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Big Love

Peacock Theatre, Dublin

"There is no such thing as an original idea," writes American playwright Charles Mee in his introduction to Big Love, and indeed his play is a pastiche of ideas, forms and styles. The play takes its story (50 women flee 50 fiancés) from Aeschylus's 470BC tragedy The Suppliants. But the dramatic exposition blends Brechtian formal address and Broadway musical numbers with stand-up comedy, soap opera and more than a hint of Hollywood hokum.

The result is a riotous retelling of age-old gender-war debates, which finds a feel-good solution to cultural and social inscription that is far darker than first appearances. Director Selina Cartmell swaps her trademark visual style for a frothy physical approach, an approach that is deeply appropriate to exploring the genetic accident of genitalia that governs contemporary and historic gender roles. Militant feminism meets macho masochism, for example, in a violent, bloody dance expertly choreographed by Ella Clarke and Paul Burke. And this physical approach complements the more tender moments too: the delicately moving image of tender embrace juxtaposed against the bloodbath. However, the somatic emphasis is also problematic, as the liberated female body is inevitably fetishised in the extended underwear scenes.

Judith Roddy's aggressive approach to the neat and nasty Thyona creates stark contrast with Kelly Gough's spunky, punky Olympia and Ciara O'Callaghan's love-struck naïf, Lydia. However, there is no suggested resolution beyond blind humanism, and Roddy sits deflated in the final tableau; there will be no punishment for Thyona but no future husband either. The multi-talented supporting cast, meanwhile, commands a series of unforgettable cameos, from the ever-chameleon Barbara Brennan to the doltish Rory Nolan; from a camp and vampy Daniel Brocklebank to Aonghus Óg McAnally's pleasantly surprising romantic hero.

However, while overwhelmingly entertaining, the mish-mash pastiche of styles never quite gels, and Cartmell's production stops somewhat short of its potential, as the small Peacock space always threatens to swallow the spectacle. Yet it is actually the direct addresses to the audience that jar the most, as the audience is denied the neat and easy sweep of the love story, even right until the end. Yet this final avoidance of saccharine sweetness is precisely the point of Mee's clever play; beneath the playful pink frenzy of contemporary liberated gender politics lies a dark conditioning social system far beyond our control. Until Aug 2


Mangan, RTÉ NSO/ Markson

NCH, Dublin

On her debut appearance with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, mezzo-soprano Raphaela Mangan embraced the opportunity to exhibit a composure and vocal richness that belied her 24 years.

Mangan, who isn't above styling herself an alto on occasion, relished the dark Russian prosody of Olga's aria from Eugene Onegin(Tchaikovsky) and brought full-bodied ping to the dusky French of Delilah's aria, Mon cœur s'ouvre a ta voixfrom Samson and Delilah(Saint-Saëns). Delilah's more delicate touches, and those of Cherubino's arietta, Voi che sopete,from The Marriage of Figaro(Mozart), had less certainty of intention than the sultry and seamlessly elided semitones of Carmen's Habanera (Bizet).

It was hard to tell whether this was the result of, or the reason for, a certain interpretive reserve on the part of Gerhard Markson, the RTÉ NSO's principal conductor.

This manner nonetheless extended to the purely orchestral items: speed rather than sparkle was of the essence in Rossini's Barber of SevilleOverture, and two dances from Eugene Onegin came off with cool flamboyance.

Bizet's Carmen Suite No 1, however, cued music-making of a more involving kind. Delicious woodwind solos abounded in the Intermezzo, Séugedille and Dragons d'Alcala, while the Aragonaise seemed to offer more enticement than players or conductor could resist.