The Gate, the Actor and the Designer – Thoughts on _Streetcar Named Desire_

A couple of months ago, I posted a note asking why we don’t see more non-Irish plays here in Ireland. The argument I made was that the staging of new and classic international works has an impact on the development of new Irish practice: that the production of great Irish plays helps to develop writers, directors, designers, performers and audiences in important ways.

There is a lot of evidence of this kind of causal relationship between international work and Irish practice in the history of modern Irish drama. We know, for example, that by producing European and American plays the Dublin Drama league helped to inspire a lot of the work that emerged in Ireland from the late 1920s onwards – not just in playwriting but also in direction and design. There’s a case to be made that without the DDL you wouldn’t have had the Gate Theatre, and its focus on European ideas about performance and design.

Likewise, the Pike in the 1950s premiered work by Behan and Beckett but also made a point of producing international work, including plays by Tennessee Williams, whose play The Rose Tattoo famously led to that theatre being raided by the police in 1957.

And both Druid and Rough Magic started out by producing quite a lot of non-Irish work in the 1970s and ‘80s respectively, before developing to a point where they could focus more on Irish writing. Garry Hynes has spoken interestingly about how her company produced plays by writers like Dario Fo before it “grew up” and started doing new Irish work, for example.

Throughout the history of modern Irish drama and theatre, many people have expressed the fear that by engaging with international work we might damage Irish drama – that it might be diluted or overpowered. But the reverse is true: Irish practice has been strongest at periods when there has been a good level of awareness of writers and ideas from outside the country.

So for these and other reasons I was glad to have the opportunity to see a very strong production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Gate earlier this week.

The production has been getting very positive reviews, with most commentators praising the quality of the acting, especially by Lia Williams as Blanche. It thus drove home to me the extent to which the Gate has contributed so much to Irish practice in terms of acting. In fact, the theatre recently organised a World Actors Forum – the idea being that if Davos can host economists, Dublin might justifiably do something similar for acting.

I can understand why the Gate might want to stake a claim to world-leading expertise in acting, not only for Dublin but also for itself.

The theatre has in general been omitted from (or played a very small role in) the standard histories of Irish drama – mainly due to the fact that, even now, most published scholarship about Irish theatre explores the history of Irish plays. The Gate has of course presented some notable premieres, from The Old Lady Says No to Philadelphia Here I Come! – and it usually gets credit for that. But I think it’s fair to say that in any history of Irish drama from the last 20 years or so, Field Day has received more attention than the Gate, and of course the Abbey still dominates. The Gate is definitely mentioned, often appreciatively, but rarely discussed in any depth or detail.

But if we wrote our histories of Irish drama based on acting rather than writing then the Gate would surely have a dominant role. Likewise, a history of Irish stage design would have to focus an enormous amount of attention on the Gate. At a time when our scholarship is moving much more towards theatre studies rather than drama studies (that is, we research the plays that are produced in Irish theatres rather than looking at plays that are written by Irish authors), the Gate is starting to get more attention, particularly for its impact on Beckett. Indeed, I’m aware of two PhDs currently being written on the history of the Gate – one of them by Des Lally here at NUI Galway and another in Holland. But there’s still a lot more work to be done on the theatre and its influence.

So while watching Streetcar I was struck by the ways in which the Gate can strongly be associated with ‘the actor’ (and the singular is deliberate). I’m thinking here (of course) of Mac Liammoir, and also of the way in which the theatre has during its history hosted such actors as Orson Welles. That tradition has continued under Michael Colgan, who has  produced many high profile shows that are dominated by single strong figures. There are many examples of this: Michael Gambon in Krapp’s Last Tape and Eh Joe; Ralph Fiennes, Ingrid Craigie and Ian McDiarmid in Faith Healer; Owen Roe in Uncle Vanya and Faith Healer; John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape; Lia Williams in Eccentricities of a Nightingale; Cillian Murphy in The Shape of Things; Jason Patric and Flora Montgomery in Bash; Barry McGovern in Watt and  and so on.

This is not to say that they ignore ensemble: think of the quality of their Homecoming with Ian Holm, Ian Hart, Nick Dunning, Lia Williams and John Kavanagh – or of their long-running Godot  – or Selina Cartmell’s Festen and Sweeney Todd. But they are a theatre that has done much to promote an awareness of the importance and perhaps even the mystique of the actor. This goes far beyond the business of casting celebrities in order to gain an audience (though Michael Colgan spoke openly in his Theatre Talk interview about the commercial benefits of what he called “eventing”). What I’m suggesting here is that one of the important aspects of the Gate’s ethos is the staging of plays that provide lead actors with opportunities to show their virtuosity, by playing challenging roles in well known Irish and international plays.

So Streetcar is in many ways a quintessential Gate Theatre production, not just because it’s directed and designed to a high-standard, but because it’s a celebration of the skills and dynamism of Lia Williams. There are also outstanding performances from Garret Lombard, Denis Conway and Catherine Walker in the play’s main supporting roles.

As Stanley and Stella, Lombard and Walker seem unusually relaxed in their roles, while Conway’s carefully controlled voice and movements convey the sense in which his character (Mitch) is both decent and cowed. And Williams’s performance is seriously impressive, mainly because she does such a good job at showing that Blanche is essentially a very hammy actor in a play that no-one else wants to participate in.

For instance, there’s a very nice  moment between Williams and Lombard,  when Stanley has grabbed some of Blanche’s letters which have fallen to the floor. Blanche desperately wants these letters back and also wants them to remain untouched by anyone – yet she’s very frightened of Stanley. So she twice reaches towards the letters, about to grab them from Stanley’s hands – but at the last minute pulls back. This conflict between Blanche’s fears and her desires is genuinely dramatic, and actually very touching.  At the third attempt, while reaching forward Blanche suddenly turns her hand around – moving from a grabbing gesture to a supplicatory one. Stanley then hands over the letters.

In those three movements, we learn a lot about Blanche (her ability to use acting as a way to manipulate others, the strength of her feelings for her former lover, and so on). And we also learn that what threatens Stanley most about Blanche is that she is prepared to assert and act upon her own desires. A key question here is whether those gestures are being performed by Williams for the audience, or by Blanche for Stanley – and the answer is that both of those suggestions are probably true. All of that is evident from the script, of course, but these small gestures help to fill out the characters in new ways.

I was also very struck by the quality of the lighting design, which is by Paul Keogan. The Kowalskis’ home is on a slightly raised platform on the stage, and all of its walls are exposed. This means that we can see lights all around the stage, including from the back – so occasionally the lights glare right out into the auditorium. I loved the fact that the positioning of the lights meant that we never lost sight of the fact that we were watching a play: the stage mechanics were obvious not just in the lights but also in the ways in which the actors drew curtains, picked up discarded props, and so on. This was a reminder that Blanche is never off-stage: she’s constantly performing, constantly acting as if she’s in a spotlight. So the design did much to underline Blanche’s theatricality.

Some of what I’m trying to convey about Keogan’s design is evident from the photo of Catherine Walker below, which is by Peter Rowen, and which I have copied from the production website.

The lighting also guarantees that the audience would never fully see Streetcar as an example of cinematic realism. There’s a simple way to make a mess of any production of Tennessee Williams, and that’s to ignore his plays’ expressionistic qualities.  If you direct Streetcar as if it were written by, say, Arthur Miller, its symbolism and language will seem heavy-handed. Instead, we need to feel that the world on stage is being presented as if seen through Blanche’s eyes: it needs to be vaguely histrionic, melodramatic, over-wrought.

Keogan’s lighting helps to achieve that impact brilliantly: he uses vivid reds, greens and blues to capture and emphasise Blanche’s changing moods, and to show that for Williams there is often a strong link between colour and emotion. One of the things I always enjoy about Keogan’s lighting is that you can see how carefully he’s read the script – and here he is revealing aspects of the play that could easily have seemed heavy-handed but now seem fresh and even original.

Denis Clohessy’s sound design is also really excellent: we have a constant sense of the world beyond the stage – and thus of the ways in which Stanley and Stella are part of a much bigger community. That design gives their home a sense of warmth but also adds occasionally to Blanche’s sense of being trapped.

So again this emphasised to me how important the Gate has been for Irish stage design. Hilton Edwards is important here, but it’s worth recalling that the theatre has also hosted work by people like Louis Le Broquy and Robert Ballagh too.

All of this shows that the direction too is impressive, mainly because it was so unobtrusive. Ethan McSweeny does bring an original approach to the play. The casting of Conway as Mitch, for example, shifts the dynamic quite interestingly: the character is supposed to be in his early 30s, but here is older – making Blanche’s play for him seem more opportunistic and Mitch’s eventual disillusionment more poignant. But McSweeny also delivers a very solid and faithful production of a very difficult play. In terms of technical accomplishment it reminded me a lot of Annabelle Comyn’s staging of Tom Murphy’s the House at the Abbey last year.

As someone who teaches drama, I’d have loved to take students who are just starting out to see this production. I’d expect that they’d learn a lot about how to act and indeed how to direct from watching it – but I’d also expect them to be excited by the excellence of the design too. This is a production in which everyone involved is, to use a cliché, at the top of their game: it shows how good you need to be to create this kind of theatre – but it also shows how enjoyable theatre can be when it’s done really well by disciplined, talented practitioners.

One final note. I’ve mentioned before that many Irish writers state that their main influence is not another Irish dramatist – but is in fact Tennessee Williams. Perhaps it’s because I was thinking of her statement at the Synge School that she’d love to direct Williams’ plays, but Marina Carr’s presence seemed palpable throughout this production. There’s a moment, for example, when Blanche appears in a white dress with a  veil over her head – and for a moment I had a flashback to Olwen Fouere in the same costume in Carr’s By the Bog of Cats back in 1998 (given the play, this was probably post-traumatic stress disorder). Likewise, the stylised direction of the scene in which Stan attacks Blanche immediately reminded me of Tom Hickey as Red Rafferty in Druid’s On Raftery’s Hill.

This illustrates again that there is a strong symbiotic relationship between international and Irish drama, that Irish plays are richer because of the influence of non-Irish work.

What Makes Stephen Brennan a Great Actor? – Thoughts on Halcyon Days

Last night I went to see Deirdre Kinahan’s Halycon Days at the Town Hall in Galway. It’s playing until Saturday and is well worth going to if you’re in that part of the country.

The audience, as sometimes happens on Tuesdays in theatres, was a bit chatty. This can happen in any theatre, really. You’ll get people who give a running commentary on the action (“Oh Jesus, look what he’s after doing!”). And then you get some who gently mock the dialogue or the characters, as happened last night when in the fourth scene one of the actors moved a cup of tea poured in the first scene – prompting one person behind me to whisper to her companion “your tea has gone cold mister!” And then of course you get people who comment between scenes – “what do you think”, “that was good”, etc.

None of this really bothered me – Halcyon Days is the kind of play that puts people at their ease and involves the audience thoroughly from the start, so to a certain extent people were responding as they would to a good movie on TV.

One of the things that struck me was that after each scene change, I kept hearing different people around me saying the same thing: they were all saying variations of “he’s very good, isn’t he?” to each other. The “he” in question was Stephen Brennan, and it was clear that while many people knew who he was, many others didn’t. But almost everyone was very impressed by him.

I found myself wondering about this. The play is about two people in an old folks’ home, one played by Brennan and the other by Anita Reeves. And I thought both performances were excellent. On a technical level, the two were equally good – and I thought both parts were equally well written. Yet it was Brennan’s performance that the audience kept talking about. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Reeves’ performance – quite the opposite. But there was just something about Brennan that people kept responding to.

This experience emphasised to me that it’s very difficult to define what makes a great actor great. In the Dublin theatre scene at the moment, I find myself consistently being impressed by the performances of Denis Conway, Declan Conlon and Owen Roe, to give just three examples of male performers. But while they have all given ‘great’ performances during the last 10-15 years, they are not all ‘great’ in the same way. In fact, they are very different from each other: Roe and Conway have both played the Irishman in The Gigli Concert, for example – and while I was astonished by both performances, they were also very different from each other. And one of the best performances I’ve seen on a Dublin stage in the last decade was Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s Arturo Ui at the Abbey a few years ago. And what made it great is that the only person who could have played that part that way was Vaughan-Lawlor himself.

So in thinking about Brennan’s performance last night, I can point to things that seemed admirable. I admired the physical discipline that allowed his character to seem about 20-30 years older than Brennan is himself. He also showed that the character’s apparent infirmity was partly based on fear rather than any genuine physical problem – and he did this by allowing the character sometimes to lose his self-consciousness and move without thinking. And there were just some nice details: for instance, he wore pants that seemed just slightly too big for him, so we had the sense of his character becoming thinner, fading away slightly. Some of this of course is the work of the playwright, director and designers too. Yet the audience kept talking about how good Brennan was.

He has, I think, been great in many performances, but there are three that really stand out for me.

One is his performance of Hamlet, in a mid-1980s Abbey production directed by Michael Bogdanov. I was too young to go at the time but have watched it on video, and was very struck by the dignity that Brennan gave his Hamlet in what was otherwise a (deliberately) chaotic production. At the time of watching the video, I jotted down a note saying that ‘his movements seem deeply felt’. That phrase doesn’t make much sense, I suppose, but what I meant by it was that Brennan didn’t actually need to say anything to communicate Hamlet’s thoughts – they were evident in whether he chose to stand up straight or not, in how he held his head, in the determination and pace of his steps, and so on. And I also liked that he delivered the words in his own accent: that doesn’t happen often enough in Ireland, even now.

Another that I remember very vividly is his part in the second play in Nancy Harris’s No Romance, which appeared at the Peacock a couple of years ago. That production involved three inter-linking but separate plays. The first part was good, but among the people I chatted with at the interval there was a definite sense that we weren’t sure how things would go for the rest of the production: there was promise there but also a few problems. Then Stephen Brennan came out in the second play and within five minutes of his appearance, there was a definite sense that the audience had forgotten their hesitation and were now fully involved in what they were seeing. This was probably because Brennan was so funny, brilliantly capturing the self-loathing and self-deception of a feckless middle-aged man in a funeral parlour. By the time people emerged from the theatre after the third play, there was a definite buzz: a real sense of enthusiasm for the play and for Harris’s future as a writer. And I think a lot of that was due to Stephen Brennan’s performance. That of course was made possible by Nancy Harris’s script (male ineptitude is something she’s especially good at, as evident from her other play Love in a Glass Jar). But I wonder if the play would have been as successful if someone else had played that role.

Finally there was his performance in Conor McPherson’s monologue play Port Authority, which was staged about 10-12 years ago. Brennan played one of three men who delivers a monologue directly to the audience. And in some ways he had the toughest job because his character was the least likeable, and his story the least credible (in the sense that it was so unbelievable it actually rang true).

On the night I saw the play in the Gate, there was a woman in the audience who had a very distinctive laugh. Whenever one of the actors cracked a joke, the audience would laugh – including the woman with the funny laugh – and so then the audience would laugh again at the woman’s laugh. So many of the jokes were generating two bouts of laughter. The other actors didn’t really pay much attention to this (it wouldn’t have suited their characters) but Brennan started to work around the woman’s laugh – timing his jokes around it and at one stage improvising a simple “I know” in response to her. It was as if he was saying that only a character as feckless as he was could have wound up in a theatre being laughed at by someone like her. This wasn’t in any way mean-spirited: there was actually a moment of identification between the woman’s discomfort and Brennan’s character’s perpetual state of self-loathing.

What made that impressive is that Brennan’s actions – far from being a crowd-pleasing breaking of the fourth wall – actually made the play work more fully. McPherson’s stage direction in Port Authority is that the action ‘takes place in a theatre’. That meant that the characters are actually talking to us – so Brennan’s responsiveness was entirely appropriate. And it also made sense in terms of his character – who had enough self-knowledge to know how ridiculous he was to other people (including the audience) but not enough awareness to actually change.

A lot of what I am describing is the craft of acting. And I’m also, I think, writing about the art of acting too, which (to generalise) happens when the actor gives something of himself or herself to a role, at once making it individualised (we believe this is a real person) and universalised (we believe that these feelings or experiences could be ours, at least potentially). I think Brennan does both of those things very well: his Hamlet is not necessarily the best I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the more memorable because it was different from any of the others. No-one but Brennan could have played the role that way. In contrast, most of the other Hamlets I’ve seen tend to blend into each other.

But I’m also trying to describe one of the things that makes a stage actor different from a film actor. Brennan has an extraordinary ability to listen to and thus to guide an audience. (Rosaleen Linehan is also brilliant in this respect.) He knows when to withhold a line and when to give it, when to drop the tone of his voice to fill a space made empty by audience inattention or some distraction in the auditorium, and when to hold back on the expression of a character’s emotions. I think people nowadays tend to see him as a comic actor, and while it is certainly true that he is very funny, he does many other things very well too.

I don’t want to romanticise acting in stating all of this. But I do think we could do with more writing about acting and actors in this country – about how they do what they do, about the decisions they make from one night to the next, about why audiences will feel compelled to whisper to each other during scene changes that someone was good. I’ve been thinking about what is meant by those whispered ‘isn’t he’s goods’. Do they represent surprise? Appreciation? Delight? I don’t know. But I see this happen all the time when Brennan is on stage, and I’m not sure how to describe what he does – how to record it, if it can be recorded.

I’m struck by this issue every time I read a review and see performances described as ‘compelling’, or as a ‘tour de force’. I think these are words that reviewers or academics use when they don’t actually know how to describe what they are seeing. For instance, I’ve called both Reeves and Brennan ‘excellent’ in this post but that word doesn’t really say anything about how they do what they do, how and why it works, and what makes Reeves excellent in ways that Brennan is not – and vice versa

And finally… the play itself is enjoyable, and it’s great to see Deirdre Kinahan doing  well: there’s a definite sense at the moment that her time has come. I’m going to be interviewing her on Friday at the Synge Summer School (together with Mark O’Rowe and Owen McCafferty) and am looking forward to that a lot.

One other observation I had is that a lot of Irish writers have plays that in some way tackle dementia – Bailegangaire, Dancing at Lughnasa, Friel’s Aristocrats, Morna Regan’s Midden, and quite a few others. This underlines for me the way that Irish writers remain very focussed on memory, and how they see memory as metaphor for the construction of a character’s identity.

But that’s another topic.

An Enemy of the People at the Gate

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed An Enemy of the People at the Gate Theatre for Irish Theatre Magazine. It’s a good production and I’d encourage people to see it.  Below is an excerpt from the review. The original with images and a full list of cast and crew is online here:

Ibsen’s 1882 An Enemy of the People is sometimes described as a problem play, in that it dramatises a  debate between two brothers about the nature of morality and individual responsibility. But that term might obscure the fact that it’s also quite a confused play: Ibsen himself was unsure whether to see it as a comedy or something more serious.

It has many of the ingredients of a Restoration-style romp (improbable entrances and exits, characters hiding behind screens to eavesdrop upon others). Yet it also has what Ibsen called a “serious basic theme” – namely, the question of what happens when an individual forces a society to accept as true something we would rather ignore. In exploring that issue, Ibsen was responding to the public outcry to Ghosts, a play notoriously described as an “open sewer” and a “loathsome sore unbandaged” by scandalised critics. Ibsen’s hero Dr Stockmann is thus often seen as a surrogate for Ibsen himself, and the play’s suggestion that the truth must be told, whatever the cost, is often viewed as Ibsen’s defence of the necessity for plays like Ghosts. But because of that identification between the writer and his hero, it’s sometimes forgotten that Ibsen was ambivalent about Stockmann, describing him as “an oddball and a hothead”, while also acknowledging that there was much to admire about him.