Othello at the Abbey


When working away from home and staying in a hotel for five nights, like this week, it’s good to get out of my hotel room. So on Tuesday I booked a ticket to see the latest production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The Abbey, which opened on 27 December 1904, styles itself the National Theatre of Ireland. It’s located in the Centre of Dublin on the north bank of the Liffey in Lower Abbey Street. Traffic during the evening is always busy in Dublin, especially along the Quays. But roadworks due to the building of the new extension to the Luas tramline required a diversion in congested traffic to reach the Irish Life car park I intended to use. So the journey was more unpleasant than usual.

It’s 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, and in celebration the Abbey’s latest production is one of his well known plays, Othello. Although I knew the general gist of the plot, it wasn’t a play I was particularly familiar with, so it was going into it with a relatively open mind. However, being a Tragedy there was a good bet that the main characters were going to end up dead.

As during previous visits to the Abbey, I enjoyed the evening. It was a modern dress production with the characters speaking in a variety of Irish twangs. Except for Othello, that is, who spoke in a distinctive West African accent. There were some strong performances, particularly Marty Rea as a sly Iago. He spoke in a Northern Irish accent and looked rather like a young Gerry Adams.


I also enjoyed the performances by Karen Ardiff as Armelia and Gavin Fullam as Roderigo. Peter Macon was a powerful Othello, if a little bombastic, and Rebecca O’Mara was an attractive Desdemona.

Othello is brought down by the “green eyed monster”, his jealousy, engineered by Iago who was motivated, no doubt, by racism. I wasn’t entirely convinced by how easily he was able to manipulate Othello and induce his jealousy. I guess that’s a weakness of the plot, partly due to the inevitable time limitations, but I’m not sure that the production got this completely right.

Despite this reservation it was an enjoyable evening, and a much easier drive back to the Naas.

“The House” at the Abbey Theatre

When I’m working over in Ireland, in Dublin or nearby, I usually try to go to see a play at either the Gate or the Abbey theatre. So during my visit last week I booked a ticket to see the current production at the Abbey, Tom Murphy’s play The House. The Abbey is Ireland’s National Theatre (Amharclann Náisiúnta na hÉireann) and stages some very good productions with a top notch cast. Including this visit I’ve visited four times and always enjoyed the plays I’ve seen there. This visit was no exception.

Naas, where I was working, is only about 20 miles from Dublin, so I drove in. Mind you it isn’t much fun driving into the city. Its fine for the first half of the journey, but once you hit the outskirts, just before the M50 Motorway everything grinds to a halt and then it’s a stop start journey at snail’s pace the rest of the way in. I parked up in a car park round the corner from the theatre an hour before the performance was due to start, and grabbed a quick meal in a noodle bar just off O’Connell Street.

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The Abbey has been in it’s current home since the late 60’s and the design of the building is very typical of it’s era. Architecturally it’s nothing special and I find that the public areas are too small. The lobby is very cramped and the bar upstairs isn’t really big enough. There isn’t a cafe or a bookshop that you might expect in a high profile National Theatre. Inside the auditorium there seems to be a decent view from all the seats. The leg room is limited though. My knees were suffering a little toward the end of the first act – I must be developing arthritis or something, and it would have helped if I could have stretched my legs a bit. The auditorium also suffers from noise whenever one of the Luas trams go past – there’s  a line directly outside on Abbey Street. But none of this spoiled my enjoyment of what was an extremely good production.

The play is set in the 1950’s, a period when many Irish people emigrated to work in England, America, Australia and Canada, but who would return back home for a few weeks every year during the summer. In the play a group of emigrants return home to their native village. One of them, Christy Cavanagh, visits the de Burca family at their grand old house that he used to visit as a child. Discovering that the house is up for sale, he is determined to buy it. The story centres on this and his relationship with the family – the mother, who clearly views him as the son she never had, and the three daughters, the eldest who is secretly in love with him, the middle one, who is married but with whom he has had an affair, and the youngest, an emigrant herself, who is set against the sale.

The play was a mix of tragedy and comedy, The latter being provided by the behaviour of a number of the returnees. Frank Laverty as Peter was particularly good. But all the cast was excellent. I particularly liked Cathy Belton, who played the eldest daughter Marie. Her dialogue was relatively limited but her expressions could say a thousand words.

It was a long play, three hours including the interval, but it didn’t drag. Made up of a large number of short scenes it moved at a good pace. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And the theme no doubt resonates with today’s Irish audience, with the re-emergence of large numbers of their compatriots moving abroad to find work following the collapse of the Irish tiger economy.

Juno and the Paycock at the Abbey Theatre

A couple of weeks ago, while I was working in Ireland, I drove into Dublin to see a Preview performance of the Sean O’Casey play Juno and the Paycock. It’s a joint production with the National Theatre of Great Britain and  features a star studded cast with Sinéad Cusack and Ciarán Hinds in the lead roles. It was my third visit to the Abbey and the second O’Casey play that I’ve seen there.

I’ve never been to see a play before it officially opens before. But it was only two days to the official opening and the theatre was pretty full (only a few empty seats).

The Abbey has a long association with this play. It was first staged there in 1924 and the current production is the 39th. It is set  in the early 1920s, during the Irish Civil War and tells the story of the Boyle family who live in in the working class tenements of Dublin.

For me, it was a good production. Hinds and Cusack were excellent as was Risteárd Cooper as Joxer.  During the interval the man sitting next to me told me that Cooper is very well known in Ireland. His comic timing was excellent.  My neighbour thought that Sinéad Cusack was too young to play Juno. Perhaps he’s right but I thought she came across well. I thought Clare Dunne, who played the daughter, was also very good. She’s a relative newcomer and so watch out for her in the future.

Being an O’Casey play, and set in working class Dublin, the accents were very broad. Luckily, after several visits to the city, I’m getting to grips with the Dublin accent, but, like when I saw “The Plough and the Stars” last year there were some moments when I didn’t completely understand what the actors were saying. I don’t know how the large group of young Germans sitting on the first couple of rows coped!

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Study of Sean O’Casey by Dublin artist Reginald Gray. (New York Times. 1966) source: Wikipedia

O’Casey was a Republican and a Socialist, and his take on the story of Irish independence is quite different to that told by the Republican movement and the Irish state. He is sympathetic to the working class and the labour movement, but doesn’t paint them in a romantic fashion, being prepared to show their flaws.

The play tells the story of how a working class family living on the breadline, with a feckless, workshy father, hear the news that the father is to receive an inheritance from a relative who has recently died. They go out and “spend, spend spend” relying on the more than willing credit of shops and their neighbours. But when it becomes apparent that they’re not going to receive the legacy the shops are only too quick to come and recover their goods and their “friends” show their true character by demanding repayment of the loans they were only too willing to provide as soon as it becomes apparent that the legacy won’t be appearing.

It’s a fable relevant to our times, paralleling the economic crisis which has particularly affected Ireland and was due to similar reasons – the extension of credit on the basis of false promises.

There are sub-plots involving the son and daughter, both compounding a tragic ending, with the son executed by the IRA, the daughter pregnant and deserted by the father. In the final scene Jack is left alone, drunk and senseless in a house denuded of its furniture, deserted by his wife and daughter.