“The Gigli Concert is a perfect example of why a play has to be seen rather than read.”
This programme note from director David Grindley captures why you should go see The Gigli Concert in the Gate Theatre.
After a few therapy sessions, our unnamed property developer bursts through JPW King’s office door with a brand new record player. He sets up the speakers, finds a plug and puts on a Beniamino Gigli record. The tenor’s rich operatic voice fills the theatre.
Yet by this stage the needle has already been dropped onto Tom Murphy’s timeless play, and the two protagonists are waltzing the audience from baritone angst to subtle humour through to soaring theatrical pleasures.
This is theatre as the ebb and flow of music.
The simple premise of the play is that a nameless Irish man (Denis Conway), who has ‘built a thousand houses’, seeks the help of ‘Dynamatologist’ J.P.W King (Declan Conlon) in order to get his mojo back. Dynamatology is a made-up quackdom of Murphy’s; it’s a vehicle for these two characters to talk and strike up a relationship through which Murphy explores Irish masculinity.
King asks the Irish man whether he’s sought professional help and he says he’s seen enough shrinks ‘fucked-up by too much education’ to see another. King inquires as to whether he wants to build a thousand more houses? No, comes the reply, he wants to find his voice and sing like the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli (Murphy always envied opera singers).
Why do we never get this character’s name? Is his struggle symbolic of the Irish man in general? These are some of the questions the audience are left to ponder.
JPW is no success himself; early in the play he states that he is only willing to lay claim to the letters before his name, infering that he’s no King. What he is though is a dreamer and a drinker. His forays into the outside world are really just to top-up his supplies of vodka and sliced bread – he lives out of his office.
King is having an affair with the married Mona (Dawn Bradley), whose insatiable appetite sees them in bed most of the time. However, his mind is with Helen: she’s the one that got away, the name that launched a thousand hopeful phone conversations, “Happiness and beauty are not meant to meet,” laments King after one of the calls.
This play has three characters but really it has five with Gigli and Helen dominant throughout.
Tom Murphy’s characters are lost in an Ireland where religiosity is disappearing as a crutch. Looking for some meaning and inspiration both men, separately and within minutes of each other, go to the window, gaze out and sigh, “How am I going to get through today?”
This is the first Tom Murphy play staged at the Gate Theatre. An infamous spat, consistently mentioned in the build up to this production, between The Gate’s Artistic Director Michael Colgan and playwright Murphy, in which one was called provincial and the other a keeper of a museum at the top of O’Connell Street, has been put aside. Colgan rightly recognises the relevance that Murphy’s theatre has for a contemporary audience.
The play was first performed in 1983 on The Abbey stage and there are some generational elements to the set pieces which work with a modern audience and some that don’t. The arrogant property developer is a character that audiences of today need little imagination to conjure but I for one didn’t know that King was tapping the phones; this had to be explained to me at the interval.
Reading this script is a far remove from seeing it. The commas, the pauses, the actors transform these from page to stage. Murphy sat in on rehearsals advising the players on how to properly enunciate the dialogue and how to treat each comma. That will form a neat anecdote for them in years to come.
Things come and go in our understanding of the world and it’s the rhythmic peaks and troughs of the chats and hangovers that reflect this in the play. The success of this production is founded on the masterful performances of the two central characters who seemingly jaunt through the dense material.
Denis Conway is particularly striking, his taut body language at the start relaxes and unfurls with each audience laugh – he revels in their participation which at times culminates in spontaneous applause.
“Life is bouncing back” says Mona and King echoes this throughout. As one character is down the other is buoyed by some drink infused distraction. King and the Irish man build a bond as they tackle his mental issues in frustrated fits and starts.
This is a triumphant rendering of Murphy’s play by director David Grindley who has made it as accessible and enjoyable as possible. The performances are buttressed by the lighting (Sinéad McKenna) which ushers in each new dawn or gradual dusk with seamless beauty.
By the end JPW King is left alone on the stage. Suddenly he takes on the neurosis of his patient and falls drunkenly into a dynamic miming of Gigli. The lights come up illuminating the stage pillars and the audience is transported, by the magic of theatre, to a vivid opera in his head for the closing minutes.
As this theatrical high subsides, the needle is lifted on Murphy’s musical masterpiece.
The Gigli Concert runs in The Gate until November 21st.