New British Drama and Playwriting in Ireland

Last week I was in London for a few days, doing some research. When I visit that city I always try to make time to visit the Royal Court bookshop. It doesn’t have as wide a selection of new plays as can be found in the amazing shop at the National Theatre – but what it does have is cheap scripts. Almost every new play the Court produces comes with a playscript that is usually priced somewhere between £2 and £5. So it’s possible when you visit to stock up on some great new writing for an affordable price.

That’s exactly what I did last week, coming away with new work by Lucy Kirkwood, Martin Crimp, Polly Stenham, Bruce Norris, and Bola Agbaje. Since then I have been reading and enjoying those plays – some of them very much.

I’ve been struck by a few thoughts while reading through that new work. The first is that so many of the best new British plays are being written  by women – not just people like Agbaje, Stenham and Kirkwood, but also really interesting writers like Laura Wade and Alecky Blythe. As I’ve already stated in this blog, that situation contrasts with Ireland, where women dramatists seem to find it more difficult to have their work put on.

I was also struck by the variety of styles and perspectives employed. Stenham’s No Quarter is about a well to do pair of brothers’ attempts to come to terms with their mother’s death; Kirkwood’s NSFW is about the way in which women’s bodies are used to sell magazines not only to men but also to women. Norris is not even a British writer, yet the Court chose to premiere his play The Low Road earlier this year – and that too contrasts with Ireland where we rarely see new British and American plays.

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These plays were all produced by the Royal Court, and it’s only fair to say that this theatre does not necessarily represent the entire British theatre sector. But we’ve been saying for some time now – really since the mid to late 1990s – that British playwriting is undergoing a renaissance or a new ‘golden age’. And it’s showing no sign of abating. Many British theatres are producing excellent new plays by exciting new voices – and when I see those plays being staged, they are usually in theatres that are close to being full, and usually there are a significant minority of younger audience-members present (people under 40 I mean). That’s particularly true in Scotland, where there are some brilliant new plays being produced.

Now, I know that every tourist risks idealising what he or she sees abroad, especially when those sights seem to contrast with deficiencies at home. And I am aware of the problems faced by the British theatre, especially in terms of funding and the desire of the British government to instrumentalise everything from education to culture.

Nevertheless, I found myself wondering why things aren’t quite the same in Ireland – a country that is supposed to have a reputation for producing great writers.

Of course there have been plenty of good plays in Ireland over the last few years – and last year’s nominees for the Irish Times best play award were all very strong (they were Deirdre Kinahan’s Halcyon Days, Owen McCafferty’s Quietly, Morna Regan’s The House Keeper and The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle  by Ross Dungan). But there doesn’t seem to be quite the same level of excitement about new writing as would have been the case from, say, 1995 to about 2003.

One explanation is that Irish theatre has taken to devising during that period. We’ve had quite a bit of debate about the “play vs. devised piece” distinction over the last year – and I don’t want to add to that debate except to say that I don’t think the distinction is all that necessary or helpful. Michael West’s Freefall was devised with Corn Exchange, but it’s also a brilliantly written play, for example.

FREEFALL_24w-NEW

FREEFALL BY CORN EXCHANGE

And as Dylan Tighe has pointed out on a number of occasions, his No Worst There Is None may not be a literary text such as a Friel or a Tom Murphy might write but it was still written by someone who sought to meld its constituent elements into something artistic. Likewise, the most important work of the last decade is by common consensus the site-specific work of Louise Lowe – and although you can’t buy the script for Laundry or The Boys of Foley Street – and although you wouldn’t come close to understanding the performances by reading a script, the action can still be committed to print.

So I don’t worry too much about the amount of devised work in Ireland at the moment, simply because we’re kind of playing “catch-up” with the rest of Europe in introducing these practices anyway.

But I do worry that we are missing out on the exciting work that is being written in the UK and to a lesser extent in the US. We’ve seen some of it, especially at the Galway Arts Festival which has in the last decade brought in new plays by Craig Wright, Bruce Norris, Bruce Graham, Che Walker, and David Greig. The Dublin Theatre Festival has brought in some of the bigger British hits of recent years – Black Watch, The Pitmen Painters, and Enron. And Rough Magic and Prime Cut – not to mention such practitioners as Annabelle Comyn and Tom Creed – did much to introduce us to new writing from abroad. But we’re not really seeing much evidence of such work inspiring comparable developments in Ireland in the way that David Mamet did in the 1980s and early 1990s.

I’m very excited by the devised work that’s being done in Ireland, especially by some of the younger companies. But I’m struck by the fact that there seems to be an imbalance now. For example, this year’s Galway Fringe Festival has a great programme, but from a quick glance at it, I don’t see any evidence of any company producing a play that has already been produced professionally somewhere else. And that hardly ever happens in the Dublin Fringe either.

In short, I’d just like to see a few more plays being produced in Ireland – not just new plays by new Irish writers, but also Irish productions of some of the great new work that’s appearing abroad. I really feel that Irish audiences and young theatre-makers would be inspired by this work: inspired to write new plays, inspired to visit the theatre more often. But they need to have access to it first.

The arguments we’ve been hearing over the last few years about devised work are actually muddying the waters, I think. We can continue to have great devised work and should appreciate and value it. But we should also do more to encourage the development of new plays, and to encourage the appreciation of what’s happening abroad. The devised work vs. new play argument is not an either/or – we can have both/and.

33 thoughts on “New British Drama and Playwriting in Ireland

  1. Have you read Jez Butterworth’s “The River”? Possibly one of the best things I’ve read in ages, I’m dying for the rights to become available!

    • No not yet but that’s another great example. Jez Butterworth is definitely one of the best young writers around at the moment. Has he even been staged in Ireland? I have a half-memory of someone somewhere doing _Mojo_ but that’s it.

  2. I’d love to see a production of “Jerusalem”! I liked Kirkwood’s “It Felt Empty When The Heart Went At First” too…as a director, I’m looking forward to putting on some of this new writing myself.

  3. Dublin Fringe are quite specific about not taking scripts that have been produced before – their brief is for new writing. So things like Sugarglass’s wonderful production of Tender Napalm wouldn’t be suitable. I imagine that has a knock-on effect as well, as a lot of new Dublin companies start off by making work for the Fringe. Galway Fringe and 10 Days in Dublin have a much broader brief.

    • I didn’t know that about Dublin Fringe. Fine to prioritise new writing I suppose, but perhaps it’s time to redress the imbalance? Mind you, I think it’s only fair to say that the Irish theatre has not had a great track record at producing international work anyway, aside from honourable exceptions like Rough Magic.

  4. Actually, at the moment, Dublin Fringe state on their website that they do not want to produce new plays at all, Irish or otherwise. This has been quite obvious in programming over the last few years, which has privileged the post-dramatic confessional solo performance that has become ubiquitous among (most) new “theatre makers.

    • Yes was just saying above I wasn’t aware that was an official policy. Wouldn’t criticise that kind of work necessarily – or at least, I wouldn’t criticise it any more than I would any other kind of theatre. But maybe it’s time for a change of emphasis?

  5. I think one of the reasons for the absence of new plays in Ireland is because most of “gatekeepers” (ie the literary managers, critics and influential directors) share a common aesthetic – and that generally seems to be that theatre should be a kind of celebration of beauty; that the theatrical experience should ultimately be an uplifting, life-affirming one.

    That’s a gross generalisation, I know, but it seems to apply even when a script explores darker material. A pitch-black Irish play is fine, providing there’s a “dazzling lyricism”; a play can be about nothing whatsoever other than “the stories we tell ourselves”, providing the play “soars”. I’ve been to a lot of those “soaring” Irish plays, and they often involve very long monologues about the unreliablity of memory. With all due respect to the many fine Irish playwrights out there – and there are many – to my mind, there’s still an undue (and arguably old-fashioned) emphasis placed on a kind of poeticism, which often masks the absence of any concrete narrative or intelligible structure, other than an exploration of what it means to “present the self”. This is the very thing that puts bigger audiences off.

    The lyrical, introspective (and arguably solipistic) Irish drama has its place. But I largely agree with you, someone like David Grieg is leagues ahead of most Irish dramatists (and has successfully built himself an audience), and that’s mainly because he has more of interest in story telling than the possibilities and limitations of language.

    • I wonder if many of the points you are making here relate to the pressure some writers may feel to produce a typically “Irish” play – that there are expectations on them based on the theatre company’s history? In contrast, Greig and other Scottish writers are almost creating a tradition (not that there wasn’t Scottish theatre before they came around) – you sense that they feel they can do anything.

  6. Interesting post, Patrick.

    Regarding the Dublin Fringe policy, the relevant bit is as follows:

    What kind of work does Dublin Fringe Festival NOT programme?
    In general (though there may be some exceptions) Dublin Fringe Festival does not programme:
    • Non-experimental presentations of existing scripts.
    [https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/51435724/2013%20FRINGE%20BIBLE.pdf]

    So there is no formal interdiction on new plays, and I even snuck in a rewrite of an existing play in the 2010 Fringe (The Truth Of The Moon, which I originally wrote for the 2000 Fringe), so the rules are flexible depending on circumstances.

    And let’s not forget the Fishamble New Writing Award presented at the Fringe, which is one of the few new writing award in Irish Theatre and has had several worthy recent winners.
    [http://fishamble.com/literary/nwa2011]

    But I think that this Fringe policy definitely does lead to fewer productions of existing scripts from elsewhere, yes.

    As to why we are seeing fewer new plays, and a predominance of devised work… I could start on that now, but I don’t think I’d get around to posting this comment any time soon!

    • Thanks for the clarification about the Fringe, Simon. That’s very much appreciated, and corresponds to my own hunch about how things are done: new plays that are “conventional” are not prohibited as such but are much less likely to be produced than more experimental work. And it’s a big oversight on my part that I did not mention Fishamble’s work in developing new writing, so thanks for bringing them into the discussion. Going to see Colin Murphy’s _Guaranteed_ on Friday, so I should have been more focussed on them!

      I suppose I come at this as a teacher to a certain extent, and I am fairly focussed on what excites and inspires my students. Over the last few years, they have been inspired by the work of Pan Pan, Brokentalkers, and Anu mainly. I wouldn’t want to change that, but when I started teaching 10 years ago, they were being inspired by the (then relatively new) plays by Marina Carr (Bog Of Cats), Enda Walsh (Disco Pigs), Conor McPherson (The Weir), Mark O’Rowe (Howie) – and also by Sarah Kane. Walsh is still very popular and there is a definite Mark O’Rowe fan club in NUI Galway – so there are some positive developments.

      But we could do more I think.

      • Well, the digital ink is just dry on the latest draft of my new script for Pan Pan, so let’s not forget that they also produce new Irish writing, albeit in a more European style production process, one which does not necessarily privilege the text above other expressive theatrical means.

        I think we need to be careful about false dichotomies between the “scripted” and the “devised”. In this context I recall a mind-boggling conversation with an devised theatre enthusiast, who point-blank refused to believe that a show that I wrote with Gavin Quinn for Pan Pan, Oedipus Loves You, was completely writer-scripted, end-to-end, with no improvisation* and no devising. Even when creating a show with a “loose” aesthetic, one can be, likely needs to be, rigorous about planning and scripting.

        *With one exception – Dylan Tighe improvised the intro to the song “Limp”, which is very funny.

  7. Couldn’t agree with you more, Simon. I think a lot of the time when people say ‘devised’ they mean something like ‘experimental’ or perhaps just ‘unconventional’ and occasionally ‘post-dramatic’. Definitely agree that the new writing vs. devised work dichotomy is a false one – and unhelpful too. For sure there are distinctions to be made, but if there is a problem with new Irish playwriting, it’s not that there is too much devised work happening at present.

  8. Maybe it’s just the case that Irish theatre, through its influences and associations, aligns itself now more closely to the European model of production than with the British model, so that “writing”, whether scripted or devised, is just one part of the soup.

  9. Good article, Patrick. At Crooked House we’ve staged several Irish premières of international writing since 1998, mostly in Project Arts Centre: ‘Mouth to Mouth’ by Kevin Elyot; ‘Breathing Corpses’ by Laura Wade; ‘Down Dangerous Passes Road’ by Michel Marc Bouchard; ‘The Crime of the Twenty First Century’ by Edward Bond; ‘Handbag’ by Mark Ravenhill; ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ by John Guare, and ‘The Censor’ by Anthony Neilson.
    Our youth theatre continues to produce new writing by the London National Theatre’s stable of commissioned writers (one or two a year).
    However, since 2010, we’ve sought funding to stage such work as Dennis Kelly’s ‘Taking Care of Baby’ and Laura Wade’s ‘Other Hands’ but there hasn’t been an appetite for it with funders. Our devised work, culminating often in scripts, is more successfully funded. https://www.facebook.com/CrookedHouseTheatre

    • Really interesting, Peter. I had known about some of those productions but not about Breathing Corpses.

      I’m interested in what you write about funders not having a taste for those plays. This corresponds in some respects to the comments above about the Fringe and new writing. To a certain extent I can understand that argument: why should we produce a new play by, say, David Greig when there are good Irish writers who can’t get their work put on at all? On the other hand, I would also argue though that producing Dennis Kelly, Laura Wade, Greig and others would actually stimulate Irish writing too. There is a real buzz in England and Scotland about new writing, and we could do with some of that here.

      As a matter of interest, how do audiences respond? Put bluntly, do more people come and see your devised work than come to see the international plays?

  10. Dear Patrick and Sara,

    Nowhere on our website does it state that we do not programme new plays – in fact we are involved in several initiatives aimed at nurturing new writing. DFF is where the most significant flourishing of new writing in recent years has happened. We present new work at DFF, so existing texts, unless radically revised, do not feature in our programme. This is a conscious decision on my part to promote and stimulate new ideas, forms and voices in the performing arts. In recent years, those playwriting voices have included Amy Conroy, Ross Dungan, Nick Lee, Stefanie Preissner, Veronica Dyas, Damian Kearney, Shaun Dunne, Phillip McMahon, Lisa Tierney-Keogh, Sonya Kelly, Jesse Weaver, Martin Sharry, Elaine Murphy, Peter Dunne, James Hickson, Percolate, Manchán Magan, Máirín O’Grady, Louise Melinn and Jody O’Neill among others.

    • Thanks Roise! Very much appreciate the clarification – and in fairness I think Simon Doyle also clarified that point yesterday too.

      If we can go back to the original point that I made it was that we don’t often see productions in the Fringe that are re-stagings of plays that have already been produced – so we don’t often, for example, see new companies staging work by David Greig or Laura Wade or other non-Irish writers. And by ‘often’ I mean during the period over the last 10-15 years.

      The other issue of new plays is one that Sara mentioned, and she can come back in and respond there if she wishes. But perhaps there is some confusion about the lines that Simon quotes about how “In general (though there may be some exceptions) Dublin Fringe Festival does not programme: • Non-experimental presentations of existing scripts”?

      I also think – and again this point has been made earlier – that part of the debate arises because of terminology, about when a work is ‘devised’ and when it is a ‘play’. I think a lot of people differentiate between, say, Little Gem (which was staged in the Fringe) and I am Martin Sharry or Solpadeine is My Boyfriend – saying that the former is a ‘play’ whereas the latter two are ‘devised’. I don’t think that dichotomy is very helpful or useful, and in fact I’m calling for us to try to move away from it a bit.

      I think there are lots of great examples of Irish companies and entities seeking to stimulate new writing, many of which were mentioned in the original post, and many which have been mentioned in the subsequent comments. But the original point is that my perception is that there’s not the same level of excitement about new writing of what we might loosely call ‘conventional’ plays as used to be the case. I think that perception is quite widely held, in fairness.

      • And just two other observations…

        I wonder if a more helpful distinction when talking about these issues could be between ‘experimental’ and ‘conventional’ theatre – though there again that could be unhelpful. Brian Friel’s _Dancing at Lughnasa_ is both experimental and conventional, for example. But as a general working distinction, I think it’s probably fair to say that a lot of the new work in Ireland is experimental in the sense that it’s trying to do new things with form and audiences and the idea of performance generally.

        I also think that part of the problem around this debate is that people aren’t always using the same words to mean the same things. The words ‘play’, ‘new writing’ and ‘script’, for example, are not necessarily being used in exactly the same ways all the time, even in this discussion. Reading back over the comments above I’m guilty of a bit of that myself. The key thing, though, is that theatre-makers should feel that the work they make is being respected, whether that is devising a semi-autobiographical one-man or one-woman show, or staging a play by Brian Friel or David Greig or whoever and whatever else they want to make – and audiences want to see.

        The other point I’d make is that I note you write, Roise, that you made a “a conscious decision…to promote and stimulate new ideas, forms and voices in the performing arts” in focussing on new writing. I’m not for a moment criticising that because the impact is evident in many ways, not the least of which is that list of names of people who’ve come through the Fringe as a result of that policy. But I’d also make the comment that the production of new international work can ALSO stimulate new ideas and while it may not promote new voices, great international plays can be used to promote the development of actors, directors, lighting designers, set designers, and so on.

        Again – just to make the point – I don’t think we have to choose between all of these different forms of theatre-making. If you’re the director of a theatre festival, then of course it makes sense to prioritise, and I don’t have any argument about that. But thinking about the Irish theatre more generally, I think the range of work we can see here is needlessly narrow.

  11. Patrick, Stewart Roche from PurpleHeart here. I was reading about Punk Rock at the Lyric and this was linked. PurpleHeart staged Mojo in 1999 at the Dublin Fringe. Since then we’ve staged 12 European or Irish premieres of work by people like Tracy Letts, John Kolvenbach, Patrick Marber and Adam Rapp. So there was a desire among ourselves, Aboutface and Bedrock in particular to bring writers from Europe and the US to Irish audiences but Bedrock have folded, we just about struggle on (due to all our funding having been cut) and the people behind Aboutface emigrated and I’m not sure if anyone has stepped into the breach, so to speak, certainly not exclusively. Successful international writers are expensive to stage (rightly) particularly if you are talking about a young company. The agents of Simon Stephens or Neil LaBute, just to name two off the top of my head, are highly unlikely to accept 10% of the door of a 50 seater as a fee. So cost is a major factor,

    • Thanks Stewart. Very good to know. I hear what you are saying about cost – that’s a definite factor, especially for smaller venues. But as you say there are plenty of people out there who are still staging this work, and it would be great if we could see more.

  12. Absolutely Patrick. There seems to be an entirely new wave of playwrights emerging from the UK in particular (the ones you mentioned above, Simon Stephens, Mike Bartlett, Lucy Prebble, Roy Williams, the list really does go on) but very few of them seem to be staged in Ireland. I’ve read a lot of these writers work and they are serious talents and irish audiences are missing out, particularly on a writer like Bartlett who has never been staged here to my knowledge. I suppose the closure of places like the Focus doesn’t help. Interestingly, Theatre Upstairs (whose policy of staging new writing is admirable and has benefited me personally) are having a series of staged readings during the fringe which includes work by Stenham, Grieg and Ridley so perhaps this might lead to an exciting new development?

    • Yes – saw that Theatre Upstairs are staging those readings – which is brilliant. They are doing so much for new writing at the moment that it hardly seems fair to charge them with the responsibility of bringing those great British writers here too – fair play to them. The Galway Arts Festival staged one of Bartlett’s plays (Love Love Love) two years ago, but as you say I am not aware of any Irish productions.

  13. “On the other hand, I would also argue though that producing Dennis Kelly, Laura Wade, Greig and others would actually stimulate Irish writing too.” Forgot to say earlier- this absolutely hits the nail on the head.

  14. Yes, I see this as a teacher all the time. The young people I meet who are interested in writing plays are excited by Mark O’Halloran and Enda Walsh and Mark O’Rowe – but they are also excited by Greig, Wade, Stenham, Bartlett, and many others.

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