Before the production of John Osborne’s seminal piece Look Back In Anger had even began, the anticipation in the Gate Theatre was rife with opening night anticipations. It is a play famed for coining the term “angry young man”, a play with unapologetic misogynistic characters, a play which would appear unfit for the 2018 Repealing Dublin audience in attendance tonight. But with female director Annabelle Comyn and female Director of the Gate Selina Cartmell on board, the audience appeared willing to be impressed. And were we? Largely so. The cast of four were stellar in their dedication to portraying the problematic play with poise, but the dubious characters could not be ignored.
The plot heralded a focus on the ensemble’s reaction to speech, relaying the breakdown of a marriage, friendship, and the nationalistic bravery of a generation who didn’t fight in World War II. A singular, shabby set of one apartment bedroom demands a continuous narrow focus from the audience due to the lack of moving visuals. The backstage is revealed, lights on show, and when the cast were not on stage one could see them out of character, drinking water and warming up for return. A useful methodology Comyn employed was alternating narrators, with the cast of four swapping the role to read stage directions depending on who was on stage.
Parts of the play were deeply affecting, even uncomfortable to watch. While the 1950s English midlands setting was emphasised, the derogatory tone of Jimmy Porter (Ian Toner) towards his wife Alison (Clare Dunne) and Irish friend Cliff (Lloyd Cooney) sometimes reached a point of disgust. His ardent crudeness targets issues prevailing both then and contemporaneously: globalisation, misogyny, nuclear war, whether the media is telling the truth or not. Toner is a strong actor and regular of The Gate, and played a truly contentious character with vehemence. Playing his wife, Dunne was allusive and chilling, dealing with Betty Friedan’s “the problem that has no name” with clarity and mental strength.
A cacophony of diegetic and extra-diegetic sounds amplify the emerging headspace of each of the characters, with almost ASMR-style microphone use tingling the audience’s senses in a different manner to the shouting monologues onstage. Drones; dripping water; church-bells: the soundtrack to anguish follows the cast. Disembodied voices mimic the controlling speech inside the characters’ heads, drawing the audience closer to them – something which was quite needed due to the unlikeability of personalities. Intertextuality and references to other plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest reiterated that this is an important piece of drama, while it’s cyclical second act was an interesting added dimension of form.
While the play continues the darker foray of the Gate’s “The Outsider” programme for 2017/18, the contemptible characters proved it to be a challenging production which the cast and crew attempted to alter for our neoliberal Dublin audience. The huge themes such as anti-intellectualism, class divide and misogyny are all extremely relevant today and hence the play continuously forced the audience to question their own morals and reactions to what was occurring on stage. I commend the ensemble for taking on such a play and achieving a compelling dramatic form which engrossed the audience for nearly three hours. What they achieved was a fascinating portrayal of gender, relationships and friendships against the backdrop of mid-20th century Britain, a reminder of how far 21st century Dublin still has to travel for feminist equality.
Photos by Luca Truffarelli
Look Back in Anger is running at The Gate from February to March 24. Ticket prices range from €25-€38.