Talking About Thomas Kilroy

I was delighted to recently receive a copy of one of the latest publications from Carysfort Press: Guy Woodward’s edited collection Talking about Thomas Kilroy.

This book collects a series of talks that were given at a Trinity College symposium about Kilroy in 2011 – and although  it is short, it succeeds in capturing well the complexity, depth and importance of the work of one of our most important writers. It’s also a surprisingly enjoyable read: as the title implies, the authors of the papers write in a conversational tone, often moving from incisive critical analysis to revealing anecdote.


For example, Antony Roche recalls attending the premiere of The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche, the 1968 play that was probably the first Irish drama to feature an explicitly gay character. He’d been brought by his parents, who were, he said “probably drawn … by the curiosity of seeing our name in the title”. The titular Mr Roche is described in the play as ‘the queer of Dunleary’, where the Roches themselves lived at that time. This prompted an acquaintance to approach Tony’s father at the interval: “You kept it well hid boy, wha?” he said.


This is a funny story but as Roche points out, it also reveals how Dublin audiences were willing to accept plays about gay characters (albeit with some reservations).


There’s a similarly revealing anecdote in Nicholas Grene’s essay (which opens the collection), about Kilroy and modernism, in which Grene recalls playing a role in an amateur production of a play about the flight of the earls. “I played the O’Donnell” writes Grene: “my main function was to die of a fever in Rome in the second act, feverishly declaring nostalgic memories of my native Donegal”. Grene remembered little of that play: “’tons of buttermilk’ is the only phrase I can recall of my lines,’ he confesses.


Again this is funny, but Grene uses the anecdote as a jumping off point for a fascinating discussion of Kilroy’s The O’Neill (premiered at the Abbey in 1969), noting its links to Friel’s Making History. He goes on then to survey Kilroy’s work in the context of modernism and Irish modernity, bringing us right up to Kilroy’s wonderful adaptation of Spring Awakening, the 2009 Christ Deliver Us!


The collection also features an essay by Peter Fallon, who has published all of Kilroy’s plays. In addition to offering an interesting account of Fallon’s Gallery Press, he also provides some revealing discussion of Kilroy’s work – which he, like everyone in the book, acknowledges is difficult to categorise. Nevertheless, Fallon suggests that the plays can be seen as representing a “collision between self and social pressure” and, as such, represent “portraits of the artist”. This is a useful way to think about Kilroy’s plays and other writings.


We also have transcripts of two talks, one about reading Kilroy (chaired by Christina Hunt Mahony and given mostly by academics) and the other about directing him (chaired by Emer O’Kelly, and given mostly by practitioners). While I tend to balk at the separation of these two groups from each other, here it works effectively, simply because it demonstrates their shared approach and attitude to Kilroy’s work. There is a clear understanding throughout the book of how his plays demand and reward close reading and are steeped in literary allusion. There’s also a strong awareness throughout of what is often referred to as his theatricality – by which I think the speakers mean his astonishing awareness of theatrical space (in terms of both movement and design), not to mention his ongoing creative conversations with figures such as Chekhov, Ibsen, Wilde and Pirandello.


And, appropriately enough, the collection also features Kilroy himself. There is an essay from him  entitled “the Intellectual on Stage” which I think might also be seen as a “portrait of the artist” even though it explores works by Beckett, Yeats and Shaw. And there is an excerpt from Blake, Kilroy’s as yet unproduced play about the poet of the same name. The collection is rounded out with a transcription of a public interview between Adrian Frazier and Kilroy which (by the way) features a question from our now President Michael D Higgins.


The book can be read and enjoyed in a single sitting; as I hope to have suggested above, it is as entertaining as it is informative. But it also left me wanting more (often the sign of a good academic study). There has been a special edition of Irish University Review dedicated to Kilroy’s work, and Jose Lanters is working on a book about his plays (having heard some of her conference papers on this subject, I think that this is going to have a major impact on the study of Kilroy). There’s also a very good study by Thierry Dubost from 2007 (originally published in French): it deserves to be better known.


For my part, a publication I’d love to see is a collected edition of Kilroy’s critical essays. His “Groundwork for an Irish Theatre” from 1959 is the closest thing we have to a manifesto for the work that would emerge in the 1960s (it also offers several as yet unfulfilled prompts to other practitioners). Some 40 years later, he wrote another essay in Eamonn Jordan’s Theatre Stuff called “A Generation of Playwrights” (originally published in 1992, I think): an essay that looks back on the work of Kilroy and his contemporaries. To read those two essays side-by-side is to form a clearer appreciation of how Irish drama has been shaped in the second half of the twentieth century – and to understand how central Kilroy has been to its shaping. He also has many excellent essays on Synge and Friel, among others.

These essays illustrate one of the things that I most value about Tom Kilroy and his art: he shows that the distinction between the playwright and the intellectual need not be absolute: the roles can be complementary and overlapping.


We’re fortunate in having here at NUI Galway the archive of Kilroy’s works. As the catalogue shows here  it is extraordinarily rich, presenting unpublished plays, drafts of existing work, and much more. The book includes some images from that collection, which give a nice taste of the kind of scholarship (and practice) that might be possible from this archive.

The book is available from Carysfort Press for the relatively modest price of €15; I note that Amazon are also selling it on Kindle for less than £7.




Doodles in Prompt-scripts.

As we’ve been digitising the Abbey Theatre archive here at NUI Galway over the last couple of years, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what constitutes “useful” archival information. For example, I heard last year about a project to digitise theatre programmes, in which the researchers were going to omit the programmes’  advertisements, deeming them uninteresting. Yet I find the ads in Abbey programmes fascinating – if you know what the theatre thought it could sell its patrons in the 1930s (chocolate and engagement rings, mostly), you understand better their programming choices, for example.

Something I’ve been noticing a lot in archives (not just the Abbey) is that when people are working on productions they can sometimes leave traces that have relatively little to do with the show itself. Hence you can find scripts that have phone messages, shopping lists, and the like.

Something that seems to happen quite frequently up to the 1980s is that a lot of prompt scripts (again not just at the Abbey) feature doodles – that is, images drawn, seemingly half-absentmindedly, while a show was underway or about to begin. So for example today I came across this pic in a show from the 1960s:

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Followed by this one:

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Sometimes these doodles are very interesting – there is a great one from the 1920s that appears to be a sketch of FJ McCormick, for instance.

But these pics don’t seem to have any link at all with the show – or at least none that I could determine. Perhaps more research could answer that question.

But they are also interesting in capturing the state of mind of the person who made the picture – you can sometimes get what appears to be a hint of boredom or frustration in these marginal doodles. It would be interesting to try to determine how many prompt scripts feature these kinds of insertions and to try to track that against the reputation of the show. This could be a complete waste of time, of course, but with hundreds of scripts in the Abbey Digital Archive, this kind of ‘big data’ question could be interesting.

As far as I can tell, these kinds of doodles disappear from the 1990s onwards (lest any stage managers out there feel I am attacking their professionalism!)…. But they offer a great example of how interesting apparently useless archival information can be.

Queering Shakespeare at the Abbey: Wayne Jordan’s Twelfth Night

There’s a very good production of Twelfth Night at the Abbey right now, directed by Wayne Jordan.

Since the Abbey first staged Shakespeare in 1928, when Denis Johnston produced a King Lear that was influenced by European ideas about design, the theatre has always used Shakespeare’s plays to give young directors and practitioners a chance to change (and renew) Irish theatre practice. Yeats and Lennox Robinson chose Johnston to direct Lear because they saw him as a potential Artistic Director of the theatre, someone who could stop the Abbey from falling into the hands of the conservative faction that ultimately did gain control after Yeats’s death. And from 1936 to 1971 Shakespeare went unproduced at that theatre: when asked why, Ernest Blythe explained that the Abbey ‘does not do foreign playwrights’.

As part of the process of renewal in the theatre in the 1970s, the Peacock hosted productions of Twelfth Night and Much Ado directed by a young Joe Dowling, who used the experimental space to highlight the excellence of the emerging generation of Irish actors. The press reports from that time buzz with excitement about the youth and enthusiasm of Dowling’s cast. There was also a visiting production of Timon of Athens and a reportedly beautiful production of Midsummer Night’s Dream from Tomas Mac Anna.

The trend continued. In 1980, Patrick Mason did a Winter’s Tale in the Peacock which featured Liam Neeson and Colm Meany. In 1983, the British director Michael Bogdanov staged Hamlet on the main stage – only three years after he had been prosecuted for obscenity for his production of Romans in Britain at the NT in London. In the early 1990s, around the time that he was delighting the country with the satirical radio programme Scrap Saturday, Gerry Stembridge directed a hilarious country and western version of The Comedy of Errors, starring Pauline McLynne, Mikel Murfi and many others who would go on to have major careers.

Closer to our own times, Conall Morrison in 1999 gave us a Tempest that marked both the end of Patrick Mason’s tenure at the Abbey and the beginning of the Peace Process. We had the Mark O’Rowe-edited 1 Henry IV at the Peacock in 2002, directed by Jimmy Fay. And under Fiach Mac Conghail, we’ve had Romeo and Juliet, Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar by Jason Byrne, Macbeth by Jimmy Fay, and Selina Cartmell’s King Lear last year.

In short, the Abbey is anomalous as a national theatre (in a good way), in that Shakespeare is not seen as something to be dusted down and trotted out dutifully. Rather, Shakespeare is the vehicle the theatre uses when it wants to infuse new energy, new personnel, and new ideas into its repertoire. The plays are usually handled faithfully – we don’t get substantial cuts or major reinterpretations – so most of the innovation happens in the areas of casting and design. And the aim is almost always to surprise us, to do something we haven’t seen before. Not every production achieves this goal, of course – and I do not think this trend always results from a conscious decision on the part of the theatre’s programmers. But it is certainly evident.

And it continues at present with Jordan’s work, which has a very young and inexperienced cast and crew – who bring to the play a spirit of enthusiasm and iconoclasm, but who also display rigour, discipline and technical accomplishment. The aesthetic and outlook of Jordan’s raucous Alice in Funderland is carried forward into this production, but whereas Alice tended to divide audiences (people either loved it or hated it), Twelfth Night is likely to please the theatre’s regular audience-members while having the potential to delight first-time visitors to the Abbey also.

The first feature to mention is the acting. Mark O’Halloran’s casting as Malvolio received a lot of attention in the lead-up to the opening night – and he delivers on expectations. His Malvolio is ridiculous, but if we laugh at him, O’Halloran ensures we can also sympathise with him to some extent too.

Mark O'Halloran in _Twelfth Night_

Mark O’Halloran in _Twelfth Night_

Also enjoyable are Nick Dunning and Mark Lambert, who have a lot of fun as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew: I felt that the audience only fully relaxed when this pair appeared onstage, and there was a noticeable quickening in the audience’s energy every time they returned.

Ger Kelly’s Feste is, simply, beautiful: he has an extraordinarily vocal range, and sings with an emotional restraint that commanded an intensity of attention that you rarely get in the Abbey (or anywhere else). On Twitter, someone wrote that every time Kelly sang it was as if time had stopped. That’s an accurate way of describing it, I think – I found myself forgetting the play, forgetting where I was, and simply taking pleasure in the song.

But the real revelation, to me anyway, was the performance of Natalie Radmall-Quirke as Olivia. She occupies the stage with impressive authority and, of all the actors, has most control over the language: she understands everything she is saying and makes sure that the audience understands it too. Watching her, I found myself being often reminded of the performances that Patrick Mason used to evoke from Jane Brennan in the 1990s, in plays like Saint Joan and Tom Murphy’s The Wake. There was something indefinable and unique about Brennan: you’d never encourage another actor to imitate her way of acting, but you’d never try to stop Brennan from doing it either – and it involved an unusual ability to combine total precision in movement and line delivery with an emotional honesty that always seemed to be skirting dangerously with the possibility of collapse. Radmall-Quirke is similar here: her performance has an emotional authenticity and bravery that is matched by the care of her technique. I had no idea that she is this good.

Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Olivia) and Elaine Fox (Valentine) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photography by Ros Kavanagh. Photo taken from

Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Olivia) and Elaine Fox (Valentine) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photography by Ros Kavanagh. Photo taken from

Also very interesting, however, is Wayne Jordan’s decision to bring to the play a queer aesthetic. In his programme note, he writes as follows:

The queer nature of Twelght Night is undeniable. The queering of class, gender and sexuality is at the core of the play’s alchemy. Viola finds her sexuality while dressed as a boy, Olivia falls in love with a boy who’s really a girl and then sleeps with her brother who’s really a boy. Orsino, who affects to love Olivia, falls in love with a boy who’s really a girl. And this is to point to the most obvious of manifestations. Originally written to be played by boy actors, the erotic sexuality of the drama is arresting in a new and challenging way to each new audience and age.


That reading of the play is of course entirely justified and indeed has been given many times before (albeit never in Ireland, to the best of my knowledge). But Jordan’s reading of the play in terms of sexuality gives the play a political edge that feels very timely: the production was planned before Panti’s Noble Call, but it is impossible not to see Twelfth Night as a continuation of the conversation that Panti initiated.

This is particularly noticeable in terms of the play’s treatment of marriage. As in Merchant of Venice, the play concludes with a man called Antonio left bereft because the younger man that he loves has married a woman. In Merchant, Bassanio’s marriage to Portia is construed mainly in mercenary terms: while he later talks of loving Portia, at the start of the play he describes his decision to seek her out for marriage as an investment that will revive his financial fortunes.

Likewise here, Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia is seen as a betrayal of his prior relationship with Antonio. That relationship is portrayed with real intimacy: we first see the pair entwined together in a bed, semi-naked – and this is one of the production’s only moments of genuine emotional closeness. Conor Madden as Antonio seems blinded to Sebastian’s selfishness and vapidity: Antonio loves him even as he seems largely undeserving of love.

Conor Madden (Antonio) and Gavin Fullam (Sebastian) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photography by Ros Kavanagh.

Conor Madden (Antonio) and Gavin Fullam (Sebastian) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photography by Ros Kavanagh.

The genuine love of these two men is thus disrupted and betrayed by the need to impose a normative version of heterosexual marriage upon Sebastian. “I am not what I am,” says Viola during the play – but if the action ends with her coming out about who she really is, it also involves Sebastian closeting himself away, perhaps definitively, in a marriage that he seems to have no genuine interest in. The impact that this has both on Antonio and Olivia feels devastating. Jordan shows that Shakespeare’s comedic marriages are almost always more unsettling than the sight of a stage full of corpses that we find in the tragedies.

So while it be an exaggeration to see this Twelfth Night as an intervention into debates about marriage equality, it is also true that this production feels urgent and contemporary: it could not have been done in this way a year ago, nor could it be received in this way a year from now. This recalled for me those great interventions by Patrick Mason from the 1990s, where he sought to place sexuality at the centre of the Abbey’s national conversation by directing plays by Frank McGuinness, Tony Kushner, Oscar Wilde and Thomas Kilroy – and by using the Abbey’s social capital to call for gay rights in Ireland and the US (I’ve written more about that in chapter 5 of this book).

By focussing on the cruelty of Sebastian, Jordan also brings out the cruelty of the other characters. Lambert’s Sir Andrew is also left bereft at the end, and we worry what will come of Viola, Olivia and Maria who, like almost all of Shakespeare’s comic heroines, are vastly more interesting than the men they end the play with. And then of course there is poor Malvolio.

As a result of the focus on cruelty, I was struck in a way that I’d never experienced before by the links between Twelfth Night and Othello. Both plays show what happen when an outsider tries to transgress a social boundary: Othello and Malvolio are both persecuted for publicly expressing  love for a woman who would ordinarily be beyond their reach. Both plays explore disguise – the meaning and consequences of that wonderful phrase “I am not what I am”, which appears in the two plays – both for theatre and for our lives. And both argue that society’s response to difference is usually likely to involve intolerance and perhaps even violence.

But they also show how we are attracted to difference: to the wondrous strangeness of Othello’s stories, to the charismatic nihilism of Iago, to the hilarious cruelty of Andrew, Toby and Maria in Twelfth Night, to the beauty of the vacuous Sebastian. The fear of difference, these plays suggest, is the fear of those aspects of ourselves that we are only partially willing to acknowledge.

If I ran a theatre and didn’t have to make any money or attract any audiences, I’d love to play Twelfth Night in rep with Othello, cross-casting Olivia with Emilia, Feste with Iago (as may originally have happened – Robert Armin is reputed to have played both roles), Othello with Antonio, Viola with Desdemona, Orsino with Cassio, and so on.

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

I don’t want to imply that this is a perfect production. It begins with music and ends with dancing – concluding with the actors (or characters?) being covered in water, perhaps being washed clean of the roles they have played. Both images were visually compelling, but I was unable to determine how exactly they cohered with the rest of the play. And because the stage is often empty – with the wings unmasked, and the backstage wall left bare (aside from the words “What You Will” painted in large letters), I sometimes had trouble hearing some of the lines – that is, the sound seemed to disappear off into the wings (I suspect we may read more about that in one of the Sunday papers tomorrow). And while there has been a lot of praise for the production’s inclusion of a song by Prodigy, I found this a little unnecessary and mildly trivialising – and again didn’t really understand what its purpose was, aside from being very funny. Finally, I thought it took a while for the production to get going: as I mention above, I felt that the audience didn’t fully relax into the play until Dunning and Lambert appeared. I think Jordan’s recent productions of Threepenny Opera and Enemy of the People were tighter, more disciplined and more coherent.

But I suspect that the purpose of this Twelfth Night is not to be perfect but to shake things up. There is a definite feeling of a new generation staking its claim to the future of the Abbey. And there is a definite feeling that this play is for Ireland today – just as Mason’s productions spoke to the Ireland that had just decriminalised homosexuality in the early 1990s.  To a far greater extent than any Shakespeare play I’ve seen at the Abbey, it is in conversation with Ireland today: inviting us to see things differently, to see difference itself more accurately and more sympathetically.

One final note: music and song in the play is composed by Tom Lane, and, to use a cliché, his work is worth the price of admission alone. That cliché is not actually inappropriate when it comes to the Abbey: in the early years of the theatre, there was an orchestra that used to play three or four movements during the intervals. Quite a large number of people used to come to the Abbey specifically to hear the music – that is, they would not bother with the plays but would stay for the interval entertainment. I never quite understood the idea of coming to the theatre specifically for the music until I’d seen this production:  I heard someone say afterwards that they’d love to get the soundtrack. I can myself imagine going back specifically to enjoy the songs and music again. So I would suggest that it is worth seeing this production if only to be able to recall when you first saw a production with music by Tom Lane (assuming you have never heard his work before, of course).

The show is quite long – finishing just before 11. And I know that for some people that is likely to be a bit off-putting. But this is a very good production, and it feels like a special moment for our theatre also.