Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Saturday 17 August 2019

Travesty at New Theatre, Dublin: Like a red rag to a millennial bull

Travesty

New Theatre, Dublin

Bullfight on Third Avenue

Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, Dublin

Ross Gaynor and Rex Ryan in Bullfight on Third Avenue
Ross Gaynor and Rex Ryan in Bullfight on Third Avenue

Emer O'Kelly

Travesty is a theatrical form, the title dating from a time when gender stereotypes were more than the norm: they were fairly well universal. So man playing woman, woman playing man was a "travesty", presumably against both nature and taste. (They'd decided to forget about Shakespeare.)

Travesty is also the title of Liam Williams's 2016 Edinburgh Fringe play, in which a couple, Ben and Anna, play out their love story over the course of two years. It begins, as love stories do, when they meet a party which Ben attended only by chance. Dinner and bed follow swiftly, as does a fairly intense relationship, with the over-analytical Ben trying desperately to find a depth of meaning in his life, and especially in his love for Anna. He's also obsessed with class, almost belligerently conscious of his "lower middle- class" origins (inverted commas are required, since they are in Ben's head whenever he thinks about it, which is most of the time).

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Anna is more laid back, buttressed by the security of her middle-class background which offers a nice flat provided by her parents until she gets on her feet financially.

It doesn't end happily. The couple go through the stages of love fairly quickly, until they stare at a bleak future: Anna wants loving friendship forever, Ben wants the sexual and emotional intensity of their early months. Never the twain shall meet.

Williams's aim in cross- gendering the roles would appear to be a laudable attempt to point out that love is love wherever it is found. And he makes a good fist of it. But the travesty genre in this case comes across as an unnecessary gimmick: the play is so intelligent and the characters so well drawn, there seems little point in having Ben played by Siobhan Callaghan and Anna by Fionntan Larney. Both deal marvellously with the sophisticated dialogue, which is clearly not Irish, with neither character driven by a victim mentality or sense of aggrieved entitlement. Their debates are intelligent, verging on intellectual, and they want mature answers, not hand-outs.

If you didn't know the purpose of travesty, you might be inclined to think the actor playing Anna was a trans woman, or at least a cross-dresser, while Ben might be merely a slightly butch young woman.

But it's a thoroughly absorbing evening's theatre, directed by Jed Murray, and it's a Corps Ensemble production.

*******

Bullfight on Third Avenue is an imagined creation of what might have happened between Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald in an Irish bar in New York in 1937, just before Hemingway left to fight in the Spanish Civil War. A dangerous, dangerous undertaking for any writer.

You've got the sometimes irresistible urge to project your own character onto the protagonists: you've got the fact nobody can read another person's mind and the corollary that pretty well every well-read person has their mental picture of both men.

And guess what? Playwright Eddie Naughton manages to surmount the challenges.

In 1937, Hemingway was well on his way into suicidal paranoia, and Fitzgerald was well on his way into the pit of a combination of self-loathing and alcoholism.

Naughton writes them at a pitch of near hysteria, their fragile egos at breaking point, their mutual loathing and jealousy battling with the fellow feeling of being artists in a philistine world. And with all that seething away, Fitzgerald walks into Costello's Bar on Third Avenue sporting a shiner delivered by the cab driver he's insulted the previous night, while Hemingway blusters his macho way through some arm-wrestling with the Irish barman.

Fitzgerald lives in Hollywood as a scriptwriter, striving to pay Zelda's insane asylum bills. Hemingway is in the process of leaving his second wife (having run through her inheritance) to marry an even richer heiress, war correspondent Martha Gelhorn. Hence signing up to join Martha in war-torn Spain. In other words, they may both have been terrific writers, but hardly likeable - "insensitive self-absorbed pig" might be accurate in both cases.

Naughton captures it very credibly with some cracking sharp dialogue. Mind you, he rather spoils his scenario by giving the bartender a cautionary monologue about the horrors of civil war.

Ross Gaynor doesn't look like Fitzgerald, nor Rex Ryan like Hemingway, but they turn in fiercely committed performances under Karl Shiels' direction. Dave Duffy is the bartender. It's designed by Lisa Krugel and lit by Colm Maher.

Sunday Independent

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