The Select (The Sun Also Rises)
O’Reilly Theatre, Belvedere College ****
THE SUN Also Rises is among Ernest Hemingway’s finest novels, a thinly veiled account of time spent by him in Paris and Spain after the first World War. At its heart is everyman Jake Barnes (played here by Mike Iveson), a writer who drifts with an aristo crowd of debauchees, wheeling and reeling their way through the rowdier bars of Paris, San Sebastian, or wherever else seems red hot and heavy, and within a first-class train journey.
Chief among this group is Lady Brett Ashley (a cut-glass Lucy Taylor), who seduces any man within toasting distance, the presence of her fiance Mike Campbell (a boorish Pete Simpson) barely disrupting her flow when he eventually stumbles blearily into town. She, in turn, is being pursued by Barnes’s college friend Robert Cohn (Matt Tierney), and the group’s unfortunate whipping boy, while Barnes’s friend Bill Gorton (Ben Williams) adds a wild, alpha-male element to this libertine posse. Barnes is carried along by the flow, just about keeping a cool head above its heady waters, while never free of its current, or his tightly wound love for Brett.
Feelings are to be kept on ice, while the jazz age is in full swing. “This wine is too good for toast-drinking,” says a drunk Count Mippipopolous (Julian Fleisher). “You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that.” Later, Barnes wryly observes: “Nobody ever lives life all the way up – except bullfighters.” But this group are willing to give it their best shot.
When it comes to the wild things of the 1920s, theatre company Elevator Repair Service (ERS) has previous. Gatz, its epic re-enactment of all 49,000 words of The Great Gatsby, has become something of a theatrical phenomenon, and was performed at this festival in 2008. Here, the production focuses on Hemingway’s muscular dialogue, with an unflappable, sardonic Barnes narrating the remainder, pulling down the fourth wall just enough to let the audience join the party. The straightforward set flexes with versatility, switching from the carousing bars of Montmartre to the raucous cantinas of northern Spain, and from the close clamminess of a hungover hotel room to the roar of a Pamplona bull ring.
Hemingway’s magnificent set pieces are also done full-blooded justice. The whirling dervish of the week-long fiesta of San Fermín is brought to thrilling life. The tension of the bull fight is ratcheted up by the still ferocity of bull fighter Pedro Romero, played with grim determinism by Susie Sokol, who turns the stage into an arena where at any moment you expect blood to spatter the boards, if not the first few rows.
At three-hours-plus, this is an expansive production, and it takes a while to build up a head of steam, but by the second act’s moveable feast, the excellent cast is in full flow, the libertine group is starting to splinter under the strain of their sound and fury, and The Select is starting to hum with the energy of Hemingway’s prose. The quiet devastation of the last scene is a final knockout punch in an unquenchable production.
Hemingway would have approved.