EILE’s Stephen Donnan takes a trip to the theatre to see the new version of Gareth Russell’s play, The Gate of the Year, and is impressed with the revision
Brian Friel Theatre, Queen’s University
Belfast, 4-5 December
Rating: * * * * *
‘Sweat, fear […] blood and fire.’ is how one character describes the revolution that takes place over the course of three hours on a small stage in the Brian Friel Theatre. It’s evident that many of those elements were put into this production by all involved. With a stand-out cast of amateur actors who deliver a polished and gripping performance, and a clearly talented director, it is safe to say that The Gate of the Year is arguably one of the best stage productions in Belfast this year.
Gareth Russell’s direction pulls the audience exactly where they need to go, as he masterfully brings the French Revolution of 1789 into modern day. It had echoes of Julie Taymor’s 1999 masterpiece, Titus, in its ability to transcend anachronistic barriers, and transport us to a timeless world in chaos.
As a fan of history, I was already hooked on the nuances and manoeuvres of a dying aristocracy clinging to its glory as the revolution crashes towards it, but it was brought to life by a cast that at once knew their roles, felt comfortable in their own skin, and who bounced off each other majestically.
David Paulin was stellar as he portrayed the rage, jealousy and arrogance of Charles, the King’s brother. In one particular scene, he tries to make his brother see the violence that the revolution has brought to France, and we can almost see the flames of a burning Versailles through his mastery of the stage.
We were treated to a remarkable performance from Stephanie Dale as Marie Antoinette, beautifully and believably depicted as a woman on the edge of the abyss, as her family and country burn around her. It was almost a competition between Dale and Paulin, as both effortlessly dominated the space of the stage. I predict big things for both actors, if this is the calibre of performance they have to offer in the early stages of their careers.
Amos McCormack was very convincing in his portrayal as Jack Necker, the French Prime Minister. Russell’s clever use of sectarian divisions in politics and society in France during the revolution, certainly touched a nerve with me and I suspect the audience, as both McCormack as Necker and Daniel Kelly (portraying violent revolutionary Jean Paul Marat) masterfully deliver their roles as men under pressure to do great things for their country, no matter the cost.
We are given a terrifying insight into the mind and meat of what a revolution looks like, without a shot being fired on stage. Gareth Russell’s use of language and subtle references to 20th century events (the JFK assassination, Bloody Sunday, the Corporals Killings in 1988 to name a few) pack a punch that almost feels very close to the bone at some moments. But that’s the beauty of it. Revolution is not a romantic affair, even as Marat scrubs the fresh blood of a murdered policeman from his hands, we are given the honest truth of what revolution means by Mercedes Sharma as Charlotte Corday. I couldn’t wait for the next scene with both she and Daniel Kelly. Spectacularly gripping in their roles.
A haunting soundtrack in the interlude perfectly sets the mood for the second act, further bringing to life a piece of history so largely forgotten by ourselves, and yet so tangible and relevant. I can’t recommend The Gate Of the Year highly enough. I was left wanting more at the finale, undoubtedly the hallmark of a masterpiece.
Review by Stephen Donnan