Lloyd Cooney tearing it up in No. 14 Henrietta Street during ANU Productions' marking of the 1913 Lockout centenary.
As per the year end ramble of making lists of the year's best in music, cinema and such, below I give what I think are the highlights of 2013 in Irish theatre.
Before I begin I'll disclaim that while my scope is very Dublin-centred I did travel and provide extensive coverage of both the Cork Midsummer Festival and Galway Arts Festival. My misgivings include failed trips to Limerick, to the Blue Raincoat productions in Sligo, the Beckett Happy Days Festival in Enniskillen, the City of Culture events in Derry, and to any of the theatres in Belfast. These aside, however, I'll argue that this still is a comprehensive list of the year's finest in Irish theatre.
This year I made the decision to drop out of college and begin writing to arts editors looking for a job (if any of you said editors are reading, expect more pesterings in your inbox).
This commitment has meant that I have reviewed 102 performances in 2013 whilst keeping up the day job. These were spread between the reviews here, for Irish Theatre Magazine, and some work that I do for the Arts Council. The most read reviews here on the blog were my reviews of King Lear and Living the Lockout, my counterpoint to Una Mullally's Irish Times article on the most creative people in Ireland, and my opinion piece reacting to the Limerick City of Culture programme.
Choosing 10 out of 102 wasn't easy but here they are:
There was a sense of things getting personal for Galway's centrally-female ensemble Mephisto in their revival of Patricia Burke Brogan's 1992 play Eclipsed, resonating with this year's government acknowledgement and compensation fund for the Magdalene survivors. Burke Brogan's play dates from the other side of the Magdalene controversy but this powerful production, featuring the best performance yet from company actor Emma O'Grady, split open the laundries as a business exploiting Catholic morality. Some delicate final moments from Margaret O'Sullivan brought the audience to tears with the realisation that women were interiorised all their lives. Well measured and achingly true.
Of many great productions of Beckett this year this staging of Rough for Theatre One lingers the most. Beckett's plays were initially resonant with a post-World War II audience but director Sarah Jane Scaife and actor Raymond Keane continue to locate the devastation of his work in modern Dublin. Having previously used Act Without Words II to portray homelessness and addiction, this presentation of Beckett's sketch about a cripple and blind violinist expands the idea to include all of us. I'll never forget Trevor Knight's blind man pausing to listen futilely for the treasured strains of a harp. It sums up the heavy loss of Irish symbols and heroism that this production evoked, with Beckett's characters now resembling those left the furthest behind.
The timing couldn't have been better for playwright/journalist Colin Murphy, whose docudrama about the 2008 Bank Guarantee premiered the same week as the release of the infamous Anglo Tapes. It turned Guaranteed! into a hot ticket. Dramatically it worked well: the story of how a tiny bank brought an entire financial system to the brink of destruction. Smartly executed with some slick turns from Caitríona Ní Mhurchú and Peter Daly. I rate it highly here because of its strong connection with audiences, who sighed with disgust and laughed at Anglo's sum figures. Guaranteed! also marks a significant exploration of the recent crisis and an attempt to explain how we've arrived at where we are.
Up until three weeks ago I would have had the Gate's production of The Threepenny Opera figured as the year's highlight in musical theatre. But then Ronan Phelan's staging of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins for Rough Magic, marking his end in their SEEDS artist development scheme, unravelled a society of inequality that Wayne Jordan's glossy production of Brecht quite didn't. This madcap musical reveals the men and women who ever attempted to assassinate a US President as sufferers of American opportunism. It was excellently cast with grounded performances from Raymond Scannell and Shane O'Reilly, and some of the best comedy of the year from Clare Barrett and Paul Curley. Sure it didn't have the polish of Threepenny or even stronger singers but it was tunefully twisted.
This duet from dance theatre company CoisCéim seemed to fly under the radar earlier this year but, deservedly, it'll be touring next Spring. In David Bolger's production about missing people in Ireland, gestures instilled the pain of separation and the struggle of keeping hope. Softly performed by Emma O'Kane and Tom Pritchard, you can't help but feel a sense of loss catch up with you as you watch. It turns into a kind of dance vigil, keeping the missing alive in our thoughts. O'Kane gives the most beautiful dance solo I've ever seen, and when Tom Pritchard extends his arms you'd almost wish some absent soul would fall into them.
The Howie and the Rookie were two sides of the same coin in Mark O'Rowe's revival of his 1999 play Howie the Rookie, unified by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor's streetwise performance. Performing both roles - Howie Lee and the Rookie who infested his mattress with scabies - the actor moved with the grace of a boxer and wrung O'Rowe's script of all the sounds and swagger of Dublin city. It was musical, darkly comic, and damn powerful. Anne Clarke brought her usual Landmark Productions combination of the commercially marketable and the artfully innovative, and O'Rowe raised more question about the interconnecting fates of his two anti-heroes.
You either loved it or you hated it. When Olwen Fouéré dragged the voice of the river that runs through James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake onto the stage, all narrative reasoning was torn asunder in its powerful flow. Unabsorbable passages gushed from the actor, whose fluid movements and song embodied the discontinuous text along the Liffey's journey through Dublin. All interpretations will be deeply subjective here but, God, when she described the river meeting the dawn of a new day I felt a pure freedom, of cheating night, of cheating death, of an entire humanity healed and restored. Maddening and mysterious, this was frightening elemental theatre.
While Thirteen was not the strongest project from ANU Productions it's scale was astounding, as the city was turned into a mise en scène during the Dublin Fringe Festival to connect with the industrial Lockout from 100 years ago. From an agitprop play in the basement of Liberty Hall to a self-destructing dance inside a crumbling tenement, as well as an unforgettable Luas journey into the soulless heart of a financial sector, we assembled and, on winning occasions, left with the sense that our voices could rally change. Citizen X's Luas journey into the Docklands was the most powerful here, as we saw two eras aligned side-by-side, making us realise that we never truly escaped the tenement slums of Dublin. The awesome dance Resilience encapsulated a century of paternal desperation, and Derbhle Crotty's performance as theatrical rebel Helena Moloney in Soup and Save The Kiddies rewrote our knowledge of the time to include the powerful women who stepped in to relieve a suffering city.
For all the achievements in form that we got from riverrun and Thirteen, it can sometimes take just one actor's towering performance for a show to blow you away. Lia Williams was the talk of the town at the end of the summer and rightly so; her Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire was filled to the brim with life and love, fluttering across the stage with fancy, her accent having the sway of the Mississippi River. Her affect was enough for me to write an unconventional and personal review of the whole thing. The magic of Tennessee Williams's heroine was wonderfully bound, and in illuminating the fractured state of her mind - recounting a Varsouvian Waltz, a gunshot that shattered her to pieces - the actor delivered with fidelity that delicate sensibility, that faith, in the kindness of strangers.
In choosing the sensitive subject of the collective suicide of the four Mulrooney women from Leixlip, Co. Kildare in 2000, the Dead Centre company could have horrifically stumbled onto unethical and offensive ground. It turns out that they weren't interested in using art to explain the mysterious tragedy, but rather to illuminate that very meaninglessness of it. A discussion with a lip-reading interpreter introduces the central conceit: events can be misread and manipulated. Context is everything, and Dead Centre artfully acknowledged that this context wasn't in their possession. The energy changed in the room like no other performance this year when the boarded up dwelling of the women was revealed onstage. We listened desperately for whispered lines of dialogue, for some sense of understanding. Actors moved slowly and carefully like dancers, and the company's avant garde devices were strangely captivating. By the end of it four lives had perished before us, each prepared for a hopeful heaven, as Lippy articulated the cruelty of humanly existence. They gave up on life; we don't know why. And when unable to muster an explanation, all we are left with is great sadness.
I will be writing another post on other highlights of 2013 but in the meantime: what was your top 10 this year?
Update: other 2013 highlights are here.