Friday 19 October 2018

Power play falls a bit flat



THERE is a distinct challenge for a company when it has to find a fresh approach to the same play three or four times in a decade. Second Age, the company which produces the senior schools texts with schools audiences in mind, has a new audience each time by definition; but company pride and creativity demand a new approach each time.

This time, director Alan Stanford has costumed Macbeth (at the Town Hall in Galway, and touring countrywide) in the 18th century, making for an entirely legitimate echo of 1745 and the death of Stuart hopes for a separate Scottish kingdom. That period was one of the bloodiest in Scotland's history, and there's plenty of gore splashed around the stage; but the production is nonetheless strangely bloodless and passionless. The fault seems to lie with a very odd interpretation of the central role by David Shannon: it's all words, beautifully enunciated, without an apparent ounce of feeling, and certainly with no complexity. His performance as the driven and tormented Macbeth is as empty as anything I've seen in a long time, almost as though the effort of committing the magnificent text to memory has exhausted all capacity for emotional depth. And this does rather leave the audience without a yardstick for anything else on stage.

The coldness also leaves Caitriona Ni Mhurchu's Lady Macbeth railing fitfully against an emotionally emasculated husband: she delivers the role entirely adequately, but it's impossible to believe that there has ever been passion between them.

The performances that do come alive are from Simon Coury as a confused and calculating Banquo, and a remarkable comic interpretation of the porter from Roger Thomson, who is equally impressive as one of the murderers sent against Macduff's castle. Enda Oates is also a powerful Macduff, while Barry John O'Connor rises well to Malcolm after a slow and unimpressive start.

But Tony McKenna as Ross, Keith Hanna as Lennox, and Olga Wehrly as Lady Macduff are all flat and characterless, seemingly uninvolved in and uninspired by the power of the play. The weird sisters, though, are conceptually interesting as wispy wandering balladeers, and performed well by Kate Brennan, Maeve FitzGerald and Kate NicChonainaigh.

Seeing Shakespeare come alive on stage must always be a revelation for young adults having their first experience of live theatre (as most of Second Age's audiences are); but in this case most of the actors seem to be suffering from as much lack of empathy with the play as any bored teenager in a classroom. Technically, it's all excellent, and Carol Betera's touring set and Caroline Bronwen Hughes' costumes look terrific, all moved and held together well by Stanford's direction. But terror, sex, treason and the power of the occult are conspicuously absent.

AN uncontrollable, uncontrolled and destructive love affair lies at the heart of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. And such a wildly passionate theme is well able to take a bit of revisionism for our own times. But banality and predictability aren't good markers. And if you move a stage adaptation to The Heights, in 1970 (the year the wild gypsy boy Heathcliff is adopted by the Earnshaws), then make Cathy a fashion model icon, with Edgar her unloved husband an art gallery and club owner, while Heathcliff is a property developer, a sense of numbness creeps over your audience. It's not exactly imaginative thinking outside the box, merely another re-run of every boring 21st-century wannabe celebrity gossip column.

This, sadly, is the scenario Playgroup come up with for their version, playing at the Cube in Project as a multi-media presentation with a largely mimed backing track from the three actors. They are, as it happens, very good singers. But unfortunately, the presentation gives the impression of being a barren exercise in gimmickry, being done for the sake of it rather than as an attempt to render the novel into a play for today.

Acting can only suffer in such a situation, and there's no visible depth around, much less the layers of desperation and destruction in the original, from Will O'Connell as Edgar Linton, Hilary O'Shaughnessy as Cathy, and Raymond Scannell as Heathcliff. Nor can you hear most of what they say once the music gets going, which may be just as well, as the text is an uneasy mixture of sloppy modern jargon and a (very) little of the original dialogue.

Further, perhaps an inevitable result of what is presumably meant to be a post-modern approach, Edgar Linton is presented as a right prick, while the innocent Isabella, emotionally violated and destroyed by Heathcliff, is a hoity-toity little bitch. Decency, honour and innocence are subjects for contempt in our 21st- century world, it seems.

Tom Creed directs and designs, costumes are by Joan Hickson, with lighting by Sarah Jane Shiels and music direction and sound by Michael John McCarthy.

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