Sunday 18 February 2018

Theatre: Missing the sense of Old Russia

Take on Turgenev: Caoimhe O'Malley and Dominic Thornburn in A Month in the Country at the Gate. Photo: Pat Redmond
Take on Turgenev: Caoimhe O'Malley and Dominic Thornburn in A Month in the Country at the Gate. Photo: Pat Redmond

Emer O'Kelly

Mid-1850s: Turgenev's A Month in the Country is published; 1861: serfdom (otherwise slavery: the right of landowners to own their peasants, and have the power of life and death over them) is abolished in Russia; 1877, Turgenev's masterpiece is finally produced, having been refused permission from the censor for 25 years.

The timescale is important: it puts the Turgenev play in a socio-political frame aeons before Chekhov and his pre-occupations with the trials of the minor gentry and the emergent Russian middle class. But modern English-language productions of Turgenev seldom portray the stultifying atmosphere of feudalism inherent in the original work.

And this is certainly the case in Ethan McSweeney's direction of the Brian Friel version of A Month in the Country at the Gate Theatre. Friel has always favoured a "smoothing out" of the original class structure in his Russian adaptations, and the two add up to something which makes for a cracker of an emotionally charged drama, but one without any real sense of suffocating Russian-ness.

McSweeny's direction goes hell-bent for the comic elements in the play, enlarging them to the farcical at times, and directing some of his actors (or maybe they do it all by themselves) to play as caricatures. The result rather smothers the very real emotional drama and its sad hopelessness, making for an entertaining evening rather than a wryly thought-provoking one.

But where the actors restrain themselves within Turgenev's boundaries, as it were, there is real Russian pleasure. This is particularly the case with Aislin McGuckin's Natalya, mixing petulant discontent with shame-filled self-knowledge in a performance of energetic subtlety. Indeed, the play is hers, as Simon O'Gorman's Rakitin (surprisingly from such a good actor) is almost one-dimensional. The passive long-suffering, would-be lover is a difficult role, but layers help. Nick Dunning's Arkady, on the other hand, is all conviction as the complacent husband, a role which Dunning plays as a benevolent old bear.

Dominic Thorburn plays the love-object Aleksey as a rather gauche teenager unlikely to catch the eye of any worldly beauty, however discontented; while the innocent Vera, marital sacrifice to Natalya's selfish vanity, is played opposite him by Caoimhe O'Malley as an obstreperous child until overnight morphing (with the aid of costuming) into a seemingly middle-aged woman: it's all a bit sudden.

There is a sleekly elegant comedy performance from Ingrid Craigie as the paid companion Elisaveta, but again, her costuming (Peter O'Brien at his exquisite best) is rather too exquisite for a poor relation.

Mark O'Regan as the morally ambivalent Dr Shipelgsky and Pat McGrath as Vera's elderly suitor Bolshintsov both fall rather unfortunately into the category of caricature, as does Peter Gaynor's pantomimic Dr. Schaaf.

So despite elegance and spirit, an overall unevenness of approach leaves A Month in the Country a bewildering blank rather than a dimming of the light of hope in numerous lives.

If you wanted to be disrespectful, you could say that when Yeats' At the Hawk's Well and its companion Noh-style pieces are presented in the manner their author wanted, it's possible to find huge similarities to a certain classic Beckett play: one where nothing happens…twice.

There's an intensity of experience: an old man lives out his shrivelled life, waiting for the water to bubble from a magical dried-up well, and gain immortality as legend promises. A young man arrives, (probably Cuchulainn) having been attacked by a hawk, in search of the same thing. The dried-up lake is guarded by a young woman, the spirit of the Hawk. The old man tells the new arrival, effectively, to get the hell out or waste his own life. The young man is enticed away by the hawk woman, who disappears from his sight and unleashes unholy spirits to attack him. And off he goes again to face down the avenging spirits with his sword. That's quite a lot of action in a half-hour play.

Faithfully presented, it is a muted dirge, with a three-person chorus intoning the musical verse while the two men speak only from behind masks, cowering as the spirit of the well swoops around them in a stylised deadly dance.

And yet, if a production knows what it's at, so to speak, it becomes a romantic, even an enriching experience of muted and destructive emotion. Which is exactly what Blue Raincoat in Sligo have managed with Niall Henry's new lunchtime production at the Factory Space.

It is more than well worth seeing, with John Carty as the Old Man, Brian Devaney as the Young Man (admittedly slightly muffled by the restrictions of his mask) Fiona McGeown as the Guardian of the Well, and Nicola McEvilly, Sandra O'Malley and Ciaran McCauley as the Chorus. There is excellent lighting from Barry McKinney, with sound by Joe Hunt. Henry (along with Paul McDonnell) is also responsible for the design.

THERE doesn't seem to be much reason to stage the Canadian writer George F. Walker's black comedy Risk Everything, other than the fact of its being great fun. It doesn't relate in any way to Ireland, and the characters are so weird they're not exactly recognisable. Nor has it got a message. But it's fun.

Carol is a compulsive gambler who has just diddled a very nasty moneylender out of $34,000 in order to bet on a horse. Her partner in a scam has apparently done a runner with the money (actually they've doubled it on a horse in the interim). And Steamboat Jeffreys wants his money back, in cash or blood.

He's already had Carol roughed up, and she's hiding out with her loser daughter and son-in-law (she's an ex-prostitute, he's a dim jailbird addicted to watching old comedy shows on television.)

But Carol has no intention of letting Steamboat away with any such outrageous plan. Enter Michael from the hotel room next door where he has been making a porn movie; he's a friend of Steamboat and after getting to know Carol in a fairly basic fashion, he wants to help out.

Add in some explosives strapped to various waistlines, a lot of lying twists and turns, and a happy ending. And you have a nice undemanding little comedy. It's an in-house and Whirligig co-production at the New Theatre in Dublin directed by Liam Halligan, with Ann Russell, Neill Fleming, Pat Nolan and Teri Fitzgerald.

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