The Silver Tassie at the NT

I am just back from  a very good production of The Silver Tassie at the National. I need some time to digest it before I can write something detailed, but wanted to share some thoughts straightaway

The last time I saw this play, it was in a 2010 production directed by Garry Hynes for Druid. I caught it at the Gaiety Theatre – a venue for which it was well suited, both in terms of scale (it’s a big play) and theatre history (Tassie has its roots in music hall and melodrama, genres that the Gaiety was somewhat associated with).

As often happens with Druid, one of the first things that Hynes did in that production was to de-familiarise the play. Druid audiences often arrive at the theatre thinking they know what they’re going to see: “this is a play by John B. Keane/Sean O’Casey/Martin McDonagh – so we all know what that means”. This is especially true for O’Casey, a writer cursed by the fact that audiences think they know his work extremely well, when in fact they only know three of the 20+ plays that he wrote. So with Tassie Hynes immediately faced the challenge of preparing audiences for the fact that they were not watching Juno or Plough.

She did this by heightening the theatricality of the play. The famous “difficult second act”, set in the trenches, has several expressionistic elements in O’Casey’s script – a large gun, the use of music and chanting, the use of poetic language, and so on. The Druid production exaggerated those elements so that, for example, Francis O’Connor’s set was dominated by an enormous cannon, while Davy Cunningham lit the backdrop in a  sickly luminous green (as shown in the image below).

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Similarly, the third act (set in a hospital ward) opened with John Olohan and Eamon Morissey standing in front of an enormous red curtain, both wearing bowler hats – placing them somewhere between Laurel and Hardy and Didi and Gogo. So the direction and design in the Druid production always ensured that the audience were distanced from the action (in a Brechtian sense) – they were always being reminded that they were watching a play – and thus were better able to go along with its strangeness.

That approach is probably necessary in Ireland, because O’Casey is so well known, but although Druid’s production was very well received when it toured to the UK, it’s also fair to say that audiences in England are less familiar with O’Casey and thus are in some ways likely to be more open-minded about his work.

Here Howard Davies as director plays the action fairly straight: the staging and performance styles are largely realistic, albeit to a heightened extent in the second act, and also in a particularly vivid and moving concluding coup de théâtre that highlights the role of women in the play. The second act here seems almost naturalistic; the use of song is strange but is not entirely unrealistic.  Where Hynes’s Tassie drew out the expressionist elements of the Dublin Trilogy (such as the scene with the Speaker at the window in Plough), Davies in contrast draws out the realistic elements that we find in, say, Juno and shows how they follow through into Tassie. It’s interesting that Davies’ Juno (staged at the Abbey a couple of years ago before a transfer to the NT) and this Tassie are very similar in tone and visual impact.

The overall impact of both Hynes’ and Davies’ Tassie is to confirm for me that this play is not an interesting failure (as it’s often described).  Having now seen two excellent but very different recent productions of the play (not to mention the excellent opera version, staged about 12 years ago I think), I think that we need to re-imagine the so-called Dublin Trilogy of Shadow, Juno and Plough as a tetralogy that includes Tassie. This is partly because audiences now have caught up with O’Casey: if you’ve seen a play like Godot you can understand the use of the comic double act in Act 3 of Tassie; if you’ve seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, you can understand why O’Casey sets the final scene in an ante-room, a place that is close to but separate from a performance being staged nearby. Act 2 – the scene in the trenches – is of course thoroughly original, but it also anticipates many of the innovations and techniques of Brecht. In short, Tassie’s time has come.

So as I was watching tonight, I found myself imagining how wonderful it would be for an Irish audience to be able to see Tassie and the other three major plays in a single production, with a single ensemble. As the RSC did when they staged all eight of Shakespeare’s history plays back in 2008, the O’Caseys could be staged in order of composition (Shadow to Tassie), and they could also be staged in chronological order – Tassie, Plough, and Shadow – finishing with Juno. I feel we’d learn a lot during this so-called decade of commemorations in Ireland if we had the opportunity to see O’Casey being staged in this way.

I know that an idea like this was proposed a few years ago and was the subject of a disagreement between the Abbey and Druid. It’s a pity that it didn’t work out. The move from Tassie to Juno gives us an Ireland that was part of the UK, changing into a country that had just become independent. Think of that final scene that O’Casey gives us in Juno: two drunks in a hall while the two women at the centre of the play have left the stage, to raise a baby that would be treated as an outcast in Ireland because its parents were unmarried. O’Casey gives us a vision of independent Ireland that still has relevance: he presents it as a place that would be intolerant of women, vicious towards “illegitimate” children, easily exploited by wealthy elites (especially from abroad) – and a place, finally, which would be a comfortable enough home for feckless wasters and cute hoors like Captain Boyle and Joxer. Juno is a play that anticipates many of independent Ireland’s worst failures, and can warn us against repeating them.

Leaving that (probably unrealistic) idea aside, there’s a lot in this production to be delighted by. I loved the set design by Vicki Mortimer, which thoroughly refutes the idea that this is an unstageable play. The tenement in Act One is stunningly transformed into a ruined monastery in Act Two – which in turn becomes the backdrop to the hospital in Act Three. The final act drops walls in front of these structures: we know they are there but can only see them fleetingly. The image below shows her design for Act Two – a very interesting contrast to the image above from Druid.

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Aside from the fact that Mortimer ensures we don’t get a break in the action (and energy) between the first and second acts (the transition is seamless), there’s also a suggestion that the Irish soldiers bring Dublin with them to the trenches – and that they bring the trenches back with them to the hospital when they return. And the final act shows that the First World War is a presence in Ireland that has been rendered invisible because a new “narrative” was imposed upon it. This is thematically very interesting, but it’s also theatrically very effective, giving unity and coherence to a play that is often seen as composed of different parts that don’t necessarily fit well together.

It’s also fascinating to me that the NT chose this Irish play to commemorate the beginning of the First World War. I found myself wondering how Tassie might speak to England’s sense of itself and its own history. The First World War, you could argue, brought about Irish independence: it’s impossible to imagine the Easter Rising and the Anglo-Irish War without the context and impact of WW1. I found it very interesting that the second act of this production featured so many English accents: the Irish characters were shown here  interacting with English soldiers as equals in the trenches – so for this English audience the “them” that Irish characters often represent in other plays here became an “us” that represents a shared past. At a time when a lot of people in England are expressing anxiety about the possibility of Scottish independence, it’s really interesting to view a production that adopts a mildly nostalgic view on a time when Ireland’s position in the UK still seemed secure.

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Also interesting of course is that as yet we have not seen much in Ireland about WWI. The only thing I can think of that is  relevant might be the staging of War Horse at the Grand Canal Theatre, but while its show programme drew attention to the centenary of the outbreak of the war, that context went largely unremarked at the time. I do know that some companies are planning revivals and new productions that will address the legacies of the Great War in 2016, so perhaps we’ll all be complaining about commemorative plays by the time 2018 rolls around.

Two last things to note.

The acting. As you’d expect, some of the accents wander a bit from Dublin – to Cockney or Belfast. But this doesn’t detract or distract from the performances of an excellent cast. Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy are very funny as Si and Syl. Ronan Raftery is a very good Harry: heroic in the first act, creepy in the last one. There’s a lovely touching scene between him and Aidan Kelly towards the end, in which Kelly talks about being Raftery’s eyes, while Raftery can be his legs (a nod to Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand – no wonder he rejected the play). And Judith Roddy has an excellent performance as Susie Monican, the religious zealot who is humanized (and secularized) when she gains the attentions of a staff doctor. O’Casey has a lot to say here about social class and social climbing (and religion), but I understood with Roddy’s performance how Susie’s transformation is intended to parallel and contrast with the change in Harry. That impressed me.

And finally it was great to see a programme note in there from James Moran. He is the author of a book from Methuen by Sean O’Casey (declaration of interest: I am the series editor). It’s a very stimulating study that argues for a new look at O’Casey, and which comes at his work from a well informed theatrical perspective. It could (and should) stimulate further productions of his works. As I write above, O’Casey did keep writing plays for more than 30 years after Tassie. The Druid and NT productions show that this play deserves more attention. Are there any practitioners out there who might like to prove the same point about some of his other plays, such as Within the Gates, Red Roses for Me, or The Bishop’s Bonfire?

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Timon of Athens returns to Dublin

I am intrigued by news of the forthcoming Dublin production of Timon of Athens at Project Arts Centre.  By my count, this will be the seventh time the play has been staged in Dublin – ever.

It’s thus one of the least performed of Shakespeare’s plays in Dublin: the only plays that have been performed less frequently in the city are Titus Andronicus (3) and Troilus and Cressida and Two Gents (once each). And between 1660 and 1904, there are no records of performances for Pericles, Love’s Labour’s Lost or the three parts of Henry VI.

To put those figures in contrast, between 1660 and 1904, there were 622 productions of Hamlet, 475 of Macbeth, 453 of Richard III, 422 of Othello, and 381 of Romeo and Juliet.  In other words, Shakespeare was always very popular in Dublin – it’s just that Timon itself was for a long time regarded as unstageable and uninteresting.

These figures, by the way, are taken from the Irish Theatrical Diaspora database on Shakespearean Production. The research was done by Deirdre McFeely.

The earliest recorded production of the play in Ireland comes in 1714 at Smock Alley (about 45 years after its first recorded London production). There was another in 1741 in Aungier Street when the role of Apemantus was taken on by the great Anglo-Irish actor James Quin, who had previously played the part in a Covent Garden production.

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It was done again in 1761 (on 3 June to be precise), and we actually have quite a good idea of who was in it. Henry Mossop played the lead role, and there is a good cast list in the National Library. Originally from Galway, Mossop had joined the Smock Alley company in the 1740s, before joining Garrick in London. Mossop took over Smock Alley in c. 1760, where he spent a lot of his time trying to fend off competition from a rival company run in Crow Street by Spranger Barry. It’s curious that he chose to stage Timon during this period: it’s not a play that has ever drawn a crowd (until quite recently – more about that below), though it’s notable that it was advertised as a play “written by Shakespeare”. In other words, the marketing strategy was to highlight the author rather than the play. 

It was done again in 1783, again at Smock Alley. And in 1817 the great Edmund Kean played the role in Crow Street. Not much is known about the performance in Dublin, but in 1907 The Irish Times ran a feature about Kean’s performances in Dublin, and it noted that staging of Timon.

We have no other record of a production of the play until 1972 when the Abbey Theatre hosted a visiting production of the play by Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. The lead role was taken by  Ian McDiarmid, a great actor who is still best known for playing the role of the Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi and those awful prequel films that We Shall Not Mention. In an interview with the Irish Times in 2008, McDiarmid recalled that production with some embarrassment: apparently, a Dubliner in the front row shouted “you’re murdering the Bard” to the actors.  “I could do nothing but agree,” said McDiarmid.

Having said that, reports at the time (again in The Irish Times) berated Dublin audiences for skipping the play (which only ran for a week). Faced with a choice between Timon and the newly-opened Brendan Behan play Richard’s Cork Leg, most Dubliners went for the latter.

The image below shows McDiarmid in a Citizens’ production of Life of Galileo from 1971:

Ian McDiarmid playing Galileo at Citizens theatre

 

The play does crop up in Irish culture from time to time, however. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there were a lot of public lectures on Shakespeare around the country, and there are records of packed-out public talks about Timon in Cork and Dublin. And it’s quoted from time to time, usually in response to political events of the day. For instance, a letter to The Irish Times about Watergate quotes from the play. And in the 1980s there’s an interesting reference to Charles Haughey and Timon in that newspaper, with particular reference to the links between politics and money: a fascinating example of the Irish tendency to hint at the things that everyone knows but which no-one will say.

The most recent major production of the play was at the National in London, where Nick Hytner re-set the play to contemporary London. Suddenly Timon’s story seemed sadly apt: Shakespeare’s treatment of the relationship between profligacy and debt – and the human and societal cost of bankruptcy – seemed stunningly relevant when re-set to the City of London shortly after the 2008 Crash. And the direction of the poet in the play – performed not just as a sycophant but as a parasite –  highlighted the Faustian pact that artists enter into when they seek patronage from the wealthy.

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In the lead role, Simon Russell Beale (shown above) was (as ever) sympathetic and charismatic.  And the production’s  design and direction managed the difficult trick of making the play seem contemporary without contrasting too heavily with the original text.

But the production didn’t quite dispel my feeling that this is a very odd play. The shift from the first to the second half is thematically interesting but theatrically confusing: Shakespeare matches Timon’s wealth with formal dynamism, while his impoverishment is performed in much longer, more plodding scenes. And where Lear’s loss of everything makes him massively sympathetic, Timon remains difficult to care for.

Hytner addressed these problems with some careful cutting (as well as the inclusion of some passages from Coriolanus), but my feeling about the production was that it found a way to stage Timon that could not be repeated: Hytner had chosen it for a specific time and place, and it had meaning in that context. But could it be revived or toured? Not without the loss of something, I think.

So it’s a play that needs to be cut and/or adapted. Hytner’s adaptation offered one approach; the 1817 version was also an adaptation and it’s likely that the versions staged in the 1700s  were not of the original play but of Thomas Shadwell’s version (this is certainly true of the 1714 production). The AC Productions staging of the play is described as an adaptation – so it will be interesting to see what they make of it.

The production opens at Project next week – and the Youtube video below has already been released for it (note the inclusion of an image of a newspaper from 2014, suggesting a contemporary setting and/or context).  It’s certainly a play for our times, asking difficult questions about debt and how we treat people who once had money but now have none – I’d imagine that Irish audiences might see in Timon something of Sean Quinn or Tony O’Reilly.  Should be worth catching anyway: we might have to wait another forty years before it’s done here again…

Pirandello, Irish Dramatist?

For the last few months, I’ve been hearing some interesting rumours about a new production of Pirandello’s Liolà at the Royal National Theatre in London – full details here .

The NT publicity is quite interesting:

Sicily, summer 1916. Gossiping and singing, the women gather to harvest old Simone’s almond crop. He’s the richest landowner in the district but he has no heir. Local lad Liolà, untroubled by convention, has fathered three little boys, each with a different mother, and that only intensifies Simone’s anguish. When another of the girls falls pregnant, Simone is persuaded he might recognize the baby as his own. But he’s forgotten the charms of his slighted young wife Mita, who is not so easily crushed.

All I should say, girls, is don’t be too sweet, lest you be eaten!

This high-spirited drama by Pirandello takes us to the heart of a rural community where property and family provoke fierce passions.

Sounds good, at least potentially, yes?

But here is the part that caught my attention:

Richard Eyre directs Tanya Ronder’s new version, performed by an Irish cast and gypsy musicians. It’s unexpected, funny and touching.

It’s important to state from the outset that this is indeed a great Irish cast, with lead roles being played by three of our greatest actresses: Aisling O’Sullivan, Eileen Walsh, and Rosaleen Linehan.

But I have to confess to being slightly unnerved by references to “an Irish cast and gypsy musicians”. I can understand the idea that rural Sicily might map on to rural Ireland in some ways, especially in terms of such issues as Catholicism, land ownership, the role of women, the suppression of sexual desire, and the relationship between vernacular/folk culture and modernist theatre (a link that can be found not only in Pirandello but also in Lorca and Synge, among others). And there have been Irish versions of Pirandello before, especially by Thomas Kilroy.  So this seems like a potentially interesting mix.

But what catches my attention is the year in which the play takes place: 1916. That year obviously has a certain resonance in an Irish context, both in terms of the Rising and the Somme. It’s difficult to see how that can translate over to a Sicilian context. It appears that the play will be set in Sicily but that lines will be delivered in Irish accents, so I suppose we shouldn’t take matters too literally, but I suspect that the historical resonances could prove confusing for any Irish people in the audience.

I am sure that Tanya Ronder’s script will be carefully researched. And I am fully aware that Richard Eyre has a detailed knowledge of, and respect for, Irish drama. But I wonder who, in the list of creative personnel attached to the show, will be able to take responsibility for ensuring that the Irish elements of the production are coherent? And I also wonder why the decision was made to go with an Irish cast? It would be interesting to find out.

And does it matter that the adaptation is being written by an author who doesn’t seem to have much of a direct link with Ireland (though she has had great success with previous adaptations of Lorca and others)? She is,  after all,  writing for Irish voices, and that requires knowledge of the differences in our vocabularies, rhythms, and so on. Perhaps she has much more knowledge than I am aware of.

The NT has done something like this before, of course. In 2004, the English dramatist Rebecca Lenkiewicz staged a play there called The Night Season, setting it in Sligo. In a newspaper profile at the time, Victoria Segal explained the decision to set the play in Ireland as follows:

Despite having some Irish blood in her background, the playwright has never lived there… [Lenkiewicz] wanted to use Irish voices to facilitate her lyrical language, aware that the same words in an English accent might sound ‘flowery’’

Segal goes on to explain that the author, together with the play’s director Lucy Bailey, went on a so-called ‘fact-finding’ mission to Sligo in advance of the production’s opening (and apologies that I can’t link to the original article ).

I didn’t see that production but again it had a great Irish cast and while some of the language in the script struck me as unrealistic, the play itself was good. But at the time I was bothered  by the idea that an author would choose to relocate an English story to an Irish setting simply to make the poetry of speech seem less flowery – and that a visit to Ireland is all that would be required to achieve authenticity.

In the event, those concerns didn’t seem to matter much to the play’s core audience.

But for similar reasons, I am curious about the decision to set Liolà in Sicily, but to cast it with Irish actors.

It would be wrong to judge a play that I haven’t seen, and it’s great to see so many fine Irish actors getting such exposure. But I’ve been wondering in recent blog posts (including this one on Roddy Doyle and another on Conor McPherson) whether Irish literature is seen in London not as a national literature (i.e. as writing from Ireland) but as a kind of genre – one that involves music, a rural setting, permissible levels of “floweriness” in speech that would be impossible in Standard English, strong women and weak men, and so on.

It remains to be seen how (if at all) the author and/or director of this adaptation will explain its Irish features, and it remains also to be seen how well it will be received. But it’s interesting to see this adaptation coming at the same time as a new adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments hits London, while Once continues to do well. It’s also notable that in the current Booker longlist, there are three Irish authors, two of whom (Toibin and McCann) are being tipped as potential winners (at least in Ireland, anyway).

So times are good for some Irish playwrights, some  Irish actors, and some Irish novelists in London right now. And that can only be a good thing.

The key question though is whether this represents a success for work that is Irish (in the sense of coming from Ireland) or work that seems “Irish” (in the sense of corresponding to a set of characteristics that are seen as such)? Is “Irish theatre” a national dramatic literature or a kind of genre or performance style?

A partial answer to that question may be available when Liolà completes its run. Over on The Guardian, Michael Billington has already reached one conclusion in his review:

I enjoyed the evening but it left me with a question: isn’t it slightly patronising to treat Ireland, as we so often do, as a handy stand-in for any rural community, whether it be in Sicily, Spain or Chekhov’s Russia

Good question. I’d wonder what this says about the representation of the rural within England itself?