Thursday, 21 February 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: Performances

The latest production of Brian Friel's Performances, directed by Adrian Dunbar, is a valuable character study and strong visual showcase, a powerful advertisement for theatre during the City Of Culture year

At its core, Brian Friel's Performances appears to have a well-worn concept, with its focus on an embittered, frustrated composer constructing a symphony with the help of a "muse"  – Shakespeare In Love, anyone? But to these eyes, Performances offers much more – it's a series of fine melodies, varied harmonies, striking visuals and committed performances that combine to form a solid prism through which one can view the possibilities of theatre as a medium of sights and sounds. It may not be for everyone – some may think of it as Dustin Hoffman's Quartet without the jolly amiability and conventional narrative. But if Performances lacks the crowd pleasing nature of Quartet and its ilk, its value as a character study and visual showcase is unquestionable.

The entire play takes place in the mind of PhD student Anezka Ungrova, played by Masha Dakic. Through a series of imaginary conversations with the long dead Czech composer Leos Janacek, played by Allan Corduner, Anezka functions as our audience surrogate as she seeks to get to the bottom of what made this man tick while he was composing his "manifesto on love", "Intimate Letters". The conventional belief is that Janacek was predominantly inspired by his love for and correspondence with the much younger, married Kamila Stosslova (seen here only through Janacek's visions). However, Janacek is extremely dismissive of his "muse", but Anezka is clever enough to realise that he is not "telling" her the whole story, so to speak; and from here on, it's a case of finding out if Anezka's persistence and the power of music – as heard here from the Brodsky Quartet – will succeed in breaking down Janacek's stubborn facade and revealing the ultimate truth about the artist.

The impressive set design and lighting, as good as any I've seen on the stage, give the audience the impression of looking into another world. But that is also true of every character on stage. It's like Anezka And Allan – if I can use the male lead's real name here – Through The Looking Glass, where the stubborn composer sees a vision ripe with the possibilities of life, and where the eager student discovers that the object of her attention isn't who she thought he was. If Aneska's mirror to the past is shattering, Janacek's mirror to the past is enlightening, albeit at the cost of much emotional pain. This is conveyed superbly by Corduner, who seems to be taking cues from a restrained Al Pacino in his performance, and Dakic, whose flashy determination recalls a young Nicole Kidman.

Credit director Adrian Dunbar, too, for framing the play in such a way that the actors and musicians are allowed to take centre stage despite the excellent production values. Being able to see the gestures of the characters in their shadows while we are listening to the extremely wordy – arguably too wordy – dialogue is a priceless asset in a production such as this one. And, lest the play feel too much like a downer, there are moments of light humour sprinkled into the mix.

If Performances is lacking in any way, it's that for all that’s here, you still feel like there's much more to be learnt about a composer like Janacek. As was the case with Richard Eyre’s Iris, the running length is a minor drawback. Still, the thoroughness and professionalism on display here make the play well worth catching, and a strong advertisement for North West Theatre during the City Of Culture Year.

Performances runs until Saturday February 23 in the Great Hall at the University Of Ulster's Magee Campus. To book tickets, visit the Millennium Forum website.

(This review originally appeared in the Derry News on Monday February 18, 2013.)