Review by Carole Di Tosti
With its online series, Irish Repertory Theatre has provided an incredible opportunity to virtually revisit paintings hanging in the National Gallery in London, U.K. Their presentation of Give me Your Hand which is currently showing as a performance on screen until 18 October, is a sheer delight and must- see if you enjoy being swept up in poetical tales inspired by paintings of Van Gogh, Rubens, Degas, Gainsborough and others. The virtual reimagining of the production which premiered and was filmed at the Coronet Theatre in London a decade ago, received its American Premiere in 2012 at the Irish Rep’s Scott McLucas Studio Theatre.
Give me Your Hand bills as “a poetical stroll through the National Gallery of London” with poems by renowned Irish poet Paul Durcan that are exceptionally performed by beloved Irish actors Dermot Crowley and Dearbhla Molloy. The production beautifully directed by Jamie Beamish features the actors perched on stools in the foreground with a black curtain backdrop used to feature the various paintings. The unadorned set makes the paintings and the spoken word all the more preeminent. Durcan re-characterizes each of the paintings related to the theme of individuals in the dynamic of relationships with others.
First in the order is a rediscovery of two paintings, ‘Portrait of a Collector’ by Italian Mannerist Parmigianino (1524) and Peter Paul Rubens’ Portrait of Susanna Lunden’ painted around 1622-1625 during the Baroque period. Durcan has selected these two contrasting paintings wisely. They’re painted during different classical periods in art history and are from different countries. Viewing these two works together, we note the dark tones and light tones, the male and female subjects, the dour looks of Parmigianino’s Collector and the lush, seductive, almost whimsical pageant beauty of Ruben’s Susanna Lunden.
Crowley and Molloy match the dark and light subtleties of the paintings’ colors and light sources, highlighting Durcan’s storytelling as a relationship evolves between the subjects. The actors enliven the individuals Durcan captures through his imagined conversations as Parmigianino’s Collector reveals the secret of his evening visits to view Susanna Lunden. She has become his obsession. Molloy portrays a playful Susanna Lunden as she eventually responds to Crowley’s Collector’s comments with wit and alluring talk of the “nice man” whom she might “play with for two weeks.” However, she emphasizes she wishes only affection from him.
By the end of this first reverie, we are hooked. Durcan’s lyricism, characterizations and concise story arc are amazing. The thought that the subjects who once lived yet live on still in the imaginings of Durcan, resurrected by Crowley and Molloy, is glorious and profound. Juxtapositioning the artistic vehicles, dramatic presentation, verse and story-telling through paintings that transfix time from worlds that existed centuries ago, is absolutely mind blowing.
The production delivers with each painting explored and rediscovered. The journey sometimes becomes an examination of the past through the present as for example, in the second painting illuminated, ‘Portrait of a Lady in Yellow’ by Florentine artist Alessio Baldovanetti painted around 1465.
Durcan’s exploration of the painting of a patrician woman standing, becomes upended by the terrible currency of modern times, of a mother/daughter relationship cruelly cut off. Molloy poignantly advances Durcan’s characterization of the subject. He poetically spins the tale of a mother who looks at her daughter’s profile as she rests in a coffin with only her left side exposed. With Durcan’s imagining, we understand why she does not lie on her back as most of the dead are positioned in a coffin for a wake. The mother clarifies that her daughter is the victim of an IRA bombing of a bookstore. The daughter’s beauty is remembered in this profile position, though on her right side she is most probably disfigured by the explosion.
Her daughter is a casualty of war, an innocent at the wrong place at the wrong time. As Molloy speaks to her daughter, the revelation is shocking. Durcan has recombined this benign, beautiful painting of this unnamed “woman in yellow” with a modern devastation, the horrific destruction of an innocent human life. Our shock converts to empathetic understanding when Molloy’s sorrowful mother tells her daughter, “I miss you.”
In Edgar Degas’ “Young Spartan Girls Challenging Boys,” painted before Degas launched into his most famous and well-known impressionist paintings of ballerinas, Durcan cleverly ties it to a teenager’s discovery of his mate in a relationship which lasts a lifetime. Crowley’s exuberant teenager who is staying at the Spartan Hotel is set free by the words of a Belfast Reverend. Crowley energetically spins the story of the girls and boys finding each other in the budding of youth. The challenge becomes the dance of love, togetherness and family as the teens couple up, mature and age. Durcan’s poetic rendering with Crowley’s breathing life into Degas’ girls and boys is just gorgeous.
This Irish Rep presentation is gobsmacking from the actors to Beamish’s direction and his choice of production values. It is a cultural uplift in these times and remembrance of what draws us and connects us in our human history. The Irish Rep, Durcan, Beamish, Molloy, Crowly and the painters and their subjects transcend time and ask the audience for their hands. Willingly we join them in appreciation.
Tickets for Give me Your Hand are at no cost. However, a donation is suggested to help fund these wonderful programs the company is offering in their online series. To make reservations b for this unforgettable presentation, go to the Irish Repertory Theatre’s website. Make sure to do so before it ends on 18 October.