Sunday, February 1, 2009

Afterplay and The Yalta Game

Brian Friel - Photo by Bobbie Hanvey

GATE THEATRE DUBLIN and the SYDNEY FESTIVAL present Afterplay and The Yalta Game by Brian Friel at the Parade Theatre.

AFTERPLAY and THE YALTA GAME are both short "entree" one act pieces.(Interestingly, they are usually presented together, sometimes with The Bear, as a full night's entertainment, whereas the Festival has presented these works as separate pieces.Two Admission costs.) Both the plays are little "gems" of entertainment but are hardly a substantial experience singularly.

With AFTERPLAY, Mr Friel has taken the indulgence of re-imagining two of Chekhov's characters from two different plays, Sonya from UNCLE VANYA and Andrey from THREE SISTERS, and have them meet in Moscow approximately twenty years later. Without knowing the original characters the play is a meeting of two depressed and self deceiving humans. Strangers to each other. Each in middle age looking back with invention and regrets at the lives they have had. The characters are pregnant with human fraility and failure. Both display a solace in vodka, both hold onto hopes through the fug of alcohol. They pulse with sadness.

If you do know the characters from the original sources, then, there is a layering of knowledge that deepens the stories that we are told in this creation. Curiosity about the Serebriakov's and their small circle; of the Prozorov's and their friends too, and what may have happened to them impels one to pay attention with anticipatory anxiety. For instance, as Andrey invents and expands on the events in the life of Masha, Natasha, Protopopov, Bobik etc we are either pleased or sometimes protest, mentally. Some of us have other imagined lives for those people.

The setting for this production is in a beautiful but quiet restaurant, resplendent of an elegant time in nineteenth century Russia. It feels pre-revolution and there is a kind of nostalgia in the design (Liz Ascroft) and warm lighting (James McConnell) that really gives us no sense of the great tragedy/drama that has happened in the intervening time since we last encountered these people, of a Revolution and Civil War. The given circumstances of these two performances have no sense of the bigger events that surely would be obvious in the capital of Moscow, and although we have no textual reference other than the statement of the time dates that have passed, would underline sub-textually, even further, the sadness of these lives.

Sonya is played by Francesca Annis and Andrey by Niall Buggy. Under the direction of Robin Lefevre the two actors give highly theatrical performances. The technical delivery,timing and exhibition of choices are highly polished. Vocally and physically we are given very experienced calibrations of the technique of pretending. It is an oddly old fashioned kind of acting, admirable but no longer really believable on a twenty first century stage. There is a vocal flourishing and trumpeting in the line deliveries and a physical display of gestural energy and surprise, all very actorly, and, truly, an admirable display of the actors craft and technique, but belies real belief in the turmoil of the lives of the people in front of us. Like the ignoring of the given circumstances of the time and its influence of it on the lives of the characters, the acting has been guided by the director to give a theatrical truth of the moment of playing but there is no sense that either of these two characters on stage have had a life time that has led them to this moment in time when we re-meet them, or that they will have an existence beyond what we see and hear here. (Stalin is not to far away.) The play begins, these characters speak and move through the text and the play finishes. Certainly, we, the audience have not been challenged to the Chekovian ambiguities and confrontations that we are used to when we last met them. I believe it is not in the writing where we have been failed, but in the direction and acting. For this text confirms the great gift of the story teller that is Mr Friel, and underlines even further his deep observation of the human condition that FAITH HEALER revealed last week. This production does not do justice to the writer's offer.

THE YALTA GAME is an adaptation of one of the best of Chekhov's short stories, LADY WITH LAPDOG. With direct speak to the audience and then interaction between the two protagonists of the original, Gurov (Risteard Cooper) and Anna (Rebecca O'Mara), Brian Friel has made a very charming and captivating adaptation.

The director (Patrick Mason) and the designer's (Set: Liz Ascroft; Lighting: James McConnell; and especially Music and Sound: Denis Clohessy) have made very supportive and creative choices in propelling the narrative and atmospheres in the story telling. Ten wooden and ugly chairs with a stage width oblong of sky background are all that is given. The use of these tools are imaginatively engaged and are simply enough to employ the audience into the imagining in this story telling.

Rebecca O'Mara as Anna gives a performance of effortless lightness and infectious juvenility, totally winning and believable in the wide range of the emotional journey of this woman. Genuinely moving and deserving of my empathy.

On the other hand, Risteard Cooper as Gurov, the roue on the boardwalks of Yalta, did not seem to have the full measure of the tragic possibilities of his character. Playing a game, Gurov, becomes entrapped in the feelings that the lady with the lapdog stirs in him. (I couldn't throw off my memory of Marcello Mastroianni with his creation of Gurov in the Russian director, Nikita Mikhalkov's film DARK EYES, an adaptation of the same story. The distress and human decay of the shock of the stealthy experience of love and then its loss was tragic in the hands of Mastroianni and beautifully contrasted with the comedy of the earlier game playing he revealed.) Mr Cooper hardly gets past the roue. Technically, the vocal work lacked the finish of thoughts and even, sometimes,sentences. It was not very engaging work. Standing beside a luminous and skillful performance by Ms O'Mara, Mr Cooper's offers, contrasted his relative lack of commitment.

The aim of the GATE THEATRE OF DUBLIN to present A Celebration of The Work Of Brian Friel was a mixed success. Certainly the "genius" of Mr Friel was apparent but the productions and the performances (other than that of Rebecca O'Mara and Ingrid Craigie) were disappointing.

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