Arrah-Na-Pouge @ The Abbey Theatre

January 19, 2011

Dion Boucicault’s Arrah-Na-Pogue, this year’s Christmas show at The Abbey Theatre, is decoratively directed, badly cast (though not badly acted) and is a painless if not particularly pertinent night at the National Theatre.

The fugitive Irish rebel Beamish McCaul (Rory Nolan) is given shelter by Arrah Meelish(Mary Murray), and is set to depart on her wedding day to Shaun the Post (Aaron Monaghan), who knows nothing of his bride-to-be’s arrangement. When his aristocratic lover Fanny Power (Mary O Driscoll) expresses doubts over his fidelity, he decides to postpone their flight until his faith in her is returned. This allows Colonel Bagenal O Grady (Peter Hanly), a rival for her affections, to enter the equation and for the treacherous Feeney (Jack Walsh), a British sympathiser, to use his living arrangements to falsely implicate him in a crime of the heart (with Arrah) and to sell them both out to Major Coffin (Michael Glenn Murphy). Issues of life, loss, longing and loyalty emerge from the double crossings, misunderstandings and deliberate falsehoods perpetuated by the leading characters as a chorus of red coats and peasants highlight and challenge traditional stereotype through some pleasing vaudevillian work.

Director Mikel Murfi brings a great sense of fun to the staging of this piece, where actors tippa tappa on and off stage carrying cardboard cut outs of bushes and houses, ride stick horses and carry fake sheep under their arms and during one ingenious moment has every prop in a stately home (the fireplace, the table, the tiger rug) come to life, played by the ensemble. There’s involving live accompaniment from Conor Linehan, a magnificent set (all swirling steel and silver against multicolored trappings) by Sabine Dargent and some fantastic entrances and exits, where actors jump on trampolines hidden in the floor, slide down slides and dangle above the stage on wires.

But this sense of fun stops short of transferring to the performances. They commit, technically, to the moments of high farce and high drama but never really convince of their affections for one another or for their country and since they haven’t captured any of the emotions that goes on between the mirth and the melodrama (the paranoia that leads Fanny to doubt Beamish, the struggle for comprehension that Beamish is supposed to undertake to understand the consequence of his actions) the whole thing tickles ones aesthetic fancy but feels antiquated since the same consideration is not paid to the characterization.

The cast are as you would expect. Nolan is loud and clear as Beamish; O Driscoll is barely present as the impetuous Fanny, Murray is slightly too harsh to be successful as the ingénue (though this being Murray she gives it her all) while Glenn Murphy gives an exaggerated turn as Coffin.

Monaghan is the most affecting as Shaun the Post, his self sacrifices and singing of “The Wearing of the Green” lending the show its only moving moments while Walsh’s training with Marcel Marceau shines through in his ability to be wildly over the top yet at all times credible proving that you don’t have to be disingenuous to get a laugh. Peter Hanly is a solid rival for Fanny’s hand while, from the supporting cast, Ciaran O Brien and Peter Daly are most memorable as Winterbottom and Oiny Farrell.

While there is some magnificent language to play with the cast seem unsure how to approach it, fingering the pearls within Boucicault’s script awkwardly and exposing their neck rather than committing to them as if they were their natural vernacular. They never mug, for which they should be commended, are word-perfect and have conquered the dreaded ‘oirish’ dialect but the scenes never match the energy and panache of the changes. And although the plot zips along and never drags, despite its nearly three-hour running time, you never invest in the fate of any of the characters.

At the end of the evening you’ll leave the theatre blown away by Murfi’s knack for handling scene changes, be bowled over at how he has devised the separate entrances and exits and appreciate his skill for building a set piece. His aesthetic vision is second to none. But he is let down by his inability to make the characters in this piece seem alive or relevant. Nothing ever feels like it’s at stake – which given that several relationships are put to test, three lives are at risk and at least two hearts are broken- is a major failing. This is a Christmas show and you know that you’re in for a happy ending, but you should be able to suspend that knowledge for the two and a bit hours you spend in the theatre and absorb the ups AND downs of the story. That doesn’t happen here. It has all of the energy of a classical pantomime but none of the heart.

Arrah-Na-Pogue is running until 5th February at the Abbey Theatre. Tickets range between €38 – €15

Photo credit: Colm Hogan


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