Festival theatre reviews

Penelope

From James Joyce to Derek Walcott and the Coen Brothers, Homer’s Odyssey has proved a rich source of inspiration to artists down the ages.

With Penelope, staged by Druid for the Galway Arts Festival, Enda Walsh becomes the latest author to delve into that deep Homeric well and he draws up from it a layered play of terrific verve, imagination, and theatricality.

Walsh’s play focuses on four of Penelope’s suitors who, in his version, are middle-aged men, attired in beach gear, passing their days within her emptied swimming pool contending for her love while awaiting with dread the imminent return of Odysseus.

It starts with the comical spectacle of Karl Shiels’ Speedo-clad Quinn blow-torching a sausage and Denis Conway’s Dunne fixing a cocktail to the strains of Herb Albert’s ‘Spanish Flea’.

Beyond the laughs however, the play offers an acute portrait of a masculine world’s dog-eat-dog competitiveness and ferocious drive for individual dominance. Equally present are the inner yearnings for a world of love and altruism that emerges in the men’s set-piece soliloquies directed at the silently onlooking Penelope, perched high above them.

“I’m trying to be good,” one suitor plaintively calls to her after knifing one of his fellows, and the remark vividly captures the paradox of personal idealism paving the way to violence and murder.

As the play hurtles towards its climax the verbal fireworks of the suitors’ speeches are, in Quinn’s case, replaced by a terrific, and hilarious, mimed costume drama where Shiels, in rapid succession, assumes the dress of Napoleon and Josephine, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, Romeo and Juliet, JFK and Jackie.

It’s a sequence that caps the broad strand of theatricality that runs throughout the play, a theatricality that also strongly informed Walsh’s prior plays for Druid like The Walworth Farce and New Electric Ballroom.

Under Mikel Murfi’s assured direction, the cast deliver compulsively watchable performances; Karl Shiels (Quinn ), Denis Conway (Dunne ), Niall Buggy (Fitz ), Tadhg Murphy (Burns ), and Olga Wehrly (Penelope ). Kudos are also due to the design elements; Sabine Dargent’s set, Paul Keogan’s lighting, and Gregory Clarke’s sound.

Freefall

Named as Best New Play in the 2009 Irish Times Theatre Awards, Corn Exchange’s Freefall is a definite highlight of this year’s Galway Arts Festival theatre line-up.

Written by Michael West and fluidly directed by Annie Ryan, the play is an absorbing, acutely observed, often funny, and ultimately moving portrait of an ordinary man’s fraught life.

It commences the morning after the dinner party from hell, a party where central character Gerry’s wife has slept with his manipulative cousin Denis and informed him that their marriage is over.

As Gerry shambles about tidying the detritus of the party he suddenly succumbs to a massive stroke, subsequently coming round on a hospital gurney as medics probe and peer over him.

Thereafter, the play replays a series of key episodes from Gerry’s life, from childhood lived with his uncle and aunt following the death of his parents, through student years and his troubled marriage.

These are intercut with scenes in the hospital that feature clever use of film to depict the paralysed Gerry’s point-of-view of medics looming over his face. Meanwhile the presence of dry rot under Gerry’s stairs not only symbolises his disintegrating life but the wider malaise in Irish society as a whole.

West’s script vividly renders the pain and longings that imbue these characters’ lives while also mining their predicaments for moments of comedy alongside the pathos.

Imaginatively designed and staged, under Annie Ryan’s empathetic direction, Freefall is also graced by luminous performances from its cast of five; the pyjama-clad Andrew Bennett as Gerry, and, in a variety of roles, Janet Moran, Declan Conlon, Ruth McGill, and Damian Kearney.

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