Sunday 19 August 2018

No domestic goddesses

The Unmanageable Sisters
The Unmanageable Sisters

Katy Hayes

Playwright Deirdre Kinahan seamlessly transposes Canadian Michel Tremblay's play to 1970s Ballymun. The original from 1968 was written in a French Quebecois dialect and has been translated and produced all over the world.

Ger Lawless (Marion O'Dwyer) has won a competition and the prize is a million Green Shield Stamps. These stamps were a grocery promotional scheme during the 1970s and 1980s. You stuck the stamps into books and redeemed them against domestic goods, like toasters or hair tongs, giving housewives access to the nascent dream of consumer reward. The stamps were a nuisance to fix into the books, hence Ger inviting all her women friends to help with the task.

Colin Richmond's ultra-realist box set, complete with damp corners, terrible carpet and wallpaper, conveys a first impression that we are in for a couple of hours of realism. But the play is structured like a Greek comic drama, with plentiful use of chorus arrangements where several or all of the women speak together, as well as substantial monologues, where the individual women open up directly to the audience. These monologues are accompanied by effective sound and light atmospherics by Sinead McKenna (lighting) and Carl Kennedy (sound). Joan O'Clery's costumes are splendid; there is lots of mismatched patterning with 1970s shapes and flares.

The women depicted are narrow, and in thrall to the Catholic church - no domestic goddesses here. The younger girls and wild Aunt Patsy (Lisa Lambe) have a more modern attitude. The first half of the play is very anecdotal so doesn't offer the satisfaction of a real emotional build. The second half cranks up the serious content, with the appearance of black sheep Patsy, and the problem of an unwanted pregnancy surfaces.

This all gears the drama up considerably, and in a satisfying manner. Stand-out performances come from Charlotte Bradley as Lilly de Courcey, who has moved up in the world (to Glasnevin), and Karen Ardiff as Ger's much put-upon sister Rose who hates her life, her husband, her constant pregnancies.

Graham McLaren's direction favours the bombastic and dialectical over the psychological; we get pumped-up performances which generate a lot of physical energy, but the undercurrents get somewhat lost. Consequently, when the women behave in a duplicitous manner at the end, their actions are played very broadly; there is little sense of real betrayal. O'Dwyer's performance is angry from very early on, so she has nowhere to go at the end.

Finally, Kinahan and McLaren attempt to broaden the show into a 'state of the nation' commentary, using the national anthem as a touchstone. But it's not clear at all what the play has to say to Irish people today. The production brings to mind Rough Magic's 1970s musical The Train, which played in the Abbey last year; it covered much of the same turf but with greater historical punch.



Theatre Royal, Waterford, March 15

Michael Morpurgo’s novel about the trauma endured by soldiers in WWI is adapted and directed by Simon Reade. This touring show features a fine performance by Shane O’Regan as the soldier Tommo.

2 MY LEFT NUT                                 

Bewley’s Café Theatre, March 12 — Apr 7                                                  

The true story of a Belfast boy growing up with no father to guide him as he deals with intimate issues. Written by Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney, performed by Patrick and directed by Kearney.


Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, March 14 — 18

The Mikhailovsky Opera of St Petersberg present this traditional production of Puccini’s classic with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. Features Irish star soprano Celine Byrne (Wed, Fri, Sun).

Uneasy makeover of a classic play

Review: Hedda Gabler, Gaiety Theatre

The British National Theatre takes in Dublin's Gaiety on its UK and Ireland tour of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. This new version by Patrick Marber is set in modern times and is distinctly devoid of corsets and cobwebs.

Hedda (Lizzy Watts) returns from an extended honeymoon with her academic husband Tesman (Abhin Galeya) to the undecorated cavern of their expensive new apartment. Tesman is hoping to get a promotion in his university job in order to pay for the lifestyle the privileged Hedda is accustomed to. The thorn in his side is rival academic Lovborg (Richard Pyros), who is also his wife's former lover.

Marber's shift of the text to the present day works well except for one important element: the loss of the stuffy 1890s social codes for women, and thus the horrifying effect the idea of scandal has on Hedda. Director Ivo van Hove replaces this social threat to Hedda by cranking up the villainy of the character of Judge Brack (Adam Best). This awkward recalibration of the power dynamic is especially damaging in the final scenes, when the action is all being drawn together. Judge Brack drinks a can full of red stage blood, which ends up all over the stage. Any feint at realism is abandoned. Brack is unduly elevated; when he brutalises Hedda, rather than simply outmanoeuvring her, it makes him seem preposterous.

Many of the usual satisfactions of the play are there - including the jaw-dropping effect of Hedda's capricious and insidious destructiveness - but the power of these moments is muted by a generally histrionic tone. Watts as Hedda combines fierce selfish suffering with playful flirtation; you could easily imagine her in a much better production.

This is a bad experience of a brilliant play. Hedda is the most interesting of female characters - she still feels fresh 125 years after her first appearance.

Directors feel they must innovate with a text as frequently revived as Hedda Gabler and van Hove is clearly trying to do something new, but this move to upstage Hedda's dysfunction with Brack's villainy was never going to end well.

Katy Hayes

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