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Home – The New Theatre, Dublin

Writer: Megan O’Malley
Director: Fiona Frawley

Who is innocent and who is guilty? Only you can decide.

Home is the sort of play that when you think you have everything figured out it turns around and surprises you. Showing at Dublin’s The New Theatre Home also introduces the talent of writer (and performer) Megan O’Malley.

Tackling head on the sexual politics of a group of college students Home starts out as a spiky comedy. Each actor gets to show off his or her comedic ability as the audience peer in on their private conversations and meetups. It doesn’t take long though before one realises that there is so much more going on. Mike and Anna are on a Tinder date. Flowers, nervous one-liners and bad drinking games ensue. If only Anna’s sister Emily were not sat in between them glowering at Mike every chance she gets. Several hours later, drunk and tired, the trio make it home. The events of that night will unravel in police statements and court testimonies. The next morning Anna cannot remember anything that happened but when she discovers that she is pregnant one bad night is about to turn into a lifetime of regret.

There are no obvious winners or losers in this sharp political commentary that couldn’t be timelier with the ever-growing conversation around the Repeal the Eighth movement. Home avoids falling into didacticism and instead shows the murky grey areas between the laws provided by the constitution and real everyday lives. The early moments of humour fall to the wayside as the audience are drawn into the drama unfolding on stage. The play’s resolution is unique and deftly conducted. To avoid giving spoilers one cannot go into further detail except to say whatever you think will happen and whatever your political beliefs you will be surprised and entertained. The sadness that spikes the final moments are poignant are heart breaking. The uncluttered staging allows the words to speak for themselves in this memorable play from the Handy Baker Theatre Company.

Runs until 3 February 2018 | Image: Contributed

Women in Druid’s 2017 King of the Castle

Dublin Theatre Festival closed with a performance of Eugene McCabe’s King of the Castle. It was the first time that this play had been brought to the stage in over thirty years. McCabe is often seen as a faded Irish gem. The legendary and innovative theatre company Druid were the ones who decided to bring this play back to life. King of the Castle premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1964 so there is a symmetry to it being resurrected for the same festival. Perhaps it was with this in mind that the creators chose to stick closely to the original interpretation of the play?

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King of the Castle is set in rural Leitrim in the 1950’s. The agricultural community had survived for generations but the threats to this way of life only ever increase. This is symbolised by the character of Matt, soon to emigrate to Canada, and most prominently by Scober and Tressa. Married for three years they have been unable to have children. Scober has risen himself up from poverty to be the main property owner in the district. The men work for him and he is the new occupant in the ‘big house’, but without any one to leave it to what is it all worth? He wants to write his family name on the mountains; to feel ownership and roots in one place. The frustration of being childless is compounded by the attitude of Maguire; a working man with an intense dislike for Scober he takes every opportunity he can to needle his boss.

 

Right from the off the stage directions tell us that the men stare at Tressa “lecherously, smiling”, setting the tone for the following events. This was demonstrated excellently on stage. Tressa has been giving the men food and drink as they sit around talking at the end of the working day. She is assisted by an unnamed and silent woman who only features in this scene. Maguire is continually making inappropriate and pointed remarks. Soon these begin to effect Scober. Stage directions: “the old man, has been watching her with Maguire. He crooks a forefinger towards her; she goes up to him and pours into his mug. Unlike the other men, he watches the mug filling and not her. When it is full, he nods.” The scene is silent but weighty. Tressa is not spoken to, included or acknowledged. This exchange is uncomfortable to watch. One can argue that the scene has more bite exactly because Tressa is the only female; surrounded by men who all seem to have an opinion and something to say. She is often acted upon, rather than having agency and the freedom to dictate her own actions.

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It becomes clear that Scober and Tressa want children but have so far been unable to have them. It is suggested early on that this is the cause for discontent and the strained atmosphere on stage. It is also clear that it is seen as a failing of Scober’s. After the meal Maguire arranges to be alone with Tressa. His following words go on to shape the direction of the play. “What a woman for? … To drain a man – make a chile – and rear a man. ’Less she does that – she’s fat – good for nothing, but walkin’ about, chewin’ her cud, – empty – a loss…”. After making his point he digs the knife in by telling her that he is always available to solve their problem: “Empty – a loss – but that’s up to you – if he’s away – and you want service with profit – Jemmy can oblige anytime – with pleasure”. Said with a leer and so that no one can over hear these words are cruel and designed to both make Tressa uncomfortable and also to exert some influence over her. They echoed around the theatre.

 

One aspect of the play is treated so normally that it is almost easy to miss. It is not until the Second Act that we find out Tressa’s name. Until then she is referred to as “daughter” or “woman”. Although it was relatively common for a female to be called daughter in this part of the world by non-relative’s it is still striking that as the only spoken female role she is unnamed for such a large chunk of the play. Alongside this the only other female character only appears briefly and does not have any lines. She is a helper to Tressa during meal times. She is kept very firmly in the domestic sphere, pushed to the background by the working men.

This raises the question of could some of the background characters have been played by women? When one goes to the theatre one is choosing to suspend disbelief and be taken into a new world as the story unfolds on the stage. It is not much of a stretch from this point for typically male parts to be played by women. The Festival was criticised for the lack of female representation and this was keenly felt during King of the Castle. It is important to note that this production was directed by Druid founder and national treasure Garry Hynes, a woman who has bought to the stage some of the most exceptional plays that Ireland has seen in recent years.

 

One the other hand this play is very rarely performed and there is a truth in recreating the play as it was probably intended by the playwright. On top of this the treatment of Tressa shines out when she is surrounded by men. It emphasises her isolation and loneliness. Many of the comments are steeped in misogyny and cruelty. One can argue that they have greater bite when uttered by a bitter old man, face lined with stress and hard work, towards a young woman in a place that isn’t quite hers.

 

In a heightened conversation with Tressa Scober lashes out after hearing Maguire’s offer. His focus though is primarily on Tressa and sex. “Tomorrow – you’ll let me know our time’s up – the next day you’re bitchy, the next itchy”. In the harshness of his words his insecurity and fears that he does now really know Tressa are clear. “Below I watched you – goin’ ’bout with plates and teapots – lek as if you were stripped – on fire … You don’t sweat for me like that”. He feels betrayed and angry. His inability to father a child is a matter of personal failure, and perhaps in his mind an act of revenge upon him for his greed and the way he has exploited others for his gain.

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This final jibe from Maguire proves to be too much for Scober. He sets out to solve his problem in the only way he knows how: as a business man. In a breath taking move he bypasses Tressa and approaches the young Matt. If he impregnates Tressa Matt will receive payment and Scober will raise the child as his own. His desire to not lose face in front of the working men pushes him to take this unusual step. His anger and confusion come through in his conversation with Matt. He references the fact that Tressa is thirty years younger than he. “Twenty – six on the clock when I got her – and never had a hand on her – bonnet never lifted – so she swears. But for a virgin she’s well run in. sits on secrets like a broody hen.” Even when Matt is sat at Scober’s dining table, with Tressa bought down from her room to serve them food, he still does not tell Tressa his plan. This economic transaction feels a little like the way he deals with his livestock.

 

The morning after, with their lives irrevocably altered, Tressa stays with Scober. She is dismissive and contemptuous of Matt. She was initially attracted to Scober because he was a man who achieved, who made deals, who got things done. The audience feel her pain at not being able to reach Scober, to share their pain of childlessness. As a domestic drama King of the Castle is ambiguous and touched with sadness. The issues it raises around female representation, the patriarchy and the role of women still resonate powerfully today.

 

 

 

Knowing Nathan

Knowing Nathan – The Complex, Dublin
Writers: Tony Doyle and Laura O’Shea
Director: Claudia Kinahan

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(Laura O’Shea as April and Tony Doyle as Danny)

Knowing Nathan, currently running at The Complex, is the new play from actors and writers Tony Doyle and Laura O’Shea.

When Tallaght native Danny meets Limerick girl April in a pub on the Dublin Quays their lives will be altered forever.

Knowing Nathan begins with a kick. For the audience the jokes about Dublin and Limerick stereotypes went down a treat as April and Danny discover that they have a lot in common. The conversation moves quickly as does their relationship. Soon they go from meeting in pubs and bars to being introduced to the parents and sharing a home. Their relationship is hit with a surprise that will determine whether love will conquer all.

Knowing Nathan is funny and sparky from the off. As Danny and April’s monologues join together into one flow of conversation and ideas, the way in which they speak mirrors their relationship. There are many laugh out loud moments as their relationship begins to blossom. Doyle and O’Shea occasionally slip into other characters with just a change in stance and accent. They bounce off each other excellently and are convincing as a young couple in love and under pressure. As the narrative evolves Knowing Nathan becomes something delicate and full of emotion; surprising the audience with how much they can feel in the space of an hour.

The duo make good use of staging and props; evoking the idea of home, parents, pubs, a hospital and an empty bed with simplicity and fluidity. Knowing Nathan is a beautiful play that moves with ease between humour and sadness; told with sincerity and skill. I went into this play not knowing what to expect but this was an evening well spent. There was a full house and a standing ovation at tonight’s performance. Book ahead to guarantee a seat.

Runs Until 27th January 2018.

SAVE + QUIT

First Written for The Reviews Hub

SAVE + QUIT – The New Theatre, Dublin

Writer: Sophia Leuner

Director: Billie De Buitlear

Two Londoners find themselves having to decide whether it is time to move on. Two former best friends in Dublin look to see whether tragedy can bring them together once more. Save + Quit are two short plays connected by themes of moving on; of closing one chapter in life and deciding whether to walk towards another.

This is writer Sophia Leuner’s first work for the stage. It shows great ability and command of language. Comedy rubs up against pathos throughout. Class and the social divides that define a city are investigated through each character and their relationships with others. The audience laughed at the Tallaght / Dalkey romance and the city being separated by more than constant road works. The regional jokes played well in the second Dublin based half which also had some great moments of storytelling.

The young cast do particularly well at mimicking and impersonating others, switching between characters with just a change of stance. Save + Quit portrays both London and Dublin as cold and at times outright hostile places to live with the only chance for salvation being found in friendship. The isolation of urban life is picked apart as Joe and Steph struggle to manage as they move fully into their adult lives and as Cara and Dylan struggle to reconnect.

The stage is occupied only by two chairs with spotlights on each character as they speak. The hour fliess by as the face paced witty dialogue keeps the audience interested. Save + Quit is a character driven story that is full of wisdom as it unwinds. Adult growing pains are portrayed delicately, casually and with verve.

Save + Quit is a study of how we react when life throws up obstacles and changes. It is full of humour and with enough sadness to make a real impact. Worth a watch.

Runs until 20 January 2018 | Image: Contributed

Exit West Mohsin Hamid

“He understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.”

Exit West was listed by Barak Obama as one of his most inspiring reads of 2017 which makes this an interesting novel to review. I read this after I had finished reading but I wonder how much external reviews and recommendations affect the way we approach a novel? Exit West has been lauded by literary critics with the Guardian describing it as “magical”, in the New Yorker as “instantly canonical” and as one of The New York Times top ten books of the year 2017.

As it is the first half of Exit West is very enjoyable. We meet Nadia and Sayeed who live in an unnamed country (general consensus was Syria) as conflict and extremism starts to encroach on their lives. They are very different people when they meet. Nadia lives alone and has a wanderer’s spirit. She wants experiences and isn’t afraid to follow her feelings.

Clocked in black she separates from her family, has sex, indulges in recreational drugs, goes to underground concerts and does not pray. In contrast to this Sayeed has a comfortable home life with his parents but he dreams of travel and the stars. Far more devout that Nadia neither are quite what they seem.

Hamid allows us to peak inside the early days of their romance. First dates at Chinese restaurants, the reliance on smartphones and social media for communication, the slow path of discovery. It is sweet and believable. Although their city is swelling with refugees who have fled conflict they are preoccupied by everyday concerns and interests.

However, over time their lives become threatened. The government loses control to rebels and fighting breaks out; edging closer and closer to their city. Soon their city is under military control. Hamid does not dwell on the horrors that plague the city from this moment but there are moments that capture the brutality of life and the lack of control individuals soon have over their destiny. The novel begins to reflect the traumas of the past few years as the time spent under military control is resonant of the stories pouring out of areas previously held by ISIS. Soon we are taken on a journey to join the thousands of refuges who wash up on foreign shores.

Nadia and Sayeed hope they are not too late to find a way out of the city. They scrape together all the money they can and set out to find a trafficker who can get them to Europe. Hamid has a novel approach to their journey. A touch of surrealism seeps into the narrative and pulls Nadia and Sayeed along.

At one point there is a beautiful and clear description of the feelings of Saeed’s father, as he realises that the best thing he can do is to let the young pair go. He understood that they had a better chance of survival without him slowing them down. Again, the way Hamid describes this echoes the feelings that surely all parents must have at some point when they have to let go of their child’s hand. This was one of my highlights. “He had come to that point in a parent’s life when, if a flood arrives, one knows one must let go of one’s child, contrary to all the instincts one had when one was younger, because holding on can no longer offer the child protection, it can only pull the child down, and threaten them with drowning, for the child is now stronger than the parent …”

Hamid has a way of writing that is full of colour and precision. His sentences are very long and one thing that is surprising is exactly how short the novel is. Although I really enjoyed the way he writes there were other book clubbers who were not so keen, struggling with the way he played with grammar and sentences that were so long they felt unwieldly. One thing we all agreed on though was that the second half wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as the first. As Exit West progressed it failed to hook the audience and lost much of its purpose. Arguably literary technique took the place of narrative control.

The dystopian cities they encounter are frightening in their possibility and as civilisation becomes harsh, spiky and then begins to crumble, so does Nadia and Sayeed’s relationship. The life of the land reflecting the changes in their partnership. Whereas Nadia is freed from her home and her upbringing Saeed struggles. The further he travels the more he begins to identify himself with his homeland and all that was left behind. The way in which Hamid understands and captures this change is striking. Very rarely does one find such a nuanced depiction of migration. This is something that can be seen and experienced whether in regard to moving away to study or fleeing unimaginable violence.

Hamid details the dislocation and strangeness of the refugee experience with the human reality side by side with black magic of lost spaces. A worthwhile read for the new year.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry Review

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“we feel the lure of the unknown future distil into our bones”

It is difficult to know where to begin with such an exceptional novel. Days Without End, the 2016 Costa Book of the Year award winner, continues the success of celebrated Irish author Sebastian Barry.

This is part of his series dedicated to charting the fictional lives of two Irish families; the Dunnes and the McNulty’s. This book can be read alone. It is the first novel by Barry that I have read and he has been added to my list of authors to catch up on. Within the first few pages one realises why this is such a feted novel. Days Without End is narrated by Thomas McNulty, a Sligo born American, who finds himself caught up in the shifting landscape of the birth of modern America. He experiences the wars with Native Americans and then the Civil War. In between all of this he flees the Great Famine, finds his soulmate, dances with miners, graces the stage and raises a family of his own before going back out to live the life of a soldier. His thoughts on what it is to be a soldier are fascinating.

“We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars. We ain’t saying no laws in Washington. We ain’t walking on yon great lawns. Storms kill us, and battles, and the earth closes over and no one need say a word and I don’t believe we mind. Happy to breathe because we seen terror and horror and then for a while they ain’t in dominion. Bibles weren’t wrote for us nor any books. We ain’t maybe what people do call human since we ain’t partaking of that bread of heaven. But if God was trying to make an excuse for us He might point at that strange love between us”.

McNulty’s voice feels natural and believable providing the route into his thoughts and feelings. The novel does require some concentration as the language flows from McNulty’s mouth and mind. This carries the reader along but it also means that this is not a book that can be easily picked up and then put down again. Instead each chapter has to be consumed whole. It is through McNulty’s voice that Barry gets deep into the skin of McNulty, and through him into the forming body of a new nation.

“Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. And it is not like that now.” From these lines one can glimpse at how the language moves from the earthy reality of soldiering to philosophical moments captured between battles; in nights spent freezing and starving.

McNulty has an attitude informed by his early childhood in Sligo. The moments that touch on his life during The Famine and emigration are harrowing and make the past feel as though it can be touched. He tries not the think back on The Famine or the ship where he was “worth nothing”. The silence around the Irish in America, and the way in which they start to define themselves as American, speaks volumes about the horrors that had been left behind in Ireland. “In the army you meet a dozen men a month came from Ireland but you never hear them talk about it much. You know a Irishman because he has it writ all over him”. The reader learns that McNulty lost most of his family, watching them starve to death without hope or dignity. He travels by coffin ship to Canada where he and his fellow refugees are held in quarantine. The short description of this is powerful and sticks in the throat. After such tragedy he holds close any scraps of happiness, softness and love are available in such an inhospitable world. This imbues the narrative with a sense of awe and wonder.

Those who have already read this book will have noticed one glaring omission from this review. There is a love story, a friendship, that runs throughout Days Without End. It is delicately written and quietly beautiful. I am very keen not to spoil it for other readers. Many other reviews such as Harriet at Shiny New Books have touched up this while also investigating the ideas of personal identity that play an important role in the novel. For those who are interested in reading further on the subject here is an article from The Guardian, which although not specifically about Days Without End, is still worth reading. Personal and national identity, formulation and actualisation are timely topics. Importantly they feel natural, not as though they have been shoehorned in. This is also important when it comes to the representation of Winona, a young Native American girl who becomes a significant part of McNulty’s story.

Days Without End also has the feeling of a Western. Alongside the Irish trying to make their way in this new country early in the novel are clashes between Native Americans and the frontiersmen trying to branch out and control this new, often hostile and threatening terrain. The interactions between these two groups are frequently horrific and deceitful. “There were stories everywhere of rapes and robberies and sudden and vicious visits on out-of-the-way premises. Unless you were a witness how could you that what was true”. With the benefit of history however the reader knows not only the fate of the Native American tribes but also that this conflict will soon be usurped by another; the Civil War.

The novel is frequently very violent yet is line by line with a soft dreamlike quality that makes this such an unusual novel. Days Without End is surely one of the best novels of the year and deserving of a place on every bookshelf.

 

 

 

 

The Restoration of Hope – The New Theatre, Dublin

The Restoration of Hope

The Restoration of Hope – The New Theatre, Dublin

Writer: Philip St John

Director: Matthew Ralli

 

The Restoration of Hope is The New Theatre’s pre – Christmas offering for 2017 and it is an interesting choice. It has one of the most unusual plot lines to grace the stage this year.

The action begins in an office on the quays. A man walks in singing a medley of Christmas songs and he sets about decorating his office with tinsel. The festive cheer doesn’t last however when out of the blue a drowning woman appears. Standing inside a red triangle is the newly deceased Hope Whyte, played by Jody O’Neill. In shock it takes her a few moments to realise that she is no longer on Dun Laoghaire pier, and is instead face to face with a strange man wielding a Bounty bar.

Partly inspired by the Faust legend Hope is given the chance to be restored to life, for a limited period of time, but only if she commits to a blood soaked contract. Working with her mentor Larry McGraph, played by Nick Devlin, Hope has to decide what another shot at life is worth and whether she is the sort of person who can take that step. Added in to the mix is demon Luca, played by Shane O’Regan, who is out to capture as many souls as he can. Hope is not a normal victim; she is a single minded business woman who is prepared to negotiate even this devilish pact.

There are moments of humour throughout and the play alludes to the larger issues of the day at different moments. This individual story offers an insight into the wider issues of power, authority and revenge. At times The Restoration of Hope is dark and wicked, with it’s tongue firmly in cheek. Much of the play is a two hander between Devlin and O’Neill who bounce off each other and expose each others fears and weaknesses.

Carl Kennedy’s sound design works very well throughout. The audience enter the theatre to the sound of a Christmas theme with a dark undercurrent twinkling in the background. Lights and careful staging are used at times to create atmosphere and momentum. A driving scene is a particular pleasure. Similarly, although sparse there is a good use of props throughout (look out for the sword!).

This is the second part in The Eerie Trilogy by playwright Philip St John but it is not necessary to have seen The Temptress as The Restoration of Hope stands alone excellently. This supernatural tale is also a great anecdote to the sentimentality that predominates at this time of year.

 

Runs Until 16th December 2017.

 

Co – Produced by Speckintime and High Seas Productionss, in association with Mermaid Arts Centre and The New Theatre