Theatre review: The Misfits at the Dublin Theatre Festival
Written by Arthur Miller, reimagined for the stage by Annie Ryan
Director: Annie Ryan
Cast: Emmet Byrne, Úna Kavanagh, Aidan Kelly, Aoibhinn McGinnity, Patrick Ryan
The choice of Arthur Miller's The Misfits is an unusual choice for a theatre piece that seeks to say something about contemporary society. The Misfits was never even written as a play, but rather as the screenplay (and subsequently a novella) for a film made by John Houston in 1961, a vehicle for Miller's new wife Marilyn Monroe to show that she could cut it as a serious actor. Retaining the Nevada locations, cowboys and rodeos of the original film, it's hard to see what The Misfits might have to say about the times we live in. What it relies on perhaps is Miller's ability to find the truth in the behaviours of men and women, and that is something at least that comes across powerfully in the Corn Exchange's production adapted and directed by Annie Ryan's for the 2018 Dublin Theatre Festival.
You don't need to look much deeper than that to find the big themes that jump out of the piece. Most obviously it's about 'misfits', it's about women and men and it's about America. When you put it in those terms, there is quite a lot you could apply to contemporary issues. Has there ever been a time when the idea of society has ever felt more broken? When matters of common decency and common sense have been put aside for the lure of power, money and aspiration? Has there ever been a time in recent history when those powers, that wealth and those ambitions have ever been so abused, caused such division, given rise to a society of misfits acting independently for their own interests?
The traditional securities of family are hard to find in any of the characters in The Misfits. They are all divorced, separated, estranged, at odds with their families, left to fend for themselves, wary around other people, awkward in each other's company, but all of them are desperate to belong, to be loved, to even be acknowledged. And in the process, caught up in their own needs, only knowing how to look after themselves, they seem to have lost any notion of simple basic decency or respect for the needs of others.
There's a lot then that can be read into how each of the men in The Misfits relate towards Roslyn, the Marilyn Monroe recent divorcee role that each of the men, cowboy Gay, mechanic Guido and rodeo rider Perce, all gravitate towards in silent or open competition for her attention. But their response towards Isabelle Steer the bartender also reveals another side to how the men treat women and regard them as lovers and providers, with little concern for feelings other than the most basic and immediate needs. It's also about the absent women, Gay's estranged wife who looks after his children, Guido's wife, who basically died from neglect, and Perce's domineering mother.
There's a wide dynamic here between men and women, and its contemporary relevance stretches far beyond current concerns about toxic masculinity and #MeToo. There's a warning in there also about America/us being too far gone down a road to be able to repair the damage. The damage is not only done to those natural sources of revenue (the diminishing hordes of wild horses, soon to be exhausted), but the damage that has also been done to each and every one of us; all misfits.
If there appears to be a lack of nuance in the characters, it's one that has been forced on them by their circumstances. It's a strength of Miller's writing that he is still able to reveal a humanity in the characters that has been distorted but perhaps not entirely destroyed, but it's unquestionably a challenge to make the audience recognise this and regard them in any kind of sympathetic light. Ryan's adaptation does this well, making good use of the limited space in Smock Alley's historic theatre, her direction providing a few hints at the deeper and wider context of the relevance these character's lives might have for a contemporary audience.
There's as much said too in the body movements. Patrick Ryan's gait as Guido moves in a roundabout swagger across the stage in orbit to Roslyn, his glances and nervous arm movements trying to hide his confusion and lack of ability to express himself. Aidan Kelly's Gay is all alpha-male sureness that nonetheless reveals vulnerabilities. Emmet Byrne's Perce has youth on his side that enables him to bounce back from setbacks and injuries. He just needs someone to believe him. It's in how the men relate to the women that reveals their true nature. Aoibhinn McGinnity's Roslyn and Úna Kavanagh's Isabelle hold the keys, even if in the latter case it's just the key to the bar, both just as much misfits to the power dynamic of a very male-centred world. Misfits they might be, but none of them are as dumb as they appear, running on instinct, alert to imperceptible signals, fully aware of the implications of what they are doing, knowing that there will eventually be a price to pay, but that's a worry for another day.
The Corn Exchange
Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin
Dublin Theatre Festival
28 September 2018