By Bob Shuman
In The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), now being splendidly revived at Irish Repertory Theatre, until June 22, Sean O’Casey describes his central character, a poet named Donal Davoren, as “attracted in thought towards the moon.” The same might be said for director Ciarán O`Reilly, who has worked so well under cover of night—his 2009 production of The Emperor Jones was a revelation in pitch black, true to an experimental O’Neill, whom many had never envisaged. The Shadow of a Gunman, set in Dublin in 1920 (one of O’Casey’s three early plays, collectively called the Dublin Cycle, all of which are being presented by Irish Rep this season), inhabits an overcrowded mise en scène, following daily life in a tenement, which does not allow for differentiation between “bombast and bombs,” to use a phrase from Kenneth Tynan. O’Casey also sees “ideological extremis” as a “spreading stain that distorts idealism and destroys individuals,” a point biographer Patrick McGilligan has made in comparing the overlapping themes of the playwright’s work and the late films of Alfred Hitchcock (the movie director’s early screen version of Juno and the Paycock–his roots were Irish–was made in 1930, and he continued to think highly of O’Casey’s characters, even if the two did not always get along).
In the new production, there is excitement in seeing Michael Mellamphy playing the spoon peddler, Seumas Shields, the tenant who owes eleven weeks of back rent, a man caught in a country’s political mechanisms (which only allow for cowards or the annihilated). He’s a roaring Bert Lahr (“[the Irish people] treat a joke as a serious thing and a serious thing as a joke”), an absurd Ionesco cipher, who perfectly matches O’Casey’s intentions: “a heavily built man of thirty-five . . . in him is frequently manifested the superstition, the fear and malignity of primitive man.” His roommate, a sensitive Shelley wannabe, writing in an ancient country of poets, now a radicalized population, is a strange selection for Shields to lodge with. Davoren (James Russell, a dead ringer for a young Sam Waterston, in both looks and voice) does not seem to be much of a bard—but, more importantly, he apparently does not have any money, either. They are Felix and Oscar at the revolution, an Odd Couple, on the way to a beheading. Their housing is packed, with singers and drunks and gossips and itinerants; their lives so slack and slovenly, there is no way of differentiating between minutia and danger, for the characters or the audience. Such blurring might have been of interest to Hitchcock, in terms of precedent and suspense creation—North by Northwest, for example, is also the unclarified story of a misidentified innocent man involved with a compromised heroine. In The Shadow of a Gunman, the young working girl, Minnie Powell (an unpretentious Meg Hennessy), is romantic as well as mixed up; confused enough to believe that one of the roommates is an IRA hit man.
The second act, set under lighting designer Michael Gottlieb’s evocative moonlight (the scenic design is by Charlie Corcoran, with costumes by Linda Fisher and David Toser), is right for the Romantics, but piercing enough for the play’s stark militaristic underpinnings. When people say they like theatrical realism, this is what they are talking about—highly idiomatic writing, full and specific, even repeating. O’Casey weaves in the mystical and paranormal, too, besides Catholic iconography, by the discussion of supernatural wall tappings (in Juno and the Paycock, one of the characters is involved in theosophy). David Lean, another famous director, also tried to juxtapose Ireland in dark and light, in romanticism and realism, in fantasy and tragedy, in a story set during the same historical period (an adaptation of Madame Bovary, really), only to produce a bomb of the cinematic kind (Freddie Young’s photography did win the Oscar, however). Ryan’s Daughter (1970) was too expansive, too big for its story and went into filming without Marlon Brando, maybe someone who could have saved it. Whether or not the movie has achieved greater estimation over the years, Lean, on reflection, thought it might have worked if he had added a single line for his young heroine, in Robert Bolt’s screenplay: “Rosie, you’re looking at the world through rose-colored glasses now.” Maybe a harsher insight to come by is that it is the rare Irish person who could ever see Ireland as rose-colored, even in love, given its history. Although Casey explains, “The Irish people are very fond of turning a serious thing into a joke,” he refutes the idea in The Shadow of a Gunman, instead considering, along with O’Reilly, the dark costs of war and fervor.
THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN by Sean O’Casey
Directed by Ciarán O`Reilly
James Russell, Una Clancy, Terry Donnelly, Rory Duffy, Meg Hennessy, John Keating, Robert Langdon Lloyd, Ed Malone, Michael Mellamphy, and Harry Smith
Scenic design by Charli e Corcoran, costume design by Linda Fisher and David Toser, lighting design by Michael Gottlieb, sound design by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, and properties by Deirdre Brennan.
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Photos: (cast) Carol Rosegg; Tripadvisor.com