Corn Exchange and _ A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing_ at Dublin Theatre Festival

Well, this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival programme is out today, and I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time digesting it. There are some obvious highlights  – Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet,  Ganesh Vs the Third Reich, and the NTS’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner on the international side; and on the Irish side, new plays from Deirdre Kinahan, Tom Murphy, and Mark O’Rowe, and new productions from Anu and Pan Pan, among many others.

But by far the biggest surprise – and the most intriguing prospect – is that Corn Exchange plan to adapt Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing into an eighty-five minute performance that will star Aoife Duffin (below). My immediate reaction upon hearing this news? “But that’s impossible – they’ll never manage it”.

A Girl is A Half Formed Thing

But then, after a moment’s reflection, it occurred to me that I’d had this reaction to news of previous Corn Exchange productions several times before.

I never thought it would be possible to put on a stage adaptation of the film version of Lolita – yet they did this very memorably in the Peacock in 2002, with Andrew Bennett playing Humbert, Ruth Negga (below) playing the title role, and David Pearse and Ciara Simpson completing the ensemble. The strangeness of Humbert’s narrative – and Nabokov’s distance from it – was made theatrical by the company’s use of commedia and live musical accompaniment. Annie Ryan, in other words, had found a theatrical language that translated the novel’s most important characteristics into something physical and dramatic.

Lolita-Ruth

A few years later, I never thought they’d be able to adapt Dubliners for a production at the Gaiety – firstly because it’s a collection of short stories, secondly because the theatre was so big, and finally because the impact of the stories lies not (just) in plot or characterisation but mostly in language and what it does to the reader. But again Ryan and Michael West found a way to make it work on the stage,  allowing the stories to accumulate a theatrical energy that corresponded to the collection’s transitions from childhood to maturity, and by retaining as much as possible the original language. This had the impact of highlighting the performative elements of Joyce’s stories – the songs that are sung, the stories that are told, the public spectacle  – the fact that Joyce was working within a tradition that was both literary and oral.

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I never thought that they’d be able to do Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms in Ulster accents last year, and I was wrong about that.

And I was sceptical when I heard back in 2006 that their production Everyday was being seen as an attempt to do in the theatre what filmmakers like PT Anderson were doing in movies like Magnolia (or Haggis’s Crash or Soderburgh’s traffic): showing how an entire community’s stories overlap in surprising ways. Well, I was wrong there too.

Then there was the time I heard about the idea behind Dublin By Lamplight and… well, you get the idea.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I again have no idea how Corn Exchange are going to pull off something that seems impossible to me.

The story McBride has to tell – about the upbringing of a young woman and her shifting attitudes to  sex, identity, autonomy, mortality, religion – is difficult, but it can be put on the stage, especially, I’d think, if there is a careful enough focus on the relationship that  the woman has with her brother. But how can the stage accommodate what McBride does to language and form?

McBride does something shocking with syntax and language. Her sentences are jagged, written as if torn out of some longer, more coherent narrative. They spill out and overlap as if being forced from a body.

It’s notable that so many people state that reading the book feels like a physical experience – for once, the reviewers’ clichés about the text being visceral or feeling like a kick in the stomach or the narrative being heart-breaking actually feel accurate: McBride’s language has a kind of muscularity that hurts sometimes. And the language does actually change the reader, permanently: you have to learn how to read the novel, and that means forgetting what you know about reading. You can’t skim; you can’t fill in blanks. You just have to let the words accumulate and the meaning will make itself felt, sometimes painfully so.

It’s an impressive book, and a very unsettling one. It’s also a difficult book – difficult to read in many ways: it takes time and effort, and the content is upsetting.  But it’s massively rewarding, and I consider it to be one of the major Irish novels of our time. People have compared it with Molly Bloom’s soliloquy – and while that should be seen as a compliment of sorts, I think it also runs the risk of obscuring the fact that McBride is not just one more Irish novelist trying to out-Joyce James Joyce. She is doing something that no-one has ever tried before.

But here’s where I wonder about the adaptation. Perhaps what makes the novel so rewarding is that it’s never fully possible to identify the features of the novel in a literal or realistic sense. We never learn the protagonist’s name; we may be able to guess or infer where she is from or where she studies or lives – but we’re never told for sure. We are never fully sure whether individual events in the novel are real or fantasised or dreamed or anticipated or feared. The fractured language is an expression of the protagonist’s individuality but it also works to defend that individuality – to reject the ways in which her mother, uncle, community, and society all seek constantly to name her, to narrow her down, to fix her in place with words. She doesn’t want to be named: she doesn’t want to be formed by language but to use language to disguise herself.

So what happens when you turn the narrator – who is just a broken voice – into a human being on a stage? What happens if the words become physicalised and literalised? Can the text’s ambiguity survive the transition to the stage?  Can the many ‘half-formed’ features of the novel be given form?

Well, of course they can. There is one useful model already in existence:  Beckett’s Mouth in Not I, another text that Half-Formed Thing can be compared to, while standing on its own merits. But of course Annie Ryan isn’t going to just give us a mouth in the darkness.

But it’s pleasant to be faced once again with the conviction that Corn Exchange can’t possibly achieve what they are setting out to do – and the happy expectation that I’ll be proven completely wrong, yet again.

Here’s a link to the production page: https://dublintheatrefestival.com/Online/A_Girl_is_a_Half_formed_Thing

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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:

“In A Glass Darkly” Junk Ensemble’s Dusk Ahead

Just a quick note about Junk Ensemble’s Dusk Ahead, running as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival this year…

I saw this last night in the Project, and was surprised to see that the theatre was only about three-quarters full. That seemed a pity, because it’s an excellent show, and I’m sure it would be enjoyed by anyone who sees it. So without wishing to write an advertorial, I thought it might be good to encourage others to go

Choreographed by Jessica Kennedy and Megan Kennedy, the piece is performed by five dancers who also sing and play musical instruments – so one of the things that immediately impressed me was not just the virtuosity of the performers, but also their versatility across different disciplines.

A score is played over the PA system, but it’s accompanied by a live cellist (Zoe Reardon) who sits stage-right for the duration of the performance. It quickly makes sense that the company has chosen to include that most sensuous of musical instruments on stage: this is a very passionate and (to use the word again) sensuous performance.

As the title implies, Dusk Ahead explores ideas about light and darkness, and/or sight and blindness. It’s about borderlands or (to use one of academia’s worst clichés) liminal spaces: places of transition where rules can temporarily be set aside or reinvented.

It explores ideas of sight and blindness in many ways. The performers often move blindfolded or with their eyes closed, for example – and there are some occasions when they are able to synchronize their movements despite being unable to see each other (as for instance when three of them perform with their heads in boxes). And much of the performance is carried out in very dim light.

Twilight is thus represented not just as a period  during the day, but also a metaphor for how we see the world (evoking ideas about Plato’s cave etc). Ultimately the performance seems to propose that blindness (metaphorically) can offer a deeper kind of sight – that what appears to be weakness can instead become a kind of strength. If that seems to put us in the territory of Sophocles’ Oedipus, the comparison is apt – since this has a mythical or ritualistic quality to it. And it’s a quality that’s still lingering in my mind, more than 14 hours after having seen it.

Dusk Ahead

The theme of having a kind of half-sight extends into the metaphorical realm too. There’s one very passionate scene in which two of the dancers manage to sustain a kiss over several minutes and through dozens of different movements. At once erotic and funny, this scene presents the actors with their lips fixed firmly to each other – their eyes closed all the while. This seems an innovative  illustration of the cliché that love is blindness (although the Irish Examiner interprets this scene very differently)

There are also moments of aggression too, as when two of the performers are blindfolded and forced to wrestle with each other. There’s a sense here in which violence comes from the impotence of being unable to see the world clearly enough.

As you might expect, given the theme, the quality of the design is very impressive. Sarah Jane Shiels’ lighting does not just illustrate the performance; it becomes a significant element of the performance (in a way that can be contrasted fruitfully with the opening of GerminalAnd set and costume design by Sabine D’Argent likewise is not just the context for the performance but adds  to the working out of the core ideas in the production. And Denis Clohessy’s score and sound design are also massively impressive (following on from the terrific work he did with the Gate’s Streetcar). Anyone with even the slightest interest in design needs to see this show.

As I’ve said, then, this is surprisingly passionate: it moves  freely from eroticism to aggression and sometimes blurs the distinction between the two. Both musically and in terms of the movement, it is also very beautiful at times. It’s sometimes ugly too, but never coarsely so.

As I walked away from the Project Arts Centre, heading towards the Peacock to see The Events (about which more later), I listened to the other audience members who’d been to the show. “I really liked that,” one of them said. “I mean, I feel like I’d need a Master’s degree to understand what was going on, but I really liked it”.

Well, I don’t think anyone needs any kind of prior qualifications to go to this – and it’s not important to feel that you understand all or even any of it: it’s best simply to experience it. But the point is that everyone coming away from this show seemed much calmer and happier on the way home than they’d been coming in.

The performance is on at 6.30 on Thursday and Friday and at 6.00 on Saturday and Sunday of this  week. It ran for about 75 minutes when I saw it (that is, by the time I left the theatre it was 7.45). So if you’re seeing The Events or Riverrun or any other show that starts a bit late, I’d really recommend this. And indeed it’s well worth seeing in its own right.

The video below gives some sense of how the performance is staged and is worth a look.

Dublin Theatre Festival 2013: _Tom and Vera_ and _Germinal_

The first weekend of the Dublin Theatre Festival has just finished and as usual there’s plenty of excitement and debate about the work that’s been staged. The most talked-about production so far is Wunderkammer by Circa, a show that (I’m told) combines aerial acrobatics with burlesque to amazing effect. I’ve also been hearing  positive remarks about the Gare St Lazarre Godot, which previewed in Bray prior to its Gaiety opening later this week.

I saw two shows – both of which are very different from each other, even if both share an interest in exploring how theatre and performance operate as metaphors for life in general. The first was Desperate OptimistsTom and Vera, and the second was Germinal by Antoine Defoort and Halory Goerger.

Tom and Vera has been getting a mixed reaction – and, to be honest, I still don’t quite know what to make of it myself.

The production may have suffered from the weight of expectation around it: it represents a return to the theatre by an Irish company whose 1990s performances have  become almost legendary. That sense of expectation is heightened upon arrival at the theatre, when we see a strikingly vivid and detailed set that depicts a forest clearing, including trees, grass, and even a (stuffed) fox. The scene feels both realistic and dreamlike – a feeling that is further evoked by music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which builds in intensity and volume until the actors arrive on stage. It’s all beautiful, mysterious, and exciting. I’m pasting below some photos from the Beckett Theatre’s Facebook page, which give some idea of how impressive the design is.

But once the actors start talking, those feelings are quickly dispelled. Tom and Vera are a middle-aged couple who have lost their jobs, seen their pensions vanish, and been harassed by a bank manager who seems to enjoy humiliating them. They decide to disguise themselves as an elderly couple, using wigs and make-up to make themselves seem thirty years older; with that disguise, they will attempt to rob the bank that’s harassing them, using a gun that Tom has procured under circumstances that aren’t  very clear. When he tells us he’s never used a gun before, we begin to worry that the couple’s plans may not succeed.

Some of what then transpires is original and compelling. In the two roles, Caitríona Ní Mhurchú and Alan Howley capture the gaunt, hassled expression of people who’ve spent too long worrying about money. It’s clear that financial troubles have stripped their lives of any hope or beauty – as shown most explicitly when Vera proposes that they settle their nerves before the robbery by (to use her word) fucking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so joyless a representation of marital sex before.

So as a response to the impact of debt and austerity on ordinary people, Tom and Vera feels both depressing and necessary.

But much of the play is also very awkward. The dialogue is often quite stilted and clichéd, and the exposition is handled in a manner that feels a bit facile. In order to focus their minds before the robbery, the couple tell each other the story of how they got into their predicament – and when one of them leaves the stage, the other will keep the action going by addressing their thoughts to the fox, or to a bird perched a twig. While it’s clear that the strangeness of these scenes is deliberate, there are times when this just feels like bad writing.

Nevertheless, the unmoving presence of the fox and bird on stage for the entire performance shows that we’re not supposed to see this as the ‘real world’, or to see the play as entirely realistic. Tom talks more than once about dreams that he’s had; he later eats a wild berry that makes him feel ill – and both of those actions might account for the dreamlike, hallucinatory logic of the play.

As for the over-familiar dialogue – while at times I wasn’t sure if the clichéd thinking was the authors’ or the characters’, the ultimate impact was to remind me occasionally of Pinter, who in so many of his plays creates an air of looming disaster by using clichéd language out of context. I’m thinking here of plays like One for the Road, for example.

And there was a definite attempt to contextualise the characters’ situation by using other artforms. Between the two acts, an opera singer (Janyce Condon) arrives on stage to sing (what I assume must be) another part of Tristan and Isolde. I later heard someone describe this (unfairly) as ‘interval entertainment’ and while it certainly was far more enjoyable than the chit-chat and passive smoking that an interval at the Beckett Theatre normally entails, the use of this performance to bridge the two acts was much more than a simple diversion. The intensity and beauty of the music acted as an ironic counterpoint to the characters’ situation. And of course opera – not to mention the music of Wagner generally – can be bombastic and melodramatic too, so I found myself thinking that the performances in Tom and Vera might have been perfectly acceptable if shifted into a different medium. Overall, then, the combined impact of Dominique Brennan’s production design and Wagner’s music was to heighten the ugliness and indignity of the characters’ desperate predicament.

Also quite interesting was the way in which the characters planned for the bank robbery. Their use of make-up and costume to disguise themselves was certainly theatrical (albeit unconvincingly so), and as they prepared for the crime they spoke in terms of being characters, learning lines, and the time they had spent rehearsing. So their bank robbery is a dreadful failure because they are bad actors, because they have based their plans not on experience but on clichéd thinking. This reminded me slightly of Reservoir Dogs, which also shows would-be bank robbers rehearsing, dressing-up, and role-playing in advance – and doing so in a way that allows the audience to understand why the robbery doesn’t work. The difference, however, is that in Tarantino the quotation marks are always clearly visible, and the irony always thoroughly signposted.

So this is a curious play about theatrical failure, about generic convention, about audience expectation – and about the things we expect out of life, such as financial security and the continued love of our spouse. All of that is very interesting. But as I left the theatre, trying to piece together these different ideas, my companion put to me a thought that had been troubling me anyway. “Maybe you’re being too generous,” she said. “Maybe it was just bad”.

I couldn’t really answer that.

Germinal is more straightforward but also has more depth.

It begins with four performers onstage in total darkness. The lights fade in and out, and we gradually realise that the lights are being controlled by the performers themselves, each of whom holds a small control table. The performers then realise that they can use the machines to transmit their thoughts to panels on the backstage wall – and that realisation is soon followed by their discovery and then their development of speech.

We quickly understand that what we’re watching is a recreation of the development of human life and, more specifically, human thought. The performers soon move from concrete thought to abstraction, and they attempt to categorise the world (hilariously) into things that go ‘poc poc’ and things that do not go ‘poc poc’ when banged with a microphone. All of this is delivered in a contemporary idiom, and it draws on images and ideas from our own time. For example, the ubiquitous MS Windows desktop design becomes a hill projected on the back wall – and when the performers find an intercom they interact with a woman who is part metaphysician cum quantum physicist, and part customer service operative.

The performance is very funny, but it’s also a very stimulating investigation of how we use story and language to organise the world – and how the deep structures of language can make us confuse what is conventional with what is real. The production shifts from straightforward humour into satire from time to time too, as happens when belief in God is compared with those sales scams that customer service people sometimes try to sneak into phone calls (if you’ve ever had someone try to sell you mobile phone insurance, this scene will resonate).

The clarity of thought in evidence here quickly reminds us of how it was that France gave the world René Descartes – just as the deliberately playful wrong-headedness of the characters’ conclusions reminds us that France also gave the world Derrida and Lacan.

GERMINAL

Visually it reminded me a lot of Miet Warlop’s Mystery Magnet from last year’s DTF – but whereas that show was very slight, Germinal is witty and stimulating. It would be inaccurate to call it thought-provoking, but I’d suggest that this company is doing intellectually what Circa do physically: showing us something that is impressive because it is so virtuosic – because the effort involved in staging something like this requires extraordinary levels of skill and practice.

Germinal also shows that theatre can act as a metaphor not only for thought but for life itself – and while that idea will undoubtedly serve to boost its popularity on the international touring network, it’s a message that is worth hearing in any setting.

One of the criticisms I hear about a lot of contemporary theatre is that too often we are watching theatre that is about theatre and nothing else. Tom and Vera and Germinal are very different from each other, but both can be used to challenge that accusation. Both certainly  share an interest in how theatre is embedded in everyday life – that is, they share an awareness of how performance can shape how we see the world, how we think about our place in the world, and how we interact with each other. Far from seeming frivolous or self-absorbed, both productions left me with a reinforced sense of the importance of theatre and role-playing.

Overall then it’s been a good start to this year’s DTF. And there’s a lot to look forward to during the week ahead – notably that GSL Godot and the one I’ve most been looking forward to: David Greig’s The Events.

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.