ireland of the 1980s as much a prototype of male insensitivity (oh all right, domination) as the US of the Sixties. Indeed, when drunken violence and Catholic prudishness are thrown in, 1960s California with all its nuttiness can sound like paradise.

With (somewhat unnecessary) musical interludes from Zoe Ni Riordan, Moxley and O'Donoghue are expertly directed by John McElduff in Andrew Clancy's effective set. The Patient Gloria is very funny, very explicit, and also very sobering. Mind you, men may find it hard to take; they don't come out of it all that well!

*******

Arthur Riordan's adaptation of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is faithful to the text. Yet its production by Rough Magic at the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire carries little sense (for this critic, no sense) of the original.

It's seven actors running around the place like headless chickens wearing boyfriend jeans and brightly-coloured tops (first half), boyfriend jeans and denim reefer jackets (second half) and intoning their lines rather like a class of reluctant fifth-formers shanghai-ed into Father O'Connor's acting group.

Since the group is largely the same as that which delivered Shakespeare's Dream quite magnificently for Lynne Parker, the blame would seem to lie with the director Ronan Phelan for failing to infuse the piece with either coherence or passion, or even theatrical life.

Nor does the ludicrous gimmick of playing pass-the-parcel with the casting work. Each cast member in turn plays bits of Stephen Dedalus (donning a green soccer jersey to do so) while the role of narrator and all the other roles also rotate between them. And speaking of narration, there's far too much of it for something which is supposed to be a play, not a narration of a novel.

Even the famous hell-fire sermon which sends Stephen rushing to confess his sins of the flesh is dreary, as is the legendary debate on the existence of the afterlife between Stephen and Cranley. There is no sense that the latter is pivotal in what would become Joyce's lifelong philosophical credo. And that takes some doing.

And for his final exit, Stephen abandons the old sow (Ireland) wearing a red and green striped silk suit. Why, in heaven's name?

Worst of all, the production has no vestige of the charm of the original. Not Rough Magic's finest hour.

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