Wednesday 23 October 2019

Not all Shakespeare plays are created equal

  • Richard III Abbey Theatre, Dublin until October 27

Fantastic costumes: Richard III at the Abbey
Fantastic costumes: Richard III at the Abbey

The Dublin Theatre Festival has served up two major Shakespeare productions this year; Hamlet at the Gate Theatre and Richard III in a Druid production at the Abbey Theatre.

Hamlet is possibly the greatest play ever written, while Richard III's enduring popularity is more due to the central role of the villainous king than to the strengths of the play itself. It provides an opportunity for a mature leading man to strut his stuff. A parade of starry actors have tackled this pantomime villain: Laurence Olivier; Ian McKellen; Ralph Fiennes; and now Irishman Aaron Monaghan has a spirited go with a twisted leg and a pair of walking sticks.

While Richard is busy scheming, dispatching his critics and rivals to the grave, the whole thing whizzes along like a jolly Grand Guignol. Director Garry Hynes, the woman who discovered playwright Martin McDonagh, is absolutely expert at shaping this kind of blackly humorous power grab; she extracts every ounce of malicious juice from it.

But the problem with the play is that, once the crown is secured, we are treated to excruciating levels of pointlessness. The women's parts are mostly dreadful (with the exception of daft old Queen Margaret who has no story function, but definitely livens things up with her colourful curses). Ingrid Craigie, as Richard's mother the Duchess of York, has much lamenting to do. Jane Brennan, as Queen Elizabeth, has lengthy speeches of the purest tedium. And Siobhán Cullen as Lady Anne has to tie herself up in implausible character knots.

To compensate these wonderful actresses for all this dreary speechifying, costume designers Francis O'Connor and Doreen McKenna have produced some of the most elegant, shimmering Elizabethan dresses ever seen. O'Connor's set design is also superb, with a grave that opens and closes in the middle of the stage to absorb all the bodies.

The final stages of the play are even worse, as Richard starts bleating about how nobody loves him, and then we have a balletic battle in Bosworth Field, followed by an awkward sword-fight. This tying up of the history is possibly more interesting to an English audience.

Monaghan is, however, very funny as a brazen Richard III. Marty Rea has to play the whiny Clarence in the opening section, but then he gets into his stride as Catesby, who hilariously dispatches his victims with a bolt-gun, cleaning his trousers each time like a fastidious abattoir middle-manager. Marie Mullen is a treat as Queen Margaret.

Not all Shakespeare plays are created equal. Some of them are more deserving of a crown; some of them are pretenders.


Survivor considers confronting past

Rathmines Road Peacock Theatre, Dublin Until October 27

Sandra (Karen Ardiff) is a woman wrestling demons in Deirdre Kinahan's new play for Fishamble: The New Play Company and the Abbey Theatre.

Sandra suffers from PTSD as a result of being raped 20 years ago, when she was a student. She got her life back on track, married a sweet man called Ray (Enda Oates) and had a couple of kids.

Returning from London to her home town to sell her deceased mother's house, she randomly meets her attacker. Sandra's old friend from home, Dairne (Rebecca Root), who used to be a boy she fancied but has transitioned and is now a mature woman, provides a bridge between past and present.

Kinahan plays with time, replaying a scene with two alternative outcomes. This is a neat theatrical conceit, nicely handled by lighting designer Kevin Smith and director Jim Culleton.

The play asks the question: what is to be gained by confronting the rapist directly now? Will confronting him just complicate and extend Sandra's suffering and victimhood?

But the play itself confronts its themes too directly.

We are never left in any doubt about what to think - there is little in the subtext. And finally, the message that confronting rapists is too much hassle is quite dispiriting.

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