Reviews

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Irish Timeswriters review a selection of events.

Romeo and Juliet

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Peter Crawley

A play in which words are malleable things, forever twisted into playful puns, wooing expressions or hateful rhetoric, but where their essence is immutable - where a rose by any other word would smell as sweet - Romeo and Juliet has proven just as adaptable while the soul of its tragedy remains the same. Its tale of doomed love among hyper-articulate teenagers is as recognisable under the cover of West Side Story as within the pop cultural fizz of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.

Now comes the Abbey production - the first in its history, astonishingly - and one in which director Jason Byrne acknowledges how late the theatre has come to the party. With its stripped set of scaffolds, balconies, mouldered ceiling frescos and floorboards so jagged and warped it seems they have been trodden for centuries, Jon Bausor's design is one of striking decay.

That is not to say their production consigns the play to buckled history: this is the corroded playground for a more contemporary junk aesthetic, where characters belong to no specific time or context. Here the warring Montagues and Capulets are as likely to carry a samurai sword as a rapier, equally entitled to wear cockney wide boy attire as comic book clown outfits. It is an approach that is both exciting and perplexing: although the production strives hard for the rough and tumble of youth culture (with Amy Winehouse songs and leather costumes direct from The Matrix, at times a bit too hard), Shakespeare's language is delivered with utmost fidelity. In short, Aaron Monaghan's passionate Romeo and Gemma Reeves' comely Juliet are star-cross'd lovers in a style-cross'd production.

Byrne conjures up several impressive set pieces through their doomed, impulsive romance, such as an ominous storm brewing over the fateful duel between Michael McElhatton's Mercutio and Karl Shiels's Tybalt, which breaks into a downpour over its devastating consequence.

Such arresting moments diminish the jousts of language, though, which always seem more polite by comparison. McElhatton, a tremendous actor given a tremendous part, ought to have as much thrust in his verbal delivery as his sparking sword, yet, like Gemma Reeves' sweet, low-key Juliet, his poetry seems swallowed by the expanse of the design.

Likewise, the cast is universally strong, but rather than a sense of ensemble playing, it falls to individuals to distinguish themselves within peripheral roles. Frank McCusker delivers a well-judged, worldly Friar Lawrence, a more complex character than is often acknowledged, while Anita Reeves balances the sombre functions of the chorus with her comically fretful Nurse and almost walks away with the play armed with nothing showier than an ice-cream cone.

Both of those performances boast thought-through interpretations, in which a familiar play can still yield discrete surprises. The overall production, however, with its radical aesthetic and conventional delivery, delivers no such identifiably strong reading of the play itself. When Capulet and Montague have been presented to us as figures so similar in appearance as to be almost indistinguishable, their final reconciliation in mutual grief carries little effect. One is left with a production more invested in style than substance and, in the end, even consequence. Until March 22nd

The Glass Menagerie

Gate Theatre, Dublin

Sara Keating

"I don't want realism. I want magic," was the dictum by which Tennessee Williams wrote for the stage. These are sentiments echoed by the narrator Tom in The Glass Menagerie, as he makes his opening address to the audience.

The writer's role as "stage magician", Tom philosophises, is to give us "truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion". But the audience's role is to resist Tom's twisted self-regard, to sift the fact from the fiction, and the raw reality of the past from the nostalgic gloss of a life remembered. Because no matter what Tom says, the theatre really gives us illusion parcelled up as the truth.

The self-conscious frame of this memory play is a challenge to any potential director, and Robin Lefèvre's feverish production struggles with the heightened naturalism of Williams's play, where the filtered reality of the storytelling is constantly shifting. The multi-layered set by Eileen Diss evokes a stage of sorts for the action to be played out upon - complete with the gauze net to separate actors and audience that is specified in the original script.

However, there is more to The Glass Menagerie than its artifice - the writer has, indeed, "tricks in my pockets, things up my sleeve". Lefèvre's constant referral to the play's deceptions - its symbols spot-lit or embodied by stage hands; its music mirroring and manipulating emotions on stage - ultimately overshadows the poetic reality of the strange and beautiful play.

The self-conscious theatricality of Francesca Annis's performance as the overbearing Amanda Wingfield stretches the stage reality too. The dramatic gestures of her sing-song Southern drawl peaks in the play's opening scene, and settles on high-pitched histrionics that undercut any empathy for her character, who becomes more an object of derision than an embodiment of desperation.

Garrett Lombard's bitter Tom is left to rein in the tone in his direct addresses to the audience, but this proves more difficult as the play progresses towards its devastating end, and the production spirals towards melodrama.

However, it is in the quietude of Katie Kirby and Marty Rea's restrained and poised performances as the reclusive Laura and her gentleman caller that the production momentarily succeeds in capturing the ethereal beauty of Williams's finest play. Like Laura's glass menagerie, the balance of emotion in the play is a delicate, fragile, magical thing. "Be careful," Laura reminds us, "if you breathe it breaks."  Until April 5th

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