From Macklin to Friel

Derry~Londonderry's Waterside Theatre celebrate actor and playwright Charles Macklin

‘The Jew That Shakespeare Drew’ was Alexander Pope’s description of Charles Macklin’s masterful portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 1741. And Macklin, the Innishowen actor and playwright, is the subject of this imaginative double bill at the Waterside Theatre in Derry~Londonderry.

The first play takes the form of a war-time BBC radio programme about Macklin’s life, written and performed by Dublin actors Gary Jermyn and Michael James Ford. The second – and the twist in the tail – is Brian Friel’s The London Vertigo, his 1990 reworking of Macklin’s play The True-Born Irishman.

Both plays were previously performed in Culdaff at the Charles Macklin Autumn School, but this is the first time that the Donegal-based festival has brought a production to Derry~Londodnerry, assisted by funding from UK City of Culture 2013.

Macklin: Method and Madness is a fictional 1941 BBC Home Service ‘docu-drama’ commemorating the bicentenary of Macklin’s most famous role of Shylock. The script recapitulates the main events of Macklin’s life: his humble beginnings in Ireland, his struggle to establish himself as an actor in London, his trial for manslaughter over the accidental death of a fellow actor, the frequent quarrels and general vicissitudes of an 18th century actor’s life.

Jermyn and Ford convincingly portray jobbing actors performing live to microphone in the early years of broadcasting. They extract the humour implicit in the primitive sound effects of the time, using coconut shells to represent a trotting horse, a jug of water dribbled into a chamber-pot for Macklin urinating, and chains dragged across the floor for his time in prison.

Half way through, an air raid siren and sounds of bombing establish that the broadcast is taking place from the basement of the BBC during the London Blitz, but it is not otherwise obvious why this is important, unless to allow the actors temporarily to step out of character.

Then it's time for the second play of the evening, Brian Friel’s The London Vertigo. Macklin’s original play had an unwieldy cast and political asides that distracted from the central contrast between Irish plainness and honesty – the virtues of ‘the true-born Irishman’ – and English artificiality and intrigue. Friel’s version trims the cast to five principals and tightens up the dialogue in ways that sharpen its satirical focus.

The plot concerns the travails of Morrough O’Doherty, the Irishman of the title, whose wife has just returned to Dublin after attending the coronation of George III. She has been so bowled over by her London experience that she embraces all things English, affects a would-be ‘English’ accent and manner of speaking, and calls herself Mrs Diggerty instead of O’Doherty.

She has been followed to Dublin by an English admirer, the upstart and foppish Mr Mushroom – nicknamed ‘Count Mushroom’ by Dublin wags because of his preposterous airs and graces. He, coincidentally, is the agent of O’Doherty’s English landlord.

The play focuses on the ruses used by O’Doherty to bring his wife to her senses, shame her out of her affectations and secure the renewal of his leases on improved terms. Finally, he exposes the English intriguer to the ridicule of Dublin society.

Here is an opportunity for the Balor Repertory Company from Ballybofey to exploit the difference in accents between England and Ireland, and the gulf that exists between the values of London’s polite society and those of Dublin.

Indeed, success in staging this play hinges on dramatizing these differences. But while Orla Mullen (Mrs O’Doherty/Diggerty) gives a suitably over-the-top performance in her mangling of English speech, Galway-born Sean Hanrahan (Morrough O’Doherty) inexplicably speaks without any discernible Irish accent, robbing the play of much of its edge.

The strongest lead is the wig-powdered, dilettante Count Mushroom. Again, this role calls for an exuberant performance and James Lawne provides just that. And yet, at times, his playing is more ‘camp’ than lothario, with his constant flourishing of a lace handkerchief.

Mushroom duly receives his comeuppance in the final scene, in which the Balor Players came into their own. He is roughly bundled into a trunk, amid cross-dressing and assumed identities reminiscent of a Brian Rix farce. The play ends with Mrs O’Doherty’s sanity restored, as Friel quips, ‘for the time being’.

The Macklin/Friel satire on English life and society – of which Macklin had become a fully-paid up member – is complete with the Dublin Irish on home territory turning the tables on the London English. An interesting and entertaining addition to the City of Culture programme.

View the Waterside Theatre's full autumn 2013 programme of events.