The Hanging Gardens at the Abbey Theatre

January 9, 2014

Glancing over the plays our National Theatre has staged over the past 12 months it would seem they came very much cap in hand to the paying public, mounting productions they hoped would become sure-fire hits to help clear deficits left by risk and litigation

It started promisingly with King Lear but faded with each passing production. From the hoodlum bluster of Richard Dormer’s Soprano’s aping Drum Belly, (enjoyable enough but entirely lacking in originality or social commentary) to Elaine Murphy’s hen flick nodding Shush, which director Jim Coulleton appeared not to understand ,having his cast play it for menopausal laughs alone. Worst of all was The Hanging Gardens, moribund mush from McGuinness and Mason, a dull, vapid, regurgitive money grab that trotted down a thematic road, so well scorched that it seems no new grass will ever spring from its well raped roots.

Mason has dragged the bad habits that have made a nothing of his work at the Gate into the Abbey. A cast on auto-pilot, a production without a point and an impressive set that is supposed to compensate for the tension vacuum on stage.

“What is worse than adults whining about their parents?” says Barbara Brennan’s Jane, a Diarmuid Galvin-esque horticulturist who loves plants more than she loves her own children. The answer: Actors who can’t commit! Marty Rea, Cathy Belton and Declan Conlon play the “Queer, the whore and the dinosaur”, the three fucked up children of a once brilliant writer (Buggy). They have returned-or in the case of Conlon, have remained, to stake their claim on the home place and to settle the score with their difficult Da. But McGuinness is so hung up on Buggy’s dementia addled lead that he gives no thought to the rest so that, in spite of being-on paper, roles that could have been written for them, the actors seem unsure of what to do, an uncertainty that manifests in a lack of energy. (Paging Mr. Mason! Code Blue!)

Brennan is old hat at making something out of nothing and sucks up whatever scenery Buggy hasn’t bellowed away with his ranting and raving, but as always she is performing for an audience only she can see and misses the hard cruelty of a character that is co-fountainhead of the familial despair.

The real crime here is how any of the new playwriting hoisted upon us this year got near a rehearsal room? While there is some truly beautiful poetic writing, particularly in Buggy’s climatic monologue, the rest of it is ham-fisted exposition and stage directions tarted up as dialogue. Like Shibari before it, it takes an almost speed dating approach to form, where each character gets a little moan with Buggy, before another takes over, then the other and eventually we have a big (anti) climax.

But unlike Shibari the issues and characters explored are old hat. Do we really need another daddy bashing drama on the Irish stage, filled with tired coming out stories, conspicuous conceptions and ‘driven to drink’ disappointments? We’ve had King Lear already this year. Why give it to us in reverse?

The Hanging Garden’s has another thing in common with that earlier show. It has been excused of its failings because of its central performance. For me said performances were part of the problem.

Buggy moves from lucidity to lunacy quite comfortably in a way that undoes the awful power of the disease. His loss of control, his flailing grip on his memory, it’s calculated. His outbursts are timed, not the result of frustration and confusion. He projects a suitable showiness, an ability to transform before our eyes, but it has more to do with changing decibels than finding a truth within the situation and make it live on stage.

This production was sold on its marketable credentials and swallowed because critics- and many who work in an industry built on polishing polyps, never demand more of our actors, particularly those who have become so admired all they need do is show up.

Nine out of ten times a show flys or flops depending on what they either do or are given to do. It’s a suitable irony that we paid to watch a story of a writer unable to come to terms with his present only for it to be felled by a playwright hung up on themes of the past.


One Response to “The Hanging Gardens at the Abbey Theatre”

  1. Donald E Morse Says:

    this is a terrible review that reveals far more about the opinionated person who wrote it than about the marvelous play by McGuinness brilliantly directed by Mason with five fine actors. The topic is timely and fresh. Try reading Dementia in Ireland,then reconsider the play. DEM

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