Dark, funny, but not for children
There were a number of young children in the audience for the opening night of I, Malvolio at the Peacock. It was surprising, to me at least, because from what I'd heard of Tim Crouch's ground-breaking modern satire on one of Shakespeare's most cruelly unfair sequences, I hadn't thought that the material would be particularly child-friendly. (It was originally commissioned for the Brighton Festival in England, and Crouch writes in his programme note that he designed I, Malvolio with teenage audiences in mind, while the original success of the 'I' series, I, Peaseblossom was aimed at children of six and upwards.)
Anecdotally, for what it is worth, I think I was right: the children remained silent in bewilderment, while the adults were convulsed ... justifiably so.
I, Malvolio is a venomous, disturbing meditation on society and its self-delusions. It's full of abstruse metaphysical musings couched in literate English that bows not at all to contemporary 'street cred'.
There are a couple of comic 'set pieces' which require a bit of audience participation, one of them involving Crouch looping a hangman's rope around his neck and positioning two audience members, one to pull the chair from under him, the other to make sure the rope is pulled lethally taut.
That's black humour at its darkest, but in our suicide-beset society (described by Crouch as our "sad, dull, Papist, monochrome existence") its point is a viciously adult one.
He castigates his audience as "blank between your ears" and sneers at the self-congratulatory world of the self-styled "civilised" middle classes and their entertainments.
In Britain, where Shakespeare is part of society rather than being dismissed by the younger generation as pathetic and irrelevant (as is usually the case here) the basing of this kind of societal criticism on the character of Malvolio, the Puritanically joyless steward in Twelfth Night who is imprisoned, tortured, and sent almost mad as an idly cruel joke, might resound with younger audiences.
In Ireland, his 21st century incarnation seems as irrelevant to Shakespeare as it does to our youth culture.
Which is a pity, because it's as marvellous a piece of theatre as it is a nasty one.
* * * * *
The apocalyptic structure of Beckett's Endgame seems to become more intense as time passes: it may be because with the passing of the danger of nuclear holocaust (all-consuming when the play was written in 1957), we now are unable to classify the nature of apocalypse, and this ignorance somehow increases the threat from all sides.
The new production from Blue Raincoat in Sligo comes down heavily on the interpretation given to the play in the past: the bare room with its two light-less windows set high above the characters is painted a scorched pink in Barry McKinney's set as though having survived a fire ball.
And Hamm's face, red in Beckett's stage directions, is accompanied by scorched red hands and bald pate. He, too, seems to have been through the fire while his grey-faced slave Clov wears ragged clothes that also seem to have been salvaged from a fire.
Niall Henry directs the piece with fierce intensity: the hopelessness comes across as a resentful choice on the part of the once-powerful Hamm, now blind and unable to walk, tied to his empty throne and watched by Nagg and Nell, the parents who live in wastebins, the stumps of their missing legs stuffed into sand, a replacement for the now non-existent sawdust of "happier" times. Clov, unable to sit, and tottering through his daily tasks of servitude, seems in this production to have actively chosen the oblivion being imposed by Hamm in a world without end that has already ended. He could leave Hamm to expire in his helplessness while Nagg and Nell expire in their separate wastelands ... no longer capable of crying, the only way Hamm knows that Nagg is still alive. But he chooses to stay among the last aspects of humanity, as wasted and ashen as the wastelands beyond the room.
When Hamm asks him "what are you doing?" as he deals with the alarm clock, the reply "Winding up" assumes a horrifying significance: winding up has several meanings, and the play ends with Clov dressed to leave, but still watching as Hamm returns to even deeper oblivion, robbed of "the gaffe or the axe" which, wielded in mercy or rage, would be a way out.
Subtle inflections of new insight are always welcome in Beckett, and this production has several: it's a fine achievement for all concerned although a little less force (more greyness) would be welcome in the playing
Ciaran McCauley is Hamm, John Carty is Clov, and Sandra O'Malley and Peter Davey are Nell and Nagg.