Wednesday 19 December 2018

Witches cast light on Trump's America

Review: Wicked, Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, until September 1

Katy Hayes

Scene & Heard is late to review this as it opened while we were at the Galway festival; it is now up and running and well into its groove with terrific production values, fabulous costumes and flying monkeys.

Last Tuesday, it played to a packed house which featured a lot of teenage girls, but also included the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. And this savvy musical knows exactly what it's doing. It's the story of an unlikely friendship between two girls at a sorcery university - the blonde who likes to be popular, and the socially awkward girl with green skin whom nobody likes.

The musical by Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (book) tells the backstory of the two witches from The Wizard of Oz. The story is now best known from the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland, but the original novel by L Frank Baum from 1900 was hugely popular.

No art form interrogates the idea of America as assiduously as the Broadway musical, and Wicked does so with broomsticks. Though first produced in 2003, it identifies many of the issues troubling present-day Trump's America. Elphaba (beautifully sung by Amy Ross) is concerned with how society is being run. She has minority coloured skin (in this case green) and a highly developed sense of fair play. She wants to protect the vulnerable, in this case animals who have been trapped in cages in order to prevent them from speaking. A typical social justice warrior.

Her friend Glinda (a terrifically pettish Helen Woolf) is a pragmatist, who has some moral awareness but likes to be popular and on the side of power and therefore sprops up the status quo. She has lots of pairs of shoes, nice dresses and a tiara. But she is not a bad person. She is like Melania.

The Wizard of Oz has a lot of Trump characteristics, but since this was created in 2003, he has less of a dark side. He is all bluster and branding and strategy. "The best way to bring people together is to give them a really good enemy," he says. His press secretary Madam Morrible (a golden-voiced Kim Ismay) speaks in a convoluted, tortured English, and frequently makes no sense.

Well, it all has a happy ending. The Wizard gets banished (takes early retirement) and leaves in his hot-air balloon. He is let off pretty lightly for someone who subjugated a people.

Elphaba goes off with a hippy scarecrow lover to live in a remote castle. Glinda, the pragmatist, takes over running Oz - things change for the better, but only slightly.

The American musical's moral explicitness may feel obvious and simplistic but only a fool searches for subtlety in this quarter. They are also frequently instructive: the lesson here being you have to stand up against prevailing winds in order for true justice to prevail. And don't let green skin stop you. I hope the Taoiseach enjoyed it.


Book it now


Bewley’s Café Theatre, Aug 6 – Sept 8                              

The late Hugh Leonard adapted this Edith Wharton story. It features Karen Ardiff and Maria Tecce as two American widows in 1930s Italy watching the sun set on the Colosseum. Directed by Michael James Ford.


Castle Yard, Kilkenny, August 9 –18

Rough Magic Theatre Company tackle Shakespeare’s most inventive comedy as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. An Irish angle flavours this Lynne Parker-directed festival highlight.


Smock Alley Theatre, until Sept 1

Dion Boucicault’s crowd-pleasing romp from 1874 features Fenians and fugitives and introduces the quintessential Irish chancer and rogue, Conn the Shaughraun. Directed by Clare Maguire.


Graveyard drama that digs deep

Two men meet in a graveyard up the Dublin Mountains, overlooking the city where they grew up. Their childhood friend Eamonn is buried there.

The three men used to be inseparable, young career criminals on the make. But a botched job got one of them killed, and the other two fell out, their rival gangs now involved in a deadly feud with mounting body counts on each side.

The two men are here to settle matters once and for all. They have shovels to dig up the grave. One of them is going to join the dead man below.

We are more accustomed to gangster themes on TV and in the cinema, but the theatre excellently meets the needs of this difficult subject. Jimmy Murphy's script teases out the emotional and logistical complexities with verve. Its grim tone reminds us that so many Irish plays undercut their material with humour, as though Irish writers are afraid to roll up their sleeves and get truly serious because they fear unpopularity.

Not so here. Murphy, who also directs, amplifies the serious tone in the production. There is no cutting up cute by the actors. Rex Ryan as The Rev is the polished one, who has half-found God. Ruairí Heading as Donal still has a touch of the grubby streets about him, but a fancy designer suit papers over the cracks. Both performances expertly draw the viewer into their world, and the twisted love they bear for one another.

There are serious points being made: that prison is a university for criminals; that the middle-class market for drugs is what keeps them all in business; that running The Rev's criminal empire is just an admin job, not unlike running other businesses. Had he been born into a different family, that is what he would be doing.

By the end, the grave has been excavated, but so, too, have the personalities of the two men digging.

This spellbinding 90 minutes builds to a dramatic finale.

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