Dublin Theatre Festival: Bewildering Synge, futuristic Ibsen

Three reviews from the opening weekend of the Dublin Theatre Festival

Annie Ryan in Nora. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Annie Ryan in Nora. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

Nora
Project Arts Centre Space Upstairs
★★★
Updating a classic is always a chancy endeavour, so kudos is due to novelist and playwright Belinda McKeon for having the chutzpah to move Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House even further forward in time. In McKeon’s reworking, written in collaboration with Annie Ryan (who also takes the eponymous lead role), the suffocating codes of male-dominated 19th-century bourgeois life are replaced by the more literal confinements of a luxurious underground home in a vaguely dystopian near future.

Nora, as played by Ryan, seems prosperous, confident and happy, running an art business with her husband Turlough (Declan Conlon) and raising her spirited daughter Emmy (Venetia Bowe). But the unexpected arrival of two old acquaintances - asylum-seeking artist Krista (Clare Perkins) and slippery art dealer Kroger (Peter Gaynor) - reveals unwelcome secrets from the past that threaten to upturn Nora’s comfortable existence, which rests on fragile personal, professional and legal foundations in this future world.

Directed by Eoghan Carrick for Ryan’s company Corn Exchange, the production has several neat twists on Ibsen’s plot, not least the introduction of the character of Emmy, who shares the actions and attributes that are solely Nora’s in the original text. But somehow the whole enterprise never quite clicks.

The narrowly intimate story of the family whose liberal smugness is a lie pulls against the wider scenario of a nightmarish post-Trumpian vision of exclusion, prejudice and devastation. Occasionally, the text subtly wields the stiletto required for the former theme, but lacks the savagery or anger to address the latter idea fully, instead coming across as a superfluous stab at broader significance. And whereas the stuffy mores repressing Ibsen’s heroine are easily grasped, it’s harder to gauge what’s at stake in Nora’s mild duplicities. (For one thing, shady deals seem less a hindrance in the art business than a requirement.)

There are more than enough qualities to compensate. The pace is nicely judged and the cast infuse their roles with the right amount authority and vulnerability, with Ryan and Perkins in particular shining. But when updating a classic, there’s no time like the present. - Mick Heaney
Ends on Oct 8

Class
The Civic Theatre, Tallaght
★★★★
Iseult Golden and David Horan have set themselves a challenge in devising these hugely entertaining, immaculately performed scenes from a school room. The roughly structured three-hander examines how class structures impose themselves on even those who mean well. It says something about the way society wears away at men and how those men wear away at themselves. It achieves all that while remaining fond of all its characters. It is a rare, successful narrative about nice (if infuriating) people.

Will O’Connell, pinched and inhibited, makes something layered of the least well-developed character. If you didn’t already know he was “The Teacher” his desert boots and tank-top would give the game away. Stephen Jones and Sarah Morris have more to work with as warring parents of a boy who - in the hilarious euphemism of modern pedagogy - looks to be suffering from a “learning difference”. Even the teacher can’t honour that linguistic deflection and keeps falling into “learning difficulty” before correcting himself. But, demonstrating some faith in the system, he urges the parents to send their boy to a child psychologist. Dad is uncertain. Mum is more open to the idea.

All this is intercut with sequences in which O’Connell supervises while Jones and Morris play the troubled boy and a misused female classmate. The teacher clearly cares, but circumstance and position lie between them all like an impenetrable grid.

Jones balances vulnerability and aggression as a man working to connect with his own imperfections. But Sarah Morris is the real revelation. Playing the mother, she is hilarious, vibrant and desperate to connect. Revisiting Blue Remembered Hills as the child, she achieves charming levels of mischievousness without indulging in any cutesy grandstanding.

Her performance is the highlight of a production that rubs the conspicuous double meaning of its arch title right down to the marrow. - Donald Clarke
Runs until October 13th (At The New Theatre from October 3rd)

Playboyz
The New Theatre, Temple Bar
★★★
Riots accompanied early performances of JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Few auditoria will be set alight in response to Martin Sharry’s unfocused, ambitious non-engagement with that much-thumbed text. Militant bewilderment seems more likely. Smelling strongly of the Theatre Studies common room, the piece is confidently acted and punctuated with engaging, discrete set pieces. But it flows no more smoothly than a frozen river.

The engaging Kwaku Fortune delivers words of introduction from the author - glosses on Playboy and notes on Martin’s Aran Islands upbringing - and then goes on to play Patrick, an African immigrant looking for work in the west of Ireland (his status as refugee or economic migrant almost passes as a plot point). Patrick ends up getting a job at a hotel. But somebody is on his tail.

Don’t let that synopsis fool you into thinking we are dealing with a thriller. Playboyz crawls through a series of interactions that too often exist only for their own sake. One particularly painful episode finds Conor Madden deliberately crooning From a Distance off-key while Fortune and Rebecca Guinnane (strong as the Polish girl who befriends Patrick) shuffle miserably in another corner of the stage. Just as the central story begins to find some order, we are jolted towards other places and other times: a conversation over a game of chess; a baffling episode involving obscene internet history; a moving poem from a previously unseen refugee.

The play says things worth hearing about race and immigration. Alas, few of those things are exactly new. Its interactions with Synge’s play are puzzling oblique. The actors are all strong - Amy Conroy is reliably alive in a brassy role - but they get little chance to properly engage.

Sharry has expressed an interest in “postdramatic” theatre. If nothing else, Playboyz certainly merits that description. - Donald Clarke
Runs until October 14th

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