I’ve been surprised by the response to my post about British Drama and Irish Playwriting yesterday. While not everyone who opened the page will have read the article, the large number of clickthroughs suggests that there is a fair bit of interest in the topic.
Anyway, thanks to everyone who read the article, shared it, and commented upon it.
The debate reminded me of a public event that I participated in about seven years ago in Limerick. It was a public discussion (supported by the Arts Council) in the Belltable about the drama of David Greig, set up to coincide with Island’s production of Outlying Islands. The panel included Annabelle Comyn, who was directing Pyrenees at the Project at that time. It also featured Karl Wallace (who directed Outlying Islands) and Philip Howard who at that time was Artistic Director of the Traverse (who had premiered many of Greig’s plays). The Belltable was packed with an enthusiastic, varied and engaged audience.
It was one of those great nights where you’re in a room with a bunch of people who love theatre.
The discussion took in Greig’s career up to that point, focussed on when his plays were “Scottish” and when they were “British”, and considered whether the distinction mattered all that much (it did, said Philip Howard). If I remember correctly, Annabelle Comyn spoke eloquently about how Greig needs to be seen as a European writer too, and we talked about the need for more European influences in Irish theatre. And Karl Wallace spoke about the joy of directing one of Greig’s plays for an audience who knew nothing about that writer. We talked about the importance of seeing new British work in Ireland, and there was lots of discussion of what Irish theatres can learn from the Scottish National Theatre, which famously has no building, instead being dedicated to touring. The overlaps and correspondences between Scottish and Irish theatre were also discussed. It was a really great debate.
Things have changed since then of course. The Belltable is no longer open. Island is gone. Annabelle Comyn’s career has deservedly blossomed, of course, and Karl Wallace is now at Siamsa Tire. And the only other Greig play I’ve seen in Ireland is the brilliant Prudencia Hart (though other productions of his plays have been staged), which toured to Galway last year. So while the picture is not entirely bleak, a lot of the promise and optimism evident that night did not come to fruition. And in particular there was a sense of something really exciting brewing in Limerick – and while there are great people working there, it’s fair to say that there are problems there too.
I’m also struck by the fact that the event went unreported at the time – which seemed a real shame, as I’m sure it would have been of interest to the wider community. And if it was difficult to get coverage for events outside of Dublin back then, it’s significantly more difficult now, of course. But that’s another story.
At the time I reviewed Outlying Islands for The Irish Times – really just a brief notice. I later rewrote and expanded that into a joint review of Pyrenees which appeared in Irish Theatre Magazine. I’m pasting below an edited version, just for interest…
Pyrenees by David Greig
Hatch Theatre Company
Directed by Anabelle Comyn
With Karen Ardiff, Mark Lambert, Ronan Leahy, Gern Ryan
Project Arts Centre
23 August – 9 September 2006
Reviewed 9 September 2006
Outlying Islands by David Greig
Island Theatre Company
Directed by Karl Wallace
With Sam Corry, Ailsa Courtney, Gerard Murphy, Colin O’Donoghue
Belltable Arts Centre
12-23 September 2006
Reviewed 14 September
By Patrick Lonergan
Irish theatre, like the Irish economy, is much more interested in exports than imports. This is particularly noticeable in our attitudes towards recent British theatre. We celebrate the achievement of our playwrights in London constantly, and our government invested huge amounts of money in bringing the best of Irish theatre to Edinburgh this year. But although we’ve seen a small number of productions and readings of new British plays during the last five years, most of the traffic between these islands has gone in one direction only.
The near simultaneous production in Ireland of two plays by David Greig, one of Britain’s most exciting young writers, is a welcome response to this situation. Unlike his flashier counterparts, Greig avoids using cheap shock tactics or deliberately provocative themes, instead producing work with depth and substance. He’s also willing to try out different ways of writing, to engage in genuine experimentation. This means that although Outlying Islands and Pyrenees are very different from each other, both share important characteristics: they trust audiences’ intelligence and actors’ skills, exploring contrasting themes that require and reward serious attention.
Anabelle Comyn’s production of Pyrenees offers an excellent introduction to Greig’s works, giving us a formally exciting play that blends everything from Hitchcockian suspense to European expressionism. It starts with a premise that seems derivative of countless Hollywood movies, from Memento to the Harrison Ford vehicle Regarding Henry. A man (Mark Lambert) is found unconscious at the foot of a mountain: he cannot remember his name or anything about his past; but suspects he may be British. In an opening scene that alludes to another play about fragmented identity – Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape – the man is interviewed by Anna, a British embassy official played by Karen Ardiff (who stepped in at short notice for Fiona Bell, who was taken ill before opening night). They seek clues about the man’s identity, considering in turn his accent, his preoccupations, his emotional state. Sexual chemistry builds between them, interrupted occasionally by the proprietor of this duo’s hotel (Ronan Leahy). But all seems to be progressing well between them until, just before the end of the act, a woman called Vivienne (Ger Ryan) arrives, claiming to be the man’s wife.
Our expectation will naturally be that the second act will answer the questions raised in the first. To a certain extent, this proves to be the case; but Greig’s answers raise other important issues. The Man’s amnesia seems partially to arise from a desire to forget who he is, to flee his past – is this possible? Why does the proprietor continue to adopt different identities, at one moment pretending to be a busboy (who will be insulted when no tip is offered to him); at another reverting to his role as the hotel’s manager (who will be insulted when a tip is offered to him)? Is Vivienne telling the truth about the man’s past and, if so, does that truth matter? And is Anna really from the British Embassy? We also learn late in the second act that Pyrenees is a sequel of sorts to another Greig play, The Cosmonaut’s Last Message… (1999), which will be a huge pay-off to those familiar with that earlier work.
The ultimate effect of the play’s second half is to leave the audience even more confused than they were in the first – and this is the play’s greatest strength: it provides answers but little clarity, and therefore invites us to consider whether our questions were worth asking in the first place. The play is much more than a standard meditation on the instability of identity; it instead shows that it’s possible to write a successful drama that still refuses to meet audiences’ expectations about character, plot, and closure. Of course, writers like Beckett made this point a long time ago – but the difference between their work and Greig’s is that Pyrenees retains many of the things that Beckett rejected: characters the audience can fully identify with, a (more or less) naturalistic environment, and a linear plot that’s full of suspense and incident. Pyrenees thus manages to be philosophical, playful, and deeply engrossing simultaneously.
Outlying Islands is an entirely different play. Set in 1939, the action takes place on Gruinard, a tiny Scottish island which has been visited by two British scientists (Sam Corry and Colin O’Donoghue), who have been sent to catalogue and study the island’s birds. While there, they interact with the Gruinard’s sole inhabitants, Kirk (Gerard Murphy) and his niece Ellen (Ailsa Courtney).
The play could be seen in the tradition of island plays, from The Tempest to Friel’s Gentle Island – works that create a space where people can interact free of social constraint and convention. The men’s arrival – and their involvement in the death of Kirk – has the effect of liberating Ellen, who gains in power and stature as the action progresses. She becomes something like the director of a play, leading the two scientists in a strange lament for her uncle that moves from wake scene to Laurel and Hardy. That power is eventually asserted sexually, in a remarkably intimate and sensitive scene that brings the action to its emotional climax.
The play also has a more immediate context. As in Friel’s Translations, in which an apparently innocent map-making expedition is a prelude to military action, Grieg’s play reveals that the scientists’ expedition has been arranged because the island is to be used as a testing ground for biological weapons: the men are cataloguing the island’s birds because the British ministry for war wants to establish exactly how many creatures they can kill with weaponised anthrax. This political theme comes to the foreground towards the play’s conclusion, with interesting consequences for Ellen in particular. Given that Outlying Islands premiered in 2002 – at a time when Hans Blix was running around Iraq in search of biological weapons – the play is an obvious attempt on Greig’s part to use his country’s past to examine its present. But the clash he reveals between his characters’ natural inclinations and their political duties has considerably broader resonance.
In a bold move that could be seen as an important statement about the future of Limerick theatre, director Karl Wallace and designer Diego Pitarch transformed the Belltable for this production, tearing out the stage and seating, and asking the audience to sit on uncomfortable benches dotted around the auditorium. The actors move amongst the audience, adding to the production’s intimacy, and quickly bridging the gap between Limerick in 2006 and Gruinard in 1939. But the production places further demands on the audience by running without an interval. The risk paid off, however: the emotional intensity of the piece was maintained throughout, despite the distraction of the increasingly uncomfortable seating arrangements. It was in fact refreshing to see a theatre company so willing to trust its audience’ intelligence, as well as their powers of endurance.
Annabelle Comyn adopted a considerably different approach to Pyrenees: where Wallace brings his audience directly into the action, she instead presents her production on a raised platform (designed by Paul O’Mahony), with the fourth wall firmly in place. This was entirely appropriate to the play’s tone and themes. Whereas Outlying Islands invites us to explore the difference between personal desire and public duty, Pyrenees instead asks us to examine a situation dispassionately and, insofar as possible, objectively: like most of the play’s characters, our job is to piece together evidence, to reach towards conclusions. Comyn’s direction keeps us at an appropriate distance from the performance, but never risks alienating the audience.
What both plays have in common is the extent to which they provide genuinely challenging roles to actors. Mark Lambert’s performance as the man in Pyrenees is a case in point: he must reveal a personality without having any back story or social and geographical markers to base it on. Lambert’s ability to convince us of his character’s individuality as well as his amnesia impresses throughout. Leahy’s proprietor is at perpetual risk of lapsing into racial stereotype: there is (deliberately) a touch of Fawlty Towers’ Manuel about him. Yet he avoids those risks, his nuanced performance often revealing the audiences’ own prejudices and expectations. Ardiff and Ryan have more difficult roles: Vivienne is the play’s only stable point, its only credible witness, while Anna is a disruptive and ultimately threatening presence. Each actor shows a clear understanding of her character’s function, without ever making her role seem functional.
The performances by Corry and O’Donoghue in Outlying Islands are also strong, with enjoyable supporting work by Murphy. But the highlight of the production is Ailsa Courtney’s work as Ellen. This is Courtney’s first professional production, and it’s evident from very early in the action that Wallace has made quite a discovery. Ellen’s develops dramatically during the play, with substantial differences evident between her inhibited and liberated personae. Courtney presents her character in a manner that coherently and convincingly reveals these different elements.
David Greig’s works might seem a difficult sell to Irish audiences: in Ireland, he’s a largely unknown playwright who deals with challenging themes that aren’t of explicit relevance to local audiences. Both Island and Hatch Theatre deserve credit, not only for producing his works, but for doing so with great conviction. Taken together, Outlying Islands and Pyrenees reveal that, although Greig can be seen as an important Scottish playwright, and as an important British playwright, he is quite simply one of the finest young dramatists currently working anywhere. Let’s hope this isn’t the last we hear from him.