October 11, 2013 7:25 pm

The Dublin Theatre Festival

David Ganly as Macheath in ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at the Gate, Dublin©Matthew Thompson

David Ganly as Macheath in ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at the Gate, Dublin

The Dublin Theatre Festival, which runs to October 13, is nearly 60 years old. Longish in the tooth, maybe, but not toothless, and Ireland’s current situation is not ignored.

One of the most trenchant social commentaries I’ve seen since the 2008 global crisis was the Gate Theatre’s revival of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. The portrayal of law-enforcers as operating hand in hand with lawbreakers has no overt link with the state of affairs here, but clearly rings bells in a country whose ongoing economic strictures are the consequence of too-cosy relationships between bankers, speculators and legislators. Hearing a bayed chorus of “It’s selfishness that keeps mankind alive” here can cut to the quick.

Wayne Jordan’s staging is bare and monochrome (even the Street Singer wears a tuxedo), and something of a slow burner as David Ganly’s Macheath weaves his underworld web. Only once the set-up has been established and Mac’s repeated arrests and escapes unfold does a dramatic momentum arise to match the musical bite. Hilda Fay excels as the whore Low-Dive Jenny, and, at some moments in the “Jealousy Duet” scene, Ruth McGill as Lucy Brown reminded me of the late, great Madeline Kahn. ★★★★☆

Another instance of rendering a classic relevant fares less well. Lynne Parker’s production of Sheridan’s comedy The Critic for her Rough Magic company has had a lot of thought put into it ... in the event, too much. Translating the action from 18th-century London to the Dublin of the same period is a sharp idea, as is effectively staging the first act in a salon in the Culture Box in Dublin’s Temple Bar district. Less comprehensible touches include Karl Shiels’s portrayal of Mr Puff as a Byronic, even demonic figure, rather than the epitome of urbanity that Sheridan’s writer of journalistic “puffs” surely needs to be. Shiels’s Puff is oily but it’s crude oil, dark and gloopy. Most of all, The Critic stands or falls on its second-act rendition of Puff’s play “The Spanish Armada”. Parker portrays it with a group of contemporary black-clad drama students fumbling their way through Puff’s ridiculous text, and thus falls prey to the play’s inherent problem today: trying to modernise or improve upon what Sheridan wrote is exactly the same folly for which Puff is being indicted. ★★★☆☆

The Gare St Lazare Players’ Waiting For Godot at the Gaiety Theatre also proves a misfire. The company has a long and honourable record of staging Samuel Beckett’s works, usually smaller pieces or adaptations from his prose. In those productions, Conor Lovett’s modest deadpan delivery works well. As Vladimir here, though, he is forced into (a sepulchral parody of) double-act patter, and proves much more ill at ease than Gary Lydon’s more fluid Estragon. Gavan O’Herlihy seems even less able to deal with the demands of Pozzo, more or less maintaining the same level of rhetorical bluster. ★★★☆☆

The Corn Exchange’s revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms at Smock Alley strikes the ear strangely until one realises that it is emphasising the universality of O’Neill’s family/land drama by relocating it from New England to mid-Ulster: the Cabot family sound to me to come from County Londonderry, with newcomer Abbie an outsider from neighbouring Antrim. Janet Moran’s Abbie is impressive, but Annie Ryan’s dirt-floor staging is somehow less claustrophobic than Sean Holmes’ revival a year ago in the much larger space of the Lyric Hammersmith in London. ★★★☆☆

I regret that I was able to see little of the international component of work on show at the Festival. Ant Hampton’s pieces (often seen in London and Edinburgh via Forest Fringe) on the individual’s relationship with mediating technology are sometimes fascinating, sometimes truistical. His installation with Britt Hatzius, This Is Not My Voice Speaking, tends towards the latter. Pairs of punters manipulate now quaintly outdated technology – film and slide projectors, cassette player, Dictaphone and that amazing antique, a record deck – to generate sounds and images which simply repeat the obvious: that what we see and hear are not the person speaking but representations thereof. Interrogating our suspension of disbelief? Well, and so what? ★★☆☆☆

For a Briton, it is something of a novelty to see Eamon Morrissey present a solo show which is not related to Flann O’Brien. In Maeve’s House he recalls Maeve Brennan, a New Yorker short story writer of the mid-20th century whose work hit him where he lived – literally, since the Brennans sold their house in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh to the Morrisseys. Ultimately, like Simon Callow’s Wagner piece recently on show in London, this is an evangelical lecture rather than a dramatic performance. At least Morrissey gets to deliver the material in question himself, although like Lovett his deadpan style proves a mismatch with Brennan’s words; in this case, however, it is precisely because there is little or no under-
lying current of wryness to subvert the delivery. ★★★☆☆

The finest solo performance I have seen here – indeed, the finest I have seen for some time – is also, paradoxically, the most incomprehensible, at least superficially. Olwen Fouéré, however, has good reason for this, as riverrun is an adaptation from James Joyce’s polyglot punfest Finnegans Wake. Fouéré all but ignores those parts of Joyce’s ultra-novel which deal with the individual figures of HC Earwicker and his family, and also eschews most of the best-known “set pieces” of the book, in favour of a big-picture montage of Ireland and its people through the emblem of the River Liffey. (The one set-piece present is the final “Soft morning, city!” section as the river finally reaches the coast.)

Over an abstract pink-noise soundscape simultaneously evoking wind and water, she intones, measured yet lively, conveying the impressionistic sense of Joyce’s multilingual prose to us, and even engaging in a spot of incantatory throat-singing. I hope that, having reached the Irish Sea, this Anna Liffey crosses it. ★★★★★

The Festival’s flagship production, which runs on into November at the Abbey, is the premiere of Frank McGuinness’s new play The Hanging Gardens. The principal characters in this Donegal-set family drama are “a reclusive novelist” and his wife, “a distinguished gardener”. As she grows unable to cope with his decline into dementia, the family – including their three grown-up children – face a multiple coming-to-terms. There are echoes of King Lear and Ibsen’s Ghosts, plus another passing reference to the Irish economic crisis in one of father Sam’s stories, as well as a sardonic acknowledgment of a trope of recent drama when mother Jane observes, “What is worse than adults whining about their parents?” The play may not have the travelling “legs” of McGuiness’s Dolly West’s Kitchen, but Patrick Mason’s taut production centres on an unsettlingly plausible performance from Niall Buggy as Sam, and is staged with so scrupulous an eye that Davy Cunningham’s lighting even advances from scene to scene the shadow on the garden sundial in Michael Pavelka’s set. ★★★★☆

Runs to October 13, dublintheatrefestival.com

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