A game of make-believe

Sat, Oct 2, 2010, 01:00

As Dublin Theatre Festival begins, our team of critics kicks off our extensive coverage with their verdicts on the opening night’s shows

B FOR BABY

The Peacock ***

The four characters in Carmel Winters’s curious new play are each obsessed by the urge to create. For the childlike B (Louis Lovett) and his ornery companion Dee (Michele Moran) – both of them residents in a mental-health caring facility – creation is a game of make-believe; B lost in imaginary hairdressing while Dee pokes at his innocence with equally childish coarseness.

For their carer, Mrs C, creation is a baby she can’t have with her prickly husband Brian (Michele Moran and Louis Lovett again, with minimal costume change), and the pretence that everything is all right. Soon, though, that adult desire becomes a corrupting force in a tale of innocence and experience.

Both Winters and director Mikel Murfi nudge continuously at the stability of their onstage world, to the point that it becomes difficult to invest in it: intellectual disability here rarely seems more than a playwright’s device.

Sabine Dargent’s pleasing set, a sky-blue strip dotted with cumulus fluff, suggests that every head here is in the clouds, and furniture hangs at its peripheries like items on a baby’s mobile. Everything becomes slightly distended, as though halfway between a grown-up world and a playpen. “Or maybe I’m imagining it,” says Mrs C in reaction to a phantom twinge, just as the play’s jolting comedy and slippery role play blur the lines between fantasy and reality.

The play intends to be more troubling than a reverie, yet it lacks the firm foothold to climb towards its darker implications. Moran is amusingly animated as Dee, but her woolly hat and bottle-end glasses strand her in caricature, while the morally amorphous Mrs C feels less defined. Lovett – who can seem ill-at-ease playing straightforward adults – excels as the mother-besotted, sexually immature B, spilling his words in touching syncopation, letting every thought flicker across his face, as though each emotion was a new discovery.

The tragedy of the play is the loss of his innocence and the abuse of his trust: “Don’t let it change you,” he is told, but we know the serpent has entered Eden. (That the production does, in fact, feature a cameo appearance from a real snake is one uncharacteristic and unimportant lapse into literalism.)

Signalling the consequences of a serious transgression only mistily, the production leaves us with a lingering unease rather than the definite smack of shock. It’s as though characters this gentle must be spared from lasting damage, or the discomfort Winters wishes to arouse is a vague distress, a tremor felt in a dream. Or maybe we imagined it.

Runs until Wednesday

– Peter Crawley

Circa

Gaiety *****

Dublin loves drama, and festival audiences do like a bit of rough. And the Circa ensemble certainly delivers much rough and tumble in its presentation for Dublin Theatre Festival. Known to Irish audiences through previous appearances at Galway Arts Festival, they in no way disappointed their Dublin audience, which gasped, sighed and groaned at the extreme physicality presented to them.

In a show as muscular as its performers, the acrobats adeptly built on each wow- factoring display, first smacking themselves off the floor, then climbing up and over each other, the audience biting their nails wondering if that acrobat standing on another will break her leg, break her back or snap her neck (while balancing on her head). While one stands on the shoulders of another, they fall over in a perfect line, only to spin out in synchronised somersaults, like two waves rolling over each other. One female acrobat somehow slips in and out of a metal ring that seems the size of your granny’s embroidery hoop, another keeps so many hoops spinning around her, she starts to look like Saturn.

The incredible physical training behind all this is most apparent in the comparison between the large and small acts. Muscles ripple as acrobats tie themselves in knots on a rope suspended from the ceiling, yet arms ripple like smoke in the wind, reminiscent of the ballerinas’ wings in Swan Lake.

A male acrobat who can balance on only three fingers from each hand also made his hands undulate like a sea creature. One hesitates to start a festival off giving a five-star review, but this was truly outstanding.

Ends tomorrow

– Christine Madden

BOSTON MARRIAGE

Gate Theatre ***

Rich, abundant language flows as an amusing linguistic parlour game between the two main characters of American playwright David Mamet’s Boston Marriage. Plot seems almost incidental in this dialogue-driven, Victorian-set comedy of manners, which receives a solid enough production from director Aoife Spillane-Hinks at the Gate.

Inspired by Henry James’s The Bostonians, Mamet makes overt the lesbian relationship of his two main characters, Anna and Claire. However, their love is complicated by Anna having become the mistress of a wealthy male benefactor and Claire having fallen in love with an innocent young woman, whom she wishes to seduce with Anna’s aid. Both women, as is typical of Mamet, are cynically manoeuvring to their own advantage, with each seeking a selfish motive out of every exchange.

The problem with Boston Marriageis that it is essentially minor Mamet: the thin plot doesn’t stand up to the two hours of performance, and the linguistic gymnastics are so overblown that they become tiresome at times.

Also, Anna and Claire are grappling with an issue that no longer has much dramatic purchase: the place of women and homosexual love in society. We just don’t connect with any universal theme we care about through these two unpleasant characters.

What saves the play are the best efforts of director and cast, with Justine Mitchell (Claire), Fiona Bell (Anna) and Anna Sheils McNamee (as the Maid) displaying great ability in breathing life into Mamet’s creations, which they skilfully mine for their inherent comedy.

The pleasure of language may be evident in Boston Marriage,but it is merely an indulgence if it doesn’t communicate something beyond its own amusement with linguistic somersaults. Thankfully, at its best, those somersaults prove amusing enough on their own terms in this workmanlike production.

Ends tomorrow

– Ian Kilroy

565+

Project Cube ***

Theatre is therapy in 565+, a documentary performance piece, conceived and directed by Una McKevitt, about how primary- school teacher Marie O’Rourke’s lifelong depression was cured when she started going to the theatre, seven years ago.

Ciaran Melia’s striking yellow floor and vivid lighting act as stimulus for O’Rourke’s warm performance, as does the intervention of stage manager Duncan Molloy, whose prompts and cues provide structure to a script that formlessly circles themes of domestic abuse, alcoholism and depression.

This is anecdotal rather than analytical; we learn less about why theatre saved O’Rourke’s life than about the life itself: a life of childhood regrets and teenage mistakes and family dysfunction. Relentlessly self-critical, she guides us through the many treatments she has undergone in an attempt to stop the gnawing emptiness in her life, from group therapy to meditation, from a course of antidepressants to cruising on the open seas. Finally, it is in the theatre that she manages to lose herself in other people’s stories. It is in the theatre that she finds herself filled up.

The troubling irony at the heart of 565+ is its contradictory, self-revelatory nature: O’Rourke goes to the theatre to lose herself and finds herself instead. She hates to talk about herself, and yet, hers is the only voice in the show. However, the allusive

nature of the script and McKevitt’s refusal to intervene in the confessional first-person narrative denies the audience a similar catharsis.

Documentary theatre always treads a thin line between its true-to-life origins and its transformation into art, and 565+ never quite manages to find the magic that will bring us through that process too.

Ends tomorrow

– Sara Keating

THE SMILE OFF YOUR FACE

Smock Alley ****

Asking audience members, one at a time, to sit in a wheelchair, don a blindfold and have their wrists lightly bound together (“No freaky stuff is going to happen,” comes the smiling reassurance of perhaps the gentlest man in Belgium), the first of Ontroerend Goed’s intimate trilogy is essentially a game of trust. If you submit you are rewarded with an exquisite experience; a feast for the senses that begins with the soft thrill of motion, ends with a grand revelation, and does, of course, involve some brilliantly freaky stuff.

To elaborate risks ruining the surprise, but, whether it is a cascade of feathers on your fingertips or the lick of a flame at your chin, the architects of this experience know when to seduce and when to unsettle.

Music envelopes you like hovering clouds of mood, your senses become so heightened that a sliver of chocolate or a segment of orange feel like explosions in the mouth, and you are led into intimate exchanges (and intimate positions) with people you cannot see. “Do you think this is intimate?” asks a woman lying beside me in a coquettish whisper.

That is the hardest question to answer. A performance that takes place largely in the imagination, it turns your mind into a playground. But it rises beyond a tour through discrete sensory experiences with its final full disclosure, one that makes its artifice apparent without dispelling its magic. Deftly, it makes you realise that you are not the star of the show, but one glint in a magnificent constellation.

Ends tomorrow

– Peter Crawley