Saturday, January 3, 2015

More Irish Theatre Highlights of 2014

School was out this summer and some of the first graduates of The Lir lent serious verve to Selina Cartmell's kinetic staging of Punk Rock

I already made a list of my top 10 Irish theatre productions of 2014 but here are more highlights that deserve mention ...

  • School was out this summer and some of the first graduates of The Lir lent serious verve to Selina Cartmell's kinetic staging of Punk Rock for the Lyric Theatre. Cynicism expressed by the students in Simon Stephen's private school drama hinted to the casual oppression and power dynamics of hometown life, resultant in one hell of a finale. Rising stars Rhys Dunlop, Rory Corcoran, Lauren Coe, Laura Smithers, Aisha Fabienne Ross, Johan Hauer-King and Ian Toner performed determinedly under Cartmell's vigorous direction, securing the best sustained and perfectly paced production of the year.   

  • Where in previous years the output of new work was dominated by the model of devised theatre, 2014 saw a strong regularity of playwriting, thanks in part to dedicated venues. At The New Theatre the shimmering lyricism of Lauren Shannon Jones's The Assassination of Brian Boru arrived in time to commemorate the 1, 000 year anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf (in the same venue two promising companies gave Irish premieres of Broadway hits: the zany refrains of Ill-Advised Theatre's staging of the zealous musical [title of show] had moments of genius; and ORion's high octane The Motherfucker with the Hat proved artistic director Sinéad O'Reardon to be a magnetic performer and powerhouse producer). Elsewhere, Myles Breen's clever play The Bachelor of Kilkish for the Bottom Dog company had strains of the comic Drama at Inish, depicting a rural town that gets rocked by the arrival of an out and proud gay man from the city (it also featured a wonderful turn by actor Brendan Conroy). Conservatory by Michael West gave us a poetic drama about the elegiac lives of an elderly couple, and Ellen Flynn looked at the temporality of relationships in the hyper-connected world of speed-dating and virtual profiles in 5 Minutes Later. Lastly, Emmet Kirwan's hip hoppin' Dublin Oldschool about two brothers on the brink was part love letter to the city, part philosophical treatise about cause and effect, processes of addiction and homelessness and how they may give way to new events.

  • Avant garde a clue about Anton Chekov's strategy of intertextuality in The Seagull? I don't think it prevented us from enjoying the collision of theatre, music, dance and television text in Pan Pan's The Seagull and Other Birds. Director Gavin Quinn's production reverberated with that intensified buzz of popular culture, the every day transference of references and signs in our lives (the production billing was actually attributed to Americanitis, a term denoting a fraying of the nerves, a sensory overload associated with urban existence). Evoking the law of conservation of energy at the end, you left feeling that a stream of information floating in the universe was constantly regenerating, always finding new migratory patterns to fly in. 

  • In the latest instalment of the 'Beckett in the City' series, Company SJ moved away from the distinct allusions to homelessness and addiction found in their productions of Act Without Words II and Rough for Theatre One, and instead went more abstract. Adapting the writer's short prose, or Fizzles, director and designer Sarah Jane Scaife created a ghostly yet gorgeous installation, with the body and voice of actor Raymond Keane sculpting lifetimes of un-fulfilment inside the crumbling decor of a once aristocratic townhouse. Its images resonate long after, instilling the sadness of lives that didn't turn out the way they should have. 

  • It's tempting to consider Blue Raincoat as the present day-preservers of the literary revival that occurred over 100 years ago. Their productions this year of On Baile's Strand and The Playboy of the Western World single them out as the only professional company this year (correct me if I'm wrong) who staged WB. Yeats and JM. Synge. Where once these plays formed the folk identity of the Abbey, that theatre hasn't approached these playwrights in years. Where better than the wild Sligo landscape to evoke Yeats's "faery-land," as Niall Henry's elemental staging of the Cuchulain drama on a misty strand felt like an old treasure washed ashore. 

  • Admittedly, I only made one visit to the Gate Theatre this year (to be fair, it seemed like Pride and Prejudice was the only thing on) and that was to see Annabelle Comyn's staging of Noël Coward's The Vortex, a jazzy and witty drama about high society theatricals in early twentieth century England. Impressively, Comyn managed to shift the play's irreverence into high gear with her usual strengths: an attention to vocal detail that served Coward's dialogue with its usual salt; the visual revelations of Paul O'Mahony's set, reducing specious characters to glossy surface; and the dark undercurrent of Philip Stewart's music sending a drug-addicted figure (played by the very talented Rory Fleck Byrne) furiously into the dance steps of the Charleston, suggesting a desperate need for escape. Overall, Comyn took hold of Coward's "vortex of beastliness" and turned it into a cry for some serious moral reality.

  • WillFredd Theatre's CARE was a sincere portrayal of palliative care and its mixing of medicine and mirth. A great number of devices were on display in Sophie Motley's beguiling production: pearlescent lighting emanating like x-rays in Sarah Jane Shiels's design, the dance-like physicality of Shane O'Reilly, welling musical arrangements by Jack Cawley and Seán Mac Erlaine, and the tragicomedy of Eleanor Methven and Sonya Kelly. Ultimately, it dispelled the often singular idea of hospices as depressed and morbid environments. The spiriting company spelled out that illness doesn't prevent the fulfilment of lives. 

  • William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night cries out for the type of adventurous and arch treatment that director Wayne Jordan gave it in his loveable and sometimes moving staging for the Abbey. This reimagining included a clear queer subtext, suggesting that the director was set to include homosexuality within the play's gender-blind exploration of sexual desire and identity. It had its moments of revelation, especially when herculean Ger Kelly, playing the clown Feste, released the singing voice of an angel. Tom Lane's mellifluous score considered the hearts of the players (after all, "If music be the food of love, then play on!"). Central to the event though were two performances: Mark O'Halloran's Malvolio went from comic foil to an affecting figure of love and sorrow, and Natalie Radmall-Quirke, powerfully self-possessed, guided the audience with light effort as Lady Olivia, giving the effect that she was barely acting at all. 

  • The ambitious prospect of Beautiful Dreamers, a co-production by The Performance Corporation and ANU Productions for Limerick City of Culture, was the idea of an entire city as mise en scène. Inside a vacant 10th floor office we were invited by the voices in Carl Kennedy's gorgeous sound design to look at the streets below and inspect, unsure if a person was an actor or if a house was a prop (in the broadest sense of 'stage property'). Spectacularly, Louise Lowe's direction and Caoimhe Regan's stage management then had bodies move in sequence across the city scene, creating pictures. While dealing a discreet critique of the media's suspicion of the city, the production also included real life testimonies from locals, beautifully delivered by a charming and gifted cast. It gave us a personal look at Limerick, a city built by dreamers.  

  • Adapted from Eimear McBride's novel, Annie Ryan's production of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing for The Corn Exchange was a distressing and dark tale about a youth brutalised in puritanical Catholic Ireland. The masterclass performance by Aoife Duffin gave us a figure fluctuating between destruction and defiance, a dervish of inter-changeable atoms who assumes a variety of characters, giving the effect that she was disintegrating. Meanwhile, Sinéad Wallace's artful lighting lit the performer with side lamps, casting shadows that wrapped themselves around and stole parts of her from view. It felt like the modern Irish tragedy, its devastation leaving us questioning if any of us are fully formed?

  • Last but not least, there was great depth in Star of the Sea, Moonfish Theatre's adaptation of Joseph O'Connor's famine ship novel. Masting the sail with invention to spare, this staging seemed to always communicate in multitudes: a mix of Irish and English, live translation penned onstage, shadow and light projection, physical gesture and live music. Poignantly, it conveyed a time when lives and language were changed irrevocably. 

That's all I have to say about 2014. Check back in tomorrow as I'll be taking a sneak peek at the year ahead. 

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