Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Irish Theatre Top 10 of 2015

ANU Productions's Pals was a singular attempt to commemorate Irish involvement in World War I. Photo: Patrick Redmond.

Thinking back on 2015, I’m reminded of the mobilisation of artists around the Marriage Equality Referendum and the #WakingTheFeminists outcry over the Abbey Theatre’s male-mad 2016 season. I’m reminded of gutsy programming by Galway International Arts Festival to host Exhibit B, a controversial installation that internationally spurred the modern equivalent of a theatre riot, and by Tiger Dublin Fringe to take a chance on Kim Noble, a guerrilla-performance artist on a risky search for companionship.

In trying to narrow down my theatre-going (I wrote about 120 performances this year) to a list of ten, I’ve kept to the parameters of new productions by Irish/Northern Irish companies, or co-productions where the creative half is Irish. This leaves out Andrew Scott’s seamless performance in the Paines Plough production of Sea Wall, co-produced by Dublin Theatre Festival, though it was probably my favourite performance this year. I’ve also left out the Gate Theatre’s production of The Gigli Concert because Denis Conway had performed the part before, and I figured I could make room for something else, though that doesn’t excuse the omission of Sinéad McKenna, who gave the best lighting design this year.

Whenever I’ve written an end-of-year list, I’ve tried to keep to the idea of ‘best’ as moments in the theatre when I felt a significant shift in my thinking, when I’ve registered a change in my biology: the welling of emotion, the howl of laughter or a menacing discomfort.

(Finally, thank you to readers who followed me this year from Musings In Intermissions to A Younger Theatre and Broadway World, and most recently Exeunt Magazine and The Stage. Keep an eye out for me in the two latter publications in 2016).

10. Theatre Lovett, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel

One of the country’s leading companies for young audiences challenges assumptions of the Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel. The sweet smell of baking batter drifted through the Smock Alley Boy’s School, as directors Louis Lovett and Muireann Ahern mounted set pieces suspicious of previous tellings: snuffing out a witch; rolling in an elderly Gretel in a wheelchair, her bloody mouth mysteriously bandaged. Are we to suspect the child heroes who enter the employ of a patisserie (an ominous Raymond Keane), their overly-possessive father (Lovett), or the addictive taste of sugar? With inventive use of the multi-tier auditorium and a haunting children’s choir, Theatre Lovett proved they are at the top of their game, as they dare to leave young audiences guessing of the cages in their lives.

Barry McStay’s drama about an Irishman in London introducing his beau to his parents struck the balance so well between the comic car crash of the evening’s party (excellently curtailed by Siobhán Cullen and Jamie O’Neill as an ex-girlfriend and her brutish boyfriend) and the tender wooing between strangers (Peter Corboy and Rob Malone in a gorgeous duet). It gave no easy answers as director Maisie Lee sensitively offered up the differing perspectives, that of a gay man desperate for acceptance, and his parents’ pain at watching their family disintegrate (a covert Martin McGuire and Bairbre Ní Chaoimh). While acceptance on both sides takes time, in the end McStay transported us to a place, imaginable in Rebekka Duffy’s abstract set, where discriminations dissolve. If that doesn’t ring with an Ireland that overwhelmingly voted to legalise same-sex marriage, I don’t know what will.

Photo: Declan English

The funniest play this year, David Ireland’s south-of-the-border debut saw two sisters (Stacey Gregg and Abigail McGibbon) clash behind the scenes of Northern Ireland’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Ireland’s play would be written off as juvenile with its slurs about race, homosexuality and addiction, if not underscored by Gregg’s arch performance with signs of a trauma: a family who had been blown apart by the Troubles. Sophie Motley directed the hell out of it, and Sarah Bacon’s boldly painted boiler-room was a cross between a comedy set with a giant button saying “DO NOT PUSH”, and a symbolic space guessing the wiring and processes of the characters. In Ireland’s exploration of conflict in the post-Troubles period (to be continued with his new play Cyprus Avenue at the Abbey Theatre in February), discrimination is astonishingly a means to survive.

Photo: Ros Kavanagh

The stakes were raised in this 25th anniversary production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, as director Annabelle Comyn pitted the mythic shapes of the Mundy sisters against the machinery of the industrial age; a strange mechanical apparatus suspended above the action in Paul O’Mahony’s set design. Everyone was a team player, from the sassy Cara Kelly to the quietly powerful Catherine Cusack. Lughnasa usually makes for a nostalgic experience, with its mixed feelings of heart and heartbreak, but with the passing of the playwright during the Lyric production’s run, hearts definitely broke.

Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

The eponymous bog of Marina Carr’s 1998 tragedy was given a star role in director Selina Cartmell’s revival. Frozen over in Monica Frawley’s set design, trampled on by cash-obsessed investors and a vow-breaking priest, the setting of Carr’s play proved to be powerful ground for critiquing the Celtic Tiger. It also made the downfall of Hester Swaine (wicked and brilliant Susan Lynch), a Traveller besieged by omens and dispossessed of her lover, all the more tragic. By playing up the ancient tensions of a landscape facing the mass industrialisation of the boom years, Cartmell revealed the Bog of Cats as dispossessed as Swaine herself, and if society won’t claim her, the earth certainly will. 

Photo: Patrick Redmond

The cultural amnesia surrounding Irish involvement in World War I is still felt in the incomplete record of fatalities, and seemingly in the difficulty to penetrate that history theatricality. With the exception of last year’s On the Wire, ANU’s Pals is the only attempt to commemorate the event that claimed anywhere between 30,000-40,000 Irish lives. This promenade in Collins’ Barracks led us up to dormitories that once housed the 7th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, where, in the electrifying effects of Sarah Jane Shiels’s lighting and Carl Kennedy’s sound design, we slipped back and forth between the camaraderie of the rugby pitch and the horrors of the battlefield at Gallipoli. In director Louise Lowe’s intermingling of dark and light, the breakdown of masculine bodies is almost too painful to witness, but John Cronin’s wonderful performance as an injured soldier coaxing a nurse to waltz was one of the warmest scenes this year.

If Yeats’s 150th anniversary threw up anything, it was the difficulties of getting past the dramatist’s purple speech, the Noh masks and the cold minimalism of form. But Fiona McGeown’s psychological turn as Cuchulainn’s wife in The Only Jealousy of Emer made for a complex and thrilling battle for the hero’s life. The actor subtly conveyed the complex range of Emer’s emotions, a devout wife to a known philanderer, with her mixed feelings of duty and neglect. But her husband is fighting a losing battle against The Woman of the Sídhe (an otherworldly Sandra O’Malley), protected only by the memory of his wife, projected in Joe Hunt’s gorgeous visuals. In the end, a selfless sacrifice made for one of the most elegiac and tragic productions of the year.

Photo: Patrick Redmond.

It’s not theatre, but allowing for a blurring of art forms in this list. In Enda Walsh and Donnacha Dennehy’s startling new opera, something strange was suppressed under the polite meeting of strangers in a drab hotel. Dennehy’s lush music underscored banal observations (“Nice decorative features, feels homely”) before building to a rush: these otherwise unremarkable figures might very well transcend the limitations of their lives. Katherine Malley and Claudia Boyle sang poignantly of a woman’s wish for renewal, and the barrel-chested Robin Adams gave voice to a man’s destructive pursuit of Odysseus-like perfection. But to transcend such circumstances is to be reminded of what’s left behind: the sad universes we build of our lives.

Photo: Hazel Coonagh

The most powerful chapter yet in director Sarah Jane Scaife’s ongoing Beckett in the City project. Bringing together the playwright’s plays for women in the historical environs of Halla Banba, a building steeped in Nationalist history, Scaife conveyed the ramshackle body of the Irish woman since its inception in the Irish Constitution (that writers Róisín Ingle and Tara Flynn came forward to tell their abortion stories in the same week added extra resonance). Michelle Forbes gave one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the year, playing the fraught figure in Footfalls against the faded glory of the National Ballroom, sadly admitting she was “never there”. Finally, with Come and Go, Sinead Cuthbert’s thoughtful costuming added proof that Beckett, despite his abstraction, might have been writing about Dublin all along.  

Photo: Matthew Thompson

The 20th century Nationalist myth of the West of Ireland as a purified safe ground, devoid of social problems, extended well into the de Valera years. Druid’s oeuvre is somewhat of a continuation of what J.M. Synge most famously started with The Playboy of the Western World in 1907, to test that myth and show the West as a site of famine, alienation and emigration. Of course that myth is defined by the relationship with England, and for their 40th anniversary, Druid ambitiously went to the beginnings of the colonial project as popularly portrayed in Shakespeare’s History plays: Richard II, Henry IV part I, Henry IV part II, and Henry V. Mark O’Rowe’s adaptation condensed four plays into a six-hour epic, astonishingly sustained under Garry Hynes’s towering direction, and downplayed reminders of the colonial history to bring the dramas’ dynastical conflict centre-stage. The gender-blind casting of Derbhle Crotty and Aisling O’Sullivan as Henry IV and Henry V pulled the symbolic construction of ‘king’ into focus, while Marty Rea’s performance as an infantile Richard II stripped of his titles made for the most mesmerising turn of the year. Refitting the company’s Mick Lally Theatre for purpose, Druid admirably paid homage to their own history.


  1. Lovely to see a solid percentage of work from outside of Dublin makes this list. Much of my favourite work this year was in Galway or Limerick. Happy writing in 2016 Chris! xx

  2. There is always going to be an occasion when someone like yourself makes an innocent yet substantially monumental oversight..
    Two Sore Legs, written,produced and cast with everything that is Irish was by far the 'best' thought provoking emotionally funny intelligent true story of one woman's plight in Belfast. A sell out show in both Edinburgh and Northern Ireland with rapturous standing ovations every nite..
    Amazing how bloggers can overlook the gems when mining the obvious...