Reviews: The greatest stories ever, retold
From the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust to the imperishable folk tale Hansel and Gretel, many familiar stories are getting a dramatic makeover at this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival
Conor McPherson’s new play The Birdsuses Daphne du Maurier’s famous short story as inspiration for an original theatrical gothic thriller. Set in an ambiguously anonymous rural landscape, the play is post-apocalyptic in both the religious and the material sense. The birds might represent nature turning in upon itself, but, as the refugees in the decaying farmhouse where the play is set turn upon each other, McPherson wonders not just if the world is ending but if God is dead.
Despite its’ borrowed origins, The Birdscalls to mind McPherson’s earlier work – the gothic confessional of The Weir; the metaphysical anguish of Dublin Carol– but never has he been more in control of the heightened naturalistic atmosphere than here. The nature of the relationships between the refugees – the conflict between their collective fight for survival and their individual desires – are given to us only gradually, as the hovering birds descend with the high tide, twice daily, to attack the house. Indeed, no sooner have Sinéad Cusack’s haunted, heartbroken novelist Diane and Ciarán Hinds’ sensitive, practical Nat appear to have settled into domesticity than the arrival of Denise Gough’s vibrant, giddy Julia forces a new dynamic which shifts our expectations entirely.
As director, McPherson keeps us on the edge of our seat too, with piecemeal visual revelations. Even Rae Smith’s declining grand set is revealed to us inch by inch with the curtains’ slow withdrawal in the opening scene. Indeed, it is only with the gradual illumination which Paul Keogan’s lighting design lends, as the scenes progress from morning to noon to evening to night, that the true extent of the house’s damp dilapidation – the harbinger of this temporary family’s doom – is revealed. Fionnuala Ní Chiosáin original score and Simon Baker’s threatening wing-beating sound design contribute enormously to the building atmosphere.
If the structure of the play is essentially filmic (the voice-over device is effective, but definitely unusual in the theatrical setting), the single-set confinement of the theatrical space enhances the characters’ claustrophobia and the tension of the tight drama. Indeed, the production itself is so taut, so well-conceived within the playing space, that any further elaboration risks ruining it for the non-initiated viewer.
But let’s just say that there is always potential, even within this apparently open room, for surprises. Until November 22nd
The Crumb Trail
Project Arts Centre
It hardly seems like responsible parenting, but for generations, adults have chosen to tuck their children up safe, then scare them half to death. That is the nature of fairy tales, those magical stories of parental abandonment, poisonous temptations and remorseless cannibalism, which somehow touch on lifelong anxieties about danger and desire. It’s also how Pan Pan’s hypnotically subversive The Crumb Trailworks, a show that archly dismantles the story of Hansel and Gretel, magnifies each subtle nuance and all-but pixelates it with multimedia narratives.
The exposed stage for this partly clinical, largely frenetic investigation, designed by Aedín Cossgrove, is marked into a grid of stage positions, and it doesn’t seem accidental that most of it takes place “left of centre”. The walls are lined with laptops, video projectors, lighting and sound boards and the looming spectre of a gingerbread man. The actors – playing arm’s length versions of themselves and occasionally characters – are as much technicians as they are performers.
Such insistent self-awareness could be stifling, but here it becomes a nerveless aesthetic. Just as Gina Moxley’s text suggests a dry unravelling of the effect of folk tales and archetypes, director Gavin Quinn includes his own analysis, commentary and, at one head-spinning point, his own marketing campaign. “This is the kind of dream theatre that makes you rub your eyes and hope to never wake up,” reads Bush Moukarzel from actual critical notices, “If you see only one show this year . . .” It’s an ironic, self-deflating gesture, though, and far from spoon-feeding us the play, its significance and its reception, Quinn uses indirect methods to preserve its dark puzzle: how do myths inform our lives?
The story of Hansel and Gretelhas long been a viral phenomenon: everyone knows it. It seems apt, then, that while Arthur Riordan and Gina Moxley exude a sinister, sexualised, step-parental presence, and Moukarzel and Aoife Duffin double as the babes in the woods, the stage is periodically subsumed by projected YouTube favourites. As the cast imitate the Numa Numa song or the Star Wars Kid, and later stream themselves direct from the site, a sardonic logic crystallises into one disturbing point: this is the pervasive folklore of our age.
Grasping the promiscuous logic of the hypertext, the show fractures its action between stage and video, live Joy Division- indebted rock songs (by Gordon is a Mime) and disturbing calls conducted via Skype. But they do so with uncommon precision and admirable purpose. Even as theatrical niceties are hacked apart, new metaphors are here being minted. The Grimm source material may be mangled and embellished, inscribed with marginalia and multimedia, but The Crumb Trailstill honours the dark folds of its fairy tale. The woods may be digitised, but they still feel enchanted. Until Sun
Samuel Beckett Theatre
Words are impotent in trying to describe the horrors of Auschwitz, so Hotel Modern theatre company do away with them entirely in KAMP, their aesthetic meditation on the infamous death camp. Maybe dispensing with words tacitly endorses Theodor Adorno’s one-time assertion that to engage in poetic expression after Auschwitz would be “barbaric”?
Maybe not. Because KAMP, wordless and all, is a deeply poetic work. Albeit one whose aesthetic emerges out of terror, rather than the pastoral or lyrical.
Using a miniature, scale model of Auschwitz, three puppeteers stride as if on egg shells among its delicate structures. Thousands of tiny figurines represent the inmates and guards. We are afforded the cold, distant view of indifferent gods, looking down on the brutality of an ant-like humanity.
This distance is undercut, however, by the use of a micro, close-up camera manipulated by the puppeteers: the camera’s images projected onto a large backdrop offer a close-up view of the brutality in train. What looks from a distance like very little, turns out to be the mechanised murder of the gas chambers when viewed up close. It’s as if Hotel Modern is reminding us that familiarity with the Auschwitz story and historical distance need to be challenged, that we need reminding that the Holocaust is no laughing matter, that we need to be shown again the horror that Auschwitz entailed, the images renewed for us through finding a new means of expressing them.
And that means of expression is technically brilliant and perfectly achieved by this Dutch production. Key to the success of this atmospheric piece is the sound design, by Ruud van der Pluijm. Each action by the tiny puppets – be it sweeping a brush or beating an inmate with a truncheon – becomes monstrously large through the exaggerated accompanying sound effect: the discord between the tiny action and loud sound having the effect of intensifying the experience for the audience.
The genius of KAMPis that it employs the childish arts of puppetry and miniature to tell the most horrific story. By couching the piece in the innocence of a childhood aesthetic, the true awfulness of what happened is renewed for us through ironic counterpoint: on the one hand there are these little puppets, on the other, look at what they are re-enacting. What is achieved is a powerful, upsetting hour of object theatre, where clay modelling and performance are brought together in a unique and unforgettable way. This is a magnificent show. Try and see it. Until Sun
Project Arts Centre
Ballads and folk tunes have long contorted real lives into glib song structures, but music is not a natural documentary medium. Based on verbatim interviews with “older” Irish gay men, this song cycle by Seán Millar becomes all the more moving then for its very incongruity. His transcribed lyrics often resist the organisation of songcraft – sometimes they barely scan – a few compositions follow suit with pernickety rhythms, while everything is rendered by a largely non-professional cast performing with disarming vulnerability.
It shouldn’t work at all, and yet it is extraordinary – granted an emotional wallop by the great consideration and minimal sentimentality of Broken Talkers. Fringed with musicians, Ciarán O’Melia’s pleasing set is a malleable space of wooden boxes and twinkling starry backdrops where 10 men arrive in the uncoordinated attire of an after-work social group. Tightly obeying directions, pinning their arms to their sides, nobody looks especially pleased to be here. Once they begin to divide words between them, though, stories emerge as though springing from a single consciousness, each song follows in a stirring chorus.
“I love you more than God,” goes one refrain, taken from the words of a pious Irish mother who defied her religion to accept her gay son. Sung in a flat-line melody by the cast, its effect is simply devastating. The strength of Silver Starsthroughout, in fact, is in letting the stories speak for themselves, their effect made more striking without embellishment.
Each song or recorded interview contains distinct sexual-political touchstones: recorded anecdotes that trip merrily through the clandestine gay underworld of religious orders in the late 1970s, or the testimony of a gay man who marched against a tide of animosity in a New York St Patrick’s Day parade in the early 1990s. But the songs operate most keenly on a personal level, enhanced with the regal sweep of a cello trio, guided by insistent percussion and Millar’s own delicate guitar or keyboard.
Co-directors Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan have often deployed technology and witty contrivances with a playful flippancy, yet here they respect the gut-punch sincerity of the material. When Neil Watkins, an experienced actor, sings of bereavement in the style of a self-conscious torch song, the reassertion of performance is almost jarring, yet the effect is lip-trembling.
Over the course of eight songs, Cannon and Keegan seem aware to the threat of reiteration, finally bowing to their most outrageous device when Watkins lip-syncs to the extraordinary words of a one-time prisoner of war, turned Jesuit priest, turned well-adjusted gay man, while wearing a pair of glasses with false eyes stencilled upon the lenses. It’s a risky move – a less accomplished performer might treat it as a gag – yet it short-circuits our defences, spinning us towards deeper engagement. If, finally, Silver Starsis trying to break your heart with its true stories, the music remains endlessly consoling; an understated exhortation to mutual understanding, solidarity and, above all, a reassuring harmony. Until Sun
A surge in enrolment in Russian language classes is probably a secondary aim of Cheek By Jowl theatre company, but it’s hard to experience their all-Russian production of Chekhov without being captivated by the cadences of this impressive ensemble. Cheek by Jowl’s directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod are almost honorary Russians by now, and this is a co-production with the Chekhov International Theatre Festival in Moscow. We can see why: it is a Three Sistersfor connoisseurs.
Simplicity and clarity of staging allow the complexity to emerge gradually. Rather than overlaying anything extraneous in the form of reinterpretation, the layers already present in the text are excavated. It helps to know the play in advance: to know that three sisters in a provincial town at the turn of the 20th century yearn for wider horizons. For them, this is synonymous with a return to Moscow, and an opportunity to use their “superfluous knowledge”.
The play’s focus is not on what happens, although there are “events”, certainly: a fire, a duel, a love affair. The emphasis is on what the characters say about themselves and how that changes over the years, as disappointments mount and threaten to crush them. Increasingly, their faith is placed in a distant future, in which the audience is implicated, through their direct address to us.
The freshness here comes from precision, as Donnellan and Ormerod pay attention to every detail of performance and characterisation, picking out the isolation of each character within the close-knit group. The soldier Solyony’s attempt to seduce the youngest sister Irina is portrayed as a violent sexual assault, the shock of which propels her towards a pragmatic marriage with the Baron. Here Olga, the eldest sister and reluctant headmistress, often portrayed as a ramrod, is as sensitive as her siblings. Drawn towards Vershinin, her sister Masha’s lover, she makes him practise his farewell speech to Masha with a steeliness that borders on satisfaction.
Masha’s brilliant smile and desperate laughter suggest she knows all along that her love for Vershinin will never flower; that he will depart with his regiment, leaving her with her husband Kulygin. Blotting out the evidence of her affair, Kulygin buries his head in a pillow on her lap, seeking comfort from her like a little boy, the child they never had. One of many delicate moments, it matches in expressive imagery the question Olga asks the audience at the end: why is there so much suffering? Until Sun
IN THE WINGS:
Some of the Theatre Festival related public events over the next few days include
NT Live broadcasts a live performance of Marianne Elliott’s universally acclaimed revival of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, starring Oliver Ford Davies and Clare Higgins (Thurs, 7pm, IFI).
Catch some theatre being made by some of Ireland’s leading theatre companies while it’s still In Development(free but booking essential)
– Rough Magic’s Phédre, a new musical interpretation by Ellen Cranitch and Hilary Fannin, (Project, today, 1pm)
– Pan Pan’s The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane (DanceHouse, tomorrow, 1pm). – Siren Productions and Crash Ensemble’s GAS, an opera in progress by Donnacha Dennehy, (Ark, Sat, 5pm).
– CoisCéim Dance Theatre’s Faun, David Bolger’s new work (DanceHouse, Sun, 11.30am)
– The Abbey Theatres Shibboleth, work in progress by Stacey Gregg, (Peacock, Oct 10, 11am)
To Be Really Straight with You, a panel discussion about issues raised by DV8s provocative production, (OReilly Theatre, Sat, 4.30pm)
The National Association for Youth Drama’s Young Critics Paneldiscusses festival shows (Project, Sun, 12pm|)
Note: One of the childrens shows in the festival, Goodbye Mr Muffin, has been cancelled as the ship carrying the set and props from its performances in Japan, was delayed in transit (the festival and the Ark apologise, full refunds offered).
Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival continues until Oct 11. dublintheatrefestival.com 01-6778899.