Dublin Theatre Festival 2013: _Tom and Vera_ and _Germinal_

The first weekend of the Dublin Theatre Festival has just finished and as usual there’s plenty of excitement and debate about the work that’s been staged. The most talked-about production so far is Wunderkammer by Circa, a show that (I’m told) combines aerial acrobatics with burlesque to amazing effect. I’ve also been hearing  positive remarks about the Gare St Lazarre Godot, which previewed in Bray prior to its Gaiety opening later this week.

I saw two shows – both of which are very different from each other, even if both share an interest in exploring how theatre and performance operate as metaphors for life in general. The first was Desperate OptimistsTom and Vera, and the second was Germinal by Antoine Defoort and Halory Goerger.

Tom and Vera has been getting a mixed reaction – and, to be honest, I still don’t quite know what to make of it myself.

The production may have suffered from the weight of expectation around it: it represents a return to the theatre by an Irish company whose 1990s performances have  become almost legendary. That sense of expectation is heightened upon arrival at the theatre, when we see a strikingly vivid and detailed set that depicts a forest clearing, including trees, grass, and even a (stuffed) fox. The scene feels both realistic and dreamlike – a feeling that is further evoked by music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which builds in intensity and volume until the actors arrive on stage. It’s all beautiful, mysterious, and exciting. I’m pasting below some photos from the Beckett Theatre’s Facebook page, which give some idea of how impressive the design is.

But once the actors start talking, those feelings are quickly dispelled. Tom and Vera are a middle-aged couple who have lost their jobs, seen their pensions vanish, and been harassed by a bank manager who seems to enjoy humiliating them. They decide to disguise themselves as an elderly couple, using wigs and make-up to make themselves seem thirty years older; with that disguise, they will attempt to rob the bank that’s harassing them, using a gun that Tom has procured under circumstances that aren’t  very clear. When he tells us he’s never used a gun before, we begin to worry that the couple’s plans may not succeed.

Some of what then transpires is original and compelling. In the two roles, Caitríona Ní Mhurchú and Alan Howley capture the gaunt, hassled expression of people who’ve spent too long worrying about money. It’s clear that financial troubles have stripped their lives of any hope or beauty – as shown most explicitly when Vera proposes that they settle their nerves before the robbery by (to use her word) fucking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so joyless a representation of marital sex before.

So as a response to the impact of debt and austerity on ordinary people, Tom and Vera feels both depressing and necessary.

But much of the play is also very awkward. The dialogue is often quite stilted and clichéd, and the exposition is handled in a manner that feels a bit facile. In order to focus their minds before the robbery, the couple tell each other the story of how they got into their predicament – and when one of them leaves the stage, the other will keep the action going by addressing their thoughts to the fox, or to a bird perched a twig. While it’s clear that the strangeness of these scenes is deliberate, there are times when this just feels like bad writing.

Nevertheless, the unmoving presence of the fox and bird on stage for the entire performance shows that we’re not supposed to see this as the ‘real world’, or to see the play as entirely realistic. Tom talks more than once about dreams that he’s had; he later eats a wild berry that makes him feel ill – and both of those actions might account for the dreamlike, hallucinatory logic of the play.

As for the over-familiar dialogue – while at times I wasn’t sure if the clichéd thinking was the authors’ or the characters’, the ultimate impact was to remind me occasionally of Pinter, who in so many of his plays creates an air of looming disaster by using clichéd language out of context. I’m thinking here of plays like One for the Road, for example.

And there was a definite attempt to contextualise the characters’ situation by using other artforms. Between the two acts, an opera singer (Janyce Condon) arrives on stage to sing (what I assume must be) another part of Tristan and Isolde. I later heard someone describe this (unfairly) as ‘interval entertainment’ and while it certainly was far more enjoyable than the chit-chat and passive smoking that an interval at the Beckett Theatre normally entails, the use of this performance to bridge the two acts was much more than a simple diversion. The intensity and beauty of the music acted as an ironic counterpoint to the characters’ situation. And of course opera – not to mention the music of Wagner generally – can be bombastic and melodramatic too, so I found myself thinking that the performances in Tom and Vera might have been perfectly acceptable if shifted into a different medium. Overall, then, the combined impact of Dominique Brennan’s production design and Wagner’s music was to heighten the ugliness and indignity of the characters’ desperate predicament.

Also quite interesting was the way in which the characters planned for the bank robbery. Their use of make-up and costume to disguise themselves was certainly theatrical (albeit unconvincingly so), and as they prepared for the crime they spoke in terms of being characters, learning lines, and the time they had spent rehearsing. So their bank robbery is a dreadful failure because they are bad actors, because they have based their plans not on experience but on clichéd thinking. This reminded me slightly of Reservoir Dogs, which also shows would-be bank robbers rehearsing, dressing-up, and role-playing in advance – and doing so in a way that allows the audience to understand why the robbery doesn’t work. The difference, however, is that in Tarantino the quotation marks are always clearly visible, and the irony always thoroughly signposted.

So this is a curious play about theatrical failure, about generic convention, about audience expectation – and about the things we expect out of life, such as financial security and the continued love of our spouse. All of that is very interesting. But as I left the theatre, trying to piece together these different ideas, my companion put to me a thought that had been troubling me anyway. “Maybe you’re being too generous,” she said. “Maybe it was just bad”.

I couldn’t really answer that.

Germinal is more straightforward but also has more depth.

It begins with four performers onstage in total darkness. The lights fade in and out, and we gradually realise that the lights are being controlled by the performers themselves, each of whom holds a small control table. The performers then realise that they can use the machines to transmit their thoughts to panels on the backstage wall – and that realisation is soon followed by their discovery and then their development of speech.

We quickly understand that what we’re watching is a recreation of the development of human life and, more specifically, human thought. The performers soon move from concrete thought to abstraction, and they attempt to categorise the world (hilariously) into things that go ‘poc poc’ and things that do not go ‘poc poc’ when banged with a microphone. All of this is delivered in a contemporary idiom, and it draws on images and ideas from our own time. For example, the ubiquitous MS Windows desktop design becomes a hill projected on the back wall – and when the performers find an intercom they interact with a woman who is part metaphysician cum quantum physicist, and part customer service operative.

The performance is very funny, but it’s also a very stimulating investigation of how we use story and language to organise the world – and how the deep structures of language can make us confuse what is conventional with what is real. The production shifts from straightforward humour into satire from time to time too, as happens when belief in God is compared with those sales scams that customer service people sometimes try to sneak into phone calls (if you’ve ever had someone try to sell you mobile phone insurance, this scene will resonate).

The clarity of thought in evidence here quickly reminds us of how it was that France gave the world René Descartes – just as the deliberately playful wrong-headedness of the characters’ conclusions reminds us that France also gave the world Derrida and Lacan.


Visually it reminded me a lot of Miet Warlop’s Mystery Magnet from last year’s DTF – but whereas that show was very slight, Germinal is witty and stimulating. It would be inaccurate to call it thought-provoking, but I’d suggest that this company is doing intellectually what Circa do physically: showing us something that is impressive because it is so virtuosic – because the effort involved in staging something like this requires extraordinary levels of skill and practice.

Germinal also shows that theatre can act as a metaphor not only for thought but for life itself – and while that idea will undoubtedly serve to boost its popularity on the international touring network, it’s a message that is worth hearing in any setting.

One of the criticisms I hear about a lot of contemporary theatre is that too often we are watching theatre that is about theatre and nothing else. Tom and Vera and Germinal are very different from each other, but both can be used to challenge that accusation. Both certainly  share an interest in how theatre is embedded in everyday life – that is, they share an awareness of how performance can shape how we see the world, how we think about our place in the world, and how we interact with each other. Far from seeming frivolous or self-absorbed, both productions left me with a reinforced sense of the importance of theatre and role-playing.

Overall then it’s been a good start to this year’s DTF. And there’s a lot to look forward to during the week ahead – notably that GSL Godot and the one I’ve most been looking forward to: David Greig’s The Events.

NUI Galway Drama People at the Dublin Fringe

A lot of our graduates have shows in this year’s Fringe, so I’ve been trying to gather links to them all. If I’ve omitted anything or anyone please let me know below so I can correct it…

September 7th-13th, 6:30pm at Smock Alley-Boys’ School.

This one features Mary Conroy and is produced by Grainne Lynch. It’s described by Róise Goan as  “A cautionary tale for those of you who still get the wash done in Ma & Pa’s at the weekend from the increasingly exciting and singular Come As Soon As You Hear.”

They have a nice trailer here:

The Lir Academy Studio 2, 10-14 September.

Directed by the always impressive Aoife Spillane-Hinks, this looks like a fascinating new play. And as a side-note, and following on from the comments to this post, it is great to see so much new writing in this year’s Fringe.

International Bar, 9-14 September

Meadhbh Haicéid is one of the most talented young writers around, and her new show about Madonna promises to be thought-provoking and entertaining. An earlier version of this appeared in the Theatre Machine Turns You On Vol. 3, from which the clip below is taken.

DECISION PROBLEM Lir Academy Studo 2, 9-14 September.

This post-dramatic one-man show from John Rogers has already appeared in Galway and, as it says in the PR material, it ‘charts the origin, rapid rise and possible future of computers’.

Collapsing Horse
Beckett Theatre, 5-21 September.

This one has been getting a lot of attention due to the media profile of company co-founder (and TCD Philosophy student) Jack Gleeson (aka King Joffrey from Game of Thrones). But of course what we really find exciting here is that it’s directed by Dan Colley. I couldn’t find a trailer for this but the video below gives a nice feel for what the company is up to.

Smock Alley, 15-21 September. 

According to the press material, this show “delves into a dark, secret world where those in power cover up the truth for their own profit.”  It also features Emmet Byrne. No videos yet that I can find but here’s a link to the Fringe page: http://www.fringefest.com/programme/the-secret-art-of-murder

International bar, 16-21 September.

This one involves Dick Walsh and Richard Seery, and also has one of the catchiest blurbs in the catalogue: “An old man wants to keep control of his farm. His son wants him out of the way. We all know what happens next.”

And a late addition…

The New Theatre
16-21 September.

From Hugh Travers, this again has a great blurb: “What starts as a radio slot about survival guides on the Gay Byrne Show quickly descends into media frenzy. A story of murder. Gerry Ryan has killed a lamb. Kind of. Maybe.” Hugh has posted a link to his video below so please scroll down and check it out.

Of course these shows all feature graduates from many other universities as well, but it’s great to see so many of our recent students making such interesting (and varied) work.

The full programme is on http://www.fringefest.com/

And if I’ve omitted anything please do tell me – every year we find that the best way to inspire current students is to show them what former students are getting up to…

From Magdalene to Slane: Mephisto’s ECLIPSED

Last night saw the final performance (for now) of Mephisto’s excellent and important staging of Eclipsed. Their production is a revival of a 1992 Patricia Burke Brogan play which – at first infamously and now famously – was one of the earliest attempts to expose the abuses being inflicted by the clergy upon inmates of the Magdalene Laundries.

Burke Brogan’s play stands out for many reasons. Drawing on her own experiences as a novice nun, she presented a group of women who had been treated appallingly – not just by (some of) the nuns who were supposed to be in charge of them, but also by the families and communities that had banished them to the Laundries in the first place.

The play is extraordinary brave for its time. It appeared  before Father Ted and McDonagh’s Lonesome West broke the Irish taboo against laughing at priests – and it also appeared long before we fully understood what had happened (and what had been covered up) in the Laundries. The year 1992 is not that long ago, but that was still an Ireland in which the Catholic Church had a lot of control – much of it exercised by means of intolerance from ordinary people, it must be said. To give just one example, a year after Eclipsed appeared, Annie Murphy was given an inexcusably hostile reception on The Late Late Show, not least from the show’s presenter Gay Byrne, for having had a child with the Bishop of Galway – a man who had been in charge of the spiritual direction of the diocese where Burke Brogan lived, and where Eclipsed was first staged. So when Burke Brogan was writing this play, she was writing in a county where her message was not welcome, and for an audience that had rarely  acknowledged the issues she was trying to bring to light.

Watching the play now, I was immediately struck by how relevant it remains. Ireland may (to a certain extent) have thrown off the dominance of the Catholic Church, but the production suggests that this country’s underlying power structures – involving gender and social class in particular – may not be all that different from what they were twenty years ago.

Throughout Eclipsed, the women often wonder why they’ve been imprisoned for having sex, when the men they’d been with remain free. This double standard seemed directly pertinent during a summer when we in Ireland have seen one young woman – nicknamed Slane Girl on Twitter – attacked for having been photographed performing oral sex on a young man at the Eminem concert in Slane Castle. The young man, needless to say,  was dubbed a hero. We’ve also heard stories in the Irish media about a young woman who had a threesome with two international rugby players: she was berated on social media sites, while the two men were given the virtual equivalent of a high-five by dozens of men on Twitter, and told by their bosses to keep a low profile for a few months.

Internationally this phenomenon has been dubbed ‘slut-shaming’ – a term that I don’t particularly like since it retains the focus on the victim rather than the aggressor, but a term that also shows that this kind of thing is not unique to Ireland. To watch Eclipsed is to be reminded that sex has always been used by the powerful to control the weak (and not just in this country). But in an Irish context the play  also offers a painful assertion that some things about this country may not have changed enough – that although we may now have a good understanding of what the Catholic Church did, we have yet to come to terms with the ways in which ordinary Irish people let such abuses happen.

I don’t want to exaggerate the links between the Magdalene penitents and the “Slane Girl” incident, but what both seem to share is that they would not have happened without significant numbers of everyday Irish people (especially young men) thinking that it is acceptable to publicly express violent hatred against women whose sexual actions seem anything other than passive.

The status of women in the media this summer has been a subject of widespread debate – and again not just in Ireland. I’m thinking here of the presentation of Kate and William in Britain, of debates about Miley Cyrus, of the story of the Irish and Scottish girls who have been arrested in Peru on suspicion of drug-smuggling. In that reporting we’re seeing an extraordinary narrowing of the roles available to women, a reversion to archetypes and stereotypes that – even ten years ago – seemed to have less purchase. It is also interesting that many of these stories have found an audience during what is often referred to as the journalistic ‘silly season’, as if implying that women will vanish altogether from the news pages once parliaments are recalled.

For this reason alone, the decision by Mephisto to stage a play with seven strong roles for women is itself a highly political act. The play takes roles that are typically presented in a limited fashion (especially on the Irish stage and in society) and then complicates them. I’m thinking here of mother and daughter but also of the virgin/whore relationship – not to mention the ideal of Irish woman as representing the nation.

The clearest example of the complication of those roles is the presentation of motherhood. All of the women, including the two nuns, have different understandings of what maternal caring involves – it is for them an existential category rather than an ontological one (or put in plain English, caring is something they do, not something they are). Motherhood in the play is presented not as a role that can inhibit or circumscribe someone but as a source of power – a power that can be withheld from women in order to control them. The key point made by the production is that these ways of acting (or ways of being) are not essential identities but are roles that can be dispensed with or reimagined. So the play uses dressing-up, improvisation, role-playing and other theatrical strategies to show how powerful – and how subversive – performance can be.

Mephisto Theatre Co present 'Eclipsed' by Patricia Burke Brogan. Photo: Hugh Quigley

The play also locates power very firmly in terms of having a voice. The sympathetic nun Sister Virginia holds the keys to the Laundry, and occupies a higher place in the social hierarchy than the inmates do – but because she is in an order that demands obedience and insists upon her silence, she is shown to have far less agency than the women in her charge. It is quickly made obvious that she is imprisoned too, albeit in ways that are less directly abusive.

Essentially, then, this production of Eclipsed is one of the best examples of an Irish feminist theatre that I have seen for some time. It may not be as theatrically daring as Louise Lowe’s Laundry but the work it is doing for our theatre and society is no less urgent.

It seems fitting that Mephisto would stage it. I remember attending their first production seven or eight years ago when, as MA students, they put on a mostly female version of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (there were men in the cast but most of the roles were played by women). Since that time the company have been at their best when staging work that interrogates the representation of women in theatre and the broader culture (in The World’s Wife and Grenades – and also by all accounts in The Mai, which I missed). They are also providing excellent roles for women performers – of whom there are so many in Galway. By coincidence I’ve been reading a lot lately about Charabanc (the all-women theatre company established in Belfast in the early 1980s), and it’s fascinating to see the overlaps between the two companies.

The production itself, as directed by Niall Cleary, is very strong – and while the performances from the ensemble are uniformly good I am sure I’m not alone in being impressed by Emma O’Grady in particular. As Bridget (the most volatile of the inmates) she is both explosive and tender, both restrained and hard-hitting, both embittered and joyful. Like the play itself, O’Grady shows that people are too complex – and too different from each other – to  be reduced to one set of simple traits.

Eclipsed has finished its run now, but I hope this isn’t the last we see of this production. I know that many people feel a sense of wanting to put the Magdalene Laundries behind us – and to a certain extent it is important that we move on. But the production forces us to face the reality that power is still being wielded abusively in this country – whether that is the power that anonymous users have on social media sites, or other forms of control. We may think of this as a history play – and of course it is one now – but like all good history plays it invites us to think about where we are now, to consider our responsibilities, to question what has really changed in Ireland.

Mephisto Theatre Co