Nina Raine’s Tribes at the Gate Theatre

So yesterday I went to see Tribes by Nina Raine at the Gate. It’s running as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival, and is the second production in Selina Cartmell’s inaugural season at that theatre.

I’d been delighted when I’d seen the play in Cartmell’s programme. Raine’s play has been successful throughout the English-speaking world, and if this blog has an idée fixe, it’s that Irish theatre has been at its healthiest when it engages with international work. Good international plays allow our actors, designers and directors to push themselves in new directions, and they stimulate the creation of new Irish plays. There is more than a hundred years of evidence that shows this happening, from the Dublin Drama League producing the Gate in the 1920s, to the way in which the new wave of Irish writers in the 1960s were responding to Brecht and Tennessee Williams, and so on.

But I also think Tribes is a good play in its own right, and was glad to have the chance to see it – just as I’m very excited by the chance to see productions like Assassins and Look Back In Anger at the Gate next year.

On first glance, the set-up of Tribes might seem a bit clichéd, a riff on the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” theme. We open in the living room of a family whose three adult children include a son, Billy, who has been deaf since birth – and as the action develops, we learn that Billy intends to bring home a first “proper” girlfriend (Sylvia, a young woman who is going deaf) to meet his parents and his brother and sister.

His family welcome the idea of Billy being in a relationship, but not unreservedly so – both his father and brother fear that they might lose him to what they call (not at all positively) the “deaf community”. So the play concerns Billy’s attempts to establish his independence while also trying to negotiate around the different loyalties that he owes to the people in his life (the different “tribes” of the play’s title).

Insofar as the plot is concerned, then, we are dealing with the fundamental topic of many great plays, which is how we change: how we deal with the pain of changing, how we deal with the pain of not changing.

But layered on top of that theme is an exploration of communication and meaning, one that considers how we share feelings and concepts with each other and thereby build communities.

For example, there are some very interesting explorations of how music means, and the careful choice of songs – from We Come 1 by Faithless to “The Humming Chorus” in Madame Butterfly – allows us to think about the relationship between sound and emotion. This is made movingly evident in a scene in which Sylvia plays Clair De Lune – something she knows she won’t be able to do once she becomes completely deaf.

That scene also highlights one of the play’s most interesting forms of stage-craft, which is the theatricalisation of the production’s surtitles. These are projected on screens above the playing area in the first couple of scenes in order to make clear what Billy is saying when his speech becomes less distinct, or to “translate” sign language into standard English. But gradually the screens start to use other forms of communication: musical notation, CCTV footage, projections, and ultimately the private thoughts of the characters as they argue with each other (from the sarcastic “We’re in a Pinter play” to the simple “I love you”). Just as the characters are thinking about how body language, signs, words and music combine to build relationships, the production is also thinking about how theatre communicates to audiences.

All of those features make this a stimulating and engaging play, but the reason that it needs to be seen is the quality of the production. Given Raine’s focus on themes of belonging and identity, it is of the utmost importance that the action has been moved from the south of England to what seems to be Dublin – with only the tiniest of changes to the script being necessary (for example, where Raine’s original says that The Guardian want to profile Billy, the production makes it The Irish Times).

It says something very significant about Irish drama – and Irish culture more generally – that middle class Dublin is seen here as being more or less interchangeable with middle-class England. Yes, identity in the play is very fluid anyway – the father of the family is played by Nick Dunning as English, but the rest are Irish; they identify themselves as Jewish, but also grapple with other identities related to deafness, mental illness, Irishness, being a “northerner”, and so on.

While it is important that we have plays that explore the distinctive qualities of Irish life, it feels significant that this production of Tribes shows our links with other cultures, and in particular that it demonstrates how new English drama has something meaningful and immediate to say to Irish audiences.

This relates to a broader pattern that we’re seeing on the London stage, one that was evident when Denise Gough presented her character in People, Places and Things as Irish without the script needing her to do so – or that has Conor McPherson casting lots of Irish actors in his excellent Bob Dylan musical The Girl from the North Country – or that (much more problematically) sees The Ferryman being celebrated as the best new British play of this year. In London it’s clear that Ireland is no longer seen as “Other” in quite the way that it once was, so it is interesting that this production of Tribes is reciprocating that way of thinking about what we have in common with our nearest neighbour.

It’s also very exciting that the production of Tribes is true to the history of the Gate, while also representing a new departure. The Gate always showed that one way of being a national theatre is to stage excellent Irish productions of international works. Tribes is very much in that spirit, showing Dublin audiences something new that could open up avenues for our own writers, directors, designers, actors, and theatre-goers.

There’s also the pleasure of seeing a strong ensemble working very well together. We have Nick Dunning and Fiona Bell’s finely choreographed representation of a marriage that involves both intimacy and hostility. As the oldest brother Daniel, Gavin Drea gives a very considered presentation of a young man who is grappling with mental illness and thwarted desire – one of those performances that in Reviewese a newspaper critic might call a “revelation”, not only because it shows us truths that we might not have been aware of, but also because it gives Drea a chance to do things technically that I hadn’t know he could do.

In the less developed role of Ruth, Grainne Keenan gives a very subtle exploration of what it’s like to be the person who is most often ignored in a family, the person who is often most in need of attention and least likely to get it. And as Billy, Alex Nowak presents his character’s development with a moving intensity, allowing us to sympathise with him when necessary, condemn him when necessary, and ultimately to accept him.

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(Clare Dunne, Alex Nowak and Fiona Bell in Tribes

But the key performance is given by Clare Dunne as Sylvia. I last saw Dunne in the Donmar’s Shakespeare Trilogy in London (soon to be broadcast to cinemas), and was very struck by the fact that although people went into the theatre talking about Harriet Walter, many of them came out talking about Dunne, whose Prince Hal in Henry IV was (let’s use the cliché again) a revelation – not only about Hal, but also about how gender works in Shakespeare, and how Irishness can be used to find things in Shakespeare’s plays that were always there but have been forgotten (she played Hal with a broad Dublin accent).

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(Keenan, Dunne and Denning in Tribes)

Here as Sylvia she very noticeably lifts the play when she arrives in the fourth scene, giving a performance that is massively sympathetic. There’s a parallel in the script between Billy’s movement away from his family on the one hand, and Sylvia’s movement from hearing into deafness on the other – and this parallel allows Dunne to present a very carefully prepared performance that is technically excellent in terms of voice, movement, and her physical interactions with the other actors. But what Dunne is also showing us here – as she did for Hal in Henry IV also – is how change produces feelings of both loss and elation in us. She is one of those actors who knows how to resolve contradictions, showing us that part of the complexity of the human condition lies in working out how to reconcile the clash between loss and discovery.

So I loved the rigour and complexity of the acting – which, of course, has to be attributed to the direction of Oonagh Murphy. It’s exceptionally positive to see her being given the space of the Gate stage to show what she can do. And I also need to mention the excellent design by Conor Murphy, Mimi Jordan Sherin, Ivan Birthistle and Conan McIvor.

But there is one other point to be made. When I saw Tribes yesterday, the auditorium was considerably less than half full. Yes, it’s the middle of the Dublin Theatre Festival, and yes Raine is not a well known writer, and the cast isn’t starry in the way that the Gate’s DTF productions have sometimes been in the past. But I thought this lack of audience interest was a shame, not only because it’s new international work but also because it’s written by a woman, directed by a woman, programmed by a woman and has roles for three women and three men. Post-WTF, this is the kind of work that needs to be supported and seen.

But there are many reasons to see this play, starting with the fact that it’s a good night out: if you love plays, if you love drama, if you love theatre – you should just go.

One final note – one of the other very positive changes recently introduced to the Gate has been the quality of its graphic design and PR material. Has there been a more striking poster for a new production in Dublin this year than the image below?

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Room by Emma Donoghue at the Abbey

So last night I attended the opening of Emma Donoghue’s Room, the stage adaptation of her 2010 novel which later became an Oscar-winning film. It’s an interesting production, one that allowed me to pull together a lot of thoughts about this year’s Abbey season, while also raising issues in its own right.

When the Abbey’s new programme was announced, it was generally greeted with excitement, I think. The stage was being opened out to other Irish companies, there were interesting new productions to look forward to, and there was also the prospect of work by major artists like Lisa Dwan and John Tiffany. So all very good.

But there were reservations evident here and there, mostly on social media, and mostly asking one question: why were there so many adaptations? From No’s Knife to Room and on to Let the Right One In, we’re seeing plays being created out of works that existed in other media first – a development that  follows on from Marina Carr’s Anna Karenina at the Abbey last year, while also being mirrored in Selina Cartmell’s first programme at the Gate, which includes adaptations of The Great Gatsby, The Red Shoes and The Snapper. And the implication in some of those comments was that we were losing out in some way by being presented with such work.

But I’ve never really understood the prejudice against adaptations, which, apart from anything else, seems to ignore a lot of the history of Irish theatre. From its inception, the Abbey staged plays that took stories from one medium and placed them in another: even on its opening night it gave us On Baile’s Strand, an adaptation of Irish legend – followed later by Lady Gregory’s versions of Moliere, Yeats’s Oedipus, and many other versions and adaptations. We might also argue that what Synge did in writing Shadow of the Glen was a form of adaptation: he took an oral folktale and refashioned it for live performance. So I don’t think we should see this year as representing a major departure from the norm. Yes, it’s probably unusual that 2017 will pass without a play by Friel or Murphy or O’Casey or Synge at the Abbey. But we haven’t been starved of work by those writers and presumably haven’t heard the last of them either.

Internationally, there seems to be a much greater acceptance of adaptations, albeit that their prominence is driven partly by producers’ desire to manage risk by giving audiences already familiar stories. So right now we have 1984 on Broadway, for example – not to mention the multiple musicals that bring so-so Hollywood movies to the stage. But we can also point to companies like Shared Experience or Elevator Repair Service, which have found ways of giving theatrical life to well known novels. So there doesn’t seem to be quite the same level of resistance to adaptations elsewhere in the English-speaking world. (I should add here that there are many examples of adaptations on our own stages too at present – CyclopsThe LadykillersOnce the Musical and other productions.)

I also think there is an interesting coherence to this year’s Abbey programme, which, it’s becoming increasingly evident, focusses on the theme of entrapment. There’s a link to be drawn between Walsh’s Ballyturk and Arlington on the one hand and Room on the other: indeed, the conclusion of Ballyturk drew direct comparisons with Room when it premiered, and both can be linked back to the Fritzl case in Austria. But that theme of entrapment runs through the other productions: it’s there in Godot (“we’re not tied?”) and No’s Knife, and also is an important presence in Katie Roche and Let the Right One In. Even Ulysses is about entrapment: it’s about Molly in the bedroom, about the nets that Stephen needs to fly past, about the nightmare of history that he wants to awake from, about the idea of Dublin as a kind of Room that Bloom and Stephen keep circling,  like the double act in Ballyturk. The idea of marriage as a trap also runs through these plays (especially in Ulysses and Katie Roche), and it will be interesting to see how the presentation of Katie speaks to the performance of Molly Bloom when both characters appear at the theatre.

And perhaps in this programme there’s a subtle declaration of intent in relation to the Abbey itself. Enda Walsh’s various rooms have always seemed like metaphors for the theatre itself, the sense of entrapment felt by the characters acting as emblems of Walsh’s  willingness to push against theatrical form. It’s interesting that the first year of the new directors’ Abbey programme is all about the frustration of being confined to one space. The opening of Jimmy’s Hall in Leitrim and the national tour of Two Pints can be seen as evidence of a desire to get out of the Abbey in much the same way that many of the characters on the main stage this year are seeking to break free of their own boundaries.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into things.

But in any case, Room feels at home at the Abbey, both thematically and in the context of the theatre’s history and its possible futures. It is, it’s important to say, an international co-production, with lines delivered in English accents – and so there isn’t quite the sense of a community being in conversation with itself that was evident with, say, Ballyturk (which in its Galway premiere drew immediate comparisons to the Tuam Babies case). Instead, we are introduced to interesting non-Irish voices in the acting company – while also encountering the work of two excellent international designers in Lily Arnold and Andrezej Goulding. But the production does hit home (in all senses of that phrase) in another way: it’s a play by a female Irish author on our national theatre’s main stage. It would be great if it led to a re-evaluation (and revival) of Donoghue’s many stage plays, which are known less well than her novels.

But the key question for any adaptation is whether it is a success in the new medium in its own right  or whether it seems derivative of the original. What’s interesting about Room is that there are times when it is both of those things.

I’m sure somebody somewhere has probably written about the difficulty of adapting novels written from a first person point of view for the stage (as opposed to adapting third person narratives such as Anna Karenina or Les Miserables). The simplest and most common way of doing this is simply to put an actor on stage and have him or her tell the story directly to us. This is how Beckett’s prose has been performed, and it is what Annie Ryan did for A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, for example.

But adapting the narrative is a major challenge for Room, which in the original is told from the point of view of the five-year-old boy, Jack, who is trapped in the Room with his mother. The brilliance of the novel lies in the extent to which we as adults know more about what is happening than the narrator himself does: we fill in blanks, place things in a moral or social context that the boy himself is too young to comprehend. And along the way we also see the world from the perspective of the child.

The novel thus captures how one of the gifts offered by parenthood is that our children allow us to learn about the world a second time, when we see it newly through their eyes (this is also one of the things that reading great novels can do for us). Room has the same gift to offer, allowing us to learn again the nature of reality as seen through the eyes of Jack. The book is both moving and revelatory from the extent to which it makes everyday things unfamiliar to us, and new again.

Staging the story means that we leave the boy’s mind and see the action instead as a representation of “reality”, with Jack’s perspective one of many that are dramatized in the play. In removing some of the interpretative burden from the audience, Donoghue  risks making the action seem excessively literal, then – a problem that she attempts to address by placing onstage an adult actor who is a version of Jack’s inner self. His actions mirror Jack’s emotional state, and he often narrates Jack’s unspoken thoughts and feelings, saying them directly out to the audience. He is in many ways a theatricalisation of Jack’s point of view from the novel.

Perhaps he could be described as something of a cross between two Friel characters: Gar Private from Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Michael from Dancing at Lughnasa. But he’s never quite one or the other. He’s not an adult looking back on his memories (as in Lughnasa). But because the role is played by an adult, he doesn’t feel like a private version of Jack either. One of the things that is significant about Donoghue’s child narrator of the novel is that (unlike Gar in Philadelphia) there is not a huge schism between his public and private self: one of the forms of violence that Old Nick inflicts upon him and his mother is to make that distinction between inside and outside seem null and void. Ultimately the presence of the adult version of Jack feels like it arises from a perceived need to have someone on stage who can enact elements of the story that are too complex for the child actors to perform. This feels like a compromise rather than an inherently necessary part of the theatrical composition.

Setting that aside, perhaps the most surprising element of the adaptation is the inclusion of a number of songs, which are performed to a recorded backing track. To be clear, this is not Room – the Musical, if only because in musical theatre the creation and refinement of musical motifs becomes a key part of the storytelling and character development, whereas here the songs feel incidental or contextual. But it is a play with songs. And that feels very strange, given the subject matter.

Room

A problem with these songs, for me anyway, was their use at times that often felt very inappropriate, including most notably in a scene in which Old Nick rapes Ma while Jack hides in a wardrobe. We see Old Nick arrive, remove his boots, engage in threatening chitchat, and get into bed. And then Jack (in the wardrobe) begins to count the squeaks of the bed’s springs. It’s a difficult scene to watch.

Midway through these events, though, the actor playing Ma breaks into song. And while I believe we were intended to see this moment as indicating Ma’s resilience and determination to survive – and her ability to separate herself from what was happening as a way of surviving – it felt inappropriate to the context. I think audience-members will have a variety of views on this scene, some positive and some negative. But one criticism could be that it risks inhibiting our apprehension of the full horror of what is being done to Ma. I was not ungrateful for that distraction last night, because I’ve read the book and didn’t particularly want to live with those experiences again. But I felt that the original novel made more demands upon us as readers.

I’m not suggesting that any subject should be off-limits for musical performance onstage: there is a fully orchestrated and choreographed scene of sexual assault in West Side Story, for example, while the song “Hello Little Girl” from Into the Woods plays very dangerously with multiple taboos around children and sexuality. But the reason those songs are effective is that they’re situated contextually, both in relation to the music and the characterisation. It may well be a failing on my part but I couldn’t work out what the songs were doing in Room or why they were needed.

And yet – there were moments last night when the production was outstandingly good. The use of projections on a rotating stage gives us a sense of the interior life of Jack (while also helping to mitigate some of the bleakness of the story). And notwithstanding my criticisms of the use of song, I was impressed by the exceptional sensitivity and integrity displayed in the treatment of the child actor who is present during the scene (mentioned above) when Old Nick rapes Ma. As in the original novel, it’s a movingly honest portrait of parenthood: of what we as parents give our children – and of what we receive from them – and of what we sometimes take from them too. It represents the simple human truth that parenthood involves a gradual letting go, an act that is both painful and a source of happiness. The honesty and insight in evidence here will resonate wherever this play is performed.

It’s also a play that deals fascinatingly with the workings of male power. There is the obvious sense in which the lives of Ma and Jack are completely at the mercy of Old Nick, who is as menacing offstage as when he is present (his cutting off of Room’s electricity, for example, is an act of intimidation that is partly fuelled by his absence: Ma knows that the only thing worse than Old Nick coming back is his never coming back). But that theme is evident too in the relationship between Ma and her own father, a well nuanced figure who initially expresses his outrage against Old Nick for what had been done to “his daughter” – as if the crime was against the father rather than Ma herself. There’s a lot of interesting material to work with here, both for the actors and the audience.

But the production is most successful in the performances by Ma (Witney White) and the three child actors who play Jack (Darmani Eboji, Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans and Harrison Wilding). There’s a very moving physical and emotional intimacy between mother and child, and I have never before seen a child actor carry as much emotional weight on a stage as I saw last night. Here the direction by Cora Bissett has to be praised. There is great eloquence in the choice of movements for Jack – the way he curls up while hiding in the wardrobe, the subtlety of his gradual development of an ability to use stairs in the second half of the play, the growing physicality of his interactions with his grandfather, the careful development of a repertoire of affectionate gestures between him and his grandmother, and so on. At the risk of offering what will surely seem like a backhanded compliment, I thought all of this was so good that the songs could have been cut (or not included in the first place), and I also wondered if the play could have been staged without the adult actor playing Jack (the actor himself is very good, by the way: I’m not criticising his performance). Yes, the total removal of these elements would leave gaps to be filled, and yes the subject matter is already difficult enough as it is and needs to be lightened or mediated in some way. But the strength of this production lies  in our being in the presence of these actors and empathising intimately with them. I wanted to have fewer distractions from that relationship.

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And this is where adaptations offer different experiences for audiences. Some people in the theatre last night will have read the book, others will have seen the film, some will have done both, and some will know nothing about the story at all. And inevitably your judgement of the action will be shaped to some extent by whatever version of Room (if any) you have brought with you.

But I don’t think this makes for any kind of second-rate experience. If Room proves anything, it is that we should see adaptations not as a lesser version of original stage plays, nor as being like a faded photocopy of a primary text. Rather, they need to be seen as an instinsic part of our theatrical heritage (especially at the Abbey), as having value in their own right, and as requiring a set of critical tools that will allow us to appreciate them for what they are and what they do. They are not inferior to original plays; they are just slightly different works of art.

So I left the theatre all the more enthused about the prospect of seeing how the rest of the year will pan out, with Gatsby, Jimmy’s Hall, Ulysses,  Let the Right One In, The Red Shoes and many other productions in other theatres on the way. It took me a couple of years after its publication to face up to reading Room, a novel which (like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) I am glad to have read but will almost certainly never re-read. I would not let any such hesitation stop anyone from going to see this play, however. There is a lot going on here, and while I think it will evoke mixed reactions (it certainly did so last night amongst the people I spoke to or overheard) it also raises important issues about what we stage and how we stage it — about the voices we listen to, the questions we ask, the people we value.

Caryl Churchill’s Theatre of the Antropocene: Far Away by Corcadorca

So, last night I attended Cocadorca’s Far Away, a promenade performance held on Spike Island in Cork – an event that includes a ferry trip from Cobh to the island and back again.

I don’t want to write too much about the performance itself because I saw a preview of it (and in any case don’t want the remarks below to be misunderstood as any kind of a review). But I will say that it’s my favourite of the plays I’ve seen so far this year, that the acting from Judith Roddy, Pauline McLynn and Manus Halligan was excellent, and that we’re unlikely to see better design anywhere in Ireland this year than the lighting, sound and costumes presented here by Paul Keogan, Aedín Cosgrove, Mel Mercier and Lisa Zagone. So, yes, I would recommend it.

The play has been done at least once in Ireland before, in a production by Jimmy Fay’s Bedrock in 2004. I didn’t see it (to my regret) but at the time it was received in the context of the post-9/11 geopolitical landscape of the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib prison, and so on.

Those interpretations remain valid but seeing the play in an open air setting strongly reinforced my sense of how Churchill’s work is so influenced by environmental concerns: that her critiques of patriarchy, imperialism and capitalism often come together to underscore the extent to which power and consumption are destroying our planet.

This concern is developed in the three-part structure of the play. In the first part, a child glimpses an act of apparently senseless violence, but is enabled to go back to sleep by being told a comforting story about what she’s seen – a story that she’s a little too willing to believe. In the second part, the child is older and we begin to understand how that violence has a political aspect to it, how whole sections of her society are imprisoned and then executed. By the play’s conclusion, the society has broken down completely, and the characters are embroiled in a war that encompasses not just all of the world’s nations but all living (and many non-living) things. Participants in the war include elephants, crocodiles, grass, and even light. “Who’s going to mobilise darkness and silence?” asks the protagonist, and it’s a question that is at once funny and haunting. As so often happens with Churchill, we are presented with an absurd situation that so closely mirrors our own society that it exposes the arbitrary nature of everything that we believe to be “the way things are”.

In seeing this idea playing out across three acts, I was reminded of the structure of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, in which an act of sexual violence in a Leeds hotel room is shown to lead to the horrors of the Yugoslav civil wars – a link that Kane once described as analogous to that between the seed and the tree. Churchill gives us an act of violence that was glimpsed, covered up, and all too quickly forgotten, and she shows how that wilful suppression leads ultimately to a tolerance of totalitarianism. But she pushes her analysis one step further than Kane did by showing how human violence inevitably takes in all living things.

Churchill’s work has long sought to present the way in which human actions change the environment (and vice versa). It’s an idea present in earlier plays such as The Skriker and Fen, for example. But I think Far Away can be seen as a fine example of a theatre of the anthropocene, as a dramatization of the idea that our actions have to be thought of in environmental contexts at all times.

And this is important because theatre does not often (or, to be more precise, does not often enough) place human actions in their broader ecological contexts. In this context, I recently read an important new book by the novelist Amitav Ghosh, called The Great Derangement. It is a series of essays about the representation of climate change in literary fiction, in which Ghosh asks why there are so few examples of literary novels on that subject.

The argument he puts forward (and I’m simplifying it, badly) is that the conventions of the realist novel were established in such a way as to present people mainly in social settings, so that the environment appeared as a context or backdrop but rarely as something that was inherently connected to human life. As a result of that link between realism and the social (rather than the environmental), the novelists who have chosen to write about climate change often have to do so in non-realistic forms, especially science fiction. This in turn contributes to a problem within our culture whereby human-made climate change is an article of faith rather than a proven fact: our conception of what is believable is too narrow to include climate change and thus there are many people out there who choose not to believe in it. This, Ghosh shows, represents a failure of the imagination, not just by readers but by novelists too. We need everyone on the planet to be able to imagine climate change as a reality – and we need them to be able to do that now.

What is true for the realist novel is also true for realistic plays. Our theatre presents people in natural settings, but the sense of deep and intimate connection between human action and the environment is relatively rare. Yes, there are exceptions, and a growing number of them (Ella Hickson’s Oil is especially worth looking at  in this context). But if we think it’s a problem that whole swathes of the population can simply opt out of believing in climate change, then we have to consider the extent to which our modes of theatre-making are part of the problem.

Well, to use a cliché, Churchill’s play is part of the solution. Yes, it could be described as science fiction – in the way that some work by Margaret Atwood is, and even things like the Hunger Games films are relevant here too. But its immediacy was reinforced by the choice of site. And this is one of the things that makes Corcadorca’s production not just exciting but important.

Staging a play on an island is not a new thing, of course: Druid have been doing it in Ireland for a long time, and indeed Corcadorca have done it before too. And it’s a great idea, first because in the case of inhabited islands it’s important for theatre companies to engage with those communities – and secondly because the island is such a potent theatrical metaphor (as shown in everything from The Tempest to Friel’s Gentle Island to Greig’s Outlying Islands).

But what is important here is that so much of this experience is shaped by an engagement with the natural setting: the sea that we pass over on the ferry, the gradual movement from light to darkness as the play continues, the grass we have to walk through in the play’s second act, the shift from warmth to chilliness as night falls in, and the starlight that gradually emerges as the play continues. Thus, when at the end of the play Judith Roddy’s characters talks about being seen by birds, her words have a greater immediacy from the fact that, minutes before, the audience would have witnessed starlings swooping around them. The built environment is important here too: not just the fortress/prison that we watch the action in, but also nearby settings – such as Cobh in the distance or wind turbines swishing nearby. We’re also conscious of technology: a light that you might think is a planet slowly becoming visible in the night sky turns out to be the late flight into Cork Airport from Heathrow, for example.

I don’t want to get too carried away with emphasising the link here (not least because I spent seven hours in a car getting to and from the production…) but if Far Away’s first production in Ireland allowed us to talk about how theatre could respond to the war in Iraq, its revival now affords an opportunity to think about our theatre in the anthropocene. What kinds of stories can we tell? How should we tell them? And, as Corcadorca have long shown, where we tell our stories matters too – how can we use our theatre to show people how human life is shaped by environment (and vice versa) – and how can we use it to ensure that people in our society form a better understanding of the distinctions between knowledge and belief? One of the reasons we have so awfully failed to tackle climate change is because it’s possible for people to opt not to believe something that is true – a clear sign of cultural crisis at all times in human history. Our theatre has a role in doing something about this; Far Away offers a good example of what can be achieved.

In the meantime, it’s also just worth noting how good it is to see Churchill performed in an Irish setting  again – with her dialogue performed in Irish accents (with no detectable changes to the script). Churchill is presented fairly regularly here: she’s been performed at the Abbey and by Rough Magic, Prime Cut, Bedrock, and others too. But she’s not really well known, and I’d imagine there are probably many regular Irish theatre-goers who have never seen one of her plays. Given her status in world theatre, we really don’t know her well enough. Michael Colgan’s Gate showed us with successive festivals for Beckett and Pinter that audiences are willing to engage with experimental work when it’s presented in accessible contexts. Wouldn’t it be great if someone did the same for Churchill here?

 

Cobh as seen from Spike Island shortly before Far Away began

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Is Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman an Irish Play?

I know I’m not the only person who was excited by the announcement last year that Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman was going to open in the Royal Court before a West End transfer. I managed to get a ticket for the Royal Court run on the day they were released, not realising that I was one of the people who would make that show the fastest to sell out in the Court’s history. It’s easy to understand why it was so popular: from Mojo to Jerusalem, Butterworth has been creating plays that are brilliantly plotted and which provide great roles for actors (Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, most famously).

But, similarly, I suspect I’m not the only Irish person who has been uncomfortable with some of the critical reactions to the play.

The Ferryman is set in Northern Ireland during the Hunger Strikes (that is, in the early 1980s), and explores the reactions of a republican family to the news that the body of one of their members – who had been “disappeared” by the IRA ten years’ earlier – has just been discovered. It’s a powerful thriller that is written like a conventional tragedy, with the action unfolding across a three-act structure that covers a 24-hour period in the farmhouse of this family.

Reviews have been universally positive: it’s mostly been getting five-star ratings, the word “masterpiece” is being used to describe it, and people are talking about Butterworth as the major dramatist of his generation.

I’ve no argument with any of that, but what has been strange – to me anyway – has been the willingness of so many critics to declare this a “great Irish play”. This statement from Vanessa Thorpe in The Observer gives a good example of what many others have been saying:

The play joins the canon of Irish drama, from Seán O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman, through Brendan Behan, to the work of Martin McDonagh, Enda Walsh and Conor McPherson.

I think statements like this provide evidence of a missed opportunity to grapple with what this play is really attempting. The significance of Buttterworth writing this play is not that it is Irish, or part of the canon of Irish drama, but that (as Beckett would have put it), au contraire, it is an English play.

I’m not talking here about the passport or ancestry of the playwright, but rather about how the play situates itself in relation to dramatic traditions and the broader society. One of the great things about Butterworth’s play is that it shows an English dramatist in very careful dialogue with Irish theatre, and our culture more broadly. There are lots of echoes in there – of Heaney’s ‘Tollund Man’ poems, for example, as well as plenty of Yeats (“The Stolen Child” especially). But the dramatists that the play is most carefully engaged with are Tom Murphy and Brian Friel (the two who, interestingly, were not included in Thorpe’s list).

If you know your Irish drama you’ll pick up on the echoes very quickly. The family in Butterworth’s play are called the Carneys, for instance. Where have we seen a tragedy about an Irish family with that name before? Tom Murphy’s Whistle in the Dark. The play is set during harvest time, features a young male’s attempts to build a kite, has a dance scene at a pivotal moment – one which is interrupted unexpectedly… This is not so much a nod to Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa as an attempt to bring what was implicit about violence in Friel’s play fully to the fore. And in calling the play The Ferryman, Butterworth is (probably coincidentally) drawing on a metaphor that Friel used in the play he wrote after Lughnasa: Wonderful Tennessee (which also thinks about the River Styx and Charon in relation to Irish histories)

And there are other echoes… The play features an elderly woman who emerges from her dementia to provide moments of stunning lucidity: not just Murphy’s Bailegangaire but its many imitators are being evoked here. And in what Butterworth does to bring the Irish country kitchen into dialogue with a Greek tragic sensibility, it’s impossible not to see some of the formal advances made by Marina Carr in On Rafftery’s Hill or Portia Coughlan or The Mai.

Watching the play, I didn’t see the use of those tropes as acts of appropriation, but rather as an attempt by an English playwright to come to terms with a national dramatic culture that is adjacent to but different from his own. Frank McGuinness did something like this from an Irish point of view when he wrote Mutabilitie and Speaking Like Magpies, for example. So The Ferryman should be understand as an English play in the way that Lucy Prebble’s Enron (set in America) and Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica (set in China and America) are both English plays: the setting may not be in Britain but the context – the focal point from which the authors’ questions are being asked – comes from contemporary English or British culture and concerns.

Haunting … Laura Donnelly as Caitlin in The Ferryman.

And just as Prebble’s Enron failed to find an American audience but is still an excellent play, I suspect that The Ferryman would not be as well received in Ireland as it has been in London.

For my own part, upon first viewing I found the familiarity of many of the tropes distracting. I hadn’t read the script or any reviews before seeing it, but I’d worked out early on that there would be a dance scene, and was unsurprised to see how it developed. And likewise the use of the name ‘Carney’ and some other nods to Murphy made a few things evident early on. There are also frequent references to banshees (hence the comparisons to McPherson in many of the reviews). These are well handled in the production but if, like me, you have seen Darby O’Gill and the Little People at every St Patrick’s Day since you were four, you might find them a little twee. And that goes for the use of melodrama in the play too: there are times when some of the scenes feel like they’d been written by John B Keane – which is neither a good nor a bad thing, but if you have seen Sive done badly, you can imagine how a lesser production of The Ferryman could draw laughs rather than the gasps or horror and sadness that it so frequently provokes.

And there are all the other reactions an Irish person might have when watching a play like this in London. The accents are not always precise, and I was not always comfortable with the audience’s laughter at the characters’ attitude to alcohol, or their bad language, especially from the children. But I would say the same about watching the plays of McDonagh, McPherson, and many other dramatists,  outside Ireland. And of course I am not myself from Northern Ireland, so it’s probably the case that several references were lost on me too.

And the point is this: none of that matters because the play was not written for an Irish audience or an Irish company – or a Northern Irish audience or company either. I think it needs instead to be seen in the tradition of English plays that aim to explore the relationship that England has with Ireland – it’s similar to (but also different from) plays like Rudkin’s Afore Night Come, Brenton’s Romans in Britain, and England’s Ireland (co-written by David Hare, David Edgar, Howard Brenton, and others) – or even to some of Shakespeare’s references to Ireland (as the place that always screws things up for kings who ought to be focussing on more immediate priorities).

In his exploration of how Margaret Thatcher’s policies impacted upon the Hunger Strikes, and in his  discussion of the British Army’s actions in Derry during that period, Butterworth presents  the Troubles not as a result of atavism, barbarism, backwardness or something that is happening “over there”. He shows the Troubles unfolding in a political and social context that absolutely implicates the English government (and the society that elected it), without at any time overlooking the brutality and cynicism of the IRA.

I found this very powerful, especially given how Northern Ireland has been so thoroughly neglected and forgotten, especially during the last year, by the British government. We have Tory members who are prepared to threaten war over Gibraltar but no-one in that party seems to have considered how Brexit would affect Northern Ireland – just as it’s amazing that no-one seems too concerned that the NI Assembly remains suspended. It’s positive to see the Royal Court and Butterworth working to ensure that Northern Ireland is seen not as “that place over there” but rather as a part of the UK. This is not to suggest that there is any sort of unionist approach here – far from it – but rather that the play demonstrates that Northern Ireland needs to be noticed and understood as part of a shared history.

So in Butterworth’s attempts to work out the relationships between Irish culture, Northern Irish history (and culture), English dramatic history, the tragic form, the cinematic thriller, and much more – we have a play that is doing something very interesting and important.

This is why the critical reaction has seemed like a missed opportunity.

I’ve written before of my concern that internationally, the “Irish play” is now seen as a genre that anyone can write in, regardless of whether they know the country or not. John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar is an example of this phenomenon; so is Richard Eyre’s recent decision to perform Pirandello in rural Irish accents at the National; we might also think of The Night Season by Rebecca Lenkiewicz.

Whether you think those plays or productions were good or bad (and Shanley’s was well received in the US, while the two NT productions were quite well received), there are political and cultural consequences that arise when you see another country’s national dramatic tradition as a sub-genre within your own canon – or when you use another country’s language or culture as a metaphor for something in your own society. These strategies have the impact of separating Irish drama from Irish society, narrowing the ways in which our playwrights can achieve international success – while also rendering less visible the Irishness of people whose plays don’t conform to expectations. This goes for actors too: for me, one of the most interesting things about Denise Gough’s performance in People, Places and Things was how her Irishness fed into it – but I haven’t seen that discussed in any detail anywhere, probably because the play didn’t “read” as Irish in any other way.

The risk of seeing The Ferryman as Irish is that it banishes the play back over the Irish sea: it’s a work that should (from a London perspective) be seen as being about “us” but is being resituated as being about “them”.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not attacking critics here: most of them don’t have the space or time to get into these kinds of complexities. But I do think the reception of Butterworth’s play reveals some uncomfortable truths about the Irish play in London (and elsewhere) at present.

There’s also a risk too that the success of The Ferryman will overshadow the work of the many writers from Northern Ireland who have considerably more complex and interesting things to say about life there. This would not be Butterworth’s fault, but I do think that there’s a need for much greater awareness that this work exists – that Northern ireland is speaking for and about itself too.

I think The Ferryman is a very good –  in fact, often excellent – play. Many of the performances are great – Laura Donnelly’s especially so. There is something both exciting and bittersweet about seeing an Irish story being told with such a huge cast (no Irish company could afford to stage this play), and with such a clear commitment to the highest possible production values.

It’s a play that takes a while to sink in. I saw it a few days ago, and have read the script – but I feel that I need to see it again in order to start to come to terms with it properly. I hope I’ll find a way to catch it again during its West End run… So I am sure I’ll have much more to say about it myself in the future.

In the meantime I think there’s a really interesting conversation about this play waiting to happen….

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Talking About Thomas Kilroy

I was delighted to recently receive a copy of one of the latest publications from Carysfort Press: Guy Woodward’s edited collection Talking about Thomas Kilroy.

This book collects a series of talks that were given at a Trinity College symposium about Kilroy in 2011 – and although  it is short, it succeeds in capturing well the complexity, depth and importance of the work of one of our most important writers. It’s also a surprisingly enjoyable read: as the title implies, the authors of the papers write in a conversational tone, often moving from incisive critical analysis to revealing anecdote.

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For example, Antony Roche recalls attending the premiere of The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche, the 1968 play that was probably the first Irish drama to feature an explicitly gay character. He’d been brought by his parents, who were, he said “probably drawn … by the curiosity of seeing our name in the title”. The titular Mr Roche is described in the play as ‘the queer of Dunleary’, where the Roches themselves lived at that time. This prompted an acquaintance to approach Tony’s father at the interval: “You kept it well hid boy, wha?” he said.

 

This is a funny story but as Roche points out, it also reveals how Dublin audiences were willing to accept plays about gay characters (albeit with some reservations).

 

There’s a similarly revealing anecdote in Nicholas Grene’s essay (which opens the collection), about Kilroy and modernism, in which Grene recalls playing a role in an amateur production of a play about the flight of the earls. “I played the O’Donnell” writes Grene: “my main function was to die of a fever in Rome in the second act, feverishly declaring nostalgic memories of my native Donegal”. Grene remembered little of that play: “’tons of buttermilk’ is the only phrase I can recall of my lines,’ he confesses.

 

Again this is funny, but Grene uses the anecdote as a jumping off point for a fascinating discussion of Kilroy’s The O’Neill (premiered at the Abbey in 1969), noting its links to Friel’s Making History. He goes on then to survey Kilroy’s work in the context of modernism and Irish modernity, bringing us right up to Kilroy’s wonderful adaptation of Spring Awakening, the 2009 Christ Deliver Us!

 

The collection also features an essay by Peter Fallon, who has published all of Kilroy’s plays. In addition to offering an interesting account of Fallon’s Gallery Press, he also provides some revealing discussion of Kilroy’s work – which he, like everyone in the book, acknowledges is difficult to categorise. Nevertheless, Fallon suggests that the plays can be seen as representing a “collision between self and social pressure” and, as such, represent “portraits of the artist”. This is a useful way to think about Kilroy’s plays and other writings.

 

We also have transcripts of two talks, one about reading Kilroy (chaired by Christina Hunt Mahony and given mostly by academics) and the other about directing him (chaired by Emer O’Kelly, and given mostly by practitioners). While I tend to balk at the separation of these two groups from each other, here it works effectively, simply because it demonstrates their shared approach and attitude to Kilroy’s work. There is a clear understanding throughout the book of how his plays demand and reward close reading and are steeped in literary allusion. There’s also a strong awareness throughout of what is often referred to as his theatricality – by which I think the speakers mean his astonishing awareness of theatrical space (in terms of both movement and design), not to mention his ongoing creative conversations with figures such as Chekhov, Ibsen, Wilde and Pirandello.

 

And, appropriately enough, the collection also features Kilroy himself. There is an essay from him  entitled “the Intellectual on Stage” which I think might also be seen as a “portrait of the artist” even though it explores works by Beckett, Yeats and Shaw. And there is an excerpt from Blake, Kilroy’s as yet unproduced play about the poet of the same name. The collection is rounded out with a transcription of a public interview between Adrian Frazier and Kilroy which (by the way) features a question from our now President Michael D Higgins.

 

The book can be read and enjoyed in a single sitting; as I hope to have suggested above, it is as entertaining as it is informative. But it also left me wanting more (often the sign of a good academic study). There has been a special edition of Irish University Review dedicated to Kilroy’s work, and Jose Lanters is working on a book about his plays (having heard some of her conference papers on this subject, I think that this is going to have a major impact on the study of Kilroy). There’s also a very good study by Thierry Dubost from 2007 (originally published in French): it deserves to be better known.

 

For my part, a publication I’d love to see is a collected edition of Kilroy’s critical essays. His “Groundwork for an Irish Theatre” from 1959 is the closest thing we have to a manifesto for the work that would emerge in the 1960s (it also offers several as yet unfulfilled prompts to other practitioners). Some 40 years later, he wrote another essay in Eamonn Jordan’s Theatre Stuff called “A Generation of Playwrights” (originally published in 1992, I think): an essay that looks back on the work of Kilroy and his contemporaries. To read those two essays side-by-side is to form a clearer appreciation of how Irish drama has been shaped in the second half of the twentieth century – and to understand how central Kilroy has been to its shaping. He also has many excellent essays on Synge and Friel, among others.

These essays illustrate one of the things that I most value about Tom Kilroy and his art: he shows that the distinction between the playwright and the intellectual need not be absolute: the roles can be complementary and overlapping.

 

We’re fortunate in having here at NUI Galway the archive of Kilroy’s works. As the catalogue shows here  it is extraordinarily rich, presenting unpublished plays, drafts of existing work, and much more. The book includes some images from that collection, which give a nice taste of the kind of scholarship (and practice) that might be possible from this archive.

The book is available from Carysfort Press for the relatively modest price of €15; I note that Amazon are also selling it on Kindle for less than £7.

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