Course of true theatre never should run smooth

 

CULTURE SHOCK:THERE ARE TWO Dublin Theatre Festivals, the rough one and the smooth one. The rough one is hard, edgy and highly political and is happening, to a large extent, outside conventional theatre spaces.

 I’ll write about it next week, after a few more openings make possible some assessment of its impact. The smooth festival is made up of the big shows in the main theatres. It has a long way to go, but at the time of writing I’ve seen enough of it to suggest why the other kind of festival is so urgently necessary.

Calling any kind of theatre “smooth” is, admittedly, rather unfair. Theatre, in the 21st century, is a glorious anachronism, a form revelling in its own afterlife. It is no longer necessary. It survives on its strangeness and its extremity.

Of all the main art forms, it is the one that is most likely to be awful. If you go to a bad film, you can eat popcorn or have a snog. You can look at a bad painting for 30 seconds and move on. At a boring concert, you can have a snooze. But a bad play is excruciating. You are trapped. You can’t sleep, you can’t look away. Time slows down. You can only endure.

And this, oddly enough, is what makes theatre still worthwhile. It’s a risk. Something is at stake. And if nothing is at stake, it doesn’t matter how much talent and brilliance are thrown at the thing. Let’s consider four shows from the festival; two with little or nothing at stake and two with some real sense of risk. It’s interesting, surely, that the two that fall into the first category are packed with talent and lavished with resources, look beautiful and feel somehow inconsequential. They don’t risk being bad.

The most striking example of this is the glitziest show in the festival, the Abbey and National Theatre of Great Britain coproduction of Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. It is an extraordinary assemblage of talent: Sinéad Cusack as Juno, Ciarán Hinds as Captain Boyle, Risteárd Cooper as Joxer, the multiple Olivier Award-winning director Howard Davies, designs by the great Bob Crowley, James Farncombe’s elegant lighting. Even some of the more drippy roles, like Mary Boyle and Jerry Devine, are vivified by Clare Dunne and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor. And it all contrives to make Junonot a great tragicomedy of terror and implosion but a clunky mix of naturalism and melodrama.

And there’s no getting around the truth that at the heart of the problem is the utter Englishness of the production. There is something patronising about Davies’s apparently complete ignorance of what has happened with productions of O’Casey in Ireland over the past 30 years. During that period, the best Irish productions, by directors such as Garry Hynes and Joe Dowling, have stopped emphasising how much O’Casey harks back to Boucicault and started to explore how much he looks forward to Beckett. They’ve stopped treating the expressionism that emerges in The Silver Tassieas a sudden leap and realised instead that it is already present in Junoand in The Plough and the Stars.

Davies ignores all of this. It is understandable that he doesn’t pick up on Hinds’s wandering accent or the equally odd Dublinese that Cusack affects and that holds her back until the last act, when she is magnificent. But it is a really serious business that the Irish national theatre is presenting its major playwright in a way that ignores the recent history of Irish theatre.

To take just one example, Cooper’s Joxer seems to have been created in complete ignorance of the way John Kavanagh revolutionised the conception of the character in Dowling’s great Gate production opposite Donal McCann. Joxer had been played for laughs, as a music-hall sideman. Kavanagh discovered what drives all of his antics: the rat-like hunger of a half-starved man. And now we’re back with the music-hall act. Cooper’s performance is brilliant in its own way, but it is a “turn”, not a character. By putting Junoback on the shelf as an old Oirish classic (complete with diddly-aye music), Davies robs the play of the things that make it great: its terror and its danger.

The Gate’s premiere of Hugo Hamilton’s adaptation of his own wonderful memoir The Speckled Peopleis a much more noble failure. It is, in Patrick Mason’s production, consistently lively and inventive, and occasionally beautiful. The world it describes – a boy growing up between a fanatical, right-wing Gaelgóir father and a gentle but complex German mother – is richly fascinating. But it remains confined within the borders of the page and never fully inhabits the stage.

Sometimes, with theatre, it doesn’t matter if the broad form of a piece is obvious. The right form for The Speckled Peoplewould seem to be one that has worked umpteen times before: the older self as a narrator mediating the story of his childhood family. It’s good enough for The Glass Menagerie, Daand Dancing at Lughnasa,and it’s a bit of a mystery why Hamilton chose not to try it here. The older narrator gives to this kind of memory play both a focus and a tension, allowing the audience a point of entry and of reference.

Without some such device, we do not have the memoir’s great resource, the author’s own voice. The Speckled People, which uses material both from that book and its successor The Sailor in the Wardrobe, becomes entirely episodic. There are brilliant episodes, but there is no undercarriage to support some of the large, sweeping issues, from the Holocaust to historical amnesia to abortion, that fizz up from nowhere. And all the time, there is the question: what is to be resolved here? What is at stake? We never get a clear answer.

Yet when that question is fully in play, theatre can be an incredibly forgiving form. You could take roughly half of the festival’s opening show, Company Finzi Pasca’s Donka: A Letter to Chekhov,and display it as an example of theatre at its self-indulgent worst. There are long passages of noodling around, with twee dialogue, and interactions so insistently charming that they quickly become charmless. The connection to Chekhov is often either tenuous (Chekhov liked to fish, so here’s some stylised fishing) or crude.

But these longueurs, in the end, merely heighten the heights. Donkahas some of the most startling and some of the most beautiful passages you’ll see on a stage. There are two superb pieces of clowning. One, featuring a snakelike contortionist, plays on the connection between Chekhov’s profession of his medicine and his theatre. The other is simply a gorgeous joke on image versus reality, using live action and projection. There are also two magnificent conjurings of wonder, a ballet of ice and a dance inside a spinning wheel. What’s at stake? One’s view of the world and its possibilities.

There is a different kind of risk in Marie Mullen’s stupendous performance of Colm Tóibín’s monologue Testamentat the Project. The monologue form is normally too bounded, too controlled. But here the imagined canvas might be too vast. Tóibín’s question is in some ways so obvious that it seems remarkable no one has asked it before: what does the Virgin Mary feel and remember long after the death of her son? But the reluctance to ask it is not rooted solely in theological reticence or the fear of giving offence. It also has to do with the aesthetics of using material that is already freighted with such emotional power.

That potency, as it happens, is best illustrated in Juno. O’Casey, the communist Protestant, twice evokes the Virgin at the emotional high points of his drama. He does so sparingly and with great caution, sensing that a little of this fissile material goes a very long way. It takes guts, therefore, to grasp it wholesale and make an entire play out of it.

What makes this task particularly tough is the language. It is easy enough to play it down, to simply make the myth ordinary, or to make a feck of it with a smart-arsed anti-heroism. But nothing much would be at stake there – mere sacrilege is old hat. What Tóibín does instead is to remythologise, to write his own version of the Bible. His intent is not to bring down Mary’s divinity but to bring up her humanity. He goes, therefore, for a language that is, for him, unusually dense and lyrical.

Mullen’s genius (supported by Garry Hynes’s hypnotically rhythmic direction and a superbly evocative design by Francis O’Connor) lies in her ability to remain poised all the time between the mundane and the mythic. She is always a tough old peasant, moving like a woman who has drawn water and scrubbed floors, railing at her unseen “guardians” in a way that reminds us that Jesus was his mother’s son when he attacked the moneylenders in the temple. And yet she is always a timeless matriarch who can throw back her shoulders and assume command not just of the audience but of time and memory. Just like, I suppose, every woman is transformed when she becomes a mother. And for all its theological subversion, this is, in the end, a simple and moving testament to motherhood.