Saturday, August 23, 2014

Abbey Theatre, 'Heartbreak House': Christened After Tennyson

100 years after the outbreak of the Great War, do we still live in the world of Shaw's play -  where society drifts towards destruction? 

Abbey Theatre
Aug 20-Sept 13 

My review of Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw coming up just as soon as I break it down for you in degrees ...

It's astounding to think of how much the world can change in 100 years. It's terrifying to think of how much it hasn't. Before the Great War broke out, George Bernard Shaw was already spelling out how money-driven industrialists and corrupt politicians were contributing to an imploding imperialist world. In the present, when canons are primed in the East, ordinary citizens observed by snipers in the West, and the vast scale of human rights abuses in between - it's hard to ignore a time of crisis for humanity. When we drift towards destruction who can steer the ship to safety?

Through most of Shaw's Heartbreak House, you won't suspect that it was written in the backdrop of World War I. Its drama is insular: Hesione Hushabye invites her friend Ellie to her family's boat-home in a plot to break up her engagement with the much-older industrialist Alfred Mangan. Hesione's sister Ariadne also returns, to the forgetfulness of her father and the notice of her brother-in-law and ladykiller Hector Hushabye. 

Shaw has been the most successful playwright to be produced by the Abbey in the last few years, specifically with Pygmalion in 2011 and Major Barbara in 2013 - both of which profited from the vocal detail and pace of Annabelle Comyn's direction, the powerful visual transformations of Paul O'Mahony's set design, and the dark undercurrents of Philip Stewart's music. Róisín McBrinn's staging may not handle the material with the same control but only because she's focused on the play's complex subversion of melodramatic form. 

Nothing is what as it initially seemed. The revelatory Lisa Dwyer Hogg sets us up as Ellie, at first a delicate and polite guest, eventually joins the manipulative ranks of siren sisters Hesoine and Ariadne. Kathy Kiera Clarke is wickedly brilliant in the former role, wildly magnetic and with excellent comic ability. The pleasurable and sharp insensitivities of Ariadne are delivered with precision by Aislín McGuckin, who is strikingly adorned by Niamh Lunny's elegant costume design. As Alyson Cummins' set pulls a trick of its own, and the three characters orbit each other like witches, in movements that captivate and hypnotise, a sense of other-worldliness comes over the stage.

A warping of melodramatic devices also lends to this distortion of reality. Philip Stewart's music whirs suspiciously to announce characters as they enter the room, even when there is no sign of danger. In another play the romancer Randall Utterword (the affable Marcus Lamb) would be the honest hero but here he's diminished. Revelations roll with the improbabilities of farce, a form further defined by the horseplay use of entrances and exits. "Are there any more left of you to look at me?" says the infuriated Alfred Mangan (Don Wycherley), meta-commenting on the cast's assembly after a severe succession of appearances and disappearances on and offstage.

The use of the form is tightly controlled. "I must come and go" maintains the house's patriarch, Captain Shotover (Mark Lambert, heightened but sincere). Ellie, despite her manipulations, profoundly asks: "What are you running away from"?

The answer: a world on the edge. The inventiveness of Shaw, realised astutely by McBrinn, is the use of melodrama and farce to give form to that bubble reality where the English upper class reserved itself while war was brewing in the wider world. It doesn't last. The play effectively wraps up English society in its components - imperialism, industry, bohemianism, the upper and lower classes, Shakespeare - only to blast it all to pieces. 

It's also an intelligent marking of the centenary by the Abbey Theatre in a year where theatrical explorations of the affect of WWI on Irish life have been strangely absent, which is confounding. With glimpses at cemeteries on the horizon, the startling Heartbreak House still resounds with the importance of navigation, of the need for every individual to take responsibility and political action. Who can steer the ship to safety? Any of us can. 

What did everybody else think?

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