Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Irish Theatre Top 10 of 2014

Enda Walsh's play Ballyturk preached the idea of pushing life, and theatre, to the very edge 

As per the year end ramble of making lists, below I give what I think are the highlights of 2014 in Irish theatre.

This year I wrote about 109 productions mounted in 6 different counties, with generous support from many producers and venue managers along the way.

Below are the 10 that struck me most:

10. Pentecost (Lyric Theatre)

Stewart Parker's play about four individuals holed up in a haunted Belfast house during the Ulster Workers' Strike of 1974 resonated strongly with communities in Northern Ireland when it debuted in 1987. Director Jimmy Fay's revival - his first staging since becoming executive producer of the Lyric - proved that Parker's mix of realism and symbolism can be hard to resolve. It was the final act where things transcendently came together, when the play recreates the biblical parable from which it takes its name. As the conversation turns to God, the four characters are achingly adrift and pithily possessed by the cast of Judith Roddy, Will Irvine, Roisin Gallagher and the especially eloquent Paul Mallon. As Ciaran Bagnall's lighting signalled the morning sun, rays cut across the stage in strokes of golden light that resembled the fine lines of an old Byzantine painting. The audience leaned forward in their seats as a divine message of acceptance could very well bring a cycle of Nationalist-Unionist retribution to an end. Parker's play is still a miracle.

9. A Tender Thing (Siren Productions)

Many will applaud Selina Cartmell for her perfectly paced and incisive staging of Simon Stephen's Punk Rock for the Lyric Theatre but I found more moments of revelation in the director's delivery of A Tender Thing: Ben Power's reimagining of Romeo and Juliet where the lovers have been let live and love into their elderly age. It was a less consistent work with the different styles of performers Olwen Fouéré and Owen Roe more effective in isolation than conjunction; she in white and otherworldly spirit, he in big emotion and blasting his material to pieces. It had its surprises, including the subversion of Lady Capulet's once ineffectual speech to give Juliet a daughter (the unexpected arrival of a little child onstage being somewhat a pattern this year. See No. 3 and 2 on this list). The play became complex as it expressed a conflict between a declining Juliet's desire to die and Romeo's fear of being left alone. In a non-verbal and exposed scene where she soils the bed, we see from Roe's howls and tears a man both devastated and compromising, committing to the assisted suicide of his wife. That conveyed a broken heart, a tender thing.

8. Bernarda's House (Dowager)

The House of Bernarda Alba by Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca makes a bigger case for women in the theatre than just demanding the mostly male-dominated industry to cast over a dozen female roles. Its depiction of male despotism and repressed femininity is particularly grim and still present in writer and director Veronica Coburn's reimagining, despite downsizing it to a two-hander and relocating the wrought drama to the logic defying dynamics of red nose. I suspect that Annie Ryan's adaptation of Eimear McBride's novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing will be remembered for what stood for feminism in the theatre this year but I feel that event was more representative of youthful experience of the brutal puritanism of Catholic Ireland rather than a uniquely female experience (in fact, the same dark circumstances would befall 'A Boy is a Half-formed Thing'). Coburn went further, giving us female characters who are frank in engaging their sexuality as they are in later resenting it, with Bernarda Alba transforming into a cruel matriarch after her marriage to an abusive husband. It could have been coarse but the duo of Amy Conroy and Clare Barrett can tread the lines of tragicomedy better than most. Even they weren't immune to this truthful corruption of female beauty and relationships, as both leaned in for a kiss during an emotional curtain call.

7. Vardo (ANU Productions)

Director Louise Lowe didn't end things on a happy note in this conclusion to ANU Productions' four-part series about the history of the Monto district in Dublin. Then again, you could hardly ignore the truth: the sex worker industry that had made the area notorious as a red-light district 100 years ago has been revived in a new and more discreet model. This finale chapter was heavily indebted to local folklore, stories of miracle-making statues and soul-seeing fortune tellers, enough to give credence to a superstition: the Monto is cursed. Lowe's paralytic promenade brought us into contact with the testimonies of natives and undocumented foreign-nationals who live in the area, and featured courageous performances from Breffni Holahan and Kunle Animashaun. Vardo wasn't the strongest chapter in the series but its experience is heightened by having seen previous instalments: World's End Lane (2010), Laundry (2011) and Boys of Foley Street (2012). Accumulatively, it results in a feeling of tragedy almost Greek in proportion, as the terrifying wheel of history threatens to return to the point it stood 100 years ago.

6. On the Wire (Wildebeest)

One of the fortunes of Limerick City of Culture was seeing local artists operating with funding that they wouldn't ordinarily have. A body of work generated over the year sought to engage the locale: Myles Breen's new play Bachelor of Kilkish explored attitudes towards homosexuality in the rural part of the province; director Maeve Stone and music composer Tom Lane staged Wake, a response to the ancient curse put on the city by St Munchin; Joan Sheehy cut to the truth of the local Colleen Bawn story popularised by Boucicalut's melodrama; and The Unlucky Cabin Boy musical produced by Gúna Nua resurfaced a sunken famine ship that sailed from the city in 1835. Of all the accomplishments, On the Wire by Marie Boylan's Wildebeest theatre company stuck out not just locally but also in a national scene that was widely hesitant to engage the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. Conceived by Boylan, whose grand-uncle fought for the English army in France and never came back, this promenade staged in a crumbling Victorian sailors' house was devised by a talented company of actors and designers, and intelligently directed by Terry Donovan (a Limerick artist living in London, hopefully returning again soon). Conor Madden's dutiful and restrained performance was imaginably representative of many soldiers who returned home silent and traumatised from the war, and Boylan's sweet and delicate turn indicative of loved ones who struggled to reach them. The cast also included the sharp Shane Whisker and amiable Amanda Minihan. It felt very significant in a country where there's a scarcity of such stories, possibly because of their unpopularity in the Nationalist trends that swept the country in the early 20th century, an obscuration felt in complex designs by artists Norma Lowney, Zia Holly and Art O'Laoire. In this respect, On the Wire railed artfully against history.

5. How to Keep an Alien (Rough Magic)

There was nothing funnier on stage this year than Sonya Kelly's memoir about meeting her Australian (or "Austr-alien") partner and their struggle with the immigration bureau to secure her a visa. The intelligently wry performer bowled us over with hilarious gags about Irish typicalities in a piece wittily directed by Gina Moxley and smartly designed by Sarah Jane Shiels and Carl Kennedy. Yet, there was also a lot at stake in what was revealed to be an eloquently composed love story, the best of the type this year. You found yourself really wanting for Kelly and her alien to overcome the various obstacles that kept them apart. It formed a very funny and moving tribute.

The delicate arrangement of documentary materials in director Fiona McGeown's staging was to retrieve the widely unknown story of a woman who died in Cork city in 1939 from an illegal abortion, a case that would undoubtedly make headline news today. Sadness stuck with you in watching this play performed inside the chipped wooden interior of the Unitarian Church in Cork city. While the actors' dutiful deliveries were restrained for the most part, giving undramatic readings of real witness testimonies and court dispositions, you could tell it was personal for all involved. Mournful piano music by Tom Lane, his most simple and affective composition this year, resonated as a great feeling of loss caught up with you. The sentiments are transferable to the present as the play, sepia in Deirdre Dwyer's design, revealed the murky moral and legal reality around the woman's abortion. It's a powerful call for clarity, for some vivid scene between trees and water. 

3. Our Few and Evil Days (Abbey Theatre)

The artful surface of Mark O'Rowe's new play left us suspecting throughout. Things were not as banal as they seemed in the premise of a girl bringing her boyfriend home to meet her parents. After a disastrous declaration of love, characters, in their contradicting views, were made out to be victims and abusers. Punters came for Love/Hate stars Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Charlie Murphy and were treated to subtly genius performances by Sinéad Cusack and Ciarán Hinds. The superb cast and rigorously underscored direction by O'Rowe suspended us in a drama so self-consciously naturalistic that it messed with our heads, folding truths in on themselves. By the end we couldn't be certain if evil was impossible in this very ordinary realm.

2. Ballyturk (Landmark Productions)

Landmark Productions balance commercial success and artistic integrity better than anyone but kudos to Anne Clarke and company for not being intimidated by Enda Walsh's new play, the most avant garde and unconventional piece of theatre this year. Not that they feared for ticket sales with the star casting of Cillian Murphy and Stephen Rea, while Mikel Murfi may not have been as prolific, was certainly more revelatory. Inside a factory sized room two men imagined themselves living in a small Irish village called Ballyturk, when interrupted by an omnipresent 'Collector' revealing that they didn't know everything they thought they did. As Murphy's eyes glittered with tears at the thought of freedom, Murfi's character preferred the illusion and its sustaining rituals, which required extensive use of the actor's Lecoq-skilled physicality. The atmosphere of the event was more striking than the story, as severe use of slapstick curtailed any seriousness, letting us slip further away from any certainty of time and place, while Teho Teardo's music underlined a poetry for a more ethereal elsewhere. In sheer vigour, Ballyturk preached the idea of pushing life, and theatre, to the very edge.

1. Brigit / Bailegangaire (Druid) 

Tennessee Williams once wrote: "As an artist grows older he is almost always inclined to work in broader strokes. The delicate brush-work of his early canvasses no longer satisfies his demands of himself. He starts using the heavy brush." Tom Murphy, now aged 79, certainly used the heavy brush in Brigit, a play lacking the intricacies and detail of previous compositions, and unabashedly working the playwright's familiar theme of church hypocrisy into a straight-up portrayal of that institution's opposition to the artist. Set in the 1950s, a sculptor who has previously been short-changed by the local convent cautiously accepts a new commission: to replace a broken statue of St. Brigid. His artistic interpretation sends him back further, to the Gaelic goddess Brigit of the older religion. Murphy's dramatic weapon here was the storyteller wife Mammo (Marie Mullen in a druidic turn), whose stories about the goddess effectively un-coded the Christian translation of the Gaelic figure.

Brigit was a neat and lyrical play but it wasn't going to match its sequel, Bailegangaire, though director Garry Hynes and set designer Francis O'Connor found a way to juxtapose the two productions to depict a declining folk culture. Set 30 years later, Bailegangaire sees Mammo now senile and bedridden, projecting the fussy particulars of a never-ending story, much to the nerve of her two granddaughters. The performances were phenomenal, with Mullen possessing the labyrinthine Mammo, Catherine Walsh dutiful and heartbreaking, and Aisling O'Sullivan raging with a scornful squall. In Murphy's play there was the precious sense of past and present coexisting, the seanachaí-like figure of Mammo evoking the half-remembered speech and gestures of an older folk culture. This affect is heightened by having seen Brigit, in which a vibrant painted backdrop depicted the sky outside the cottage, and next to the hearth a figure drew wisdom from the fire and told stories of a goddess. In Bailegangaire, the fireplace is boarded up, the painted backdrop replaced by slicing car lights from a nearby road, and a buzzing radio fills up the silences. In tandem, the two plays convey a strained connection between past and present, and the loss of art along the way.

I'll be writing another post about 2014. In the meantime. what were your top 10 this year?



  1. 12th Night was just great. I saw Pondling in 2014 too, so I guess that still counts even though it's technically from 2013.