Despair at 'Dorian', feast on 'Famine'
Before we dispense with the Irish dramatic tradition, we might ask, what can take its place? For me at least, Dublin Theatre Festival’s tentative answers, The Boys of Foley Street apart, are unconvincing. Too often, what we’re offered are not plays about a country; they’re plays about books, plays about plays, plays about the theatre.
IT IS, FORa start, simply strange that the big festival showpiece from the national theatre of an imploding nation is yet another version of a novel first published in 1890. Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is, so far as I know, the sixth Irish theatrical staging of the novel. (The previous five were put on between 1956, when Micheál MacLiammóir did it at the Gate, and 2010, when Alice Coghlan did a slimmed-down staging at Bewley’s.)
Wilde’s text is itself hardly unknown; it was the One City/One Book choice for Dublin just two years ago.
The urgency of revisiting it right now is far from obvious. One can imagine that, in 1956, the book’s gay subtext would have given it a real edge for MacLiammóir. Now there’s no subtext. The Abbey’s version is indeed very deftly and lavishly done. Bartlett’s own direction plays up the gothic, even Grand Guignol elements of Wilde’s fable, glorying, with its footlights and red curtain, in the luridly melodramatic nature of the action. There’s much to admire in the stagecraft and spectacle, even when the one-dimensional nature of the protagonist – What comes after decadence? How about a spot of depravity? – takes on an air of tedium that Tom Canton in the title role cannot quite dissipate.
But if there’s no obvious answer to the “Why now?” question, it’s also hard to say why it’s all happening here. The adapter and director; the set, costume and lighting designers; and two lead actors, Canton and, as Lord Henry, Jasper Britton, are all English. Apart from Gerard Byrne’s intriguingly sinister butler/MC, which becomes easily the most interesting thing on stage, there’s not much that would be very different if we were in Bristol or Bath.
THE SENSE OFa theatre that is at two removes from life – the proper remove of art and the dangerous remove of theatre that explores other people’s art – is not confined to the Abbey nor, indeed, to Ireland. The festival exemplifies, for instance, a strong international trend in Shakespeare production: you don’t do King Lear or Hamlet, you stage a mediation on the meaning of King Lear or Hamlet. The things the plays deal with – language, power and violence – are secondary. The plays, rather, are to be taken, quite literally, as read. You couldn’t begin to follow either the Wooster Group’s Hamlet or Pan Pan’s Everyone Is King Lear in His Own Home unless you already know the plays. We are in the realms of metatheatre: theatre about theatre. It’s all in the concept.
With Elizabeth LeCompte’s version of Hamlet, the concept is complex and initially intriguing. The stage is dominated by a large screen. On it plays an edited, distorted and muted film of John Gielgud’s 1964 Broadway production of the play, which was captured live and then screened in cinemas across the US. The idea, as Scott Shepherd’s matter-of-fact Hamlet explains to us, is to reverse the process, turning the film back into live performance. So the company plays out the action in front of the screen, mimicking the movements, gestures and intonations of the original actors.