Tuesday 25 June 2019

Morality writ large with a band of 50 brothers

THEATRE

EMER O'KELLY

TURNING a Greek tragedy into more of a medieval morality play, and adding touches of outrageous comedy along the way, takes some doing. But Charles Mee has done it with Big Love -- his version of Aeschylus' The Suppliants, otherwise known as The Danaides. Add in the impish and innovative vision of director Selina Cartmell, and you have a glorious piece of theatre at the Peacock.

The lovely Lydia is wearing a ragged wedding dress which she proceeds to remove before taking to the hot tub on the terrace of an Italian villa. Lydia turns out to be one of 50 sisters who have de-camped from Greece to avoid a forced group marriage to 50 brothers.

She is joined by two of the sisters, the pouting and curvaceous Olympia, who likes "it" submissively and on her back, and the man-hating feminist Thyona, for whom sex with a man is always rape. Cue the helicopter of the pursuing and vengeful bridegrooms.

Villa owner Piero thinks it's not his business, only to be told that it is because he's a human being: whose else is it? But "one doesn't always go around the world doing what's right," moans Piero. Military intervention argument.

Women can't have it both ways, Olympia's suitor Constantine argues: they condemn gentleness in their men if it fails to defend them, but without inherent violence, men become impotent as defenders. And women too as part of humanity are part of its violence. Anti-feminism argument.

All the great socio-political arguments of the 21st Century are ticked off cleverly, intelligently, provocatively, leaving no answers save one: people. "People who need people." It should be appallingly trite; instead it's hugely comic; entertaining and sad; depressing and hopeful all at once, even as the stage lies littered with the corpses of the 50 bridegrooms, butchered by their reluctant spouses.

Cartmell and her choreographer Ella Clarke have done an extraordinary job with the superb collaboration of designer Jon Bausor with lighting and sound by Paul Keogan and Denis Clohessy. And the cast combine wry and sharp acting with fine movement: the production is possibly the most physically challenging I've seen in Ireland. And it's breathtaking.

SENECA has been compared unfavourably to Euripedes in their respective renderings of the doomed sexual encounter between Phaedra, wife of Theseus, and her stepson Hippolytus. But contemporary and historical reception for both can't compare with the outrage caused by the late Sarah Kane's rendering of the Greek legend in her Phaedra's Love, drawn loosely from the Seneca version.

It was Kane's second play, a bloodbath greeted in 1996 with outrage by most commentators. Three years later, Kane was dead, her work now a self-evident journey to personal destruction.

Jason Byrne has given the play a stomach-churning production for his own company, Loose Canon performing at the Project.

Deirdre Roycroft is Phaedra, a performance of rugged integrity that leads with Greek inevitability to her suicide when rejected as a tramp by the self-absorbed, dysfunctional Hippolytus. Kane paints him as a fat ingrate for whom desire is no more than an itch to be scratched: the son of a royal household, he's "just very unpleasant and therefore incurable" as the therapist tells Phaedra in spurious comfort for the belching, idly masturbating Prince's rejection of her advances.

Conor Cillian Madden plays Hippolytus with almost languorous fervour -- a reeking portrait of decadence incapable of redemption, sexually, philosophically, or politically; only the chilling end as his blood-soaked broken body is ritually castrated by the mob redeems him as he tries to crawl to the equally defiled and dishonoured body of his sister, slaughtered for trying to protect him.

Phil Kingston doubles as Theseus and the confessor/ chorus, and Nyree Yergainharsian is "Strophe", daughter, sister, doomed confidante and conscience of Phaedra and Hippolytus.

Ciaran O'Melia's white set is horrifyingly effective, and beautifully-lit by Sarah Jane Shiels, adding to Byrne's concept, which spares nothing without over-stating anything. It's a sobering, savage hour of theatre.

TAKE a Taoiseach separated for eight years from his wife, appearing before tribunals to answer allegations of taking bribes, and offering lame explanations for the contents of various bank accounts. The denouement is that he is finally forced out of office and he feels bewildered and aggrieved because it shouldn't be important if he took money from friends.

Does it sound familiar? And that is what's wrong, because the storyline purports to be drama in the form of a play called Rita Dunne, an Everyman Palace production at the Civic Theatre in Tallaght. The play also purports to be told from the wife's point of view, yet the Rita character never comes alive. Willie Dunne, the aggrieved one, does; but that's because we know his story already.

Sadly, by this stage most of us are so bored we don't need its tired and grubby contents run past us again. Patrick Talbot's text is workmanlike, if plodding, although with far too many off-stage characters drawn into the storyline: it stands in need of editing.

The cast deliver workmanlike if uninspired performances: Deirdre Monaghan as Rita, Frank Melia as Willie, and Vanessa Keogh as their daughter. Talbot directs in a set by Eileen Diss.

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