mon 18/12/2017

The Gabriels, Brighton Festival review - hilarious drama in the shadow of Trump | reviews, news & interviews

The Gabriels, Brighton Festival review - hilarious drama in the shadow of Trump

The Gabriels, Brighton Festival review - hilarious drama in the shadow of Trump

Richard Nelson's Election Year in the Life of One Family is a sprawling Chekhovian saga

Kitchen cabinet: Hannah (Lynn Hawley), Joyce (Amy Warren), Mary (Maryann Plunkett) and Karin (Meg Gibson) conferAll photos by Joan Marcus

The subtitle of Richard Nelson’s new trilogy suggests an anti-Trump polemic. Instead, its miraculous, almost invisible craft fulfils the President’s most hollow promise. It restores full humanity to a family of lower-middle class Americans who often feel slighted and helpless. As they gather around their kitchen table, the Gabriels talk and live more fully than most media and politicians ever really believe of those they describe and rule. Nelson has said his aim is “verisimilitude”, a seemingly modest ambition which wonderfully succeeds.

Like Nelson’s The Apple Family Plays, seen at the 2015 Brighton Festival, each of these three works was first performed in real time on the day it is set. The final play, Women of a Certain Age, was premiered on Election Night, shortly before the result was known (midway through it, “Mr. Trump” gets his sole mention). Nelson was deliberately intensifying theatre’s present tense, evaporating artistic nature. The Gabriels harbours forebodings we’ve seen fulfilled, but achieves permanence in its accrual of passing moments. Whether watched over three nights or a day, its five-and-a-half hours feels like we’ve truly met its complex family.

We’re in Rhinebeck, the upstate New York village where the Gabriels were born and raised. The ghost at the kitchen feast being prepared in each play is Thomas Gabriel, a playwright recently dead of Parkinson’s disease. His third wife and now widow, former doctor Mary (Maryann Plunkett), is in angry, frustrated mourning on the day of his memorial, and puzzled by the presence of first wife Karin (Meg Gibson), a glamorous actress no one can remember inviting, who never quite leaves. Thomas’s siblings, theatre set designer Joyce (Amy Warren) and carpenter George (Jay O. Sanders), recall him with less idealised, less hungry love. George’s sometimes exasperated wife, caterer Hannah (Lynn Hawley, pictured below second right with, from left, Warren, Plunkett and Gibson), and declining mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell) complete the sextet of mostly female, born and made Gabriels.They now feel like a squeezed servant class in Rhinebeck to condescending, gentrifying New Yorkers, who’ve bought their “quaint” streets for weekend getaways and property portfolios. “It hasn’t changed yet” says it all about a neighbouring town, in New York state or Sussex.

Such details permeate the three plays, alongside pride in local history and heroes, from the Astors to the Roosevelts. But, like talk of the election, they thread naturally through the web of the characters’ conversation. A nearby, 19th century picnic which resulted in Melville writing Moby-Dick becomes a rambling, over-long, constantly interrupted anecdote. Any points made feel authentically improvised and competitive, amongst these siblings, children, parents and in-laws.

Chekhov is the most obvious inspiration, as circumstances see possessions – a memory-laden, off-stage piano, even the kitchen table – removed, and the family besieged by financial pressures from the ruthless rich. The Gabriels’ social support, intimate warmth and spontaneous humour – and these are very funny plays – keep them fighting their losing battles. The constant movement and murmur of kitchen tasks, turned backs and occasionally semi-audible talk, overlooked and overheard from the Richard Attenborough Centre’s small, three-sided auditorium, draw us into the family’s space.

As much as anything, The Gabriels relies on the marathon work of its six physically distinct actors. Jay O. Sanders’ burly George, the family’s remaining man, gruff, kindly, yet smarting most directly from the casual contempt of the wealthy, contrasts with 74-year-old Roberta Maxwell’s matriarch Patricia, shrinking and weakened by a stroke over the plays’ course, but growing in flickering potency. The family’s soft physical support of the mother who once dominated them, and Mary’s haunted, horrified grief at the end of each play, linger longer than the name of the President.

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