Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fintan O’Toole, ‘Power Plays’: Sermons

I’ve been pacing back and forth the past week on to whether to publish my opinion on Power Plays or not. What I have to say seems more appropriate for a ‘letter to the editor’ as opposed to a post here. Then I read Luke Murphy’s sad but inspiring account on why he’s resigning from ‘theatre blogging’ in London. In his exiting remarks, he encourages writers to not focus solely on reviews but to also ignite conversation on the future of theatre, its innovation and problems, so that the industry can evolve.

So here we go ...

Power Plays – Fintan O’Toole’s lament of the non-existent post-boom Irish social drama – makes a declaration to the theatre community addressing their responsibilities as artists. Basically: “why aren’t you ambitious enough to make the play that will set fire to political corruption and relieve our bleeding hearts?". However, the drama critic has chosen dangerous terrain to stand his ground.


O’Toole repeatedly reminisces for the days of old in this documentary– when he left the theatre feeling exhilarated and involved. A sentimentality such as this is usually stubborn to embrace the new. Then again, this was the theatre we all fell in love with. It had a brilliant formula. A play is written with the intention to hone in on a controversial element of society. A character is written such that in whatever shape underneath their personality and motivations they are a representation of a particular strata of society. Real members of that strata sit in the audience, and through that character are able to empathise. And so you have a group of people who can all identify the moral high-ground and low-ground of a situation. That’s a brilliant formula, and it has dominated our theatre for the past hundred years. So, why did it stop?

O’Toole accredits this shift to a lack of ambition in the theatre community. This is a very poor and lazy argument for someone who’s regarded as one of the country’s leading authorities on the field. There is no doubt that our intentions have changed. We’re no longer obsessed with that metaphorical space that we’ve been in for so long. Instead of asking “Why aren’t you ambitious?”, a better question would be “What collision of cultural developments in the 1990s and 2000s prompted theatre artists to find the forthcomings of the naturalist political theatre to chart contemporary society ultimately underwhelming?”. This is a question I would be more interested in (in fact, I’m dedicating the next 3-4 years of my life to answering it).

O’Toole’s accusation makes me question if he in fact still goes to the theatre at all? It’s easy to see that Irish theatre has entered into a very vibrant and pioneering era, choosing new tactics to not only survive but in engaging with and presenting Irish society onstage. If anything, it’s a testament to how, by instinct, practitioners survive. Innovation is inherent in an artist’s nature. We can’t expect an artist to do the same thing forever; they won’t. We can’t expect Irish theatre to do the same thing forever; it won’t (did I mention it’s been a hundred years).

Anyway, O’Toole rounds off his horrid accusation with a questioning of the Irish theatre artist’s “responsibilities”.  I wouldn’t implore an artist to do anything that they don’t feel is a natural discourse to them. Recent pieces such as Pan Pan’s The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane, Druid’s Penelope by Enda Walsh, and Thomas Kilroy’s Blake are all arguably devoid of ‘Irishness’ and yet are the most impressive displays of craft in our country. The Abbey and the Gate may be stuck in the 1830s and 1950s at the moment but they have on occasion brought back the past in glorious fashion. Admirably it is the younger generation who are picking battles with our desolate state of affairs as the likes of Devious Theatre and Talking Shop Ensemble search for their place in this country’s future. Perhaps O’Toole could find what he’s looking for in upcoming productions such as Brokentalker’s The Blue Boy, THISISPOPBABY’s The Year of Magical Wanking and THEATREclub’s Twenty Ten, all of whom suggest an engagement with contemporary Ireland, not to mention the horde of acts flocking to this year’s fringe under the banner “Brand New World”.

 Theatre in this country has changed. New techniques are granting new experiences. And nestled in the middle of all this: the spectator.

If the work has changed, then wouldn’t the Irish audience have changed with it in terms of their expectations and conceptions of ‘theatre’? The concept of ‘spectator’ is something not just rattling in the minds of the artists nowadays but the audience as well, as the work of Una McKevitt, Ontroerend Goed, and Tim Crouch in last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival broke down performer-spectator distinctions and celebrated ‘participation’ with cointreau and a waltz. You see: it is my belief that innovation, like the artist, is inherent in the spectator’s nature also. Do we really want to see The Plough and the Stars every year for the rest of our lives? Don’t we get tired of seeing the same thing time and time again? And sometimes is it just the stories that get old but the aesthetic as well? We’re contemplating the responsibilities of the Irish theatre artist. It’s only suiting that the responsibilities of the spectator (ie. the partners in crime) are also taken into account. Theatre artists are inventing the 21st century but are the theatre audience still in the 20th?  

Of course, we’re also aware of a political undercurrent to Power Plays. I’m suspicious that O’Toole is not just looking for the return of the political realist drama but one that is specifically left wing. The documentary has succeeded in sparking much needed debate but the argument is ultimately uninformed and lazy. Theatre is on an exciting journey in this country. For the first time in so long, we seem to be imagining a future as opposed to reinventing a past. I’d encourage O’Toole to contemplate his own role as a ‘theatre spectator’ and get back to me.

What did everybody else think of Power Plays?


  1. Fintan is to contemporary theatre what Charlie Bird is to the Antarctic. Irrelevant.

  2. Came across this book - Brian Friel: Essays, Diaries, Interviews 1964-1998 the other day in the Cups and Crowns van. In an interview from 1970 (!) Friel talks about the same urgings from commentators and critics to 'write the modern Ireland'. He dismisses them with devastating integrity. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.