Queering Shakespeare at the Abbey: Wayne Jordan’s Twelfth Night

There’s a very good production of Twelfth Night at the Abbey right now, directed by Wayne Jordan.

Since the Abbey first staged Shakespeare in 1928, when Denis Johnston produced a King Lear that was influenced by European ideas about design, the theatre has always used Shakespeare’s plays to give young directors and practitioners a chance to change (and renew) Irish theatre practice. Yeats and Lennox Robinson chose Johnston to direct Lear because they saw him as a potential Artistic Director of the theatre, someone who could stop the Abbey from falling into the hands of the conservative faction that ultimately did gain control after Yeats’s death. And from 1936 to 1971 Shakespeare went unproduced at that theatre: when asked why, Ernest Blythe explained that the Abbey ‘does not do foreign playwrights’.

As part of the process of renewal in the theatre in the 1970s, the Peacock hosted productions of Twelfth Night and Much Ado directed by a young Joe Dowling, who used the experimental space to highlight the excellence of the emerging generation of Irish actors. The press reports from that time buzz with excitement about the youth and enthusiasm of Dowling’s cast. There was also a visiting production of Timon of Athens and a reportedly beautiful production of Midsummer Night’s Dream from Tomas Mac Anna.

The trend continued. In 1980, Patrick Mason did a Winter’s Tale in the Peacock which featured Liam Neeson and Colm Meany. In 1983, the British director Michael Bogdanov staged Hamlet on the main stage – only three years after he had been prosecuted for obscenity for his production of Romans in Britain at the NT in London. In the early 1990s, around the time that he was delighting the country with the satirical radio programme Scrap Saturday, Gerry Stembridge directed a hilarious country and western version of The Comedy of Errors, starring Pauline McLynne, Mikel Murfi and many others who would go on to have major careers.

Closer to our own times, Conall Morrison in 1999 gave us a Tempest that marked both the end of Patrick Mason’s tenure at the Abbey and the beginning of the Peace Process. We had the Mark O’Rowe-edited 1 Henry IV at the Peacock in 2002, directed by Jimmy Fay. And under Fiach Mac Conghail, we’ve had Romeo and Juliet, Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar by Jason Byrne, Macbeth by Jimmy Fay, and Selina Cartmell’s King Lear last year.

In short, the Abbey is anomalous as a national theatre (in a good way), in that Shakespeare is not seen as something to be dusted down and trotted out dutifully. Rather, Shakespeare is the vehicle the theatre uses when it wants to infuse new energy, new personnel, and new ideas into its repertoire. The plays are usually handled faithfully – we don’t get substantial cuts or major reinterpretations – so most of the innovation happens in the areas of casting and design. And the aim is almost always to surprise us, to do something we haven’t seen before. Not every production achieves this goal, of course – and I do not think this trend always results from a conscious decision on the part of the theatre’s programmers. But it is certainly evident.

And it continues at present with Jordan’s work, which has a very young and inexperienced cast and crew – who bring to the play a spirit of enthusiasm and iconoclasm, but who also display rigour, discipline and technical accomplishment. The aesthetic and outlook of Jordan’s raucous Alice in Funderland is carried forward into this production, but whereas Alice tended to divide audiences (people either loved it or hated it), Twelfth Night is likely to please the theatre’s regular audience-members while having the potential to delight first-time visitors to the Abbey also.

The first feature to mention is the acting. Mark O’Halloran’s casting as Malvolio received a lot of attention in the lead-up to the opening night – and he delivers on expectations. His Malvolio is ridiculous, but if we laugh at him, O’Halloran ensures we can also sympathise with him to some extent too.

Mark O'Halloran in _Twelfth Night_

Mark O’Halloran in _Twelfth Night_

Also enjoyable are Nick Dunning and Mark Lambert, who have a lot of fun as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew: I felt that the audience only fully relaxed when this pair appeared onstage, and there was a noticeable quickening in the audience’s energy every time they returned.

Ger Kelly’s Feste is, simply, beautiful: he has an extraordinarily vocal range, and sings with an emotional restraint that commanded an intensity of attention that you rarely get in the Abbey (or anywhere else). On Twitter, someone wrote that every time Kelly sang it was as if time had stopped. That’s an accurate way of describing it, I think – I found myself forgetting the play, forgetting where I was, and simply taking pleasure in the song.

But the real revelation, to me anyway, was the performance of Natalie Radmall-Quirke as Olivia. She occupies the stage with impressive authority and, of all the actors, has most control over the language: she understands everything she is saying and makes sure that the audience understands it too. Watching her, I found myself being often reminded of the performances that Patrick Mason used to evoke from Jane Brennan in the 1990s, in plays like Saint Joan and Tom Murphy’s The Wake. There was something indefinable and unique about Brennan: you’d never encourage another actor to imitate her way of acting, but you’d never try to stop Brennan from doing it either – and it involved an unusual ability to combine total precision in movement and line delivery with an emotional honesty that always seemed to be skirting dangerously with the possibility of collapse. Radmall-Quirke is similar here: her performance has an emotional authenticity and bravery that is matched by the care of her technique. I had no idea that she is this good.

Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Olivia) and Elaine Fox (Valentine) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photography by Ros Kavanagh. Photo taken from www.abbeytheatre.ie/

Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Olivia) and Elaine Fox (Valentine) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photography by Ros Kavanagh. Photo taken from http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/

Also very interesting, however, is Wayne Jordan’s decision to bring to the play a queer aesthetic. In his programme note, he writes as follows:

The queer nature of Twelght Night is undeniable. The queering of class, gender and sexuality is at the core of the play’s alchemy. Viola finds her sexuality while dressed as a boy, Olivia falls in love with a boy who’s really a girl and then sleeps with her brother who’s really a boy. Orsino, who affects to love Olivia, falls in love with a boy who’s really a girl. And this is to point to the most obvious of manifestations. Originally written to be played by boy actors, the erotic sexuality of the drama is arresting in a new and challenging way to each new audience and age.

 

That reading of the play is of course entirely justified and indeed has been given many times before (albeit never in Ireland, to the best of my knowledge). But Jordan’s reading of the play in terms of sexuality gives the play a political edge that feels very timely: the production was planned before Panti’s Noble Call, but it is impossible not to see Twelfth Night as a continuation of the conversation that Panti initiated.

This is particularly noticeable in terms of the play’s treatment of marriage. As in Merchant of Venice, the play concludes with a man called Antonio left bereft because the younger man that he loves has married a woman. In Merchant, Bassanio’s marriage to Portia is construed mainly in mercenary terms: while he later talks of loving Portia, at the start of the play he describes his decision to seek her out for marriage as an investment that will revive his financial fortunes.

Likewise here, Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia is seen as a betrayal of his prior relationship with Antonio. That relationship is portrayed with real intimacy: we first see the pair entwined together in a bed, semi-naked – and this is one of the production’s only moments of genuine emotional closeness. Conor Madden as Antonio seems blinded to Sebastian’s selfishness and vapidity: Antonio loves him even as he seems largely undeserving of love.

Conor Madden (Antonio) and Gavin Fullam (Sebastian) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photography by Ros Kavanagh.

Conor Madden (Antonio) and Gavin Fullam (Sebastian) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photography by Ros Kavanagh.

The genuine love of these two men is thus disrupted and betrayed by the need to impose a normative version of heterosexual marriage upon Sebastian. “I am not what I am,” says Viola during the play – but if the action ends with her coming out about who she really is, it also involves Sebastian closeting himself away, perhaps definitively, in a marriage that he seems to have no genuine interest in. The impact that this has both on Antonio and Olivia feels devastating. Jordan shows that Shakespeare’s comedic marriages are almost always more unsettling than the sight of a stage full of corpses that we find in the tragedies.

So while it be an exaggeration to see this Twelfth Night as an intervention into debates about marriage equality, it is also true that this production feels urgent and contemporary: it could not have been done in this way a year ago, nor could it be received in this way a year from now. This recalled for me those great interventions by Patrick Mason from the 1990s, where he sought to place sexuality at the centre of the Abbey’s national conversation by directing plays by Frank McGuinness, Tony Kushner, Oscar Wilde and Thomas Kilroy – and by using the Abbey’s social capital to call for gay rights in Ireland and the US (I’ve written more about that in chapter 5 of this book).

By focussing on the cruelty of Sebastian, Jordan also brings out the cruelty of the other characters. Lambert’s Sir Andrew is also left bereft at the end, and we worry what will come of Viola, Olivia and Maria who, like almost all of Shakespeare’s comic heroines, are vastly more interesting than the men they end the play with. And then of course there is poor Malvolio.

As a result of the focus on cruelty, I was struck in a way that I’d never experienced before by the links between Twelfth Night and Othello. Both plays show what happen when an outsider tries to transgress a social boundary: Othello and Malvolio are both persecuted for publicly expressing  love for a woman who would ordinarily be beyond their reach. Both plays explore disguise – the meaning and consequences of that wonderful phrase “I am not what I am”, which appears in the two plays – both for theatre and for our lives. And both argue that society’s response to difference is usually likely to involve intolerance and perhaps even violence.

But they also show how we are attracted to difference: to the wondrous strangeness of Othello’s stories, to the charismatic nihilism of Iago, to the hilarious cruelty of Andrew, Toby and Maria in Twelfth Night, to the beauty of the vacuous Sebastian. The fear of difference, these plays suggest, is the fear of those aspects of ourselves that we are only partially willing to acknowledge.

If I ran a theatre and didn’t have to make any money or attract any audiences, I’d love to play Twelfth Night in rep with Othello, cross-casting Olivia with Emilia, Feste with Iago (as may originally have happened – Robert Armin is reputed to have played both roles), Othello with Antonio, Viola with Desdemona, Orsino with Cassio, and so on.

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

I don’t want to imply that this is a perfect production. It begins with music and ends with dancing – concluding with the actors (or characters?) being covered in water, perhaps being washed clean of the roles they have played. Both images were visually compelling, but I was unable to determine how exactly they cohered with the rest of the play. And because the stage is often empty – with the wings unmasked, and the backstage wall left bare (aside from the words “What You Will” painted in large letters), I sometimes had trouble hearing some of the lines – that is, the sound seemed to disappear off into the wings (I suspect we may read more about that in one of the Sunday papers tomorrow). And while there has been a lot of praise for the production’s inclusion of a song by Prodigy, I found this a little unnecessary and mildly trivialising – and again didn’t really understand what its purpose was, aside from being very funny. Finally, I thought it took a while for the production to get going: as I mention above, I felt that the audience didn’t fully relax into the play until Dunning and Lambert appeared. I think Jordan’s recent productions of Threepenny Opera and Enemy of the People were tighter, more disciplined and more coherent.

But I suspect that the purpose of this Twelfth Night is not to be perfect but to shake things up. There is a definite feeling of a new generation staking its claim to the future of the Abbey. And there is a definite feeling that this play is for Ireland today – just as Mason’s productions spoke to the Ireland that had just decriminalised homosexuality in the early 1990s.  To a far greater extent than any Shakespeare play I’ve seen at the Abbey, it is in conversation with Ireland today: inviting us to see things differently, to see difference itself more accurately and more sympathetically.

One final note: music and song in the play is composed by Tom Lane, and, to use a cliché, his work is worth the price of admission alone. That cliché is not actually inappropriate when it comes to the Abbey: in the early years of the theatre, there was an orchestra that used to play three or four movements during the intervals. Quite a large number of people used to come to the Abbey specifically to hear the music – that is, they would not bother with the plays but would stay for the interval entertainment. I never quite understood the idea of coming to the theatre specifically for the music until I’d seen this production:  I heard someone say afterwards that they’d love to get the soundtrack. I can myself imagine going back specifically to enjoy the songs and music again. So I would suggest that it is worth seeing this production if only to be able to recall when you first saw a production with music by Tom Lane (assuming you have never heard his work before, of course).

The show is quite long – finishing just before 11. And I know that for some people that is likely to be a bit off-putting. But this is a very good production, and it feels like a special moment for our theatre also.

 

 

Frank McGuinness’s _The Hanging Gardens_ at Dublin Theatre Festival 2013

Frank McGuinness’s Hanging Gardens at the Abbey is both devastating and elating: it is not so much heart-breaking as heart-battering, but despite its intensity it’s a play that needs to be seen. This would be true if only because it features five of Ireland’s best actors: Cathy Belton, Barbara Brennan, Niall Buggy, Declan Conlon, and Marty Rea. And one of them – Buggy – gives a performance that I know I’m going to remember for a very long time.

As the Abbey’s PR has stated many times, this is McGuinness’s first new play at the Abbey since 1999. It’s also his first premiere in Ireland since Gates of Gold in 2002. And since then all of his original plays have premiered in England, many of them remaining unproduced here in Ireland. There’s been no better example than McGuinness of the serious problem in our theatre at the moment – which is that many of the best Irish plays of the last 15-20 years have premiered in London, and many of them remain completely unknown in this country. McGuinness’s There Came A Gypsy Riding, for example, should be celebrated as a great and important Irish play. But almost no-one here knows it.

So it’s great to see him back on an Irish stage with an original play.

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McGuinness’s works often feature a character so well drawn that he or she  threatens to overpower the rest of the play – from  Piper in Observe the Sons of Ulster, to Dido in Carthaginians, to Rima in Dolly West’s Kitchen. Located somewhere between Christy Mahon (the outsider figure who transforms an environment) and Falstaff (a supporting character so vivid that he dwarfs the main protagonists), McGuinness’s unruly strangers are always vulgar, joyous, and disruptive.

There’s another such character here – the figure of Sam Grant, an aging writer who, as the play begins, is a subject of intense concern to his wife and three adult children – all of whom wonder how to cope with Sam’s increasingly uncontrollable dementia.

As played by Buggy, Sam is mischievous and vicious, terrified and childlike, at turns enthralling and appalling. He harasses, bullies and belittles his family – and while some of that behaviour may be explained (but not justified) by his suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, his abuse of his family has clearly been carried on over many years. As a result, none of his children has been able to form a loving relationship; none of them seems able to express the love that they all so palpably feel for their parents.

The performance by Buggy takes these varying and sometimes  contradictory states and makes them cohere. Much of that achievement is possible through his use of voice. At times his lines are delivered with a sing-song quality that contains both swagger and complacency: we sense that this is a man who has a powerful imagination but suspect that there may be an uncertainty or an insecurity in there too. At other times, Buggy’s voice is intense and full-bodied, making clear why his children seem somewhat frightened of him. Yet there is a gentleness too, a kind of mischievous waver that reveals Sam’s enjoyment of his own erudition and imagination.

The performance thus acts as a fascinating counterpoint to Owen Roe’s Lear at the Abbey earlier this year – and indeed to Paul McGann’s Undershaft in Major Barbara. Whether by accident or design, the Abbey has given us three very powerful portraits of flawed but irresistible father figures this year.

As ever with McGuinness, the risk of having such a strong character is that other roles may seem less interesting by comparison. In this play that potential problem is compounded by the fact that the three adult children are trying desperately to restrain themselves: to hold in their shock at their father’s deterioration, to resist the anger that has obviously been stored up over many years, to hold themselves together at a time when the person who has anchored them to life is leaving the world. So these are roles that demand an ability to convey a sense that there is much more going on than is evident on the surface.

That’s why you need excellent actors in the roles, and I was very impressed by the depth that Rea, Belton and Conlon added to their characters. It was fascinating to notice what the children will and won’t look at – the times when they appear to swallow down a thought or feeling – the times when they have no choice but to look away. There’s some lovely, subtle direction here from Patrick Mason.

As the matriarch of the family – and as a successful author in her own right – Barbara Brennan’s character follows in a long tradition of strong McGuinness mother figures. Like her husband, she’s full of contradictions, caring more for her garden than her children, yet appearing willing to sacrifice her own well-being for her husband. Brennan resolves those contradictions well, showing us the tension in her character’s body through a stiffness of movement and a vocal restraint that suggests that she’s only just keeping things together. This results in a very moving performance, and the creation of an intriguingly complex figure.

Becuase the play set in the garden of a Donegal house, it will immediately call to mind Brian Friel’s 1979 Aristocrats – a portrait of a family damaged by an authoritarian father-figure who, like McGuinness’s protagonist, suffers from dementia (though in Aristocrats the father appears on stage only once).

It also seems to draw on other great Irish plays. As a storyteller and beloved tormenter of his family, Sam seems to owe something to Tom Murphy’s Mommo – another artist-figure whose loss of memory drives the play forward. With its clash between two writers – one a populist success and the other a respected author – it reminded me of Friel’s massively underrated Give Me Your Answer Do! With its focus on a flawed artist-figure, it seemed to be drawing on Kilroy’s The Shape of Metal and Friel’s Faith Healer.  And with its characterisation of a family that can express love only by tearing itself apart, it occupies the emotional territory that has been mapped so rigorously by Tom Murphy in Whistle in the Dark,  Famine and The Wake.

All of this might sound as if the play is derivative or unoriginal but, on the contrary, these resemblances suggest that McGuinness is pushing his work to a new level, measuring himself against Murphy and Friel to a far greater extent than he’s ever done before. Watching the play, I felt as I did when I first saw Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce: the excitement of knowing that a writer I’d already admired had developed in a way that built on what had come before, but which was also excitingly new.

Among the things I most admired about the play is its emotional honesty. I found myself thinking several times of Shaw’s response to O’Casey’s Silver Tassie – which GBS had described as a “hell of a play – literally”.  McGuinness gives us a literal hell, unflinchingly exploring what it feels like to know that you are losing your mind, to know that you are dying. He also shows a genuine bravery in representing the attempts of a family to come to terms with the death of one of their own. So many of McGuinness’s observations feel as though they’ve been excavated from  some very personal space in his own imagination: his characters’ emotions are incoherent, chaotic, confused – and for all of those reasons feel absolutely authentic. This made the play – for me, anyway – very difficult viewing: I’ve never been quite so relieved to reach an interval as I was when I saw this. But that was because the play had captured truths that I’ve never seen represented so clearly before. The truths are uncomfortable and undeniable and necessary.

McGuinness has found a way to think about the death of a family member that seems as signficant as Robert Lepage’s Dark Side of the Moon. In that play, Lepage suggested that the loss of a parent is like occupying the far side of the moon: the earth is there but no longer visible to us – and all we see instead is the vastness of an empty, infinite space.  McGuinness does something similar, especially in the play’s final image, when he (and Mason) capture the vertiginous uncertainty that death evokes in all of us.

There’s also an important link with McGuinness’s work on The  Dead, which played at the Abbey last year. One of the ways McGuinness allowed Joyce’s short story to function on the stage was by theatricalising its use of music – and its musicality. He did that by drawing carefully from the works of Thomas Moore.

Here, McGuinness again uses music, this time featuring (of all things) a song from The Mikado half-way through the first act – which is sung by Buggy and Rea.

I’ve written a few times already about the use of music in Irish theatre – something we’ve seen in Shush by Elaine Murphy and The Night Alive by Conor McPherson already in 2013. I worry slightly about the frequency with which this technique is used – often enough now to be called a trend.

But in The Hanging Gardens, McGuinness shows how music offers the only way for father and son to be fully honest with each other. In the beauty and simplicity of the voices, this moment recalls a scene in Juno and the Paycock in which Mary and Juno sing Verdi’s “Home to Our Mountains” together – something they do so beautifully that they transcend the indignity of their environment. We sense from McGuinness’s inclusion of this song that the family have unseen levels of emotional and intellectual depth, that they have an appreciation of beauty, an attachment to each other,  a wicked sense of how to derive humour from the juxtaposition of the serious with the apparently trivial.

This scene doesn’t have the show-stopping impact that the dance in Friel’s Lughnasa had back in 1990. But as a moment that allows for an intensity of focus from the audience, McGuinness’s use of this song bears comparison with Friel’s iconic set-piece.

Both Friel’s play and McGuinness’s were directed by Patrick Mason, of course – and one of the pleasures of seeing The Hanging Gardens is to be reminded of those great nights at the Abbey in the 1990s when Mason produced or revived so many marvelous Irish plays, from Lughnasa to Observe the Sons of Ulster to Constance Wilde and By the Bog of Cats. It’s great to see Mason back directing new writing on the Abbey stage.

And as an aside let me mention that Marty Rea has a very beautiful singing voice.

None of the statements above is intended to suggest that the play is in every respect perfect. I think some viewers may find that the family’s second act resolution of their conflict happens too easily. That scene made emotional sense to me, but I think some may find it too sharp a turn in the play’s direction. And I also suspect that some may have difficulty with a long scene in the first act in which each of the four family members in turns confronts – and is upset by – the father. This sequence feels almost intolerable, not only on the grounds of realism (it eventually feels predictable –  when we see one character appearing on stage we know they are next in line for an abusive confrontation with the father),  but also because these confrontations are so  unrelenting that it becomes difficult to stay with the action. I suspected that we were intended to see the scene as (perhaps) not the real world but as a mixture of reality with Sam’s imagingings. But in any case the scene is emotionally exhausting.

Yet this is indisputably a major new Irish play, and an important moment also for McGuinness’s status within Irish drama – reaffirming  his centrality and importance to our theatre.

The production is also very well designed. Michael Pavelka’s garden set mixes the dark green of the lawn with vivid, bloody reds, producing an atmosphere of calmness that seems ready at any moment to bleed into chaos. He also places a sundial on the back wall, which, under Davy Cunnigham’s lights, causes time to shift confusingly,  adding to the strangeness and intensity of the play.  Finally, I’ve already praised Denis Clohessy’s sound designs in Streetcar Named Desire and Dusk Ahead  but I again must say how good his work  is, both in terms of his presentation of birdsong as well as incidental music.

So far the play has been reviewed once, in the Irish Times, where it received only three stars and a fairly mixed response. Well, everyone is entitled to an opinion, but I hope that such views – and in particular the three stars – don’t discourage people from going to see this. If you value playwriting that is brave and honest – if you appreciate world-class design and courageous acting – if you believe that theatre has to be painful before it can be healing – then you should see this play. Better yet, bring three or four people with you. I think we need to support this kind of work, to make sure that we don’t wait another 14 years to see a new Frank McGuinness play on the Abbey stage.

You can find out more about the play on this interesting Youtube clip from Frank McGuinness.

and this one featuring Patrick Mason

The Abbey website also has interviews with all the cast.

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?