Monday, April 18, 2005

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me - New Ambassador's Theatre - 13 April

Written by Frank McGuinness
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
Designed by Anthony Lamble
The first time I saw Aidan Gillen he looked a little as if he’d lost a few fights. Hooded eyes, flattened nose, more a failed pugilist than a romantic lead. That was in the early 90s. A few years later he had somehow transformed himself - eyes lager, nose sharper. It may just have been losing the puppy fat but I can’t get rid of the impression that it was more surgical. Looking at the programme there is a picture of him that is reminiscent of his old self. In this picture as with his old publicity photograph he is looking down which narrows and hoods his eyes so perhaps that explains it.
As with mister Gillen the play seems to have changed since I first saw it 13 years ago. I doubt it’s the words; it is down to the direction and the set. The first production, which starred Stephen Rea, Hugh Quarshie and Alec McCowen, seemed cleaner and gentler. I think I remember that the set was more along the lines of a closed off room in an apartment block, than this production’s grottier, high ceilinged dungeon-like room. The actors in the first production were cleaner in clothes and bodies. The differences probably have a lot to do with failure of memory on my part but there is also the fact that the Hampstead Theatre (where I saw the first production) stage was smaller and the make-up and costume budgets weren’t high enough for ground-in filth.
Another major difference was the playing of the relationship between Edward and Michael (the Irishman and the Englishman). It felt softer the first time not quite so acerbic. I don’t remember Edward being quite so angry and antagonistic, although it is all there in the script. Also Alec McCowen was much more sympathetic as Michael, more comfortable and more stable. It felt as if David Threlfall was giving a caricature of a stiff Englishman while it was more natural for Alec McCowen. I also wondered if he was wearing false teeth in order to give his character a more buck-toothed expression.
As I suggested, this may well have been the intention of the script (more anti-English, more spite) and the first production got it wrong. This production made me wonder if Frank McGuinness was putting all his anti-English feeling into the character of Edward and not allowing Michael to mount an adequate defence. In the first production Edward and Michael seemed to part with respect and affection, in this it felt more grudging.
My companion had never heard of the hostage crisis in the late eighties, and I did wonder whether this would be the same for others who didn’t have the excuse of coming from a different country and having been in this one for less than ten years. In spite of contemporary echoes with the taking of hostages in Iraq, I do wonder how many others in the audience remembered names like Keenan, McCarthy and Waite. For myself the hostage taking in The Lebanon always gave me (and still does) a sense of impotent fury. I still have a badge that says “John McCarthy – Hostage”, which I carried around with me for several years, rarely actually wearing it. I don’t know what that says about me.
As I said the set was dirtier than the first production: two radiators (on the left and back walls of the room) and a pipe along the floor (on the right) providing the respective anchor points where the actors were chained by the ankle. There was an extractor fan in the back wall and during scene breaks, the fan would spin while a powerful white light shone from behind. At the same time two thick wall-like panels would descend diagonally to block off the set and an old recording of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me would be played.It is interesting to contrast the roles I’ve seen Jonny Lee Miller in, in films and in the theatre. In films like Trainspotting and Plunkett & MacLean there seemed to be a wildness and exuberance about him but his theatre work (Festen and Four Nights in Knaresborough as well as this) seems to show something more intense and vulnerable.

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