Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Irish Giant at Southwark Playhouse

John Hunter was a collector. In his Earls Court home, the pioneering eighteenth century surgeon and anatomist kept a menagerie to aid his studies - eagles, buffalo, zebra – and he generated enough carefully preserved and labelled anatomical specimens to fill a museum. When Charles Byrne, a young man from Tyrone who stood seven and a half feet tall in his stockinged feet and had a fondness for the bottle, arrived in London to seek his fortune, Hunter’s interest was not that of the casual gawker: he wanted Byrne’s bones.

While his colleagues in the medical profession were still enthusiastically blood-letting and fretting about the imbalance of humours, Hunter advocated careful observation of the body, its structure and its systems. Dissection was central to this process, though bodies were not easy to come by. Even in the eighteenth century, the supply of freshly executed men was limited, so his students had to use other, more questionable means to obtain their cadavers.

Byrne being a god-fearing sort believed, as many did, that if his soul was going to make it to heaven, his body needed to remain whole, intact, unsliced by the surgeon’s knife. He had spent so much of his life on display and did not want Hunter to get hold of his mortal remains, so he gave word that when he died – illness and drink would finish him at the age of 22 – he should be buried at sea in a weighted coffin. The fact that Byrne’s huge skeleton still looms large in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons suggests that plan didn’t quite pan out: Hunter was determined to have his prize (And it was a prize: Byrne’s sizeable skeletal feet can be glimpsed over Hunter’s shoulder in Sir Joshua Reynolds’ famous portrait of him).

This is Cartoon de Salvo’s second production to mark their fifteenth anniversary year – their first was the entirely improvised, Made Up. The Irish Giant is a more conventional exercise in story-telling, a devised piece using a cast of three, some musical instruments (including a miniature piano) and a number of charming animated sequences. There’s plenty of appealing detail – Neil Haigh, as a tipsy Byrne, soothes himself with anachronistic snatches of 'Live Forever' by Oasis – as well as some playful use of stage illusion, but at times there’s a failure of integration between the various methods of narration.

The ideological rift between John and his brother William, a fellow doctor, is rather skimmed over and all the Enlightenment wrangling over the seat of the soul gets a bit lost. As with simple8’s attempt to stage The Four Stages of Cruelty, there’s a struggle to convey the Hogarthian seethe and stink of eighteenth century London, though the chilly, brick space of the Vault, littered as it is with alarming pickled things in jars, is suitably atmospheric as a backdrop.

It’s a fascinating story, one that has already been explored with her characteristic lightness of touch by a pre-Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel in The Giant, O’Brien; Hunter is a compelling figure who indirectly provided the inspiration for the characters of Drs Doolittle and Jekyll, but the potential emotional power of Byrne and his plight is left untapped. There’s little sense of tension in the brief scene where Byrne and Hunter meet and the potentially intriguing relationship between Byrne and Harrison - Hunter’s morally ambiguous Artful Dodger-esque assistant, paid by his boss to shadow the giant in his last days – is snuffed out just as it starts to become interesting.

The company - Haigh, Brian Logan and Alex Murdoch, who also directs - combine considerable charm with evident passion for the material and Rebecca Hurst’s animations are appealing and playful. The folky musical sequences, composed by Daniel Marcus Clark, are particularly well-delivered, and there's something enormously likeable about the whole exercise - but none of it quite knits together, the threads are left dangling.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, May 25, 2012

Globe to Globe: Romeo and Juliet

Love is a balancing act. In this Brazilian reworking of Shakespeare’s tragic pas de deux, Juliet negotiates the stage en pointe while Romeo strides around atop flower-bedecked stilts. They move with their arms forever out-stretched and parasols held aloft as if the ground beneath them was in constant danger of shifting, unsteady, not to be trusted. When the two lovers catch their first glimpse of one another their capacity to balance escapes them; she stumbles one way while he tumbles to the floor.

Of all the companies involved in the Globe to Globe Festival, Brazil’s Grupo Galp√£o are the only ones returning for a second visit. Their energetic, often bawdy take on Romeo and Juliet, performed in Brazilian Portuguese, was staged at the venue 12 years ago and it remains a solidly crowd-pleasing piece: broad in its humour, thin on nuance, a rapid run-through of the text fuelled by music and song.

The company’s roots are in street theatre and, as if to emphasis this, a battered silver Volvo estate dominates the stage. The cast perch on its roof, hop in and out of its doors and use one of the windows as an impromptu puppet theatre. The performance begins in the pit, with the actors and musicians weaving through the crowd and it never quite cuts the threads. The crowd, their laughter and engagement, are fundamental to the piece’s power and it’s at its most successful when it’s at its most carnivalesque. Tropes of the circus are very much in evidence too: there are red noses, white faces, and Shakespeare himself plays Ringmaster, a benign conductor, dangling a sliver of silver moon on a fishing rod over the lovers’ heads or remonstrating with passing helicopters.

The parasols, which the performers use as balancing aids, are a recurring motif, inventively employed. Black parasols are unfurled when the Capulets assemble to mourn their daughter; whereas earlier they had been used to mask a snatched marital kiss, here they become markers of grief.

Each character is reduced to a single gesture or trait, resulting in a kind of visual shorthand; for Mercutio it’s a thrusting crotch and roaming eye, while the nurse sports a heaving silken bosom which she often squeezes and fondles like a favourite pet. The leering Friar Lawrence wears robes into which are stitched dozens of tiny votive paintings.

Some of the verbal humour is no doubt lost, which can’t help but have an impact on perception of the piece, but there are times when the broadness of tone threatens to become monotonous; there is little shading, little sense of pain or tragedy: Rodolfo Vaz’s Mercutio is still waggling his groin even in his death throes and the production’s insistence that lavishly bosomed middle-aged women are inherently hilarious soon grows wearisome. Only Eduardo Moreira and Fernanda Vianna, as the central couple, manage to briefly transcend the comic tone, to suggest the strength of connection between them and to hint at their anguish. Juliet’s death scene, her swanlike demise, successfully stilled the crowd for a minute or two, before the band struck up again and the celebratory mood resumed.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The House Keeper at Project Arts Centre, Dublin


In Morna Regan’s new play for Rough Magic, disease is strip-mined for its metaphoric potential. Corruption runs not just in the blood but is embedded in the genes: a chromosomal jinx, a lethal legacy.

Mary, a mother of three young boys, out of a job, her home recently repossessed, and without even the money to put gas in her car, has decided to claw a little something back. She has developed a fixation with Beth, a local woman who lives alone in a vast old Manhattan brownstone, cushioned by inherited wealth – a woman who looks straight through Mary whenever they pass one another on the street – and in a moment of desperation, pushed to the brink by poverty and fearful for her children’s future, she attempts to stage an occupation. She decides that she will move herself and her family in to one of the empty rooms of Beth’s towering, dusty town house. The bank took her home and now she’s the one doing the taking.

Having seemingly set up her play to act a microcosmic exploration of social division – the ‘haves’ pitched against the ‘have-nots’ – Regan takes pleasure in flipping the situation on its head. For, as it turns out Beth is not alone in her brownstone. She shares it with her ailing husband, Hal, who is slowly, very slowly, being consumed by disease and refuses any other nurse but her. In Regan’s play the sins of the fathers, the taint of generations, takes the form of a (fictional) genetic disorder called Leon Scallick’s Disease which impairs both motor function and cognitive ability. Hal spasms and tics, he struggles to finish his sentences and has been rendered doubly incontinent, life leaking out of him through “every orifice,” but the condition has not rendered him incapable of being a mean old bastard.

Hal and Beth are locked in a cycle of mutual punishment. By staying alive and staying together they’ve turned their home, a building which – much like Hal’s condition – has been in his family for decades, into a torture chamber. Hal has a barbed tongue and a cruel heart, but he is physically disintegrating; Beth – literally – holds the keys to his salvation close to her chest. She controls his flow of medication, she administers sedative release. But Mary’s presence has exploded their claustrophobic existence, she provides a glimpse of escape to them both: for Beth a chance to finally walk away, for Hal a chance to end his pain – and his life.

Mary is resistant to being co-opted in this way, despite Hal’s declaration that “the only reason you and people like you are honest is that you’ve never had the opportunity to be anything else.” Hal believes that everyone has a price and that everyone creams a little off the top, given the chance.

Regan twists things further still, shifting the power dynamics between the three, throwing new information into the mix. This is engaging to begin with but Regan overextends things, laying on one twist too far. The play is a revised version of a shorter piece originally developed for the 2008 1st Irish Festival in New York and despite a running time of 90 minutes, there are times towards the end when Lynne Parker’s production feels like it could have been tighter.

There are also moments that feel a little contrived: those conveniently unseen children, for one, dozing in the car below, and the cocktail of anti-spasmodic and sedative medication administered to Hal which rids him of his more challenging symptoms, while – crucially – keeping him eloquent, lucid and full of spite.

With his magnificent baritone bellow, Robert O’Mahoney is wonderfully leonine and imposing as Hal, though he is rather too physically robust for a man who supposedly cannot manage stairs or even swallow unaided. Cathy Belton’s Mary convincingly grapples with the situation she finds herself in, as a woman repeatedly forced to consider her moral boundaries and the lengths to which she is willing to go, while Ingrid Craigie is suitably cool and pragmatic as Beth, complicit in her own torment and as life-hardened as Mary, though in her own polished, privileged way.

The play is potent in its depiction of the frustration caused by seeing what little you have slip away from you while others coast through life, or at least seem to, insulated against hardship. But in setting the play in Manhattan (complete with occasionally wavering accents) rather than in Ireland or the UK, a degree of remove is imposed which allows Regan to play with the psychological ramifications of her scenario without it ever feeling too raw or too real. But while Regan’s humour is often ink-black and bladed and the play initially has a fist-like grip, it sinks a little under the weight of its own metaphorical baggage and loosens its hold all too soon.
Reviewed for Exeunt