Macklin: Method and Madness

'Macklin: Method and Madness' presented by Antelope Productions at the Viking Theatre.

'Macklin: Method and Madness' presented by Antelope Productions at the Viking Theatre.

A clever telescoping of history is one of the more intriguing features of Gary Jermyn's and Michael James Ford’s two-man show about Charles Macklin, a Donegal native who took the eighteenth-century London stage by storm. From the seats of the cosy Viking Theatre in twenty-first century Clontarf, the audience peers into a bare 1940s BBC Radio studio (designed sparsely and efficiently by Padraig O’Neill) during the height of the Blitz. Here, as air raid sirens scream overhead, two seasoned actors, dressed to the nines in black tuxedos, transmit over the airwaves of wartime Britain an hour-long retrospective on Macklin’s tumultuous life. This sort of ‘frame within a frame’ narration of history generates some fascinating questions about how we reconstruct the past, and how the view we have of our own present actively informs that reconstruction.

Written and performed by both Jermyn and Ford, the play received its premiere last year at the 22nd Macklin Festival in Donegal, and is here given a charming revival at the Viking, a relatively new and intimate theatre space perched atop a comfortable seaside pub. At the start we’re given very brief introductions to radio actors Cecil (Jermyn) and Monty (Ford) as an unseen producer, Giles (voiced by Simon Coury), prepares the broadcast. But the concern here appears to have little to do with dawdling in the details of the performers’ relationship with each other or their producer. Rather, the focus of the performance is on the live creation of the biographical content of the broadcast.

Sharing a single microphone and making full use of a host of homemade sound effects, Cecil and Monty craft a compelling sonic narrative of Macklin’s life, the details of which are somewhat up for grabs and ripe for embellishment. Originally christened Cathal MacLochlainn, even Macklin’s actual age is an issue of contention, with some sources placing the date of his birth in 1699, and some in 1690, only a few months before the Battle of the Boyne. It’s this pivotal event that the broadcasters cite as having a profound effect on Macklin, quite remarkable given Macklin would hardly have been out of his swaddling clothes at the time (if indeed he was born in 1690). After stints in Donegal and Dublin, a young Macklin heads for the relatively bright lights of London, masking his thick Northern Irish accent in order to tread the boards in the fast-growing imperial city. He quickly joins the Drury Lane Theatre, and it’s there that, in spite of a charge of manslaughter for the killing of a fellow actor who stole his wig, Macklin gains fame for his performance of Shakespeare’s Shylock. Most remarkable is the detail and discipline with which Macklin approaches the role, presaging the obsessive preoccupations of a trained Method actor.

While the episodes of Macklin’s biography are presented in a somewhat straightforward fashion, both Jermyn and Ford are a delight, jumping in and out of a whole host of characters from Macklin’s life with expert ease. Ford provides an amusingly overwrought and gravelly voice for the bombastic Macklin, mixing crazed caricature with a genuinely felt pathos. Both men provide a taste of the legendary British ‘stiff upper lip’ as the broadcast is interrupted by yet another air raid, ducking underneath shelves of foley equipment as the bombs fall, calmly waiting for the all clear to sound. From our vantage point seventy years on, Jermyn and Ford’s portrayal of Cecil and Monty comes across as a mythic reflection of the stolidity with which the British are said to have faced down the German bombardment. This is not to say the actors’ performances in this regard are overblown or lack a convincing authenticity. However, it’s interesting how these two characters, which are shown to hardly break a sweat as death rains down from above, contrast sharply with the consumerist hysteria that someone from twenty-first century Dublin may exhibit if his or her low-fat latté was made with whole milk instead of the requisite skim.

In much the same way, the recreation of Macklin in the context of the Battle of Britain reflects a brash, mercurial vitality that these radio actors may have hardly gotten to experience in the everyday existence of modern wartime. The contrasts are compelling, and could perhaps be teased out even more if we were given more of a sense of who both Cecil and Monty are as fully fleshed out characters. True, Macklin is meant to be the play’s ultimate subject, but a more direct investment in the reality of 1940s London could draw into even sharper relief such a spirited retelling of the birth of modern British theatre, and one of the larger than life figures fixed firmly at the heart of it. Nonetheless, this is a highly enjoyable hour spent in the friendly confines of one of Dublin’s newest venues.

Jesse Weaver

  • Review
  • Theatre

Macklin: Method and Madness by Gary Jermyn and Michael James Ford

28 May - 2 June, 2012

Produced by Antelope Productions
In Viking Theatre at the Sheds

Written and Performed by Gary Jermyn and Michael James Ford

Design: Padraig O’Neill