Tuesday 12 December 2017

Theatre: Small town battles, and sexual wars

Jim Nolan's work echoes Lennox Robinson

Ciaran McMenamin and Lisa Dwyer Hogg in 'After Miss Julie' at the Project. Photo: Ciaran Bagnall.
Ciaran McMenamin and Lisa Dwyer Hogg in 'After Miss Julie' at the Project. Photo: Ciaran Bagnall.

Emer O'Kelly

Jim Nolan has an unapologetic affection for small-town life. But it never blinds him to its dangers and its faults. There are distinct echoes of Lennox Robinson in his work: and that is no small compliment. And this is never more clear than in his new play Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye, set in the fictional midland town of Inishannon in the (very) near future.

It's the spring of 2016 and the town is absorbed in putting on its best and most reverential face for the centenary celebrations of 1916, which among other events, will see the opening of a new "peace park". Everyone's claiming credit, from the local Sinn Fein TD who wants the celebrations to be a posturing platform for Gerry Adams, to the local ministerial TD, who wants all signs of more recent nasty conflicts on this island to be written off as having been vanquished by the efforts of the government of which he's a part.

More localised upheavals are happening in the newsroom of the local paper, which has been taken over by a media giant (no names, no pack drill) and where the long standing senior journalist, currently acting editor, is Stephen Coyne, a decent man who wants to continue to observe sensibilities, even if it means avoiding the truth. Ian Doherty (Ciaran McMahon), parachuted in by the new owners to get the place on its feet, has other ideas. Truth is all. . . but only when it's unpleasant truth. He wants a close-up picture of a grieving widow at the funeral of the husband who drowned himself following his self-induced financial ruin. He wants it as front page news in all its gory nastiness; Stephen wants it as a small news item on the funeral of a respectable local resident. And that's only one of the clashes, until Stephen too must face a journalistic crisis which requires truth.

And underneath runs the current of old political hatreds still unresolved between "Blueshirts" and "th'other side".

Who wins? Well, nobody, as is the reality of such complex and visceral moral struggles.

Nolan paints a sweep of small-town life with its decencies and its equal supply of unforgiving cruelty through the eyes of the newspaper staff, a motley crew of a slightly cynical single mother (Jenni Ledwell), a rambunctious trainee reporter (Ema Lemon) and a mother-smothered photographer (Michael Hayes). They are all as well-drawn as the central character of Stephen, played by a superbly understated Garret Keogh, who actually walks away with the show.

Directed by Nolan himself, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye is an old-fashioned, well-made play, about old-fashioned, well-tested moralities. It's at Garter Lane Theatre in Waterford, supported by Waterford City and County Council.

PATRICK Marber's After Miss Julie transfers Strindberg's masterpiece as smoothly as Miss Julie's silk underwear from Sweden to the English Home Counties on General Election night 1945.

The invisible father in Marber's work is a Labour peer, so the estate workers are celebrating doubly: not merely the end of the war, but also the triumph of the Labour government over Churchill and the government which had led the country to victory in that war.

Northern Ireland company Prime Cut's director Emma Jordan has chosen a further transference: to Northern Ireland, specifically, according to the programme, to Fermanagh. This is signalled by nothing other than a line which states that the Master is at Stormont for the evening. So one is forced to the conclusion that there seems no reason other than insularity to try the transference; or just possibly a worry that the cast members will not be able to manage English accents.

And if that is the reason, the fear is more than justified: as we progress through the slow degradation of the wilful Julie at the hands of her father's emotionally brutal and class-resentful chauffeur, it becomes distracting to listen to Lisa Dwyer-Hogg's "posh" English, the accent which in 1945 an upper-class Northern Irish woman would have had. One is constantly distracted from the bristling, vicious text, with all its layers of innuendo, uncertainty and dawning horror, by "jahman" for "German" and an almost total lack of the final "r" in words ending with that letter.

It is a great pity, because the production hangs together well otherwise, Ciaran McMeniman interpreting the vilely misogynistic John as a man wholly the product of his environment, his sense of victimhood leading destructively and inevitably to his equally strong sense of entitlement, and its tragic denouement.

And Pauline Hutton, as the plain, pragmatic Christine who discovers that "knowing your class" does not preclude hurt and betrayal, manages to combine self-serving stolidity with barely perceived vulnerability.

In its original, Miss Julie was a ground-breaking sensation with its portrayal of sexual licence and contempt for women as a lesser species. Patrick Marber calls his work After Miss Julie: yet it is a far more accomplished re-imagining of the original than many adaptations of classics claimed by their authors as "versions". But unnecessary embellishments for their own sake often display nothing more than insularity, or arrogance…or both.

The excellent set is by Sarah Bacon, lit by Ciaran Bagnall, with sound by Carl Kennedy.

After Miss Julie is at Project Arts Centre in Dublin, and will tour to Thurles, Limerick, Armagh, Letterkenny, and Belfast at The MAC.

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