Playing at the PACT Theatre, Erskineville, is a very funny comedy if you like your humour on the dark side and are reasonably familiar with the ‘Irish solution to the Irish problem’.
To get the plot out of the way one London reviewer put it succinctly:
The scenario could so easily have been fodder for a cliché-ridden, crudely manipulative piece: an Irishman, Englishman and American overcome their cross-national tensions to form a close friendship under the appalling strain of captivity. (A Curtain Up)
So much has been said about this play by Frank McGuinness prompted by the abduction of Brian Keenan in Lebanon in 1986 but whether or not it has in fact any bearing on the events of 1986 is doubtful. The use made of the ‘Irishman, Englishman and American’ is not so much the joke as the clue to it.
The play’s main difficulty arises from its structure. On the surface it has some resonance with Sartre’s Men Without Shadows (1946) but departs from that scenario in that the ‘enemy’ is never seen and only once, possibly, takes any part in the action. The threat, such as it is, comes from within. Even the death of the American, Adam, played by James Elliot isn’t actually part of the action occurring on stage. It’s signaled but not realized, marking the end of the first Act, or period of play. It is registered as a ‘death in custody’ only by the surviving ‘double act’.
The play’s concept seems to have more in common with Sam Shepard’s God of Hell in so far as it is a three way contest for the major part of the performance. Like Shepard, McGuinness uses a formidable battery of symbols to tell his story which get more complex as the play progresses. For the most part they are in the form of the games that the interns relentlessly play with each other. They mirror the progress of Irish politics in a world where allegiances are broken as a matter of course.
McGuinness is one of the major exponents of a kind of Fenian revival in Irish drama over the past three decades where politics are examined in the role play of the stage. It’s obviously not necessary to know the details but it does help appreciate the jokes. The historical time line here seems to have Edward, played by Ray Sullivan parodying Charles Haughey, and follows his three separate terms as Prime Minister (Taoiseach) marked by the unexpected arrival in the cell of the English teacher, Michael, played by Rod Byrnes and Adam’s later ‘withdrawal’ and ending in 1992*. It’s not something to lay money on but thats what it looks like. It might roughly be divided into the American alliance with the English détente at the end and a large slice of to and froing in between.
It’s only relevance to Lebanon seems to be that the Irish see themselves as kindred spirits in a world where force not right rules and it’s a case of catch as catch can. Maybe they are right. They are both displaced spirits fighting to keep what is left of home for their own prodigals to return to someday. It’s a play about exploitation. This form of politics is sometimes portrayed in gaol stories where the shifting alliances are between the ‘kings of the quad’ and their bitches. Fortunately McGuinness spared us this over worn symbolism and inventively found others for his story. One of the funniest is the Virginia Wade episode performed with much ham and relish by Byrnes and Sullivan although Chitty Chitty Bang Bang very nearly scored an ovation.
As for Elliot, he was given the task of opening the game with an example of controlled breathing delivering the Ella Fitzgerald number of the title while doing press ups. That was good but then he closed with a rendition of Amazing Grace while accomplishing a controlled supine recumbence. That was some feat! Given that it was to be his ‘swan song’ it was pure Monty. He also had the unenviable task of delivering the Song of Solomon, straight faced, as his wife’s ultimate ‘turn on’.
This is apparently the company, Ion Nibiru’s inaugural production. If so it was a leap of faith and successful launch with an accomplished Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang landing. The only possible flaw was in Nikola Amanovic’s deliberate pacing. Faced with the sheer volume of language including large chunks of monologues there is always the temptation to ‘get it out there’. It may have benefited from greater passages of silence allowing the symbolism to be reinforced in silent slapstick which was certainly evident but could have been magnified. It would have relieved the ‘hammer and tongs’ approach.
All three actors, Ray Sullivan as Edward, Rod Byrnes as Michael and James Elliot as Adam were well contrasted and delivered impressively sustained performances. The accents which are probably mandatory in this work were carried well for the most part although there was a distinct fuzziness in Elliot’s ‘American’ up to the arrival of Byrnes. After that it stabilized very well. While stage Irish is a supposedly well known ‘accent’ since Irish comprises more than a dozen different major patterns it’s very easy to slip between them. That said, delivery was excellent, movement agile and controlled and pacing formidable; they were three very fine performances.
The design of Nevena Mrdjenovic, whose debut it also was in terms of theatre design, was certainly Spartan and there was a nice touch in the colour co-ordination although I question the ‘blue’ as normally ‘green’ is associated with the field of combat. It may well have been a stage direction.
The stage at PACT however is a very broad space. Utilizing its full dimensions in this case may have worked against the extreme claustrophobia generally associated with this work. Its possibly implicit in the text as in the exchange between Edward and Michael whose ‘smell and breath sicken’ him. Not that the play is intended to be naturalistic but a more confined space may well have added to the bizarreness of the situation and a heightened hilarity.
Amanovic, designing his own sound, stayed for the most part in the realms of semi realism however at times he ventured into the extra terrestrial which added a nice touch to the more absurd role plays especially the tennis match.
Of the space itself it should be said that the acoustic leaves a lot to be desired. Any sharp volume increments result in shattering so that no matter what degree of diction is attained it is inevitably compromised. On a more personal note the seating is extraordinarily harsh and unforgiving. By half way through the production it was a case of ‘stage prop envy’, wishing for just a moment’s relief in one of those soft broken lounge chairs.
This production rates a definite ‘should see’ but take a cushion for your butt’s sake.
Ion Nibiru presents
Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me
by Frank McGuiness
Director Nikola Amanovic
Venue: PACT Theatre | 107 Railway Parade, Erskineville
Dates and Times: 13 - 20 March @ 8pm, 23 - 27 March @ 8pm
Matinees: 21 March @ 5pm & 28 March @ 5pm
Tickets: Full: $29 | Concession: $25 | Groups of 6: $20
Bookings: www.moshtix.com.au | 1300 GET TIX (438 849). * Booking fee applies