Thursday, December 22, 2011

Irish Theatre in 2011: When the Heroes are Gone

It’s that time when bloggers write their end-of-year contemplations, trying to count down the ‘Best of’ moments of whatever had them gushing into their keyboards for the past twelve months. You might recall that I did a ‘Best of’ list last year. It then became increasingly obvious to me that comparing performances and declaring a winner is a problematic and possibly fruitless exercise. For example, how do you measure something like Laundry against Misterman and decide which is the “best”? Also, some of my favourite shows this year such as Mimic and The Year of Magical Wanking had technically received their debuts before 2011, so would they be “qualified” for such a list?

Instead, I decided to write an impression of the year that was, of what we can say happened and the significance of such. And where is a more appropriate place to begin than Enda?

In February 2011 the Fianna Fail government that oversaw our nation’s bankruptcy and loss of sovereignty was shown the door, and Enda Kenny was given the seat at the head of the table. A new commander, he received and hosted powerful state dignitaries, one which bore enormous symbolic resolution to our nation’s violent past, all while showing off the country at its most graceful. He  proclaimed the Irish Act of Supremacy over Rome in light of the systematic covering up of child abuses by the Roman Catholic Church in the Cloyne Report, reminding it that “This is not Rome” and that the “arrogant morality” of industrial school Ireland has no place in today’s republic. In Enda Kenny we saw not just a respected and defensive Taoiseach but also, in his heroics, a continuous point of reference as to how we can apprehend with hope the Ireland of today: global, progressive, protected.

However, heroic narratives, whether political or religious, can never hold on for too long; eventually they’re disenchanted. And sure enough, disappointment after disappointment rolled in: further austerity, referendums more concerned with state power than vulnerable citizens, a shrinking economy at home and in Europe, an investigation into the Magdalene Laundries that will likely destroy their records than salvage them for public record, topped off by a completely unheroic State of the Union address.

We no longer live in an Ireland where unity and progress is defined by the glorification of patriots, by the taking up of arms in the name of sovereignty, by the consolidating of our culture through myth and history unique to us, or by God’s words of salvation whispered in our ears. That Romantic Ireland is “with O’Leary in the grave”, as Yeats wrote. The institutions of leadership and faith that were once heroic have now betrayed such values, exposed as increasingly corrupted and flawed. 

If Kathleen Ni Houlihan – the aged rural woman, the mother of nationalism, dependent on the bravery of soldiers to protect her – stood as the emblem of  early capitalist and mercantile Ireland in the early twentieth century, what then can be said to be the symbol of industrial capitalist and factory Ireland? Irish theatre in 2011 seems to have found the answer. There is no doubt that the most significant and commonly produced image this year has been the suffering child, denied childhood.    

Gary Keegan and Feidlim Cannon of Brokentalkers seek to give noise to the silenced. This ‘noise’ in the past has been carefully postured, relieved from the individuals’ isolation and let sing with elegance. But not even the well-composed Brokentalkers could help get emotional at the realities of the Ryan Report, at the incidents in the industrial schools which shadowed both men’s childhoods. The Blue Boy (its title taken from a local ghost story that scared Keegan and his brothers when they were young) was a roaring storm of bruising choreography, haunting music, and heart-shattering testimony that seared our ideological landscape with the message: “never again”.

ANU Productions revealed the Magdalene history of oppression in the powerful site-responsive Laundry. Director Louise Lowe gives her audience the gift of agency, to interact with and observe this hidden history, and some of our most startling discoveries concern young pregnant women and the inevitable separation of them from their child. We are disturbed by the distant cries of babies, by the sight of abandoned cots, and by a young woman’s telling of her child being taken from her with a majestic stained glass portrait of Mary holding the baby Jesus serving as an unavoidable and ironic backdrop.  

Neither historical or anonymous, Neil Watkins’ eloquent, furious and devastatingly sincere The Year of Magical Wanking for THISISPOPBABY was a drug and sex bent tale of destruction and seeking help. One of the play’s crushing blows comes when Watkins unsympathetically shares that a crime was committed against him as a child, a crime we later realise can be traced to the roots of his torment, and responsible for the path he’s chosen where intimacy is only realised in violence.

To briefly lift the focus from 2011, we will remember that Thomas Kilroy’s Christ Deliver Us!, produced by the Abbey last year, was also a strong portrayal of children robbed of their childhood. In this case they were defeated by a dense silence, of the neglect of both parent and church’s social function to enter communication with children about sexual maturity.

Other plays this year contributed to the disempowering of the heroic narratives of the religious and the socio-political, exposing their flaws. Enda Walsh’s Misterman with Landmark Productions showed  how God’s gospel can be catastrophically misinterpreted, as Cillian Murphy’s socially stunted entrepreneur sets out to essentially create his own version of Genesis but ultimately falls brutally from grace. Druid’s production of John B. Keane’s Big Maggie resounded with its aggressive portrait of capitalism, gambling kinship for wealth. Pat Kinevane dispels cultural attitudes of arrogance towards mental illness whilst pointing a sharp and steady finger against ineffective health services in Silent. Mark O’Halloran’s Trade presented to us a man  who has concealed his homosexuality to a society voiced in Catholic conservatism, who only reveals himself in fragments, and finally assembles himself as a whole in the presence of a young rent boy.     

A lot of Irish theatre this year has been about uncovering the toll of living with these flawed institutions. Very little though imagined how we could live on with such realities, with having failed to protect the victimised child haunting our history.

At the same time as the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, when The Blue Boy, Laundry, and Trade were all running, down at the Cork Opera House Corcadorcha were presenting a production of The Winter’s Tale that was undeniably resonant with these depictions of tragic youth.

Shakespeare’s tale is about King Leontes of Sicily (a powerful Garrett Lombard), father to beloved son and promising heir Mamillius and husband to pregnant queen  Hermione. Consumed with paranoia, Leontes becomes convinced that his wife has been having an affair with his friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia, and that her child is his. After a failed assassination attempt on Polixenes, both kingdoms enter into conflict. Leontes imprisons Hermione, where she prematurely gives birth. The noblewoman Paulina (a towering Derbhle Crotty) brings the newborn to Leontes in hope of persuading him to see his paranoia but he angrily demands that the child be taken away and abandoned in the wilderness. At the queen’s trial we learn that young Mamillius has died from grief, which causes her to also cease life. Leontes is left penitent, broken.

It was hard not to feel hopeful while watching the second half of The Winter’s Tale unfold. As coincidence would align it: Perdita – Leontes’ child who he cast out in her infancy – sixteen years on, having been raised by a shepherd and unaware of her royal heritage, now shares affections with Polixenes’ son Florizel. She is eventually reunited with her guilt-ridden father, and her and Florizel’s unity reconciles the conflict between their nations. The play find a miraculous endnote when Paulina escorts us to a statue of Hermione and claims that she can make it move if Leontes places his utmost faith in such a possibility. Sure enough, the queen is restored and the king has his family returned to him.

With The Winter’s Tale we are given a narrative where a child makes their way safely back to their family. Pat Kiernan’s production maintains the original accents of the performers, giving this homecoming a particularly Irish feel. Furthermore, perhaps we are to seek these alternative narratives of spirituality such as that Leontes conforms to at the end of The Winter’s Tale, or Amma the Hugging Saint who grants solace to Watkins in The Year of Magical Wanking, as a means to live out heroic narratives once more.

Perhaps this disenchantment of the heroic is why something as magical as Lynne Parker’s production of Peer Gynt for Rough Magic, though flawless in execution and performance, really struggled to make a connection. We can commend Parker for such a gambit at this stage in her career though, similar to how Garry Hynes tackled The Silver Tassie last year. As for Rough Magic, it’s wonderful to see them put talented directors such as Matt Torney, Sophie Motley, Aoife Spillane-Hinks, and José Miguel Jiménez to work

Motley is one of my favourite directors at the moment. With WillFredd’s ‘Spirit of the Fringe’ winner Follow, she presented a theatre lab where light and sound technicians sprinkled their stage vocabularies in sentience with Shane O’Reilly’s physical and verbal discourse on sign language. The result is a symbolic allegory demonstrating how signs connect to their meaning, applied here to impart the experience of communicating whilst deaf. Follow beautifully glimpses at the infinite potential for the body as communication, fluent in nuance

Maeve Stone achieved an uncanny state of naturalism directing Spilt Gin’s Georgian house drama You Can’t Just Leave – There’s Always Something. Fregoli’s Rob McFeely and Maria Tivnan continued to hammer out unflinching physical and desperate tales of survival with Breathing Water by Raymond Scannell, The Secret Life of Me, and A Life of Words. Selina Cartmell delivered sensuous and enigmatic work as The Lulu House and The Making of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore bore her unmistakable glossy signature. We had exciting writing with absurdist offerings such as Siobhán Donnellan’s Chasing Butterflies and In the Garden, Caroline Lynch’s Almost a Fantasy, Vincent O’Reilly’s The Applicant and Darren Donohue’s Voices in the Rubble. One letdown was Colm Tóibin’s Testament, in which the writer was too concerned with leaving his audience behind in the dust, and Garry Hynes was too lazy in relieving from its cryptic humdrum and boredom. Her scaled back production of Big Maggie was enjoyable but hardly adventurous. The pressure is on for next year’s DruidMurphy .

It continues to remain a constant in theatre that we are not sentimental to the pre-recession days. Bizarrely enough, the most nostalgic display in the industry was not on stage but on television. Fintan O’Toole’s Power Plays conveyed the author’s frustration with the sector’s inability to produce a large-scale political drama which apprehended our post-boom existence, with interludes of Garry Hynes (another shabby string to her bow this year) and a troupe of performers enacting snippets of Tom Murphy. O’Toole would receive his demands of an Irish political theatre that autumn at ABSOLUT Fringe and the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival though claim none of the credit, as all such work was in development prior to the documentary’s airing.  

Still, we kinda have to ask: why hasn’t there been a naturalist political drama that explains everything? Instead, targets have been localised and individual. Is political naturalism on stage, representative of nation, on the course of its own heroic narrative doomed to failure?

With this seemly dissonance in our ability to present experiences of living in this country, relief was still found and at its most effective in testimony, in the catharsis of these survivor accounts, of the individuals who survived the blow-out of the heroic narratives, who survived postmodernity. The post-heroic Ireland can be found in these accounts by Neil Watkins, by Veronica Dyas in In My Bed, by the authors of THEATREclub’s Twenty Ten, by those silenced and now heard in The Blue Boy and Laundry, by the Alices in Amy Conroy’s I ♥ Alice ♥ I, by the shattered men of Trade and Silent. Are these scattered pieces of work the true inheritors of Yeats and Lady Gregory’s nationalist project? After all, the Abbey, which began the year by giving fresh and inventive work such as The Company’s As You Are Now So Once Were We and TheatreLovett’s The Girl Who Forgot to Sing Badly runs on the Peacock stage, now ends 2011 receiving accusations of conservative programming.  

As the grander narratives of politics and religion continue to be disillusioned, I imagine we will receive more theatre in the years to come that will constitute this post-heroic Ireland. The view thus far of 2012 is an exciting one, with THISISPOPBABY’s Alice in Funderland on the Abbey stage in April, the reunion of The Company in Politik, THEATREclub’s The Family in January, WillFredd’s ‘Spirit of the Fringe’ offering for ABSOLUT Fringe, Druid’s DruidMurphy, and the next chapter of ANU Productions’ Monto quadrilogy: The Boys of Foley Street. We will get to see Willie White’s vision for the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, and, likewise, Cian O’Brien’s for Project Arts Centre. 

The Ones That Got Away (ie. shows I sorely missed):

The Corn Exchange, Man of Valour:

It’s sad to write an overview of Irish theatre without being able to bring the amazing Corn Exchange into discussions. Sorry to have missed this Commedia blockbuster.

Una McKevitt, The Big Deal:

If theatre is inherently illusionary, McKevitt comes the closet to shattering such a principle. Her work with non-performers has joyously reduced the distance between performer and spectator. The Big Deal shook her formula up, handling (I assume) her darkest material yet and deploying performers to relay stories in the absence of their owners. The good thing about McKevitt is that she’s become really good at touring, so here’s hoping I’ll catch this in the future.

ANU Productions, World’s End Lane (again):

Seeing Laundry has made me want to see this one so much more. Hopefully Louise Lowe will go for a hat-trick.

Abbey Theatre, Curse of the Starving Glass:

I suspect that Jimmy Fay’s production of Sam Shepherd’s materialist drama was the Abbey at its best this year.

What did everybody else think of 2011?


  1. Liam, Bottom Dog Theatre CompanyDecember 23, 2011 at 4:45 PM

    Great post.

    Would love you to come see some of our work at Bottom Dog Theatre Company in 2012.

  2. As would I, Liam. Let me know what you've got going on in 2012, and a happy new year to you!