The Dead at the Abbey Theatre

October 28, 2013


The Abbey have all the trimmings of a great Christmas feast in their adaptation of the James Joyce short story The Dead. What it’s lacking is the meat. Set on the Feast of the Epiphany, during the Morkan sisters’ annual dance and dinner, it charts through the course of the evening the great sadness and loss that underpins the celebration, as memories warm then chill the heart. The Dead is a stark story about damaged lives, despite the fireside warmth its many party scenes project and Frank McGuinness’s wonderful adaptation uses the songs of Thomas Moore and other period artists to honey drip sadness throughout the production, so that beneath every bite that’s taken, every drink drunk and song that’s sung, that crucial pain of stricken souls should be felt, sharply.

It’s a show imbued with some gorgeous song and dance numbers and magnificent movement during scene changes. There are also some lovely turns, most notably the pairing of Rosaleen Linehan and Lorcan Cranitch as Mrs and Freddie Mallins, whose mutual way with a word makes you burst out laughing but also feel the sting, the harshness and hurt that charge each sour exchange. Anita Reeves, Ingrid Craigie and Alison McKenna, as our hostesses, ‘the three graces of the Dublin music world’ make an impact, pulling out a sense of triumph and tragedy from roles that capture that very Irish spirit, of living to fight another day, providing the piece with simple, but heartfelt, pleasures.

And the production design is simply marvelous. Dowling has framed the bustling action of the party with some splendid slow motion montages. A delightful choral delivery of Thomas Moore’s Oh, Ye Dead melts into a bustle of activity as the maid Lilly (Chaorlette McCurry) tends to the gentlemen’s coats, with Dermot Bolger’s exuberant choreography capturing the excitement and mania of the season. And when the ensemble retreat behind the see through wallpaper at the back of the stage, lighting designer Malcom Rippeth spots the conversations upstage or in corners, allowing us to witness the spread of gossip, the turmoil and tenacity that exists within each character-the personal lives behind what’s publicly presented.

It’s during moments like this that you feel The Abbey have really hit on a winner, a twinkling star for their Christmas repertoire. But a few dodgy bulbs need fixing. There’s an overall feeling of actors wanting to make a part their own at the expense of staying true to the spirit of the characters, to emerge from the shadow of that other adaptation, John Houston’s 1987 film. While it may seem churlish, pointless even, to compare works transcribed in different mediums, the ghost of the film haunts the decisions made by some of the actors, driving them to make interesting, if what feels like, disingenuous character calls. While others speak with overindulged bombast that betray their inability to come to grips with their roles.

The beautiful choral songs act as an entree to the pulsing sadness that should throb beneath, but not overwhelm, the story (at least until the end), yet Conor Linehan’s score too often blares over the words so the bitter flavor that shadows the characters lives is lost on the audience.

But it is the casting of Stanley Townsend that is most ruinous. He’s nearly twenty years too old for the part. Which is not in itself a problem. Donal McCann, the definitive Gabriel, was also well over the age. But unlike McCann Townsend fails to justify what appears on paper as miscasting, by locating the soul of the character-the nervousness, the insecurity, the indecision and the confusion. Never do we see the moment that warrants the productions decision to fly in the face of its source.

If you are not familiar with the story you will totally miss the sense of horror, hurt and foreboding that results in Gabriel’s own epiphany thanks to Townsends Malinhead to Mizenhead delivery, an epiphany which should resonate with an Ireland set to lose itself to the season as shadows swirl around us. He barrels through both his key moments- his after dinner speech and his final soliloquy, with the appreciation of a seasoned crime reporter stuck with the shipping news, missing completely the devastation that has been wreaked upon his wife, his marriage and his very person, with disastrous consequences for the production.

While his leading ladies, Derbhle Crotty as Greta, and Fiona Bell as Molly Ivers, work to empathise a sense of frustration and dissatisfaction, which is central to their characters- indeed the tale itself, he is a book on tape, broadcasting at a different frequency to everyone around him. It’s a cold, unengaged, gruff performance that results in this production mirroring the loss of potential and passion that Greta herself was deprived of.

There is so much to enjoy here. McGuinness’s script comes so close to capturing the spirit of the story. But another poor show from the Abbey casting department once again wrestles victory out of the jaws of greatness and throws it into the arms of mediocrity.

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