Uncovering Irish Attitudes to Shakespeare

Originally posted on the Burns Library blog –

John J. Burns Library's Blog

This week we feature a guest post by our current Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies, Patrick Lonergan, Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at the National University of Ireland, Galway

On 23 April 1916, the British academic Israel Gollancz published A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, a beautifully produced volume that gathered poems and essays to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It’s an impressive volume, including contributions from major British writers such as Galsworthy, Kipling and Hardy – but it also did much to invent what we might now call ‘Global Shakespeare’ by featuring work not just in English but in Hindi, Urdu, Afrikaans, French, Russian and many other languages.

It also includes a contribution in Irish. Written by Douglas Hyde, a founder of the Gaelic League and (later) the first President of Ireland, it’s a poem written in the form of a dream vision, in…

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The ongoing debate about Brexit has had many unintended consequences – but one of the most distressing has been the deterioration of the cooperative relationship that Ireland and the UK have painstakingly developed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Irish reactions to the 2016 Brexit referendum have generally alternated between shock and schadenfreude, but there has also been evidence of a renewed threat of republican terrorism. Meanwhile in Britain (and especially in England) the political impasse caused by the Irish border has produced bewilderment if not hostility – with one Tory MP suggesting that the threat of food shortages might focus Irish minds, while a BBC presenter wondered why Ireland couldn’t just re-join the UK altogether. For two countries with so much in common, it has been painful to discover how little we really understand each other. `

Yet there has also been evidence of a desire to redress that mutual incomprehension in at least one setting: the major theatres of both countries.

That impulse has been most apparent in London. One of the decade’s biggest hits so far has been Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, a play that recently transferred from the Royal Court to Broadway. Set in a Northern Irish farmhouse in the early 1980s, this Troubles-era thriller has attracted some criticism from Irish commentators, who worried that its inclusion of banshees and whiskey-swigging children might reinforce negative stereotypes. But what has been overlooked in those discussions is how Butterworth both humanizes and re-politicizes the Troubles – showing his belief that it’s a part of the history and life of the UK that needs to be understood much better.

READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE HERE https://www.clydefitchreport.com/2019/03/brexit-theater-english-irish/

UPDATE: Rethinking the Archive: research and teaching in literature and the performing arts

“Rethinking the Archive: research and teaching in the humanities”

A conference at Connolly House, 300 Hammond St, Saturday, 6 April, 2019, 9 am to 2 pm.

This conference, organized by Burns Scholar, Professor Patrick Lonergan, will consist of a series of roundtable discussions involving scholars who are using archival material in new ways in their research. Our aim will be to provide participants with an understanding of the archive and our place in it. We will also highlight practical ideas for teaching and research. Those taking part in the discussion will include BC faculty and graduate students and Doug Reside (curator, New York Public Library) and Elizabeth Mannion (CUNY).


9.00: coffee

9.30: introduction and welcome

9.35 – 10.20: Roundtable 1: Re-thinking Histories

Guest speaker: Elizabeth Mannion

Rob Savage (BC)

Peter McLoughlin (QUB)

10.20-10.30 – break

10.30-11.15 –  Roundtable 2:  The Archive and Material Culture

Guest Speaker: Doug Reside

Patrick Lonergan

Madison Cortez (BC)

Rachel Young (BC)


Roundtable 3: Beyond the archives

Rachel Brody (BC)

James H Murphy (BC)

Michael Bailey (BC)

12.15 – Group discussion

13.00 – Lunch


Deirdre Kinahan’s _the Unmanageable Sisters_ at the Abbey

So I’m on my way back home after watching The Unmanageable Sisters, Deirdre Kinahan’s adaptation of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs. It’s been one of those nice nights at the theatre where I came away wanting to send texts to all the people who I know who will enjoy it…

It’s a great script, full of humour and variety; the only negative thing I can say about it is that you’ll come away wondering why Kinahan wasn’t produced on the Abbey mainstage before now. And the performances (about which more in a minute) are excellent. I enjoyed it: it’s the best thing I’ve seen at the Abbey during the current Artistic Directorship.

I also came away wondering why the play was put on now, and what it might be trying to say to Ireland and/or the Abbey’s audience now.

Les Belles-Soeurs is one of those great revolutionary plays, a kind of Quebecois Playboy of the Western World – a work that was controversial in its time but which went on to have a formative impact on Quebecois theatre, and its culture and identity more broadly. It later did something similar in Scotland when, in 1988, it was translated to a Glaswegian dialect as The Guid Sisters, earning Tremblay the title of ‘the greatest Scottish playwright Scotland never had’. But in both of those places, it was compared to what Synge and O’Casey had done for the Irish theatre – prompting the question of how it might speak back into the Irish tradition.

Tremblay has been produced in Ireland before, of course – the first thing I ever published was a review of his For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again at the Peacock in 2002; and Tom Creed did one of his plays for Rough Magic about 10 years ago also. But I don’t think we’ve any real sense of how important he was for his own culture, how transformative an impact he had.

Les Belles-Souers was controversial and important for two reasons: Tremblay’s use of a vernacular language that had not been heard on stage before, and his analysis of how working-class women in Quebec were restricted to punishingly narrow roles due to the influence of Catholicism. Tremblay offers a powerful analysis of patriarchy, showing how the women in his play have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they carry out their own oppression, policing each other mercilessly. Class and economics are also an important concern in the play: these characters are divided from and in conflict with each other because of a desire to win and possess stuff – useless, gaudy, pointless stuff. Materialism is the thing that makes solidarity impossible, Tremblay shows.

In Quebec, audiences greeted the original play as offering the thrill of hearing something that was part of their everyday life but which had never been represented on stage before. In Dublin we have had no shortage of plays set in the Ballymun flats (which is where the action happens in Kinahan’s adaptation). And while another such play is welcome, my point is that where Tremblay’s use of language was revolutionary, one of the interesting things here is that it’s language we know very well.

And the other thing we are well used to are plays that criticise the impact of Catholicism on Irish life. And yes, certainly, we need to keep telling those stories, making sure that we understand how easily religion can become a vehicle for the powerful to control the powerless; making sure we don’t forget what was done to people in the name of religion in this country; and so on. But Les Belles-Soeurs and The Guid Sisters were both trying to say something new, trying to change the way their audiences saw things. This production in contrast is telling us things we already know – which again is really interesting: one of the most interesting moments is a discussion of a local priest’s interest in working with children – a line that sent a shudder down several spines in the audience, though the characters themselves see him as a ‘saint’. Viewed from our vantage point, we can see in embryonic form many things that later became more apparent.

That’s not to say that it’s a history play: there is some highly pertinent discussion of abortion, for example. And its analysis of patriarchy, social class, and materialism is certainly relevant to our own times. But the  aim seems to be to think about the past rather than changing the present.

This sense of distance from the present might also explain the one major misstep in the production, which is that it concludes with the cast singing the Irish national anthem. This isn’t included in the published script so I’m assuming the decision was made by the director (Graham McLaren) rather than Kinahan, though that is only an assumption. But either way, it was clear that what was being asserted was that what we were seeing was not a play set in Ireland but a play about Ireland. [EDIT = Since I published this blog post someone has written to me to remind me that the anthem appears in the original too, which is an important point to bear in mind]

One of the important things that both Tremblay and Kinahan are trying to do is to show that women have – both in society and on stage – been restricted to the role of iconic figures: mother, wife, daughter, virgin, whore, Kathleen ni Houlihan. Indeed, Kinahan says directly in her programme note that she’s trying to capture a time in which the ‘sanctified place of women as mothers and homemakers … was about to be questioned’. And the script does exactly that: it shows all of these women as individuals who are trying to live up to (or escape) roles that have been written for them by someone else: they are trapped, they say, by the walls of their flats, by Ireland, by a lack of money – but in fact they are trapped mostly by the limited forms of identity available to them. They don’t know how to be themselves, how to express who they really are. All they know how to be is good Catholic mothers and wives, and if they don’t want to do that they have to leave Ireland. And it’s making them all miserable.

By playing the national anthem at the end, the production risks turning those women back into icons though, as if what we’ve watched symbolises IRELAND (in all caps). That feels both untrue to the characterisation and  heavy-handed. Tonight, it also confused the audience, who didn’t quite know when the play had finished; the actors had to gesture to stop them from clapping as they sang.

And the problem with that for me is that this is a really important production already, and doesn’t need that final emphasis. This production actually is revolutionary and is of national significance, in one very important way. I’ve simply never before seen a production, in any country, that gives individual speaking roles to so many female performers. Yes, there are plays like The Suppliant Women. But this is different – the only comparable experience I’ve had was in seeing the first productions of Dancing at Lughnasa, where (similarly) audiences were delighted to see characters who they knew from life but had not seen before on stage.

Some of these actors are people we see fairly regularly on our stages: Marion O’Dwyer, Catherine Walsh, Lisa Lambe. But a big part of my enjoyment of the night was in seeing people like Catherine Byrne and Karen Ardiff on the Abbey main-stage again: brilliant actors who appeared at the Abbey regularly in the 1990s when I first started going there but have been cast less frequently since then. And throughout the ensemble we have actors who I believe were making their debut at the Abbey (but I can’t check this because the information was not available in a show programme). There was something very joyful about being in a theatre and seeing so many great performers in one play together.

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And the performances are excellent, both individually and collectively. We have some great moments of choric chanting – including a hilarious ode to the joys of bingo. There is also some excellent direct addresses of the audience from many of the characters – again underscoring that distinction between the public and private selves of the women. And there’s some very nice comedic work from all of the actors.

This in turn leads me to lament, and not for the first time, the Abbey’s decision to stop publishing show programmes. Yes, the script of this play is for sale; and yes there is a playbill that gives the names of the actors and other artists, and which has a short note from Kinahan. I’m sure there’s a good, probably financial, reason for the decision to stop producing them, but show programmes have always been very important for showing us what the Abbey is thinking, what the vision is, what they why behind the this thing on stage is.

And they are good too for telling us things that we don’t know that we don’t know. I think it’s a shame that people going to this play tonight could come away barely aware that it was written by Tremblay, and that they would not have known what other plays Kinahan has written – just as (more seriously) they were able to come away from last year’s Katie Roche knowing almost nothing about Teresa Deevy. Also: show programmes feature actors’ biographies. I had a problem with the fact that we’re getting to see a brilliant ensemble of actors here but can’t find out more about them. Even if the information is online somewhere (and I couldn’t find it), how many audience-members are going to go to the trouble of checking afterwards?

Also: Joan O’Clery’s costumes are brilliant.

The Unmanageable Sisters is what Gay Byrne (who’s referenced here in a very funny recorded impersonation by Owen Roe) would have called a ‘good night out’. It’s very well written and it’s very well acted, and even though it’s very long it zips along so well that you don’t feel the time passing. But there’s one final reason that I wanted to write to people about the play: the theatre was less than half full. Now, yes, it was a Monday night early in the run. But in my own theatre-going I’m observing a pattern of very strong productions of plays by women not getting the kinds of audiences that I would normally see in the relevant theatres. I’m thinking here of Nina Raine’s Tribes at the Gate and for Katie Roche at the Abbey, for example.

Post-wakingthefeminists we’ve (rightly) put a lot of focus on theatres’ policies to promote equality. But audiences have to do their bit too. Expressing disgust on Twitter is easier than buying a ticket, but nothing will change unless people go to see these plays. We probably need to start thinking and talking more about how we can start waking Irish audiences. In the meantime, going to see The Unmanageable Sisters is highly recommended. Bring a few people with you.

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.


(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?