Writer: Owen McCafferty
Director: Steve Marmion
Reviewer: Cormac O’Brien
What price is fame? What price is glory? What happens to politically subversive art and the artist who makes it, when fame and glory come a-knocking on his door? What dearly held principles is that artist willing to abandon in the pursuit of his proverbial 15 minutes on the Comedy Channel? These are questions that Owen McCafferty raises, but doesn’t fully answer, with his latest play, Death of a Comedian.
Death of a Comedian is, at its essence, a cautionary tale of a modern day Faustian pact made between the highly politicised but unknown Comedian (Brian Doherty), and the sharp-suited, silver-tongued Agent (Shaun Dingwell), who takes him on and makes him rich and famous. And, of course, there’s the obligatory loving Girlfriend (Kate McGuinness), his muse and the very raison d’etre for his art. Girlfriend is the only one willing, or able, to question the artistic compromises that Agent demands of her boyfriend.
But Death of a Comedian misses a beat somewhere along the line. McCafferty clearly wants to make a point about the ways in which contemporary show business and media fame makes destructive demands of artists and their art in order to give shareholders a profitable bottom line. This is probably why he presents us with a ‘be careful for what you wish for’ narrative, with archetypal personas of ‘Comedian’, ‘Agent’ and ‘Girlfriend. As opposed to a plotted story with carefully drawn characters whose inner lives we explore. So, while we see what happens to Comedian’s art, we don’t see what happens to his life. And this is where McCafferty doesn’t fully answer the questions he’s asking, especially for Irish audiences who are attuned to, and to a large degree expect, characterisation and character development. Still, if this ‘fame destroys art’ narrative is the show’s main takeaway, then McCafferty makes that point with theatrical aplomb.
Technically, Michael Vale’s brilliant design gives us a slick, sharp show, as flashy as an X-Factor final; indeed, the ending could be an X-Factor final. The performances, too, are flawless. Shaun Dingwall’s Agent, in particular, soars as the archetypal media guru; all style and no substance, spouting ambiguous, empty rhetoric that could mean anything, or everything, and ultimately means nothing: a Simon Cowell for aspiring comedians. Brian Doherty’s Comedian expertly captures the willing denial of a man so desperate for fame that he’s willing to abandon his Irish accent, and thus his identity, to get on British telly. And Kate McGuinness’s Girlfriend strikes a perfect pitch between loving concern and a knowing fear of what this particular future holds.
McCafferty has, in the past, proven himself as a probing playwright, particularly talented at dramatic realism and character development: as evidenced by Shoot the Crow and, especially, the award-winning Quietly. So, while Comedian is a slick, technical tour-de-force, it is certainly not his best work. Which, this reviewer is certain, still lies in front of him.
Photo courtesy of the Abbey Theatre. Runs until April 4th.