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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Surprisingly Shakespearean: Two Gentlemen of Verona (RSC) and Shakespeare in Love (West End)

It might sometimes feel like nothing new can be said about Shakespeare. But I’ve just seen two Shakespearean productions that surprised me, for different reasons: the RSC’s Two Gentlemen of Verona and a new West End adaptation of Shakespeare in Love.

Two Gents is rarely staged so I jumped at the chance to see it in Stratford, having assumed that I’m unlikely to have many opportunities to do so again.

Its reputation is not good. It’s one of Shakespeare’s novice plays, perhaps his first, and certainly his earliest comedy. And it shows all the signs of being a play by an inexperienced writer. As the director Simon Godwin mentions in his very informative programme note, the dialogue in the play is usually shared out between two or at most three characters – a sign that Shakespeare had yet to develop the confidence to sustain conversation across larger groups. He goes on as follows:

There’s directness in the plotting. As playwrights get more experienced, they become oblique in their exposition. Here, characters come on and say “the following things have happened so we must do this immediately”… This play is joyfully clear but sometimes you notice the joins.

With its cross-dressing heroine, and its themes of betrayal and over-hasty reconciliation, it is seen generally as a prototype for later, better plays, especially As You Like It. So in some of the press previews for the production, it’s been presented as an opportunity to see a curiosity: bad Shakespeare done well. That’s been a minor trend lately: we’ve seen strong productions of Timon of Athens by Nick Hytner and Troilus and Cressida by Cheek By Jowl, for example. So I went along with a sense of curiosity but without high expectations.

I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think the play is a neglected masterpiece, but the production was consistently engaging and entertaining. There’s a courage in giving this flawed play to a director who’s new to the RSC – and he in turn has been courageous in casting actors who seem in most cases to be just out of drama school. This is a young person’s play with a very young cast – and despite their lack of experience, the performances are very good, and in some cases excellent.

As the audience enters the auditorium, the action is already underway – we find onstage an Italian piazza with an outdoor café. The cast lounge about, sipping espressos, playing music, gossiping, perhaps flirting. Some members of the audience are led onstage and given ice-cream: a gimmick that reminded me of John Tiffany’s direction of Oncethe Musical, which opens with the cast already having a session in a bar, at which audiences can buy pints of stout during the interval.

As the action kicks off, there is again a pleasant surprise: the delivery of lines has a clarity that is unusual, even at the RSC. The actors fully understand what they are saying, and they make sure that we do too: there’s some simple and effective use of emphasis, gesture, and body language to make sure we know what’s going on, notably from Martin Bassindale, the actor playing Speed. Also impressive is the way in which the actors have been directed to respond to each other: they clearly understand each other’s lines too. I was also surprised by how literally the lines were delivered. A lot of Shakespearean performances nowadays try to get cheap laughs from playing against Shakespeare’s original meanings, but here the actors just tell Shakespeare’s jokes, even the slightly clunky ones. This might all seem like  very basic stuff (understanding your lines, responding to the other actors), but the quality of the work was strong enough to make many other recent productions of Shakespeare that I’ve seen seem seriously under-rehearsed by comparison.

So by the time the two gents have arrived at Milan, the production has found an easygoing, confident rhythm. And yes, there is a live dog onstage, and yes she steals the show, repeatedly. There are also several musicians who play live throughout: I glumly noted that the RSC have more musicians in the wings than many theatres have actors on stage.

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Roger Morlidge and Mossip

And when the plot flags a bit, the direction finds a way to liven things up, adding in some extra business that enhances the action without changing the meaning of the play. A lively highlight occurs about half-way through the first part of the play, when we find ourselves in a Veronese nightclub, cast and musicians joining together to don sunglasses and dance to music that feels more Brazilian than Italian –  not because Shakespeare wrote this scene (he didn’t) but simply because the characters are young and they want to dance (you can hear the music and see parts of this scene in the trailer below). Here I found myself being reminded of Rupert Goold’s brilliant direction of the ball in his RSC Romeo and Juliet from 2010, in which we find Juliet losing herself in a heavily percussive beat that made it very difficult (for me, anyway) to stay sitting passively – and which established a tone and level of energy that persisted to the play’s conclusion.

In suggesting that Godwin’s work reminded me of Goold and John Tiffany I don’t want to imply that his direction is derivative. What impressed me about him was his willingness to both respect the text (by directing his actors so carefully) while also theatricalising it fully. He has a great scene, for example, when the foppish Turio tries to woo Sylvia by singing up to her as she stands on her balcony. Lest we be distracted by memories of Romeo and Juliet, Godwin has his actor (Nicholas Gerrard-Martin) perform his courtship in the form of a song – one so fabulously bad that we might half-wonder if Silvia might take pity on him after all.

Is it a good play? Well, not really – but we find here that Proteus is more than just an interesting prototype of Iago or Hamlet – and that Julia is more than just a prototype for Rosland and Viola. We also see how, from the beginning, Shakespeare was playing with form: here he gives  us a comedy that concludes with Valentine offering to give up Silvia to Proteus – the man who had just attempted to rape her. Valentine’s proposal that his wedding to Silvia be accompanied by a wedding between Proteus and Julia feels very uncomfortable, in a way that would be repeated (without being much improved upon) in Measure for Measure.

And there are some very good performances. The two female leads are very strong. Many of the female performers I’ve seen in recent RSC productions seemed miscast or out of their depth: they seemed too inclined to use an affected throaty style of line delivery instead of – well, instead of acting. As Julia and Silvia, Pearl Chanda and Sarah Macrae  bring their own individuality to their characters: there is a naturalness and a distinctiveness to the line delivery by both that impressed me very much, especially given that both parts are so horribly underwritten and repetitive (especially Silvia’s).  Chandra’s performance has an apparently effortless quality that makes her transformation from male to female at the end of the play seem both sexually charged and poignant. She’s very  impressive. I am sure we’ll be hearing more about her in the years ahead.

Mark Arends (Proteus) and Pearl Chanda (Julia)

Mark Arends as Proteus and Pearl Chandra as Julia

This production is running on in Stratford for the rest of the summer, and they plan to broadcast it live around the world in early September. I’d recommend it.

Meanwhile, in the West End we have the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, a charming and very smart film that was scripted by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. This West End adaptation comes under the Disney banner (co-produced with Sonia Friedman), but it’s also directed by Declan Donnellan, so any fears that it might be a blatantly commercialised production are balanced out by the credibility of the director.

This production has been getting great reviews, and it’s easy to see why. The stage features a large three-story structure that reproduces the architecture of a typical Elizabethan playhouse (as shown below). The design, of course, is by Nick Ormerod, whom Donnellan always works with in their Cheek By Jowl productions.

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Sometimes the action is literally set in a playhouse – for a rehearsal or for the performance of Romeo and Juliet that concluded the film so memorably. Yet even when the action happens in other places, we remain within a theatre, so that even intimate scenes (such as when Will finds his way into Viola’s bedroom) are observed by other members of the cast, who become a silent audience when they are not actively performing. Donnellan has  thoroughly theatricalised the entire performance, which becomes a series of plays within plays: like a dramatic version of a Russian matrushka doll.

And it’s been quite skilfully adapted too (by Lee Hall, who also gave us Billy Elliot). The role of Christopher Marlowe is expanded considerably, so that he now feeds lines to Will in a scene that fills in some of the missing links between  Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene and Cyrano de Bergerac. These interchanges give Will someone to talk to, making his characterisation easier to understand – and they also intensify the audiene’s distress when Marlowe’s death is revealed (drawing gasps from some of the people watching the play, incidentally – does it require spoiler warnings?).

And as you’d expect, there is some lovely movement around the stage. Donnellan always creates wonderful stage pictures, and does so here too – the image below, for example, is one of the first we see:

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Or there’s this one:

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Such tableaux feel natural and unfussy, and they’re often very pleasing to look at.

Donnellan also makes a virtue of having a simple set. Sometimes we see  action that is “backstage”, sometimes we are seeing it being performed “onstage” – and the flipping back and forth from the stage to behind the scenes offers all the fun of Noises Off, while fleshing out the idea that is at the heart of this adaptation, as it is at the heart of Shakespeare’s work – namely, that the performances of actors merely make explicit what people do in other aspects of their lives: they perform at the court of Elizabeth, or in the arrangement of marriages, or in the application of the law or diplomacy. It might be clichéd to come away from this performance observing that all the world is a stage, but that indeed is the point it wants to make.

So it’s clever and touching and very well directed and beautifully designed and funny….

And yet… It’s slightly disappointing in parts.

The pace isn’t quite right yet, perhaps because the show is still early in its run. The film has many good jokes, but a lot of them were lost when I saw it earlier today – and indeed some of the dialogue was inaudible, at least to me: it was drowned out by stage business or spoken into the back of the stage. I also found it difficult to warm to the performance of Viola (perhaps too much influenced by the ones I’d seen in Two Gents), which I found to be occasionally affected without ever being affecting – I don’t think we have enough time to warm to the character.  So I was surprised to find myself missing Gwyneth Paltrow (having listened to the most recent Coldplay album more often than I should have done, I did not think myself capable of such a feeling…).

And some of the other characterisations felt like missed opportunities.  In the film, Wessex was played as a genuinely unlikable character –  and as someone we could genuinely imagine existing. Here he is written and performed more as a buffoon: full of a bluster that appears designed to hide his own impotence and lust. He’s not much of a threat to Will, and thus the sadness of Viola’s forced marriage to him does not seem quite as upsetting as it did in the film.

I also found the production and script a little too willing to be ingratiating. One of the great things about the film script was that it had so many references to his plays – I loved the way it segued into  Twelfth Night at the end, for example. Most of those references are retained, but (unless I am misremembering) it seems like many more have been added.

Some of them are indeed very funny: “Out Damn Spot” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” from Macbeth are deployed to great comic effect (though the reference to Banquo’s ghost from the film feels thrown away here). There’s also an amusing allusion to Malvolio towards the end. But there are some jokes that seem a little too keen to please – a reference to Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar felt a bit obvious to me, and I thought that at one stage I heard the ‘out vile jelly’ line from Lear. And when at the end Romeo and Juliet is declared a “palpable hit” I wondered if the actor was actually going to turn and wink at the audience. So when the actors break off from the curtain call to give us an Elizabethan dance (as would have happened in Shakespeare’s time too, of course), it all feels like they are trying too hard to put a smile on our faces… In short, the Disney starts to show after a while.

There is one new allusion which works well – and that’s the inclusion of a dog (taken straight from Two Gents). But perhaps Shakespeare in Love might have been better off if it had instead taken more notice of the darker elements of Two Gentlemen. The betrayal by one friend of another and the attempted rape of a young woman appear in both plays, but are rushed through here in what feels like a race to get us to the end. Shakespearean comedy is always most successful when its darker elements are emphasised – as when we felt sorry for Malvolio and Olivia in Wayne Jordan’s recent Twelfth Night, for example. But there is no darkness here. There isn’t even much shade.

This is not to say that Shakespeare in Love is bad but rather that it could be (and may still become) better. In its desire to please it seems to betray an anxiety, a wish to be liked, that is perhaps understandable but wholly unnecessary. The play is a hit; it will almost certainly be going to Broadway, and it is likely to be enjoyed there too. We will probably find it showing up in the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin, sometime around 2022, after it’s been everywhere else. So perhaps the cast will slow down, taking time to flesh out their roles a bit more – and remember that, since this is a comedy, we should spend at least some of the time feeling disturbed and upset.

Having said all that, I am certainly in a minority in my views on Shakespeare in Love – reviews have been largely positive.  Here’s the trailer for Shakespeare in Love:

And the RSC’s Two Gentlemen of Verona

Both are worth seeing – but if you have to pick one I’d recommend the bad Shakespeare done well over the brilliantly directed re-imaginging of Shakespeare – which has the odd effect of seeming to reduce his importance, even as it places him centre-stage.

The Silver Tassie at the NT

I am just back from  a very good production of The Silver Tassie at the National. I need some time to digest it before I can write something detailed, but wanted to share some thoughts straightaway

The last time I saw this play, it was in a 2010 production directed by Garry Hynes for Druid. I caught it at the Gaiety Theatre – a venue for which it was well suited, both in terms of scale (it’s a big play) and theatre history (Tassie has its roots in music hall and melodrama, genres that the Gaiety was somewhat associated with).

As often happens with Druid, one of the first things that Hynes did in that production was to de-familiarise the play. Druid audiences often arrive at the theatre thinking they know what they’re going to see: “this is a play by John B. Keane/Sean O’Casey/Martin McDonagh – so we all know what that means”. This is especially true for O’Casey, a writer cursed by the fact that audiences think they know his work extremely well, when in fact they only know three of the 20+ plays that he wrote. So with Tassie Hynes immediately faced the challenge of preparing audiences for the fact that they were not watching Juno or Plough.

She did this by heightening the theatricality of the play. The famous “difficult second act”, set in the trenches, has several expressionistic elements in O’Casey’s script – a large gun, the use of music and chanting, the use of poetic language, and so on. The Druid production exaggerated those elements so that, for example, Francis O’Connor’s set was dominated by an enormous cannon, while Davy Cunningham lit the backdrop in a  sickly luminous green (as shown in the image below).

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Similarly, the third act (set in a hospital ward) opened with John Olohan and Eamon Morissey standing in front of an enormous red curtain, both wearing bowler hats – placing them somewhere between Laurel and Hardy and Didi and Gogo. So the direction and design in the Druid production always ensured that the audience were distanced from the action (in a Brechtian sense) – they were always being reminded that they were watching a play – and thus were better able to go along with its strangeness.

That approach is probably necessary in Ireland, because O’Casey is so well known, but although Druid’s production was very well received when it toured to the UK, it’s also fair to say that audiences in England are less familiar with O’Casey and thus are in some ways likely to be more open-minded about his work.

Here Howard Davies as director plays the action fairly straight: the staging and performance styles are largely realistic, albeit to a heightened extent in the second act, and also in a particularly vivid and moving concluding coup de théâtre that highlights the role of women in the play. The second act here seems almost naturalistic; the use of song is strange but is not entirely unrealistic.  Where Hynes’s Tassie drew out the expressionist elements of the Dublin Trilogy (such as the scene with the Speaker at the window in Plough), Davies in contrast draws out the realistic elements that we find in, say, Juno and shows how they follow through into Tassie. It’s interesting that Davies’ Juno (staged at the Abbey a couple of years ago before a transfer to the NT) and this Tassie are very similar in tone and visual impact.

The overall impact of both Hynes’ and Davies’ Tassie is to confirm for me that this play is not an interesting failure (as it’s often described).  Having now seen two excellent but very different recent productions of the play (not to mention the excellent opera version, staged about 12 years ago I think), I think that we need to re-imagine the so-called Dublin Trilogy of Shadow, Juno and Plough as a tetralogy that includes Tassie. This is partly because audiences now have caught up with O’Casey: if you’ve seen a play like Godot you can understand the use of the comic double act in Act 3 of Tassie; if you’ve seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, you can understand why O’Casey sets the final scene in an ante-room, a place that is close to but separate from a performance being staged nearby. Act 2 – the scene in the trenches – is of course thoroughly original, but it also anticipates many of the innovations and techniques of Brecht. In short, Tassie’s time has come.

So as I was watching tonight, I found myself imagining how wonderful it would be for an Irish audience to be able to see Tassie and the other three major plays in a single production, with a single ensemble. As the RSC did when they staged all eight of Shakespeare’s history plays back in 2008, the O’Caseys could be staged in order of composition (Shadow to Tassie), and they could also be staged in chronological order – Tassie, Plough, and Shadow – finishing with Juno. I feel we’d learn a lot during this so-called decade of commemorations in Ireland if we had the opportunity to see O’Casey being staged in this way.

I know that an idea like this was proposed a few years ago and was the subject of a disagreement between the Abbey and Druid. It’s a pity that it didn’t work out. The move from Tassie to Juno gives us an Ireland that was part of the UK, changing into a country that had just become independent. Think of that final scene that O’Casey gives us in Juno: two drunks in a hall while the two women at the centre of the play have left the stage, to raise a baby that would be treated as an outcast in Ireland because its parents were unmarried. O’Casey gives us a vision of independent Ireland that still has relevance: he presents it as a place that would be intolerant of women, vicious towards “illegitimate” children, easily exploited by wealthy elites (especially from abroad) – and a place, finally, which would be a comfortable enough home for feckless wasters and cute hoors like Captain Boyle and Joxer. Juno is a play that anticipates many of independent Ireland’s worst failures, and can warn us against repeating them.

Leaving that (probably unrealistic) idea aside, there’s a lot in this production to be delighted by. I loved the set design by Vicki Mortimer, which thoroughly refutes the idea that this is an unstageable play. The tenement in Act One is stunningly transformed into a ruined monastery in Act Two – which in turn becomes the backdrop to the hospital in Act Three. The final act drops walls in front of these structures: we know they are there but can only see them fleetingly. The image below shows her design for Act Two – a very interesting contrast to the image above from Druid.

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Aside from the fact that Mortimer ensures we don’t get a break in the action (and energy) between the first and second acts (the transition is seamless), there’s also a suggestion that the Irish soldiers bring Dublin with them to the trenches – and that they bring the trenches back with them to the hospital when they return. And the final act shows that the First World War is a presence in Ireland that has been rendered invisible because a new “narrative” was imposed upon it. This is thematically very interesting, but it’s also theatrically very effective, giving unity and coherence to a play that is often seen as composed of different parts that don’t necessarily fit well together.

It’s also fascinating to me that the NT chose this Irish play to commemorate the beginning of the First World War. I found myself wondering how Tassie might speak to England’s sense of itself and its own history. The First World War, you could argue, brought about Irish independence: it’s impossible to imagine the Easter Rising and the Anglo-Irish War without the context and impact of WW1. I found it very interesting that the second act of this production featured so many English accents: the Irish characters were shown here  interacting with English soldiers as equals in the trenches – so for this English audience the “them” that Irish characters often represent in other plays here became an “us” that represents a shared past. At a time when a lot of people in England are expressing anxiety about the possibility of Scottish independence, it’s really interesting to view a production that adopts a mildly nostalgic view on a time when Ireland’s position in the UK still seemed secure.

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Also interesting of course is that as yet we have not seen much in Ireland about WWI. The only thing I can think of that is  relevant might be the staging of War Horse at the Grand Canal Theatre, but while its show programme drew attention to the centenary of the outbreak of the war, that context went largely unremarked at the time. I do know that some companies are planning revivals and new productions that will address the legacies of the Great War in 2016, so perhaps we’ll all be complaining about commemorative plays by the time 2018 rolls around.

Two last things to note.

The acting. As you’d expect, some of the accents wander a bit from Dublin – to Cockney or Belfast. But this doesn’t detract or distract from the performances of an excellent cast. Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy are very funny as Si and Syl. Ronan Raftery is a very good Harry: heroic in the first act, creepy in the last one. There’s a lovely touching scene between him and Aidan Kelly towards the end, in which Kelly talks about being Raftery’s eyes, while Raftery can be his legs (a nod to Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand – no wonder he rejected the play). And Judith Roddy has an excellent performance as Susie Monican, the religious zealot who is humanized (and secularized) when she gains the attentions of a staff doctor. O’Casey has a lot to say here about social class and social climbing (and religion), but I understood with Roddy’s performance how Susie’s transformation is intended to parallel and contrast with the change in Harry. That impressed me.

And finally it was great to see a programme note in there from James Moran. He is the author of a book from Methuen by Sean O’Casey (declaration of interest: I am the series editor). It’s a very stimulating study that argues for a new look at O’Casey, and which comes at his work from a well informed theatrical perspective. It could (and should) stimulate further productions of his works. As I write above, O’Casey did keep writing plays for more than 30 years after Tassie. The Druid and NT productions show that this play deserves more attention. Are there any practitioners out there who might like to prove the same point about some of his other plays, such as Within the Gates, Red Roses for Me, or The Bishop’s Bonfire?

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David Greig’s THE EVENTS – Dublin Theatre Festival 2013

In the spring of 1996, I spent a lot of time listening to Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads. I’d been a fan of Cave anyway but that album seemed to push his work on to several entirely new levels. The biblical and southern gothic allusions that had dominated his earlier music (and his novel And the Ass Saw the Angel) were there, as was his characteristically blood-curdling wit. And musically the collection seemed to fuse every genre he’d been working in up to that point, giving us something that was somewhere between folk and punk. But what was striking was the combination of those different elements: it was as if his career had been leading up to this point for years, that he was finally tying together several strands that had previously been developed separately.

The subject matter of the songs was, as the title implies, murder: according to the Wikipedia page, more than 65 killings are described across the album’s 10 tracks. Yet while they were undoubtedly morbid – vicious, in fact – they could also be funny, as in Cave’s fabulously over-the-top rendition of “Stagger Lee”. They were  sometimes beautiful too, as in “Henry Lee”, Cave’s duet with PJ Harvey. And his duet with Kylie Minogue, “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, was revelatory in all sorts of ways, bringing both singers to entirely new audiences.

The mid-1990s was a time when an excessive, even hyperbolic, sense of violence was dominating the culture. Cave’s album came out just after Sarah Kane’s Blasted and McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane appeared, for example. As a final year student at UCD during that year, I used to find myself regularly going along to see Film Soc screenings of what were then massively popular movies: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and True Romance. These plays and films used violence for a variety of reasons, but Aleks Sierz still puts it best when he describes such work  as ‘in-yer-face’. The idea behind such work was to shock the audience, to force them to pay attention, to shake them out of complacency.

That “in-yer-face” quality was one of the reasons I loved Murder Ballads. It describes the killing of people but it felt that Cave was instead murdering conventions – about what music could and should be, about the barriers between pop and supposedly more serious forms of music, about the relationship between folk traditions and rock. Violence, he showed, is embedded in our culture – not just in Tarantino movies but in everything from the Bible to Milton. He showed us that what we regard as aberrant and dangerous can actually be a lot more familiar than we might wish to acknowledge.

One morning as I was preparing to leave for college, I was listening to Cave’s album while a housemate had the TV on in a different room. I was relaxed, singing along to Cave’s music – but was then  called into the TV room where reports were starting to come in of a school massacre in Dunblane in Scotland. As many people will  remember, on that day a man arrived at a primary school in a Scottish village, carrying his own  handguns. He opened fire on a group of 5 and 6 year-old children, killing almost everyone in the class, including the teacher. He then committed suicide himself.

I was watching this news report, shocked and upset – and became aware that from the other room Cave’s “O’Malley’s Bar” was still playing – a song about a man who enters a bar and murders his fellow townspeople. The contrast between  the reality of the massacre in Scotland with the sexed-up, rocked-up narration of murder by Cave suddenly seemed horrifying.

While I have since heard different songs from Murder Ballads in many different contexts, I don’t think I have ever again listened to it the whole way through. I know – and knew – what Cave was trying to do, but I felt that his album was using the coherence of musical form to bring order and occasionally even beauty to the theme of murder. In doing that, Cave was of course following a long tradition. But in the context of the Dunblane massacre, Cave’s songs seemed at risk of making such events instead seem in some way comprehensible or even normal:  normal not in the sense of being morally right, but rather in the sense of being something that we can and should expect as part of our ordinary lives. Making something comprehensible is of course not the same thing as making it seem justified. But it no longer seemed possible to listen to that album in the same way. I’m not criticising Cave in stating this; I just found the juxtaposition of the album with the real events too disturbing to shake off.

I was thinking about all of this while watching David Greig’s new play The Events, which is running at the Peacock as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. While it was  inspired by the massacre in Norway by Anders Breivik, it also speaks to such events as Dunblane, not to mention the many horrible atrocities that have recently taken place in America. It also resonated painfully with events in Athlone last weekend, when two young girls were lured from a birthday party and sexually assaulted.

The Events asks how a community can and should survive after such an atrocity has taken place, focussing on the figure of a choir-leader called Claire (Neve McIntosh) who is one of the few survivors after her choir is attacked by a young man with a gun. She engages in a series of dialogues with other people (all played by Rudi Dharmalingam): a journalist, a politician, her psychiatrist, a friend of the murderer, her partner, and then, finally, the killer himself. Along the way, she tries to attribute responsibility, to understand the murderer’s motivations and background – to try to make sense of ‘the events’ and by doing so to assuage some of her own guilt at surviving them.

The play reaches some surprising conclusions. But it’s not giving anything away to suggest that Greig doesn’t offer his protagonist or his audience comforting answers: all we are  left with is the choice to accept our confusion and try to move on as best we can.

What makes the play especially stimulating – and this is why I was reminded of Nick Cave – is that it is performed each night with a different community choir on stage. The choir’s presence might at first seem gimmicky but it quickly becomes evident that they are carrying a great deal of the emotional power of the production, their live bodies contrasting all too painfully with the people who had been murdered in the play.

I have written before on this blog about playwrights using music to make certain emotions seem more evident – a trend evident in Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive and Elaine Murphy’s Shush, among many other examples. I am uneasy about this technique, especially when it is used by younger or less experienced writers, since it tends to be used to evoke a feeling that the dramatist ought to be able to inspire through writing (in other words, it can sometimes be a bit lazy). But in Greig’s play it works very well.

Firstly,  the choir  operates as a metaphor for community. We have a variety of people: male and female and of different ages and backgrounds and nationalities – and of course with different kinds of singing voice as well. What seems like a busy mass of individual bodies on-stage is transformed into a (literally) harmonious collective through music.  And importantly,  they are not using music to respond directly to the murders. Rather they use it as a way of asserting a shared determination to continue living – to remember and perhaps to forgive as well. So where Murder Ballads beautifies death,  The Events reminds us of the beauty of ordinary life.

In this respect, the play reminded me slightly of Karl Jenkins’s Armed Man, a mass for peace which (I believe) is very popular with choral groups around Ireland and the UK. Some of that music is militaristic and (as sometimes happens with Jenkins) a little bombastic. But the movements that deal with forgiveness and peace are often very moving, as can be heard in the “Benedictus” below (go on, click on it and listen as you read the rest of this post – you’ll enjoy it).

In other words, what impressed me about The Events is that it doesn’t try to make sense of murder. It instead says that our shared community with each other will help us to keep going when we realise that some aspects of life and death cannot be understood or explained or predicted.  Claire’s “healing” (if we can call it that) arises not because she has made sense of “the events” but instead because she has been embraced by a larger collective – who rescue her from her sense of isolation and confusion.

Strangely, this means that the play can feel somewhat under-powered. As Fintan O’Toole put it in his Irish Times column this weekend,

It is striking that Greig and [the play’s] director, Ramin Gray, more or less admit, in the form of the piece, that drama, on the scale they can manage, is not quite adequate to the task of exploring the big themes of racism, difference and decency.

I’d agree with that – I found myself surprised that Greig didn’t reach for a conclusion that was more profound or more substantial in some way. But his solution seems in some way more honest, more apt, more in keeping with the sense of helplessness that we feel when confronted with events like those in Dunblane or Utoya.

One other thought. For the play’s run at the Peacock, a different choir appears on stage at every performance. There’s a link here with Greig’s other works, and indeed with some of the things that have been done by the National Theatre of Scotland generally (this play is not produced by NTS but it has a similar approach to audience involvement).

In bringing choirs onstage, Greig is doing something similar to what he did with the brilliant Prudencia Hart, a play about Scottish folk music which is staged in pubs, performed as if everyone is at a session. So when we see the play we watch it not in a theatre but in a pub: the lights stay up, we are encouraged to buy pints, and it is all as raucous and as immersive as a good rural session would be. It’s also one of the best productions I’ve seen in the last 10 years, but that is another story.

We hear a lot in Ireland (and elsewhere) about plays being “relevant”. Too often theatre-makers and critics think that “relevant” means that we should see on stage all the bad news that we read about in the newspapers. But Greig’s Events and Prudencia Hart show a different approach to making theatre relevant: they share a knowledge that in every community in Ireland and Britain there are hundreds of people who travel out night after night to perform – in choirs, in pub sessions, in amateur drama, and in many other ways as well. One of the reasons for the vibrancy of Scottish theatre at present is that groups like the NTS have tried to connect with amateur performances – integrating them without appropriating them. They thus make theatre that is relevant to the ordinary lived experiences of such groups.

We’re not unaware of this kind of process in Ireland. One of the reasons that Louise Lowe’s work is so exciting is that it draws on the communities it depicts. And one of the reasons Macnas’s work is so inspiring is that it is a total fusion of professional and community theatre. But I still think there are lessons for us to take from plays like Prudencia and The Events – both of which show that our communities are performing in ways that could be better connected with our theatres.

On the bus back home after The Events I was working through these thoughts and decided I should give Murder Ballads another try, so I lined it up on the i-pod… I didn’t get to the end – in fact I only got to the half-way point. But I was glad to be reminded of how surprising and beautiful I had found this song when it first appeared 17 years ago:

Pirandello, Irish Dramatist?

For the last few months, I’ve been hearing some interesting rumours about a new production of Pirandello’s Liolà at the Royal National Theatre in London – full details here .

The NT publicity is quite interesting:

Sicily, summer 1916. Gossiping and singing, the women gather to harvest old Simone’s almond crop. He’s the richest landowner in the district but he has no heir. Local lad Liolà, untroubled by convention, has fathered three little boys, each with a different mother, and that only intensifies Simone’s anguish. When another of the girls falls pregnant, Simone is persuaded he might recognize the baby as his own. But he’s forgotten the charms of his slighted young wife Mita, who is not so easily crushed.

All I should say, girls, is don’t be too sweet, lest you be eaten!

This high-spirited drama by Pirandello takes us to the heart of a rural community where property and family provoke fierce passions.

Sounds good, at least potentially, yes?

But here is the part that caught my attention:

Richard Eyre directs Tanya Ronder’s new version, performed by an Irish cast and gypsy musicians. It’s unexpected, funny and touching.

It’s important to state from the outset that this is indeed a great Irish cast, with lead roles being played by three of our greatest actresses: Aisling O’Sullivan, Eileen Walsh, and Rosaleen Linehan.

But I have to confess to being slightly unnerved by references to “an Irish cast and gypsy musicians”. I can understand the idea that rural Sicily might map on to rural Ireland in some ways, especially in terms of such issues as Catholicism, land ownership, the role of women, the suppression of sexual desire, and the relationship between vernacular/folk culture and modernist theatre (a link that can be found not only in Pirandello but also in Lorca and Synge, among others). And there have been Irish versions of Pirandello before, especially by Thomas Kilroy.  So this seems like a potentially interesting mix.

But what catches my attention is the year in which the play takes place: 1916. That year obviously has a certain resonance in an Irish context, both in terms of the Rising and the Somme. It’s difficult to see how that can translate over to a Sicilian context. It appears that the play will be set in Sicily but that lines will be delivered in Irish accents, so I suppose we shouldn’t take matters too literally, but I suspect that the historical resonances could prove confusing for any Irish people in the audience.

I am sure that Tanya Ronder’s script will be carefully researched. And I am fully aware that Richard Eyre has a detailed knowledge of, and respect for, Irish drama. But I wonder who, in the list of creative personnel attached to the show, will be able to take responsibility for ensuring that the Irish elements of the production are coherent? And I also wonder why the decision was made to go with an Irish cast? It would be interesting to find out.

And does it matter that the adaptation is being written by an author who doesn’t seem to have much of a direct link with Ireland (though she has had great success with previous adaptations of Lorca and others)? She is,  after all,  writing for Irish voices, and that requires knowledge of the differences in our vocabularies, rhythms, and so on. Perhaps she has much more knowledge than I am aware of.

The NT has done something like this before, of course. In 2004, the English dramatist Rebecca Lenkiewicz staged a play there called The Night Season, setting it in Sligo. In a newspaper profile at the time, Victoria Segal explained the decision to set the play in Ireland as follows:

Despite having some Irish blood in her background, the playwright has never lived there… [Lenkiewicz] wanted to use Irish voices to facilitate her lyrical language, aware that the same words in an English accent might sound ‘flowery’’

Segal goes on to explain that the author, together with the play’s director Lucy Bailey, went on a so-called ‘fact-finding’ mission to Sligo in advance of the production’s opening (and apologies that I can’t link to the original article ).

I didn’t see that production but again it had a great Irish cast and while some of the language in the script struck me as unrealistic, the play itself was good. But at the time I was bothered  by the idea that an author would choose to relocate an English story to an Irish setting simply to make the poetry of speech seem less flowery – and that a visit to Ireland is all that would be required to achieve authenticity.

In the event, those concerns didn’t seem to matter much to the play’s core audience.

But for similar reasons, I am curious about the decision to set Liolà in Sicily, but to cast it with Irish actors.

It would be wrong to judge a play that I haven’t seen, and it’s great to see so many fine Irish actors getting such exposure. But I’ve been wondering in recent blog posts (including this one on Roddy Doyle and another on Conor McPherson) whether Irish literature is seen in London not as a national literature (i.e. as writing from Ireland) but as a kind of genre – one that involves music, a rural setting, permissible levels of “floweriness” in speech that would be impossible in Standard English, strong women and weak men, and so on.

It remains to be seen how (if at all) the author and/or director of this adaptation will explain its Irish features, and it remains also to be seen how well it will be received. But it’s interesting to see this adaptation coming at the same time as a new adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments hits London, while Once continues to do well. It’s also notable that in the current Booker longlist, there are three Irish authors, two of whom (Toibin and McCann) are being tipped as potential winners (at least in Ireland, anyway).

So times are good for some Irish playwrights, some  Irish actors, and some Irish novelists in London right now. And that can only be a good thing.

The key question though is whether this represents a success for work that is Irish (in the sense of coming from Ireland) or work that seems “Irish” (in the sense of corresponding to a set of characteristics that are seen as such)? Is “Irish theatre” a national dramatic literature or a kind of genre or performance style?

A partial answer to that question may be available when Liolà completes its run. Over on The Guardian, Michael Billington has already reached one conclusion in his review:

I enjoyed the evening but it left me with a question: isn’t it slightly patronising to treat Ireland, as we so often do, as a handy stand-in for any rural community, whether it be in Sicily, Spain or Chekhov’s Russia

Good question. I’d wonder what this says about the representation of the rural within England itself?