Theatre reviews: Galway Arts Festival

WEEK ONE of the Galway Arts Festival delivered some memorable productions from both home-based and visiting companies in plays that dealt with such diverse themes as familial neuroses, under-age sex, the Iraq war, murderous teenagers, and a property tycoon who wants to sing like Beniamino Gigli.

While there were some surefire hits from this line-up there were, inevitably, some ‘hit and miss’ shows. The Michael Clark company, this year’s high profile dance act, falls into that category. They presented two pieces; Swan Lack which obliquely referenced Swan Lake to a synth-driven industrial soundtrack and Thank U Ma’am which derives its inspiration from the music of David Bowie and Iggy Pop (though the programme note also cited Lou Reed’s Heroin this didn’t feature in the actual performance ).

Swan Lack was, well, somewhat lacking in terms of its ability to engage the audience and it wasn’t until the second half of the performance that the show really sparked into life, though even then rather fitfully. The decision to use a large-scale back projection of Bowie himself singing ‘Heroes’ seemed mistaken, given that it drew visual attention away from the dancers. The dance-sequence for ‘Jean Genie’ with the dancers kitted out in fiery orange had both visual pizzazz and zest.

Overall the show felt too much like a work-in-progress rather than the finished article.

Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre Company’s Palace of the End, by Judith Thompson, was most assuredly the finished article. Thompson’s play consisted of three monologues, delivered by, respectively, Lynndie England - the US soldier infamously photographed abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib; weapons scientist David Kelly who committed suicide; and native Iraqi Nehjras Al Saffarh who, along with her sons, was tortured by Saddam’s secret police.

Thompson makes each of these characters fully-rounded nuanced individuals, and their disparate, riveting testimonies add up to a powerful indictment of the follies of that ongoing, messy conflict. Director Greg Hersov elicits superb performances from Kellie Bright (England ), Robert Demeger (Kelly ), and Eve Polycarpou (Nehjras ).

Local company Dragonfly presented a welcome revival of Shona McCarthy’s second play Reptilian. It is a work that confirms the promise shown by her fine debut, 2007’s Married To The Sea. Like its predecessor Reptilian is a richly imaginative creation – much of it in verse which McCarthy carries off adroitly.

It’s a darkly funny tale of family neurosis, lust, crime, and dodgy housing portfolios. Housewife Dorothy (Carla Bredin ), in-between cleaning and reading verse to her pet turtles, is looking forward to her 63rd birthday.

Her daughter (Siobhan Donnellan ) is trying to flog apartments in Bangladesh and Darfur, hubby (Paul Nolan ) is lusting after his secretary and son (Fiachra O’Dubhghaill ) owes money to a gangster. The scenario is somewhat fanciful but McCarthy’s writing and direction is strong enough to draw the audience into her characters’ jagged desires and every minute of the plot’s rollercoaster ride.

McCarthy has been selected for mentoring by the Abbey Theatre on their New Playwrights Programme and it can only be a matter of time before she graduates to high-profile mainstage productions.

Another play that offered a rollercoaster ride was David Harrower’s Blackbird, staged by Decadent Theatre Company. The play depicted the meeting between Una, a woman in her 20s, and Ray, a man in his mid-50s. Years earlier, when Una was 12 they had a sexual relationship for which Ray was subsequently jailed and which still scars and haunts them both.

Una has tracked him down to confront him over the circumstances of their relationship and its reverberating fallout. Their meeting is played out in a dingy, litter-strewn factory room where Ray (Stuart Graham ) - who has made a new life for himself - is aghast to see Una (Judith Roddy ) and her steely determination to get answers from him.

Harrower is not afraid to invest the piece with unsettling emotional complexities – the 12-year-old Una was a willing participant in the relationship at the time. As the two characters edgily confront each other, they gradually peel back painful layers of guilt, shame, anger, hurt, and love; albeit transgressive and inappropriate. Under Andrew Flynn’s sure-handed direction, Graham and Roddy deliver riveting performances in a strong, thought-provoking production.

Galway Youth Theatre’s lunchtime play is DNA by Dennis Kelly. In the play a group of teenagers, believing they have caused the death of a schoolmate, concoct an elaborate alibi to deflect police attention from themselves.

Things become complicated when an innocent postman is arrested on the basis of the kids’ story, and then the teenagers find the presumed-dead friend still alive and living wild in the woods. Kelly’s play deals with similar themes of teen peer pressure and group-hierarchy found in Lord Of The Flies though without that work’s degree of conviction or substance.

It is hampered by some inherent implausibilities of plot and characterisation and these carry through into the production so that director Niall Cleary and his cast, despite their best efforts, can’t quite make it a compelling theatrical experience.

The highlight of the week was Druid’s staging of Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert. The play’s premiere on Saturday marked the official opening of Druid’s refurbished theatre and the occasion was marked with congratulatory speeches by Mayor Declan McDonnell and Arts Council chairperson Pat Moylan.

There was also an eloquent and impassioned speech from Garry Hynes abhorring An Bord Snip Nua’s proposed cuts in Government funding to the arts. Hynes pointed out that it was Druid’s arrival in Chapel Lane in 1979 which triggered the then-largely-moribund district’s steady transformation into the thriving ‘Latin Quarter’ of today.

She made a strong, persuasive case for protecting arts investment and exhorted all those involved in, or who care about, the arts to make their voices heard in protest at the threatened cuts.

The centrepiece of the evening was Druid’s performance of Murphy’s great play in which a despairing property tycoon (Denis Conway ) seeks help from a quack healer JPW King (Peter Sullivan ) in his mad desire to sing like famed Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. Completing the cast is King’s occasional lover Mona (Eileen Walsh ).

The action all unfolds in King’s run-down office-cum-living-quarters and charts the sequence of sessions between the would-be healer and his unlikely client, a man of pent up hurts and angers, who - amidst all his flaws - yet harbours a yearning and passion for the beauty and purity embodied in Gigli’s music.

All three characters are psychically wounded individuals and Murphy’s play offers a profound and moving depiction of human frailty, imperfection, and abiding potential for the miraculous. As rendered by Hynes and her uniformly superb cast, this production will doubtless prove to be a highlight of the year and not just of week one of the Galway Arts Festival.

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