Joe Dowling, Ireland and the Guthrie

Last weekend, I was in Minneapolis to attend the annual conference of the Irish Theatrical Diaspora network, which this year was about Tyrone Guthrie and the relationships between Irish and American theatre.

It was a fascinating conference. We heard a great keynote from John Harrington, who pointed out how important America had been for many Irish practitioners. He referred to the early Abbey actors, to writers like Denis Johnston and Stewart Parker, and to Garry Hynes. I’ve written a few times before on this blog about the disappointing lack of American plays on Irish stages, but Harrington’s paper reminded me that American influence makes itself felt in other ways: in innovative approaches to writing or direction or acting, for example.

There was also a very stimulating keynote by Jose Lanters about Tom Kilroy, in which she compared the Abbey and Guthrie productions of The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde. Kilroy stands out in the contemporary tradition as an Irish dramatist who is unusually open to non-Irish influences. As Lanters showed, Constance Wilde shows the traces not only of Pirandello but also of Japanese practice.

The differing approaches to the production in Ireland and America were also very interesting: the Guthrie production was much closer to dance than was the case in the Abbey production – but it also seemed to have been over-produced. As directed by Patrick Mason and designed by Joe Vanek, the Abbey Constance Wilde had a striking simplicity that forced the audience to focus entirely on the sadness of the Wildes’ life. In contrast, the Guthrie production filled the stage with eye-catching details, including beautiful androgynous costumes for the plays’ mute attendants (puppeteers who also manipulate the live actors). But in doing so it may have made it more difficult for the audience to attend fully to the action.

It was also great to see the Guthrie Theater itself – surely now one of the world’s great theatres. With three stages, shops, lecture rooms, and an education department, the theatre is unlike anything we have in Ireland. I was struck by the thought that, at a cost of $130 million, the Guthrie cost more or less the same amount as had been earmarked for the Abbey between 1999 (when Patrick Mason finished up) and 2002 (when Ben Barnes proposed to move the theatre into the Docklands). I’m not sure that Dublin could necessarily support a space like the Guthrie – with its proscenium arch stage, its thrust stage, and its studio space. But the Irish theatre would thrive with such facilities. Fintan O’Toole and others have made the point before, though, that to see what Dowling did in raising the money to build the Guthrie is to face the disappointment that we have nothing even remotely comparable in Ireland.

When Friel went to Minneapolis in the early 1960s, he found the experience liberating – there’s his famous line about the ‘parole’ from ‘inbred claustrophobic Ireland’. The cultural differences between Minnesota and Ireland have probably narrowed during the last 50 years, but as ever America can throw up some surprises. For example, I loved the announcement on the front door of the Guthrie that guns are banned in the theatre. “But no-one brings guns to a theatre,” I said to an American companion, in my best tone of European anti-gun indignation. “Tell that to Abraham Lincoln,” came the reply.

Also impressive was that the bookshop had a good stock of Irish plays, including Thomas Conway’s Oberon Anthology of Irish Plays. It’s exciting to know that people like Grace Dyas, Mark O’Halloran, Amy Conway, Neil Watkins, and others are being read abroad – along with work on Friel:

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The highlight of the conference  was a public interview with Joe Dowling, who was very interesting on his time at the Abbey. He spoke about the importance of reintroducing Shakespeare to the Abbey’s repertoire, for example (and I’ve read the press clippings for his Twelfth Night and Much Ado from 1975 and 1976 – and audiences loved them). He also spoke about how he opened up the Peacock to younger actors – and indeed to young bands, including Thin Lizzy. He recalled standing in the foyer of the Abbey and feeling the ground shake from the band playing downstairs in the Peacock – a nice metaphor for what he tried (mostly successfully) to do with the theatre.

He also spoke about the problems he’d encountered there. When asked how he’d begun directing he explained that he was appearing in The Colleen Bawn – and that on opening night only the first three acts had been rehearsed. So before going on stage, he started telling one of the other actors where to stand.

He also spoke about some of his difficulties with the Abbey Board when he became Artistic Director from 1978 to 1985. When in 1985 the Board made a decision he didn’t (or couldn’t) agree with, the Chair simply said to him that “the boss is the boss”. In other words, the Board was in charge, and his job was to do what he was told, without discussion. So he resigned.

He spoke about that feeling of despair after his resignation – the fear that he wouldn’t work again, the frustration with how things had turned out. Those feelings were alleviated somewhat when, on the day after his resignation, he got a phone call from Michael Colgan. “So what are you going to direct for us at the Gate, Joe?” Colgan asked.

Dowling also spoke at length about his direction of Donal McCann in Friel’s Faith Healer – a harrowing story about how McCann had to battle his alcoholism in order to create one of the great performances in the modern Irish theatre.

What struck me most about Dowling’s tenure at the Abbey is that he did an enormous amount to liberalise the theatre. It was he who directed Teresa Deevy’s Katie Roche in the 1970s, for example – reintroducing to the Abbey repertoire one of its greatest women playwrights. He also brought McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster to the Peacock – a play that marked a new generosity not only in terms of sexuality but also sectarianism at our national theatre. Dowling gave Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross its Irish premiere – amazingly, the first and last time Mamet has been produced at the Abbey. And he also programmed shows like Murphy’s Gigli Concert, Barry McGovern in Endgame (a show now almost entirely associated with the Gate), and Cyril Cusack in Merchant of Venice. And he brought in Michael Bogdanov to do a challenging version of Hamlet on the theatre’s main-stage – only three years after Bogdanov had faced a charge of obscenity for his production of Romans in Britain in London.

Dowling attracted some criticism last year for his programming of the Guthrie’s fiftieth anniversary season, which was dominated by male authors. To be fair, I think the theatre has shown in its subsequent choices that it’s taken on board those criticisms. But there’s an interesting Irish context there – in that Dowling did more than any previous Abbey artistic director to bring new voices to the stages of the national theatre, broadening our approach to sexuality, gender and religion. When one views his career in its entirety, he certainly can’t be accused of being the kind of director who only ever wants to produce dead white heterosexual males.

Hearing Dowling talk, I found myself thinking that, like so many people of talent in 1980s Ireland, he would probably have gone mad or otherwise self-destructed had he stayed in the country. But to see what he’s achieved in the Guthrie – and to consider all he did during his time at the Abbey – was to face the realisation that he’s been a significant loss to Irish theatre too.

In other words, Irish theatre is at its healthiest when the channels are open with other cultures – when a Tom Kilroy can bring Japanese and European ideas into his very Irish play, when a Stewart Parker or a Garry Hynes can learn from American performance and then bring those ideas back home. But the career of Dowling at the Guthrie shows that there are many people who have left and, aside from occasional return visits, have mostly stayed away.

As opportunities for our theatre-makers recede – and as so many people head to London and elsewhere – I wonder who we’re losing now? And I wonder too if we are creating enough opportunities for those who have gone abroad to come home?

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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.