Archive for May 2012
Oscar-winning writer and director Neil Jordan swept into town this spring with his fiery young protégé, Eamonn Owens, in tow to present the Toronto premiere of The Butcher Boy, his latest and possibly darkest film out of Ireland. Based on Patrick McCabe’s best-selling novel of the same name, Jordan’s distinctive screen adaptation won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Festival, and fifteen-year-old Owens received a Special Mention for his powerful debut performance as the precocious Francie Brady.
Surrounded by a circle of critics, the enigmatic Irish director casually sprawls on a couch in his sunny Yorkville hotel suite answering questions ad nauseam about his latest cinematic achievement. Smiling shyly and squirming in his seat like an overgrown school boy, Jordan seems uncomfortable in the limelight. He bides his time, as though pondering every syllable of each query. Luring the mystery man out from behind his director’s mask is a challenge relished by all but one seasoned critic (who wishes to remain anonymous). “Jordan is a difficult interview,” she pronounces during the break. “You have to goad him with a cattle prod before he’ll talk about his work, and when he finally says something, it’s the same stuff he’s been feeding all the other media.” Arriving partway through the screening, she quickly concludes The Butcher Boy is a typical “boy-goes-bad” slice ’em up flick — which it is not. There’s no Jason-meets-Freddy or Halloween schlock in this butcher shop. It’s an authentically Irish tale right down to the bolloxing bogmen, black-skirted priests and archaic Co. Monaghan dialect.
While The Butcher Boy is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, it is far from being a slick Hollywood slice-and-dice horror. Shot on location in the provincial town of Clones, Jordan’s film is a black comedy that cleverly combines art and realism with old fashioned voice-over narrative (by Stephen Rea). Unlike most literary adaptations, it’s also miraculously true to the spirit of McCabe’s novel. “I found the book very cinematic in a strange way, even though it’s stream of consciousness,” says Jordan. “It’s a story about a Dennis the Menace type who sees himself as a superhero. I thought it one of the best accounts of childhood I’d ever read.”
Jordan was so impressed, he asked McCabe to write the screenplay. “Since Pat’s a friend of mine and we come from the same environment, it just happened naturally. In a sense, I was recreating his childhood. I cast him in the movie [as Jimmy the Skite] and shot him in the town he grew up in…I wanted him as involved as possible. He wasn’t used to writing script, though. His first draft was too long, so I asked him to shorten it, which he did, but when I saw all the changes, I had to say, ‘Sorry, Pat, but I don’t remember asking you for a whole new novel.’ He was worried about hinging the whole film on voice-over, so we ended up writing together.”
The result is a brilliantly performed look at the effects of sixties pop culture on an unstable small-town boy growing up in the underbelly of Irish culture. And yes, Francie does go mad and chop Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw) to pieces, but she deserves it — or so I thought. Not in Jordan’s opinion:
“It was very important that there should be no villains in the piece, because you can easily say, ‘Okay, Francie’s the way he is because those ladies in the shop treat him consistently horribly.’ Then you’d be able to blame them. Even Mrs. Nugent does nothing wrong to the boy in the end. She just doesn’t want him in her company. It is important to see very clearly that it is the child’s mind that drives him, that there is some disturbance in Francie’s interior world and not any particular character, not even the priest who half abuses him. The entire adult world around him is well-meaning. They just don’t notice his specific trauma.”
“Then why is Francie so mad at the ‘well-meaning’ adult world?” I ask. “He had a hard upbringing and must find compensation for the series of disasters that happened to him,” Jordan explains. Francie lives in an imaginary world to escape a life of poverty and shattered dreams. His father, Benny (Stephen Rea), is an alcoholic jazz musician down on his luck, and his mother (Aisling O’Sullivan) is a frail woman who slowly drifts into madness and suicide.
“Actually, Francie is always ahead of the adults,” Jordan continues, as though lecturing a class of attentive school kids. “Even the psychiatrist, but he’s manic, obsessive and estranged and given to grandiose behaviour. For instance, when his blood brother, Joe (Alan Boyle) gives the goldfish to young Nugent (Andrew Fullerton), the son of his nemesis, Francie perceives it as the ultimate betrayal. That’s why he tries to win as many goldfish at the carnival as he can…because he thinks it’s the key to his friend’s heart, to winning him back.
Finding the right Francie Brady was possibly Jordan’s greatest challenge. “I had a team turning Ireland upside-down. We did read-throughs with 2,000 children. It got to the point where I thought we wouldn’t be able to make the movie because there’d be no point without the right child. Eventually we found Eamonn Owens in the tiny town of Killashandra, Co. Cavan, working in his parents’ vegetable shop. He’d never acted before, but when I began working with him, I realized he would be marvelous. I cast his young brother as well [Ciaran Owens], and his friend Joe goes to the same school. I’d like to work with Eamonn again. It’s very rare to come across someone with so much energy and power.”
Jordan’s new young star may take to the screen like a fish to water, but even he has limitations. “The most challenging scene for me was with Milo O’Shea as the [homosexual] priest in the reform school,” says Owens,” because I couldn’t identify it with anything in my life to know what to do in the scene. But Neil was brilliant and Milo O’Shea was fabulous. He knew to perfection what he was meant to be doing. It was easy after a while, even though I was quite worried about the scene.” Overall though, Owens has been having tremendous fun. “I particularly enjoyed the scenes in the house with Stephen Rea, especially when he broke the TV set. Seeing him kick in the screen was very entertaining. He’s extremely funny.” After his debut with Jordan, Owens took a role in John Boorman’s irish gangster film, I Once Had a Life. “I hope I’m offered more parts in the future. If I continue to enjoy acting, I’ll study it in school.”
For Jordan, working with Owens effected a kind of catharsis. “It was a weird experience for me, because Eamonn looks like me when I was his age, especially in the altar boy’s costume. I remember growing up in Ireland at the time and being told I was surrounded by ghosts all the time. The Catholic thing is very strong there, very basic in a very superstitious way. As a kid you were told that voices would speak to you from the sky at any moment. I was terrified by the possibility that one of these figures would appear to me and say, ‘Neil, you are the one. Come and work with us. Wear a black skirt like us, Neil.'”
Jordan’s apocalyptic scenes and special effects are macabre, gritty and disturbingly funny manifestations of his own childhood fears. “I remember seeing the nuclear blast on TV and being taught what to do in case of a nuclear strike. ‘Get under the bed.’ we were told.” Amid all this gory Goth, Sinead O’Connor’s Virgin Mary shines like a glossy Hollywood neon goddess. “It’s the way the religious statues and pictures appear in real life. They’re very gaudy. I love religious art, the Hindu gods and Indian spirits. If you saw the Virgin Mary, she’d appear very bright, with a big spotlight behind her. I was going to make Marilyn Monroe the Virgin Mary, the way you would imagine it in the Hollywood way. Sinead looks more like the ‘real’ Virgin Mary in the iconography I grew up with: the beautiful profile, dark hair, sallow skin, lovely bone structure — just like Sinead.”
The Virgin Mary’s language is pretty upbeat for a religious icon (she uses the “F” word) and may offend those with delicate sensibilities. According to Jordan, “It didn’t offend them in Ireland. Maybe it will in the States, but that’s how Francie imagines her talking, and she talks in his voice.”
As for the use of authentic dialect, the film is very confusing for an audience not familiar with Irish colloquialisms, and it may take a good ten minutes just to get the accent. “You’ve got a choice,” insists Jordan. “You either mess it up and make it mid-Atlantic, in which case it doesn’t have any integrity at all, or you make it as accurately as you can for the people involved and hope that the audience will reach it. For me it’s better not to compromise so that the power and strength of the movie is more intense. I think if you tried to flatten out this adaptation and make it acceptable all over the world, however you imagine it, you would destroy the book entirely.” Jorden is undoubtedly right, but the Co. Monaghan dialect makes voice-over a necessary evil in this film, for North Americans at least.
The language barrier apparently has had little effect on audiences in England and Europe, however, and Jordan remains in awe of how well The Butcher Boy is being received across the pond. “It’s been praised very highly and it’s getting quite a significant audience for the kind of movie it is. I think movies are becoming a bit too anodyne.”
Whatever the reasons his disgruntled critics attribute to his self-reflexive time-lags, Jordan has not lost his Midas touch. His heady cast of professionals, amateurs and authentic townsfolk, his juxta-positioning of location and studio filming with surrealistic special effects and unique use of religious symbolism in The Butcher Boy recall the art films of Bergman and Fellini, but from a distinctly Irish point of view. Following in the footsteps of these and other art-house icons, Jordan has carved out a body of work and a stock troupe of actors headed by Stephen Rea.
While behaving more like an angry young author than a fervid film director may be a thorn in the side of some critics, Jordan wears both hats with aplomb. Judging by his collection of screenplay awards, his writer’s hat fits remarkably well. So what if he’s crammed it into his back pocket alongside a crumpled Dennis the Menace comic and old chewing gum?
Celtic Curmudgeon Arts & Entertainment Review, 1998
Who hasn’t wondered at one time or another about the daily lives of fairies? For those of us who want to know, author Penelope Larkspur and artist Leslie Elizabeth Watts offer The Secret Life of Fairies, a delightful child’s guide to Fairyland.
Penelope begins logically with a few cautionary words on entering Fairy World. And since young readers are remarkably logical, she goes to great lengths to tell all…or most. Some questions are necessarily left unanswered, but only because “fairies like their privacy,” she explains, which is why “no one has ever seen inside a fairy bathroom”
Bathroom arcana aside, author and artist show us a typical fairy home furnished with intriguing birc-a-brac: acorn goblets, sprouting sofas, canopied beds (to protect sleep-fliers), silver spoon mirrors, mouse-hide carpets, a cozy fire of wooden matches blazing on the hearth.
We spy a fairy feast in a moonlit wood where a royal family sits atop a raised toadstool dais and dancers twirl about a bonfire in gossamer gowns to flute and harp and walnut-shell bass. We forage a field by day where tiny fairies ride on ants and wingless fairies fly on bundles of sticks by saying the magic words, “Horse and mattock.” Mostly, though, says Penelope, fairies raise white fairy horses called “rades” and fairy cows for milk, and fairy hunting dogs for catching wild mice.
We learn that fairies love fashion an avoid clothes that “pinch, rub or itch.” They prefer dew-draped spiderwebs and jaunty green-leaf hats, or snapdragon caps and bat-wing capes on rainy days. Did you know that one wool hat lost in the woods equals 20 fairy sweaters? They also love bread, butter, berries, bluebells abd bowls of milk. Penelope also reveals a recipe for fairy cake that anyone can make.
Now I can’t imagine a more perfect summer pastime than The Secret Life of Fairies, even for the timid fairy seeker. No need to venture further than your own backyard. Just follow Penelope’s tips: leave a dish of milk in the garden, and plant bluebells for feasts and pink and red flowers for hats, but don’t plant St. John’s Wort, or leave horseshoes and other iron objects laying about. And for the record, fill out the “fairy sighting” form on the very last page.
For a first-hand sighting, warns Penelope, you must be on the lookout for fairies, “especially on moonlit nights. You may hear them before you see them” she cautions. “The thrum of a harp or the lilting melody of a flute will tell you they are nearby.” Be very quiet,” she cautions, “for fairies do not like to be watched.”
Sounds perfectly logical to me.
Celtic Curmudgeon Arts & Entertainment Review, 1999
Theatre critics are raving about the hot new UK playwright, Martin McDonagh and his Tony-winning play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. They compare him to Hollywood’s Quentin Tarantino to a degree tha raises suspicion and arouses a violent need to reject their claims outright. Live theatre and cinema are worlds apart, the effects, the impact, mutually exclusive. Or so I thought, until I saw McDonagh’s play.
A fan of fringe theatre, black comedy and other off-beat entertainment, I am habitually bored by mainstream theatre, in spite of critical acclaim. (Riverdance is a case in point.) So I prepared for two hours of tedium trying to achieve critical objectivity.
And for the first while, The Beauty Queen did not disappoint. It was opening night. The cast was shy, their movements were awkward, and their Irish accents kept unravelling. And that, thought I with a satisfied meow, is simply not Tarantino, a director known for sucking his audience into a vortex of fast-lane violence and angst-driven thugs from exciting establishing shot to unnerving finish.
The Beauty Queen builds almost too slowly, more like a Hitchcock thriller, and with as many twists and turns, starting with the boring daily lives of two very boring women. As the play develops, however, we learn that mother and daughter have been weaving a sinister web. The double-binds and petty betrayals are of Hitchcockian proportion and lead inexorably to a terrible, shocking end. It has all the elements of Psycho. Think bare light bulbs, Norman Bates and mother-possession, with a few minor differences: the bare bulb is not restricted to the basement — these women live in squalor, Bates is a broad, and mother is still alive and full of piss, which she dumps down the sink. Disgusting? Very.
Joan Orenstein is almost too convincing at times in her role as 70-year old Mag Folan, a lazy old bitch of a mother hell-bent on making a life-time slave of her estranged 40-something daughter, Maureen, played to perfection by Fiona Reid. Maureen resents her, of course, but their circumstances in rural Ireland leave her no alternative but to look after her abusive mother and their paltry farm, until Pato Dooley (Oliver Becker) offers her a tiny window of opportunity. And that’s when the real friction begins. Mag steps up her scheming while Maureen flaunts her escape plans. Mom wins (sort of) with the unwitting help of Pato’s younger brother, Ray, a frenetic lad whose restless impatience with the old biddy most resembles a Tarantino character. Scene-stealing Canadian actor Matthew Edison brings to the stage the vibrance and humour of a Pulp Fiction punk. He tosses about, rolls off his chair and pretty much crawls up the walls with all the insolence of youth, chanting “feck” as though it were some demented Irish mantra, until he finally leaves Pato’s letter to Maureen with Mag to do with as she pleases, which se does, apparently sealing her daughter’s fate…and her own. But that’s not all. The surprising twist at the end is worthy of Hitchcock and must remain a mystery “for fear of spoiling the effect for our readers” (as the great Master of Suspense himself might’ve said in a prologue to the play).
McDonagh’s own fate was sealed when both play and director won Tony awards for the 1997-1998 season. The Beauty Queen won the award for Outstanding Broadway Play, and Ms. Hynes, the Lucille Lortel award for Outstanding Direction, making her the first woman director to win a Tony. “Naturally I was thrilled, but it seemed extraordinary to me that a woman hadn’t won, particularly given the contribution made to the American theatre this century by women directors, founders of the great regional theatres, and others who were very influential,” Hynes told me in a brief interview at the Bluma Appel Theatre shortly before opening night. She was in Toronto overseeing Druid’s joint production with the Canadian Stage Theatre Company.
After touring Ireland with The Beauty Queen, Ms. Hynes and the Druid Theatre Company teamed up with Royal Court for a co-production and moved to the Atlantic Theatre in New York, where McDonagh’s play became a highly-acclaimed sellout, receiving unprecedented reviews from the American Press. “Sometimes you don’t even know what you’ve been craving until the real thing comes along,” raved New York Times critic Ben Brantly, and The DAily News called it “a new Playboy of the Western World.” Then on April 23 of the same year, McDonagh’s play went to The Walter Kerr theatre for its award-winning Broadway debut.
Such tremendous acclaim for all involved — including the cast, who won the 1998 Theatre World award for Outstanding Ensemble — makes one wonder what it was about McDonagh’s script that initially caught Ms. Hynes’ attention. “You read plays, and if they’re good and exciting, you tend to want to do them. The same process happened with Martin. It was unusual in the sense that he had extraordinary sophistication for (what I didn’t know then, but now know was) a first-time writer, and maturity for a young writer. He told a story, he wrote wonderful dialogue, and he’s very funny. I can’t think of a much better reason.”
McDonagh wrote the first installment of his Leenane trilogy in a basement flat in only eight days, in London, England, where he grew up. Although the 28-year-old playwright is not from Ireland, his father’s from Connemara, where most of his work is set. Nor does he have a degree in drama. He is in fact a high school drop-out who spent several years watching tellie on the dole, and he’s a self-confessed pop-cult pundit to boot. Before Ms. Hynes and Druid took him under wing, he had 22 radio plays rejected. He has also confessed to being influenced by Tarantino, but aside from his character Ray, there’s more Psycho than Pulp Fiction in this playwright’s philosophy. I suspect that a steady diet of BBC prime-time during his formative writing career must have embedded Hitchcock deeply in his subconscious mind, or better yet, the old master has come back to take possession of the young McDonagh and we’re in for a decade of award-winning suspense theatre. Notorious, you say? Strictly for the Birds? This fringe junkie can’t wait.
Celtic Curmudgeon Arts & Entertainment Review, 1999