Sunday, May 20, 2012

'Love In The Title' - comments on a new production

One of the best things to happen to Irish theatre in recent years is, founded just over a year ago to help with 'crowdfunding' of projects such as new plays. One of the latest plays supported this way is Room To Move Theatre Company's new production of Hugh Leonard's Love In The Title, now running in the New Theatre in Temple Bar.

Room To Move were kind enough to invite me along to the opening night. Since then I've spent quite some time thinking about the play; and as much as describing a play as 'thought provoking' is a cliché, nonetheless in this case it's accurate. (Mostly I've found myself thinking, "Was Hugh Leonard self-obsessed, or a cunning and talented writer who knew what his audience wanted?") So rather than writing a normal review I'm going to have some fun with this one and indulge in semi-informed, wildly speculative analysis. There will be spoilers.

Oh, yes: you want to know whether to see the play? That depends on what you're looking for. It's not especially fast-paced, exciting or dramatic; it's not a narrative so much as a conversation. Love In The Title is about three Irish women - a grandmother, mother and daughter - discussing their lives and loves. It's witty and clever, a charming work of art and an insightful look at 20th century Ireland.

So then: Hugh Leonard. Don't think for one second that the lack of any male characters makes the play less autobiographically inspired. Leonard's Magnum Opus is Da, a play inspired by his own life, in which the protagonist (Charlie) struggles with his relationship with his deceased adoptive father. Family and identity are explored by presenting Charlie with the chance to talk to the ghost of his Da. Love In The Title looks at the same issues but along the female line. Adoption and illegitimacy remain important themes, but here we see Leonard look at the harsher alternative of being reared in a religious institution.

As in Da, the plot device employed is to provide the modern-day protagonist with the opportunity to talk to his/her forebears; in this case her mother and maternal grandmother. A nice twist is that the ancestors are still youthful. Cat (played by April Bracken) is age 20 from 1932; her daughter Triona (Tanya Wilson) is 30 in 1964; and Triona's daughter Katie (Melissa Nolan) is 37 in 1999. April Bracken is a delight as Cat, but the age gap between Katie and Triona isn't self-evident in this production. I suspect that's at least partly due to the way the two characters dress, rather than being caused by poor casting.

Cat, having been born to an unmarried mother and raised by nuns, is horrified by Katie's casual attitude to sex, and shocked (and presumably bitter) to discover that by the late 20th century it's no longer shameful for a child to be born out of wedlock. Incidentally, one of Cat's old flames bears a striking resemblance to Leonard / Charlie from Da; he's an adopted child who goes on to become a successful writer. And like Leonard, Cat does not get to know her own mother.

Triona is the least distinct of the three characters. Chronologically in between the other two, she seems to be a bit of a filler: Cat and Katie are essential to the play, whereas Triona seems to be there to facilitate their dialogue. Perhaps there's hidden depth there that I missed.

Katie is something of an "author protagonist" at times. If Cat represents Leonard's early life, Katie is Leonard's realised, late-20th-century self; though unlike the playwright, she sticks to novels. (This gives the play its name, as her books all have "love in the title". I find it strangely satisfying that Leonard decided to use this naming scheme for the play itself.) For all that Katie rejects the morals of the older generations, it sounds as if she's filled with doubt, unsure of her current path in life.

One intriguing aspect of Karie's background is that she's writing a paper comparing Greek and Irish myths. I'm unsure as to why Leonard chose Perseus' slaying of the gorgon Medusa as Katie's comparison with an Irish legend, but I see three possibilities. Firstly, here's a lovely quote from a review he once wrote: "Should dead coals be raked over? Ah, but these are not women, or even human beings, but glorious, impossible monsters, as deadly and unreal as the Medusa." Secondly, it's notable that Perseus is raised by a stepfather, so perhaps there's a self-identification. And thirdly, the Perseus tale features the three Graeae - the gray sisters - who share a single eye: in Love In The Title, only Katie truly sees the world, for the other two are just ghosts from the past. That the three characters' names are all variants of the same name adds to this.

As for conclusions, I have none. The play doesn't end that way, either - the characters, like those in Katie's novels, do not undergo a "sea change".

The production continues until Saturday 2nd June. Tickets cost €15 (€12 concession) and are available on the New Theatre's website.


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