Something English This Way Comes: Wicked at the Grand Canal Theatre

We have a lot of shows opening in Ireland for Christmas at the moment.

Pride and Prejudice has begun at the Gate, and I hear that the acting is particularly good.

Over at the Abbey, The Risen People has opened, and while the subject matter (the 1913 Lockout) is not exactly Christmassy, the production’s use of music and movement should attract festive audiences.

And here in Galway, we’re waiting expectantly for Druid’s Colleen Bawn to open next Tuesday. I’m really looking forward to that one.

But by far the biggest Christmas show in Ireland this year is Wicked at the Grand Canal Theatre. It’s come here as part of a UK (and Ireland) tour that will also bring it to Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Birmingham and other British cities. I noted with interest that in the UK, top-price tickets for the show run to £72. Here in Ireland,  they go up to 65 euro. I thought that was surprising: I’d expect prices in Dublin to be lower than in the West End, but not that Irish tickets would be cheaper than in, say, Milton Keynes – though perhaps it’s not a direct like-for-like comparison. This pattern has also been evident in gigs at the Point Depot lately, and is a really welcome development.

Anyway, I’d never seen Wicked before, so I was glad to get the chance to catch a matinee during the week. I enjoyed it a lot.

In common with a lot of American culture from a decade ago, Wicked features humour that is very self-referential – with lots of nods to the original Wizard of Oz film in particular. We saw that kind of knowing humour regularly in the early 2000s when we had many re-makes and reboots of well loved movies and TV shows from the 1970s and 1980s – where part of the enjoyment lay in spotting the references to the original source. That aspect  of Wicked made the show seem a little dated to me – there’s nothing so old as a recent trend, after all. And I thought it dragged a bit towards the end of the first half. But otherwise I found it excellent from start to finish.

That excellence starts with the cast, and especially with Nikki Davis-Jones as Elphaba and Emily Tierney as Glinda. Tierney gives a very witty performance, getting plenty of laughs from her character’s self-absorption while also maintaining dignity and authority: we laugh at her but never find her ridiculous. And David-Jones is very likeable in the lead role, and as a singer is massively impressive in terms of vocal range, power and technique. I kept hearing people around me saying “wow” to each other when she sang.

Then you’ve got a wonderfully over-the-top set design, which is  faithful to the visual conception of the movie, while creating several  spaces that are both true to the original yet also new.  Likewise lighting and costumes are both real and surreal: they’re unlike anything you’d expect to see in our own world, but they seem true to the environment that’s been created on stage. You know when you walk into the theatre and are confronted with the sight of a giant dragon above the stage that, in true Broadway style, you’re going to be seeing plenty of evidence of your 65 euro (or £72 if you’re in Milton Keynes) on the stage.

All of that probably explains why Wicked has been so successful since it opened in New York over a decade ago, and why it continues to do so well now.

However, one of the things I found most interesting about this production  is that almost all of the characters delivered their lines (and even occasionally sang) in English accents. I assume this is also true of the West End production, though on Broadway all the accents are American.

This directorial decision makes a bit of sense: when your protagonist has green skin and a flying broomstick, you’re not going to get too worried about the lack of authenticity in her line delivery. There even seemed to be a couple of very subtle line changes, as for instance when one character says the very English “shall we” rather than the typically American “will we”. And perhaps most noticeably, the only character who did speak with an American accent was, in fact, the Wizard of Oz.

Having the Wizard be the only American in an Anglicised Oz makes some sense from an English point of view. Think about the way in which every major British movie of the last 20 years has had at least one American in the cast – or the shifting relationship between the US and UK as the Clinton/Blair bromance gave way to the Bush/Blair nightmare of the sexed-up WMD dossier.  One of the things that makes this version of Wicked quite interesting is that it’s  one more example of a story in which English people are taken for a ride by a kindly, avuncular but ultimately fraudulent Yank. We’ve seen a lot of those stories since 2003. I’d love to know more about whether the West End version of Wicked plays out these issues – and if that kind of localisation is strategic or accidental.

To watch this play in Ireland is even more interesting. Even with the English accents, this is still a very American story. Its basic theme is that people who don’t fit in can still triumph – and that of course is one of America’s longest-held myths about itself. And the rather strange sub-plot about animals  losing the ability to speak also seems like an example of a typically American preoccupation with righting injustices against “the little guy” (or, in this case, against a very big goat).

So as part of a Dublin audience, I found Wicked to be doubly foreign – not quite American, not quite English – and not quite the global “McTheatre” that can be consumed everywhere with some minor localising gestures.  That was a strange position to be in, sitting in Dublin but not really sure where I was: “you’re not in Kansas now Dorothy,” as they say.

The arrival of the Grand Canal has meant that we in Ireland are seeing many more of these shows than ever before. The old Point Depot occasionally hosted the big musicals like Les Mis and Phantom, and the Gaiety and Olympia in Dublin (as well as venues in Cork and Belfast) have sometimes hosted big international shows too. But the Grand Canal is doing things on a much bigger scale.

This is not a new thing for Irish theatre. During the 1850s, for example, there were over 500 different productions of Shakespeare’s plays in Dublin’s major theatres of that time – an average of almost one a week. And that pattern persisted for most of the rest of the century, albeit with fewer productions. Most of those Shakespeare performances were by visiting companies, usually led by people like Henry Irving or Frank Benson. To call such productions “English” would be literally true, but perhaps also slightly misleading – since some of them travelled throughout the English-speaking world, and sometimes went into Europe also. As is happening with Wicked in Dublin today, those productions were designed to go on the road, and were designed to be appealing to audiences in many different places.

Those nineteenth-century tours had a major impact on the theatrical awareness of audiences in Ireland, and in Dublin and Belfast in particular. Shakespeare was an element of popular culture as well as high culture in those times . Similarly, we tend to think of our own times as uniquely celebrity-obsessed, but those touring productions were dependent upon the reputation of the actors more than on almost any factor.

Ultimately, of course, those touring productions stimulated the creation of new Irish plays  – and in many ways. Think of  the melodramas of writers such as Boucicault (who came up with his own version of McTheatre – where The Poor of New York became The Poor of London or The Poor of Dublin or THe Poor of whatever city he happened to be in). And then of course there was  the Irish Literary Theatre and Abbey, which sought to create a more high-minded and less homogenised drama (albeit one that was still inspired by non-Irish role models, such as the Theatre Libre).

This leads me to wonder how Irish theatre will be affected by the regular appearance of shows like Wicked in Dublin. These shows are genuinely exciting in their scale and ambition. They feature performers whose technique and skills range from the very good to the virtuosic. They are undoubtedly creating new audiences for certain kinds of theatre, and not just in Dublin (witness the coaches that line the streets around the Grand Canal at every performance). And they put Dublin in better contact with the currents in commercial theatre throughout the English-speaking world. All of that strikes me as very positive.

But I also have a question about these global productions that are (sort of) from Broadway and (sort of) from London and (sort of) from nowhere at all – is it possible that, as happened over a century ago in Dublin, they might also inspire some kind of Irish response – some attempt to say there are other ways of making theatre? In other words, can we see Irish theatre not as operating on a parallel track with the Grand Canal but as being actively in conversation with the work that is staged there?

To ask such a question is to imply that the Grand Canal is as much a part of Irish theatre as the Abbey, Gate, Gaiety, or Lyric – even if it almost never stages work that originates in Ireland. We’ve seen in London over the last 15 years that the boundaries between the commercial and subsidised theatres can be quite porous. The National Theatre can stage big musicals like South Pacific (or even things like Kushner’s Caroline or Change), but similarly has transferred plays like The History Boys and War Horse into the West End. Indeed, one of the really interesting things about 2014 for Irish theatre is that we’ll be seeing two plays from the NT – War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors – at the Grand Canal.

And it’s also worth pointing out that Irish plays have done very well in the West End over the last 20 years. When The Weir opens next month, we’ll have three Irish (or Irish-themed) productions in the West End, the other two being Once and The Commitments. So just as we are listening to English accents in Wicked, London theatre-goers are listening to Dublin accents in those two musicals. In other words, plays that we might think of as “traditionally Irish” can operate within the same circuit as Wicked.

There hasn’t yet been much discussion of the impact that the Grand Canal will have on (the rest of) Irish theatre. Is it part of our theatre community? Does it want to be? Can we ever envisage a situation in which a successful Irish play – first produced in Dublin – may find its way onto the Grand Canal stage? Does it matter if one doesn’t?

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that Wicked is well worth seeing: great Christmas entertainment, yet also an opportunity to see a group of theatre-makers and musicians working to a very high standard. I’d recommend it. And will probably be trying to see it again myself.

Corporate Sponsorship of Irish Theatre – Or: Why I still go to the Grand Canal Theatre

Every month or so, I try to find out about forthcoming shows in Dublin, so I scan the websites of the big receiving houses. When I do so, I always find myself typing out a URL that is effectively obsolete – www.grandcanaltheatre.ie/ That always redirects me on to another page, which gives me that theatre’s new name.

Perhaps it’s petty, but I just can’t bring myself to type in the words “Bord Gais Energy Theatre”.  Like many people, I was disappointed by the theatre’s decision to dispense of a name that seemed elegant, atmospheric and apt – and to sell the naming rights to a utility company.

Leaving aside other considerations, the name seems ugly to me, and I always find myself thinking of Gwendolen in Importance of Being Earnest: “there is very little music in the name, if any at all, indeed.  It does not thrill.  It produces absolutely no vibrations”.

Well, “Bord Gais Energy Theatre” produces no vibrations, at least in me. Who wants to go to a theatre with homonyms of the words “bored” and “gash” in the title? Likewise I find the inclusion of the word “energy” in the title troubling, as if I am expected to arrive at the theatre really keyed up for a show. And shortening it to “b-get” doesn’t work: it always reminds me of those long lines of names in the Old Testament of men who begat other men.

In fairness though, I am one of those people who still talks about going to the Point Depot or Landsdowne Road, so I would probably have been hostile to whatever name the theatre ended up having to call itself.

Of course I know that theatres have to attract funding in order to stay open, and that the selling of naming rights is widespread internationally. But what bothers me about this kind of thing is that it turns us all into involuntary advertisers.

I knew, for example, that eircom and Ulster Bank were title sponsors of the Dublin Theatre Festival – but I was never obliged to refer to those companies when booking tickets or arranging to meet friends for the shows. I saw the logos on posters, noticed the link, and in general had a higher opinion of the companies for their sponsorship. So all good there.

But the selling of naming rights inserts brand names into our landscapes. So when I tell someone I was at a football match, I have to mention Aviva – and when I go to a gig, I have no option but to mention O2. This takes my private utterances and turns them into free advertising for companies that I may (or may not) like.

To be fair, I have nothing against any of those companies. Well – with the possible exception of Aviva, who were responsible for the single most illiterate ad I’ve seen in a long time, which was posted to Galway’s buses during the summer.

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But like all good consumers, I value freedom of choice – why should we be forced to use a company’s name if we don’t wish to do so?

Name branding also separates a building from its local environment, and thus from its history. When we see something at the Point Depot, we understand that building’s link with Dublin’s docks – we understand that it was once something else, that it has a past, and an interesting one too. But I often find nowadays that when people tell me they saw a show in “the O2” I’m not sure which one they mean – the Dublin or London one, or perhaps another someplace else? This flattening of local difference and distinction has significant consequences.

People I know in the theatre will sometimes say that this kind of thing isn’t a big deal. There’s so little funding around at the moment, they point out: when we have a lovely building like the Grand Canal, isn’t the most important thing that it stays open?

Perhaps so, but while I support title-sponsorship, I still dislike the selling of naming rights in this way…

I have heard people say similar things about another recent marketing project, called the Arthur Guinness Projects. Anyone with an Irish email address will have heard of this recently. The idea was that arts organsations (and other groups) would compete for “votes”, and that the groups with the most votes would in turn go into a competition (adjudicated by relevant experts) for a modest amount of funding – which, in the case of Irish theatre, may result in the production of some plays which might otherwise not have happened so soon.

Well, I look forward to seeing the work that is produced as a result of this but again, I found this project troubling.

Like many people, I got dozens of emails and twitter messages, often daily, from practitioners looking for votes. Every one of those emails was an ad for Guinness. Every retweet was an ad for Guinness. Every time someone logged on to view a company’s profile, they were also viewing ads for Guinness.

In the end, Guinness got a massive amount of advertising, and a proportionately tiny number of theatre practitioners will be able to make work. I’m not convinced that this was a good deal. Only 10% of the submitted entries make it through to a stage where they are judged by a panel of experts and I cannot tell from reading the website how many projects will actually be funded in the end. Ultimately  roughly 290 arts projects will get no funding at all. That’s a lot of people who’ve spent their time letting us all know that Guinness cares about creativity and community etc.

I worry slightly about such campaigns, which, while apparently well intentioned, may end up being inadvertently exploitative of the fact that some people really desperately need money in order to make art.

It’s also important to say something that will be obvious but which bears emphasising:  alcohol companies advertise not just to convince us to buy a particular brand if we’re out in the pub: they are also trying to shape our attitudes towards alcohol in general. It’s worth thinking about the positioning of this drinks multinational as a funder of work that will be young, edgy and experimental (the kind of work that won’t otherwise get funded).

There’s a performance going on here by the company itself, and it seems to me that there’s an attempt to position themselves as benign, trendy, responsive to ordinary life, authentic, and so on. The shift to using the full name – the Arthur Guinness Projects – even gives us a personality to identify with (isn’t there something kindly and avuncular about the way they use the name Arthur?)

Much of this is surely an attempt to build brand loyalty. But some of it is shaping attitudes. So the next time we have a public debate about alcohol and its impact on our society and indeed on our people and their families, our response to that debate will be shaped to some small extent by these campaigns, and by other events such as Arthur’s Day.

It was for similar reasons, after all, that tobacco companies used to sponsor art galleries.

I don’t think any of the companies I’ve mentioned in this post is acting out of cynicism or opportunism or anything else – any more than anyone does when they advertise. Likewise I am certain that the people doing the assessing of all of these projects are doing so out of a firm desire to give up their time to help new work get off the ground. And overall I am quite sure that the decision to engage in sponsorship was made out of some enthusiasm for the arts (or sport, in the case of the Aviva).

And again people I know who work in the arts have said  that none of the concerns above really matter, that people are smart enough to make up their own minds, and that if work is being made – what’s the problem?

But we must also acknowledge that those companies are trying to buy something that we as theatre-goers have: our awareness, our respect, our loyalty. That is quite literally a valuable commodity, and it belongs to us.

And perhaps it’s easy for me to say this: I’m not trying to keep a theatre running, and I know very well how difficult and stressful it is for hundreds of individuals and companies in Ireland.

But for my own part – I will continue going to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. But I’m going to keep calling it the Grand Canal.