Posts Tagged ‘Conor McPherson’

Review – The Night Alive – Donmar Warehouse

July 11, 2013

I do two basic sorts of reviews on this blog. One is a production focused review, for plays I’ve seen before or dance/orchestral performances; the other is a text-focused review. The second is for new plays, or plays I’ve never seen before. I very much like going into a play knowing as little about it as possible (other than “it’s good”). Since I didn’t study theater after high school this isn’t too hard (even for some things Shakespeare wrote), but I also actively avoid reading scripts of plays I haven’t seen. Sure, I want to see everything Pinter and Ibsen (and, I think, Strindberg) have written; but I want to SEE them, live, on stage, not try to imagine them as I turn pages. Ditto watching them on the small or large screen: I want to watch theater IN the theater.

And I want to see new plays – lots of new plays. So I was thrilled when I managed to score 10 quid front row tickets to the Donmar’s sold-out production of The Night Alive, Conor McPherson’s latest show. I’ve had mixed experiences at his plays; The Veil had me out the door at the interval, whereas The Weir had me hanging on every word and gaping at the brilliant character creation. Kinda hard to believe it was the same guy, huh? But I hoped that the genius of the earlier work would prove the rule, and the flop of the historical ghost story would be the “exception.”

I found myself a bit baffled as to the “where and when” of this play – the setting was a shabby bed sit, with papers and trash strewn everywhere and two single beds in the room – the bathroom a clapped together room tucked in the back with more crap on top of it. Based on the presence of energy drink cans and bottled water, I figured it could have been set at any time from the early 2000s to the present (although I was told that the coin operated electricity meter had been completely phased out, so perhaps this was some ten years back – I was short on cash so no program or cast list to illuminate me).

As it stands, the play reconfirmed for me McPherson’s mastery of natural speech patterns as well as his ability to create fully realized people out of text on a page. (Doubtlessly the actors have to take some credit for this too, but it’s the author who can make me believe that the person speaking on stage existed as a child.) But the plot was … elliptical (and I think the reason why the two women behind me in the ladies’ loo queue said they hated the play). It was very much “moving forward in time,” but in some ways it seems that nothing happened or was resolved … none of the characters changed much (other than falling in love).

But … I loved it. Life doesn’t always make sense of have a plot, but this play was more than just “a few scenes from the life of a tightfisted Irish scalawag” – it gave me the same elated feeling at the end as the brilliant Constellations did, and for the same reason: its message was, “In this short life that we live, all we can hope for is to make a human connection. This is rare and precious: treasure it.” I walked out feeling like Ciarán Hinds (as the scalawag) and Caoilfhionn Dunne (as Amy) had given us a tremendous gift. What a lovely, lovely play it was.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, July 4th, 2013. It continues through July 27th. Warning: contains graphic violence that I found quite disturbing.)


Review – The Weir – Donmar Theater

April 27, 2013

Rural Ireland is poverty stricken and full of superstitious alcoholics – or so it would seem if you choose to take the world of Conor McPherson’s The Weir (now playing at The Donmar Warehouse) as indicative of a lifestyle. Before I’d moved to the UK, I’d never heard that the stereotype (or one of) of Irish people was that they were superstitious, but this is the second play I’ve seen set in modern Ireland that takes that tack. Is this really the point the playwright is trying to make? The set up for this play seems as stale and backwards as the concept of a world where a pack of cigarettes could be paid for with pocket change and a twenty pound note would be a rare sight in a pub.

But … I don’t know about these stereotypes. What I do know about is plot and character and setting. And The Weir is, at its heart, a ghost story, or a series of ghost stories, which we, the audience, get to listen to just like we were all crowded around a fire in a dark house in the winter. It takes the opportunity of people’s reactions to show the character of the people in the play, not what kind of “characters” they are but what kind of character they have, and by doing this we come to see them, not as a bunch of drunks trying to one-up each other, but as a group of individuals carefully given life by McPherson’s script. There’s “local lad made good,” a swaggering braggart who wants to show off in front of the other guys (Risteard Cooper); the helpful hand and peacemaker (Ardal O’Hanlon); the kind-hearted barman whose future happiness may be in question (Peter McDonald); and the happy go lucky, down on his luck guy who’s made some mistakes he can’t get past (Brian Cox). And then, into this knot of known quantities, comes a woman (Dervla Kirwan). I wondered where the play would go with her, what her role would be; and, in the end, I concluded, her role was to be a foil to allow each of the men to show their true natures. The well-to-to-guy comes off as shallow, protective of the social order, and quick to cast of people who upset his view of the world; the peacemaker continues to be kind but unwilling to take a stand; the down on his luck guy still good hearted but more of a sad case; the bartender someone who will stand by you when the chips are down. And the woman, well, she becomes someone who has a past, and someone whose future you wonder about, and you can’t help but hoping that somehow she and the bartender wind up together.

The setting is perfectly realistic as an old bar; although the accents seem occasionally forced, the acting is smooth and professional; and, added together, the evening has all the ingredients to let you sit back and enjoy stories and place and the strange way people behave when they feel their lives are being challenged – sometimes in ways that do them credit, sometimes in ways that show what they’re really made of isn’t much to be proud of. It was a good night out, a lovely evening of theater, and both quick (at just under two hours) and the right kind of fast, as each person’s tale drew me in so much the evening flew by. Nice job, Josie.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, April 24th, 2013. The Weir continues through.June 8th.)

Mini-review – The River – Royal Court Theater

December 30, 2012

There’s no doubt in my mind that for theater fanatics in London, The River was the event of the year: a new play by one of the writers with the biggest buzz in the biz, yet staged in a theater that only holds about 90 people, and with tickets only for sale on the day (20 for in-person buyers and the rest online). Me and my theater loving acquaintances were not pleased. Many of us saw it as a publicity stunt; most of us doubted the play could really only be successful in a small space (was Butterworth really being that much of a princess?); some spent months planning their schemes to ensure they could get a ticket (I’ll admit the day of scheme took care of most scalping possibilities) while many of us just figured it wasn’t going to happen. I, personally, saw this as the lynchpin in letting my membership of the Royal Court lapse despite generally enjoying the work done there. What was the point in supporting a theater that would leave me, as a member, completely out in the cold? I was so disappointed by the whole thing I put it entirely out of my mind as something that just wasn’t going to happen.

Months went by, the show opened, and exactly twice early on I was at my computer at the right time and actually saw the “for sale” button lit up on the Royal Court’s ticket page. But somehow I just couldn’t be quick enough. A few people I knew went and said it was good; the reviews came out and agreed; I gave up because I hadn’t left every day of the run open in the hope that one of those days I would buy tickets and just got on with my life.

And then, well, a friend of mine said he had a tip about how to work the computer system to get to the tickets about 10 seconds faster than anyone else, and on the last Thursday of the run I managed to have an afternoon free and have my act together enough to be right there, online, perfectly at the moment I needed to to have my sweet little booking scam ready to go (one of the tips being to make sure you were already logged in). Bang bang, I was off to a matinee of the show I thought I was never going to get to see! I could finally decide for myself if a one act play was really worth the hype.

Embarrassingly (given what a grinch I was about the whole thing), without the poison of the ticketing system hanging over me, there is no way I can deny that this was anything but an excellently written play, beautifully performed. I found the writing left me with more questions that it answered, one of my favorite situations to be left at at the end of the play. The Hemingway-like dialogue was very intense and paired nicely with Ted Hughes poetry (and of course the fishing setting, and the general hypermasculinity of the play and its lead character), but what I wanted to know was: did someone die here? Was it one of the women? Did he push her in the river (and why), or did she fall? The echoing nature of the play just made it all seem so possible, and seem so very likely that the way the two women interchanged with each other was because one was a ghost. What Butterworth couldn’t teach Conor McPherson about how to write a spooky play! But then, I wondered … was the guy just living with his memories? Or was he maybe, as he said his grandfather did, reliving the same behavior patterns with different people, stuck in a loop he could never break out of?

The play ended, leaving me surprised and exhilarated. None of my theories could be proven, but it had all seemed very real and was enlessly watchable (and an amusing counterpoint to the similarly structured Ding Dong The Wicked, which I saw barely a month before). British playwrights, Jez spanks you: watch and learn at the feet of the master.

(This very belated review is for a performance seen on Thursday, November 15th, 2012. Since the play is long closed, I didn’t worry about spoilering it. Thanks to Andy for helping me get in.)


Review – Dance of Death – Donmar Warehouse West End at Trafalgar Studios

December 20, 2012

In the season of Nutcrackers, Christmas puddings, and panto, I thought nothing would break up the sugary monotony better than a little bit of Scandinavian realism. That’s right, right in the middle of Christmas week I booked myself a ticket for Strindberg’s Dance of Death at the Trafalgar Studios. Counter-programming? You’re darned tooting. I figured after Jack and the Beanstalk, the Messiah, and two Dick Whittingtons I’d be VERY ready for something bleak that made me feel like humanity wasn’t worth saving.

As it turns out, I was TOTALLY right. The Dance of Death was so negative and full of hate – and so beautifully active – that it (perversely) left me feeling elated at the end of the evening. I love Strindberg for his incredibly realistic portrayals of the twisted outcomes of people’s long-term interference in each other’s minds. In this case we’ve got Edgar (Kevin R McNally) and Alice (Indira Varma), two people who’ve been married for just shy of twenty-five years and seem to have hated each other for most of it. Edgar’s in the army and has a heavy drinking habit; Alice is proud and beautiful and conniving, but no more so than he is. He craves death; she is anxious for him to get on with it so she can move on to a better phase of her life; he’s holding on just to keep her from getting remarried. Was there ever a stronger picture of marital concord?

And yet somehow, they stay together, and the arrival of an old friend (Kurt, Daniel Lapaine) just seems like an opportunity for them to throw new balls of shit at each other. Kurt, of course, has no idea what he’s got into. Does he need to save Alice? Does he need to save (the seriously ill) Edgar? Or, in fact, does he need to save himself? He manages to get into a compromised enough position that he winds up on his stomach, on the floor, licking Alice’s boot. I never figured out to what extent Alice was playing him for a fool or Edgar was playing both of them in his own game; at the end, I think, maybe it was Strindberg playing with all of us, making us wonder just what it was going on between this couple for so long. A great mystery, but with great performances that kept me thoroughly absorbed in the paint-peeling spitefulness being splashed around like bucketsfull of acid. Strindberg sold me, the actors sold me, and somehow, at the very end, I found myself laughing at Edgar and Alice and the ridiculous situation they were in. Life is just a game, and if you can’t have a little fun playing with each other’s minds, you just haven’t been trying hard enough.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, December 19th, 2012. It runs through January 5th. My tickets were about £25 quid and it was well worth it!)


Review – Dublin Carol – Trafalgar Studios

December 9, 2011

Every year I have three Christmas theater traditions: I try to see one Nutcracker, one Panto (or two, or three), and one “Christmas Carol.” This year I did a combo “Christmas Carol” outing, with one trip to hear a reading of Dicken’s story “The Chimes” in the Garden Court Chambers (satisfying the Dickens part) and one trip to see a show with the word “Carol” in it that I thought might have more than a passing nod to the more famous body of plays borrowing on the Dickensian trope. And, well, one act play with seventy minutes running time, what’s not to like?

As it turns out, about the only thing this show has in common with Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” is that it takes place on Christmas eve. John (Gary Lydon) isn’t rich and certainly doesn’t lord it over the poor; his sin is that of being long a drunk and willing to point the finger of blame for his wreck of a life to anyone but himself. It’s a skill he’s eager to teach Mark (Rory Keenan), his assistant-du-jour at the funeral home John manages. In grand style, John jaws his way through most of the first forty minutes of the play, going through mortality and the benefits of dating stewardesses to the point where my brain came to a complete stop.

In the second scene, John’s daughter Mary (Pauline Hutton) comes by, apparently on the same day, to tell him her mother is in the hospital dying of cancer. John then stands there and makes a bunch of excuses for pretty much his entire life while Mary nails him to the wall for being a shoddy excuse for a father. It all seemed rather a bit too familiar for me, although I was distracted by listening to the characters speak the words; it sounded like good Irish accents that had not had much practice – not surprising given that this was first preview (and the only night I could come as most performances were already sold out).

Then it was the final scene, in which John starts out passed out at his desk and then gives Mark a stunning bit of bad advice about blaming women for making you feel bad when you hurt their feelings, essentially saying they’re probably trying to manipulate you and at best if they were decent they would keep their feelings to themselves. Mark, shockingly, actually decides this is bad advice, forcing John to dump a bunch of his own emotional garbage on Mark in order to save face (by earning pity). In retrospect: wow, John is just a total piece of work.

And the play, well, it’s a little bit of misery at Christmas time, the kind that makes you want to drink until you can’t remember the names of your children much less how to make your way home from the bar. I don’t feel I saw any character evolution in this, and it made me yearn, I tell you, yearn for the bigger focus of Dicken’s Carol. Since when did Christmas become the holiday for self pity? At the end of Dicken’s story, Scrooge changed, but I saw no sign of this happening for John; in fact, I expected that shortly after he went to the hospital (if he made it at all), he was about to slide back down the hole of alcoholism. It was pretty bleak. That said, it wasn’t all that long – but neither was it too particularly interesting. I’d call it a good show to perform as a high school character practice piece, but there are a million things much better available right now and in general, I’d say you should go see one of those.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on December 8, 2011. Performances continue through December 31st and are nearly entirely sold out.)


Review – The Veil – National Theatre

September 29, 2011

As you may know I am a huge supporter of new writing, and for this reason alone bought tickets to The Veil as soon as the National Theater’s fall season went on sale. Ooh, new writing, and OOH ghost story, sounds great! And I managed to get £12 tickets (third row – to be honest it was actually too close) so I was all set for a night of spooky fun.

The signs looked good – a deliciously decrepit Irish manor – tales of suicide in the house – a girl (Emily Taafe) who hears spectral singing – a possibly haunted ancient tomb nearby – and all sorts of high quality actors on stage, including Fenella Woolgar (will never forget that profile after Time and the Conways), Jim Norton, and Adrian Schiller. The veil was lifted … and it all went downhill quite quickly. The characters seemed to be endlessly ticking boxes as they “created atmosphere” and “slowly revealed the story” – making sure all of the elements of spookiness were there without actually managing to cohere. Part of the problem had to be that each character wasn’t so much a stereotype as a non-entity – we had actors emoting their socks off but with dialogue as wooden as this, there was little hope of success.

I was also bothered by the play’s weak historicity – the 1820s were a very specific time in terms not just of famine in Ireland, but in terms of social relations – between parents and children, gentry and servants, and men and women. McPherson seems to only want the costumes, architecture, and superstition of the time, and has let everything else fall away. Maybe that’s why the characters were so unbelievable – like the ghosts they discuss, they are drifting around in search of time, with nothing rooting them. I, however, firmly felt time’s hold on me, as the minutes ticked by and I was forced to realize that instead of watching an engrossing story I was just watching a bunch of actors move around on a very well-dressed set. Could they not have shared some of their copious stash of (imaginary) hootch with us less-fortunates craning to see all from the third row? The answer was no, but I was able to satisfy my cravings to make my brief passage on this earth more valuable by taking my leave at the interval. I’ve heard it ran until 10:30 and did not improve; not so my evening which took a strong turn for the better as I sat enjoying the deliciously mild Indian summer on the patio of the National with fellow departee A.

So yes, I went to a first preview, and I left at the interval. Perhaps it will get better but at £12 for my ticket I felt I’d got my full value for my evening. My advice however: skip The Veil and just go to The Woman in Black, which I promise will have you sitting on the edge of your seat for the entire evening.

(This review is for the first preview of The Veil, which I saw on Tuesday, September 27th, 2011. Sadly I’m so turned off on this play there’s just no chance of me going back to see the rest of it later in the run. For a review of the entire play, see Ian Foster’s blog. And please don’t whinge on about how “oh you can’t review a preview,” this is the show AS I SAW IT and while it’s perfectly fair to say that it will keep evolving, my record of the evening as I experienced it will not be any less valid. If you’re going to say OH NOES BUT IT WAS A PREVIEW why don’t you just say instead what’s now different from the points that I criticized? But if you say HOW DARE YOU REVIEW A PREVIEW I’m just going to ignore you. You might as well say how dare you review a war that wasn’t won because it didn’t count and can we please look at a successful one instead. My review is a FULLY VALID account of the evening. Look on it as a news story and as such very vital for those looking for the lay of the land while the battle rages on.)