Corn Exchange and _ A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing_ at Dublin Theatre Festival

Well, this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival programme is out today, and I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time digesting it. There are some obvious highlights  – Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet,  Ganesh Vs the Third Reich, and the NTS’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner on the international side; and on the Irish side, new plays from Deirdre Kinahan, Tom Murphy, and Mark O’Rowe, and new productions from Anu and Pan Pan, among many others.

But by far the biggest surprise – and the most intriguing prospect – is that Corn Exchange plan to adapt Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing into an eighty-five minute performance that will star Aoife Duffin (below). My immediate reaction upon hearing this news? “But that’s impossible – they’ll never manage it”.

A Girl is A Half Formed Thing

But then, after a moment’s reflection, it occurred to me that I’d had this reaction to news of previous Corn Exchange productions several times before.

I never thought it would be possible to put on a stage adaptation of the film version of Lolita – yet they did this very memorably in the Peacock in 2002, with Andrew Bennett playing Humbert, Ruth Negga (below) playing the title role, and David Pearse and Ciara Simpson completing the ensemble. The strangeness of Humbert’s narrative – and Nabokov’s distance from it – was made theatrical by the company’s use of commedia and live musical accompaniment. Annie Ryan, in other words, had found a theatrical language that translated the novel’s most important characteristics into something physical and dramatic.

Lolita-Ruth

A few years later, I never thought they’d be able to adapt Dubliners for a production at the Gaiety – firstly because it’s a collection of short stories, secondly because the theatre was so big, and finally because the impact of the stories lies not (just) in plot or characterisation but mostly in language and what it does to the reader. But again Ryan and Michael West found a way to make it work on the stage,  allowing the stories to accumulate a theatrical energy that corresponded to the collection’s transitions from childhood to maturity, and by retaining as much as possible the original language. This had the impact of highlighting the performative elements of Joyce’s stories – the songs that are sung, the stories that are told, the public spectacle  – the fact that Joyce was working within a tradition that was both literary and oral.

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I never thought that they’d be able to do Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms in Ulster accents last year, and I was wrong about that.

And I was sceptical when I heard back in 2006 that their production Everyday was being seen as an attempt to do in the theatre what filmmakers like PT Anderson were doing in movies like Magnolia (or Haggis’s Crash or Soderburgh’s traffic): showing how an entire community’s stories overlap in surprising ways. Well, I was wrong there too.

Then there was the time I heard about the idea behind Dublin By Lamplight and… well, you get the idea.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I again have no idea how Corn Exchange are going to pull off something that seems impossible to me.

The story McBride has to tell – about the upbringing of a young woman and her shifting attitudes to  sex, identity, autonomy, mortality, religion – is difficult, but it can be put on the stage, especially, I’d think, if there is a careful enough focus on the relationship that  the woman has with her brother. But how can the stage accommodate what McBride does to language and form?

McBride does something shocking with syntax and language. Her sentences are jagged, written as if torn out of some longer, more coherent narrative. They spill out and overlap as if being forced from a body.

It’s notable that so many people state that reading the book feels like a physical experience – for once, the reviewers’ clichés about the text being visceral or feeling like a kick in the stomach or the narrative being heart-breaking actually feel accurate: McBride’s language has a kind of muscularity that hurts sometimes. And the language does actually change the reader, permanently: you have to learn how to read the novel, and that means forgetting what you know about reading. You can’t skim; you can’t fill in blanks. You just have to let the words accumulate and the meaning will make itself felt, sometimes painfully so.

It’s an impressive book, and a very unsettling one. It’s also a difficult book – difficult to read in many ways: it takes time and effort, and the content is upsetting.  But it’s massively rewarding, and I consider it to be one of the major Irish novels of our time. People have compared it with Molly Bloom’s soliloquy – and while that should be seen as a compliment of sorts, I think it also runs the risk of obscuring the fact that McBride is not just one more Irish novelist trying to out-Joyce James Joyce. She is doing something that no-one has ever tried before.

But here’s where I wonder about the adaptation. Perhaps what makes the novel so rewarding is that it’s never fully possible to identify the features of the novel in a literal or realistic sense. We never learn the protagonist’s name; we may be able to guess or infer where she is from or where she studies or lives – but we’re never told for sure. We are never fully sure whether individual events in the novel are real or fantasised or dreamed or anticipated or feared. The fractured language is an expression of the protagonist’s individuality but it also works to defend that individuality – to reject the ways in which her mother, uncle, community, and society all seek constantly to name her, to narrow her down, to fix her in place with words. She doesn’t want to be named: she doesn’t want to be formed by language but to use language to disguise herself.

So what happens when you turn the narrator – who is just a broken voice – into a human being on a stage? What happens if the words become physicalised and literalised? Can the text’s ambiguity survive the transition to the stage?  Can the many ‘half-formed’ features of the novel be given form?

Well, of course they can. There is one useful model already in existence:  Beckett’s Mouth in Not I, another text that Half-Formed Thing can be compared to, while standing on its own merits. But of course Annie Ryan isn’t going to just give us a mouth in the darkness.

But it’s pleasant to be faced once again with the conviction that Corn Exchange can’t possibly achieve what they are setting out to do – and the happy expectation that I’ll be proven completely wrong, yet again.

Here’s a link to the production page: https://dublintheatrefestival.com/Online/A_Girl_is_a_Half_formed_Thing

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Dublin Theatre Festival programme 2013: some first thoughts

The Dublin Theatre Festival programme is out – a few weeks earlier than usual. So I’ve been enjoying browsing through the brochure for the last few days. What immediately strikes me is that there are a lot of companies and artists in there that I know nothing about – which is great. But it also means that I don’t quite know what to make of the programme yet. But here are some first thoughts…

Stripped Back?

On a rough count, there are 27 productions in this year’s Festival, and a very generous selection of additional free events.

I’ve heard a few people say already that it feels like a smaller programme than in recent years, perhaps because the REVIEWED programme (which revived successful Irish productions from the previous year) has not been included this year. But it’s closer to where it was in the mid-2000s when there were usually about 25 productions on average.

This number feels about right to me. One of the things I loved about the DTF when I started going back in 1999 was that if you had enough time and enough money it was possible to see everything being produced over the fortnight. I’m delighted to see that there is a good selection of matinees this year (including some on Wednesdays), and that the show starting times have been arranged in such a way that you can see a couple of shows in a night. That will suit people like me who are travelling from outside Dublin: if you’ve got a six-hour round-trip to the theatre, you want to see something a bit longer than an hour…

There also seems to be a slightly more austere approach to some of the productions, at least insofar as they are presented in the brochure. Corn Exchange are producing Desire Under the Elms, for instance, and promise that they will “strip a modern classic down to its bare bones”. I’ve written recently that I wished that there we could see more Eugene O’Neill in Ireland, so this production is very welcome. I wonder what stripping it back to its bare bones will entail though? My copy of the script runs to about 65 pages, and the estimated running time of 100 minutes for this production seems roughly equivalent to that number of pages. And although the DTF is an international festival, Corn Exchange will need to contend with the fact that many members of its audience won’t know the original play (and thus won’t know what it is being ‘stripped back’ from). So it’s already an intriguing prospect. Good also to see Corn Exchange returning to an American writer; I think the last time they did so was with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few years back.

I always find myself looking for a Shakespeare production in the programme every year – and this year rather than a full cast working through one of the plays we have a one person re-enactment of The Rape of Lucrece. Camille O’Sullivan’s musical version of the poem has been getting good reviews in the UK so this 75-minute production looks worth checking out. It’s interesting that Galway and Kilkenny have both hosted visits from Propeller and the Globe in recent years – at a time when the DTF has largely avoided conventional stagings of Shakespeare. Off the top of my head I can’t remember a full-length Shakespeare at the Festival since Propeller’s Winter’s Tale at the Festival since 2005. Though of course we have seen SITI’s Radio Macbeth and the Wooster Group Hamlet.

On the “less is more” front we also have Rough Magic doing The Critic. I’d heard rumours about this one and was anticipating a full-blown restoration romp in the style of Lynne Parker’s stagings of Farquhar and Moliere. So I’d been imagining sitting back in the Project Upstairs space for a couple of hours and watching people speaking in posh accents and moving around in big wigs and frocks.

We might still get something like that, but again the brochure copy seems to promise something else. We start at the Culture Box and then move to the Ark, and somewhere along the way, we’ll see a staging of a play by students from UCD DramSoc, the Gaiety School of Acting and DU Players. It’ll be interesting to see Rough Magic taking to the streets (is this a result of Louise Lowe’s impact on Irish theatre?), if only to walk us from the Culture Box to the Ark, and with a cast of five Rough Magic regulars this promises to be a lot of fun.

And good also to see more Sheridan being staged: Irish audiences only ever get to see The Rivals and The School for Scandal and he did write other plays too, some of which are quite good. The Critic is not one of his best, but its metatheatricality makes it ideal for a theatre festival. And it’ll be interesting to see how the reviewers tackle it. Again we have a short running time (about 80 minutes) but the company are staging it twice on many days (at 7 and 9). So, as I write above, it seems that less will be more here.

McGuinness Returns

We haven’t seen an original play by Frank McGuinness in Ireland since 2002 when the Gate staged Gates of Gold, a play about that theatre’s founders Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir. Dubbed (a little cruelly) Gays of Old, the play wasn’t particularly well received at the time – so it wasn’t much of a surprise when McGuinness’s next play was staged in the UK. But after the appearance of his play about Guy Fawkes (Speaking Like Magpies, brilliantly directed by Rupert Goold), he also staged There Came a Gypsy Riding, Gretta Garbo Came to Donegal and the Matchbox over there.

Those are all plays that deserve to be more widely seen in Ireland – especially in the case of There Came a Gypsy Riding, an important and moving play about youth suicide. For me, McGuinness had become an emblem of a problem that afflicted Irish theatre from (roughly) 2002 onwards – which is that most of the best new Irish writing was being produced in Britain.

So it’s great to see the Abbey staging his new play The Hanging Gardens – which, incidentally, will be the third original new play they’ve presented on their main stage this year – impressive in its own right. It reunites McGuinness with his long-time collaborator Patrick Mason, whose version of Observe the Sons of Ulster from the mid-1990s defined (for me) the things that made Mason’s tenure as Abbey Artistic Director so important. The production was theatrically daring and politically generous, and it paved the way for a fuller representation of homosexuality on the Irish stage: I was struck when watching Alice in Funderland on the Abbey stage last year how far we’ve come since Mason left in 1999.

And it’s a great cast also. Marty Rea gave the best performance I saw last year in DruidMurphy and he’s joined by Declan Conlon, Cathy Belton, Niall Buggy and Barbara Brennan.

New International Work

One of the things I find myself doing with the launch of every DTF programme is seeking out productions from the high profile (or newly hyped) international companies and directors. We’ve had a great series of productions since the turn of the century: the 2000 Festival gave us Robert Wilson and Peter Brook, and since then we’ve seen new work by Cheek by Jowl, SITI, the Wooster Group, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Ontroerend Goed, Victoria, Propeller, Romeo Castelucci, Robert Lepage, and Thomas Ostermeier and the Schaubuhne, among many others. There have also been terrific strands of German and Polish productions. I’m sure I’ll be corrected on this, but the only major figure I can think of whom we haven’t see is Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theatre Du Soleil.

I have to be honest and state that when I read the DTF programme for the first time I was a bit disappointed that there were no major productions like those mentioned above. The return of Desperate Optimists is definitely interesting, and Richard Maxwell’s Neutral Hero also caught my eye. But as I looked through the programme, I didn’t find much else that I recognised.

Upon reflection, that’s actually a very exciting element of the programme. I’m delighted to have the chance to see some new Japanese work in Ground and Floor by Toshiki Okada – I still vividly remember another Japanese production called Tokyo Notes from about ten years ago, and am glad to have the opportunity to learn more about contemporary practice in that country.

Likewise I’m intrigued by a production called Germinal which apparently has nothing to do with the Zola novel of the same name.

And there is some other work from Portugal, India and Canada that I’ll definitely be trying to see. Again it’s all quite short – running to about 80 minutes on average. It’s interesting that so much international/Festival theatre nowadays is matching the running time of the typical movie, dispensing altogether with the interval. Venue managers must look at their bar receipts and weep.

So the international programme looks very exciting this year, precisely because so much of it is unfamiliar and new. I think we can’t understate the importance of the international work to the development of Irish theatre generally: every year I see evidence of companies being inspired (or provoked) by the international work. We’ve also seen countless examples of writers and companies emerging as a result of something they’ve seen at the Festival. I am not sure what company or companies might have that impact this year, or what patterns will emerge. It’s nice to be facing into a Festival not knowing what to expect.

The Big Guns

Brecht and Beckett are each often described as the most important dramatists of the twentieth century, and I note that the Festival brochure is describing Godot as the century’s most important play. (As an aside, some day I will have to learn German sufficiently well to be able to read the notes Brecht wrote about a production of Godot he intended to present – wouldn’t it be great if someone had the chance to stage that?).

So this year we have Gare St Lazarre doing Godot at the Gaiety. Last year, a lot of people were surprised when Corn Exchange staged Dubliners at that venue, and I’ve heard similar reactions to news about GSL appearing there. We’ve been watching the same Gate Theatre Godot in Ireland since 1991, so it will be interesting to see if this production can shake off the legacies of that version. Last year, Dubliners found an unexpected resonance with the Gaiety’s past as a venue for music hall, and that could also be interesting with Godot too. This looks like an interesting one and – as was the case with Dubliners – a bit of a gamble for the Festival too. Will Dublin audiences flock to Beckett when there is no John Hurt in the cast – or no “Beckett Festival” umbrella to tie things together? I certainly hope so.

Meanwhile it’s Brecht’s Threepenny Opera at the Gate, in a new version (apparently?) by Mark O’Rowe. At the Synge School this year, O’Rowe was talking about his experiences at the Gate in 2003 with Crestfall (the Gate audience truly hated it), so it’s interesting to see him returning to that venue. This is directed by Wayne Jordan, who already has a strong track record with musicals – and indeed with Irish versions of European classics. Jordan’s Enemy of the People may not have brought the Alice in Funderland audience to the Gate – but this production might, and it should also satisfy the theatre’s regular audience too. It looks like smart programming – but, leaving all that aside, I just can’t wait to see what O’Rowe does with Brecht. I suspect this will be the first ticket on my list when I get booking next month.

The Children’s Programme…

Louis Lovett has a new production at the Ark. I saw his House that Jack Filled at Baboro last year in an audience that had only five other adults in it – and found it brilliant. I expect (as happened with Tim Crouch’s run at the Peacock this year with I Malvolio and I Peaceblossom) that there may be a few too many grown-ups in the room when this is staged, but this is one I’ll be trying to see.

In Development

There’s a very strong strand of free and/or ancillary events this year. I’ve been involved in the Irish Theatre Magazine Critics Forum every year since 2006, and this year am taking a break – so am looking forward to enjoying it from the audience. But the highlight here is the chance to see work in development from two of the best companies around: Anu Productions and Pan Pan. This strand of the Festival is becoming an annual highlight.

David Greig’s The Events

I’ve written already of my desire to see more Greig in Ireland, so this is great news. There was a minor skirmish on twitter when elements of the Scottish press took Greig to task for (as they inaccurately put it) writing a musical about Anders Breivik. Greig refuted that claim robustly. But this is a play that asks how communities can respond to acts of violence like those commited by Breivik, and it also makes interesting use of music. This too is something I’ll be booking early for.  There’s a good overview of the controversy over on The Guardian

And….

There’s much more to enjoy in there than I’ve noted above – a new play from Fishamble, Eamonn Morrisey in a one-man show about Maeve Brennan, Junk Ensemble, and lots more.  And I’m sure as I learn more about the programme, the thoughts above will develop, expand and change.

Overall, I think this is a very good programme. There is, I think, something for (almost) everyone in there – with the possible exception of a high-profile international play like The Pitmen Painters or Death of a Salesman or Enron (something that would normally pack them in at the Gaiety). In the last few years, I’ve sometimes felt that the DTF was becoming an umbrella for several micro-festivals and while I enjoyed that variety, I think this year seems more coherent overall – it reminds me a bit of the Festivals that were programmed by Fergus Linehan just over ten years ago (and those were all great Festivals). As I said above, it’s the first Festival in a while where it’s possible to see everything, but (being blunt) it’s also the first Festival in a while where I’d actually like to see everything. There’s good continuity with what has worked well in the recent past, but also a sense that Willie White is putting his mark on things.

Now I have to work out how to see everything I want to see. A good problem to have.

And we’ll also be booking tickets for our undergraduate and postgraduate students at NUI Galway, so we’re starting to discuss the balance between their seeing work that will inform what they are doing (Brecht seems an obvious choice) while also opening up new avenues for them. Last year, I was delighted to be able to bring our First Year drama students to see Brokentalkers, Pan Pan and the Wooster Group – as well as the Abbey and Gate. So I’m hoping to find a similar balance this year. Another good problem to have.