Irish Theatre Highlights 2013

Ordinarily at this time of year we get lots of reviews of the year for fiction, film, sport and so on – but we have not (yet) had one for Irish theatre. So, if only to get a conversation going, I thought it might be interesting to consider what the highlights of the year have been.

It’s been a very good year for Irish theatre, both at home and abroad, so it also seems worthwhile taking a moment to enjoy some memories.

First, a disclaimer. I’m not a theatre critic. I haven’t seen everything and when I do go to the theatre, it’s mostly for personal enjoyment rather than objective analysis. Because I live in Galway, it’s easier (and often cheaper) for me to see theatre in London than it is to see theatre in Cork or Derry, so I can’t give a representative discussion of theatre throughout the island. And because I’m an academic, I always struggle to see more than 5-6 shows at the Dublin Fringe, since it coincides with my busiest time of year.

In other words – if I’ve  left something out, it’s because I probably didn’t see it, couldn’t see it, or (as in the case of Anu’s Thirteen) couldn’t get tickets. So if you think there is a glaring omission, that’s what the comment box below is for…

Rather than focussing on individual productions, I thought it could be more interesting to pick out a few trends that seemed to dominate the year…

A Year of Magical Acting…

I can’t remember another year in which there were so many excellent performances by Irish actors.

The year started strongly with Owen Roe’s Lear at the Abbey – a performance that everyone expected to be great, but which still surpassed my expectations. I also enjoyed Sean Campion’s performance as Kent – and was stunned by Hugh O’Connor’s Fool – a genuine revelation, in the sense that I’d never known O’Connor could perform with such emotional intensity and skill (which is not to disparage his earlier work, but rather to say that what he did here was completely different).

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Later in the year we had Tom Vaughan-Lawlor playing both roles in Howie the Rookie and then Niall Buggy doing amazing work in McGuinness’s Hanging Gardens. Those performances by Roe, Vaughan-Lalor and Buggy are among the best I’ve seen by a male performer anywhere, and at any time.

Probably the most surprising performance this year was by Olwen Fouéré  in riverrun. We all know she’s a great actor, but her use of body and voice in her adaptation of (or response to) Finnegans Wake was like an entirely new art-form: more than theatre, more than opera, more than dance, more than literature, more than song – not quite any of those things but somehow bridging the gaps between all of them.

Two other performances by Irish actresses stand out for me, but both of them happened in London.

Caoilfhionn Dunne  was impressive in Conor McPherson’s Night Alive, doing a great deal to refute the notion that McPherson’s women are always underwritten, by giving a performance of lovely intelligence and depth (albeit in a part that, it must be admitted, didn’t give her much to say).

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Meanwhile Sarah Greene stole the show (from Daniel Radcliffe, no less) in Michael Grandage’s revival of McDonagh’s Cripple of Inishmaan. As Slippy Helen, Greene knew how to combine her character’s cruelty with charisma: we understand why Billy is in love with her, but also understand how and why she might have once “ruptured a curate”.

The person who originated the role of Slippy Helen was Aisling O’Sullivan, and she is currently displaying a lot of that same mischievous humour in Druid’s Colleen Bawn. As she showed when she played Helen back in 1997 – and as she’s showing now – O’Sullivan is a seriously funny actor. It’s great to see her enjoying herself so much in the Boucicault play: her work in it with Ronan Leahy is one of the funniest double acts I’ve seen this year.

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It was also a strong year for ensemble. I loved the way Druid shuffled the deck in its revived DruidMurphy. Marty Rea was every bit as good as he had been when the show premiered in 2012, but it was fascinating to see Rory Nolan and Garret Lombard take on new roles – with the Lombard vs. Rea confrontation in the 2012 Conversations now joined by another Lombard vs Rea confrontation in A Whistle in the Dark. Judith Roddy in the latter play was also excellent, in a role that Eileen Walsh performed so strongly last year. Watching Roddy reveal an entirely new perspective on the part of Betty, I found myself thinking that it’s a pity that the Irish Times Theatre Awards don’t recognize revivals. Sure, I know that the judges have enough to see as it is, but I would have expected Roddy to be a strong contender for a supporting actress nomination if she’d been eligible.

I also liked the ensemble in the Gate’s Enemy of the People. Again we had a central confrontation between two men – in this case Declan Conlon and Denis Conway. But in the supporting roles there was also terrific work, especially from Fiona Bell, an actor who deserves to be seen more often, and in stronger roles. Bell was also very good in Major Barbara at the Abbey where again I found myself wanting to see her onstage for longer.

Another strong ensemble was found in Rough Magic’s revival of Digging for Fire. That production wasn’t as funny as the original Lynne Parker version, but there was a nice sparkiness in the interactions between Orla Fitzgerald’s Clare and John Cronin’s Danny.

But perhaps the most surprising ensemble performance was in the Gate’s Streetcar. Lia Williams’s Blanche was literally the talk of the town for the entire run: I heard so many people gushing about how good she was. I was definitely impressed by her technical virtuosity and emotional authenticity – but the most enjoyable aspect of the performance for me was in the quality of the acting across the ensemble. Catherine Walker and Garret Lombard both gave unusually restrained performances, while as Mitch Denis Conway turned what could have seemed like miscasting into a directorial masterstroke. In the script his character is supposed to be in his late 20s/early 30s, but because Conway looked a couple of decades older than that, his falling-out with Blanche took on added pathos: we understood that Blanche really was his last chance to find happiness. Too often in Ireland we find the big classic plays being well cast in the lead roles but badly filled out in the supporting cast – but here everyone was doing excellent work.

And there were many other strong performances during the year. Gary Lydon stood out in Gare St Lazare’s Godot, while I enjoyed John Carty’s Clov in Blue Raincoat’s Endgame. Lalor Roddy and Janet Moran were brilliantly over the top in Corn Exchange’s Desire Under the Elms. Paul McGann’s Underschaft in the Abbey’s Major Barbara was fascinatingly restrained, both technically and vocally – and thus balanced out by the controlled passion of Clare Dunne as Barbara. And the all-female ensemble in Mephisto’s Eclipsed was excellent: that too is a show that should be seen more widely.

So it was a very strong year for Irish acting, both individually and collectively. I found myself thinking several times during the year that it’s a pity that Irish Times Theatre Awards doesn’t have a category for Best Ensemble: as this year showed, the creation of strong ensembles is one of the things that Irish theatre is doing particularly well at present. That said I don’t envy the judges their decision-making this year: they are going to have to omit some performances that in other years could well have won awards.

Irish Design

Also particularly impressive this year was the quality of Irish design. It would be an exaggeration to say that this is a golden age for Irish design – but there is the feeling that such an era could be approaching. Irish design is usually not as well resourced as is the case in, say, the US or the UK – which means that our productions don’t always have the level of detail you might get in regional American sets – and don’t usually have the snazzy projections and motorised sets that you get in London and on Broadway.

But, illustrating the truth of the cliché that less is more. Irish designers at present seem to be taking more risks than I see in theatres abroad: they are constantly searching for new ways to represent ideas visually and with sound, perhaps (at least in some cases) because shrinking resources make literal or life-like representations difficult. I would hesitate to say that Irish designers have a distinctive vocabulary, if only because so many of them also work abroad. But when I go to theatre in Ireland – wherever I go – I have a feeling that something unique to our theatrical culture is happening in the area of design. And I am constantly surprised by what I see and hear.

One of the year’s biggest surprises came in Decadent Theatre’s Skull in Connemara when, about 20 minutes in, the opening scene’s Irish country kitchen collapsed to the ground, revealing a cross-section of a graveyard, and showing John Olohan literally underground. As directed by Andrew Flynn, that scene change was at once shocking and exciting and, like the play itself, was both funny and morbid at the same time. I’ve been saying for years that I will go and see any show designed by Owen MacCarthaigh, regardless of what the play is: you just never know what he’s going to do. He’s genuinely original, and deserves to be better known throughout Ireland. By replacing the country kitchen with a graveyard, MacCarthaigh and Flynn did exactly what McDonagh does: they show how dead that clichéd Irish country kitchen has become, and then have fun playing with its corpse. This was a great example of design complementing the play’s themes precisely.

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Something similar happens with Francis O’Connor’s amazing set for Druid’s Colleen Bawn, which I saw last week. When the curtain was pulled back at the start of the play, I quite literally found myself saying “wow”. Since this production will be seen in Dublin next month I won’t describe it here (though you can see a partial image of it above, in the picture of Aisling O’Sullivan and Ronan Leahy), but it’s another example of a design concept which is both true to the play and wholly surprising. And it contrasts sharply with the design for the unforgettable Conal Morrison version of that play at the Abbey in 1998.

That surprising quality was true also of the design for Pan Pan’s Embers, especially with its use of a sculpture of a human skull by Andrew Clancy. Recalling those black and white images of Beckett’s head floating in space (like a secular St Oliver Plunkett), the skull also brought us back to theatrical first principles, locating Beckett’s play in a space somewhere between Golgotha and Yorrick’s grave. Aedin Cosgrove’s lights did not just illuminate the action; rather, the transitions from light to darkness became an active presence within the performance itself, almost like a third character to add to Andrew Bennett and Áine Ní Mhuirí’s voices. And then we had Jimmy Eadie’s sound design, all crunching shells and briny lapping water, which managed to both locate and dislocate us. Pan Pan again show us what an Irish total theatre can feel like.

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There was lots more to enjoy during the year: the set in Hanging Gardens, the costumes in Fabulous Beast’s Spring Awakening and Petrushka, the lighting in Junk Ensemble’s Dusk Ahead, the set and sound design for Desperate Optimists’ otherwise disappointing Tom and Vera, the grimy, bloodied set and costumes for Blue Raincoat’s Endgame, the Mad Men-esque costumes of Enemy of the People, the projections for The Risen People….

But my favourite production in terms of design was the Gate’s Streetcar. Just as the cast cohered surprisingly well together, so here the design team worked together extraordinarily well, emphasizing all the time Blanche’s theatricality – and her slipping grasp on reason. I loved the richness of Paul Keogan’s lights, the vivid detail of Denis Clohessy’s sound design, and the strange familiarity of Lee Savage’s set. This was genuinely beautiful work.

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New Plays by Irish Women

Another interesting pattern was the growing status of new work by Irish women. Elaine Murphy’s Shush appeared at the Abbey, making Murphy only the third woman since the 1930s to have a play appear on our national theatre’s main-stage. It was great to see the theatre taking a chance on a relatively new writer (Shush is Murphy’s second play), and good also to see their ongoing commitment to redressing an historical omission that is – to be blunt – shameful, and which reflects badly on Irish theatre in general, even if it is similar to patterns that pertained in other English-speaking countries.

For that reason, I was also glad to see Carmel Winters’ Best Man get a long run in both Cork and Dublin. And I was impressed by Rosemary Jenkinson’s Planet Belfast, a play which I have not seen but which I did read, finding its contextualisation of Northern Irish politics in terms of global concerns both funny and urgent. Nancy Harris’s Love in a Glass Jar appeared at the Peacock, and while it is a very short play, it confirmed for me that Harris is one of the most interesting young writers around at present. She writes work that is very funny, but there’s always an undercurrent of sadness in her work: an awareness of how loneliness motivates so many of our interactions – and explains so many of our most stupid decisions.

And let’s not forget Olwen Fouéré’s riverrun. We’ve seen already some interesting adaptations of Joyce from male writers such as Michael West, Frank McGuinness and Dermot Bolger, but Fouéré’s script was – well – something else again.

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At the time of writing, the Irish Playography lists 55 new plays that were produced in 2013, including adaptations and plays in Irish – and of those, 20 were written or co-written by a woman. I can’t say for certain whether that list is complete, but as a representative sample, the list provides an interesting picture. In 2003, 25% of Irish plays were written by a woman. This year, roughly 40% of Irish plays were written by a woman. Those figures can mask a whole range of other imbalances – the most obvious being that plays by women are still produced mainly in smaller venues, and for shorter runs, than is the case with male authors. But the upward momentum is something to be glad of.

And the appearance of Shush on the Abbey’s main stage is also a step in the right direction – its production gave heart to a lot of the young women I know who are interested in writing for the stage, even though many of them want to do work that is very different from Murphy’s.

So: much more to be done here, but at least we are heading in the right direction.

Irish Plays in the UK

The impact of London on our theatre has always skewed the production and reception of Irish plays. It can be argued (and has been, by me, among others) that when Irish plays are written with a London audience in mind, they tend to avoid dealing with matters that are of exclusively local importance. It’s also true that Irish plays that succeed abroad are often accused of trading on Irish stereotypes – about our drinking, our humour, our fecklessness, our attitude to religion, our all-singing, all-dancing acceptance of oppression – and so on.

Yet London gives Irish actors, writers and designers opportunities to make a living where here they can hope merely to scrape by. The presence of Irish plays in the West End or in Edinburgh helps to promote Irish drama throughout the world, and that has spin-off benefits for education, tourism and publishing. And as I’ve written before, the English and Scottish theatres are both undergoing separate but interlinking renaissances at present – so it’s good that Irish writers and theatre practitioners have a seat at the feast.

For these reasons, it was wonderful to see Once – the Musical make its way to the West End (following a very short Irish out-of-town try-out at the Gaiety). Likewise, while some people have dismissed The Commitments as a jukebox musical, it appears that its success is already creating new audiences for Irish work; I haven’t seen it myself yet but colleagues and friends speak highly of it.

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Conor McPherson’s Night Alive is probably the best new Irish play of 2013, and as I’ve written already it marks what could be a significant development in his work. Also, his The Weir had a strong run in London which has resulted in a West End transfer next month. And we had Daniel Radcliffe acquitting himself well in a very good production of The Cripple of Inishmaan earlier this year.

Yet there are downsides too. I still don’t understand why Richard Eyre’s version of Pirandello’s Liola needed to have the Sicilian characters all speaking in Irish accents: this kind of ethnic stereotyping, whereby Irishness can operate as an exoticised but familiar rural ‘Other’ in England, should have died out a century ago. And I don’t know why the Donmar Warehouse continues to refer to Conor McPherson as one of “our” (i.e. their) best-loved dramatists. And much as I liked Once, Cripple, and The Night Alive I do worry that they are locating Irish drama within a very narrow frame. All three feature alcohol prominently. The McPherson and Walsh plays feature music prominently (as does The Commitments, of course). So the “Irish play” in London does not mean “a play from Ireland”; it instead refers to a genre in which a very narrow set of things may happen. So what happens when Irish writers don’t want to write “Irish plays”?

In Edinburgh, it was again a good year for Irish work. Deirdre Kinihan is getting long overdue recognition, and the success of Halcyon Days both in Ireland and abroad will, I hope, help to develop her work further. Landmark’s excellent Howie  also did well at Edinburgh: my only fear is that it will see Vaughan-Lawlor working permanently outside of Ireland.

But perhaps the best news of the year in the UK was the ongoing success of Owen McCafferty’s Quietly. That play appeared at the Peacock in 2012, where it struck me as the most important new Irish play for at least five years – due to the quality of the writing, but also thanks to the astonishing performances by Patrick O’Kane and Declan Conlon. I can’t help thinking that this is going to be yet another Irish play that will be celebrated when it returns from a triumphant London run, having been underrated at home (this is what happened to The Walworth Farce also). But at least it’s getting the notice it merits.

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Brecht

We know there’s more Brecht to come next year, but his work played a dominant role on the Irish stage during 2013.

I never quite got over the disappointment of learning that Mark O’Rowe wasn’t doing the script for Threepenny Opera at the Gate – so the Dublinisms in an otherwise standard script for this production didn’t sit well with me. But it was definitely a very good evening’s entertainment from Wayne Jordan, often measuring up to the heights of Selina Cartmell’s Sweeney Todd, which I thought was once of the Gate’s best productions of the last decade.

Leaving aside his plays, Brecht’s influence was felt everywhere. It was present in Colin Murphy’s Guaranteed, not only in the decision to have the actors read from their scripts but also from the staging style. And it was present too in Jimmy Fay’s lively Risen People, a production that managed to commemorate the 1913 Lockout without ever losing sight of the human pain that was endured during those events.

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Does this mean that Irish theatre has become more political? As ever, I find this question troubling, since it often seems to confuse journalism with art. Brecht’s work is great not because it responded to events in Germany in the 1930s or America in the same era; it is great because it reveals truths about power, social hierarchies, human nature, and the significance of art. It’s for this reason that Brecht’s work is being so widely produced at present – and why it will probably continue to be produced for a long time to come.

For example, I saw an excellent RSC production of Life of Galileo earlier this year. Its exploration of what happens when you tell truth to power makes it very relevant at a time when governments and media everywhere seem to be cracking down on dissent. Its consideration of the relationship between science and religion likewise is pertinent, and not just in countries like the US where we hear stories of high-schools removing the theory of evolution from the curriculum.  But Galileo is also a show that could have played in Ireland, where it might have been seen as a commentary on the place of Catholicism in our society – yet in England it seemed to be addressing issues in that society about privacy, power, wealth and austerity.

In other words, great art will always be relevant.

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Yet as Colin Murphy’s Guaranteed showed, there is room too for the journalistic approach. Guaranteed is a play which, I think it’s fair to say, is not looking for the big transfer to London – or to be revived fifty years from now – or even five years from now – on artistic grounds. That’s because it’s very much about Ireland now – it is speaking to our society, and asking us to inform ourselves about what our banks did, in a way that may provoke us to make decisions that can change the way our country is run. It’s been a very long time since I sat in a theatre that seemed as engaged and as committed as was the case when I saw this production in Bray this summer. We need more work like this.

Like many people, I’m very excited about Rough Magic’s major production of the Sky Arts-sponsored Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogony next year (and let’s face it, a production of Brecht sponsored by a Rupert Murdoch company raises loads of interesting questions). So we know we’ll be seeing more Brecht. But it will be interesting to see if anyone can follow the lead of Murphy and Fishamble.

Music and the Musical

A final trend was the growing use of music, and the rise of the musical. I am not sure if those two developments are directly connected. But in new plays we saw incidental musical being used to strong effect – as happens in The Night Alive and Shush, most noticeably. We also saw some excellent musicals, the best of which was, of course, Threepenny Opera. And then we saw work that seemed a hybrid of the two, as in The Risen People.

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I think the growing presence of music on our stage is at least partly due to the impact of the Grand Canal Theatre, which is creating new audiences for musicals generally. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s going to be interesting to see how the Grand Canal will fit into the Irish theatre ecosystem in the years ahead. Ideally I would like to see a situation whereby at last some of its annual programming included successful Irish plays, featuring Ireland-based actors and practitioners. I’d worry about the long-term impact on Irish theatre if we have a situation where whole audiences are only seeing theatre that is imported here from abroad.

But on the positive side, I do suspect that it’s possible that someone who goes to see a musical at the Grand Canal might then feel somewhat more comfortable with the idea of going to the Gate or the Abbey for the first time to see Threepenny or Risen People – and that in turn might make them feel more comfortable with the prospect of seeing other kinds of work for the first time. Is that kind of audience development actually happening? I have no idea. But I am glad that we in Ireland have a chance to see work as strong as the Lion King – or, next year, War Horse.  And as I’ve written elsewhere, there is also perfectly enjoyable theatre there, from the Old Vic’s Noises Off to Wicked, both of which I enjoyed very much.

Personal Highlights

So, in no particular order, my personal highlights for 2013 would have to include:

  • The acting and design in Streetcar Named Desire
  • The sound of 600+ people being pleasantly surprised by how good Once was, at the opening night interval in the Gaiety.
  • A British play: Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood in the West End – brilliant, ambitious, morally powerful new writing.
  • riverrun 
  • Niall Buggy in The Hanging Gardens
  • Owen Roe in Lear
  • Howie the Rookie
  • Listening to great Irish writers – Marina Carr, Mark O’Rowe, Enda Walsh, Owen McCafferty, and many others – at this year’s Synge Summer School.
  • Druid’s revived Whistle in the Dark
  • The feeling of electricity in the air in the post-show discussion at Guaranteed
  • Conor McPherson’s Night Alive – a play that has really stayed with me since I saw it six months ago. Let’s hope it gets an Irish production soon.
  • Dusk Ahead by Junk Ensemble.
  • The set change in Skull in Connemara.
  • Ian McDiarmid in the RSC’s Life of Galileo
  • The performances in Corn Exchange’s Desire Under the Elms, especially from Janet Moran
  • The Abbey’s willingness to stage Major Barbara, a play that is theatrically inert but which was among the most thought-provoking productions of the year.
  • Fabulous Beast’s Rite of Spring and Petrushka.
  • Digging for Fire – could have been a nostalgia trip, but seemed as vibrant now as it did back in the early 1990s.

I am sure I’m omitting many other things, but that’s what stands out for now.

Anyone care to add to the list?

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.