Catching Your Breath
A lot can happen in twenty years. Plays that once helped define a new generation of Irish theatre makers can suddenly appear dated, or else reinvigorated with a new energy. It’s a case of a little of both in Reality: Check Productions double bill of Enda Walsh’s seminal works, “Disco Pigs” and “Sucking Dublin.” Fast, relentless, and wildly energetic, both shows hit you like a theatrical force of nature. Yet once the dust settles, it’s a case of too much, too little, and too right.
The first in an energised double bill, “Disco Pigs,” first produced in 1996, and later made famous by Kirsten Sheridan’s 2001 movie version starring Cillian Murphy and Elaine Cassidy, tells the tale of a boy, Pig, and a girl, Runt, born on the same day, in the same hospital, a minute apart. Over the years they develop an inseparable bond, along with their own language, and a hostile resentment of the world around them. Like A Clockwork Orange meets Bonnie and Clyde, “Disco Pigs” sees a linguistically challenging Pig and Runt running riot wherever they go. Until the day of their seventeenth birthday when Runt begins to really notice the outside world. Especially the other boys who inhabit it. Something Pig both resents and fears, as he begins developing his own desires for Runt. A birthday to remember turns into a night to forget as violence erupts, ensuring no one will ever feel the same way again.
A birthday also serves as a catalyst for devastation in Walsh’s acerbic, hate-letter to Dublin, “Sucking Dublin.” As Little Lamb is sexually assaulted on the night of her eighteenth birthday, a room full of friends, lost to their own addictions, watch on in silence. Steve, a drug dealing rapist addicted to power, his wife Amanda addicted to sex for affection, Fat addicted to food, and Lep addicted to whatever drug he can get his hands on, stand by, unable to respond to needs other than their own. Later, as they reflect on the event, and on their lives, choices have to be made and decisions taken. Leaving Little Lamb to make perhaps the hardest decision of all.
If Walsh’s CD Walkman, Blankety Blank, Phil Babb referencing tales risk sounding dated to anyone born after the year they were first performed, their wild, relentless energy is something that transcends their datedness. Yet this also proves to be both their strength and their limitation under director Tracy Ryan. If Ryan’s beautifully dovetailed ending, fight choreography, and clever theatricality are wonderfully realized, her channeling of the plays youthful exuberance is less successful. Cranking up the pace, Ryan generates a great deal of energy, and it never lets up for a second. But its relentless pace doesn’t always translate into power, and it sacrifices most of Walsh’s poetry in the process. As a result, what power there is, is often tempered.
A case in point is Ethan Dillon’s, passionate wide-eyed Pig, portrayed as an all too obvious psycho caught firmly in the friend zone. Something the relentlessly energetic Dillon does extremely well and convincingly. Yet it’s obvious Dillon has so much more nuance, depth, and subtlety to bring to Pig than the B-movie, straight to DVD, psycho on a forty-five minute sugar rush he’s been limited to. As a result, there’s always a space between Pig and Runt, an emotional gap left open in the relentless rush that is never resolved. So you don't really feel it being torn asunder. Indeed, it’s left to Toni O’Rourke as Runt, looking like a reject from the Bay City Rollers in a delightful costume by Lydia Dorman, to carry the bulk of the emotional weight of “Disco Pigs.” Which O’Rourke does superbly well, delivering a truly fine performance. Yet if, in the end, she has us feeling Runt’s poignant sense of release, we feel nothing of Pig’s sense of loss. For Pig has been lost to us already, reduced to nothing more than a villain in what should have been a much more nuanced, poetic, and better balanced telling.
“Sucking Dublin” again sees Ryan’s relentless pace impacting on performances, which some respond to better than others. In the end it becomes a mix of too little, too much, and too right. If Michael-David McKernan sometimes shines as Steve, often it's a case of too little, with McKernan’s pretty boy rapist, looking like a reject from a Bret Easton Ellis novel, all posing loudly with little real commanding power, seeming constrained by Ryan's pace. As is Honi Cooke as Little Lamb, her monologues feeling uniform, though Cooke does move into something deeply endearing in both the opening, and in Ryan’s clever dovetail ending. If Gemma Kane as Fat takes excess a tad too far in her brief monologue, she shines during her final scene, and her cackling laughter is spot on throughout. Hitting it just right, Gordon Quigley as Lep is right on the money every time, delivering a wonderfully balanced and hugely engaging performance. As does Meg Healy as the lusting Amanda, a woman one step away from degrading herself just so she can feel wanted. Indeed, Healy isn’t just astonishingly good, she’s absolutely sensational, and, along with O’Rourke, and Quigley, recaptures something of the power of Walsh’s potent poetry that is often lost. Shane Gill’s lighting design, and Ciara Murnane’s set design, create a space made inhabitable for both scripts, allowing for an interval change with the minimum of bother.
Like cranking up your favorite Nine Inch Nails track to full volume, Ryan’s take on “Disco Pigs” and “Sucking Dublin” overwhelms you with its whirlwind energy, but blots out much of the music in the process. It might catch your breath, but it never really takes it away. Yet Ryan’s wonderfully theatrical staging, along with some strong performances, deliver some wonderful moments in both “Disco Pigs” and “Sucking Dublin.” Indeed, Reality: Check Productions are themselves a young, ambitious company looking to build a big reputation across all theatrical spectrums; acting, directing, production, and design. With “Disco Pigs” and “Sucking Dublin” Reality: Check Productions show they’re not afraid to commit. Not afraid to take a chance. Not afraid to try find the next exciting venture. Getting it more right than not, and constantly learning the further they go, Reality: Check Productions might very well turn out to be one of the most exciting, and successful companies, in the coming years.
“Disco Pigs” and “Sucking Dublin,” by Enda Walsh, presented by Reality: Check Productions, runs at Smock Alley Theatre until December 16th
For more information, visit Smock Alley Theatre.