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  • Chris O'Rourke

The Valley of the Squinting Windows


The Valley of the Squinting Windows. Photo by Ste Murray

****

From Cats to practically every recent superhero movie, big budget blockbusters often bomb at the box office. Projects with enough cast members to populate a Caribbean island. Whose budget for costumes alone could buy a brand new Bugatti. Projects whose ambitions are epic, yet who are invariably remembered for being something of a mess. If not a bomb by any stretch of the imagination, The Valley of the Squinting Windows, written and directed by Michael Scott, is more than lavishly messy. Trading in wild theatricality on such a glorious scale it’s impossible to resist.

The Valley of the Squinting Windows. Photo by Ste Murray


A melodramatic Greek tragedy set in Westmeath circa 1914, Scott’s three hour epic starts dark and only lets in light to heighten its darkness. The prologue’s ominous tone foreshadowing all that follows. Scott’s clunky adaption of the controversial 1918 novel by Brinsley MacNamara opening with a re-enactment of the book’s burning by the townspeople of Delvin. Who were none too happy about being portrayed like an Irish Taliban justifying cruelty in the name of their higher good. The scandalising Nan Brennan, a superb Ciara O’Callaghan, a good woman wronged by the promises of a wealthy man has her newborn child taken from her so as to spare the social blushes of the respected Shannon family. Lied to and told her child died, Nan later finds herself married to an abusive husband, facing blackmail (Geraldine Plunkett’s superb Marse criminally underused), and pinning her hopes of social and spiritual salvation on her son John (a compelling Stefan Brennan-Healy) who is training for the priesthood. But in small town, small minded Garradrimna, poisonous whispers can destroy best laid plans and best intentioned people. Like Peter Rothwell’s endearingly portrayed Ulick, a layabout cad with genuine feelings for new school teacher Rebecca Kerr. Rebecca succumbing to Ulick’s slick seduction believing they have a future together. Siobhan Callaghan mesmerising as the modern thinking, good girl teacher from Donegal. Throw in a ham-fisted tale of revenge, lustful longings from the priestly John, an Intemperance Concert of the finest order and a twist in the tail of biblical proportions, and this town without pity soon has you trapped inside its deliciously vicious web. One where history repeats itself and self-made curses see women suffering the most.

The Valley of the Squinting Windows. Photo by Ste Murray


If Scott’s Garradrimna suggests an Ireland’s Own version of long ago and far away, it’s the R-rated version. The one with the snooping postmistress (a brilliant Billie Traynor) prying letters open with the steaming kettle. A place of flint hearted school mistresses, judgemental lords of the manor (Philip Judge exemplary as Myles Shannon), heartless priests, gossiping crones and drunken poachers. Indeed, when it comes to Irish stereotypes The Valley of the Squinting Windows leans shamelessly into them and is all the better for it. Still, its less than satisfying ending disappoints for being built around a revenge theme you never quite buy into and for its story not being properly developed. Even as Scott crafts characters filled with spite who remain recognisably human. Bad boys who might have been good boys. Good boys who turn out to be cowards. Women maligned by gossip who are not averse to gossiping, only to being the subject of gossip. Complex, flawed, vibrant and irresistible. A little like Scott’s haphazard direction.

The Valley of the Squinting Windows. Photo by Ste Murray


Never shaking free of the novel’s structural shackles, with action post intermission suffering expositional lag, The Valley of the Squinting Windows relies on considerable visual support to help it stand on its dramatic feet. Which Scott, as director, provides by throwing every theatrical kitchen sink available. Including enough dry ice for the next three Halloween movies. His Our Town styled approach evoking the music hall, or old time cinema of the 1910 era, replete with live piano player, Paul Whelan. Yet Eileen Timmon’s black and white videography, with live images projected onto a screen upstage, proves a pyrrhic victory. Its contrast of cinematic with theatrcial splitting viewers focus, feeling like a weak gimmick which, if clever on occasion, as in the final moments of the concert, is more often distracting for either masking one or other performer or affording us side views no one wants or needs. On top of which there’s a brief, yet noticeable time lag. Also, acting for stage requires larger physical expressiveness which often looks odd on camera. Not helped by the fact that lighting for stage doesn’t always translate well on screen, leaving one or the other frequently plunged in shadow. Mostly though, it’s about framing, with screen close-ups sacrificing the wide, inclusive lens of the stage. If, facially, Siobhan Callaghan’s Rebecca holds her own on camera when you can see her, video failed to convey Callaghan’s cleverly articulated physicality. Her immediacy reduced to expression alone, losing much in translation in terms of positioning and presence. Looking like outtakes for a making-of documentary, something gets lost in the video trade off. Action, which is often compositionally clever, beautifully orchestrated and deeply engaging, didn't needed the distracting help.

The Valley of the Squinting Windows. Photo by Ste Murray


In spinning so many plates some issues are bound arise, with diction frequently being a problem along with mic scratching that’s frequent and loud. Yet if The Valley of the Squinting Windows has several things awry, it gets things right by being a thoroughly enjoyable, hugely ambitious, and richly rewarding production. A labour of love on a massive scale, it soars for being immensely richer than the sum of its individual parts. Its story might be flawed, but it remains deeply fascinating. Its staging might suggest meta-theatrical pantomime, yet it’s never less than fantastically ambitious. For modern audiences, the squinting window phenomenon remains a dangerous reality. Just check social media. Developed by Mullingar Arts Centre, City Theatre Dublin, and The Gaiety Theatre, The Valley of the Squinting Windows features a mix of local performers of all ages working with rising and seasoned professionals. Those who think community theatre isn’t worth their time will find The Valley of the Squinting Windows challenging their prejudice.


The Valley of the Squinting Windows, written and directed by Michael Scott, based on the novel by Brinsley McNamara, presented by Mullingar Arts Centre, City Theatre Dublin, and The Gaiety Theatre, runs at The Gaiety Theatre until November 11.


For more information visit The Gaiety Theatre



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