Thursday, December 27, 2012

Irish Theatre in 2012: Sacred Duties

In keeping with tradition I decided to do another write-up on the year that was, theatre-wise.

Last year I wrote about how I felt about lists and how un-useful they can be, so I'll be keeping with the approach of a discussion. Feel free to contribute in the comments section below.

On the subject of 2012, you'll probably have noticed that this blog has been inactive for most of it. This has been a result of time commitments to PhD research, work, a foray into making theatre (which is perhaps better left undiscussed), and to writing about theatre elsewhere and being paid to do so.

However, I've been thinking a lot recently about returning to the self-publishing ways. Aside from the insane amount of other things I have to do, I've found myself capable of writing faster, and so I think a weekly blog post is certainly achievable.

So please stick around (any press managers out there please retain my contact information!), and I'd like to wish Happy Holidays to all who have been around these parts, even if they have been quieter than usual.

My thoughts on Irish Theatre in 2012 after the jump ...

There's a moment in Pan Pan's production A Doll House (pictured above) when Nora Helmer, played by the magnetic Judith Roddy, tells her husband Torvald that she is leaving him. After a lightning-paced first half, the play now suspends both characters on the ground, anaesthetised by some doll-like paralysis, separated into boxes by Aedín Cosgrove's artful lighting. In it's stillness director Gavin Quinn truly lets Ibsen's historic words ring out. "This is how you would neglect your most sacred duties?", asks Torvald, "your duties to your husband and your children?".

"I have other duties just as sacred", she responds.

It is a moment that has stayed with me. As Torvald expects Nora to fulfill previously prescribed roles of mother and wife, she considers there to be a more sacred role to attend to. "I can no longer content myself with what most people say, or what is found in books", she says. Nora is looking for a complete overturn of tradition, of the values which are expressed and circulated in books.

"I must think over things for myself and get to understand them"

In the passage, Ibsen has summed up what I consider to be the state of Irish theatre this past year. Perhaps it  was expected back in 2008 - when the downturn in the economy was announced - for there to be a pulsation of plays discussing political corruption, money, and class. Perhaps it was expected that it was theatre's role to do this. But what has been unprecedented is the extent of introspection, of the searching of the soul rather than the counting of the money. With continued reports of dwindling or lack of growth in the economy, Irish theatre has begun to interrogate the Capitalist in a realm more spiritual than material, of identifying the symbols which have been strapped to us for so long, and considering the codes with which we have lived as a people.

This has sometimes meant retracing our steps. The highlight of the past theatrical year has probably been DruidMurphy - Druid's ambitious cycle of three plays from Tom Murphy, reminding us that the Irish playwright is one of the masters in the English language. Together, these three plays span a history of Irish emigration from the 1840s to the 1970s. In Famine, when Michael Glenn Murphy (who I'd happily pin a 'Best Actor of the year' award on for his performance here) agonises over taking the boat across the Atlantic because he's afraid of the water, we're reminded of the same devastating journeys that are being made again, as the Central Statistics Office reported that 76,000 people left the country in the past year, registering the highest emigration figures since the Famine itself. More unsettling is what's found in A Whistle in the Dark - a violent play that paces gloriously, as if operatically tuned. After the decimation of the Kearney family in their transplanted home in England, one begins to suspect that Irish identity does not have a place in Ireland or England, or indeed anywhere at all.

Similarly, The Talk of the Town, Landmark Production's bio-drama of Maeve Brennan - which could have slowed its stylistic strut at times to make room for its revelations - followed the writer to New York, where still she couldn't escape the ghosts of home. How unsettling it must feel to be unbelonging to your own nation.

Timely then was the expiration of copyright on James Joyce's works, as through adaptations such as Dermot Bolger's Ulysses, The Corn Exchange's Dubliners, and Frank McGuinness's The Dead for the Abbey, we were given reason to revisit the capital city in the early twentieth century. But what we found may not have been all that different from what we have now, as Dubliners showed that certain issues still remain stigmatised and that the Irish reputation for silence and bad communication still persists, the latter exemplified by a beautiful duet between Mark O'Halloran and Derbhle Crotty.

In regards to contemporary Dublin we were given an apt portrayal in Philip McMahon and Raymond Scannell's glamorous musical Alice in Funderland, eschewing politicians, economists and TV personalities with Carroll-ian absurdity (which is not too far a leap, considering the antics of their real-lfe counterparts). The ballad "We're all on the edge" resonates most here from what is ultimately a feelgood mandate in a time of increased austerity, to accept that "there is no fear, just nonsense".  

In both Dubliners and Alice in Funderland we can see Irish identity to be secluded. Further shedding light on the hidden class of Dublin's Monto area, ANU Production's The Boys of Foley Street dragged us through the fourth wall, into cars, and brought us to the apartment of an unpredictable, terrifying woman. There, at that stranger's dinner table, we make an important discovery about the aggression in the area, and that it's intricately linked with gender politics, as a certain cycle is on loop: abused girl grows up to be aggressive mother - emasculates son - who grows up to be a violent man to retain masculinity - abuses girl. The cycle repeats, again and again.

Of course, revisiting can also be a form of therapy, as seen in Brokentalkers' Have I No Mouth, which placed company member Feidlim Cannon onstage with his psychotherapist and his mother Ann. Cannon and his mother are no strangers to grief - they've lost two members of their family, one through medical negligence. Cannon is theatrical, charming as hell, and damn angry but it's his mother, who has turned to healing energies in her mourning, whose presence is mesmerising here. Where The Blue Boy last year was ballistic and polemic, this piece is discreet in its political commentary and more concerned with healing and consolation (it's also worth noting the passing of the Childrens' Referendum in November, which hopefully will be a turning point in the narrative of systematic violence towards children which The Blue Boy devastatingly portrayed).

Of course, a month after Cannon told the story of how the misdiagnosis of his father led to his death, we received news of the controversial death of Savita Halappanavar. The tragedy not only sparked a review of abortion laws in the country but also a review of the values in our society. As Fintan O'Toole put it: "There have been many times in Irish history when some people have believed that symbols are worth dying for. But now Ireland has to decide whether they're worth forcing someone else - a vibrant young woman desperate to live - to die for?".

The theatre is beginning to place these symbols under scrutiny. Sideshow Productions looked at the repetitive reproduction of violent tropes in history in their plays King Alfred the Great and A Dangerman and destabilised them using their raw aesthetic. THEATREclub's The Family, the most cohesive of their work to date, identified the squabbling unit and all the complications and affections inherit in it.

Interestingly, it's theatre that imagines new possibilities. CoisCéim's Touch Me sought to renew relations between the human and the economic in the fallout of a materialistic society, creating a space where keys and lanterns shaped like monopoly houses are delicately balanced with no suggestion of greed. Also in dance, in Emma Martin's instinctual Dogs we saw how the tedious distance of social discourse can be ravaged, and connection can be pursed purely and honestly. Meanwhile, Bluepatch Productions and Floating World Productions' evocative collaboration Oh Look, Hummingbirds, structured like a piece of music, took the increased satellisation of one's life - lifelogging - and in the final verse weighed it against something more spiritual. Though performer Andrea Scott dances with herself, Trevor Furlong's visuals show that there is another presence waltzing with her. They are intrinsic but the second presence is never disclosed, remains divine and out of reach despite efforts to quantify the human soul.

Sometimes, this theatre of 're-imagining' has also allowed the audience to assume new roles. Politik saw The Company extends its membership to all members of the audience, restoring agency to the alienated voter and giving them input in the making of the show. The effervescent All Hell That Lay Beneath by the wonderful Sugarglass Theatre Company even offered you to leave your identity at the club door for the night and assume a new one, dress up and engage in parlor games, magic tricks, and interpretive dancing.

Furthermore, as a sign that Irish theatre may be becoming less insular, the year also saw young directors such as Marc Atkinson and Rosemary McKenna seek English playwrights such as Philip Ridley and Philip Stokes, who are not commonly produced here.

As Irish theatre begins to address the nation's symbols, trespass beyond historically-prescribed codes and onwards towards other sacred duties, it's important to consider what we may be leaving behind. The wonderful Farm by WillFredd Theatre brought farmers down from the Wicklow Mountains and into the city, to a space where the urban coexists with the rural. When I interviewed director Sophie Motley she had noted that the migration from country-life to city-life is a more recent occurrence in Ireland than in other European countries, and so a nostalgia for the rural may still stalk the city streets.

For me, Farm was a completely nostalgic experience, and I imagine the same for anyone else who remembers the simple joys of playing Farm with plastic horses and tractors. Furthermore, the production instills that sense of community that can be sorely absent in the urban world. As Ralph the pony undergoes his transformation into the show-pony, one can't help but feel emotional at the animal's sublime beauty, harboring those values of community, that extraordinary relationship with the land, that all sadly perish when you step back onto the street after the performance ends.

Irish theatre has received new orders from a nation that is increasingly frustrated with its constitutional matters - orders to pave the way for new symbols. I fear that the playwright's theatre is under siege (only four productions at this year's Dublin Theatre Festival could be considered as new Irish plays excluding adaptations or plays about literary figures), and it would be timely to see a resurgence of that tradition, for in the past it has provided guidance and consolation.

2013 is already shaping up to a good year. Superstar director Selina Cartmell returns from her production of John Ford's The Broken Heart in New York to alight the Abbey stage with King Lear in February, with Owen Roe in the title role. Also at the Abbey, the much buzzed-about Northern Irish playwright Richard Dormer will present his new play Drum Belly about the Irish mafia in Brooklyn in April. We will be given the finale of ANU Productions' four-year project into Dublin's Monto area, as the company turn to the most recent spot of regeneration and to a family of Romany fortunetellers who have seen the district through its various periods of redevelopment since the 1920s. THEATREclub's microfestival THE THEATRE MACHINE TURNS YOU ON returns for a third installment in Project Arts Centre in January, featuring work by artists such as Louise Lewis, Sorcha Kenny, With an F Productions, Dick Walsh, and many others. Also at Project Arts Centre: the Royal Irish Academy of Music arrive with a production of Albert Herring directed by Lynn Parker, CoisCéim present their new dance piece Pageant, and WillFredd Theatre's Follow makes a welcome return.

So let me have it. What were the theatre highlights of your year? 


  1. great round up Chris and we have already discussed this a little but I would like to point out with the exception of the Druid Murphy cycle, your Irish Theatre Review of 2012 does not include works presented or made outside of the Capital.

    some highlights worth mentioning in my opinion would be Dylan Tighe's RECORD, Ciudades Paralelas Cork, Heroin (which travelled to Nordezone this year), dance wise, Fitz. & Stapleton's Wage at Abrons Centre NYC which although I missed is surely an achievement, and my top tip for an upcoming company Conflicted Theatre Co.'s 18 -35.

    It's very difficult to see everything of course but I think it is our responsibility to have a more wide reaching lens when we employ gargantuan words like "Irish" or "National".

    id be interested in other peoples thoughts, and/or some highlights from across the country or abroad?

    all the best

  2. HI Ruairí. Indeed, my theatre-going has been very Dublin-centred this year due to my change in living circumstances, and to call this a review of 'Irish theatre' is a stretch.

    Outside the Pale, Cork Midsummer Festival was a highlight for me but I can't say I enjoyed RECORD to the extent of writing about it, and Ciudades Paralelas are an international act as opposed to an Irish company (I'm trying to keep the discussion centred on artists who produce work regularly in Ireland, otherwise there would have been six paragraphs dedicated to Elevator Repair Service!).

    If there was a Cork company that I would have written about it would have been Conflicted Theatre and their '18-35'. They're certainly ones to watch, along with Bottom Dog in Limerick and Moonfish and Fregoli in Galway.

    As for 'Heroin', that's a couple of years old now and I'm writing here about work from the last twelve months (though technically, CoisCéim's 'Touch Me' premiered in 2011. Oops).

  3. Hey,

    I totally understand, I have the same problem, being on tour this year I have seen alot less theatre at home than usual.

    I think RECORD is definitely of note in it's examination of mental health in Ireland but I appreciate its not everyone's cup of tea. Not to get pedantic either but Ciudades Paralelas yes an international project but was executed with Irish artists working alongside their international counterparts, Doireann Coady, Ray Scannel etc etc so i think it is definitely worth a mention as an interdisciplinary multifaceted event.

    I get that your emphasis is on new work, and i think thats great.