Reviews of The Seagull, The Swell Season,  Women of Ireland

The Seagull

The Peacock, Dublin

The sorrowful, self-absorbed, romantically tortured figures in Chekhov’s The Seagullare old before their time. No one puts it more succinctly than Masha, the young woman dressed entirely in black, because she is “in mourning for my life”. (Indeed, she spends most of the play waking it.) This is the new National Youth Theatre production, and if such exquisite morbidity is not something you immediately associate with youth, it is probably a long time since you were young. Working with a large cast – most of whom are just below the legal drinking age, none of whom act any older than they are – and using a trimmed down adaptation from Martin Crimp, director Wayne Jordan sacrifices some social context and much nuance, but finds intriguing moments of dissonance and resonance between pre-revolutionary leisured Russians and adolescents.

Both groups are generally considered to be sheltered from harsh political realities, but live at the mercy of much harsher emotions, while putting old heads on young shoulders allows for the energetic depiction of an enervated people. On Diego Pitarch’s beautifully dilapidated set, which treats the play like an abandoned building waiting to be discovered, the ensemble gradually raise a chorus of David Bowie’s Heroes. It’s a thrilling opening, but, like much of Jordan’s production, it’s hard to tell whether the aesthetic is rooted in the play or at odds with it. Take the seagull. The failing writer Trepliev (Sam Ford) kills one at the lakeside estate of his famous actress mother (Zarima McDermott), and lays it at the feet of his unrequited love, the flighty actress Nina (Kimberley Tanoh). His rival in love and letters, Trigorin (Shaun Dunne), offers an interpretation: Nina is like the seagull. “then one day a man turns up, sees her, and mindlessly destroys her.” Lest anyone miss the point, a ruined Nina later returns to Trepliev with the words, “I’m the seagull.” It’s a metaphor, you see.

There are a few ways to deal with such leaden underscoring, but Jordan is probably the first director to feature a performer in yellow tights and a huge fuzzy seagull suit who lounges silently through the play like Big Bird’s lost-lost cousin. Sinéad Bolger’s performance makes it absurdly amusing, and like Trepliev’s lovingly depicted bad theatrics, or the use of Britney Spears’ song Everytime, the production makes every madcap element strangely beautiful, preserving an unblinking balance between irony and sincerity.

On a technical level such experimentation is stunningly accomplished, nowhere more so than in a superbly choreographed sequence where the ensemble spin the set around a sparring Dunne and McDermott, their room materialising and fracturing around them. When those whirls of activity subside, however, for a serious treatment of quiet tragedy, the production loses effect.

Tellingly, the play’s original muted denouement, pumped up hysterically by Crimp, is further amplified here with another surge of music. Some will doubtlessly consider that treatment anarchic, but they have an influential defender.

“I do awful things to the laws of the stage,” a mischievous Chekhov said of his play. The old man would approve. Until Aug 29 PETER CRAWLEY

The Swell Season 

NCH, Dublin

When you’ve played to a worldwide audience of millions on Oscar night, a few hundred in your hometown is a piece of cake – even if the venue is slightly posher than you’re used to.

Tonight’s show is more of a composite of songs, spoken word performance and musical workshop than a gig, per se; the overly verbose Hansard recites poetry by Irish bard James Stephens, cajoles the rapt crowd into providing backing vocals, and leads his fellow musicians (ie The Frames) into one placid ballad after another.

His domineering stage presence means that pianist and vocalist Marketa Irglová is often pushed into the background, although you get the impression that she prefers it that way. Half-turned away from the audience, she shyly embellishes Hansard’s wiry vocals with beautiful harmonies (particularly on the delicate The Moon) and even takes centre stage for new songs I Have Loved You Wrongand Fantasy Man– although her frail voice does sound slightly overwhelmed at times. A smattering of tracks from their 2006 debut and their forthcoming second album Strict Joyare given run-throughs, and a surprisingly emotive cover of REM’s Hairshirtprovides an unexpected highlight. Predictably, however, it’s soppy Oscar-winning tune Falling Slowlythat rouses the loudest applause.

Perhaps it says it all that violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire comes exceptionally close to stealing the show with his all-too-brief turn in the spotlight, demonstrating his flair with a beautiful track from his own solo album. The hearts of established fans will have further swollen after this performance, but the more sceptical may well be left scratching their heads. LAUREN MURPHY

Women of Ireland

INEC Killarney

If this is a salute to the women of Ireland then this writer must be living on planet Zog. This celebration of ‘the divine feminine’ pivots on a set list that swings from tributes to Nelson Mandela (Labi Siffre’s Something Inside So Strong) to a tune by the name of Desert Stormand a dance routine that could double as a jaunty rehabilitation programme involving sweeping brushes.

Granted, there’s also a juggernaut called Grace O’Malley,an infusion of perky tune sets and two grandiose cover versions of songs by The Corrs lurking in the mix too, but to peddle it as anything other than bald paddywhackery would be akin to suggesting that Obama’s Offaly roots are central to the formation of his personality.

Against a backdrop of twin Newgrange roof boxes (reminiscent of Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge), the show’s three female singers did their utmost to build a scaffold on the flimsiest of foundations. Michelle Lally, Denise Brennan and Ingrid Madsen’s spectacular wardrobe utterly upstaged their set list. Although vocally competent, their diligent over-emoting on everything from a leaden Mná na hÉireannto The Corrs’ So Youngmight have left punters reaching for their insulin when the lights came up.

Fiddler Zoë Conway was a lone beacon, her fiddle carving a clear route through the morass of the arrangements. Frankie Gavin and his recalibrated De Dannan played a surprisingly small part in the proceedings, with much of the orchestration left to a five-piece band. Gavin’s mien is like that of a champion body builder: he equates technical prowess with a sign of rude good health when all he’s really doing is engaging in cold musical muscle flexing.

The nadir of this confused landscape rested in Women of Ireland’s dance routines. A gimcrack mix of sean nós, Irish and modern dance, it was a monochrome version of the Technicolor wrought originally by Michael Flatley and Jean Butler.

Laden with facsimile routines and second-rate postures, it buckled in the absence of Flatley’s blatant chutzpah. Worst of all was the male dancers’ lack of physical tone. Merce Cunningham or Bob Fosse would have baulked at the prospect of permitting anyone with their lack of physical preparedness to grace a dance routine. Should Irish dance accept such low standards?

An indigestible confection which did poor justice to the individual musicians involved. Until Sept 3rd, then tours in the US SIOBHÁN LONG