Room by Emma Donoghue at the Abbey

So last night I attended the opening of Emma Donoghue’s Room, the stage adaptation of her 2010 novel which later became an Oscar-winning film. It’s an interesting production, one that allowed me to pull together a lot of thoughts about this year’s Abbey season, while also raising issues in its own right.

When the Abbey’s new programme was announced, it was generally greeted with excitement, I think. The stage was being opened out to other Irish companies, there were interesting new productions to look forward to, and there was also the prospect of work by major artists like Lisa Dwan and John Tiffany. So all very good.

But there were reservations evident here and there, mostly on social media, and mostly asking one question: why were there so many adaptations? From No’s Knife to Room and on to Let the Right One In, we’re seeing plays being created out of works that existed in other media first – a development that  follows on from Marina Carr’s Anna Karenina at the Abbey last year, while also being mirrored in Selina Cartmell’s first programme at the Gate, which includes adaptations of The Great Gatsby, The Red Shoes and The Snapper. And the implication in some of those comments was that we were losing out in some way by being presented with such work.

But I’ve never really understood the prejudice against adaptations, which, apart from anything else, seems to ignore a lot of the history of Irish theatre. From its inception, the Abbey staged plays that took stories from one medium and placed them in another: even on its opening night it gave us On Baile’s Strand, an adaptation of Irish legend – followed later by Lady Gregory’s versions of Moliere, Yeats’s Oedipus, and many other versions and adaptations. We might also argue that what Synge did in writing Shadow of the Glen was a form of adaptation: he took an oral folktale and refashioned it for live performance. So I don’t think we should see this year as representing a major departure from the norm. Yes, it’s probably unusual that 2017 will pass without a play by Friel or Murphy or O’Casey or Synge at the Abbey. But we haven’t been starved of work by those writers and presumably haven’t heard the last of them either.

Internationally, there seems to be a much greater acceptance of adaptations, albeit that their prominence is driven partly by producers’ desire to manage risk by giving audiences already familiar stories. So right now we have 1984 on Broadway, for example – not to mention the multiple musicals that bring so-so Hollywood movies to the stage. But we can also point to companies like Shared Experience or Elevator Repair Service, which have found ways of giving theatrical life to well known novels. So there doesn’t seem to be quite the same level of resistance to adaptations elsewhere in the English-speaking world. (I should add here that there are many examples of adaptations on our own stages too at present – CyclopsThe LadykillersOnce the Musical and other productions.)

I also think there is an interesting coherence to this year’s Abbey programme, which, it’s becoming increasingly evident, focusses on the theme of entrapment. There’s a link to be drawn between Walsh’s Ballyturk and Arlington on the one hand and Room on the other: indeed, the conclusion of Ballyturk drew direct comparisons with Room when it premiered, and both can be linked back to the Fritzl case in Austria. But that theme of entrapment runs through the other productions: it’s there in Godot (“we’re not tied?”) and No’s Knife, and also is an important presence in Katie Roche and Let the Right One In. Even Ulysses is about entrapment: it’s about Molly in the bedroom, about the nets that Stephen needs to fly past, about the nightmare of history that he wants to awake from, about the idea of Dublin as a kind of Room that Bloom and Stephen keep circling,  like the double act in Ballyturk. The idea of marriage as a trap also runs through these plays (especially in Ulysses and Katie Roche), and it will be interesting to see how the presentation of Katie speaks to the performance of Molly Bloom when both characters appear at the theatre.

And perhaps in this programme there’s a subtle declaration of intent in relation to the Abbey itself. Enda Walsh’s various rooms have always seemed like metaphors for the theatre itself, the sense of entrapment felt by the characters acting as emblems of Walsh’s  willingness to push against theatrical form. It’s interesting that the first year of the new directors’ Abbey programme is all about the frustration of being confined to one space. The opening of Jimmy’s Hall in Leitrim and the national tour of Two Pints can be seen as evidence of a desire to get out of the Abbey in much the same way that many of the characters on the main stage this year are seeking to break free of their own boundaries.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into things.

But in any case, Room feels at home at the Abbey, both thematically and in the context of the theatre’s history and its possible futures. It is, it’s important to say, an international co-production, with lines delivered in English accents – and so there isn’t quite the sense of a community being in conversation with itself that was evident with, say, Ballyturk (which in its Galway premiere drew immediate comparisons to the Tuam Babies case). Instead, we are introduced to interesting non-Irish voices in the acting company – while also encountering the work of two excellent international designers in Lily Arnold and Andrezej Goulding. But the production does hit home (in all senses of that phrase) in another way: it’s a play by a female Irish author on our national theatre’s main stage. It would be great if it led to a re-evaluation (and revival) of Donoghue’s many stage plays, which are known less well than her novels.

But the key question for any adaptation is whether it is a success in the new medium in its own right  or whether it seems derivative of the original. What’s interesting about Room is that there are times when it is both of those things.

I’m sure somebody somewhere has probably written about the difficulty of adapting novels written from a first person point of view for the stage (as opposed to adapting third person narratives such as Anna Karenina or Les Miserables). The simplest and most common way of doing this is simply to put an actor on stage and have him or her tell the story directly to us. This is how Beckett’s prose has been performed, and it is what Annie Ryan did for A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, for example.

But adapting the narrative is a major challenge for Room, which in the original is told from the point of view of the five-year-old boy, Jack, who is trapped in the Room with his mother. The brilliance of the novel lies in the extent to which we as adults know more about what is happening than the narrator himself does: we fill in blanks, place things in a moral or social context that the boy himself is too young to comprehend. And along the way we also see the world from the perspective of the child.

The novel thus captures how one of the gifts offered by parenthood is that our children allow us to learn about the world a second time, when we see it newly through their eyes (this is also one of the things that reading great novels can do for us). Room has the same gift to offer, allowing us to learn again the nature of reality as seen through the eyes of Jack. The book is both moving and revelatory from the extent to which it makes everyday things unfamiliar to us, and new again.

Staging the story means that we leave the boy’s mind and see the action instead as a representation of “reality”, with Jack’s perspective one of many that are dramatized in the play. In removing some of the interpretative burden from the audience, Donoghue  risks making the action seem excessively literal, then – a problem that she attempts to address by placing onstage an adult actor who is a version of Jack’s inner self. His actions mirror Jack’s emotional state, and he often narrates Jack’s unspoken thoughts and feelings, saying them directly out to the audience. He is in many ways a theatricalisation of Jack’s point of view from the novel.

Perhaps he could be described as something of a cross between two Friel characters: Gar Private from Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Michael from Dancing at Lughnasa. But he’s never quite one or the other. He’s not an adult looking back on his memories (as in Lughnasa). But because the role is played by an adult, he doesn’t feel like a private version of Jack either. One of the things that is significant about Donoghue’s child narrator of the novel is that (unlike Gar in Philadelphia) there is not a huge schism between his public and private self: one of the forms of violence that Old Nick inflicts upon him and his mother is to make that distinction between inside and outside seem null and void. Ultimately the presence of the adult version of Jack feels like it arises from a perceived need to have someone on stage who can enact elements of the story that are too complex for the child actors to perform. This feels like a compromise rather than an inherently necessary part of the theatrical composition.

Setting that aside, perhaps the most surprising element of the adaptation is the inclusion of a number of songs, which are performed to a recorded backing track. To be clear, this is not Room – the Musical, if only because in musical theatre the creation and refinement of musical motifs becomes a key part of the storytelling and character development, whereas here the songs feel incidental or contextual. But it is a play with songs. And that feels very strange, given the subject matter.


A problem with these songs, for me anyway, was their use at times that often felt very inappropriate, including most notably in a scene in which Old Nick rapes Ma while Jack hides in a wardrobe. We see Old Nick arrive, remove his boots, engage in threatening chitchat, and get into bed. And then Jack (in the wardrobe) begins to count the squeaks of the bed’s springs. It’s a difficult scene to watch.

Midway through these events, though, the actor playing Ma breaks into song. And while I believe we were intended to see this moment as indicating Ma’s resilience and determination to survive – and her ability to separate herself from what was happening as a way of surviving – it felt inappropriate to the context. I think audience-members will have a variety of views on this scene, some positive and some negative. But one criticism could be that it risks inhibiting our apprehension of the full horror of what is being done to Ma. I was not ungrateful for that distraction last night, because I’ve read the book and didn’t particularly want to live with those experiences again. But I felt that the original novel made more demands upon us as readers.

I’m not suggesting that any subject should be off-limits for musical performance onstage: there is a fully orchestrated and choreographed scene of sexual assault in West Side Story, for example, while the song “Hello Little Girl” from Into the Woods plays very dangerously with multiple taboos around children and sexuality. But the reason those songs are effective is that they’re situated contextually, both in relation to the music and the characterisation. It may well be a failing on my part but I couldn’t work out what the songs were doing in Room or why they were needed.

And yet – there were moments last night when the production was outstandingly good. The use of projections on a rotating stage gives us a sense of the interior life of Jack (while also helping to mitigate some of the bleakness of the story). And notwithstanding my criticisms of the use of song, I was impressed by the exceptional sensitivity and integrity displayed in the treatment of the child actor who is present during the scene (mentioned above) when Old Nick rapes Ma. As in the original novel, it’s a movingly honest portrait of parenthood: of what we as parents give our children – and of what we receive from them – and of what we sometimes take from them too. It represents the simple human truth that parenthood involves a gradual letting go, an act that is both painful and a source of happiness. The honesty and insight in evidence here will resonate wherever this play is performed.

It’s also a play that deals fascinatingly with the workings of male power. There is the obvious sense in which the lives of Ma and Jack are completely at the mercy of Old Nick, who is as menacing offstage as when he is present (his cutting off of Room’s electricity, for example, is an act of intimidation that is partly fuelled by his absence: Ma knows that the only thing worse than Old Nick coming back is his never coming back). But that theme is evident too in the relationship between Ma and her own father, a well nuanced figure who initially expresses his outrage against Old Nick for what had been done to “his daughter” – as if the crime was against the father rather than Ma herself. There’s a lot of interesting material to work with here, both for the actors and the audience.

But the production is most successful in the performances by Ma (Witney White) and the three child actors who play Jack (Darmani Eboji, Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans and Harrison Wilding). There’s a very moving physical and emotional intimacy between mother and child, and I have never before seen a child actor carry as much emotional weight on a stage as I saw last night. Here the direction by Cora Bissett has to be praised. There is great eloquence in the choice of movements for Jack – the way he curls up while hiding in the wardrobe, the subtlety of his gradual development of an ability to use stairs in the second half of the play, the growing physicality of his interactions with his grandfather, the careful development of a repertoire of affectionate gestures between him and his grandmother, and so on. At the risk of offering what will surely seem like a backhanded compliment, I thought all of this was so good that the songs could have been cut (or not included in the first place), and I also wondered if the play could have been staged without the adult actor playing Jack (the actor himself is very good, by the way: I’m not criticising his performance). Yes, the total removal of these elements would leave gaps to be filled, and yes the subject matter is already difficult enough as it is and needs to be lightened or mediated in some way. But the strength of this production lies  in our being in the presence of these actors and empathising intimately with them. I wanted to have fewer distractions from that relationship.

And this is where adaptations offer different experiences for audiences. Some people in the theatre last night will have read the book, others will have seen the film, some will have done both, and some will know nothing about the story at all. And inevitably your judgement of the action will be shaped to some extent by whatever version of Room (if any) you have brought with you.

But I don’t think this makes for any kind of second-rate experience. If Room proves anything, it is that we should see adaptations not as a lesser version of original stage plays, nor as being like a faded photocopy of a primary text. Rather, they need to be seen as an instinsic part of our theatrical heritage (especially at the Abbey), as having value in their own right, and as requiring a set of critical tools that will allow us to appreciate them for what they are and what they do. They are not inferior to original plays; they are just slightly different works of art.

So I left the theatre all the more enthused about the prospect of seeing how the rest of the year will pan out, with Gatsby, Jimmy’s Hall, Ulysses,  Let the Right One In, The Red Shoes and many other productions in other theatres on the way. It took me a couple of years after its publication to face up to reading Room, a novel which (like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) I am glad to have read but will almost certainly never re-read. I would not let any such hesitation stop anyone from going to see this play, however. There is a lot going on here, and while I think it will evoke mixed reactions (it certainly did so last night amongst the people I spoke to or overheard) it also raises important issues about what we stage and how we stage it — about the voices we listen to, the questions we ask, the people we value.


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.



Sex in Irish Drama: Running to Stand Still

During the last month, I’ve seen two productions that come from very different eras, and which seem to suggest that Irish drama has changed enormously. The first was Rough Magic’s comedy Jezebel by Mark Cantan, and the second is the current Abbey Theatre revival of John B. Keane’s Sive, directed by Conall Morrison.

Jezebel is a light-hearted comedy about a male/female couple who decide that their sex life needs to be spiced up. They work their way through various handbooks, and they play out multiple scenarios – before  deciding that having a threesome might make things (more?) interesting for them. The production has now finished its Irish tour (though it is going to Scotland soon) so I’m probably not going to ruin anyone’s enjoyment by saying that the twist is that, after the threesome takes place, the two women involved both become pregnant. A series of complications and deceptions arise, and it all concludes with the two women giving birth simultaneously.


The play could just as easily have been called Bedroom Farce, and indeed it feels a lot like an Alan Ayckbourn play at times: it’s well crafted, it features some clever jokes (about statistics, of all things), and it has some fun with theatrical form. In common with a lot of Rough Magic plays, there’s some clever use of direct address of the audience – most of which is delivered in a style of easy familiarity, as if we all understand each other very well, and all share exactly the same set of values.

Also notable is the affluence of the characters . For example, when the couple discover that Jezebel is pregnant, both immediately state that they’ll pay her medical bills (a very casual attitude to a bill of at least €3,000).  So these are the kinds of people whom we don’t often see on the Irish stage: characters who are not very different from the audience.

And, again in common with a lot of Rough Magic plays, Jezebel feels both contemporary and cosmopolitan. The three actors (Peter Daly, Margaret McAuliffe and Valerie O’Connor) all deliver lines in their own Irish accents, but the play could easily  be re-located to any other English-speaking country; I am open to correction on this, but I don’t recall any moments in the script that specifically identified the characters or location as Irish.

So this production has a lot in common with those great moments when Rough Magic did work like Declan Hughes’s Digging for Fire or Shiver or Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain  plays where it’s obvious that young people in the audience are experiencing a thrill of recognition. And I did hear people say afterwards that they never knew it was possible to see plays like the one they’d just watched – which is a thought I’d had myself back in 1991 when I saw a Rough Magic play for the first time myself.

Rough Magic have probably done more than any other Irish company to find common ground between sex and Irishness. For example, their 2004 musical Improbable Frequency features a long musical number that involved Peter Hanley and Lisa Lambe narrating their characters’ first sexual encounter with each other. Similarly, they also produced Christian O’Reilly’s play about transvestism and fidelity, Is This About Sex?  

Rough Magic have always set out to bring Irish drama up to date, and if they’ve included sex in their plays, it’s probably because they were in rebellion against works like John B Keane’s Sive. The story of how an old farmer tries to buy a young bride for himself puts Keane’s play firmly in the tradition of Restoration comedies about the marriage market (for reasons  that I can’t articulate it reminds me slightly of Behn’s The Rover). But, as many have observed, the play uses ritual and repetition to create a sense of tragedy – albeit a tragedy intermixed with moments of melodrama. So it’s much closer to the Greeks than to London in the 1670s (or Ireland in the 2010s).

And, in contrast to Jezebel, the problem in Sive is that no-one is having sex. The old farmer who lusts after Sive is, as played by Daniel Reardon, dominated by a kind of malevolent vulpine appetite. Sive herself is in a passionate but apparently chaste relationship with a younger man called Liam Scuab. The matchmaker who causes so much trouble in the play does so because he has been embittered by his own failure to form a relationship. And most interestingly, the aunt and uncle who betray Sive are clearly in a relationship that lacks intimacy – they have no children of their own, and their wariness with each other hints at years of sexual disappointment and a kind of bruised vulnerability. As played by Barry Barnes and Derbhle Crotty, their relationship is  dominated by sex – but only in the sense that any mention of bed seems to throw both into a state of defensiveness and dejection.


Simon O’Gorman (Thomasheen Seán Rua), Róisín O’Neill (Sive) and Daniel Reardon (Seán Dota) in Sive by John B. Keane. Directed by Conall Morrison. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

I thought Sive was a very good production with excellent acting from the entire cast.  As ever with Keane I thought it could have benefited from some cuts; I’m not sure that the level of repetition in the play is necessary or effective. That said, many people I know who have seen it have spoken of being deeply moved by the production, so it’s clearly working well.  Likewise Jezebel is also a very good production. One of my First Year students who saw the play spoke about the precision of the actors’ line delivery, especially in the case of Peter Daly; the student made the point that they’d never realised that actors’ diction has  to be so clear in order to carry a funny play for a long period. I thought that was an astute comment: the production will probably strike some viewers as frivolous or meaningless but the precision and discipline on display from the actors and director was very impressive.

I can imagine that someone going from Sive to Jezebel might form the impression that Ireland has been transformed during the last 50 years, at least insofar as sex is concerned. Sive gives us a world in which sex dominates because no-one can speak about it, or express their sexuality fully. Guilt abounds. In contrast, Jezebel gives us an Ireland in which sex is not just normal but normative: there’s an expectation that the people in this play must be sexually active in the way that sexual inhibition is expected in the world of Sive.

It’s often stated that the reason we like watching John B Keane (and Martin McDonagh) in contemporary Ireland is that doing so allows “us” to breathe a “cathartic roar of relief” (as Vic Merriman put it) because “we” are no longer like the “them” that we see on the stage. And I can imagine how someone watching Jezebel could see that play as suggesting that “we” have “moved on” and are much more sexually confident and adventurous.

But – at the risk of knocking down an argument that no-one has actually made yet – I don’t think such a view would be accurate. What struck me about these two plays is that, despite their differences, both present sex in Ireland as something utterly joyless. This is explicitly the case in Sive, but that joylessness is also present in Jezebel. The couple at the centre of the Rough Magic play feel the need to spice up their sex-life after only eight months together, and the various acts they imagine seem motivated by boredom rather than desire. They reminded me of people at a Starbucks counter who are so overwhelmed by the range of choices available that they end up paralysed: I found myself wondering why they couldn’t just have whatever the sexual equivalent of an ordinary cup of coffee might be.

In other words, the journey from Sive to Jezebel is not one from sexual suppression to sexual freedom. instead, it’s a journey  from one set of unhealthy attitudes about sex to another set of hang-ups.

We’ve seen a lot of work on sexuality in Irish theatre over the last 20 years, especially since 2008. Plays like Mark O’Halloran’s Trade attempt to come to terms with the relationship between sex and intimacy, and also the relationship between sex and identity. And of course money is a major theme  there too.  I’d also think of Stuart Carolan’s Empress of India, which sought to stage adult sexuality with a courageous frankness that caused quite a bit of controversy at the time.

But aside from those and a handful of other examples (like O’Reilly’s Is This About Sex?), we haven’t had much drama in Ireland that is specifically about sex (as opposed to sexuality): not sex as a problem, or sex as the cause of a problem or a pathology, but sex as an important part of  life.

As we see sexually explicit films like Nymphomaniac and Blue is the Warmest Colour dominant in our cinemas, it’s interesting to speculate about why we don’t find this kind of frankness in our theatre. Nor do we produce plays from the British or American repertoire that deal with these themes.

Is there something we’re trying to avoid?

In the meantime, here’s an interesting video about Jezebel