Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Review of 'The Great Hunger'

Tom MacIntyre's version of Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger is now 25 years old; last night Balally Players opened their revival at the Mill Theatre, Dundrum. In his programme notes, director Geoffrey O'Keeffe emphasises the importance of the play as 'a touchstone in Irish theatre-making' which 'rejected the restrictive confines of an intellectual, naturalistic idiom and created a theatrical language that was inventive, visceral and engaging'. It's a brave choice, since the text could now seem a rather dated sub-Beckettian piece of theatre. However, O'Keeffe's production, driven by strong performances, shows that it's worth having another look.

The freshening-up starts with Gerard Bourke's set, which features big sloping slashes of corrugated iron topped by an ironic deeply-blue Mediterranean sky and a disconnected gate which goes from nowhere to nowhere. It also helps that the Mill is a small space, with the audience close to rather than physically distanced from the performers. It's clear that Beckett is the greatest dramatic influence on MacIntyre, and if the play is to work, it needs to echo not just his techniques, but his tenderness with his characters. There's plenty here that seems to come from Godot, Happy Days or Endgame - the bleak landscape, the snatches of language, the repetitive rituals, the comic set-pieces, the silences, the gesturalism - but thankfully the actors also manage to imbue a sense of warmth and humanity to their characters.

We admit that here at SCC English we're hardly disinterested, but the greatest credit goes to Evan Jameson in the central role of Patrick Maguire. A big presence on stage, Jameson uses his size and expressive face to powerful effect, dominating the production (he is on for almost all of the 100 minutes). He plays Maguire as a big gawky child, with touches of Max Wall and John Cleese, bewildered by life, innocent and sometimes infantile (he ends the production in a foetal huddle). At one stage (as on the poster), he spends several minutes upside down on the gate, an arresting image of the freshness he brings to the part. It's a hugely demanding and physical role, and he's the main reason why this production is emotionally engaging.

The rest of the cast support effectively, especially Maguire's male friends Francis Cahill as Malone, John Canning and Packy and Oran O'Rua as Joe, and the women Jacqueline Dooley (Mary Anne), Judy McKeever (Agnes), Niamh Daly and Siomha ni Aonghusa. Significantly, the Schoolgirl as played by Niamh Holland often seems the most mature individual in the story. In this production, the women's sexuality is rapacious and hungry, whereas the men are baffled innocents (a barnyard animal sex scene descends into schoolboy giggling).

[added June 2009 - click here for a podcast review with Evan Jameson about the production]

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