The Silver Tassie at the NT

I am just back from  a very good production of The Silver Tassie at the National. I need some time to digest it before I can write something detailed, but wanted to share some thoughts straightaway

The last time I saw this play, it was in a 2010 production directed by Garry Hynes for Druid. I caught it at the Gaiety Theatre – a venue for which it was well suited, both in terms of scale (it’s a big play) and theatre history (Tassie has its roots in music hall and melodrama, genres that the Gaiety was somewhat associated with).

As often happens with Druid, one of the first things that Hynes did in that production was to de-familiarise the play. Druid audiences often arrive at the theatre thinking they know what they’re going to see: “this is a play by John B. Keane/Sean O’Casey/Martin McDonagh – so we all know what that means”. This is especially true for O’Casey, a writer cursed by the fact that audiences think they know his work extremely well, when in fact they only know three of the 20+ plays that he wrote. So with Tassie Hynes immediately faced the challenge of preparing audiences for the fact that they were not watching Juno or Plough.

She did this by heightening the theatricality of the play. The famous “difficult second act”, set in the trenches, has several expressionistic elements in O’Casey’s script – a large gun, the use of music and chanting, the use of poetic language, and so on. The Druid production exaggerated those elements so that, for example, Francis O’Connor’s set was dominated by an enormous cannon, while Davy Cunningham lit the backdrop in a  sickly luminous green (as shown in the image below).

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Similarly, the third act (set in a hospital ward) opened with John Olohan and Eamon Morissey standing in front of an enormous red curtain, both wearing bowler hats – placing them somewhere between Laurel and Hardy and Didi and Gogo. So the direction and design in the Druid production always ensured that the audience were distanced from the action (in a Brechtian sense) – they were always being reminded that they were watching a play – and thus were better able to go along with its strangeness.

That approach is probably necessary in Ireland, because O’Casey is so well known, but although Druid’s production was very well received when it toured to the UK, it’s also fair to say that audiences in England are less familiar with O’Casey and thus are in some ways likely to be more open-minded about his work.

Here Howard Davies as director plays the action fairly straight: the staging and performance styles are largely realistic, albeit to a heightened extent in the second act, and also in a particularly vivid and moving concluding coup de théâtre that highlights the role of women in the play. The second act here seems almost naturalistic; the use of song is strange but is not entirely unrealistic.  Where Hynes’s Tassie drew out the expressionist elements of the Dublin Trilogy (such as the scene with the Speaker at the window in Plough), Davies in contrast draws out the realistic elements that we find in, say, Juno and shows how they follow through into Tassie. It’s interesting that Davies’ Juno (staged at the Abbey a couple of years ago before a transfer to the NT) and this Tassie are very similar in tone and visual impact.

The overall impact of both Hynes’ and Davies’ Tassie is to confirm for me that this play is not an interesting failure (as it’s often described).  Having now seen two excellent but very different recent productions of the play (not to mention the excellent opera version, staged about 12 years ago I think), I think that we need to re-imagine the so-called Dublin Trilogy of Shadow, Juno and Plough as a tetralogy that includes Tassie. This is partly because audiences now have caught up with O’Casey: if you’ve seen a play like Godot you can understand the use of the comic double act in Act 3 of Tassie; if you’ve seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, you can understand why O’Casey sets the final scene in an ante-room, a place that is close to but separate from a performance being staged nearby. Act 2 – the scene in the trenches – is of course thoroughly original, but it also anticipates many of the innovations and techniques of Brecht. In short, Tassie’s time has come.

So as I was watching tonight, I found myself imagining how wonderful it would be for an Irish audience to be able to see Tassie and the other three major plays in a single production, with a single ensemble. As the RSC did when they staged all eight of Shakespeare’s history plays back in 2008, the O’Caseys could be staged in order of composition (Shadow to Tassie), and they could also be staged in chronological order – Tassie, Plough, and Shadow – finishing with Juno. I feel we’d learn a lot during this so-called decade of commemorations in Ireland if we had the opportunity to see O’Casey being staged in this way.

I know that an idea like this was proposed a few years ago and was the subject of a disagreement between the Abbey and Druid. It’s a pity that it didn’t work out. The move from Tassie to Juno gives us an Ireland that was part of the UK, changing into a country that had just become independent. Think of that final scene that O’Casey gives us in Juno: two drunks in a hall while the two women at the centre of the play have left the stage, to raise a baby that would be treated as an outcast in Ireland because its parents were unmarried. O’Casey gives us a vision of independent Ireland that still has relevance: he presents it as a place that would be intolerant of women, vicious towards “illegitimate” children, easily exploited by wealthy elites (especially from abroad) – and a place, finally, which would be a comfortable enough home for feckless wasters and cute hoors like Captain Boyle and Joxer. Juno is a play that anticipates many of independent Ireland’s worst failures, and can warn us against repeating them.

Leaving that (probably unrealistic) idea aside, there’s a lot in this production to be delighted by. I loved the set design by Vicki Mortimer, which thoroughly refutes the idea that this is an unstageable play. The tenement in Act One is stunningly transformed into a ruined monastery in Act Two – which in turn becomes the backdrop to the hospital in Act Three. The final act drops walls in front of these structures: we know they are there but can only see them fleetingly. The image below shows her design for Act Two – a very interesting contrast to the image above from Druid.

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Aside from the fact that Mortimer ensures we don’t get a break in the action (and energy) between the first and second acts (the transition is seamless), there’s also a suggestion that the Irish soldiers bring Dublin with them to the trenches – and that they bring the trenches back with them to the hospital when they return. And the final act shows that the First World War is a presence in Ireland that has been rendered invisible because a new “narrative” was imposed upon it. This is thematically very interesting, but it’s also theatrically very effective, giving unity and coherence to a play that is often seen as composed of different parts that don’t necessarily fit well together.

It’s also fascinating to me that the NT chose this Irish play to commemorate the beginning of the First World War. I found myself wondering how Tassie might speak to England’s sense of itself and its own history. The First World War, you could argue, brought about Irish independence: it’s impossible to imagine the Easter Rising and the Anglo-Irish War without the context and impact of WW1. I found it very interesting that the second act of this production featured so many English accents: the Irish characters were shown here  interacting with English soldiers as equals in the trenches – so for this English audience the “them” that Irish characters often represent in other plays here became an “us” that represents a shared past. At a time when a lot of people in England are expressing anxiety about the possibility of Scottish independence, it’s really interesting to view a production that adopts a mildly nostalgic view on a time when Ireland’s position in the UK still seemed secure.

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Also interesting of course is that as yet we have not seen much in Ireland about WWI. The only thing I can think of that is  relevant might be the staging of War Horse at the Grand Canal Theatre, but while its show programme drew attention to the centenary of the outbreak of the war, that context went largely unremarked at the time. I do know that some companies are planning revivals and new productions that will address the legacies of the Great War in 2016, so perhaps we’ll all be complaining about commemorative plays by the time 2018 rolls around.

Two last things to note.

The acting. As you’d expect, some of the accents wander a bit from Dublin – to Cockney or Belfast. But this doesn’t detract or distract from the performances of an excellent cast. Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy are very funny as Si and Syl. Ronan Raftery is a very good Harry: heroic in the first act, creepy in the last one. There’s a lovely touching scene between him and Aidan Kelly towards the end, in which Kelly talks about being Raftery’s eyes, while Raftery can be his legs (a nod to Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand – no wonder he rejected the play). And Judith Roddy has an excellent performance as Susie Monican, the religious zealot who is humanized (and secularized) when she gains the attentions of a staff doctor. O’Casey has a lot to say here about social class and social climbing (and religion), but I understood with Roddy’s performance how Susie’s transformation is intended to parallel and contrast with the change in Harry. That impressed me.

And finally it was great to see a programme note in there from James Moran. He is the author of a book from Methuen by Sean O’Casey (declaration of interest: I am the series editor). It’s a very stimulating study that argues for a new look at O’Casey, and which comes at his work from a well informed theatrical perspective. It could (and should) stimulate further productions of his works. As I write above, O’Casey did keep writing plays for more than 30 years after Tassie. The Druid and NT productions show that this play deserves more attention. Are there any practitioners out there who might like to prove the same point about some of his other plays, such as Within the Gates, Red Roses for Me, or The Bishop’s Bonfire?

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After the Abbey Debates – Where Do We Go Now?

It’s now a week since the Irish Times published documents about the Abbey’s artistic output since 2012. It’s been an interesting time. First we had Fiach Mac Conghail and Fintan O’Toole being interviewed (separately) on RTE’s Arena programme. The Abbey then released a statement about the matter, and Fintan O’Toole defended the newspaper’s actions in his column yesterday.

The Abbey statement and the O’Toole column largely repeat the position both outlined earlier in the week. The Abbey argues that the reports are only a partial diagnosis of the theatre, and that it was ‘cruel’ to publish them. The Irish Times states that there was no sign of the process being brought to a close, and has also pointed out that if it’s cruel to expose Irish actors and other artists to embarrassing public scrutiny, it was the Abbey that set up the assessment in the first place. O’Toole has also made the point that these reports would ultimately have resulted in the publication of a final report – and that the assessors were hardly going to change their mind about what they’d seen. How is it acceptable to publish that information when the report is finished, but cruel to publish it now, he asks?

So what’s interesting is that the debate has shifted from what the Abbey is doing to whether the Irish Times should have published the reports.  This effectively means that the debate has reached an impasse. A theatre company will always protect its artists from public criticism, and a newspaper will always protect its responsibility to query how taxpayers’ money is being spent. I can’t see either “side” moving from either of those positions until or unless there is another development in the story.

What’s also interesting is that, aside from contributions by Garry Hynes and Declan Gorman (about which more below) and a few others, the broader public debate has largely been based around opinions rather than analysis. And many of the common themes are slightly irrational as a result. I’d pick out three irrationalities in particular as being quite interesting.

What Kind of National Theatre Do We Want? One of the features of the debate is that lots of people think that the Abbey gets too much money, yet they also think that the Abbey should be doing much more – that it should keep the Peacock open, that it should tour, that it should produce more plays by women or in Irish or by recent immigrants to the country, etc.  It’s difficult to understand how the Abbey can both expand its activities and be given less money. A full review of the Abbey’s expenditure might help to focus some minds on this topic.

The Irish Times. I’ve also heard a lot of people saying that the Irish Times should never have published the reports. I think we should take a step back and think about that.

Let’s imagine we weren’t talking about a theatre, but about a medical unit – let’s imagine a national centre for pediatric medicine (NCPM). This unit aims to be world class, but there are tensions with the HSE about how it does its business  – leading to the appointment of an international review panel. The panel produces several interim reports, many of which raise doubts about whether this centre is meeting world class standards for the treatment of sick children. Those reports feature brief discussion of the output of people employed by directly by the Centre, and also of several sub-contractors and consultants – freelancers, in other words. The NCPM is due to meet with the panel in September 2013 but, for whatever reason, the meeting doesn’t happen. The HSE is now in doubt that the review process will conclude and there are ongoing tensions about the Centre’s 7 million p.a. funding.

What I’m attempting to do here is to create an analogy with the situation as it’s been described by the Irish Times (noting of course that the Abbey haven’t given their side of that story). But I would imagine that most people  would state in relation to the example above that any newspaper aware of such a story would rush it into print. And if you find the sick children analogy too manipulative, imagine we’re talking instead about about a National Centre for Fertiliser Analysis, run out of the Department of Agriculture, and costing enough money to keep 100 hospital beds open for a year. You’d get the usual uproar about unaccountable quangos straightaway.

I am not trying to minimise the sense of embarrassment or anger that some artists may have felt (though would note too that many artists have said in relation to the furore that they are well able to handle some negative public commentary). Here I would be inclined mainly to criticise the redaction, which was very inconsistently carried out. If I was redacting a report on, say Juno and the Paycock, and I wrote “the role of Juno, as played by XXXXXXX XXXXXXXX was not well done”, then that does nothing to disguise the identity of the actor. And there’s lots of that sort of thing in the reports. Likewise, some names that ought to have been redacted have not been. While i am reluctant to draw attention to this, I do need to support that assertion, so I would direct interested readers to the report on The Hanging Gardens to see an example of an actor’s name not being redacted.

I’d also say that the Times’s publication of those reports has allowed people to make up their own minds, and it’s notable that what this has done is actually to reveal more about the problems with the process than it does any problems with the Abbey.

Strategically, I also think there’s a need for the debate to move away from the Freedom of Information issues. In post-bailout Ireland, public bodies are under massive levels of scrutiny, and huge problems have been discovered with the management and budgeting of many of them – generating a great deal of public scrutiny and anger. And justifiably so. If you get taxpayers’ money you just can’t be seen to question how and when FOI is applicable to you – this will automatically generate huge levels of cynicism (or worse) from a public that thinks that publicly-funded bodies get too much money without being properly accountable. I think any attempt to advance this part of the debate will backfire very badly.  And indeed the comments about this issue on websites from ordinary members of the public are massively negative already. Best to move on from it.

Defending the Abbey. A final irrationality is that you can’t defend the Abbey  because it’s their ‘fault’ that the assessment was created. This view has been quite widely expressed – that the Abbey called for an international assessment, that it was they who used the world class term, and so on. So as someone said, the Abbey has “created a monster”. And as Fintan O’Toole said in his column yesterday, you can’t defend the Abbey by criticising the assessment, since it was the Abbey’s assessment in the first place.

I would disagree with that. The overall impression created by this story is that an international panel has declared the Abbey to be failing in some way. As I said in my own blog post last week, we need to defend the Abbey against that accusation, since it has a knock-on impact on everyone involved in theatre and the wider arts community – and also because it’s actually not true that the Abbey is failing artistically. You can defend the Abbey and still think that their work could be better, or that the Peacock should be open, or that the assessment procedure was still inappropriate. And i think we should be looking to shift the story to a consideration of the fact that Irish theatre generally is producing excellent work, despite the many challenges it faces.

So as I say, I think the debate has hit an impasse, with people adopting (understandably) defensive positions that are unlikely to lead to any progress.

Enter Garry Hynes. On Thursday, the Irish Times published a hard-hitting feature by Garry, in which she calls for a much broader conception of what policy should be about Irish theatre. She raises all sorts of major problems, most of them focussed on the future of Irish theatre – and how we can make sure that there will still be an Irish theatre in 10 years’ time. If nothing else, this was a brilliant and sophisticated piece of writing, and I know I’m going to be referring to it in my teaching for years to come. I know some people will disagree with the points in it, but the quality and level of analysis made Irish theatre look well.

And then on Friday, Declan Gorman wrote a blog post which makes similar arguments, saying that the debate about the Abbey is an argument about “the wrong thing” and that there are far more important matters for us to attend to.

These two contributions are massively important – and while people may agree or disagree with individual points made by Hynes or Gorman, the overall thrust of both articles is constructive and positive. And both raise a series of important questions.

The first is what kind of national theatre we actually want. I have heard and read a lot of different ideas about this. Some people suggest that we should simply close down the Abbey – and while I think that would be a disaster,  it’s a useful thought experiment: what would Irish theatre be like if there was no Abbey theatre?

In truth, the world would probably be appalled at what would seem an act of cultural barbarism, but it’s worth asking the question anyway. And if we want a national theatre, we need to think about how we pay for it – and indeed how we devise assessment systems that will persuade the public that their money is being well spent.

I hear a lot of people saying we should adapt the National Theatre of Scotland model. I’m not so sure. The NTS is brilliant and exciting and dynamic. But it’s only been around since 2006; it’s been driven by a remarkable  artistic director in Vicky Featherstone (now at the Royal Court); and its energy is partly influenced by the renaissance in Scottish playwriting (featuring remarkably productive playwrights like David Greig) – not to mention the renewed cultural energy in Scotland heading towards its independence referendum. So the NTS is one of world theatre’s success stories.

But that doesn’t mean it will still be working the same way in 10 years’ time – or that the NTS model would work here. So I have serious worries about the way in which many irish commentators see the NTS model as a quick-fix solution to Irish theatre’s funding worries.

Then there’s the national picture. People complain that the Abbey gets roughly half of all theatre funding. Look at the figures a different way though – how much theatre funding goes to venues outside Dublin 1 and Dublin 2?  In other words, how can we talk about an Irish theatre when most of the money is being spent within two postal codes?

Then there’s the matter of succession. Garry Hynes makes the great point that the Arts Council funds theatre in order of their date of establishment: the Abbey gets most money, then the Gate, then Druid, then Rough Magic, and so on. This raises the very serious question of how we fund the next generations of theatre artists.

Other questions. How do we support new writing, by all sectors of Irish society? How do we develop theatre craft generally – not just acting but also design and direction? How do we build new audiences? How do we create a system where the Irish taxpayer can be satisfied that their money is being well spent on Irish art? What role does the Arts Council have?

If we could have a debate like this without it being used as an excuse to justify mediocrity (a common defence – “we’re being reviewed right now so we don’t have to be good”), and if it doesn’t get bogged down in a turf-war (now there’s a mixed metaphor), then all of this could be constructive.

What I’d like to see, then, is for speedy movement on the appointment of an Arts Council chair, and the replacement of its retired members. I think a detailed review of the Abbey, with the publication of a final report within an agreed timeframe, could be good for all concerned, though Eithne Shortall’s report in today’s Sunday Times suggests that may not happen now (behind a paywall so I can’t link to it). Some sort of debate about what kind of Irish theatre we’d like to have by 2020 would also be very useful. Some awareness that there is an Irish theatre scene in Dublin, and then several other Irish theatre scenes in Ireland, would also be helpful – and incidentally, the only national paper that is producing any kind of coverage of Irish theatre outside of Dublin is still the Irish Times (albeit to a reduced extent).

But as regards the Abbey story, I think it’s time to move on. The imminent premiere of Selina Cartmell’s Tender Thing – not to mention the opening of a great production of Skull in Connemara at the Gaiety – followed soon by the intriguing prospect of Annabelle Comyn directing Noel Coward at the Gate, and Conal Morrison directing Keane at the Abbey – all of this means that we can all just get back to the business of making, talking about, studying, and most importantly enjoying some excellent Irish theatre.

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Irish Musical Theatre – A New Development That Has Always Been With Us

A few weeks ago, I did a brief interview with Eithne Shortall of The Sunday Times about the Irish musical. In her feature, she writes about Once and The Commitments, and wonders if these two productions suggest that we’ll see more  Irish musicals during the years ahead.

I think she’s right. I can see evidence of this growth at NUI Galway, where incoming Drama students are passionate about musical theatre, making GUMS (the university musical society) one of the university’s most vibrant student groups. And many students come to study theatre not because they have appeared in work by Synge or O’Casey or Friel, but because they were in a school production of South Pacific or Grease or West Side Story. We’re introducing classes in musical theatre from next year in an attempt both to meet that interest and to stimulate more of this kind of work.

Of course, the Irish musical has been around for a while. We saw it work brilliantly almost a decade ago (can it really be that long?) when Rough Magic premiered Bell Helicopter and Arthur Riordan’s Improbable Frequency, a musical about Ireland during the Second World War – which included such hilarious songs as “Be Careful Not to Patronise the Irish”. And we saw it on the main stage of the Abbey only last year with Wayne Jordan’s production of Alice in Funderland by Raymond Scannell and Phillip McMahon. Each of those productions was greeted with a lot of commentary, both formal and informal, suggesting that perhaps – at last – we in Ireland might be on the verge of developing a tradition of musical theatre.

I wonder, though, if it’s quite that simple. Music and musicality have always been important if not essential for Irish plays. One of the best examples of the importance of music can be found in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock – which features a long scene in which the characters sing songs and play music on a gramophone.  It’s not a coincidence that Captain Boyle, who spends the play’s first act trying to deceive his wife, will in this scene choose to sing ‘Oh Me Darlin’ Juno, I Will Be True to Thee’ —a song intended to emphasize his honesty, which therefore reveals his duplicitous and hypocritical nature.  Another example is Mrs Madigan’s choice of the song ‘If I were a Blackbird’ to sing in the play’s second act:

   If I were a blackbird I’d whistle and sing;

I’d follow the ship that my true love was in;

An’ on the top riggin’, I’d there build me a nest,

An’ at night I would sleep on me Whillie’s white breast!

This seems quite an innocent choice, but given that her audience includes Captain Boyle—a former sailor who is supposed to have inherited a large amount of money—her choice of a love song with a maritime setting reveals a great deal about her motives.

Arguably, the play’s turning point occurs in that same scene, when we hear Juno and Mary singing ‘Home to Our Mountains’ from Verdi’s Il Travotore.  O’Casey does not transcribe the words of this piece; he does not change them to reflect the accent or social status of the singers, but states that they must sing the song well.  By showing that the two characters can express themselves perfectly well in this artform, O’Casey hints that they are capable of transcending their circumstances—and indeed makes the case that they must do so.

And then the scene concludes with the song “If You’re Irish, Come Into the Parlour” playing on the gramophone while a funeral dirge is underway – a brilliant contrast of kitsch Irishness with the solemnity of the funeral ritual.

Juno is not a musical – but its use of music is far more than incidental or contextual: it reveals character, develops the themes, shapes the audience’s responses, and offers us new ways of seeing such issues as nationalism, religion, gender, and the relationship between Irish and international culture. And it seems to me that a lot of Irish plays use music in a similar way: they are not quite musical theatre, but they are much more than “music in theatre”.

Tom Murphy has a very similar scene to O’Casey’s in his under-rated 1998 play The Wake, which again sees a family gathering for a sing-song.  And there’s  a brilliant scene in his The Gigli Concert in which the Irishman acts out the story of Gigli’s youth while Toseli’s Serenade plays in the background. In Garry Hynes’s last production of the play (which I reviewed on irish Theatre Magazine), Denis Conway matched the movements to the music so carefully that it was almost as if he was dancing at times.  And the use of song in Conversations on a Homecoming offers rare moments of beauty in a play that is otherwise quite fearlessly ugly.

In the blog, I’ve also written a few times about the use of music in contemporary plays. This pattern worries me slightly, since it reminds me of something I occasionally see in the work of inexperienced directors and writers – which is that when you can’t work out how to convey an important mood or emotion to the audience through acting, staging, or writing, you let a piece of music do the work for you (and too often it’s the same music: Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Massive Attack).

Yet when done well, music can transform a play. As I’ve recently discussed, Frank McGuinness uses a song from the Mikado beautifully in The Hanging Gardens. Similarly, Conor McPherson’s use of music is almost always successful: I’m thinking of the use of Neil Young as a kind of ironic counterpoint to the action in Shining City or of John Martyn’s Sweet Little Mystery to bring us blinking back into the sunlight in The Seafarer.  And then there’s Enda Walsh, whose use of Doris Day in Misterman and more kitsch Irish ballads in Walworth Farce add to the sinister and unsettling quality of both plays. And who can forget the contrast between the intensely verbal sisters in New Electric Ballroom and Mikel Murfi’s amazingly sung “Wondrous Place” in the same play?

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Enda Walsh, incidentally, is the only Irish dramatist I know of who has won a Grammy – since his song “Abandoned in Bandon” appears on the soundtrack to Once – the Musical.

And there are many other examples we could think of. Billy Roche’s The Cavalcaders is arguably as much a musical as The Commitments is (in both cases, song is used as part of the action – songs are only sung when they would be sung in the ‘real world’). Something similar could be said of Christina Reid’s The Belle of the Belfast City. And think of how important music is for Brian Friel – Cole Porter and traditional music in Lughnasa, Chopin in Aristocrats, Thomas Moore in The Home Place, and so on. Likewise, Elaine Murphy’s use of music in Shush seems influenced by Lughnasa – a play which, I think, must also have had an impact on Marie Jones’s restaging of the Blind Fiddler back in 2003.

I’m also conscious of how deeply invested in music so many Irish dramatists are. For example, Stewart Parker was, among many other things, a brilliant rock journalist – and it shows in his drama.

We can also see the importance of music in some of the recent adaptations that have appeared at the Abbey. As I suggested in that discussion with Eithne Shorthall, Frank McGuinness’s The Dead – which again made use of the songs of Thomas Moore – was almost like a hybrid: not quite a musical but not quite a play either. And it seems that the Abbey’s forthcoming production of The Risen People – opening next week – will be making extensive use of music too.

Quite often, establishing an Irish musical tradition is seen as being like beating the All Blacks: something we really should have done a long time ago, but will, we hope, get round to doing sometime in the near future. But could it be that the reason we don’t have a tradition of musical theatre here is because, in some ways, it’s always been so firmly embedded in our theatrical culture anyway?