The question ‘why produce an Irish play written a century ago for a contemporary Brisbane audience?’ is an important one for the Foundry Theatre to answer with their latest production The Shadow of a Gunman. With 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the company is granted a foundation of purpose for an Irish play, however Sean O’Casey’s 1923 script comes with its own additional challenges. For a 1920s Dublin audience one month out from the close of the Irish Civil war, O’Casey’s script may have been harrowing and uncanny, however for an Australian 2016 audience certain degrees of distance and alienation are unavoidable. With Irish accents filling the show’s foyer before the show I was shown that this production had brought together a community of theatre lovers and Irish friends and families that would soon manage to almost fill a gigantic auditorium. This turn out was an empowering moment for the company of course, however the use of O’Casey’s script without sufficient adjustment turned what could have been an entertaining and evocative piece into a performance that generated mixed responses.
The script depicts weary poet Donal Davoren (Isaac Barnes) and his roommate Seamus (Patrick Farrelly) struggling to live in a Dublin tenement slum during the Irish war of Independence. With a war looming just outside their door, romances blooming amidst chaos, and a planting of bombs from supposed friends the show should have been dripping with tension and stakes for every character to enter the stage. Instead, the production lagged at times despite Donal, Seamus, Donal’s love interest Minnie Powell (Bianca Butler Reynolds) and the republican loving Tommy Owens (James Elliott) doing their best to drive it forward. The remainder of the characters dragged behind and provoked questions of crucial inclusion. As the play entered its second act the intrusions of various couples and tenants proved disruptive and often without a clear purpose. The lack of stakes, weak voices and non-existent annunciation from the secondary cast members rendered their performances forgettable or regrettable, and the characters’ inclusions within the piece questionable.
To salvage the work’s potential, I focused my energy on the four aforementioned lead actors who managed to hold their own on stage. Barnes’ portrayal of Donal carried the entire performance with truth and tenderness both when sharing the stage with his scene partners or speaking poetically solo – providing the few moments of beautiful language within the piece. Farrelly provided an adequate scene partner to Barnes’ leading strides, with a very lukewarm yet likeable portrayal of Seamus. This choice helped to invite the audience into the story at the play’s beginning, however as the character’s words proved more tumultuous and vicious than their delivery, it became apparent that the continuation of this calm and tepid disposition was contradictory. Reylonds’ heartfelt yet empowered portrayal of Minnie Powell came as a more appropriately matched scene partner for Barnes, providing the pace, punch and chemistry that the production desperately needed to keep it afloat. Elliott’s performance as Tommy matched the passion between the lovers with a charm and fire that helped create a peak between the three actors in a single scene and lift an otherwise relaxed first act. While the four prominent actors did well to dig up the stakes of their characters or the tension within the play, questions about direction and script annotation create a rocky foundation for the play’s production.
The set design provided a width that stretched across the entirety of the stage with a shallow depth, a choice that is refreshing for contemporary theatre yet unfortunate considering a missed opportunity to activate more of the space. With a carpeted floor that stretched a second stage’s length distance away from the audience, the production created a fourth wall that prevented the actors from moving beyond the stage and closer to such a large audience within an auditorium. Despite this, Kirilee Barker and Loretta Donnelly provided realistic and appropriate costumes and props, while Brian Hobby’s sound and lighting design filled the space with a much needed atmosphere of foreboding danger from the outside.
Perhaps with dramaturgy focusing on script revision to turn a problematic two act play into an impressive single act production, and direction that drives home the importance of stakes, tension and pace, this production would have thrived. With a hundred odd audience members filling the auditorium and a leading cast that highlighted the company’s potential, I believe the Foundry Theatre company can only improve from here.
– Written by Rhumer Diball April 9th 2016
THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN PRESENTED BY FOUNDRY THEATRE COMPANY
FRI 8– SAT 9 APRIL, 2016.
Photo credit Dan Ryan.