Review: ‘At Swim-Two-Birds’

Nothing is sacred here, least of all anything mythic and Irish: The great hero Fionn MacCool is here a mad old ranter whom everyone talks over and around, and king Sweeny is a raving idiot who swings from trees. Johnston and director Jimmy Fay add their own innovative bit of parody in a very funny film sequence that puts across a great deal of necessary information with admirable economy.

Nothing is sacred here, least of all anything mythic and Irish: The great hero Fionn MacCool is here a mad old ranter whom everyone talks over and around, and king Sweeny is a raving idiot who swings from trees. Johnston and director Jimmy Fay add their own innovative bit of parody in a very funny film sequence that puts across a great deal of necessary information with admirable economy.

By and large, this young creative team have succeeded in finding a stage language that is as distinctively theatrical as O’Brien’s writing is wholly and necessarily literary. Johanna Connor’s superb set is an unfolding magic box that , in tandem with Trevor Dawson’s excellent lighting, creates distinctive and blessedly clear playing areas.

Fay’s direction is pacy and often very clever, but many of the transitions between bits of action are clunkily handled; one wonders if there was a smoother and perhaps more magical way to make the shifts between plots and characters that this complicated story requires.

Where Fay’s production truly shines is in its casting: Nearly all of these actors seem born to play their characters, from Johnny Murphy’s bramble-encrusted Fionn to Tony Flynn’s beautifully physicalized Sweeny to Anto Nolan’s dopily declaiming Shanahan to Robert Price’s scary, bug-eyed Orlick. While Mick Nolan seems ill-at-ease as the god-fearing Uncle, he is in his stride as tortured Trellis; and Ronan Leahy deserves special mention for the clarity and intensity of his portrayal of the Student.

At Swim-Two-Birds

(COMEDY; PEACOCK THEATER; 91 SEATS; $:10 ($ 17) TOP)

Production

DUBLIN A National Theater Society Ltd./Abbey Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Alex Johnston, adapted from the novel by Flann O'Brien. Directed by Jimmy Fay. Sets and costumes, Johanna Connor; lighting; Trevor Dawson; sound, Dave Nolan; stage manager, Audrey Hession. Opened July 29, 1998. Reviewed July 28. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

With

Kelly/Shanahan ..... Anto Nolan Orlick/Linchehaun/Lover ..... Robert Price Brinsley/Furriskey ..... Karl Shiels Student/Lamont ..... Ronan Leahy Fergus MacPhellimey ..... Ned Dennehy Fionn MacCool ..... Johnny Murphy Uncle/Trellis ..... Mick Nolan Sweeny/Verney Wright ..... Tony Flynn Teresa/Good Fairy/Newsreader/ Cow/Hag ..... Catherine Walsh Peggy/Lover/ Prostitute ..... Maeve Coogan Mr. Corcoran/ Jem Casey ..... Brendan Conroy Shorty Andrews/Moling ..... Kevin Hely Slug Willard/Christian Brother /St. Ronan ..... Niall O'Sioradain Chalk up another success for young playwright-on-the-rise Alex Johnston, and open up the box office phone lines: The Abbey has a summertime hit on its hands with this delightful adaptation of "the most undisciplined novel in Irish literature." Flann O'Brien's swirling 1939 novel was a forerunner of postmodernism in its self-conscious layering of plots, competing narrative voices and magpie parody of genres from mystery stories to cowboy movies. Finding a way to capture the irreverent and anarchic hilarity of the novel would seem a near-impossible enterprise, but 27-year-old Johnston, winner of the prestigious 1998 Stewart Parker award for new Irish playwriting, here exhibits as sure a hand with comedic adaptation as he did with contemporary relationship comedy in his recent "Deep Space." In O'Brien's novel, none of the plots takes precedence over another; Johnston understands that theater audiences need a narrative line to hold on to, and makes the basis of his version the story of the dissolute Student, who spends his days in bed and his nights in the pub, much to the distress of his uptight Uncle, with whom he lives. But the Student is much more than a lazy sponger; he is also a darkly tortured writer who is penning a novel about a writer named Trellis, who is himself writing a novel about a devil-creature named the Pooka, who creates a depraved character named Furriskey ... and so the story, or rather layers of story, go, frame collapsing into frame, characters revolting against their authors.
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