Much that is very right about Garry Hynes’ starry 75th anniversary revival of O’Casey’s classic play — and most of what’s wrong with it as well — has everything to do with the commanding presence of Michael Gambon.
The storied performer has returned to the city of his birth (and the theater where he made his professional debut) to inhabit the role of “Captain” Boyle, and inhabit it he does; this is a magnificent performance, an old-style star turn the likes of which are rarely seen anymore, particularly on Dublin’s stages , where ensemble performing has become the norm.
Production as a whole has clearly been designed as a vehicle for Gambon, and the other performers strain openly and vainly to achieve a style that seems to come naturally to him, a problem which, combined with Hynes’ embrace of the play’s melodramatic qualities, sends the evening careening at times into caricature, particularly in its first act. Producer Noel Pearson has put this package together with a clear eye on Gotham, and Francis O’Connor’s gloriously soaring set certainly would do a Broadway house proud, as would Gambon’s performance, but some overall smoothing of tone and performance styles seems called for before this production faces an audience relatively unfamiliar with the play itself.
The appearance of the battle-maimed Johnny Boyle in front of the first-act curtain is the first cue to Hynes’ take on the play; unlike Ben Barnes’ acclaimed recent Abbey production, which read the play for what it had to say about Irish politics then and now, Hynes has contained the tale within the four walls of the Boyle household and the words of O’Casey’s script rather than look for wider resonance.
First act establishes “life as usual” chez Boyle, as daughter Mary prepares to meet her beau, mother Juno readies herself for work, and son Johnny frets and sulks by the fire, ever-fearing (presciently) that he’ll be victimized by the Republican cause that his injury has forced him to leave behind.
Into their tatty sitting room falls the drink-soaked Captain, as ever in the company of his feckless sidekick, Joxer Daly. Gambon’s performance and his appearance embrace and highlight the character’s contradictions: He’s a repellent, self-indulgent, grown-up baby, garbed in Beckettian tatters and a ridiculous nautical cap (his seagoing credentials, after all, are dodgy at best) who nonetheless wields a deadly charisma. It’s impossible not to be mesmerized by the play of emotions across his doughy face and his physical control as he lurches and leans. O’Casey’s love of music hall and vaudeville is evident in the play’s first-act shenanigans, which Gambon undertakes with glee — hiding saucepans in cupboards and forcing Joxer out a window.
But a style that flows from Gambon seems forced in his fellow actors: John Kavanagh has already put his imprint on Joxer — he played the role against the late Donal McCann’s Captain in the 1986 Gate “Juno” which won raves in a brief New York run — but he here seems to be playing a parody of another performance , perhaps his own. His squawky, exaggerated, focus-pulling antics signal way too soon that he’ll sell his friend upstream for his own gain. And Marie Mullen, a Tony winner for her sensitive performance in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” is so physically and vocally strident here that one almost feels inclined to condone the Captain’s carrying-on.
Dawn Bradfield (another Leenane Trilogy vet) is a surprisingly pale Mary at first, and the usually seraphic Brid Brennan simply seems miscast as the lusty upstairs neighbor Maisie Madigan (though both perform beautifully in the heart-rending final act), while Cillian Murphy fails to make something more interesting out of what is a one-note character in Johnny. The more minor players shine: David Wilmot as Mary’s straight-up local boyfriend Jerry, Pat Leavy as the comedy-killing mourning mother Mrs. Tancred, and Declan Conlan as Mary’s new beau Bentham, who brings the family news of its unexpected inheritance.
Things start to even out in the transitional second act, as the Boyles’ overspending starts to catch up with them and the style of performance seems to tighten around their reducing circumstances, bringing home O’Casey’s virulent indictment of the nouveau bourgeoisie.
And all is nearly forgiven with the stunning image that opens the final act: Mick Hughes’ faint lighting streams through open slats in O’Connor’s walls onto the Boyles’ now-empty flat, revealing Mullen slumped on a packing crate and Bradfield leaning despairing on the fireplace — a breathtaking portrait of defeat. Mullen is now in her element as she bravely shoulders her mantle as grieving mother, and the last appearance of the Captain and Joxer, staggering with drink and dissolution, provokes the necessary final wallop of indignation and pity in the audience. Hynes’ rationale is now clear — she’s playing up the extreme comedy in the first act to offset the extreme tragedy of the last — but the current problem is that some of her performers simply can’t pull it off.
The scale of this production is rarely seen in Ireland, and its Dublin opening was certainly a national occasion — the prime minister was in attendance, as were three foreign ambassadors (including America’s) and the cream of the country’s thesp population. And yet there was the clear sense that an Irish stage is not the intended nor the rightful home for this production. Where it clearly wants to be — and where, with smoothing out, it could make a considerable impact — is Broadway.