Irish Times writers review a selection of this weeks event highlights.

Dancing at Lughnasa

Old Vic, London

Doing Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasain the round is difficult. The Old Vic’s new circular stage, at one end of the Victorian auditorium, is smallish. The 1930s Ballybeg kitchen is cluttered, but nevertheless the five sisters, and the Welsh fantasist who brings a whiff of freedom (and a child) into their limited lives, step-dance with élan. And, choreographed by Scarlett Mackmin, they even generate a touch of pagan joy as well.

But there is a problem with the stage geography. Faced with a circular space, director Anna Mackmin and designer Lez Brotherston have had to abandon the play’s left-right split between house and garden, so they have put the kitchen centre-stage and encircled it with a rather meagre garden. Also, there’s a lot of narration in this play and Peter McDonald, although vocally excellent, spends a lot of time trying to face everyone.

Nevertheless it’s impossible to go wrong with Friel’s marvellous portrayal of the five sisters and their priestly brother, Jack (Finbar Lynch), back from Africa and gone hopelessly native. Director and actors capture the intensity of the blood tie brilliantly. As Maggie, Niamh Cusack gives a wonderfully physical performance – boisterous, funny, the most grounded of the sisters. Kate is in charge of Family Respectability, and Michelle Fairley plays that side of her with authority while implying the humanity underneath. Simone Kirby is a Rose who is moving in her determination to have her moment, but is not quite “simple” enough, while Susan Lynch does well in the awkward role of Agnes, Rose’s minder. And Andrea Corr? As Christina, she is sweetly beguiled by Gerry, her feckless Welshman – it’s some achievement that she looks so completely at home in a stage debut as demanding as this. (Incidentally, Gerry, played by Jo Stone-Fewings, could be more vocally seductive and less Chaplinesque.)

In this slice of 1936 life, five human beings are striving to survive, economically and spiritually, in de Valera’s impoverished Ireland. Friel makes it clear that this family – and many more like them – are on the point of collapse. Two long passages of narration in Act Two reveal that very little happiness is coming to anyone, except perhaps Gerry, who makes a second family in Wales. Economic pressure and a repressive church will continue to stunt the sisters’ lives, forcing Rose and Agnes into tragic emigration.

At the end of the play, there’s a lot of telling rather than showing. The trouble is that the feisty vitality of the sisters has already been so vividly realised that it’s hard to take in the sad fates which await them.


La Locandiera

The Port House, Dublin

“The savage Irish beast moves towards domestication!” The comedy La Locandierawas written by Carlo Goldoni in Venice in 1753. A cheeky, frothy piece about playacting, which questions the role of women in Italian society, it brought to the stage the character of a seductive, feisty and independently minded innkeeper called Mirandolina.

Mirandolina is a woman who controls not just the purse-strings but the hearts and longings of her various bewigged and bewitched male guests, ultimately turning her attentions to the inn’s latest arrival, the misogynistic Ulster Gentleman, who would rather endure “the latent strains of malaria” than the attentions of a woman. Har, har.

Wonderland Productions, a young company under the directorship of Alice Coghlan, has shown spirit in its staging of classical theatre, recently bringing a Leoncavallo opera to lunchtime audiences and also producing a site-specific production of Molière’s The Miser. In truth, its latest offering is a somewhat dusty and predictable farce, but the company has once again set itself a challenge in terms of form. Innovatively, the piece is performed as a theatrical cabaret, with the upstairs bar of the Port House doubling as an 18th-century Italian inn, where the drama, played out around the restaurant tables, is accompanied by wine and tapas.

This is a warm, well-intentioned piece of theatre, and, in this intimate setting, the five musically accomplished actors give relaxed and polished performances. Connolly Heron, as the Ulster Gentleman, with his longing for fine linen and his capitulating misogyny, is terrific, as are Mal Whyte, Neill Fleming and Damien O’Donnell as aspiring suitors to Mirandolina (the seductively able Claire Jenkins).

La Locandieraprovides a convivial evening, and Wonderland is to be congratulated on pushing ahead with its singular vision. But despite the verve of the actors and the very palatable entertainment, the main ingredient, Goldoni’s play, lacks a little bite. Until Mar 29


Weakliam & Hogan Carberry

Freemasons’ Hall, Dublin

This pleasant evening of song was organised into three groups. The first was Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel, the second five songs from Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, and the last a selection of six by various composers, and presented as Songs of Love and Heartache. The two young singers, baritone Brendan Weakliam and mezzosoprano Ann Hogan, have a background in various kinds of musical theatre, and Weakliam also works as an actor. The 90-minute, continuous programme was shaped by that theatrical background and this produced some interesting shifts of emphasis compared to most recitals. At the core of those shifts was the idea of song as dramatic poetry intensified by music. All the songs were in English, the singers’ diction was impeccable, and they moved between the inwards-facing rows of the audience as they gently acted out the world of each song.

The groupings were well-chosen and the final one included an eclectic mix of Copland, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Richard Rodgers and Purcell. Brendan Weakliam and Ann Hogan are natural communicators, with voices that are always nice to listen to. Hogan was especially good at intensifying clear diction with flexible musical line, and apart from a slip of timing in Dido’s Lamentfrom Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, was reliable.

Pianist Trudi Carberry provided a seamless accompaniment, but at times pianist and singers should have given the music the space to do what only it can – for example, to create spaciousness in Vaughan Williams’s Silent Noon. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable occasion, and was refreshing for the way the songs were presented.


Peter Bjorn and John

The Button Factory, Dublin

Punctuation shunning trio Peter Bjorn and John’s track record for Irish gigs isn’t healthy. The last time the Swedes played Dublin, their drummer missed his flight, resulting in a stripped-down show that disappointed many fans. The time before that, they were elatedly riding the crest of an wave instigated by the success of their lip-pursing pop tune Young Folks; that gig was also an underwhelming affair.

Tonight, however, they’re hell-bent on making amends. The threesome cut a disparate dash as they bound on stage; positioning himself behind a synth for 1980s-referencing opening track Just the Past, singer Peter Moren’s sharp-suited attire and slicked-backed hair could pass him off as a member of Kraftwerk.

Leather jacket-clad and moustachioed bassist Bjorn Yttling looks like a dad with a cool record collection, while drummer John Eriksson exemplifies binman chic in his beanie hat. Thanks to an over-active smoke machine, there’s enough mist cloaking the venue to put a production of Wuthering Heightsto shame, but the sound and impressive light show blaze through with panache. They may be known mainly as an indie-pop act, but their set incorporates garage pop, Cure-style gloom rock and Human League-esque dalliances. Indeed, much of their new material forgoes guitar in favour of synth and bass. Living Thing, the title track of their forthcoming fifth album, suggests that Vampire Weekend may not be the only band taking their lead from Afro-pop, while the Kanye West-approved Nothing to Worry About, an incendiary telling of Objects of My Affectionand a cover of The Feelies’ song Fa Cé-Laare also highlights.

It’s a far cry from the days of audiences attending shows solely to hear Young Folks, but nevertheless, they save their best-known song for the penultimate track. Luring hilariously inebriated Swedish folk musician Nicolai Dunger from the crowd to participate in the duet, it makes for a good-humoured ending to a thoroughly enjoyable gig.