After an extended period during which it’s been rare to see more than one or two actors on stage, and often at home via phone and laptop rather than at an actual theatre, it is a welcome jolt to the senses to witness All The Angels live and in person, with its full cast and playful mix of drama and music.
The play with songs is due to make its Irish premiere later this month at Smock Alley Theatre, close to the site of the events which inspired it: the first ever public presentation of Handel’s oratorio The Messiah.
All The Angels is a behind-the-scenes tale of the staging of a concert, with all the obstacles, personal struggles, fears and in-fights that feed into it. It is also about the redemptive power of music, according to director Lynne Parker, speaking at a preview show at the Everyman theatre, in Cork.
The colourful period costume, worn by both singers and actors, conveys an old-world atmosphere entirely appropriate to a play set in 1742, while the writing is modern — Nick F. Drake’s play was first shown at London’s Globe Theatre in 2015 and this is the Irish premiere.
There’s a lovely, brisk choreography to the transitions between sung and spoken elements, with little flourishes on entrance and exit reminiscent of a glockenspiel’s dancing figurines. This effect is added to by the mirrored setting and gilded singers as they intermittently flit on and off-stage to sing snatches of Handel’s best-known work. As tenor Ross Scanlon puts it, “you get all the best bits of The Messiah”.
Staging and storyline combine to focus attention on the process of making a show and all that goes into it, rather than one or two stars. Drake’s play – like the work that inspired it, which itself is snippets from the Bible – puts each character momentarily under the spotlight, to perhaps reappear in further short scenes as the story progresses.
Thus, we meet the bewigged and beleaguered George Frideric Handel, on his travels to Dublin only because his London popularity has waned – he lost his soloists to a rival opera house, and following this had health troubles. Cranky or vulnerable, with or without his baroque wig, Brian Doherty is a very convincing Handel.
Ross Gaynor deftly takes on a slew of roles in different accents and costumes: among them Cavendish, the Lord Lieutenant who invites Handel to Dublin, Charles Jennens the librettist who adapted The Messiah’s text from the King James Bible (and who, incidentally, also opposed one of the anti-Catholic acts of settlement), and Crazy Crow — a man outside the glamour of the glitterati, an ordinary Dubliner more than capable of making up his own mind about the events and personages of his night-time world.
Then there is the cast of the show-within-the-show: the parts of the seasoned concert-singers are sung by baritone Owen Gilhooly-Miles, tenor Ross Scanlon and soprano Megan O’Neill, while the role of celebrity actress and opera virgin Susannah Cibber is admirably played and sung by Rebecca O’Mara.
Cibber, recently and very publicly divorced, gains our sympathy with her terror of tabloid sticks and stones, and of sharing the spotlight with Handel’s dazzling Italian opera stars, in particular the trilling soprano. The rather grumpy Handel, we discover, has much in common with “fallen woman” Cibber, with whom he later worked again in London when both their careers had revived.
Cibber’s performance fears aside, Megan O’Neill as the soprano is a delight to hear. She skips and somersaults through her songs with ease, although as anyone who tried to hum along would soon learn, the airs are more difficult than her vocal acrobatics suggest.
The musician’s corner, stage left, is helmed with aplomb by Hélène Montague. If choral singing is what is most associated with Handel’s work, the chorus may seem under-represented, but restrictions aside, most theatres would struggle to accommodate a choir. Like The Messiah, the musical elements of _All The Angels _could shrink or expand to meet the venue, but the balance between players and singers here feels just right.
Selected extracts from The Messiah, with its sad and happier notes, match the areas of darkness and light onstage. There is a moment when Scanlon sings “and behold darkness shall cover the earth …” He gleams in the spotlight while beside him the shadowy figure of Crazy Crow drags a dead body onstage.
A character whose day will come, perhaps, Crazy Crow is for that moment robed in darkness, trapped in an exponential “winner-takes-all” economy that forces him to go grave-robbing as a night gig to pay the bills. As the sole voice here of the ordinary Dubliner, Crow’s disruptive presence is a reminder of the extreme chiaroscuro seen in everyday 18th-century life, and perhaps too of its afterimage in the 21st century.
Located around the corner from where Handel and company sweated out their performance nearly 300 years ago, and near the churches that filled his chorus, Smock Alley Theatre is both a perfect venue for All The Angels, and something of a character in its own right – one that entices the crowd, or chorus, to consider the history of this theatre, as well as enjoy the play.
The Musick Hall where Messiah premiered on the world stage in 1742 was on Fishamble Street, prompting Brian O’Nolan (writing as Myles na gCopaleen) many years later to dub the street “fish-Handel”. Smock Alley Theatre too has a colourful history – its own story of rise and fall, light and dark, redemption and reinvention.
The theatre first opened its curtains in 1662 as the Theatre Royal, some 80 years ahead of Handel’s Dublin sojourn and a stone’s throw from the now-gone Musick Hall.
Curtains closed on the Theatre Royal incarnation of its existence in 1787. The building changed hands a few times and by 1811 was the Church of St Michael and St John’s, gaining a reputation in the late Penal times of the early 1800s as the first Catholic church for 300 years to (illegally) sound a bell for Mass.
By the 1950s “Mick and Jacks” was the place to pick up a speedy Mass on the way home from a night on the town, or before starting an early shift at the docks. Word was, you could order a pint of Guinness, hear Mass and be back in the pub before your pint had settled.
Reincarnated as a theatre again in 2012, Smock Alley Theatre has over the past decade hosted a kaleidoscopic range of shows by and for Dubliners, and has once more played its part in reinvigorating Dublin’s theatre scene – perhaps never more so than with this exuberant Rough Magic and Smock Alley Theatre co-production, due to run 20 November to 22 December.