David Greig’s THE EVENTS – Dublin Theatre Festival 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Theatre and Social Media – Or: Why Do So Few Irish Dramatists Use Twitter?

Over the last few months I’ve been doing some research on the relationship between social media and theatre.

It probably goes without saying that social media has become a kind of theatrical space in which people perform versions of themselves, and there’s a growing realisation amongst theatre scholars that our methodologies and theories can be used to understand how social media works. The essential idea is that Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are all performance spaces, governed by the conventions that apply in theatre.

If we accept that the theatricality of social media does something to how we think about identity, then an interesting question arises: what is social media doing to theatre companies and practitioners? I think there are lots of interesting examples of how performances are being extended from the auditorium onto social media spaces – and also would suggest that many plays’ “performances” began several months before the play actually opens in the theatre, in spaces like writers’ Twitter feeds, youtube channels, and so on.

One of the best examples of this extension is the musical Once which, among many other activities, recently encouraged its users to record themselves singing “Falling Slowly” and then to post the results on Youtube. The outcome is a fascinating interplay between immersive or imitative performance and free advertising.

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I’m also very interested in how theatre companies are using social media in order to perform plays in new ways. A good example of this is the RSC’s Such Tweet Sorrow, which used Twitter to retell Romeo and Juliet. There was also a Google+ staging of Midsummer Night’s Dream, which seemed pretty interesting, albeit that it also seemed to me like another attempt on the part of Google+ to make that platform seem more relevant.

It’s interesting to me that very few Irish playwrights have a Twitter account, whereas British writers like David Eldridge, David Greig, Simon Stephens, Bola Agbaje and others have taken to the resource with some enthusiasm. In the screengrabs below, you can see how Greig and Eldridge present themselves to the world: Eldridge’s persona is perhaps more “professional” in that it provides a date of birth and link to his Wikepedia page, whereas Greig lists writing plays only as one of four activities that he engages in. Notably neither writer uses a personal portrait; Eldridge gives his location as “Crouch End, London” whereas Greig simply writers “Scotland”. The number of people following the pair is roughly equal, though Eldridge follows nearly 2000 people while Greig follows a measly 381.

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So even before we analyse the actual content of these pages, it becomes clear how both writers are performing a persona. And that persona will have an impact on how the work of each writer is received and understood. For example, in his own account recently, David Greig writes about his nervousness for the opening night of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – and in doing so also happens to mention how much work has gone into it. Eldridge at that time wished him luck – and Greig politely thanked him. In a similar interaction, Simon Stephens consoled Greig on The Scotsman having sensationally and inaccurately claimed that Greig was writing a play about Anders Breivik (the play is The Events, recently opened in Edinburgh and en route to Dublin). Greig used Twitter to correct the newspaper’s assertions, and to defend himself.

So there’s a really interesting performance of these writers’ relationships and attitudes here (and that’s one of the things social media allows us to perform: who we know and who knows us).

There’s also a bit of confusion here between the writers as individuals, and the playwright as public figures. And that confusion extends  when we start to consider how theatres use social media.

Most major theatres now have a social media presence; some have dedicated social media marketing officers; and some use the resources better than others. What is notable about the successful ones is that they tend to create a persona for the theatre, using the word “we” to stand for the institution as a collective, while also using the conventions of one-to-one interactions to create intimacy with users. Mostly those interactions are fairly mundane, dealing with such issues as ticket availability, show running times, and so on. But what’s interesting is that they have the tone of a one-to-one relationship. On one level this is just good customer service, but the performance is also important: theatres are presenting themselves as institutions that are responsive to and understanding of their customers’ needs and interests, which in turn is intended to build the credibility of what they are actually staging.

This will have an impact on theatre scholarship. To give just one example, it seems to me that anyone who wants to write the history of the Abbey after 2005 will have to consult with Fiach Mac Conghail’s Twitter account, because it’s such an essential part of that theatre’s story in recent years. Likewise I wonder if a future “collected works” of David Greig or Tim Crouch would have to include their tweets.

Many Irish practitioners are active on Twitter of course – I follow and enjoy the tweets or Facebook posts of Mark O’Halloran, Philip McMahon, Fiach Mac Conghail, Willie White, Tom Creed, Una McKevitt, Grace Dyas, Louise Lowe, Declan Gorman, Deirdre Kinahan, and many others. And in general the community here has used social media very effectively as a marketing tool. But I wonder why it is that, whereas many high profile British (and especially Scottish) dramatists are tweeting, we don’t have Twitter accounts from our most prominent playwrights –  say, Marina Carr, Enda Walsh, Conor McPherson, Mark O’Rowe, and others?

I’m not criticising any of these writers or saying that they ought to tweet – I’m sure they have better things to do with their time, and in any case telling writers what they should write about is just another form of censorship.

But perhaps it’s fair to say that within contemporary Irish drama there has in recent decades been a bit of a culture of  playwrights tending to keep quiet on matters that don’t directly impinge upon their own work. Friel of course is famously reticent about discussing his work, but he did have a column in the Irish Press early in his career. For many years, Hugh Leonard had a column in The Sunday Independent but the curmudgeonly persona that he tended to adopt made it difficult (for me anyway) to determine when he was being fully serious. But otherwise we don’t often find Irish dramatists writing or speaking publicly about matters of broad social concern.

And, to be clear, I’m not saying this never happens – just that it doesn’t happen as often here in Ireland as it does elsewhere.

I’d contrast the Irish situation with the one in, say, Scotland, where dramatists like Greig often participate in public debates about (for example) Scottish independence. Similarly in England we’ve seen how David Hare has responded to many recent events not just by writing plays like The Permanent Way or Stuff Happens, but also by publicly debating the issues that inspired those works.

I’d also contrast the situation in Irish drama with that in Irish fiction, noting the many excellent articles on the post-2008 crisis that have been written by people like Colm Toibin and Anne Enright, mostly for The London Review of Books.

In other words, the key distinction is, I think, that writers like Greig and Toibin and Enright tend  to be asked what they think about broader issues. It’s not that our playwrights have nothing to say, then – but that, perhaps, we aren’t asking them the right questions.

I know that much of the focus in the Irish arts community in recent years has been on things like the National Campaign for the Arts (and one of the best contributors to that debate was Sebastian Barry). I’m also conscious of the fact that many Irish theatremakers are choosing to do their campaigning on the stage: Frank McGuinness, to give just one example, has had an enormous role to play in the liberalisation of Irish attitudes to homosexuality, and in the creation of  better understanding between north and south.

But it’s often the case that we only realise someone has something to say when we ask them a question. Watching the post-show talks for Colin Murphy’s Guaranteed (which in including Murphy himself and Gavin Kostick featured two playwrights) I was struck by the thought that this play about economics might just as easily have been discussed by five playwrights (rather than two playwrights and three economists).

I wonder what would happen, then, if we invited our dramatists to engage in public debates not just about the arts but also about other topics: the economy, the causes of the crash, the changing status of religion, gender and sexuality in Irish society, and so on? Again, I’m not criticising dramatists for not talking publicly about these topics, and they might not even wish to contribute to those debates. And I definitely don’t expect any of them to start tweeting their views on those topics…

But perhaps we might think more about asking dramatists and other practitioners what their views are on those subjects. The results could be interesting.

Performance, Nation and Globalization Summer School at NUI Galway

We’ll be running a Summer School on Performance and Globalization at NUI Galway later this week. We’re going to be looking not just at theatre (David Greig, Conor McPherson) but also at such performances as the Eurovision Song Contest, Mad Men, and more.

The event is intended for postgraduate students of theatre, but if anyone would like to attend, just drop me a line on patrick.lonergan@nuigalway.ie

Performance, Nation and Globalization Summer School

Funded by the Irish Research Council

National University of Ireland, Galway

17-18 July 2013

This two-day Summer School explores the interrelationships between performance and nation in an era of increasing globalization. We will consider major international dramatists such as J.M Synge and David Greig, but the discussion will also take in other forms of performance, including the Eurovision Song Contests, recent American TV drama including Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and new devised work from Ireland by such companies as Brokentalkers and Anu Productions.

The event takes place at National University of Ireland, Galway, and coincides with the Galway Arts Festival (www.galwayartsfestival.com). Participation in the event is free.

PROVISIONAL TIMETABLE

Wednesday 17 July

14.00: Introduction and Welcome

14.15 – 15.45 – Session 1

  • Shaun Richards, ‘Were You Off East, Young Fellow …?’: The International Playboy of the Western World
  • David Clare “Irish Writers, Ally Croker, Bridget and the Countess of Sligo: Hibernian Presences in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer

16.00 – 17.30: Session 2

  • Karen Fricker “Terry Wogan, Melancholy Britain, and the Eurovision Song Contest”
  • Erin Hurley, “Subjects and Objects: The Personal is Political”

Thursday 18 July

9.30 – 11.00: Session 3

  • Shannon Steen, “Pacific Neoliberalism: Foxconn, Mike Daisey, and the Performative Imperative”
  • Vicky Angelaki, “Global Products and Local Targets: Reception, Perception and the Internationalized Audience”

11.00 – 11.30:Coffee

11.30 – 13.00: Session 4

  • Clare Wallace, “Performing, processing and resisting—the nation and globalization in the work of David Greig”
  • Charlotte McIvor “Ireland, China, Belgium, Finland: Brokentalkers and the Transnational Connectivities of Post-Celtic Tiger Performance.”

13.00 – 14.00 – Break.

14.00 – 16.15: Session 5

  • Patrick Lonergan, “Faust and the Credit Crunch”
  • Aoife Monks, “Virtuosity, Mobility and Homesickness in Performance”
  • Brian Singleton, “The Routes to Memory: Site-Specific Performance in Ireland and Global/Social Capital”

16.15– conclusion of workshop

ABSTRACTS

Vicky Angelaki, “Global Products and Local Targets: Reception, Perception and the Internationalized Audience”

The talk will explore the factors determining our identities and sensibilities as spectators (on an individual basis) and audiences (at the collective level). Much has been said about globalization and its effect on aspects of quotidian life as well as artistic production and consumption. My paper will probe to what extent there has genuinely been an impact on our viewing and responding habits. It will also explore the question of whether we have moved beyond cultural stereotypes and into an era of rigorousness and agility, reaping the benefits of mobility, the wealth of information and educational possibilities available, but also of the artistic border-crossing that characterizes our time. The paper will interrogate to what extent the internationalized art product has served to liberate us in a certain way, or whether we are essentially reproducing the old familiar national and classed perspectives. Can it be argued that we are experiencing a new, hyper-aware state, or are we forever bound to local frames of reference and what are their respective benefits and pitfalls? Ultimately, the talk will seek to problematize exchange and reception, addressing the question of how issues of perception are especially urgent today.

Suggested Reading:

Bourdieu, Pierre. ‘The Sense of Distinction’. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. London and New York: Routledge, 1986. 260-317.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. ‘The Crisis of Understanding’. Adventures of the Dialectic. Trans. Joseph Bien. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973. 9-29.
Wickstrom, Maurya. ‘Introduction’. Performing Consumers: Global Capital and Its Theatrical Seductions. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2006. 1-12.

David Clare, “Irish Writers, Ally Croker, Bridget and the Countess of Sligo: Hibernian Presences in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer

When critics discuss the ways in which Oliver Goldsmith’s Irish background influenced the writing of She Stoops to Conquer, they usually focus on two aspects of the play. First, the plot is built around an incident (mistaking a country gentleman’s home for an inn) that allegedly happened to Goldsmith himself while he was still living in Ireland. Second, in the play, Goldsmith (like later, London-based, Irish writers) attempts to portray hypocrisy as a peculiarly English vice. While these ‘Irish’ aspects of the work are certainly important, there are other, more explicit, references to Goldsmith’s native country in the play. I will carefully analyse them in this paper, since they are routinely ignored by critics.

Among these Irish references are the moment when Goldsmith has a character allude directly to Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem and when his depiction of the character of Hardcastle betrays the influence of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. The Irish song, “Ally Croker”, is used in a way that links Ireland to the Orient, a connection that Goldsmith and other Irish writers have frequently made over the past two and a half centuries. The Hardcastles have a cook maid named after the Irish St. Bridget, thereby placing a (possibly) Irish servant in an English home. Finally, the Countess of Sligo is one of the ladies name-checked by Marlow during his courtship of Kate, one of a series of reflections on the Anglo-Irish in the work.

In this paper, I will also consider the ‘Irish’ elements that have been either accentuated or imposed upon the play in recent Dublin productions (The Gate Theatre’s in 1995, The Abbey’s in 2003, and Smock Alley’s in 2012).

Karen Fricker, “Terry Wogan, Melancholy Britain, and the Eurovision Song Contest”

‘Europe’s favourite TV show’ (as its producers brand the Eurovision Song Contest [ESC]) has much to tell us about the relationship between nation, identity, feelings, and politics in the expanded, 21st century Europe. Founded in 1956 to test the newly-created capacity to share live television signals between countries, the ESC has become a significant symbolic contact zone between European cultures: an arena for European identification in which both national solidarity and participation in a European identity are confirmed, and a site where cultural struggles over the meanings, frontiers, and limits of Europe are enacted. This presentation focuses specifically on the United Kingdom’s fraught relationship to the ESC, arguing that this relationship reflects deep-seated British anxieties about the place of the UK in the context of the evolving Europe, but is also symptomatic of a particular strand of postcolonial melancholia (after Paul Gilroy) and a nostalgic mode of engagement with the British colonial past and imperial supremacy. I focus in particular on Sir Terry Wogan’s increasingly conservative ESC commentary for the BBC over several decades, showing how it mediated and constructed a particular vision of Europe and the UK’s place in relation to it. If we shift our perspective from the UK’s nostalgia and look at its participation in the ESC in its own right, however, we can see that its recent Eurovision entries offer a portrait of a lively and diverse society attempting to adapt to a cultural showcase whose codes and conventions are rapidly changing.

Erin Hurley, “Subjects and Objects: The Personal is Political”

It is a commonplace, and a truism, to say that “Quebecois theatre” began in the late 1960s with the politically engaged, nationalist dramaturgy of Michel Tremblay. Contemporary Quebecois theatre, however, seems to be marked by a turn away from the political or collective, an orientation that marked its birth and efflorescence. Of late, critics and scholars have remarked a clear turn toward the personal or individual. Louis Patrick Leroux and Hervé Guay itemize the “subjective affirmations” of contemporary Quebecois theatre both within the dramatic universes presented by playwrights and in institutional discourses of theatre culture. They suggest that such subjective affirmations – that is, critical affirmations of the theatre’s own success, performative affirmations of the particularized subject (especially in solo performance), and institutional and dramatic affirmations of playwrights’ personal aesthetics and singular imaginaries – have multiplied in recent years.

And yet, we might remark another, seemingly contrary turn in contemporary performance: a turn toward the object, the subject’s presumed “other”. Consider, for instance, the following protagonists from productions in recent Montreal theatre seasons as featured in venues ranging from a children’s theatre to an experimental house to a puppet festival to a fine arts museum: A child’s white dress. A drawing of a birthmark on a stick. Three life-sized automata. Animated mannequins. Dancing kitchen utensils. A wax figure. Two school-desks. [1]

The shows from which these characters are drawn, and others like them that put the object in the position of the dramatic and theatrical subject, interest me for two reasons. First, by putting an object in the position of the “speaking subject” of a “character”, they evince a complex relation to the subjective affirmations and affirmations of subjectivity that are trending contemporary Quebecois theatre. Second, they allow us to read an occulted history of Quebecois theatre in which women’s performance is featured and assumptions around the political value of autonomy versus heteronomy are undone. How might we reconcile the incursion of objects – these things without speech, without voice, without subjectivity proper — into a theatre culture where “dramaturgies of subjectivity” seem in favour? What might these objets désincarnés tell us about artistic engagement, the shifting Quebecois collective, and it theatre history?

Three recent solo performances by women featuring performing objects will feed my analysis: Joseph-la-tache [Joseph-the-Birthmark] by Catherine Vidal (2010), La robe blanche [The White Dress] by Pol Pelletier (2012), and Le Salon Automate[The Salon Automaton] by Nathalie Claude (2008). Through these pieces, I explore the discourse of the object on the subject of the Subject. How are on-stage subject-object (that is, self-other) relations figured in contemporary Quebec theatre? What might these relations intimate about stage-audience and art-society relations? And what are their engagements with the world around the subject, beyond the theatre?

Patrick Lonergan, “Faust and the Credit Crunch”

A vareity of cultural responses to the global credit crunch (2008-) are already evident, from novels about banking (such as John Lanchester’s Capital) to revivals of plays that explore issues of wealth (such as a recent NT production of Timon of Athens). This paper explores how one of the defining charateristics of cultural responses to the credit crunch has been a significant increase in new performances that draw on the Faust motif, which is often directly taken from work by Goethe, Marlowe, Mann, Bulgakov and others. This paper explores the significance of this motif for contemporary performance. I briefly explore new work by dramatists such as Conor McPherson, Marina Carr, Mark O’Rowe David Mamet and David Greig, before analyzing in some detail the impact of the Faust motif on contemporary American television, particularly in Mad Men, Damagesand Breaking Bad. The aim of the paper is to consider those works as responses to our changing understanding of issues such as indebtedness, austerity, personal value and – in particular – the nation.

Suggested Reading/Viewing:

Conor McPherson, The Seafarer, David Greig, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.

Damages Season 1, episodes 1-3; Mad Men season 1; Breaking Bad (all seasons).

Charlotte McIvor ,“Ireland, China, Belgium, Finland: Brokentalkers and the Transnational Connectivities of Post-Celtic Tiger Performance”

This talk queries Dublin-based theatre company Brokentalkers’ focus on the role of transnational networks as the future of innovation in the Irish arts through an analysis of their works, In Real Time (2008) and Track (2006). In Real Time and Track present two overlapping stories of the role of the transnational in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. In Real Time animates European networks via an act of artistic collaboration, while Track stages an encounter with Dublin that brings participants on an exploration of the City Centre through the perspective of the Chinese community, both long-term residents and recent arrivals, living in Ireland. In Real Time literally enacts an inter-EU network physically manifested through actors’ live and virtual bodies in theatrical time and space. Conversely, Track challenges discourses of Irish nationalism and forces recognition of transnational networks of migrants in Ireland that reach outside the space of the nation and the EU.

Aoife Monks, “Virtuosity, Mobility and Homesickness in Performance”

It was in the 18th Century that the virtuoso emerged as a category of performance (rather than a connoisseur and collector of fine art as in previous centuries). This was the moment in which virtuosity came to embody superhuman performance, emerging in a performer capable of apparently magical (if not demonic) transcendence of the material conditions of the stage. This paper investigates the relationship between the birth of the virtuoso and the emergence of the emotional category of nostalgia – homesickness – and suggests that they might both be viewed as symptoms of the disorienting affects of industrial modernity. Furthermore, I will ask whether virtuosity (as a category of performance, and later a quality ascribed to particular forms of work) and nostalgia might grow out of, and enable, global mobility. It may be no coincidence then, that the virtuosic performers that I will draw on in this paper – Dion Boucicault and Dan Bryant in the 19th Century and Michael Flatley and Jean Butler in the 20th Century – have all traded in nostalgia, wedding performances that inspire terror and awe with the longing for ‘home’. I will examine how the material conditions of labour in these two periods produce forms of virtuosity and nostalgia in performance.

Suggested reading:

Gabriele Brandstetter, ‘The Virtuoso’s Stage: A Theatrical Topos’, Theatre Research International, Volume 32: Issue 02 (July 2007), pp 178-195.

Paulo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, Trans. by Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, Andrea Casson (New York: SEMIOTEXT(E), 2004), particularly Chapter Four: “Labor, Action, Intellect : Day Two” [accessible at: http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcmultitude3.htm].

Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

Shaun Richards, ‘Were You Off East, Young Fellow …?’: The International Playboy of the Western World

George Ritzer’s concepts of ‘something’ (indigenously conceived) and ‘nothing’ (centrally conceived) appears to duplicate simple ‘positive/negative’ binaries of the local and the global. However, he adds the significant qualification that even the most local product is touched by the global, so making it ‘glocal’. This paper will address the ‘glocal’ aspect of theatre through productions of Playboy of the Western World from the Abbey production in 1907 and its US tour in 1911, to the work of Druid Theatre, Galway, Pan Pan Theatre’s production in Beijing, the Roddy Doyle and Bisi Adigun adaptation, and Desperate Optimists’ play-boy.

Shannon Steen, “Pacific Neoliberalism: Foxconn, Mike Daisey, and the Performative Imperative”

This presentation examines how the inter-embeddedness of Foxconn’s labor structures, Mike Daisey’s theatrical monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and Apple Corporation’s attempt to shape advanced capitalism with a human face instantiates what we might term Pacific Neoliberalism – a set of political imperatives predicated on unique forms of economic and cultural flows within and across the Pacific Basin. I use this trio of objects to explore how neoliberalism in general is itself a performative project, and how its Pacific Basin variant instantiates particular ideologies of creativity and labor distinctive from those of its Atlantic counterpart.

Suggested Readings:

Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.” Theory & Event, 7:1.

Mike Daisey, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Downloaded from http://mikedaisey.blogspot.com/p/monologues.html.

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Catherine Kingfisher and Jeff Maskovsky, “The Limits of Neoliberalism.” In Critique of Anthropology, Vol. 28 (2): 115-126.

Lara D. Nielsen and Patricia Ybarra (eds). Neoliberalism and Global Theatres: Performance Permutations. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012 (see especially essays by Margaret Werry, Eng-Beng Lim, and Patricia Ybarra).

Brian Singleton, “The Routes to Memory: Site-Specific Performance in Ireland and Global/Social Capital”

Celebrated contemporary site-specific performance, most notably in the work of the UK’s Punchdrunk, has been branded by Michael McKinnie as ‘monopolistic’ as it trades on the theatrical efficacy of spatial disuse. Touring their work most recently to New York that monopolism has further begun to trade their theatrical efficacy/spatial disuse paradigm as global capital. Contextualising their work historically we place Punchdrunk among celebrated European companies such as Brith Gof of Wales, Dogtroep of The Netherlands and La Fura dels Baus of Catalunya, all of whom engaged similar global performance routes. But what of Irish site-specific performance? Certainly festivalised productions such as Playgroup’s Berlin Love Tour (2010), Junk Ensemble’s Bird with Boy (2011) and Wilfredd’s Farm (2012) operate within similar paradigms though arguably with less global potential. Anu Productions Monto trilogy (2010-12), however, resists the efficacy/disuse paradigm. The company’s site-specificity lies in their social capital of having emerged from and engaged with the lives and histories of an inner-city Dublin community’s spaces and places in very material ways. Rooted in the materiality of their social history, Anu Productions’ performances also address the issue of site-specific performance as speaking to but also resistant to the globalization of Irish theatre.

Clare Wallace, “Performing, processing and resisting—the nation and globalization in the work of David Greig

My proposed presentation derives from research I have been doing on the work of Scottish playwright David Greig. Since the 1990s Greig has produced an extensive body of work both as a writer and in collaboration with the Suspect Culture theatre company which he co-founded. As part of a new generation of Scottish writers whose work emerged at the end of the twentieth century, Greig has actively participated in the ongoing re-imagining of Scotland in the wake of devolution. However, critics at times have seemed slightly disgruntled at the apparent lack of familiar Scottish co-ordinates in some of his work. Greig is not alone in his ambivalence about signposting national specificity in his writing and theatre making. Nadine Holdsworth (2008) for instance has noted how relationships between place and identity are prominent features of Scottish playwriting more generally and contends that ‘there is a marked trend amongst many contemporary Scottish playwrights and theatre-makers to theatricalize multifarious sites, geological formations and landscapes as a way of articulating the diversity of Scotland’ (126). Yet, what makes Greig’s work a fascinating field of investigation is the way this ambivalence about national specificity is coupled with an ongoing attempt to address a wider set of economic and cultural conditions catalysed by globalization and broach forms of transnational identity within the amorphous context of the contemporary. ‘Theatre doesn’t change the world’ Greig has claimed, but ‘if the battlefield is the imagination, then the theatre is a very appropriate weapon in the armoury of resistance’ because it cannot be ‘globally commodified,’ since it is founded on possibility, contingency, changeability and is ‘accessible to everybody.’ With reference to selected plays and interviews, this presentation would chart how Greig’s ideas about how theatre can or should engage with questions of nation and globalization have evolved since he began writing and would attempt to position this work in relation to wider debates about theatre and globalization.

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Dublin Theatre Festival programme 2013: some first thoughts

The Dublin Theatre Festival programme is out – a few weeks earlier than usual. So I’ve been enjoying browsing through the brochure for the last few days. What immediately strikes me is that there are a lot of companies and artists in there that I know nothing about – which is great. But it also means that I don’t quite know what to make of the programme yet. But here are some first thoughts…

Stripped Back?

On a rough count, there are 27 productions in this year’s Festival, and a very generous selection of additional free events.

I’ve heard a few people say already that it feels like a smaller programme than in recent years, perhaps because the REVIEWED programme (which revived successful Irish productions from the previous year) has not been included this year. But it’s closer to where it was in the mid-2000s when there were usually about 25 productions on average.

This number feels about right to me. One of the things I loved about the DTF when I started going back in 1999 was that if you had enough time and enough money it was possible to see everything being produced over the fortnight. I’m delighted to see that there is a good selection of matinees this year (including some on Wednesdays), and that the show starting times have been arranged in such a way that you can see a couple of shows in a night. That will suit people like me who are travelling from outside Dublin: if you’ve got a six-hour round-trip to the theatre, you want to see something a bit longer than an hour…

There also seems to be a slightly more austere approach to some of the productions, at least insofar as they are presented in the brochure. Corn Exchange are producing Desire Under the Elms, for instance, and promise that they will “strip a modern classic down to its bare bones”. I’ve written recently that I wished that there we could see more Eugene O’Neill in Ireland, so this production is very welcome. I wonder what stripping it back to its bare bones will entail though? My copy of the script runs to about 65 pages, and the estimated running time of 100 minutes for this production seems roughly equivalent to that number of pages. And although the DTF is an international festival, Corn Exchange will need to contend with the fact that many members of its audience won’t know the original play (and thus won’t know what it is being ‘stripped back’ from). So it’s already an intriguing prospect. Good also to see Corn Exchange returning to an American writer; I think the last time they did so was with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few years back.

I always find myself looking for a Shakespeare production in the programme every year – and this year rather than a full cast working through one of the plays we have a one person re-enactment of The Rape of Lucrece. Camille O’Sullivan’s musical version of the poem has been getting good reviews in the UK so this 75-minute production looks worth checking out. It’s interesting that Galway and Kilkenny have both hosted visits from Propeller and the Globe in recent years – at a time when the DTF has largely avoided conventional stagings of Shakespeare. Off the top of my head I can’t remember a full-length Shakespeare at the Festival since Propeller’s Winter’s Tale at the Festival since 2005. Though of course we have seen SITI’s Radio Macbeth and the Wooster Group Hamlet.

On the “less is more” front we also have Rough Magic doing The Critic. I’d heard rumours about this one and was anticipating a full-blown restoration romp in the style of Lynne Parker’s stagings of Farquhar and Moliere. So I’d been imagining sitting back in the Project Upstairs space for a couple of hours and watching people speaking in posh accents and moving around in big wigs and frocks.

We might still get something like that, but again the brochure copy seems to promise something else. We start at the Culture Box and then move to the Ark, and somewhere along the way, we’ll see a staging of a play by students from UCD DramSoc, the Gaiety School of Acting and DU Players. It’ll be interesting to see Rough Magic taking to the streets (is this a result of Louise Lowe’s impact on Irish theatre?), if only to walk us from the Culture Box to the Ark, and with a cast of five Rough Magic regulars this promises to be a lot of fun.

And good also to see more Sheridan being staged: Irish audiences only ever get to see The Rivals and The School for Scandal and he did write other plays too, some of which are quite good. The Critic is not one of his best, but its metatheatricality makes it ideal for a theatre festival. And it’ll be interesting to see how the reviewers tackle it. Again we have a short running time (about 80 minutes) but the company are staging it twice on many days (at 7 and 9). So, as I write above, it seems that less will be more here.

McGuinness Returns

We haven’t seen an original play by Frank McGuinness in Ireland since 2002 when the Gate staged Gates of Gold, a play about that theatre’s founders Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir. Dubbed (a little cruelly) Gays of Old, the play wasn’t particularly well received at the time – so it wasn’t much of a surprise when McGuinness’s next play was staged in the UK. But after the appearance of his play about Guy Fawkes (Speaking Like Magpies, brilliantly directed by Rupert Goold), he also staged There Came a Gypsy Riding, Gretta Garbo Came to Donegal and the Matchbox over there.

Those are all plays that deserve to be more widely seen in Ireland – especially in the case of There Came a Gypsy Riding, an important and moving play about youth suicide. For me, McGuinness had become an emblem of a problem that afflicted Irish theatre from (roughly) 2002 onwards – which is that most of the best new Irish writing was being produced in Britain.

So it’s great to see the Abbey staging his new play The Hanging Gardens – which, incidentally, will be the third original new play they’ve presented on their main stage this year – impressive in its own right. It reunites McGuinness with his long-time collaborator Patrick Mason, whose version of Observe the Sons of Ulster from the mid-1990s defined (for me) the things that made Mason’s tenure as Abbey Artistic Director so important. The production was theatrically daring and politically generous, and it paved the way for a fuller representation of homosexuality on the Irish stage: I was struck when watching Alice in Funderland on the Abbey stage last year how far we’ve come since Mason left in 1999.

And it’s a great cast also. Marty Rea gave the best performance I saw last year in DruidMurphy and he’s joined by Declan Conlon, Cathy Belton, Niall Buggy and Barbara Brennan.

New International Work

One of the things I find myself doing with the launch of every DTF programme is seeking out productions from the high profile (or newly hyped) international companies and directors. We’ve had a great series of productions since the turn of the century: the 2000 Festival gave us Robert Wilson and Peter Brook, and since then we’ve seen new work by Cheek by Jowl, SITI, the Wooster Group, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Ontroerend Goed, Victoria, Propeller, Romeo Castelucci, Robert Lepage, and Thomas Ostermeier and the Schaubuhne, among many others. There have also been terrific strands of German and Polish productions. I’m sure I’ll be corrected on this, but the only major figure I can think of whom we haven’t see is Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theatre Du Soleil.

I have to be honest and state that when I read the DTF programme for the first time I was a bit disappointed that there were no major productions like those mentioned above. The return of Desperate Optimists is definitely interesting, and Richard Maxwell’s Neutral Hero also caught my eye. But as I looked through the programme, I didn’t find much else that I recognised.

Upon reflection, that’s actually a very exciting element of the programme. I’m delighted to have the chance to see some new Japanese work in Ground and Floor by Toshiki Okada – I still vividly remember another Japanese production called Tokyo Notes from about ten years ago, and am glad to have the opportunity to learn more about contemporary practice in that country.

Likewise I’m intrigued by a production called Germinal which apparently has nothing to do with the Zola novel of the same name.

And there is some other work from Portugal, India and Canada that I’ll definitely be trying to see. Again it’s all quite short – running to about 80 minutes on average. It’s interesting that so much international/Festival theatre nowadays is matching the running time of the typical movie, dispensing altogether with the interval. Venue managers must look at their bar receipts and weep.

So the international programme looks very exciting this year, precisely because so much of it is unfamiliar and new. I think we can’t understate the importance of the international work to the development of Irish theatre generally: every year I see evidence of companies being inspired (or provoked) by the international work. We’ve also seen countless examples of writers and companies emerging as a result of something they’ve seen at the Festival. I am not sure what company or companies might have that impact this year, or what patterns will emerge. It’s nice to be facing into a Festival not knowing what to expect.

The Big Guns

Brecht and Beckett are each often described as the most important dramatists of the twentieth century, and I note that the Festival brochure is describing Godot as the century’s most important play. (As an aside, some day I will have to learn German sufficiently well to be able to read the notes Brecht wrote about a production of Godot he intended to present – wouldn’t it be great if someone had the chance to stage that?).

So this year we have Gare St Lazarre doing Godot at the Gaiety. Last year, a lot of people were surprised when Corn Exchange staged Dubliners at that venue, and I’ve heard similar reactions to news about GSL appearing there. We’ve been watching the same Gate Theatre Godot in Ireland since 1991, so it will be interesting to see if this production can shake off the legacies of that version. Last year, Dubliners found an unexpected resonance with the Gaiety’s past as a venue for music hall, and that could also be interesting with Godot too. This looks like an interesting one and – as was the case with Dubliners – a bit of a gamble for the Festival too. Will Dublin audiences flock to Beckett when there is no John Hurt in the cast – or no “Beckett Festival” umbrella to tie things together? I certainly hope so.

Meanwhile it’s Brecht’s Threepenny Opera at the Gate, in a new version (apparently?) by Mark O’Rowe. At the Synge School this year, O’Rowe was talking about his experiences at the Gate in 2003 with Crestfall (the Gate audience truly hated it), so it’s interesting to see him returning to that venue. This is directed by Wayne Jordan, who already has a strong track record with musicals – and indeed with Irish versions of European classics. Jordan’s Enemy of the People may not have brought the Alice in Funderland audience to the Gate – but this production might, and it should also satisfy the theatre’s regular audience too. It looks like smart programming – but, leaving all that aside, I just can’t wait to see what O’Rowe does with Brecht. I suspect this will be the first ticket on my list when I get booking next month.

The Children’s Programme…

Louis Lovett has a new production at the Ark. I saw his House that Jack Filled at Baboro last year in an audience that had only five other adults in it – and found it brilliant. I expect (as happened with Tim Crouch’s run at the Peacock this year with I Malvolio and I Peaceblossom) that there may be a few too many grown-ups in the room when this is staged, but this is one I’ll be trying to see.

In Development

There’s a very strong strand of free and/or ancillary events this year. I’ve been involved in the Irish Theatre Magazine Critics Forum every year since 2006, and this year am taking a break – so am looking forward to enjoying it from the audience. But the highlight here is the chance to see work in development from two of the best companies around: Anu Productions and Pan Pan. This strand of the Festival is becoming an annual highlight.

David Greig’s The Events

I’ve written already of my desire to see more Greig in Ireland, so this is great news. There was a minor skirmish on twitter when elements of the Scottish press took Greig to task for (as they inaccurately put it) writing a musical about Anders Breivik. Greig refuted that claim robustly. But this is a play that asks how communities can respond to acts of violence like those commited by Breivik, and it also makes interesting use of music. This too is something I’ll be booking early for.  There’s a good overview of the controversy over on The Guardian

And….

There’s much more to enjoy in there than I’ve noted above – a new play from Fishamble, Eamonn Morrisey in a one-man show about Maeve Brennan, Junk Ensemble, and lots more.  And I’m sure as I learn more about the programme, the thoughts above will develop, expand and change.

Overall, I think this is a very good programme. There is, I think, something for (almost) everyone in there – with the possible exception of a high-profile international play like The Pitmen Painters or Death of a Salesman or Enron (something that would normally pack them in at the Gaiety). In the last few years, I’ve sometimes felt that the DTF was becoming an umbrella for several micro-festivals and while I enjoyed that variety, I think this year seems more coherent overall – it reminds me a bit of the Festivals that were programmed by Fergus Linehan just over ten years ago (and those were all great Festivals). As I said above, it’s the first Festival in a while where it’s possible to see everything, but (being blunt) it’s also the first Festival in a while where I’d actually like to see everything. There’s good continuity with what has worked well in the recent past, but also a sense that Willie White is putting his mark on things.

Now I have to work out how to see everything I want to see. A good problem to have.

And we’ll also be booking tickets for our undergraduate and postgraduate students at NUI Galway, so we’re starting to discuss the balance between their seeing work that will inform what they are doing (Brecht seems an obvious choice) while also opening up new avenues for them. Last year, I was delighted to be able to bring our First Year drama students to see Brokentalkers, Pan Pan and the Wooster Group – as well as the Abbey and Gate. So I’m hoping to find a similar balance this year. Another good problem to have.

 

David Greig in Limerick, 2006

I’ve been surprised by the response to my post about British Drama and Irish Playwriting yesterday. While not everyone who opened the page will have read the article, the large number of clickthroughs  suggests that there is a fair bit of interest in the topic.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who read the article, shared it, and commented upon it.

The debate reminded me of a public event that I participated in about seven years ago in Limerick. It was a public discussion (supported by the Arts Council) in the Belltable about the drama of David Greig, set up to coincide with Island’s production of Outlying Islands. The panel included Annabelle Comyn, who was directing Pyrenees at the Project at that time. It also featured Karl Wallace (who directed Outlying Islands) and Philip Howard who at that time was Artistic Director of the Traverse (who had premiered many of Greig’s plays). The Belltable was packed with an enthusiastic, varied and engaged audience.

It was one of those great nights where you’re in a room with a bunch of people who love theatre.

The discussion took in Greig’s career up to that point, focussed on when his plays were “Scottish” and when they were “British”, and considered whether the distinction mattered all that much (it did, said Philip Howard). If I remember correctly, Annabelle Comyn spoke eloquently about how Greig needs to be seen as a European writer too, and we talked about the need for more European influences in Irish theatre. And Karl Wallace spoke about the joy of directing one of Greig’s plays for an audience who knew nothing about that writer. We talked about the importance of seeing new British work in Ireland, and there was lots of discussion of what Irish theatres can learn from the Scottish National Theatre, which famously has no building, instead being dedicated to touring.  The overlaps and correspondences between Scottish and Irish theatre were also discussed. It was a really great debate.

Things have changed since then of course. The Belltable is no longer open. Island is gone. Annabelle Comyn’s career has deservedly blossomed, of course, and Karl Wallace is now at Siamsa Tire. And the only other Greig play I’ve seen in Ireland is the brilliant Prudencia Hart (though other productions of his plays have been staged), which toured to Galway last year. So while the picture is not entirely bleak, a lot of the promise and optimism evident that night did not come to fruition. And in particular there was a sense of something really exciting brewing in Limerick – and while there are great people working there, it’s fair to say that there are problems there too.

I’m also struck by the fact that the event went unreported at the time – which seemed a real shame, as I’m sure it would have been of interest to the wider community. And if it was difficult to get coverage for events outside of Dublin back then, it’s significantly more difficult now, of course. But that’s another story.

At the time I reviewed Outlying Islands for The Irish Times – really just a brief notice. I later rewrote and expanded that into a joint review of Pyrenees which appeared in Irish Theatre Magazine. I’m pasting below an edited version, just for interest…

Pyrenees by David Greig

Hatch Theatre Company

Directed by Anabelle Comyn

With Karen Ardiff, Mark Lambert, Ronan Leahy, Gern Ryan

Project Arts Centre

23 August – 9 September 2006

Reviewed 9 September 2006

And

Outlying Islands by David Greig

Island Theatre Company

Directed by Karl Wallace

With Sam Corry, Ailsa Courtney, Gerard Murphy, Colin O’Donoghue

Belltable Arts Centre

12-23 September 2006

Reviewed 14 September

By Patrick Lonergan

Irish theatre, like the Irish economy, is much more interested in exports than imports. This is particularly noticeable in our attitudes towards recent British theatre. We celebrate the achievement of our playwrights in London constantly, and our government invested huge amounts of money in bringing the best of Irish theatre to Edinburgh this year. But although we’ve seen a small number of productions and readings of new British plays during the last five years, most of the traffic between these islands has gone in one direction only.

The near simultaneous production in Ireland of two plays by David Greig, one of Britain’s most exciting young writers, is a welcome response to this situation. Unlike his flashier counterparts, Greig avoids using cheap shock tactics or deliberately provocative themes, instead producing work with depth and substance. He’s also willing to try out different ways of writing, to engage in genuine experimentation. This means that although Outlying Islands and Pyrenees are very different from each other, both share important characteristics: they trust audiences’ intelligence and actors’ skills, exploring contrasting themes that require and reward serious attention.

Anabelle Comyn’s production of Pyrenees offers an excellent introduction to Greig’s works, giving us a formally exciting play that blends everything from Hitchcockian suspense to European expressionism. It starts with a premise that seems derivative of countless Hollywood movies, from Memento to the Harrison Ford vehicle Regarding Henry. A man (Mark Lambert) is found unconscious at the foot of a mountain: he cannot remember his name or anything about his past; but suspects he may be British. In an opening scene that alludes to another play about fragmented identity – Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape – the man is interviewed by Anna, a British embassy official played by Karen Ardiff (who stepped in at short notice for Fiona Bell, who was taken ill before opening night). They seek clues about the man’s identity, considering in turn his accent, his preoccupations, his emotional state. Sexual chemistry builds between them, interrupted occasionally by the proprietor of this duo’s hotel (Ronan Leahy). But all seems to be progressing well between them until, just before the end of the act, a woman called Vivienne (Ger Ryan) arrives, claiming to be the man’s wife.

Our expectation will naturally be that the second act will answer the questions raised in the first. To a certain extent, this proves to be the case; but Greig’s answers raise other important issues. The Man’s amnesia seems partially to arise from a desire to forget who he is, to flee his past – is this possible? Why does the proprietor continue to adopt different identities, at one moment pretending to be a busboy (who will be insulted when no tip is offered to him); at another reverting to his role as the hotel’s manager (who will be insulted when a tip is offered to him)? Is Vivienne telling the truth about the man’s past and, if so, does that truth matter? And is Anna really from the British Embassy? We also learn late in the second act that Pyrenees is a sequel of sorts to another Greig play, The Cosmonaut’s Last Message… (1999), which will be a huge pay-off to those familiar with that earlier work.

The ultimate effect of the play’s second half is to leave the audience even more confused than they were in the first – and this is the play’s greatest strength: it provides answers but little clarity, and therefore invites us to consider whether our questions were worth asking in the first place. The play is much more than a standard meditation on the instability of identity; it instead shows that it’s possible to write a successful drama that still refuses to meet audiences’ expectations about character, plot, and closure. Of course, writers like Beckett made this point a long time ago – but the difference between their work and Greig’s is that Pyrenees retains many of the things that Beckett rejected: characters the audience can fully identify with, a (more or less) naturalistic environment, and a linear plot that’s full of suspense and incident. Pyrenees thus manages to be philosophical, playful, and deeply engrossing simultaneously.

Outlying Islands is an entirely different play. Set in 1939, the action takes place on Gruinard, a tiny Scottish island which has been visited by two British scientists (Sam Corry and Colin O’Donoghue), who have been sent to catalogue and study the island’s birds. While there, they interact with the Gruinard’s sole inhabitants, Kirk (Gerard Murphy) and his niece Ellen (Ailsa Courtney).

The play could be seen in the tradition of island plays, from The Tempest to Friel’s Gentle Island – works that create a space where people can interact free of social constraint and convention. The men’s arrival – and their involvement in the death of Kirk – has the effect of liberating Ellen, who gains in power and stature as the action progresses. She becomes something like the director of a play, leading the two scientists in a strange lament for her uncle that moves from wake scene to Laurel and Hardy. That power is eventually asserted sexually, in a remarkably intimate and sensitive scene that brings the action to its emotional climax.

The play also has a more immediate context. As in Friel’s Translations, in which an apparently innocent map-making expedition is a prelude to military action, Grieg’s play reveals that the scientists’ expedition has been arranged because the island is to be used as a testing ground for biological weapons: the men are cataloguing the island’s birds because the British ministry for war wants to establish exactly how many creatures they can kill with weaponised anthrax. This political theme comes to the foreground towards the play’s conclusion, with interesting consequences for Ellen in particular. Given that Outlying Islands premiered in 2002 – at a time when Hans Blix was running around Iraq in search of biological weapons – the play is an obvious attempt on Greig’s part to use his country’s past to examine its present. But the clash he reveals between his characters’ natural inclinations and their political duties has considerably broader resonance.

In a bold move that could be seen as an important statement about the future of Limerick theatre, director Karl Wallace and designer Diego Pitarch transformed the Belltable for this production, tearing out the stage and seating, and asking the audience to sit on uncomfortable benches dotted around the auditorium. The actors move amongst the audience, adding to the production’s intimacy, and quickly bridging the gap between Limerick in 2006 and Gruinard in 1939. But the production places further demands on the audience by running without an interval. The risk paid off, however: the emotional intensity of the piece was maintained throughout, despite the distraction of the increasingly uncomfortable seating arrangements. It was in fact refreshing to see a theatre company so willing to trust its audience’ intelligence, as well as their powers of endurance.

Annabelle Comyn adopted a considerably different approach to Pyrenees: where Wallace brings his audience directly into the action, she instead presents her production on a raised platform (designed by Paul O’Mahony), with the fourth wall firmly in place. This was entirely appropriate to the play’s tone and themes. Whereas Outlying Islands invites us to explore the difference between personal desire and public duty, Pyrenees instead asks us to examine a situation dispassionately and, insofar as possible, objectively: like most of the play’s characters, our job is to piece together evidence, to reach towards conclusions. Comyn’s direction keeps us at an appropriate distance from the performance, but never risks alienating the audience.

What both plays have in common is the extent to which they provide genuinely challenging roles to actors. Mark Lambert’s performance as the man in Pyrenees is a case in point: he must reveal a personality without having any back story or social and geographical markers to base it on. Lambert’s ability to convince us of his character’s individuality as well as his amnesia impresses throughout. Leahy’s proprietor is at perpetual risk of lapsing into racial stereotype: there is (deliberately) a touch of Fawlty Towers’ Manuel about him. Yet he avoids those risks, his nuanced performance often revealing the audiences’ own prejudices and expectations. Ardiff and Ryan have more difficult roles: Vivienne is the play’s only stable point, its only credible witness, while Anna is a disruptive and ultimately threatening presence. Each actor shows a clear understanding of her character’s function, without ever making her role seem functional.

The performances by Corry and O’Donoghue in Outlying Islands are also strong, with enjoyable supporting work by Murphy. But the highlight of the production is Ailsa Courtney’s work as Ellen. This is Courtney’s first professional production, and it’s evident from very early in the action that Wallace has made quite a discovery. Ellen’s develops dramatically during the play, with substantial differences evident between her inhibited and liberated personae. Courtney presents her character in a manner that coherently and convincingly reveals these different elements.

David Greig’s works might seem a difficult sell to Irish audiences: in Ireland, he’s a largely unknown playwright who deals with challenging themes that aren’t of explicit relevance to local audiences. Both Island and Hatch Theatre deserve credit, not only for producing his works, but for doing so with great conviction. Taken together, Outlying Islands and Pyrenees reveal that, although Greig can be seen as an important Scottish playwright, and as an important British playwright, he is quite simply one of the finest young dramatists currently working anywhere. Let’s hope this isn’t the last we hear from him.