Irish Theatre Highlights 2013

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

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

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

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

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

A Year of Magical Acting…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irish Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Plays by Irish Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irish Plays in the UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brecht

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, great art will always be relevant.

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

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

Music and the Musical

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

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

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

Personal Highlights

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

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

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

Anyone care to add to the list?

Colin Murphy’s Guaranteed

On Friday night I went to the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, where we saw Guaranteed, Colin Murphy’s docudrama about the night of the banking guarantee. The performance was followed by a group discussion which featured Murphy, Fishamble’s Literary Manager Gavin Kostick, and three other people with political and financial expertise.

The theatre was packed, and I found myself understanding what people mean when they say that an atmosphere feels ‘charged’. There was the feeling of a lot of latent energy in the room – caused not only by the excitement of seeing a show that’s been getting good coverage but also by the continued frustration provoked by a week of listening to the Anglo tapes.

As it happens, I’d been in the NT archive a couple of weeks ago where I’d been looking at a David Hare play called The Power of Yes. That was a docudrama staged at the National in 2009 – less than a year after the credit crunch began (as it happens, Colin Murphy wrote a very good article about that play which can be viewed here: http://mondediplo.com/2010/02/17yesmen). The play is subtitled ‘a playwright tries to understand the financial crisis’, and in it Hare puts a playwright called David on stage, and has him interact with various interviewees from the financial sector, all of whom explain how and why the problems arose.

I found  The Power of Yes interesting for many reasons. Theatrically, it’s another example of Hare’s work in verbatim theatre/docudrama. I have admired productions like Stuff Happens and The Permanent Way, and was curious to see how Hare would handle a play in which he is putting himself up on stage too. I also admired the performance style, which involved the use of a mostly empty stage, and a large screen upon which images, statistics, captions and some videos were projected. Hare wrote the Power of Yes like a five-act tragedy, and the play’s self-referentiality and playfulness are enjoyable to watch. In fact, the imposition of a narrative upon the events of the credit crunch helps to make sense of what is often a fairly heavy-going exposition of the mechanics of the financial markets.

And it was also good to see that the problems we faced in 2008 were not exclusive to Ireland.

I did find myself thinking it strange that in Britain they had a documentary play about the financial crisis before the end of 2009, whereas we’re only getting one now, five years after the guarantee was given. I’ve thought for a long time that we in Ireland were missing out on that fascinating expansion in verbatim theatre that happened internationally around the time of the invasion of Iraq. We missed out on the urgency and vibrancy of the Tricycle’s tribunal plays (aside from Bloody Sunday), and we’ve also missed the playfulness and experimentation of practitioners like Alecky Blythe. Of course there has been some work here, by people like Helena Enright among others. But there wasn’t much awareness here of the urgency of the work appearing in Britain and elsewhere.

In fairness, though, we in Ireland spent 2009 dealing not just with the crash but also with the Ryan Report, and it’s worth recalling that the late Mary Raftery did produce a documentary reconstruction of that report, which was staged by the Abbey in its Peacock stage.

Guaranteed comes in two (loose) parts. There is a long first part which acts as a kind of prologue or countdown to the night of the banking guarantee: we see Anglo-Irish bank winning an award at the World Economic Forum, we see Bertie Ahern addressing an Ard Fheis, and so on. There’s also a great scene involving Brian Cowen who is shown singing while much more important events transpire around him: for effectiveness this portrayal reminded me of Michael Moore’s presentation of George W Bush in the minutes after the World Trade Centre had been attacked in his polemic Fahrenheit 911.

And then in the second half we see a reconstruction of what happened on the night of the Banking Guarantee – so here Murphy is drawing not from the written record but from interviews and his own imagination. What struck me most about this part of the production is that the scenes that show Cowen and Lenihan struggling to decide what to do make for great drama. To watch the play is, I think, to be faced with the reality that if you or I were in Government Buildings on that night in September 2008, there is no guarantee that we would have acted any differently from how those two politicians did. The play still leaves us in no doubt that the banking guarantee was a mistake, and a catastrophic one at that. But it makes it more difficult simply to blame the people involved.

In the post-show discussion, Murphy was asked about the ethics of representing real people, and he spoke interestingly about the need to be honest about what is on the record, while also being respectful of the fact that (for example) Brian Lenihan passed away a couple of years ago. That’s the kind of balancing act that people like David Hare have been negotiating for a very long time now, and it’s certainly not an easy one to achieve. Brian Cowen does not come out of Guaranteed very well, but that is simply because Murphy presents him as doing things that he is on the record as having done. But the portrayal of Lenihan is fairly neutral (and I use the word ‘fairly’ in both senses). So as a theatre scholar, I was interested in seeing how Murphy dealt with the ethics of verbatim and documentary theatre.

The performance was given with the actors reading from the scripts, and so my final question was whether the play could be brought to a full production. I think it would certainly work if fully theatricalised – plays like The Power of Yes and Lucy Prebble’s Enron show that this kind of material can sustain a theatre audience’s interest for a couple of hours. And I also think there must be an audience for this kind of play. Depressing as the subject matter was, it was great to sit in the Mermaid with an audience that were so impassioned, and so angry. Too much ‘political’ work has the impact merely of confirming what we already know, but this production will have deepened our knowledge of the causes of the financial crisis – and it will also have prevented us from reaching any simplistic conclusions about who is to blame for it.

Leaving Guaranteed I felt more strongly than ever that we need a banking enquiry in Ireland – but I also felt like I always do whenever I come out of a play that has entertained me, made me think, and encouraged me to keep thinking after the action has concluded.

I don’t know if this will encourage more people to create this kind of work – I hope so. But since Guaranteed finishes its run tonight, I hope this isn’t the last time we’ll be seeing this production – or others like it.

Eight Irish Dramatists Discuss Irish Playwriting Today

I’m just back from the Synge Summer School in Rathdrum in Wicklow. I’ve been directing that event since 2008 and because this was my last year in charge I decided to invite eight Irish dramatists to come and speak about Irish playwriting today. So we heard from Stuart Carolan, Deirdre Kinahan, Mark O’Rowe, Owen McCafferty, Marina Carr, Dermot Bolger, Declan Hughes and Enda Walsh. Rita Ann Higgins also attended and while she is better known as a poet, she has also written plays. And we went to see Colin Murphy’s Guaranteed! and heard him and Gavin Kostick speaking about it afterwards.

This is something we’ve always done at the Synge School: although most of the talks are by academics, during my time as director we’ve also had occasional interviews/readings with Sebastian Barry, Una McKevitt, Colm Toibin, Joseph O’Connor, Bernard Farrell, Louise Lowe, Pat McCabe, Christina Reid, Billy Roche and Conor McPherson.

But this year I thought there would be some value in dispensing with the academic perspective altogether and hearing only from the writers.

In programming the event I was motivated by some of the thoughts expressed elsewhere in this blog: a feeling that if Irish playwriting is not exactly in crisis, nor is it as healthy as it used to be. I wanted to find out how Irish dramatists see matters – and I wanted to give people an opportunity to focus on the excellence of contemporary Irish drama: something we don’t really give enough attention to these days.

We heard a huge amount about each writer’s career, and Irish theatre generally, so I don’t want to go into too much detail here. But there were some general patterns that I found interesting.

I should make clear from the outset that all opinions below are my own and unless explicitly stated otherwise are not those of the writers or participants. I also should state that the comments below are based on my memory of events over the last few days, and may therefore be subject to correction. But leaving those health warnings aside, I hope the observations below might be of interest.

On Getting Started

We heard a lot from the writers about how they got started as playwrights.

I was struck by the fact that for some, the ‘lucky break’ arose because of fortuitous personal contacts: Stuart Carolan was able to give his first play Defender of the Faith to Noel Pearson, for example – while Owen McCafferty gave his first play to Martin Lynch, who was running a workshop that one of Owen’s relatives was attending.

Mark O’Rowe spoke about how he went around from one theatre company to another, pushing copies of his script into letter boxes. “I didn’t even get rejection letters from most of them,” he said – but Fishamble replied and told him they wanted to do his play.

Deirdre Kinahan, Enda Walsh and Declan Hughes had to do things for themselves: Kinahan and Hughes had set up companies and gradually began to write their own work; Walsh likewise was working with Corcadorca and gravitated towards writing. And Dermot Bolger has done an enormous amount to foster new writing of all kinds in Ireland, as a publisher and commentator.

I was also very interested in what writers had to say about learning how to write. Hughes, for instance, spoke about how he had spent a number of years directing and performing – first in Players at Trinity and then with his own company Rough Magic. A conversation with Declan Donellan at the Dublin Theatre Festival inspired him to write an adaptation of Woman in White and that in turn gave him the confidence to write I Can’t Get Started.

Hughes’s talk underlined  for me the value of having great international plays in the Irish repertoire: he spoke about how his work on the “Howards and Davids” (Brenton, Barker, Hare and Edgar) in the early 1980s fed into his own development as a playwright.

In contrast, Enda Walsh spoke about how in his early years he would produce short bursts of writing for Corcadorca – sometimes as much as one piece a week, each lasting maybe five or ten minutes. The company would stage these short plays and would then come back out on stage and talk to their audience about what they had done and how they could improve. Walsh said that he found people stopping him on the streets in Cork to give him notes. So what was crucial here was the freedom to experiment. I asked Walsh how he found an audience for such work. “We gave away tickets,” he explained – pushing them through letter-boxes, giving them out in nightclubs, and so on.

The overall point here is that no-one will ever succeed by sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring. This will be obvious to everyone who works in the theatre but is perhaps not sufficiently well appreciated outside the sector. I was constantly struck by how many of these writers had to go out and carve out opportunities for themselves before the Irish theatre ‘took them in’, so to speak.

On Transitioning

We had quite a bit of discussion about how playwrights’ careers develop over time.

Declan Hughes and Dermot Bolger both spoke about times in their lives when, for various reasons, they felt that they’d had enough of writing plays; both went off to do other things but have since resumed writing drama.

Enda Walsh spoke about how his own career had distinct phases. Bedbound in 2000 marked a new development, as did Walworth Farce in 2006. He’s working on a new play at the moment, he says – and that too represents a new direction.

Likewise, Mark O’Rowe told us about his forthcoming work, saying that although he is very proud of his last play Terminus, his new play is a significant step forward.

We found ourselves spending a surprising amount of time discussing the business of how playwrights transition into new periods in their writing life. An example given by one of the participants is Conor McPherson’s play The Veil, which was greeted with disappointment and some bafflement when it appeared at the National in London in 2011. The comment was that the play was actually very good – it just didn’t seem like a typical Conor McPherson play, so audiences (or perhaps critics and PR people) didn’t seem to know what to make of it.

The problem here is that many Irish writers became well known for a particular kind of play – and have since found themselves encountering negative or indifferent reactions when they’ve tried to move into new areas, as McPherson did with The Veil. We’re in a bizarre situation where we criticise playwrights who keep doing the same things, but then ignore their work when they try new things.

Marina Carr was especially interesting on this subject. She became famous for her five midlands plays The Mai, Portia Coughlan, By the Bog of Cats, On Raftery’s Hill and Ariel. Yet she decided after Ariel appeared in 2002 that she didn’t want to write any more plays set in the midlands: she needed to do things differently. Her subsequent plays have not always been well received, partly because (I think) of audience expectation and partly because of other problems such as direction (and this is my opinion, not hers).

Listening to Carr reading from On Raftery’s Hill and then Marble, I was very struck by the continuities in her career rather than the disjunctions: the humour, her focus on power, the way she treats familial relationships, the way she creates brilliant scenes that display women in conflict with each other… and so on. If we look beneath the surface of Carr’s plays – beyond the midlands accent, for instance – there is a very clear trajectory in which important themes are being developed. We just haven’t been paying attention to those themes up to now.

Owen McCafferty was also very interesting on career development. He pointed out that, especially in the north, there is great support for the discovery of new plays. But he also called for more support for playwrights across their career.

This proved a recurrent theme: it’s often said that it’s easier to have a first play staged in Ireland than a second play. But hardest of all, perhaps, is getting a tenth or eleventh play staged. Carr spoke about the difficulty of having new work produced in Ireland – and we also considered the case of Frank McGuinness, whose last five original plays have all premiered abroad.

The overall suggestion was that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have a career as a playwright in Ireland.

On Directing and Being In Control

Another recurrent strand was the desirability of having control over one’s work. Mark O’Rowe and Enda Walsh have both been directing their own work, and both spoke about the value of directing the first production of their own plays (something that Conor McPherson does as well).

Marina Carr also said that she’d love to direct her own plays – and indeed other people’s plays (she’d love to direct Tennessee Williams and some of the Greek tragedies, she said).

Other writers discussed their relationships with directors: Deirdre Kinahan spoke warmly about David Horan, for instance, as Dermot Bolger did about Ray Yeates. And Owen McCafferty said that although he has directed his own plays, he values the objectivity brought to the process by a director.

Stuart Carolan was very interesting here too. He acts as Executive Producer of Love/Hate, and it was very clear from listening to him that that show is good precisely because he’s given the freedom to do things his own way.

But we also heard other stories during the School about the frustrations of having one’s work interfered with or dismissed, often by people who are not themselves working from an artistic perspective  – such as TV and film executives,  critics, and others.

One good example of this issue was the use of music. Stuart Carolan and Declan Hughes both spoke about how important music is for their work – how the choice of a particular song is essential for the communication of a particular set of sensations or emotions. Other writers spoke about how their choice of music is often treated as a kind of ‘optional extra’ which directors are sometimes inclined to ignore or overlook.

In general, the old view that writers shouldn’t direct their own plays was fairly thoroughly dismissed during the School. As someone put it, just because Brian Friel got a hard time when he did it in 1997 doesn’t mean it should never be done. Someone else made the great point that Conor McPherson had been directing his own plays with success for years – but when The Veil appeared, critics immediately said that the production showed why playwrights shouldn’t direct their own work. The general feeling was that there are benefits to having writers direct their own work.

On Devising

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, there is a view around at present that there is a clash between devising and playwriting. Over the course of the four days, we saw evidence of a much more nuanced approach to that subject. Both Kinahan and Walsh spoke about how they began their careers by doing work that would now be seen as devising, for instance. And in general at the School there was respect for devising as a process of making theatre (though of course there was some dissent too).

On this subject, the overall point I took away is that devising is like any other kind of theatre – some of it is good, and some of it is bad. The writers all spoke about the need to be rigorous in their own work: it takes up to two years to write a play because there’s a need to be very precise and detailed with language, and so on. We’re all aware of devised work that meets those kinds of rigorous standards (and, as you’d expect, Louise Lowe’s name was cited a few times in that context).

So just as there are some conventional plays that need more work, that aren’t ready when they go on, and that could have been more rigorous, the same is also true about some devised work. We just need to have more good work in Ireland, I think (and again this is not a criticism of anything currently being done and is my own opinion).

Kinahan put it well when she said that there doesn’t have to be a clash between playwriting and devising, but there could be more mutual respect.

A Playwright’s Theatre and the Audience

Many of the writers spoke about the need for a theatre in Ireland that would be dedicated exclusively to the regular production of new work, and not just by new playwrights. Of course people admire the work being done by Theatre Upstairs – and I kept hearing people talk about how important Fishamble have been for them at various times in their career. And there was also some appreciative discussion of the new writing that has been emerging from the Abbey/Peacock in recent years.

But we don’t quite have anything like the Royal Court  or the Traverse – a high-profile and well resourced theatre (or theatre company) that would produce 10-12 new plays in Ireland every year, by a mix of established and emerging voices. So it’s important to say that no-one was criticising the existing provision in this area, but we were all just expressing the wish that we had something a bit more intensive.

Many people present at the School (not necessarily the writers) expressed their doubts about whether such a theatre might be viable – the fear seems to exist that there isn’t a big enough audience for new plays out there.

I wonder if that’s true. I am of course aware that new plays represent a risk for theatres and that this is in many ways not a great time for theatres to be taking risks. And I’m aware of examples of new plays that have not done well either critically or commercially. But if an audience trusts a theatre – as they do the Royal Court and the Traverse – they are more prepared to take the risk, I think. It’s easy for me to say that, I know, but perhaps more can be done here.

As I write above, no-one was being critical of existing provision, but there was a wish that we could find a way to do more for new playwriting in Ireland, so that established playwrights can actually make a living out of their writing over a longer period of time.

On Adaptations

Also notable is that so many theatres are now mitigating risk by commissioning adaptations. Many of the writers spoke about how they’re being commissioned to adapt novels – or to change existing works of art into something else (quite a lot of musicals seem to be in the works).

Other Issues…

We spoke a lot about the status of women dramatists in Ireland (improving but still much more to be done), of the importance of London as an outlet for the production of Irish plays, of the impact of Hollywood cinema and new American TV, about the importance of good storytelling, and much more. I might try to write more about some of these during the weeks ahead. And my hope is that others present might also do some blogging… Ciara O’Dowd has already posted a great entry here which has some thoughts on Dermot Bolger and Stuart Carolan’s contributions.

What Next?

All of the people we heard from were honest about the difficulties writers encounter, from financial to artistic to practical challenges. But all of them spoke about their work in progress with a lot of optimism and positivity.

Stuart Carolan, for instance, was very exciting on the future of Love/Hate (but when pressed to tell us what has happened to Darren he wouldn’t say anything!). Deirdre Kinahan told us about a play that she’s writing which is trying to do something I’ve seen in the cinema before but never on stage. And every other playwright had interesting things to say about their forthcoming work.

I left Rathdrum feeling very excited about the coming years: if every play that we heard about is produced in Ireland during the next 18 months, we could be in for a really great period of new writing – perhaps one that could push us back towards the spirit of that mini-Golden Age from 1995 to 2003.

But there are challenges too, the biggest of which is that it’s getting harder for playwrights to have a career.

I find myself wondering if perhaps we need to slightly refocus our priorities  in Irish theatre. I know how important it is to find and nurture new voices. But are we doing enough to nurture our established writers – to help them to develop, to move on, to keep writing? This isn’t an either/or – we can do both, of course. And again, I’m not criticising anyone who’s involved in doing this work at present – but perhaps there’s a need for a more systemic (that is, system-wide) consideration of playwriting.

It was an amazing experience to share a space with eight extraordinarily talented writers at the Synge School: they are all doing great things, and can continue to do great things. We just need to find new and better ways of letting them get on with it.