Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Review: The Death of a Muse (BelleVedere Theatre, GM Fringe)

Tuesday 16th July 2019
Lock 91, Deansgate Locks

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe runs from 1st-31st July. As you may know already, I’m reviewing a selection of the shows that are on offer on this year’s festival programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM. The next show I saw was The Death of a Muse, which was on at Lock 91 on Deansgate, on Tuesday 16th July.

You may remember that I interviewed the writer and cast of The Death of a Muse for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special at the end of June, so I’d already had a flavour of what to expect. It was a very enjoyable interview to record, and as a result I was really looking forward to seeing the play. I am very pleased to say that it actually exceeded my already high expectations – The Death of a Muse is really a very good piece of Fringe theatre.

Written by Róis Doherty and produced by BelleVedere Theatre, The Death of a Muse is a play based on the lives of Maud Gonne and William Butler Yeats. But there’s a twist… the audience is invited to join Maud and William decades after their deaths, and to decide the ultimate fate of the two. Who will go to heaven? and who will go to hell?

In the atmospheric space of Lock 91’s upstairs room, poet William and his ‘muse’ Maud confront one another for the final time in an immersive and audience-inclusive piece that offers an idiosyncratic take on biography and memorialization. Characters address the audience directly and wander on and off the stage, in a direct attempt to persuade and convince us of their version of events.

The Death of a Muse is not a linear story of Maud and William’s relationship, nor does it give a full account of either character’s life, career or relationships. Instead, the play presents snippets – out of sequence – of the two’s brittle and tumultuous interactions over the years. Like opposing lawyers in a courtroom, Maud and William summon up flashbacks to key moments in their past, which they each claim will reveal the other’s shortcomings.

Kerry Ely plays Maud Gonne with a cool and critical detachment, which (on the whole) falters only in angry frustration at William’s protestations. Much of her side of the story is intended to rehabilitate her from the static position of William’s ‘muse’ (which, for many, is how she is now best known). From the start, she threatens to reveal to the audience that William was a ‘horrible man’, and her flashbacks are clearly intended to condemn him, rather than save herself. The play’s blurb describes Maud as ‘iron-hearted’ and ‘stone-hearted’, as well as an ‘activist first and mother second’, and this certainly comes across in the performance. Nevertheless, there are also glimpse into underlying motivations and backstory that help us to understand some of the more ‘iron-hearted’ decisions Maud made.

While Maud’s coldness and resentment are the driving forces of her presentation, Ely’s performance offers some wonderful moments where the mask of righteousness slips. Revealing a good sense of comic timing, she punctuates William’s earnestness on occasion – most memorably, in her reaction to his recital of ‘The Cloths of Heaven’. However, it is her performance of the final moment of the final flashback (no spoilers!) that will really stick with me. For all its verbal (and sometimes physical) knockabout comedy, The Death of a Muse doesn’t shy away from some darker aspects of Maud and William’s story, and Ely carries this skilfully.

Against Ely’s Maud is Patrick O’Donnel as William. Frustratingly for Maud – but highly entertaining for the audience – O’Donnel’s William is constantly threatening to steal the limelight. His performance perfectly captures the romantic and unrealistic intensity of William’s infatuation with his muse, but with a comical enthusiasm that’s quite infectious. O’Donnel’s apparently off-the-cuff silliness in the face of the task ahead is very funny – his baffled comment to Maud, ‘This is your flashback, where am I supposed to go?’, was one of my favourite lines. Certainly, the audience feels Maud’s frustration at William’s refusal to accept her as a human being (with a right to refuse his continued proposals), but I’m not sure we’re ever really convinced by her assertion that he is a ‘horrible man’. Even when we see glimpses of William’s more problematic behaviour, Doherty’s script and O’Donnel’s performance is so infused with affection and sympathy that it’s hard to see him as anything more than misguided.

The two main characters are supported by strong performances by Megan Challinor as Iseult Gonne and Liam Collins as John MacBride (as well as a couple of other incidental characters). Challinor does a great job of conveying the change in Iseult from a naïve teenager to a more worldly-wise young woman – though I did also enjoy her performance as a spiritual medium later in the play. Collins is given the unenviable task of playing someone who is, within the narrative of the play, an unquestionably ‘horrible man’. His performance is utterly chilling, and he delivers some incredibly dark lines with the calm certainty of a man with complete power. The contrast with O’Donnel’s performance as William is stark.

The Death of a Muse ends with the audience being invited to vote on Maud and William’s fates. I won’t tell you which way I voted, but I will say – despite the play’s assertion that Maud is much more than simply William’s muse – it was very hard to imagine these two flawed, obstinate, but ultimately sympathetic characters being separated.

With excellent performances and a very well-written script, plus good direction and set design (including creative use of a well-chosen performance space), The Death of a Muse is a superb piece of Fringe theatre, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Death of a Muse is on at Lock 91 on Deansgate Locks on the 9th, 16th and 24th July, as part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of events at this year’s Fringe, see the festival website.

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