A pump-action blockbuster only the stage could allow
CORK MIDSUMMER FESTIVAL: Corn Exchange’s ‘Man of Valour’ should make you feel like you’ve sat through a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, according to its writer, Michael West
START ON the ground, on your hands and knees, as though you’ve been recently beaten down. Now draw yourself up – steadily, purposely – and find support within yourself. Finally, sit up tall, centred and relaxed, ready for anything. In yoga, this is called the Hero Pose.
For the yogically-challenged, such as this writer, the Hero Pose would be the ideal moment to catch a breather. But as the physical, witty and, it transpires, remarkably tolerant company Corn Exchange involve me in a day of rehearsals, beginning with their usual yoga session, the Hero Pose never gets a look in. Instead, director Annie Ryan, writer Michael West and performer Paul Reid lead the way through Downward Dogs, Warrior Poses, Spinal Twists and a challenging contortion that may or may not have been called The Human Pretzel. It certainly sharpens the senses but it’s an oddly serene introduction to their new show, Man of Valour, more stirringly described as a “one-man action movie”. Pump-action physicality, uncontrolled explosions, duels to the death and, yes, Hero Poses are best reserved for the show.
Achieving a state of tranquillity before ripping up the space seems like an appropriate contradiction for a group making theatre out of blockbuster material. The idea for Man of Valourcame from Reid, a recognisable performer from RTÉ’s Raw, but whose reputation on stage is as a fearless physical improviser. During Corn Exchange’s regular workshops for actors, in which they learn the company’s unique brand of commedia dell’arte, Reid rarely entered a scene via the door if he could burst through a window. One day he improvised a 10-minute wordless scene in which an office drone finds his workspace demolished by a wrecking ball. “It was a big action scene,” recalls Ryan. “At the end of it we thought, ‘Okay, that could be a show.’”
Since 1995, Corn Exchange have alternated between their stylised commedia(part 16th Century Italian archetypes, part Looney Tunescartoon) and more naturalistic methods, while Michael West has adapted works by Tennessee Williams, Chekhov and Nabokov or written resonant new plays such as Everyday, Dublin By Lamplightand Freefall.
The drive has been towards ensemble work. Early last year, though, the company lost almost half its Arts Council funding. It has since sought co-production partners and it is now producing its first one-man show since West’s monologue, Foley. Was the form a natural fit or was it thrust upon them? “I think we’ve been following a notion about what the show is,” replies Ryan. They had experimented with the idea of featuring other performers, they say, but the flexibility of a one-man action movie prompted a “thatwouldbesocool!” response. Though it features just Reid onstage, and minimal speech, nobody wanted to make a mime show. He is supported by video from Jack Phelan, lights by Aedín Cosgrove and music by Denis Clohessy which flesh out his exterior and internal world. Still, says West, it is about the “green screen possibility of theatre” in which spaces and imagery can be created through expressive physicality alone. Or, as Reid puts it, “When there’s nothing there, anything is possible.”
In rehearsals, Reid runs some scenes as Farrell Blinks, a lonely young office worker with an overactive fantasy gland, while Clohessy delivers a heart-pumping composition, swelling with brass and strings over a ferocious beat. Fed on a diet of action flicks and Xbox games, the character’s journey, by way of a quest through a tumultuous time (Ireland during the “commemorative riots” of Easter 2016), is towards a real understanding of what bravery is.
“It should feel like you’ve sat through a Jerry Bruckheimer movie,” says West. Ryan counters, “I guess because we’re too old and I’m female, we want it to have substance and resonance as well.” West continues, “The real thing is that you have to have a story and that is the hardest thing of all.”
In a roundabout way, Man of Valourmay be one of the first plays to have had the input of Hollywood script doctors. In April, West was selected for the eQuinoxe Screenwriters Masterclass to workshop a separate film script he is writing. A wall-chart from one session with a Hollywood craftsman shows a story-arc diagram daubed with generic codes: Cinderella Moment, Top of the Mountain, Redemption Opportunity. West says it unlocked the plot of Man of Valour.
The work, of course, is more than a series of borrowed tropes or jokey imitations. “There’s a difference between making work that’s filmic and making films,” says West.
Indeed, watching one bravura sequence in which Reid conjures up a crotchety photocopier in his office, then drifts into a fantasy of thrashing it with a lightsaber before being surprised by his co-worker, is doubly rewarding, trading on the imagination necessary to create it and for the audience the imagination to decode it. Reid even remembers to switch off the lightsaber. For rehearsals, he happened to be wearing a T-shirt for the superhero flick Thor. When he turned around it reads: “Only in Theaters”.
Here is a blockbuster fantasy that only the stage could allow.
Man of Valourpreviews today and tomorrow and opens June 23-25 at Everyman Palace Theatre as part of Cork Midsummer Festival