Theatre review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dublin Castle Summer Seasons, Dublin, 23 July, 2014

In Dublin theatre company Mouth On Fire’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of The Bard’s most popular works is given a glam rock twist. It works, writes Philip Cummins

Left to Right: Fionn Foley (Puck) and Colm O'Brien (Demetrius)

Left to Right: Fionn Foley (Puck) and Colm O’Brien (Demetrius)

Originally published by Entertainment Ireland. To read the original, please click here.

IN THE 450 YEARS since William Shakespeare’s birthday, it’s only really in the last 100 years that practitioner have  fused Shakespeare’s work with the contemporary culture of the day to give added context to the longevity of the themes and concerns of The Bard’s best work. The most popular example is, of course, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film version of Romeo & Juliet, though this reviewer has seen a version of Macbeth featuring a cast clad in military uniforms and firing AK- 47’s rather than wielding swords, as well as a version of Hamlet far removed from 16th century Denmark and, instead, set in 1950’s American suburbia.

It’s no surprise, then, that Irish theatre company Mouth On Fire have sound-tracked one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays, a comedy featuring five interconnecting stories of love, decadence and identity, and fused Shakespeare’s work with the soundtrack of 1970’s glam rock; a genre of rock music characteristic of many of the play’s themes and, indeed, characters.

Dublin Castle’s Castle Gardens is an excellent space for the performance. On unusually balmy summer night in Dublin, the play’s surroundings are nothing short of majestic. Of course, the play’s surroundings also contrast starkly with the costumes and props of the cast, of which much emphasis is given: the costume designer seems to have raided Freddie Mercury’s wardrobe for leotards for the character of Lysander; Hermia is a 70’s era San Francisco folkie; Demetrius, the man whose feelings Hermia doesn’t return in favor of Lysander, is a 1950’s- era nerd that is the antithesis to Lysander; the chorus of the play is found strumming a Fender Stratocaster rather than a flute.

Left to Right: Colm O'Brien (Demetrius), Melanie Phillips (Helena) and Matthew O'Brien (Lysander)

Left to Right: Colm O’Brien (Demetrius), Melanie Phillips (Helena) and Matthew O’Brien (Lysander)

What makes the costumes work is the knowledge that basing the production on 70’s, glam rock- era costumes is no more and no less nostalgic than dressing the cast in Shakespearean-era clobber, which has its own nostalgia. While it’s true that nostalgia, or ‘Retromania’ as Simon Reynolds terms it, has the power to drown out everything, the production sets out its tone in the opening moments of the act one, scene one: T-Rex’s ‘20th Century Boy’ blares from the PA’s, the cast dancing together to establish the cultural tone of Mouth On Fire’s production. From then on, the play progresses at a steady, even pace, seamlessly seguing into the “play within the play” that the mechanicals rehearse and stage for the wedding of the Duke (Theseus) and the Queen (Hippolyta).

With all nine actors in the production juggling up to three characters each over 90 minutes, the play could seem too busy, at times, thought the cast pull it off with, seemingly, little effort:Matthew O’Brien’s Lysander has all the charisma necessary for the part, Sharon Mannionplays Hermia to her character’s naive and dilemma-stricken nature, Fionn Foley’s Puck is as jaunty and playful as expected, while Neill Fleming’s Egeus, Hermia’s disapproving father, is as shrewd and determined as expected and a lynchpin in terms of the play’s action.

Closing the performance with cast introductions performed against the soundtrack of Mud’s ‘Tiger Feet’ and in a manner that can only be likened to hit TV series Glee, it becomes more apparent that Mouth On Fire’s production will either delight those who seek fresh productions of Shakespeare or disappoint purists who might find the coupling of Shakespeare and glam rock is nothing more than a gimmick. With a strong cast and an imaginative creative team, however, it’s hard to fault.

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Theatre review: Nirbhaya, Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, 22 July, 2014

Taking the form of personal testimonies, Yael Farber’s brave, vital and, sadly, relevant play Nirbhaya gives a voice to victims of sexual abuse, doing so in a production that is raw, slow- burning and, at times, difficult to watch, writes Philip Cummins

Actress Priyanka Bose in Nirbhaya

Actress Priyanka Bose in Nirbhaya

Originally published by Entertainment Ireland. To read the original, please click here.

TAKING the form of personal testimonies, Yael Farber’s brave, vital and, sadly, relevant play Nirbhaya gives a voice to victims of sexual abuse, doing so in a production that is raw, slow- burning and, at times, difficult to watch.

Based solely on the horrific 2012 gang rape and fatal assault of 23 year- old physiotherapy intern Jyoti Singh Pandey in South Delhi, the sparseness of the stage and the plain, black costumes of the actors all give focus to extraordinary testimonies that are harrowing, eloquent and, at times, funny.

Subtle flourishes in the set design go a long way in a production that balances confessional utterance with stagecraft and a creative use of the space. Tattered, worn- out bus seats bunch together, downstage right. Hanging upstage centre, swinging like pendulums representing time, perception and, perhaps, a swinging blade representing death, are the windows of the bus in which the victim met her cruel fate.

The passengers on the bus.

The passengers on the bus.

Deeply embedded in Farber’s Nirbhaya (meaning, roughly, “fearless one”) is the idea that sexual desire and acts of self- satisfaction and violation bubble under the surface of our society, whether seemingly innocuous or menacing. In a brilliant scene underpinned with subtlety, a crowded bus journey into Delhi finds women groped by shameless male passengers, prompting us to ask just how accepting both the society and its culture are towards random acts of sexism and sexual assault in broad daylight.

Throughout the play, the audience is involved and challenged. Like Pat Kinevane’s excellent Silent, the play makes its demands of any audience, continually asking us how accepting any of us are towards acts casual sexism and misogyny. Farber’s depiction of the fatal gang rape of the victim fulfills its intention to shock. Much as attitudes towards sections in society inevitably swell with a watershed moment, the feeling is that the entire play and the ideas expressed within the play are leading to that shocking scene.

Finishing on a burial ritual focused around Pandey’s dead body, blue and yellow flower petals fall from the ceiling around both Pandey’s body and those in Pandey’s community, representing both the loss of innocence and, one hopes, change. It’s a stunning, slow- burning denoument to a play that, like the windows of the bus, swings in extremities: from innocence to violation, safety to menace, trauma to closure.

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Theatre review: The Vortex | The Gate Theatre

Originally published by Entertainment Ireland. To read the original, please click here

Noel Coward's The Vortex will run at The Gate Theatre until 22nd March

Noel Coward’s The Vortex will run at The Gate Theatre until 22nd March

RECEIVING its first production on an Irish stage in what we now recognise as post- Celtic Tiger Ireland, Noël Coward’s breakthrough work encapsulates the fall from dizzying heights of London’s bohemian set. While the play strives for the drama that defines a work such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Coward’s play is laced with his savage wit, taking the form of catty dismissals of characters (“Poor Clara: she eternally labours under the delusion that she really matters”) courtesy of Pauncefort “Pawnie” Quentin (played by Mark O’Reagan).

There is, of course, the obligatory, fabulous dance sequence- jazz hands and all- choreographed by Philip Connaughton, though, in a twist, the drug- addled anti- hero of The Vortex, Nicky Lancaster (played by Rory Fleck Byrne) dances manically and out of time with the rest of the party, which tells its own story.

Set designer Paul O’Mahony’s round set is symmetrical with all of the images and the themes that Coward’s play raises: the play’s title, of course; the social circle of London’s elite; the glasses in which cocktails and wine are swirled; the meeting, again, of the Tom and Bunty; the circle of substance abuse and addiction.

Adding to the visual aesthetics of this complete production is Philip Stewart’s sound design and Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting design, both of which provide added punch to the production. Cutting each scene are flashbulbs- effects, which attempt to summon the nostalgic charm inherent in any jazz age- era production, but also to give the effect that the moments in the play are frozen in time, much like the play itself.

Just as the success or failure of a production such as A Streetcar Named Desire hinges on the quality of the performance of the actress playing Blanch Du Bois, a play like The Vortex will always be judged on the strength of the performance by the actor playing Nicky Lancaster; in this respect, The Gate’s production of The Vortex is success. Rory Fleck Byrne’s compelling performance as Nicky Lancaster is well- paced and nuanced, the subtext beneath Nicky’s neediness towards his mother and his sham engagement towards Bunty clear to the uniformed audience member (“I’ve grown up all wrong”, utters Nicky, in one of the play’s more memorable scenes).

Following on from The Gate’s successful runs of The Threepenny Opera and Pride and Prejudice was never going to be easy, but this production of Coward’s great play feels definitive and precise, lifting its audience up into the dizzying heights only to be brought back down through the crashing lows, much like Cowards anti- hero.

Star rating: 4 / 5
Review by: Philip Cummins
Venue: The Gate Theatre

Written by: Noël Coward
Directed by: Annabelle Comyn
Cast: Fiona Bell, Rory Fleck Byrne, Simon Coury, Peter Gaynor, Mark O’Regan, Susannah Harker, Andrea Kelly

Theatre review: Sive | The Abbey Theatre

Originally published by Entertainment Ireland. To read the original, please click here

John B. Keane's Sive is currently running at The Abbey Theatre

John B. Keane’s Sive is currently running at The Abbey Theatre

SPEAKING of his late father’s ear for language and his ability to connect with ordinary folk, Billy Keane often reminds people of an apocryphal story of when a journalist once asked a regular patron of John B’s pub in Listowel what exactly it was that made John B. Keane a great writer. With typically Kerry wit, the old codger replied, “Wasn’t he the smartest man of them all; he took down everything we said and then he charged us to read it.”

Sometimes dismissed as a “popular” playwright and a “stage Irish” playwright at that, John B. Keane’s plays have hidden depths and dimensions beneath their pure entertainment value and Sive is no exception.

While the plot might seem elementary and borderline farcical- a story of an aunt and uncle arranging a marriage for their niece for a healthy commission- the themes that John B. Keane’s Sive affirm are those of lust, greed and ambition at any cost.

Sive Large

Thematically, such tragic themes could describe many plays, though the brilliance behind the Abbey’s programming of Keane’s Sive is how it reflects Irish society past and present as unflinchingly as the best Abbey plays often do. In recent years, barstool sociologists have proclaimed that “we lost our soul” during the Celtic Tiger; that during the boom years we became greedy, lustful and animals of excess. Through Keane’s Sive- as with The Field- we learn that we have always been greedy, ambitious, ruthless and lustful; that these qualities existed in Irish society long before Church and State separation and long before the prosperity and pluralism of the Celtic Tiger.

While Sabine Dargent’s set might seem too impressive and overwhelming for a play and a playwright that function best when at their most intimate and inclusive, the contorted plaster on the upper end of the cottage gives the effect of a dark, stormy cloud, which becomes all the more obvious during changeovers between scenes and acts when the lighting focuses on the top of the set.

And then there are the performances: Bríd Ní Neachtain’s turn as Nanna Glavin is the emotional dynamo behind the entire play, her character ranging from mischievous charm to tragic utterance, while Simon O’Gorman’s Thomasheen Seán Rua is masterful, adding to both the humor and the dramatic action of Keane’s play.

Range, indeed, wins out in this enjoyable play in which elegiac weight and side- splitting humor are mere scenes away from each other; no better example than the chorus of the traveler poets- played by Frank O’Sullivan and Muiris Crowley- who energise each humorous scene with rhymes and, during the play’s dénouement, deliver an elegy to an age that is gone, though feels strangely vital in this faithful production.

Sive runs until 12th April.

Star rating: 4 / 5
Review by: Philip Cummins
Venue: The Abbey Theatre

Written by: John B. Keane
Directed by: Conall Morrison
Cast: Ian Lloyd Anderson, Barry Barnes, Derbhle Crotty, Muiris Crowley, Bríd Ní Neachtain, Simon O’Gorman, Róisín O’Neill, Frank O’Sulliavan, Daniel Reardon.

Theatre review: Breathless, Smock Alley Theatre

Originally published by Entertainment Ireland, Tuesday 11th February, 2014. To read the original, please click here


Breahtless, currently running at Smock Alley Theatre

“EVERY pair of shoes takes you on a journey”, utters one of the four female characters in John MacKenna’s Breathless, a play in which four, purgatory dwelling women reveal how they met their fate, while also reminiscing of their previous life on earth. Supported by the women’s fund at the community for Ireland, Breathless focuses on four women from four different social backgrounds: an aging Corkconian (Ruth McCabe), a working class Dub (Kate Gilmore), a midlands tomboy (Donna Patrice) and a reserved, middle class woman (Sinead O’Riordan).

Akin to His & Hers, Ken Wardrop’s charming documentary, which chronicled the lives of Irish women of all ages and backgrounds, Breathless, similarly, attempts to portray the life of the average Irish woman with humor and heart, while at the same time giving some detail into the horrific circumstances surrounding their murders and subsequent disappearance.

Anchored by a strong, central performance by Ruth McCabe, who effectively acts as a motherly figure to the younger victims, this 90-minute ensemble piece is well paced and well acted. The play’s characters slowly tease out each other’s vulnerabilities and the central action for the characters and, indeed, the audience is finding out who these woman are and how, exactly, they found themselves in purgatory.

Actress Kate Gilmore in John MacKenna's Breathless

Actress Kate Gilmore in John MacKenna’s Breathless

The space in Smock Alley’s Boy’s School resembles a wasteland. Set designer David Butler makes great use of the natural features of Smock Alley’s Boy’s School, a space that boasts church pews and church window frames. On the floor are a torn and tattered couch, as well as road signs and debris that all point towards a chaotic, post- apocalyptic landscape that is lacking in any natural order.

Much of the play’s dialogue centers around arresting stories of miss spent youth, debauchery, first love and sibling relationships, sometimes offering an insight into the lives of the men who defined their lives, not least those men who murdered and disappeared them. Some of the play’s most chilling moments are achieved and accomplished, particularly the descriptions of unspeakably violent acts. Where the play falls down, however, is in moments that feel shoe horned into the play’s narrative for shock value, such as the shared kiss between Ruth McCabe and Sinead O’Riordan’s characters and some of the play’s more “in-yer-face” theater moments, particularly from Donna Patrice’s character.

Granted that MacKenna’s Breathless is neither Yeats’ Purgatory nor Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, though it is a welcome continuation of a narrative, both on the stage and in the media, that is focusing on the experiences and sufferings of women in Ireland.

Star rating: 3 / 5
Review by:
Philip Cummins
Venue: Smock Alley (Boys School)

Written by:
 John MacKenna
Directed by: Iseult Golden
Cast: Ruth McCabe, Donna Patrice, Sinead O’Riordan, Kate Gilmore