Thursday 22 August 2019

Theatre: Shadows that deny empathy

Amy McAllister and Mark O’Halloran in ‘The Shadow Of A Gunman’ by Sean O’Casey, running at the Abbey.
Amy McAllister and Mark O’Halloran in ‘The Shadow Of A Gunman’ by Sean O’Casey, running at the Abbey.
From left, Teri Fitzgerald, Kieran Roche and Ashleigh Dorrell in 'A Lesson in When to Quit'. Photo: Jeda de Brí

Emer O'Kelly

If O'Casey had intended The Shadow of a Gunman as an expressionist play, he would have written it that way. That it was staged by the Abbey in 1923 is proof that he did not, since his move into expressionism (The Silver Tassie) was thrown back in his face by the Abbey, or rather by Mr. William Butler Yeats.

It is certainly acceptable, maybe even desirable, that classics should be re-imagined, arguably more for the benefit of older theatregoers who have seen them many times rather than for "the new generation" who might actually prefer to begin with the experience of a classic interpretation.

But when re-imagining changes the nature of the play, nobody benefits. And that would seem to be what director Wayne Jordan has done with the new joint Lyric/Abbey production of The Shadow of a Gunman, currently playing at the Abbey. Presented in a vaguely expressionist style, on a rather bare stage, with the actors largely working in isolation from each other, humanity goes out the window (in this production, two great bare spaces backed by patched corrugated iron).

Courtesy of designer Sarah Bacon, furniture and costumes are late 1960s (spindle-legged formica table, Davoren in a brown T shirt, Minnie Powell in a mini and ankle socks). And everyone's as clean as a whistle, as is the tenement room shared by Davoren and Shields. That's not detached expressionism, that's a refusal (or an inability?) to empathise in any way with the sense and soul of O'Casey's excoriating damnation of the intensity and hopelessness of poverty in Dublin in 1920.

Mark O'Halloran's romantic-souled poet Davoren is a snivelling whelp in this production; while Amy McAllister's 23-year-old Minnie Powell looks and acts 12, which builds into an uneasy imagining of child molestation rather than burgeoning attraction between the two. David Ganly makes a good fist of the disillusioned Seumas Shields; but the pivotal speech in which he proclaims "I believe in the freedom of Ireland, an' that England has no right to be here, but I draw the line when I hear the gunmen blowin' about dyin' for the people, when it's the people that are dyin' for the gunmen! With all due respect to the gunmen, I don't want them to die for me" is almost entirely lost, again possibly deliberately.

For the rest, Catherine Walsh's Mrs. Henderson is a faithful O'Casey interpretation, but otherwise we are dealing with enlarged shadows of reality which approach caricature. When you drag, pull, and pound a play into a new frame, apparently for the sake of the process, you tear the heart out of it. And that, unfortunately seems to be what has happened with this production of The Shadow of a Gunman.

* * * * *

TAKE something in which the wacky style and filthy innuendo are rather reminiscent of The Rocky Horror Show; add in a lot of fairly youthful enthusiasm, quite a lot of talent, and unlimited energy; and you end up with A Lesson in When to Quit, a Cup Theatre production at Theatre Upstairs at Lanigan's on Eden Quay in Dublin (7 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; lunchtime Wednesday and Saturday).

It's written by Teri FitzGerald and is a zany pastiche of Hollywood has-beens and tough-talking agents. Ruby Carson, red-haired moppet who starred briefly in Annie many moons ago, is now forty and slinging hashbrowns for a living. Her sister Sandy, part of a sister-duo before Ruby's brief startime, is now blind while keeping the home fires burning. She's the one with the talent, as of course we discover as all ends happily after the "girls'" agents, darkhearted Dick Headski and his daft but good-hearted brother Archie trek through a world of Russian blackmailers, shows that-never-were, and a whole load of soulful yearning accompanied by the statutory fantasy stripteases and tap routines.

The cast, headed by the author as Ruby, with Ashleigh Dorrell as Sandy, Kieran Roche as Archie and Keith-James Walker as Dick, are directed with considerable aplomb by Philip Doherty. The inventive design is by Naomi Rossini, while original music is by Teri FitzGerald, Sarah Shine and Dearbhla Collins.

You get the impression that the show was originally much longer, and has been squeezed to fit a lunchtime/early evening slot. But since it's an unpretentious load of pure fluffy energy, that hardly matters, and it delivers a great bit of fizz.

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