John McCarthy in City. Image by Clare Keogh
When it comes to theatre online, it's been a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't the past twelve months. The Abbey, damned with faint praise for doing, proselytised to the nation via branded packages of video biscuits brimming with self serious, political crunchiness. If advocates were pleased, others felt like they were drowning in the political doldrums, left hankering after something theatrically more substantial. Even a little levity to lighten the lockdown load. Elsewhere, others embraced the online medium with varying degrees of distress. Dublin Theatre Festival, Dublin Fringe Festival and Axis Ballymun got it mostly right, while others missed as often as hit, Zoom becoming a byword for both progress and mediocrity. Meanwhile coaching lessons, development talks, and brain storming sessions on the future of theatre blossomed exponentially courtesy of Zoom, looking like smiley faced, online play dates.
Intentions, in all instances, were honourable. An effort to shift from "Fuck, COVID" to "Fuck You COVID" and ensure artists made work and got paid. Theatre just had to figure out how. Yet a year on of recycling, repackaging, and reimagining theatre and audience accommodations to the screen are beginning to wear thin. Just as The Gate, damned for not doing for the last twelve months, steps into the online fray. And is immediately damned for doing so. Suggestions of same idea, similar characters between Micheal Hartnett's The Noble Call and Frank McGuinness's The Visiting Hour, set for its world premiere April 22, have churned the waters even before opening night. And even though there's no suggestion of plagiarism, Selina Cartmell must be wondering can she ever catch a break.
City at Everyman, Cork. Image by Clare Keogh
All of which establishes the current context for City, in which John McCarthy delivers thoughts and tales about souls, stories, and soul storied cities. Presented with self deprecating charm and understated humour, McCarthy's direct address from the Everyman, Cork, resembles a lively press conference, his personification of a nameless city exuding a captivating, conversational ease. Yet with a post dramatic sensibility that hints of Beckett, McCarthy often resembles a soft toned hipster auditioning for a role as a modern day Seanchaí, replete with sound effects. While his hour long monologue seduces at times, its radio friendly tone can make for a long, slow listen. Reminding you, as does McCarthy, that you can't communicate as effectively over 4G. For whatever its marvels, the screen is not a black box space, there is no audience besides the viewer, and something theatrically vital is filtered out by the screen. Stating the obvious, but worth remembering, for City is sapped of some of its magic even while making the screen its friend. Director Niall Cleary, conscious that McCarthy can own the screen as well as the stage, deftly sidesteps doing anything heavy handed courtesy of some subtle camera work, allowing McCarthy to breathe in albeit shallow visual waters. If only the script had done the same.
Languorously paced, and often sounding like curious copy for an Irish Tourist Board commercial, McCarthy shapes his lightweight tales from fragmented, lacklustre details, skimping on the poetic like a literary cheapskate. Which is a shame, for when McCarthy lets poetry fly, there are some genuine moments of magic. If McCarthy's post dramatic City speaks to the endurance of stories and spaces, offering fresh perspectives at times, ultimately it fails to make its case, with its referencing of history and mythology only adding washed out colour. Wrapping up with an unconvincing 'the city is the pull between people' sentiment, an embedded caution concerning how buildings retain traces of memory speaks truer. Even if City forgets that when the buildings are gone, it's bye bye to both lyrics and melody, and hello to high priced, gentrified glass towers with their built in obsolescence and mobile business professionals. Meanwhile, as the irresistible exclusion of its communities to the suburbs continues, what remains as a city is something new entirely. Something City senses, but never quite gets at, making for an uneasy marriage between truth and sentiment, between the present and past.
A bizarre object without clear context, City labours its discarded stories with considerable charm, but its soft spoken, post dramatic flow means it's likely to attract the like minded rather than the convert. Still, even if you find yourself not wanting to live there, McCarthy's City is well worth a visit. Kudos to both McCarthy and The Everyman for looking to pave new ways forward through the new abnormal under these odd and difficult conditions.
City, written and performed by John McCarthy, presented by The Everyman, is available online till April 25.
For more information, visit The Everyman.