Culture Shock: Dublin Theatre Festival: Ambitious, extravagant and a little reckless theatre

There’s something magnificently defiant about the scale of the productions of ‘The Critic’ and ‘The Threepenny Opera’

The Critic: Lynne Parker’s richly enjoyable production, with Darragh Kelly and Eleanor Methven, rightly treats Sheridan’s play as a hall of mirrors in which reality and performance reflect and distort each other

The Critic: Lynne Parker’s richly enjoyable production, with Darragh Kelly and Eleanor Methven, rightly treats Sheridan’s play as a hall of mirrors in which reality and performance reflect and distort each other

Thu, Oct 10, 2013, 19:30

As the economy has shrunk, theatre has tended to shrink with it. The one-actor show or the two- or three-hander play is pretty much the staple diet of all but the best-funded theatres. One of the pleasures of Dublin Theatre Festival, therefore, is simply that of scale. It is the theatre’s Easter after Lent, the time when self-denying diets are replaced, for a few weeks, by more sumptuous fare.

There is, of course, as men are always reassured, no simple correlation between size and quality. Olwen Fouéré’s riverrun is a one-actor show that seems vast in both scale and achievement. Eamon Morrissey’s one-man Maeve’s House, at the Peacock, is charming and poignant, with enough variety of pace and movement in Gerard Stembridge’s direction to keep it lively and enough subtlety of mood in Morrissey’s playing to give it depth.

He is, as he has shown time and again in his excellent solo shows on Flann O’Brien, James Joyce and Jonathan Swift, a masterful storyteller with the timing of an atomic clock. Maeve’s House, drawing on the quieter work of Maeve Brennan, is much more understated, but Morrissey gives it a lovely personal edge by making well-judged use of the coincidence that he grew up in the house where Brennan’s best stories are set.

There is, nevertheless, something especially cheering in these mean times about the mere sight of a stage heaving with bodies. On a rough count, the two biggest (in the literal sense) Irish productions in the festival, Rough Magic’s The Critic and the Gate’s The Threepenny Opera, have 63 performers between them. At times, the stages of the Ark and the Gate seem to be marking the centenary of the 1913 Lockout by re-creating the teeming conditions of the Dublin tenements. There’s something magnificently defiant about all of this. If nothing else, it is a reminder that theatre can be ambitious, extravagant and a little reckless now and then.

The Critic is the least-often produced of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s original plays, but it is, in an odd way, very much of a piece with his two masterpieces, The Rivals and The School for Scandal. What unites them is that they are all astonishingly postmodern. They all play on the media, on theatricality, on the unreliability of language. The Critic is a caustic satire on both newspapers and the theatre.

It takes us inside the sausage factories. We see, in the first act, the manufacture of facile critical opinions and of society gossip by Mr Puff. We see, in the second, the rehearsal of Puff’s own idiotically patriotic play and, in the third, the play itself.

That this resonates with the 21st century is obvious from Taramandal, which comes to the festival from the Tadpole Repertory of New Delhi. Presented with an elegant economy, it is striking in part for how unexotic it is. The interwoven tales of people dreaming of being movie stars and theatre performers could be set in California or Ireland as easily as they are in India. The stories are utterly unremarkable; they might seem inconsequential were they not performed with such wit and clarity and held together by Satyajit Ray’s sweetly poignant tale of the middle-aged Patol Babu’s brief encounter with movie stardom. The idea of a reality saturated in fictive fantasy is relatively new in Sheridan’s 18th century, but it is now globally universal.

Lynne Parker’s richly enjoyable and inventive production rightly treats The Critic as a hall of mirrors in which reality and performance reflect and distort each other. She makes terrific use of space, dividing the action between the Culture Box and the Ark, so that the audience has to plot its way through the real streets between them. If anything, she underestimates her success in finding a perfect physical expression of the play’s concerns.

The warm immediacy of the first act, in which Darragh Kelly, Eleanor Methven and Rory Nolan extract all the absurdity from Mr Dangle’s obsessions with theatre, is very sharply counterpointed by the massed ranks of theatre students rehearsing Puff’s awful play in the next two acts.

Clever use of video, very witty costuming and a brilliant concluding coup de theatre do more than enough to bring the play to vivid life. The only problem is a kind of anxiety that leads Parker to throw too much at it. The large contingent of women from different eras adds less than meets the eye, and the idea of having Peter Daly, who works well as the director of Puff’s play, interpret the action of the first act for us comes across as merely patronising.

Less might have been more, but this is still a delightfully intelligent and restlessly ingenious production.

One of those delights is Karl Shiels’s louche, leery and dangerously sinister Mr Puff. I couldn’t help thinking that, if he can sing, he would make a great Macheath in The Threepenny Opera. David Ganly, who actually does play the underworld king in Wayne Jordan’s impressive production of the Brecht-Weill opera, sings very well indeed. He is a fine performer and holds the stage with confidence. But he is about as scary as Boris Johnson, whom he has been made, very oddly, to resemble. This is emblematic of the production as whole: very well sung, energetically staged but not nearly nasty enough.

The Threepenny Opera has a savagery about it. Its basic message is that, in a capitalist world, we are all cannibals and all our values, from chastity to friendship, from loyalty to truthfulness, are shams. It should feel like a cold, sharp knife in the ribs. This production, admirable in many ways, doesn’t feel like that.

Its luxuriant, largely monochrome costuming has no sense of filth. Its choreography is controlled where it should be edgy. The liberal addition of “fucks” to the dialogue substitutes mere coarseness for genuine squalor. (The promised but elusive Mark O’Rowe adaptation of the book is a conspicuous and regrettable absence.) Figures such as Stephen Brennan’s chief of police carry none of the menace of power.

But there are some superb moments from Ganly, David Shannon, Jackie Marks, Hilda Fay and, especially, Ruth McGill. Musically, the show is a triumph: the bitter, cynical tone of the songs and the harsh jangle of mock-opera and dissonant jazz strike exactly the right note for Dublin now.

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