Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Still angry, and still tragically unresolved

  • Look Back in Anger, Gate Theatre, Dublin
  • The Approach, Project, Dublin
From left, Clare Dunne, Vanessa Emme, Lloyd Cooney and Ian Toner in Look Back in Anger at The Gate
From left, Clare Dunne, Vanessa Emme, Lloyd Cooney and Ian Toner in Look Back in Anger at The Gate
Aisling O'Sullivan in The Approach
Cathy Belton in The Approach
Derbhle Crotty (right) in The Approach

Emer O'Kelly

John Osborne's classic play is put under the microscope at the Gate

In her thoughtful production of the groundbreaking Look Back in Anger at the Gate, Annabelle Comyn pushes us back through a glass darkly, as it were, demanding we stay detached from the maelstrom of sad passion playing out before us. And I'm not sure how well it works. Certainly it is imaginative, highly intelligent, and a legitimate theatrical device. But there is an uneasy feeling that the four damaged figures before us deserve at the very least that we get in there, touch them, allow them to touch us; and maybe the touch of what we represent, the world outside their private hell, can be a source of some solace.

John Osborne revolutionised English theatre forever in 1956, when the play was summed up as having banished the French windows from the West End stage forever. Looking back now, the windows deserved their place: many a middle-class play was a fine and serious work of art; but 10 years after the end of World War II, it was time for the class barriers which had been exploded in those terrible years when Britain fought for survival to come crashing down on stage as elsewhere.

Enter Jimmy Porter, Osborne's embodiment of the enraged and disempowered product of the newly emergent Welfare State. Educated "upwardly" to take his place in a world he neither understood nor wanted to understand, Porter became the symbol of his generation: the Angry Young Man. And Osborne's treatment of his anti-hero is so viscerally empathetic that while we may condemn the collateral damage of the lives he destroys, one deliberately, others indifferently, we can recognise his pain.

That the middle-class Alison, daughter of the Regiment, walked into marriage with working-class Jimmy in the first place, is the marker of a societal change: 10 years later, her marriage would not have been remarkable, nor would her husband's angst been capable of destroying her.

But this was the New Society, and the tragedy for Jimmy Porter (as undoubtedly for his creator) was that after the years of wartime suffering, it was not Utopia.

To paint all that into a single night's theatre is, and was, extraordinary in any interpretation. Comyn is asking us to stand back and see it all in a sociological laboratory as the characters detach themselves from the text, and deliberately and defiantly fail to obey the stage instructions which have been incorporated into the script.

It's provocative and exciting, but I can't help feeling a plea for involvement in the characters' anguish might have been more effective.

Ian Toner is a finely tuned Jimmy, his rage disintegrating agonisingly (and of course, equally selfishly) into desolation in moments of truth. His accent, however, is disastrously uneven and all over the place. Clare Dunne is a kind of numb perfection as Alison: the ice in her soul seems to create a devastating shell around her; while Vanessa Emme's combination of ladylike contempt and nascent empathy suitably embody the point of the play in her Helena. But turning Lloyd Cooney's Cliff from Welsh into Irish (Dublin) puts him outside the play's structure: he just doesn't fit.

Paul O'Mahony's box set perfectly incorporates Comyn's vision of the play, lit by Chahine Yavroyan, and Tom Lane's strident and raucous sound is as disturbing as it is effective for the mood.

*******

Take three women in tune with life, but not with each other, and cocoon them in what is obviously the clatter of a crowded coffee shop that is the essence of urban life in 2018.

And in that uneasily constricted space we see the splinters of their lives flying to embed themselves in some kind of surface that will offer stability.

That's the premise of The Approach, Mark O'Rowe's quite simply stunning new play. It cuts to the heart of our overloaded perceptions, the fragmentation of hope, and the ultimate acceptance of the scars. Because there is always the salve of a new future.

Superficially, all Cora, Anna, and Denise have in common is that they once, as very young women, shared a flat in Dublin's trendy Ranelagh. All three are older and (maybe) wiser when, by accident, Cora and Anna meet and reminisce over a coffee, the chat inconsequential, superficial.

But suddenly, there's more to it all. Anna explodes into a rage at the mention of a former boyfriend. He's dead, but that's not the problem. She lost him to the third of the trio, her sister Denise, and the two haven't met or spoken since. So we commence "La Ronde" as the three women's lives play out over the next couple of years, punctuated by occasional meetings: always only two, though.

O'Rowe's dialogue is immaculate, authentic and as revealing in what is not said as in its staccato confidences. A pregnancy that never becomes a child; a lover who initially seems to heal the wounds of an earlier bad experience only to be revealed as physically violent; a husband who leaves, but is a constant reminder because the woman he left for is a neighbour, even though he has now left her as well.

Through it all, as the confidences spill out, the terror of self-revelation kicks in, and there are inventions, protective layers of pretty lies to help the heads to be held high.

And under all the tribulations runs the tragedy that ultimately puts the troubles of the living in perspective: the shadow of a death that for all three women marked the end of innocence.

O'Rowe directs the play himself (superbly) for Landmark, playing at Project in Dublin, and his layered script is handled with infinite tenderness by three of our most accomplished actors: Derbhle Crotty, Cathy Belton and Aisling O'Sullivan.

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