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.

Irish Musical Theatre – A New Development That Has Always Been With Us

A few weeks ago, I did a brief interview with Eithne Shortall of The Sunday Times about the Irish musical. In her feature, she writes about Once and The Commitments, and wonders if these two productions suggest that we’ll see more  Irish musicals during the years ahead.

I think she’s right. I can see evidence of this growth at NUI Galway, where incoming Drama students are passionate about musical theatre, making GUMS (the university musical society) one of the university’s most vibrant student groups. And many students come to study theatre not because they have appeared in work by Synge or O’Casey or Friel, but because they were in a school production of South Pacific or Grease or West Side Story. We’re introducing classes in musical theatre from next year in an attempt both to meet that interest and to stimulate more of this kind of work.

Of course, the Irish musical has been around for a while. We saw it work brilliantly almost a decade ago (can it really be that long?) when Rough Magic premiered Bell Helicopter and Arthur Riordan’s Improbable Frequency, a musical about Ireland during the Second World War – which included such hilarious songs as “Be Careful Not to Patronise the Irish”. And we saw it on the main stage of the Abbey only last year with Wayne Jordan’s production of Alice in Funderland by Raymond Scannell and Phillip McMahon. Each of those productions was greeted with a lot of commentary, both formal and informal, suggesting that perhaps – at last – we in Ireland might be on the verge of developing a tradition of musical theatre.

I wonder, though, if it’s quite that simple. Music and musicality have always been important if not essential for Irish plays. One of the best examples of the importance of music can be found in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock – which features a long scene in which the characters sing songs and play music on a gramophone.  It’s not a coincidence that Captain Boyle, who spends the play’s first act trying to deceive his wife, will in this scene choose to sing ‘Oh Me Darlin’ Juno, I Will Be True to Thee’ —a song intended to emphasize his honesty, which therefore reveals his duplicitous and hypocritical nature.  Another example is Mrs Madigan’s choice of the song ‘If I were a Blackbird’ to sing in the play’s second act:

   If I were a blackbird I’d whistle and sing;

I’d follow the ship that my true love was in;

An’ on the top riggin’, I’d there build me a nest,

An’ at night I would sleep on me Whillie’s white breast!

This seems quite an innocent choice, but given that her audience includes Captain Boyle—a former sailor who is supposed to have inherited a large amount of money—her choice of a love song with a maritime setting reveals a great deal about her motives.

Arguably, the play’s turning point occurs in that same scene, when we hear Juno and Mary singing ‘Home to Our Mountains’ from Verdi’s Il Travotore.  O’Casey does not transcribe the words of this piece; he does not change them to reflect the accent or social status of the singers, but states that they must sing the song well.  By showing that the two characters can express themselves perfectly well in this artform, O’Casey hints that they are capable of transcending their circumstances—and indeed makes the case that they must do so.

And then the scene concludes with the song “If You’re Irish, Come Into the Parlour” playing on the gramophone while a funeral dirge is underway – a brilliant contrast of kitsch Irishness with the solemnity of the funeral ritual.

Juno is not a musical – but its use of music is far more than incidental or contextual: it reveals character, develops the themes, shapes the audience’s responses, and offers us new ways of seeing such issues as nationalism, religion, gender, and the relationship between Irish and international culture. And it seems to me that a lot of Irish plays use music in a similar way: they are not quite musical theatre, but they are much more than “music in theatre”.

Tom Murphy has a very similar scene to O’Casey’s in his under-rated 1998 play The Wake, which again sees a family gathering for a sing-song.  And there’s  a brilliant scene in his The Gigli Concert in which the Irishman acts out the story of Gigli’s youth while Toseli’s Serenade plays in the background. In Garry Hynes’s last production of the play (which I reviewed on irish Theatre Magazine), Denis Conway matched the movements to the music so carefully that it was almost as if he was dancing at times.  And the use of song in Conversations on a Homecoming offers rare moments of beauty in a play that is otherwise quite fearlessly ugly.

In the blog, I’ve also written a few times about the use of music in contemporary plays. This pattern worries me slightly, since it reminds me of something I occasionally see in the work of inexperienced directors and writers – which is that when you can’t work out how to convey an important mood or emotion to the audience through acting, staging, or writing, you let a piece of music do the work for you (and too often it’s the same music: Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Massive Attack).

Yet when done well, music can transform a play. As I’ve recently discussed, Frank McGuinness uses a song from the Mikado beautifully in The Hanging Gardens. Similarly, Conor McPherson’s use of music is almost always successful: I’m thinking of the use of Neil Young as a kind of ironic counterpoint to the action in Shining City or of John Martyn’s Sweet Little Mystery to bring us blinking back into the sunlight in The Seafarer.  And then there’s Enda Walsh, whose use of Doris Day in Misterman and more kitsch Irish ballads in Walworth Farce add to the sinister and unsettling quality of both plays. And who can forget the contrast between the intensely verbal sisters in New Electric Ballroom and Mikel Murfi’s amazingly sung “Wondrous Place” in the same play?

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Enda Walsh, incidentally, is the only Irish dramatist I know of who has won a Grammy – since his song “Abandoned in Bandon” appears on the soundtrack to Once – the Musical.

And there are many other examples we could think of. Billy Roche’s The Cavalcaders is arguably as much a musical as The Commitments is (in both cases, song is used as part of the action – songs are only sung when they would be sung in the ‘real world’). Something similar could be said of Christina Reid’s The Belle of the Belfast City. And think of how important music is for Brian Friel – Cole Porter and traditional music in Lughnasa, Chopin in Aristocrats, Thomas Moore in The Home Place, and so on. Likewise, Elaine Murphy’s use of music in Shush seems influenced by Lughnasa – a play which, I think, must also have had an impact on Marie Jones’s restaging of the Blind Fiddler back in 2003.

I’m also conscious of how deeply invested in music so many Irish dramatists are. For example, Stewart Parker was, among many other things, a brilliant rock journalist – and it shows in his drama.

We can also see the importance of music in some of the recent adaptations that have appeared at the Abbey. As I suggested in that discussion with Eithne Shorthall, Frank McGuinness’s The Dead – which again made use of the songs of Thomas Moore – was almost like a hybrid: not quite a musical but not quite a play either. And it seems that the Abbey’s forthcoming production of The Risen People – opening next week – will be making extensive use of music too.

Quite often, establishing an Irish musical tradition is seen as being like beating the All Blacks: something we really should have done a long time ago, but will, we hope, get round to doing sometime in the near future. But could it be that the reason we don’t have a tradition of musical theatre here is because, in some ways, it’s always been so firmly embedded in our theatrical culture anyway?

Conor McPherson’s _Night Alive_ at the Donmar Warehouse

I was blogging yesterday about the transfer of Conor McPherson’s The Weir to the West End – but wanted today to write briefly about The Night Alive, which I saw last week.

At the Synge Summer School last month, many of the writers spoke about the difficulty of transitioning from one phase in their career to another. Writers like Marina Carr are criticised when they keep doing the same thing (in her case, writing plays set in the midlands), yet are then criticised when they try to do things differently. One writer cited the example of Conor McPherson’s The Veil as an illustration of this inconsistency, saying that it’s not that the play was in any way bad – it’s just that it didn’t seem like a ‘typical’ McPherson play, so audiences (or perhaps the theatre itself) didn’t really know what to make of it.

I found myself thinking about this a lot while watching The Night Alive at the Donmar Warehouse last week. It seems to me that it is a play that shows McPherson trying to move away from things he’s done before, but without abandoning them altogether. I’m reluctant to call it a ‘transitional play’, since doing so might imply that I think its only value is that it’s a step from one securely positioned play to another.

But there are some interesting developments to note.

A word of warning – there aren’t exactly ‘spoilers’ below, but anyone planning on seeing the play may prefer not to read this post.

The Ghosts are Metaphorical

When the Weir was first staged in Ireland, many people loved its old-fashioned ghost stories. But they also, I think, responded to the ways in which ghosts in the play operated as a metaphor for other things: loneliness, memory, nostalgia, the movement from a rural Ireland of simple darkness to a more urbanised Ireland of complex brightness. And the reason so many people – well, so many academics – were willing to take the ghost stories seriously is because the play operates on so many different levels (or, to quote Martin McDonagh, it ‘has layers’).

Over time, people began to wonder if the ghosts in McPherson’s plays were actually metaphors – or if, instead, he was just trying to scare us, playing on our sensations rather than our intellects. Probably the strongest example of this reaction came when Fintan O’Toole reviewed Shining City at the Gate, and complained about its ending. Here’s what he wrote:

It says a lot about Shining City that, like some corny slice of Jeffrery Archeresque rubbish, it has an ending that reviewers can’t reveal. An eloquent contemplation of the sheer sadness of real lives is boiled down to one short and stupid word: “Boo!” McEhlatton’s subtle acting (a scene in which he silently wraps a teddy bear for his daughter is vastly more haunting than any ghost or ghoul)… [is] betrayed by a gesture that reeks of panic and a loss of faith in the material.

O’Toole concluded the review by suggesting that Shining City features “some of his best and most of his worst work” (I’d note, however, that if my Google Alerts are to be believed, the play is regularly produced around the US).

That’s one of O’Toole’s harshest reviews – it’s most unusual to find him using words like ‘rubbish’, ‘stupid’, and so on. But he was right, I think, to make the point that McPherson’s writing is often “haunting” even when there are no ghosts around – and that point comes through very clearly in The Night Alive.

The play is about a middle aged man called Tommy, played by Ciaran Hinds, who takes in a prostitute who was beaten up by her boyfriend. Over the 100 minutes or so of the play, there are no ghosts (in the traditional sense). Yet there is a moment featuring Brian Gleeson that is genuinely frightening and unnerving, and the play’s conclusion is  surprisingly similar to the end of Shining City, in that both end with the unexpected appearance of a woman. And at the end of The Night Alive, the audience should find themselves wondering if what they are seeing is reality, dream, or something else. So as in Shining City, the lines between the real and the supernatural are being blurred, but here to much more subtle effect.

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This confirms that for McPherson, ghosts and the ghostly are a way for him to present onstage the loneliness, guilt and shame that his characters embody so eloquently. I’m not sure if we’ll see another ‘ghost play’ for McPherson, but I do think his writing is going to continue challenging our views on life and death, the spiritual, the real, and so on.

And this leads to the second interesting feature, which is:

A new approach to philosophy (involving religion?)

The published edition of the script begins with an epigraph from one of the gospels, describing the adoration of the Magi. Or, as we’d put in Ireland, the arrival of the ‘three wise men’ to pay tribute to Christ. In the play itself, one of the characters describes a dream in which he’s visited by one of the magi, who describes a strange vision to him. So there is some interesting religious imagery at work in the play.

There’s also a series of comments about the relationship between time and perception – expressed most clearly in a discussion about how time slows down as you approach a black hole (a fact that is invoked in the play as evidence for the existence of God).

McPherson was a Philosophy student at UCD and while I believe he wrote his MA thesis on Mill, he seems to be drawing a lot on philosophies of perception, or perhaps phenomenology, in his recent work. There was quite a bit of this in The Veil, which explored how the individual’s perception of reality can shift according to various factors. Similarly there is a sense here in which time can slow down or speed up depending on where a person is or what he/she is thinking.

The references to the magi have a lot of resonances in the play – these are men who follow a star to worship a being that is both human and divine, and I think McPherson is trying to show us how men like Tommy can transcend their circumstances by idealising others, finding epiphanies in the everyday.

I’m not sure where McPherson is going with these ideas but it feels like he’s working through a series of questions about space and time.  And indeed those questions have been there since The Weir, a play that tricks us into believing that 90 minutes in the theatre is actually a night’s drinking in a pub.

Dramatically, those questions also have the impact of raising the stakes for Hinds’s character, since we understand that his idealisation of the woman in the play offers him a way to reverse or slow down time… And that in turn leads to the next point –

“Same Old Show”? – Women in McPherson

In that O’Toole review of Shining City McPherson is also criticised for his charactersiation of the only female character in that play, whose dialogue was described as ‘clunky’ and whose role was a ‘hopeless task’ for Kathy Kiera Clarke  (according to O’Toole). That review came out at about the same time as Karen Fricker published an article called “Same Old Show”, which complained about the idealisation and objectification (and hence the marginalisation) of women in plays by McPherson and O’Rowe.

Those who have criticised McPherson for his presentation of women characters won’t find much to revise their views in The Night Alive. As Fintan Walsh puts it in his review for Irish Theatre Magazine:

[McPherson’s] writing doesn’t exactly degrade her [Aimee, the play’s only female character], but it doesn’t give her anything interesting to say or do either. She never develops beyond being the stimulus for men to reflect on men, and their experience of the world. Though in a beautiful performance a compelling [Caoilfhionn] Dunne manages to suggest rich layers of light and shade in the role, it’s underwritten. While there are similarities with the part of Valerie in The Weir – another female who arrives into a male universe out of the blue – this character isn’t even given the opportunity to speak at length.

I’m not sure if I fully agree that Aimee’s part is underwritten. She certainly seems to say less than the men, but Dunne does add a lot of depth to the role by using silence and shifting from defensive to open postures and so on. But it’s true to say that she is the stimulus for men to reflect upon themselves whereas we never get any sense of what her own reflections about herself might be. But that’s simply because this is a portrait primarily of Tommy – and everyone in the play is there largely to help us understand him.

But what struck me most about the characterisation of Tommy is that he seemed exactly like a Billy Roche character. Roche and McPherson collaborated on Eclipse together, and McPherson has directed one of Roche’s plays – so it’s not much of a surprise that Tommy comes off a bit like the male lead in Roche’s The Cavalcaders or Owen in On Such as We.

As Roche does so often, McPherson is  showing what happens when a male figure idealises a woman, using her to justify and rationalise his own existence.  But I don’t think he’s saying that this is a good thing. Aimee becomes the territory that the men in the play fight over – as happens in The Weir too – and I think McPherson is providing a very accurate representation of how (some) men perceive women in presenting matters in this way. So again this is a theme that’s developing interestingly – and contrasts with The Birds, in which two women compete over one man. In short, I think there’s a lot more to be said about gender in McPherson.

 Another link with Billy Roche…

…is the play’s use of music: Conor McPherson remains the Irish playwright whose i-pod I’d most like to steal  borrow. Music has been important in his recent plays – I’m thinking here of how Neil Young features in Shining City or John Martyn at the end of The Seafarer. What’s notable though is that those songs aren’t essential to the action – you could easily end The Seafarer with something other than “Sweet Little Mystery” and although it mightn’t work as well, it won’t ruin the play.

Here though a Marvin Gaye song (“What’s Going On”) is essential to the action, and there is a dance scene in which a lot of the things that haven’t been said up to that point in the play become obvious. I was slightly critical of Elaine Murphy a few weeks ago for including a dance scene in Shush, on the basis that we’ve seen a few too many of them in Irish drama over the last 23 years (since Lughnasa and Digging for Fire). I was slightly surprised to see McPherson doing this here too for the same reason: it’s not like him to try something that’s been so well done by so many others.

Yet there is something interesting going on with his use of music here, which includes a lot of Talk Talk, and which concludes with Father John Misty’s “Funtimes in Bablyon” (with thanks to Fintan Walsh for identifying the song for me). And indeed the scene with Marvin Gaye works very well indeed.

In the past, I have sometimes been critical of  productions (especially in student or fringe settings) for using contemporary music, firstly because I think that a well known song can take us out of a play rather than intensifying our awareness of it, and secondly because I think music is sometimes used because a director or actor doesn’t know how to convey an emotion or idea by, well, directing or acting.

There are times when I think McPherson is at risk of this problem here  – if you leave the theatre thinking about Father John Misty rather than McPherson, that could be a problem.

But thinking about his work overall, I’m very excited by what he’s trying to do with the integration of music into his action. I don’t see him joining the growing group of people who are staging Irish musicals at present, but he’s showing an awareness of the dramatic power of music – and the musicality of drama – that is starting to remind me of Tom Murphy.

McPherson the Director

As ever, McPherson is at his best as director in the work he does with the actors. The performances are very impressive – especially from McElhaton, who gives a beautifully sympathetic portrayal of a man who (to paraphrase the Marvin Gaye song) doesn’t know “what’s going on” most of the time, but who is doing his best to make sense of the world around him anyway. McElhatton manages to portray an affecting blend of perplexity and good-naturedness that I found myself thinking about for a long time after the performance finished. Everyone else was great too, but that’s the one that stuck in my mind.

I was also interested in the development of what we could almost call the McPherson ensemble. Hinds has been in The Seafarer, The Birds and Eclipse; Jim Norton has been in Port Authority, The Weir, The Seafarer and Eclipse and The Veil; Dunne has been in The Veil; McElhatton has been in Shining City and The Seafarer. This isn’t quite in the same territory as Druid’s use of ensemble, but I’m enjoying seeing these actors work through these roles over a long period – 15 years in the case of Norton.

As for the staging – the Donmar space is very intimate, and this production was played almost fully in the round (with seats in front of and to the left and right of the stage) – so we had a sense of almost being in Tommy’s bedsit during the action. And a lot of the entrances and exits happened when the actors walked between the rows of seats. I enjoyed the sense of deep immersion that resulted from the staging, but wondered how the play would work on a standard pros arch stage. I suspect that what we’d lose in intimacy we might gain in tension: we never really feel that Tommy’s space has been invaded or transformed and while it’s not necessary that we do, I’d be curious to see what the impact of a more self-contained set might be

Where Next?

As I write above, The Night Alive feels like McPherson is heading in some very interesting new directions. But I would want to emphasise that in itself it’s also a very good play, and it’s been given a great production with a first-rate Irish cast by the Donmar. I’d hoped we might see it at the Gate in this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival (as has happened a lot in the past) but for the moment we’ll have to wait for news of an Irish production (just as we are still waiting for an Irish production of The Veil). It would be good to see one.

Galway Arts Festival 2013 programme highlights

The Galway Arts Festival Box Office opens today. We at NUI Galway have a lot of dealings with GAF, both formal and informal. Many of our students volunteer with the Festival every year, and we also run an internship programme called SELECTED, which involves our students getting access to many of the producers and artists who help to make the Festival happen.

This year’s programme is strong in many art-forms, and as ever the problem won’t be deciding what to see so much as working out what I’ll have to miss. But here’s what I’m looking forward to most, in no particular order.

Rite of Spring and Petrushka – we saw a dress rehearsal of these shows in Galway a couple of months ago, just before Fabulous Beast brought them to London. They are beautiful – anyone who remembers the final act of this company’s Giselle will know what to expect. I’ve heard a lot of  friends saying that they look forward to catching this show when it gets to Dublin – but I’m told it’s not going to be on there as part of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. So if you want to see it, now’s your chance.

Grizzly Bear – last year lots of people were kicking themselves for missing Chic at the Big Top, which was described by those who saw it as the best gig of the year (one person told me it was the best gig she’d been to ever). I suspect Grizzly Bear will be the same this year. Lots of people ask me what Grizzly Bear are like, and it’s actually quite hard to say. If you like Foals or Modest Mouse or Alt-J or the National, you will probably like Grizzly Bear – but they are nothing like any of those other bands and in fact are unlike anyone else at all. Their music is ambitious and often comes with a sense of fun – they seem ideally suited to the Big Top and the Big Top ideally suited to them. They are playing in Dublin also, but I think the intimacy of the Galway venue – and the festive mood in the city – will make this the show to see this summer.

Howie the Rookie – unlike the Fabulous Beast show, this is on in Dublin now and will also tour on to Cork and Edinburgh. But I’m looking forward to seeing it in the rebuilt Taibhdhearc, an intimate venue that should allow for a strong rapport between the audience and Tom Vaughan Lawlor, who is playing both roles in this 1999 Mark O’Rowe play. It’s produced by Anne Clarke’s Landmark, a company that always produces excellent work. I have to admire Anne Clarke’s skill as a producer:  she has cut her acting bill in two and in doing so has made Howie seem like one of the year’s most exciting prospects. Lawlor is a brilliant actor who is not always well cast – he gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in Jimmy Fay’s Arturo Ui at the Abbey a few years ago, but was jarringly out of place in Friel’s adaptation of Three Sisters in the same theatre. Both roles in Howie will suit him well. Reports from Dublin are already very positive about this, and tickets there are going fast. Would assume this will be one of the first Festival shows to sell out.

Mies Julie – I have seen Miss Julie a few times and never warmed to it – in the productions I saw,  Julie’s trangression of class and gender boundaries didn’t resonate much, and I could never determine whether this was a problem with the script, the performances, the direction or the context. But Yael Farber, who is adapting and directing this South African production, has a very strong track record – and friends who have seen this in Edinburgh and New York raved about it.

Riverrun We’ve seen quite a few Joyce adaptations since his work was freed from copyright. Some have been very good (most of Corn Exchange’s Dubliners and most of the Joe Dowling/Frank McGuinness The Dead for example), and some have received a more mixed reaction. This adaptation by Olwen Fouere of the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter from Finnegans Wake is likely to be very strong. Again, friends who have seen rehearsed readings of this have been very positive about it.

The Adventures of Shay Mouse – every year, Andrew Flynn produces a show in the Festival with an amateur cast. In the past he did so with Galway Youth Theatre but this year it’s Galway Community Theatre. As anyone who knows Andrew’s work will attest, he has a (genuinely) unique ability to inspire professional-level performances from amateur actors – something I’ve seen a few times in the work he’s done with our Drama students at NUI Galway. This is a family play by Patrick McCabe, and while that might sound like a contradiction in terms, this should be a lot of mischievous fun.

Other things to enjoy – Enda Walsh in conversation, Hyperactive by John Scott, and another very strong visual arts programme. I don’t know much about Stella and Lou but its author Bruce Graham was in Galway last year with his play The Outgoing Tide. He’s a former stand-up comedian, and that is evident from his writing, which is very funny – but also very emotional too. At the Taibhdhearc they are staging an adaptation of Tom Murphy’s Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant and that too should be very interesting…

Overall it looks set to be a great couple of weeks… Full programme is on www.galwayartsfestival.com