Celebration / Watt / Una Santa Oscura / Phaedra / The Rehearsal: Playing The Dane / The Silver Tassie
Various venues, Dublin
October, 2010
/ *** / **** / *** / **** / *****
The Dublin Theatre Festival continues to cast its net ever more widely and richly. This year’s programme has brought to Ireland the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy of one-on-one pieces and a sizeable strand of Polish work including Factory 2, Krystian Lupa’s seven-hour Warhol homage (reviewed on this page last month on its Paris outing) and TR Warszawa’s Pasolini-inspired T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T., which moves on to London this week.

Also in the festival was a series of productions at the Gate Theatre labelled “BPM”, for “Beckett, Pinter, Mamet”. My brief visit did not allow me to catch Mamet’s Boston Marriage or Beckett’s Endgame, but Wayne Jordan’s production of Pinter’s final play Celebration captured both the perennial power-play and the more explicit than usual comedy of the piece, as two dining parties in a swish restaurant hold banal conversations which are at first intercut and then merge. The most delicious role was, as ever, that of the Waiter, “interjecting” with surreal fantasies of his grandfather; Nigel Harman managed all these riffs with a deferential smile. Sunday’s performance was followed by a screening of Beckett’s short piece Catastrophe which united all three featured authors, directed as it was by Mamet for RTÉ and starrimg Pinter.

BPM also included a second Beckett production radically at odds with our idea of his writing. Watt was Barry McGovern’s solo adaptation of Beckett’s 1940s novel in which he treats his perennial themes of endurance and termination not with his characteristic linguistic economy but with a deliberately excessive encyclopaedism. Given a number of permutations of events, he lists every single one. Part of Tom Creed’s production here was given over to the croaking of a trio of frogs at varying mathematical intervals. McGovern himself gave a deadpan yet deceptively vibrant recitation on a bare stage, dressed in Watt’s footman’s livery.

Creed also directed Una Santa Oscura at the Smock Alley Theatre, a remarkable piece which has grown in my memory. From the disparate inspirations of the writings of 12th-century saint Hildegard of Bingen and neurologist Oliver Sacks on migraine, Creed fashioned a wordless piece in which the primary “language” was that of Ian Wilson’s violin score, as played by Ioana Petcu-Nolan against electronic soundscapes and video projections. We watched Petcu-Nolan pottering around her flat, fixing a meal but repeatedly interrupted by memories and migraine alike. At times, as the character recalled the failed relationship that left her pregnant, the violin and electronica assumed an elegiac tone against a backdrop of blurred cityscapes; at others, a rapid, agitated squeaking accompanied flashing visual geometries. I distrust my abilities of non-verbal dramatic interpretation, but was surprised how easily “readable”, and how deeply, the piece proved to be.

Una Santa Oscura premièred earlier this year at the nearby Project Arts Centre, which during the festival presented Rough Magic’s new version of Phaedra, with text by Hilary Fannin and a powerful live music score presided over by Ellen Cranitch. Fannin relocated the tale of quasi-incestuous lust in an unspecific but contemporary Irish setting, as Catherine Walker’s Phaedra ran mad for love of her stepson Hippolytus, played by Allen Leech. Action shifted between the house and the beach, with the sea a constant presence. Characters’ inner thoughts and other commentaries were sung by a trio of stylised figures representing the gods. The disciplines meshed well together, but especially in the latter scenes the text sounded and felt increasingly like the work of Enda Walsh, with Stephen Brennan’s Theseus being an archetypal Walshian alpha-male bruiser.

A more audacious, and far more irreverent, take on a classic source was undertaken by the Pan Pan company with The Rehearsal: Playing The Dane. They did not so much update and/or deconstruct Hamlet as explode it. An introductory mini-lecture by Trinity College fellow Amanda Piesse was followed by a series of audition scenes which on the one hand gave us a whistle-stop, non-linear tour through some of the play’s greatest moments, and on the other involved genuine uncertainty as our votes determined which of three candidates would in fact play the role of Hamlet after the interval. Elements of Beckett’s Endgame surfaced repeatedly (and appropriately for a production staged in Trinity’s Samuel Beckett Theatre), and in a master-stroke a group of school students for whom the play is a set text were brought in for the play-within-the-play and also to paraphrase the gravedigger/funeral scene. The innovation and cheek were non-stop; they even dared to stage the proceedings beneath a backdrop featuring the towering canine features of, yes, a Great Dane.

I did not expect a more intense theatrical experience than this, still less in the traditional environment of the Gaiety Theatre from a Sean O’Casey play. O’Casey, and most of Druid Theatre’s recent productions, have usually aroused in me a considerable admiration, but seldom if ever that thrilling, electrifying sensation of being confronted both by a stage production and by the ideas it embodies. But O’Casey’s 1928 play The Silver Tassie is a coruscatingly angry piece, packed with bitterness and accusation about the horrors of the Great War and the injustice done to its victims – here’s the rub – by their families and friends at home. Here, the usual feckless O’Casey Dubliners were led by a double-act of the venerable Eamon Morrissey and John Olohan; the former played the father of Aaron Monaghan’s Harry Heegan, a heroic football player crippled at the front who returns to find his girl has deserted him, the other whose love he did not requite has also found solace elsewhere, and his family now regard his wheelchair-bound presence as at best an inconvenience. Garry Hynes audaciously staged the front-line second act as a kind of infernal version of Oh! What A Lovely War, but with all trace of loveliness, even the ironic, brutally extirpated. This war was unambiguously, terrifyingly, hell, as a colossal field gun pointed straight out at the audience, indicting us as well as the other characters. The Silver Tassie paid an all-too-short visit to England last month; it deserves to be far more widely seen.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2010

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage