Something English This Way Comes: Wicked at the Grand Canal Theatre

We have a lot of shows opening in Ireland for Christmas at the moment.

Pride and Prejudice has begun at the Gate, and I hear that the acting is particularly good.

Over at the Abbey, The Risen People has opened, and while the subject matter (the 1913 Lockout) is not exactly Christmassy, the production’s use of music and movement should attract festive audiences.

And here in Galway, we’re waiting expectantly for Druid’s Colleen Bawn to open next Tuesday. I’m really looking forward to that one.

But by far the biggest Christmas show in Ireland this year is Wicked at the Grand Canal Theatre. It’s come here as part of a UK (and Ireland) tour that will also bring it to Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Birmingham and other British cities. I noted with interest that in the UK, top-price tickets for the show run to £72. Here in Ireland,  they go up to 65 euro. I thought that was surprising: I’d expect prices in Dublin to be lower than in the West End, but not that Irish tickets would be cheaper than in, say, Milton Keynes – though perhaps it’s not a direct like-for-like comparison. This pattern has also been evident in gigs at the Point Depot lately, and is a really welcome development.

Anyway, I’d never seen Wicked before, so I was glad to get the chance to catch a matinee during the week. I enjoyed it a lot.

In common with a lot of American culture from a decade ago, Wicked features humour that is very self-referential – with lots of nods to the original Wizard of Oz film in particular. We saw that kind of knowing humour regularly in the early 2000s when we had many re-makes and reboots of well loved movies and TV shows from the 1970s and 1980s – where part of the enjoyment lay in spotting the references to the original source. That aspect  of Wicked made the show seem a little dated to me – there’s nothing so old as a recent trend, after all. And I thought it dragged a bit towards the end of the first half. But otherwise I found it excellent from start to finish.

That excellence starts with the cast, and especially with Nikki Davis-Jones as Elphaba and Emily Tierney as Glinda. Tierney gives a very witty performance, getting plenty of laughs from her character’s self-absorption while also maintaining dignity and authority: we laugh at her but never find her ridiculous. And David-Jones is very likeable in the lead role, and as a singer is massively impressive in terms of vocal range, power and technique. I kept hearing people around me saying “wow” to each other when she sang.

Then you’ve got a wonderfully over-the-top set design, which is  faithful to the visual conception of the movie, while creating several  spaces that are both true to the original yet also new.  Likewise lighting and costumes are both real and surreal: they’re unlike anything you’d expect to see in our own world, but they seem true to the environment that’s been created on stage. You know when you walk into the theatre and are confronted with the sight of a giant dragon above the stage that, in true Broadway style, you’re going to be seeing plenty of evidence of your 65 euro (or £72 if you’re in Milton Keynes) on the stage.

All of that probably explains why Wicked has been so successful since it opened in New York over a decade ago, and why it continues to do so well now.

However, one of the things I found most interesting about this production  is that almost all of the characters delivered their lines (and even occasionally sang) in English accents. I assume this is also true of the West End production, though on Broadway all the accents are American.

This directorial decision makes a bit of sense: when your protagonist has green skin and a flying broomstick, you’re not going to get too worried about the lack of authenticity in her line delivery. There even seemed to be a couple of very subtle line changes, as for instance when one character says the very English “shall we” rather than the typically American “will we”. And perhaps most noticeably, the only character who did speak with an American accent was, in fact, the Wizard of Oz.

Having the Wizard be the only American in an Anglicised Oz makes some sense from an English point of view. Think about the way in which every major British movie of the last 20 years has had at least one American in the cast – or the shifting relationship between the US and UK as the Clinton/Blair bromance gave way to the Bush/Blair nightmare of the sexed-up WMD dossier.  One of the things that makes this version of Wicked quite interesting is that it’s  one more example of a story in which English people are taken for a ride by a kindly, avuncular but ultimately fraudulent Yank. We’ve seen a lot of those stories since 2003. I’d love to know more about whether the West End version of Wicked plays out these issues – and if that kind of localisation is strategic or accidental.

To watch this play in Ireland is even more interesting. Even with the English accents, this is still a very American story. Its basic theme is that people who don’t fit in can still triumph – and that of course is one of America’s longest-held myths about itself. And the rather strange sub-plot about animals  losing the ability to speak also seems like an example of a typically American preoccupation with righting injustices against “the little guy” (or, in this case, against a very big goat).

So as part of a Dublin audience, I found Wicked to be doubly foreign – not quite American, not quite English – and not quite the global “McTheatre” that can be consumed everywhere with some minor localising gestures.  That was a strange position to be in, sitting in Dublin but not really sure where I was: “you’re not in Kansas now Dorothy,” as they say.

The arrival of the Grand Canal has meant that we in Ireland are seeing many more of these shows than ever before. The old Point Depot occasionally hosted the big musicals like Les Mis and Phantom, and the Gaiety and Olympia in Dublin (as well as venues in Cork and Belfast) have sometimes hosted big international shows too. But the Grand Canal is doing things on a much bigger scale.

This is not a new thing for Irish theatre. During the 1850s, for example, there were over 500 different productions of Shakespeare’s plays in Dublin’s major theatres of that time – an average of almost one a week. And that pattern persisted for most of the rest of the century, albeit with fewer productions. Most of those Shakespeare performances were by visiting companies, usually led by people like Henry Irving or Frank Benson. To call such productions “English” would be literally true, but perhaps also slightly misleading – since some of them travelled throughout the English-speaking world, and sometimes went into Europe also. As is happening with Wicked in Dublin today, those productions were designed to go on the road, and were designed to be appealing to audiences in many different places.

Those nineteenth-century tours had a major impact on the theatrical awareness of audiences in Ireland, and in Dublin and Belfast in particular. Shakespeare was an element of popular culture as well as high culture in those times . Similarly, we tend to think of our own times as uniquely celebrity-obsessed, but those touring productions were dependent upon the reputation of the actors more than on almost any factor.

Ultimately, of course, those touring productions stimulated the creation of new Irish plays  – and in many ways. Think of  the melodramas of writers such as Boucicault (who came up with his own version of McTheatre – where The Poor of New York became The Poor of London or The Poor of Dublin or THe Poor of whatever city he happened to be in). And then of course there was  the Irish Literary Theatre and Abbey, which sought to create a more high-minded and less homogenised drama (albeit one that was still inspired by non-Irish role models, such as the Theatre Libre).

This leads me to wonder how Irish theatre will be affected by the regular appearance of shows like Wicked in Dublin. These shows are genuinely exciting in their scale and ambition. They feature performers whose technique and skills range from the very good to the virtuosic. They are undoubtedly creating new audiences for certain kinds of theatre, and not just in Dublin (witness the coaches that line the streets around the Grand Canal at every performance). And they put Dublin in better contact with the currents in commercial theatre throughout the English-speaking world. All of that strikes me as very positive.

But I also have a question about these global productions that are (sort of) from Broadway and (sort of) from London and (sort of) from nowhere at all – is it possible that, as happened over a century ago in Dublin, they might also inspire some kind of Irish response – some attempt to say there are other ways of making theatre? In other words, can we see Irish theatre not as operating on a parallel track with the Grand Canal but as being actively in conversation with the work that is staged there?

To ask such a question is to imply that the Grand Canal is as much a part of Irish theatre as the Abbey, Gate, Gaiety, or Lyric – even if it almost never stages work that originates in Ireland. We’ve seen in London over the last 15 years that the boundaries between the commercial and subsidised theatres can be quite porous. The National Theatre can stage big musicals like South Pacific (or even things like Kushner’s Caroline or Change), but similarly has transferred plays like The History Boys and War Horse into the West End. Indeed, one of the really interesting things about 2014 for Irish theatre is that we’ll be seeing two plays from the NT – War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors – at the Grand Canal.

And it’s also worth pointing out that Irish plays have done very well in the West End over the last 20 years. When The Weir opens next month, we’ll have three Irish (or Irish-themed) productions in the West End, the other two being Once and The Commitments. So just as we are listening to English accents in Wicked, London theatre-goers are listening to Dublin accents in those two musicals. In other words, plays that we might think of as “traditionally Irish” can operate within the same circuit as Wicked.

There hasn’t yet been much discussion of the impact that the Grand Canal will have on (the rest of) Irish theatre. Is it part of our theatre community? Does it want to be? Can we ever envisage a situation in which a successful Irish play – first produced in Dublin – may find its way onto the Grand Canal stage? Does it matter if one doesn’t?

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that Wicked is well worth seeing: great Christmas entertainment, yet also an opportunity to see a group of theatre-makers and musicians working to a very high standard. I’d recommend it. And will probably be trying to see it again myself.

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Joe Dowling, Ireland and the Guthrie

Last weekend, I was in Minneapolis to attend the annual conference of the Irish Theatrical Diaspora network, which this year was about Tyrone Guthrie and the relationships between Irish and American theatre.

It was a fascinating conference. We heard a great keynote from John Harrington, who pointed out how important America had been for many Irish practitioners. He referred to the early Abbey actors, to writers like Denis Johnston and Stewart Parker, and to Garry Hynes. I’ve written a few times before on this blog about the disappointing lack of American plays on Irish stages, but Harrington’s paper reminded me that American influence makes itself felt in other ways: in innovative approaches to writing or direction or acting, for example.

There was also a very stimulating keynote by Jose Lanters about Tom Kilroy, in which she compared the Abbey and Guthrie productions of The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde. Kilroy stands out in the contemporary tradition as an Irish dramatist who is unusually open to non-Irish influences. As Lanters showed, Constance Wilde shows the traces not only of Pirandello but also of Japanese practice.

The differing approaches to the production in Ireland and America were also very interesting: the Guthrie production was much closer to dance than was the case in the Abbey production – but it also seemed to have been over-produced. As directed by Patrick Mason and designed by Joe Vanek, the Abbey Constance Wilde had a striking simplicity that forced the audience to focus entirely on the sadness of the Wildes’ life. In contrast, the Guthrie production filled the stage with eye-catching details, including beautiful androgynous costumes for the plays’ mute attendants (puppeteers who also manipulate the live actors). But in doing so it may have made it more difficult for the audience to attend fully to the action.

It was also great to see the Guthrie Theater itself – surely now one of the world’s great theatres. With three stages, shops, lecture rooms, and an education department, the theatre is unlike anything we have in Ireland. I was struck by the thought that, at a cost of $130 million, the Guthrie cost more or less the same amount as had been earmarked for the Abbey between 1999 (when Patrick Mason finished up) and 2002 (when Ben Barnes proposed to move the theatre into the Docklands). I’m not sure that Dublin could necessarily support a space like the Guthrie – with its proscenium arch stage, its thrust stage, and its studio space. But the Irish theatre would thrive with such facilities. Fintan O’Toole and others have made the point before, though, that to see what Dowling did in raising the money to build the Guthrie is to face the disappointment that we have nothing even remotely comparable in Ireland.

When Friel went to Minneapolis in the early 1960s, he found the experience liberating – there’s his famous line about the ‘parole’ from ‘inbred claustrophobic Ireland’. The cultural differences between Minnesota and Ireland have probably narrowed during the last 50 years, but as ever America can throw up some surprises. For example, I loved the announcement on the front door of the Guthrie that guns are banned in the theatre. “But no-one brings guns to a theatre,” I said to an American companion, in my best tone of European anti-gun indignation. “Tell that to Abraham Lincoln,” came the reply.

Also impressive was that the bookshop had a good stock of Irish plays, including Thomas Conway’s Oberon Anthology of Irish Plays. It’s exciting to know that people like Grace Dyas, Mark O’Halloran, Amy Conway, Neil Watkins, and others are being read abroad – along with work on Friel:

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The highlight of the conference  was a public interview with Joe Dowling, who was very interesting on his time at the Abbey. He spoke about the importance of reintroducing Shakespeare to the Abbey’s repertoire, for example (and I’ve read the press clippings for his Twelfth Night and Much Ado from 1975 and 1976 – and audiences loved them). He also spoke about how he opened up the Peacock to younger actors – and indeed to young bands, including Thin Lizzy. He recalled standing in the foyer of the Abbey and feeling the ground shake from the band playing downstairs in the Peacock – a nice metaphor for what he tried (mostly successfully) to do with the theatre.

He also spoke about the problems he’d encountered there. When asked how he’d begun directing he explained that he was appearing in The Colleen Bawn – and that on opening night only the first three acts had been rehearsed. So before going on stage, he started telling one of the other actors where to stand.

He also spoke about some of his difficulties with the Abbey Board when he became Artistic Director from 1978 to 1985. When in 1985 the Board made a decision he didn’t (or couldn’t) agree with, the Chair simply said to him that “the boss is the boss”. In other words, the Board was in charge, and his job was to do what he was told, without discussion. So he resigned.

He spoke about that feeling of despair after his resignation – the fear that he wouldn’t work again, the frustration with how things had turned out. Those feelings were alleviated somewhat when, on the day after his resignation, he got a phone call from Michael Colgan. “So what are you going to direct for us at the Gate, Joe?” Colgan asked.

Dowling also spoke at length about his direction of Donal McCann in Friel’s Faith Healer – a harrowing story about how McCann had to battle his alcoholism in order to create one of the great performances in the modern Irish theatre.

What struck me most about Dowling’s tenure at the Abbey is that he did an enormous amount to liberalise the theatre. It was he who directed Teresa Deevy’s Katie Roche in the 1970s, for example – reintroducing to the Abbey repertoire one of its greatest women playwrights. He also brought McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster to the Peacock – a play that marked a new generosity not only in terms of sexuality but also sectarianism at our national theatre. Dowling gave Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross its Irish premiere – amazingly, the first and last time Mamet has been produced at the Abbey. And he also programmed shows like Murphy’s Gigli Concert, Barry McGovern in Endgame (a show now almost entirely associated with the Gate), and Cyril Cusack in Merchant of Venice. And he brought in Michael Bogdanov to do a challenging version of Hamlet on the theatre’s main-stage – only three years after Bogdanov had faced a charge of obscenity for his production of Romans in Britain in London.

Dowling attracted some criticism last year for his programming of the Guthrie’s fiftieth anniversary season, which was dominated by male authors. To be fair, I think the theatre has shown in its subsequent choices that it’s taken on board those criticisms. But there’s an interesting Irish context there – in that Dowling did more than any previous Abbey artistic director to bring new voices to the stages of the national theatre, broadening our approach to sexuality, gender and religion. When one views his career in its entirety, he certainly can’t be accused of being the kind of director who only ever wants to produce dead white heterosexual males.

Hearing Dowling talk, I found myself thinking that, like so many people of talent in 1980s Ireland, he would probably have gone mad or otherwise self-destructed had he stayed in the country. But to see what he’s achieved in the Guthrie – and to consider all he did during his time at the Abbey – was to face the realisation that he’s been a significant loss to Irish theatre too.

In other words, Irish theatre is at its healthiest when the channels are open with other cultures – when a Tom Kilroy can bring Japanese and European ideas into his very Irish play, when a Stewart Parker or a Garry Hynes can learn from American performance and then bring those ideas back home. But the career of Dowling at the Guthrie shows that there are many people who have left and, aside from occasional return visits, have mostly stayed away.

As opportunities for our theatre-makers recede – and as so many people head to London and elsewhere – I wonder who we’re losing now? And I wonder too if we are creating enough opportunities for those who have gone abroad to come home?

Stella and Lou, and New American Drama at the Galway Arts Festival

On Sunday night I went to see Stella and Lou at the Galway Arts Festival. It’s a new play by Bruce Graham, produced by Chicago’s Northlight Theater, which came to Galway last year with another Graham play called The Outgoing Tide.

Both plays share a similar interest in old age and its attendant dilemmas. In The Outgoing Tide, Frasier’s John Mahony played a man who is suffering from the early stages of dementia. Fearing the loss of his dignity and worried about becoming a burden to his family, Mahony’s character determines that he wants to end his life. The play becomes a debate between him, his son and his wife about whether he should be allowed to do that.

I chaired a post-show talk last year with Mahony, Rondi Reed, BJ Jones (who directed) and Graham. I’ve chaired a lot of  discussions before but none has ever been quite like this: the audience seemed both emotionally charged and ready to talk, and where normally some of that energy might have been caused by the celebrity of Mahony, here it was largely due to the subject matter. A number of people in the audience spoke about how the play had affected them personally, either because they knew someone who had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, or perhaps because they too worried about the prospect of the loss of memory. It was strange to find such a fusion of intellectual energy and emotional vulnerability in the room.

Graham himself made a strong impression on me. He is a former stand-up comedian, and it shows: in person during the post-show he was ebullient and charming. But he also had a very serious approach to the difficult subject of euthanasia. Rather than strongly propagandizing for or against it, he instead tried to assert the dignity of the person who chooses to exercise his or her will. We never felt that Mahony’s character was making a right or wrong choice, I think – but we did leave the theatre respecting his right to make it.

Stella and Lou deals with an issue that is less immediate and certainly less contentious – which is the question of what happens to people who find themselves alone in their late 50s or early 60s. The eponymous characters spend much of the play in debate about whether to get together: Stella is frightened of the prospect of being alone (of dying alone, really), and Lou is frightened of the prospect of loving again if doing so brings with it the loss of another person he loves (he is a widower). The play tries to find common ground between these two apparently conflicting fears.

It’s been said many times that our culture prioritises youth over old age. So it was interesting to be in a theatre where the characters on stage matched the age profile of the majority of the people in the audience, who were themselves mostly in their late 50s and early 60s. I kept hearing laughter of recognition in response to the play’s jokes about aging, and a bit of running commentary from the people around me about how the play reminded them of events and people in their own lives.

It had never really occurred to me before that theatre rarely focusses on aging in this way. Yes, there are many plays about dementia, especially in Ireland where it seems like every playwright has written at least one drama on that topic. But I don’t often see characters on stage who resemble so closely the people in the audience. Their accents are different and of course the play’s American setting introduces some cultural differences. But the play’s treatment of aging seemed to hit home.

I was also struck by how good it felt to watch some strong American acting. Two members of the cast have played with Steppenwolf, and it was refreshing to see that style being performed so well. It’s difficult to describe this kind of acting without either fetishising it or making it seem bland, but I’m referring here to a kind of heightened or stylised naturalism, whereby the actors talk in ways that seem absolutely credible, even though in reality no-one ever talks or moves like that. Everything is just slightly heightened, from the rhythm and cadences of delivery to the movement around stage. If you wanted to be unfair you could describe this as acting in ALL CAPS, but there’s plenty of room for subtlety in there too.

The style is also evident in the choice of play, which is an 80 minute resolution of a dramatic problem. The setting is the real world and if there is something a bit too reassuring about the raising of problems only to persuade the audience that they can be wrapped up in less than 90 minutes, the discussion is usually stimulating and engaging.

The introduction of interesting American work has been a specialism of the Galway Arts Festival over the years. Bruce Norris’s Purple Heart is on in London at the moment, but it was seen in Galway some years ago when Steppenwolf brought it here. And one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had at the Arts Festival was a play by Craig Wright called Orange Flower Water back in 2004. Wright was one of the writers on Six Feet Under, and his play explored the ways in which sex and love ought to complement each other but can instead cancel each other out (rather like Six Feet Under, in fact).

Stella and Lou won’t be to everyone’s taste but I appreciated it for its focus on plot, character, discussion, realism and – most of all – first-rate acting.