Monday, June 17, 2013

Towards More Landmark Plays

Cillian Murphy in Misterman fighting against the trend of 'fundraiser plays'

One of the oldest rules in the book to guarantee a theatre company's survival has been to build a repertoire of plays, preferably ones that have earned a buck at the box office. The strategy is to draw on past hits, specific to the company or to the commercial theatre in general, and use funds to stay afloat. These fundraiser plays are safe and they may feel like nothing new but sometimes they're used to fund a later production that is compellingly new, rich with risk and innovation, something that will stay in your memory for years to come: the landmark play. What merit we can award a company depends on how that balance is struck between the fundraiser play, with its necessities of survival, and the landmark play, which can truly advance the artistry of the company.

Whenever Rough Magic play the Gaiety theatre you can expect it to be a fundraiser play. In 2010 it was The Importance of Being Earnest with the added star power of Stockard Channing (though Eleanor Methven will be remembered as the true highlight), in 2011 it was Neil Simon's Plaza Suite directed by SEEDS alumni Sophie Motley, Matt Torney and Aoife Spillane-Hinks, and in 2012 it was the revival of Arthur O'Riordan's musical Improbable Frequency (the run of Tom Stoppard's Travesties at the Pavillion may be put in the same boat). Each of these, however, have gone on to be succeeded by an original and new production: Earnest gave us Phaedra, Plaza Suite gave us Arthur Riordan's tackling of Peer Gynt, and Improbable Frequency and Travesties have given us a string of new plays such as Morna Regan's The House Keeper and the Stewart Parker Trust winner Jezebel by Mark Cantan.

What is disconcerting is that Rough Magic are not playing the Gaiety this year, and while their recent run of Digging for Fire at the Project Arts Centre may certainly be considered a fundraiser play, Declan Hughes is hardly as international a voice as Wilde, Simon and Stoppard, and the Project Arts Centre is not as big a venue as the Gaiety. The company don't seem to be gravitating towards the fundraiser play as they have in recent years but at the same time will they be capable of pulling a landmark play out of their hat by the end of the year?

There is no doubt that Druid should be. The Galway company haven't had as diverse an output but their thorough touring nationally and internationally means that they can play houses with the same productions longer. In 2010 Garry Hynes mounted The Silver Tassie, the troubled Sean O'Casey masterpiece, in the same year that the company produced Enda Walsh's Penelope. It was a year that marked continued innovation from a company thirty-five years in existence. However, landmark plays have to give way to a fundraiser eventually, and one might remember the hilarious but completely unoriginal production of John B. Keane's Big Maggie,  and, more blatantly, the Druid 35 year anniversary event before that. It was worth it though to get DruidMurphy, the uncontested landmark of 2012. The trilogy of Tom Murphy plays has been storming venues for almost a year now, hopefully raising funds for the announcement of a new landmark by the end of the year.

A company that keeps a close eye on Druid is the Abbey. Is it coincidence that both companies commissioned plays by the same playwright in 2009 (Tom Murphy's The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant and The Gigli Concert), 2010 (O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars and The Silver Tassie) and 2012 (Murphy again, this time The House and DruidMurphy)?

The companies that stand to lose most from the gambit of the landmark play are those in-house venues with the added pressure of keeping their theatres running. For the first time in a long time the Abbey seems to be edging away from a constant stream of fundraiser plays, drawing on new plays by Philip McMahon, Gary Duggan, Owen McCafferty, Richard Dormer and Elaine Murphy in recent months. The recurring flaws in these new plays seem to be a lack of dramaturgy and the oversights of a literary department that let scripts go to stage in premature drafts. Where there has been fundraiser plays there have been sublime directors such as Selina Cartmell and Annabelle Comyn to tune them to a high standard, the latter of whom will be playing on the success of 2011's Pygmalion with a forthcoming production of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara. 

Also attempting to draw on recent success of Shaw is the Gate theatre with Patrick Mason's production of Mrs. Warren's Profession, which, like most of the company's work, felt classically outmoded. With the exception of the occasional Beckett play (who the company have a long history of doing well) it's hard to go to the Gate without feeling part of an antiquarian experience. The theatre has the same in-house pressures as the Abbey but, unlike its rival venue, it consistently fails to present anything that feels new. It's a fundraiser play venue, plain and simple, and one hopes that it'll ruffle some of its own feathers soon.

Perhaps the company that has come to strike the best balance between fundraiser and landmark is the appropriately titled Landmark Productions. Anne Clarke's company can channel the commercial energies of the Gate while at the same time delivering truly innovative revivals and world premieres. Yes, Landmark have banked on adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and Ross O'Carroll-Kelly's Between Foxrock and a Hard Place, and Fiona Looney's big house-fillers Dandelions and Greener, but these fundraiser plays have paid off with genius collaborations. With the revival of Misterman, Cillian Murphy returned to rip up the boards  in Enda Walsh's dark masterpiece. Tony winners Garry Hynes and Marie Mullen were united for the world premiere of Colm Tóibín's mysertious monologue Testament, later to be brought to Broadway by Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw under the title of The Testament of Mary - lengthened after the cone of silence was lifted by the Hynes production and revealed that the the play was the unheard story of the Virgin Mary. And Man-Booker finalist Emma Donoghue was tasked with dusting off the works and life of Irish-born New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan in The Talk of the Town and re-introducing her to her native audience.

If there is an example to be set it's that a theatre company can survive without having to desperately cling to the fundraiser play. As Landmark Productions tour the relatively new Halcyon Days by Deirdre Kinahan and deliver the much longed revival of Mark O'Rowe's Howie the Rookie with rising star Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, it appears that they are no longer in need of the Lewis Carroll musical or stagey comedy starring household names. Following a formula of fantastic artistic collaboration and some prolific but non-superficial casting, this company strikes the balance just right.

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