All the Angels: the story of Handel’s Messiah told in clunky footnotes

Review: The cast are superb, but Nick Drake’s script fails to harmonise the complex emotions

All the Angels

Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin
★★☆☆☆

“I am my own industry,” says George Frideric Handel, with self-importance, in Rough Magic and Smock Alley’s play All the Angels. Standing before a choir, and intimidating them with a list of prestigious compositions for kings and queens, this Handel isn’t the easiest person to work with.

Baroque music is a tough business. If the composer (an irascible Brian Doherty) is fleeing an opera failure in London and searching for a commercial hit to fend off bankruptcy, Ross Gaynor’s Crazy Crow, a begrudging music-porter lugging heavy instruments across Dublin, provides his service without any thanks. Nick Drake’s script whips these industry grievances into a major episode from music history: the premiere of Handel’s oratorio Messiah in Dublin.

In scale and narrative, Messiah is biblical. (“The subject excels every other subject,” says Jennens, the oratorio’s gloomy librettist). After giving contralto arias to Susannah Cribber (a luminous Rebecca O’Mara), an actor whose reputation is mysteriously in shambles, Handel makes promises of great “beauty” if the music can be sung “truthfully”. In seeing Susannah try to satisfy a hothead director giving her intangible notes, the composer comes across as an accidental pastiche of a male genius.

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That’s not the most convincing approach to, what the play insists, is a world-changing event. Instead, this is an easily optimistic feelgood play with some geographical intrigue. As with 2013’s promenade production of The Critic, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s satire of the theatre world, director Lynne Parker rummages through the cultural epicentre that is 18th-century Temple Bar – somewhat literally this time, with Smock Alley’s auditorium enclosed by the base walls of the old-world Theatre Royal. The script similarly pings with topographical references, with characters moaning about cold, humdrum working conditions in Chester, Leicestershire and Dublin, as if Handel and company were trolling England and Ireland.

Other details don’t register as easily. Questions such as why an infuriated Susannah storms off in frustration but yet returns to work with a difficult collaborator, or who this version of Handel is other than a taskmaster, begin to hang over proceedings.

No blame should be attached to the cast. O’Mara’s bright Susannah can express comic bewilderment with slight modulations, and is an excellent contrast to Doherty’s note-perfect stoicism. Playing multiple characters in the music business, Gaynor impressively alternates between awe and cynicism. Singers Ross Scanlon and Megan O’Neill allow us the opportunity to hear excerpts of Messiah.

Rather, it is Drake’s script that leaves crucial plot points unaddressed until late in the game, and, eventually, delivers them via clunky footnotes. The story of how a lawsuit exposed humiliating, abusive events in Susannah’s marriage is nearly told in a single breath, as if it were an annotation as opposed to a character arc. We get Jennens, co-creator of a major composition on a sacred subject, confessing to a crisis of faith after a family tragedy.

That leaves everybody in desperate need of a music performance resemblant of an act of God. Without any harmonisation of these complex emotions, what we get is a teeth-tinglingly sweet fairy-tale ending.

Runs until December 22nd at Smock Alley Theatre Main Space, Dublin. smockalley.com