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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conor McPherson, British Dramatist?

I was a bit taken aback by the latest press release from the Donmar Warehouse, sent out by email last week and still posted on their website.

The message sends the very good news that the Donmar’s recent production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir will transfer into the West End early next year, running for 12 weeks from January.

Friends who’ve seen the production have said it’s terrific, and looking at the cast it’s easy to see why: Brian Cox, Ardal O’Hanlon, Risteard Cooper, Peter McDonald, Dervla Kirwan – not just a collection of great actors but great casting for each of those roles (you can easily enough see who will play each role, and it seems inspired in each case). It’s directed by the Donmar’s Artistic Director Josie Rourke, who announced her most recent season by declaring her intention to be a “a champion of British and Irish theater” – something she has done brilliantly by re-staging The Weir and by premiering McPherson’s new play The Night Alive (which I hope to write about later this week).

That’s all good, but the line that caught my attention was this one:

When it first premiered in 1997, The Weir won the Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and Olivier Awards for Best New Play, and established Conor McPherson as one of our greatest living playwrights.

The word that seems curious there is “our”. Being Irish, I am inherently obliged to find any hint of British appropriation of Irish success profoundly irritating, so I performed a little bit of shocked spluttering before thinking about this a bit more clearly.

There are a few explanations for an English theatre using a possessive pronoun to describe an Irish dramatist, especially one like McPherson.

One is that it could just be a mistake. This kind of thing happens occasionally. I recently spent about six months trying to get a fee out of a prominent British institution. We went back and forth for months re-checking bank account details and wondering what was going on, until I asked if the person in accounts knew that Dublin (where my bank is) is not actually in the United Kingdom. The response came back that this was the problem: the person hadn’t known that an international bank transfer would be required to send money from the UK to Ireland.

And similarly I’ve occasionally been asked by other academics (at conferences etc) how often I get “back to the mainland” (by which they meant “over to England”).

That kind of thing is fairly harmless: we tend to get upset about it in Ireland but I’m sure similar kinds of mistakes happen when Irish people interact with British people about similar things.

Another possible explanation for the “our” is that it’s just a small bit of appropriation, rather like the kind of thing that used to happen a lot in the 1980s, when Seamus Heaney was included in a book of British poetry, when U2 were voted best British band, and so on.

But perhaps the simplest explanation is this one: the statement isn’t really all that inaccurate, especially if the “our” means “of British theatre”.

As Peter McDonald reminds us in the programme note for The Night Alive, McPherson’s breakthrough happened when his Lime Tree Bower was brought to London by the Bush. In a flash he went from being someone who was not being produced in the major Irish theatres – and whose self-produced plays were getting indifferent to hostile reviews in Dublin – to having plays on in London and New York. And almost every one of his plays have premiered in London since that time: Dublin Carol, Port Authority, Shining City, The Seafarer and now The Night Alive all premiered there.

Many of them were produced in Dublin soon afterwards, mostly by Michael Colgan at the Gate (and in the case of The Seafarer at the Abbey). And most of those London-based productions transferred over to New York, often to Broadway. And while those successes were a result of the work of an Irish writer/director usually working with Irish actors, they were also a result of the work of British-based producers, designers, publishers and so on.

Contrast that with what’s happened for McPherson in Dublin when his The Birds premiered at the Gate: it got middling to indifferent reviews, and any hope of a West End transfer seems quickly to have disappeared. It’s interesting that McPherson uses the introduction to the third volume of his collected plays, recently published by Nick Hern, to thank Joe Dowling for staging the play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis – and in doing so making sure it has an ongoing life in the US.

The Bush has a right to think of McPherson as “our” (i.e. “their”) playwright, just as they have a stake in the success of Mark O’Rowe, Billy Roche, and other Irish writers. Likewise McPherson seems a quintessential Royal Court playwright, at least during the tenure of Ian Rickson. The sucess of The Seafarer in New York needs to be seen in the context of similar transfers from the NT into New York over the last decade. And since the Donmar are producing two of his plays this year, they can be forgiven for having a sense of ownership over him too. There aren’t many Irish theatres that could stake a similar claim.

But more seriously, it’s only fair to say that McPherson has a career in theatre because of the way in which the British theatre has supported him.

I’ve seen a few other examples of this lately. We at NUI Galway gave an honorary degree to Enda Walsh last month, and I was delighted to see that the British Ambassador to Ireland attended the ceremony. Walsh spoke warmly and effusively about the support the British Council has given him during his career. And this is something I hear many Irish writers say: that British Council supports a lot of Irish work not because they think it’s British (they don’t) but because they see it as a means of promoting the appreciation and study of the English language, among other reasons. And many Irish writers have benefited from this. Indeed, during the last 12 years I have attended a lot of international conferences on Irish writing where there were readings supported by the British Council – often, but not always, of writers from Northern Ireland. And this was at a time when it was virtually impossible to get funding from any comparable Irish agency: the Celtic Tiger meant that the promotion of Irish culture abroad seemed relatively unimportant. So the British Council would send our writers abroad but our own government didn’t.

Pictured is Leonard Moran, Professor Rita Colwell and Enda Walsh

ENDA WALSH HONORARY DEGREE AT NUI GALWAY

I’m also struck by the fact that there are a great many British people working in the Irish theatre whom we describe as “ours” (when the British do it, it’s appropriation, when we do it it’s a generous adoption – just as our emigrants are “the Irish diaspora” whereas immigrants are “the new Irish”). Many of the key figures in the development of our national theatre, from Hugh Hunt to Patrick Mason, were born in Britain; the same is true of the Gate’s Edwards and MacLiammoir. We’ve benefited enormously from the presence of people of other nationalities also, such as American women like Deirdre O’Connell (who set up the Stanislavski studio and Focus theatre) and Corn Exchange’s Annie Ryan. And the links between Northern Irish and Scottish theatre are particularly strong and interesting.

The Donmar’s production of The Weir in the West End is great news in many ways. It will give a boost to the reputation of McPherson, who hasn’t had an unqualified hit since The Seafarer. It highlights the excellence of Irish acting. And the likelihood is that the success of The Weir will encourage producers and audiences to take a chance on new Irish work. Given that the play will follow on the success of The Cripple of Inishmaan with Daniel Radcliffe, and will be on at the same time as Once – the Musical and a new musical version of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments (which opens in September and will presumably still be running four months later), this will give Irish theatre, music and performance a much higher profile than it’s had in years.

This is important in many ways. As an academic I’ve noticed a falling-off in the last five years in the number of people coming to Ireland to study Irish drama, especially at postgraduate level (and this is happening throughout Ireland). Druid’s tours of North America have certainly helped to arrest the decline (I get more queries from abroad from people wanting to do PhDs on Enda Walsh than almost any other writer). I think the promotion in London of Irish drama will help to turn things around also – and this in turn will have an impact on the kind of teaching we do in drama – which will in turn affect the future development of Irish practitioners and audiences.

So I’m trying very hard not to be too annoyed by the ‘our’ in the Donmar’s press release.

Still, I kind of wish they’d change it.