“A portrait of the artist as a young man”, Pavilion Theatre – Review

“A portrait of the artist as a young man”, Pavilion Theatre – Review

James Joyce’s work wouldn’t look like the most likely candidate for a theatrical reduction; and yet, Irish theatre makers have engaged a lot with the writer recently.

Rough Magic opened their new production of “A portrait of the artist as a young man”, directed by Ronan Phelan and adapted by Arthur Riordan, at the Pavilion Theatre on September 28 to a full auditorium. Instead of an early 1900’ setting, we are thrown in the middle of a scant, abstract contemporary staging, with the cast ensemble wearing jeans (enigmatically too short, by costume and set designer Katie Davenport). A giant, faceless shape of the Virgin Mary overlooks the drama of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, searching for his identity amidst religious oppression, sexual desires and a rising artistic sensibility.

Stephen is played in turn by multiple actors and a metatheatrical device (the swapping of his Ireland jersey) has the different on-stage narrators constantly changed into him, a sort of visual match for the free indirect speech often used in the novel. An overall playfulness dominates the production, which is animated by an apparent desire of making this piece of high literature popular and accessible: the pop songs, the sing-along church choruses, the Irish mammy constantly pregnant and so on.

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Peter Corboy as Stephen Dedalus.

Gender fluidity has almost become commonplace in Irish theatre, betraying some sort of anxiety about political correctness. We see Stephen played by both male and female actors. Society, Irish and not, is in desperate need of gender equality; but is theatre – or art – the place where to fight this battle? Yes, it is a universal humanity we are seeking to discover through art, something that transcends gender; but there is also an essential, archetypal polarity in the representation of a man as distinct from a woman.

While all the cast were very good, standout performances were those of Amy Conroy (especially as Dante at the Christmas dinner) and Peter Corboy as Stephen Dedalus.

Overall, Riordan’s and Phelan’s adaptation makes for an effective distillate of the original and offers some powerful moments that somehow manage to add to it, while making Joyce step down from his pedestal.

 

“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” runs at The Pavilion Theatre until October 7, then tours around Ireland until November 3. Full details on https://www.roughmagic.ie/archive/a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man/.

“Look back in anger”, Gate Theatre, 7/2/18 – Review

“Look back in anger”, Gate Theatre, 7/2/18 – Review

Although written in 1956, John Osborne’s play “Look back in anger”, which opened at the Gate Theatre last Wednesday, still manages to sound current today and hurls us into the midst of a socio-psychological perfect storm.

Young Jimmy Porter (Ian Toner), of working class origins but well educated, is married to Alison (Clare Dunne), a middle class girl; they live in a one room attic flat in the English Midlands. Cliff (Lloyd Cooney) is their indolent, semi-cohabiting friend.

Jimmy appears like a pretentious, nasty, self absorbed intellectual, as interested in political and cultural  matters as in continuously measuring and asserting the distance between himself and a seemingly lower order of human beings, which happens to include his best friend Cliff and his own wife.

After a start where the character of Jimmy doesn’t elicit many sympathies, little by little the play challenges the audience with a more complex moral reading. Jimmy is obnoxious and dislikable as only uncompromising idealists are. He is cynical and misogynist, but his world of beliefs is the result of an uncaring mother and of a childhood’s traumatic event. He’s the child who doesn’t want to grow up, who doesn’t want to give way to adulthood and its loss of passion, but who still has to face the real world every day. He’s a fragile monster.

The moral compass, symbolised by the character of Helena (Vanessa Emme), Alison’s stern friend, gets seemingly broken by the comical twist at the end of second act, where moral contempt is unexpectedly turned into physical attraction, replicating Jimmy’s relationship with his wife.

In a play that is rather unbalanced towards monologue, Alison appears to be, in fact, more of a metaphor than a fleshed out character: she represents the coexisting attraction and repulsion of the working class towards the middle class. She also possesses the beauty and coldness of unattainable perfection.

In this anti “Romeo and Juliet” play, love doesn’t conquer all, but it is achingly conquered: by class division, daily routine, personal traumas, misogyny, narcissism. It is conquered by anger. Education doesn’t always turn out to be liberating, and sometimes only makes social frictions more acute.

The cast’s performances were all very strong, with Clare Dunne standing out for delectably polished naturalness.

I’ve personally found director Annabelle Comyn’s metatheatrical choices unconvincing. The voiceover reading of the playwright’s stage notes, the increasing dissociation of the actors from said notes, the set design (by Paul O’Mahoney) showing the theatre walls around the staged flat, were all aimed at “questioning the author’s voice”, to use the director’s own words. But why should we be questioning an artist’s voice, other than on strictly artistic terms?

While on a purely theatrical level these devices end up appearing as distracting, the distancing and dissociation from the roughness of the text present a more specifically ethical question: should art only be representing the good? Just because some of the issues present in the play – like misogyny and violence – are still painfully current it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see them on stage. Theatrical representation (or any artistic expression, for the matter) was never meant to be an endorsement of behaviour. We do not need to fight literary villains. On the contrary. We need to let them talk, and shout, and be as bad as they can be. Smoothing the unsightly parts of a work of art invalidates the very concept and nature of theatre and its cathartic power.

“Look back in anger” only real – that is, artistic – issue is that it doesn’t always succeed in lifting the autobiographical to the universal. Even so, it will still speak to many today. A complex and controversial work that is definitely worth seeing.
“Look back in anger” runs at the Gate Theatre until March 24. Further info / bookings gatetheatre.ie

* Photo by Luca Truffarelli