Friday, February 20, 2015

Lyric Theatre, 'Death of a Comedian': Deal With the Devil

A comedian makes a Faustian pact in Owen McCafferty's new play.

Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Feb 11-Mar 8

My review of Death of a Comedian coming up after the jump ...

“If you’re not funny you’re fucked” reminds the girlfriend of a small-time comedian in Owen McCafferty’s new play. Reflecting backstage after his stand-up routine, he reveals anxieties that are imaginable of most performers (and the playwright himself): the fear of screwing up in front of an agent, curiously confessing: “I didn’t hide myself enough”. It is this matter of mask, of distance between illusion and reality that is under-developed in McCaffterty’s play.

As the backdrops of Michael Vale’s set peel back, bringing us through dive bars towards higher-end comedy clubs, our hero meets along the way a silver-tongued talent agent (Shaun Dingwall, most persuasive). However constructive is his girlfriend (Katie McGuinness), the comedian (Brian Doherty, thick skinned and driven) is tempted to follow the advice of his new partner. If it isn’t obvious by his claim to be “to the Devil what Christians are to God”, this game-changer is dressed up as Mephistopheles.

Director Steve Marimon’s staging for this co-production between the Lyric Theatre, the Abbey Theatre and Soho Theatre plays to this mode, giving Faustian flare. However if there is a tug between forces, you certainly don’t feel it or worry for the outcome. McGuinness and Doherty’s couple aren’t bound by any romance but maybe that’s the point. Through heightened devices the event feels Brechtian, asking the audience to remove the illusion and consider an un-passable reality.
In theatre we often encounter comedy as a form of drama but McCafferty makes it its central subject. Rather than sustaining itself through jokes, it looks at the rigorous construction of them. It’s an interesting model but you’re pressed to find a pay off. By its conclusion it doesn’t really spin anything new about laughter, passion or performance. When an artist is threatened to park their political commentary and compromise their principles to become famous, it’s not necessarily novel.

The main target appears to be the fame industry itself, as represented in Dingwall’s devilish turn, squeezing the provocation out of the comedian. The play’s means of provoking its audience are less realised. As Faustian pacts go, this devil’s bargain doesn't stoke many flames.

What did everybody else think?

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