Wednesday 17 October 2018

Sordid tale of sex, powder and Polaroids

  • Powder Her Face Irish National Opera tour

  • My Left Nut Bewley's Cafe Theatre Powerscourt, Dublin

Soprano Daire Halpin as the maid and bass Stephen Richardson as the hotel manager in Irish National Opera’s ‘Powder Her Face’
Soprano Daire Halpin as the maid and bass Stephen Richardson as the hotel manager in Irish National Opera’s ‘Powder Her Face’
Michael Patrick in 'My Left Nut'

Given the innate conservatism, to put it at its mildest, of Irish opera audiences, it was either mischievous, brave, or deliberately defiant for the newly-formed Irish National Opera to choose as their first production Thomas Ades's notorious 1995 opera Powder Her Face.

Admittedly it had already been in the sights of co-producers Northern Ireland Opera and indeed in those of INO's Fergus Sheil (wearing his Wide Open Opera hat). But this was a much-heralded new venture, and given official Ireland's traditional resistance to the fine arts (and particularly to opera), a late 20th century work, sung in English, and with a lip-smackingly salacious subject which could leave nothing to the imagination, this was a clarion call that Irish opera was ready to shock as well as soothe.

From its first performance at London's Almeida Theatre, the opera became as notorious as its central character, with Ades and librettist Philip Hensher, then a pair of self-proclaimed enfants terribles of the arts world, taking the life story of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (who had died only two years previously) and fashioning it into a chamber work equally reminiscent of a medieval morality play.

But as the recent (sadly interrupted by the weather) tour of the INO production triumphantly proved, Powder Her Face is worth as much musically as it is dramatically. The structure is hugely challenging, with the sexually voracious Duchess (Mary Plazas) on stage throughout while all other roles from maids through society journalists and high society parvenus, to the cuckolded Duke of Argyll, taken by only three other singers, led by the impressive bass Stephen Richardson, with soprano Daire Halpin and tenor Adrian Dwyer, the latter two also being required to perform choreographer Lucy Burge's demanding and energetic moves.

Michael Patrick in 'My Left Nut'
Michael Patrick in 'My Left Nut'

And of course there was the extremely realistically staged-fellatio scene, source of the opera's notoriety, its explicit staging demanded by the composer. But there's nothing prurient about it: it reproduces a Polaroid entered in court as evidence during the 1960s divorce proceedings brought by the Duke. (And for the righteous, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll died broke and lonely.)

It was an inharmonious life, and Ades's score reflects this, as did Timothy Redmond's conducting of it, while Antony McDonald in his direction and design re-created the vibrantly vulgar luxury of the 1960s "sexual revolution" settings, from a Grosvenor Street townhouse to the Grosvenor Hotel. Overall, it was a challenging, stimulating debut for the new company.

*******

HORRIBLE things happened in Northern Ireland in 1998. One of them was the Omagh bombing. But when you're eight years old and your daddy's dead from motor neurone disease, what you have to do is tell yourself that as a horrible thing, it's only a body in the coffin, and your daddy's away somewhere.

That's the start of My Left Nut by Michael Patrick and Oisin Kearney, a wide-eyed, glorious, moving tale of a "little man" becoming a man. And along the way he learns how to cope with booze (badly) how to yearn after girls (uselessly) and above all, how to cope with fear.

But he's the envy of his mates Conor and Tommy: it reflects glory on them that he has an enormous bulge in his trousers. So that's status of a kind. But teen years are confused, and the dreaded word "cancer" rears its hideous head.

And when you've no dad to confide in, it's embarrassing as well. How Michael copes, comes through, and survives makes for an enchanting coming of age tale… without the usual sex. The only woman in the piece is Michael's valiant and overburdened mum as she rears him, his brothers and his sister.

Co-author Michael Patrick plays the one-man piece with a combination of earnestness, verve and endearingly overwhelming charm; and along the way subtly makes mum an everyday heroine of glowing achievement.

Co-author Oisin Kearney directs at Bewley's Cafe Theatre at Powerscourt in Dublin. It's a revival which was a co-production between Prime Cut and Pan Narrans for the Fishamble Show-in-a-Bag initiative at the Dublin Fringe Festival.

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