Frank McGuinness’s _The Hanging Gardens_ at Dublin Theatre Festival 2013

Frank McGuinness’s Hanging Gardens at the Abbey is both devastating and elating: it is not so much heart-breaking as heart-battering, but despite its intensity it’s a play that needs to be seen. This would be true if only because it features five of Ireland’s best actors: Cathy Belton, Barbara Brennan, Niall Buggy, Declan Conlon, and Marty Rea. And one of them – Buggy – gives a performance that I know I’m going to remember for a very long time.

As the Abbey’s PR has stated many times, this is McGuinness’s first new play at the Abbey since 1999. It’s also his first premiere in Ireland since Gates of Gold in 2002. And since then all of his original plays have premiered in England, many of them remaining unproduced here in Ireland. There’s been no better example than McGuinness of the serious problem in our theatre at the moment – which is that many of the best Irish plays of the last 15-20 years have premiered in London, and many of them remain completely unknown in this country. McGuinness’s There Came A Gypsy Riding, for example, should be celebrated as a great and important Irish play. But almost no-one here knows it.

So it’s great to see him back on an Irish stage with an original play.

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McGuinness’s works often feature a character so well drawn that he or she  threatens to overpower the rest of the play – from  Piper in Observe the Sons of Ulster, to Dido in Carthaginians, to Rima in Dolly West’s Kitchen. Located somewhere between Christy Mahon (the outsider figure who transforms an environment) and Falstaff (a supporting character so vivid that he dwarfs the main protagonists), McGuinness’s unruly strangers are always vulgar, joyous, and disruptive.

There’s another such character here – the figure of Sam Grant, an aging writer who, as the play begins, is a subject of intense concern to his wife and three adult children – all of whom wonder how to cope with Sam’s increasingly uncontrollable dementia.

As played by Buggy, Sam is mischievous and vicious, terrified and childlike, at turns enthralling and appalling. He harasses, bullies and belittles his family – and while some of that behaviour may be explained (but not justified) by his suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, his abuse of his family has clearly been carried on over many years. As a result, none of his children has been able to form a loving relationship; none of them seems able to express the love that they all so palpably feel for their parents.

The performance by Buggy takes these varying and sometimes  contradictory states and makes them cohere. Much of that achievement is possible through his use of voice. At times his lines are delivered with a sing-song quality that contains both swagger and complacency: we sense that this is a man who has a powerful imagination but suspect that there may be an uncertainty or an insecurity in there too. At other times, Buggy’s voice is intense and full-bodied, making clear why his children seem somewhat frightened of him. Yet there is a gentleness too, a kind of mischievous waver that reveals Sam’s enjoyment of his own erudition and imagination.

The performance thus acts as a fascinating counterpoint to Owen Roe’s Lear at the Abbey earlier this year – and indeed to Paul McGann’s Undershaft in Major Barbara. Whether by accident or design, the Abbey has given us three very powerful portraits of flawed but irresistible father figures this year.

As ever with McGuinness, the risk of having such a strong character is that other roles may seem less interesting by comparison. In this play that potential problem is compounded by the fact that the three adult children are trying desperately to restrain themselves: to hold in their shock at their father’s deterioration, to resist the anger that has obviously been stored up over many years, to hold themselves together at a time when the person who has anchored them to life is leaving the world. So these are roles that demand an ability to convey a sense that there is much more going on than is evident on the surface.

That’s why you need excellent actors in the roles, and I was very impressed by the depth that Rea, Belton and Conlon added to their characters. It was fascinating to notice what the children will and won’t look at – the times when they appear to swallow down a thought or feeling – the times when they have no choice but to look away. There’s some lovely, subtle direction here from Patrick Mason.

As the matriarch of the family – and as a successful author in her own right – Barbara Brennan’s character follows in a long tradition of strong McGuinness mother figures. Like her husband, she’s full of contradictions, caring more for her garden than her children, yet appearing willing to sacrifice her own well-being for her husband. Brennan resolves those contradictions well, showing us the tension in her character’s body through a stiffness of movement and a vocal restraint that suggests that she’s only just keeping things together. This results in a very moving performance, and the creation of an intriguingly complex figure.

Becuase the play set in the garden of a Donegal house, it will immediately call to mind Brian Friel’s 1979 Aristocrats – a portrait of a family damaged by an authoritarian father-figure who, like McGuinness’s protagonist, suffers from dementia (though in Aristocrats the father appears on stage only once).

It also seems to draw on other great Irish plays. As a storyteller and beloved tormenter of his family, Sam seems to owe something to Tom Murphy’s Mommo – another artist-figure whose loss of memory drives the play forward. With its clash between two writers – one a populist success and the other a respected author – it reminded me of Friel’s massively underrated Give Me Your Answer Do! With its focus on a flawed artist-figure, it seemed to be drawing on Kilroy’s The Shape of Metal and Friel’s Faith Healer.  And with its characterisation of a family that can express love only by tearing itself apart, it occupies the emotional territory that has been mapped so rigorously by Tom Murphy in Whistle in the Dark,  Famine and The Wake.

All of this might sound as if the play is derivative or unoriginal but, on the contrary, these resemblances suggest that McGuinness is pushing his work to a new level, measuring himself against Murphy and Friel to a far greater extent than he’s ever done before. Watching the play, I felt as I did when I first saw Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce: the excitement of knowing that a writer I’d already admired had developed in a way that built on what had come before, but which was also excitingly new.

Among the things I most admired about the play is its emotional honesty. I found myself thinking several times of Shaw’s response to O’Casey’s Silver Tassie – which GBS had described as a “hell of a play – literally”.  McGuinness gives us a literal hell, unflinchingly exploring what it feels like to know that you are losing your mind, to know that you are dying. He also shows a genuine bravery in representing the attempts of a family to come to terms with the death of one of their own. So many of McGuinness’s observations feel as though they’ve been excavated from  some very personal space in his own imagination: his characters’ emotions are incoherent, chaotic, confused – and for all of those reasons feel absolutely authentic. This made the play – for me, anyway – very difficult viewing: I’ve never been quite so relieved to reach an interval as I was when I saw this. But that was because the play had captured truths that I’ve never seen represented so clearly before. The truths are uncomfortable and undeniable and necessary.

McGuinness has found a way to think about the death of a family member that seems as signficant as Robert Lepage’s Dark Side of the Moon. In that play, Lepage suggested that the loss of a parent is like occupying the far side of the moon: the earth is there but no longer visible to us – and all we see instead is the vastness of an empty, infinite space.  McGuinness does something similar, especially in the play’s final image, when he (and Mason) capture the vertiginous uncertainty that death evokes in all of us.

There’s also an important link with McGuinness’s work on The  Dead, which played at the Abbey last year. One of the ways McGuinness allowed Joyce’s short story to function on the stage was by theatricalising its use of music – and its musicality. He did that by drawing carefully from the works of Thomas Moore.

Here, McGuinness again uses music, this time featuring (of all things) a song from The Mikado half-way through the first act – which is sung by Buggy and Rea.

I’ve written a few times already about the use of music in Irish theatre – something we’ve seen in Shush by Elaine Murphy and The Night Alive by Conor McPherson already in 2013. I worry slightly about the frequency with which this technique is used – often enough now to be called a trend.

But in The Hanging Gardens, McGuinness shows how music offers the only way for father and son to be fully honest with each other. In the beauty and simplicity of the voices, this moment recalls a scene in Juno and the Paycock in which Mary and Juno sing Verdi’s “Home to Our Mountains” together – something they do so beautifully that they transcend the indignity of their environment. We sense from McGuinness’s inclusion of this song that the family have unseen levels of emotional and intellectual depth, that they have an appreciation of beauty, an attachment to each other,  a wicked sense of how to derive humour from the juxtaposition of the serious with the apparently trivial.

This scene doesn’t have the show-stopping impact that the dance in Friel’s Lughnasa had back in 1990. But as a moment that allows for an intensity of focus from the audience, McGuinness’s use of this song bears comparison with Friel’s iconic set-piece.

Both Friel’s play and McGuinness’s were directed by Patrick Mason, of course – and one of the pleasures of seeing The Hanging Gardens is to be reminded of those great nights at the Abbey in the 1990s when Mason produced or revived so many marvelous Irish plays, from Lughnasa to Observe the Sons of Ulster to Constance Wilde and By the Bog of Cats. It’s great to see Mason back directing new writing on the Abbey stage.

And as an aside let me mention that Marty Rea has a very beautiful singing voice.

None of the statements above is intended to suggest that the play is in every respect perfect. I think some viewers may find that the family’s second act resolution of their conflict happens too easily. That scene made emotional sense to me, but I think some may find it too sharp a turn in the play’s direction. And I also suspect that some may have difficulty with a long scene in the first act in which each of the four family members in turns confronts – and is upset by – the father. This sequence feels almost intolerable, not only on the grounds of realism (it eventually feels predictable –  when we see one character appearing on stage we know they are next in line for an abusive confrontation with the father),  but also because these confrontations are so  unrelenting that it becomes difficult to stay with the action. I suspected that we were intended to see the scene as (perhaps) not the real world but as a mixture of reality with Sam’s imagingings. But in any case the scene is emotionally exhausting.

Yet this is indisputably a major new Irish play, and an important moment also for McGuinness’s status within Irish drama – reaffirming  his centrality and importance to our theatre.

The production is also very well designed. Michael Pavelka’s garden set mixes the dark green of the lawn with vivid, bloody reds, producing an atmosphere of calmness that seems ready at any moment to bleed into chaos. He also places a sundial on the back wall, which, under Davy Cunnigham’s lights, causes time to shift confusingly,  adding to the strangeness and intensity of the play.  Finally, I’ve already praised Denis Clohessy’s sound designs in Streetcar Named Desire and Dusk Ahead  but I again must say how good his work  is, both in terms of his presentation of birdsong as well as incidental music.

So far the play has been reviewed once, in the Irish Times, where it received only three stars and a fairly mixed response. Well, everyone is entitled to an opinion, but I hope that such views – and in particular the three stars – don’t discourage people from going to see this. If you value playwriting that is brave and honest – if you appreciate world-class design and courageous acting – if you believe that theatre has to be painful before it can be healing – then you should see this play. Better yet, bring three or four people with you. I think we need to support this kind of work, to make sure that we don’t wait another 14 years to see a new Frank McGuinness play on the Abbey stage.

You can find out more about the play on this interesting Youtube clip from Frank McGuinness.

and this one featuring Patrick Mason

The Abbey website also has interviews with all the cast.

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What Makes Stephen Brennan a Great Actor? – Thoughts on Halcyon Days

Last night I went to see Deirdre Kinahan’s Halycon Days at the Town Hall in Galway. It’s playing until Saturday and is well worth going to if you’re in that part of the country.

The audience, as sometimes happens on Tuesdays in theatres, was a bit chatty. This can happen in any theatre, really. You’ll get people who give a running commentary on the action (“Oh Jesus, look what he’s after doing!”). And then you get some who gently mock the dialogue or the characters, as happened last night when in the fourth scene one of the actors moved a cup of tea poured in the first scene – prompting one person behind me to whisper to her companion “your tea has gone cold mister!” And then of course you get people who comment between scenes – “what do you think”, “that was good”, etc.

None of this really bothered me – Halcyon Days is the kind of play that puts people at their ease and involves the audience thoroughly from the start, so to a certain extent people were responding as they would to a good movie on TV.

One of the things that struck me was that after each scene change, I kept hearing different people around me saying the same thing: they were all saying variations of “he’s very good, isn’t he?” to each other. The “he” in question was Stephen Brennan, and it was clear that while many people knew who he was, many others didn’t. But almost everyone was very impressed by him.

I found myself wondering about this. The play is about two people in an old folks’ home, one played by Brennan and the other by Anita Reeves. And I thought both performances were excellent. On a technical level, the two were equally good – and I thought both parts were equally well written. Yet it was Brennan’s performance that the audience kept talking about. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Reeves’ performance – quite the opposite. But there was just something about Brennan that people kept responding to.

This experience emphasised to me that it’s very difficult to define what makes a great actor great. In the Dublin theatre scene at the moment, I find myself consistently being impressed by the performances of Denis Conway, Declan Conlon and Owen Roe, to give just three examples of male performers. But while they have all given ‘great’ performances during the last 10-15 years, they are not all ‘great’ in the same way. In fact, they are very different from each other: Roe and Conway have both played the Irishman in The Gigli Concert, for example – and while I was astonished by both performances, they were also very different from each other. And one of the best performances I’ve seen on a Dublin stage in the last decade was Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s Arturo Ui at the Abbey a few years ago. And what made it great is that the only person who could have played that part that way was Vaughan-Lawlor himself.

So in thinking about Brennan’s performance last night, I can point to things that seemed admirable. I admired the physical discipline that allowed his character to seem about 20-30 years older than Brennan is himself. He also showed that the character’s apparent infirmity was partly based on fear rather than any genuine physical problem – and he did this by allowing the character sometimes to lose his self-consciousness and move without thinking. And there were just some nice details: for instance, he wore pants that seemed just slightly too big for him, so we had the sense of his character becoming thinner, fading away slightly. Some of this of course is the work of the playwright, director and designers too. Yet the audience kept talking about how good Brennan was.

He has, I think, been great in many performances, but there are three that really stand out for me.

One is his performance of Hamlet, in a mid-1980s Abbey production directed by Michael Bogdanov. I was too young to go at the time but have watched it on video, and was very struck by the dignity that Brennan gave his Hamlet in what was otherwise a (deliberately) chaotic production. At the time of watching the video, I jotted down a note saying that ‘his movements seem deeply felt’. That phrase doesn’t make much sense, I suppose, but what I meant by it was that Brennan didn’t actually need to say anything to communicate Hamlet’s thoughts – they were evident in whether he chose to stand up straight or not, in how he held his head, in the determination and pace of his steps, and so on. And I also liked that he delivered the words in his own accent: that doesn’t happen often enough in Ireland, even now.

Another that I remember very vividly is his part in the second play in Nancy Harris’s No Romance, which appeared at the Peacock a couple of years ago. That production involved three inter-linking but separate plays. The first part was good, but among the people I chatted with at the interval there was a definite sense that we weren’t sure how things would go for the rest of the production: there was promise there but also a few problems. Then Stephen Brennan came out in the second play and within five minutes of his appearance, there was a definite sense that the audience had forgotten their hesitation and were now fully involved in what they were seeing. This was probably because Brennan was so funny, brilliantly capturing the self-loathing and self-deception of a feckless middle-aged man in a funeral parlour. By the time people emerged from the theatre after the third play, there was a definite buzz: a real sense of enthusiasm for the play and for Harris’s future as a writer. And I think a lot of that was due to Stephen Brennan’s performance. That of course was made possible by Nancy Harris’s script (male ineptitude is something she’s especially good at, as evident from her other play Love in a Glass Jar). But I wonder if the play would have been as successful if someone else had played that role.

Finally there was his performance in Conor McPherson’s monologue play Port Authority, which was staged about 10-12 years ago. Brennan played one of three men who delivers a monologue directly to the audience. And in some ways he had the toughest job because his character was the least likeable, and his story the least credible (in the sense that it was so unbelievable it actually rang true).

On the night I saw the play in the Gate, there was a woman in the audience who had a very distinctive laugh. Whenever one of the actors cracked a joke, the audience would laugh – including the woman with the funny laugh – and so then the audience would laugh again at the woman’s laugh. So many of the jokes were generating two bouts of laughter. The other actors didn’t really pay much attention to this (it wouldn’t have suited their characters) but Brennan started to work around the woman’s laugh – timing his jokes around it and at one stage improvising a simple “I know” in response to her. It was as if he was saying that only a character as feckless as he was could have wound up in a theatre being laughed at by someone like her. This wasn’t in any way mean-spirited: there was actually a moment of identification between the woman’s discomfort and Brennan’s character’s perpetual state of self-loathing.

What made that impressive is that Brennan’s actions – far from being a crowd-pleasing breaking of the fourth wall – actually made the play work more fully. McPherson’s stage direction in Port Authority is that the action ‘takes place in a theatre’. That meant that the characters are actually talking to us – so Brennan’s responsiveness was entirely appropriate. And it also made sense in terms of his character – who had enough self-knowledge to know how ridiculous he was to other people (including the audience) but not enough awareness to actually change.

A lot of what I am describing is the craft of acting. And I’m also, I think, writing about the art of acting too, which (to generalise) happens when the actor gives something of himself or herself to a role, at once making it individualised (we believe this is a real person) and universalised (we believe that these feelings or experiences could be ours, at least potentially). I think Brennan does both of those things very well: his Hamlet is not necessarily the best I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the more memorable because it was different from any of the others. No-one but Brennan could have played the role that way. In contrast, most of the other Hamlets I’ve seen tend to blend into each other.

But I’m also trying to describe one of the things that makes a stage actor different from a film actor. Brennan has an extraordinary ability to listen to and thus to guide an audience. (Rosaleen Linehan is also brilliant in this respect.) He knows when to withhold a line and when to give it, when to drop the tone of his voice to fill a space made empty by audience inattention or some distraction in the auditorium, and when to hold back on the expression of a character’s emotions. I think people nowadays tend to see him as a comic actor, and while it is certainly true that he is very funny, he does many other things very well too.

I don’t want to romanticise acting in stating all of this. But I do think we could do with more writing about acting and actors in this country – about how they do what they do, about the decisions they make from one night to the next, about why audiences will feel compelled to whisper to each other during scene changes that someone was good. I’ve been thinking about what is meant by those whispered ‘isn’t he’s goods’. Do they represent surprise? Appreciation? Delight? I don’t know. But I see this happen all the time when Brennan is on stage, and I’m not sure how to describe what he does – how to record it, if it can be recorded.

I’m struck by this issue every time I read a review and see performances described as ‘compelling’, or as a ‘tour de force’. I think these are words that reviewers or academics use when they don’t actually know how to describe what they are seeing. For instance, I’ve called both Reeves and Brennan ‘excellent’ in this post but that word doesn’t really say anything about how they do what they do, how and why it works, and what makes Reeves excellent in ways that Brennan is not – and vice versa

And finally… the play itself is enjoyable, and it’s great to see Deirdre Kinahan doing  well: there’s a definite sense at the moment that her time has come. I’m going to be interviewing her on Friday at the Synge Summer School (together with Mark O’Rowe and Owen McCafferty) and am looking forward to that a lot.

One other observation I had is that a lot of Irish writers have plays that in some way tackle dementia – Bailegangaire, Dancing at Lughnasa, Friel’s Aristocrats, Morna Regan’s Midden, and quite a few others. This underlines for me the way that Irish writers remain very focussed on memory, and how they see memory as metaphor for the construction of a character’s identity.

But that’s another topic.

An Enemy of the People at the Gate

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed An Enemy of the People at the Gate Theatre for Irish Theatre Magazine. It’s a good production and I’d encourage people to see it.  Below is an excerpt from the review. The original with images and a full list of cast and crew is online here: http://www.irishtheatremagazine.ie/Reviews/Current/An-Enemy-of-the-People

Ibsen’s 1882 An Enemy of the People is sometimes described as a problem play, in that it dramatises a  debate between two brothers about the nature of morality and individual responsibility. But that term might obscure the fact that it’s also quite a confused play: Ibsen himself was unsure whether to see it as a comedy or something more serious.

It has many of the ingredients of a Restoration-style romp (improbable entrances and exits, characters hiding behind screens to eavesdrop upon others). Yet it also has what Ibsen called a “serious basic theme” – namely, the question of what happens when an individual forces a society to accept as true something we would rather ignore. In exploring that issue, Ibsen was responding to the public outcry to Ghosts, a play notoriously described as an “open sewer” and a “loathsome sore unbandaged” by scandalised critics. Ibsen’s hero Dr Stockmann is thus often seen as a surrogate for Ibsen himself, and the play’s suggestion that the truth must be told, whatever the cost, is often viewed as Ibsen’s defence of the necessity for plays like Ghosts. But because of that identification between the writer and his hero, it’s sometimes forgotten that Ibsen was ambivalent about Stockmann, describing him as “an oddball and a hothead”, while also acknowledging that there was much to admire about him.

READ THE REST OF THE REVIEW HERE: http://www.irishtheatremagazine.ie/Reviews/Current/An-Enemy-of-the-People