Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Shadow of a Gunman: an energetic production of Sean O’Casey’s version of Coronation Street at the Lyric

Donal Davoren (played by Mark O’Halloran) is a poet and remains on set for the entire one hour forty minute duration of The Shadow of a Gunman. He’s a thin sockless figure, hunched over a manual typewriter on which he batters out poems when he’s not distracted and disturbed by the ever more colourful people who barge into his presence.

It’s May 1920, and Davoren enjoys being the mysterious lodger in the tenement. He plays up to the seemingly romantic notion that he might be a runaway IRA volunteer, giving rise to his private admission that he’s only “the shadow of a gunman”. But in the midst of ambiguity, some locals make false assumptions and their interactions with Davoren have extreme implications and repercussions.

Seumas Shields (David Ganly) peddles brightly coloured children’s toys, though he has the bushy beard of a man who may have been asleep for 50 years or more. He wishes the conflict would end and spars endlessly with Davoren.

While sticking to O’Casey’s text with its Dublinisms and deliberately mistaken words, director Wayne Jordan has created a very distinctive version of the classic Irish play. The language is dense and it took me a few minutes to break into the rhythm and accents. Even towards the end, some dialogue descended into muttering.

There is more than a hint of Schaubühne’s An Enemy of the People about The Abbey and Lyric Theatres’ joint production of Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman. The basic one-room set is built from wooden panels of wood, like an enormous study in brown by Sean Scully. There’s larger-than-life, animated hand-waving acting. There’s a use of distance between characters coupled with the invasion of personal space. The cast rearrange the set between acts accompanied by a booming soundtrack. So many contemporary theatre boxes ticked.

With a cast of eleven, there is no part-sharing in this full-scale production. Character development is unusually minimal: the cast adopt the personas sketched out by O’Casey and remain remarkably consistent from the moment they appear on the stage until the curtain drops at the end.

Adolphus Grigson (Dan Gordon) is a treat that playwright O’Casey and director Jordan reserve for the second half of the play. The bombastic, alcohol-infused Orangeman quotes from the Bible and disrespects his long suffering wife (Louise Lewis) as the nightly curfew is briefly overtaken by farce.

Amy McAllister, who plays the 23-year old patriot Minnie Powell, is perhaps the most watchable character on stage with her fidgety feet and expressive eyebrows that charm Davoren and later get her into trouble.
“That’s right. Make a joke of it. That’s the Irish way all over.”

Last night’s packed audience laughed and giggled their way through the play, finding the laughs that O’Casey buried even at the darkest moments in the play.

There’s deliberate incongruity in the costumes and props with an anachronistic mix of styles and decades. The otherwise drab set is brightened up by costumes (including a 1960’s A-line mini dress and some tracksuit bottoms that wouldn’t look amiss on any number of local estates) that are in contrast to more sedate Davoren and Shields (who wears long-johns and holds his trousers up with braces).

There’s no interval, yet the play takes its time. While there’s plenty of movement on stage, two minutes pass at the start before a word is uttered.

Sarah Bacon’s one-room wooden-walled set with a single door to enter includes two picture windows overlooking a back alley that is frequently integral to the action. It’s implausibly larger than an 1920’s flat, but the expansive floor space allows characters to be placed with a beautiful proportion across the room.

Leaving the Lyric last night, some people I spoke to were unimpressed with the extravagant gestures, modernist set and animated acting. Certainly, the enormous moon that descends was a surreal step too far! Yet the moments of modernity mostly work and are there to remind audiences that the themes of O’Casey’s play are still relevant today. Written only a couple of years after the ending of the Irish War of Independence, O’Casey already knew that it’s the civilians who can suffer the most in conflict.

A poignant play that balances tension and humour so delicately that it failed to build up empathy and left this member of the audience impressed by the energetic production but less than enthusiastic about the original writing.

The Shadow of a Gunman runs in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre until 6 June before transferring to The Abbey Theatre in Dublin (12 June - 1 August).

Photos by Ros Kavanagh

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