Punk Rock at the Lyric Theatre

Fifteen minutes before I started writing this post, I was standing outside the Lyric Theatre waiting for a taxi. The matinée performance of Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock had just ended, and the people leaving the theatre seemed slightly frantic. A young man whistled as he walked past an acquaintance: ‘Jesus’ was all he said, eyebrows raised, head shaking. A woman in her fifties strode out purposefully, her mobile phone already dialling through to someone. ‘I just had to tell you,’ she was saying. ‘It’s wonderful. You have to go.’ I was feeling edgy myself, and not just because I was worried about catching the last train back to Dublin. Punk Rock is the kind of play – and the kind of production – that leaves people feeling shaken, but also feeling compelled to react in some way to what they’ve just seen.

There are several reasons to support the production, but perhaps the best is that it’s a very good play. Set in an exclusive Stockport grammar school, the action takes place over roughly a month – a period in which seven final year students are preparing to sit mock exams. The play is set entirely in a library that has become a sort of common room for this group: a place for them to study, to perform to and for each other, to flirt, to confide in each other, to play out dramas about power and identity. The presence of books (mostly ignored) and the distant sound of a train place these characters in a historical, cultural and societal context – which they nevertheless seem quite separate from. The play is rooted in time and place but feels like it could be happening anywhere.

Perhaps because of that feeling, the play will immediately seem familiar, if not overfamiliar. Each of the characters seems to fall into recognisable types – the troubled one, the bully, the mathematical genius, the good-looking bitch, the jock, and so on. With its use of music and a schoolroom setting, it seems at first like a hardened-up version of The History Boys, moving at times into The Lord of the Flies.

But those early impressions are quickly dispelled, and by the third scene, the play and its characters prove themselves difficult to categorise. Are we watching a comedy or a thriller, a tragedy or a melodrama, a conventionally realistic drama or something more mysterious? What follows are several surprises (for the second time this summer, I found myself shocked by the unexpected arrival on stage of a young girl), until in its second half it becomes almost unbearably tense.

That deliberate shifting of categories seems apt for a play about adolescents – people who are themselves trying out different roles, working out who they are and who they want to be. And this decidedly is a play about adolescence in the way that The Butcher Boy or The Catcher in the Rye are about adolescence: it shows how the teenagers’ experimentation with different forms of identity can cause them to shift imperceptibly from fantasy into delusion – and it shows too how the freedom offered from fixed roles and adult responsibilities can be enabling, but can also lead to self-destruction.

But we don’t need to see a male and female standing on stage with an apple, Garden of Eden style, to understand that this play is also using the schoolroom as a metaphor for human life more generally. A key concern is with power. Throughout the action, the characters flex different kinds of muscle, experimenting with various forms of power: sexual, intellectual, physical – and we see how they can transform the dynamics of a conflict by changing from one form of power to another, the bully being overpowered by knowledge, the pretty boy disarmed by an ugliness of spirit, and so on.

Perhaps the most interesting form of power game at work here relates to social class. These characters all have privilege in common, and seem mostly complacent about the road that lies ahead for them: an Oxbridge education, a lucrative role in society, and other forms of influence and entitlement. As director, Selina Cartmell quietly underscores that treatment of social class by placing on stage – before the action has even begun – a cleaning woman, who mops the library floor before the pupils arrive, while we catch the distant tinny sound of a White Stripes album playing somewhere offstage. Her face is almost invisible, her actions almost ritualistic, and Cartmell’s inclusion of this figure (who leaves the stage before the action properly begins) emphasises that the privilege of these characters is built upon the disadvantages imposed upon others (or, as one of the characters will say during the play, “everything good that human beings ever make is built upon something monstrous”).

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The inclusion of the figure of the cleaning woman is a simple gesture, reminiscent of the opening movement of Romeo Castellucci’s Bruxelles sequence from Tragedia Endogonidia – which also used  a cleaning woman to suggest how spaces like galleries and museums (spaces designed to display art) are managed by ordinary working people, who are rendered invisible in a place where the artwork demands to be seen. And it’s reminiscent too of the way in which Oscar Wilde placed servants onstage to act as unspeaking choruses, silently judging the actions of Wilde’s aristocrats, dowagers, clergymen, spinsters and puritans.

This is not the only intervention made by Cartmell. Each scene is intercut with punk classics, from The Stooges, Mudhoney, White Stripes, and others – but rather than simply changing the scene, the actors all engage in a sequence of movements (choreographed by David Bolger) which both respond to the music and play out in new ways the shifting dynamics between the characters. This draws out the fact that the songs have been chosen not as filler but as commentary. I haven’t seen such a careful linking of action with music since Tom Stoppard’s Rock and Roll (another play that we really need to see in Ireland).

This is not to suggest that Cartmell’s directorial influence is felt only in the extra-textual material. She has a reputation for visual effect – and while that reputation is thoroughly justified, it sometimes means that we pay less attention to her strengths as a reader. What struck me very powerfully here is the clarity of the actors’ linking of movement with line delivery: there was a discernible relationship between the use of space on stage and the thematic arc of the play itself. I found myself wondering what Cartmell could do with a play like Murphy’s Whistle in the Dark or McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster, both of which function through a conflict between language and space.

There are also some fascinating changes to the published script, notably in the final scene, in which a dialogue with a psychotherapist is recast as a monologue delivered directly to the audience. This introduces new ambiguities but also eliminates any sense of distance between us and the stage. The effect is unsettling, but it ensures that the impact of the play is more than mere sensationalism.

Cartmell also deserves credit for the strength of the performances. Most of the actors are making their professional debut, mostly from the Lir – so this offers one of the first opportunities to see those graduates in a professional setting.  Rhys Dunlop – a Belfast native and Lir graduate – displays both discipline and intelligence in the play’s most difficult role: he could easily have done an impersonation of Christian Slater in Heathers (or any of a number of similar characters) but instead makes his character both sympathetic and frightening, both credible and disturbing. Something similar can be said of (GSA graduate) Ian Toner’s performance as the group’s resident asshole: we find him despicable but are not indifferent to what happens to him from one scene to the next. There are nice moments too from Laura Smithers and Rory Corcoran – and if the other actors are given comparatively less interesting things to do, the performers all show depth and discipline both individually and as an ensemble. In his show programme note, Jimmy Fay says of these actors that ‘at least you can say you saw them here first, on the Lyric stage’. That’s not hyperbole: this really is a good opportunity to witness the emergence of the next generation of Irish actors.

It’s also a great opportunity to see how Jimmy Fay will fare in his role as Executive Producer of the Lyric. Someday I’d love to conduct some kind of study of Irish AD’s first productions, since it’s clear that many of them attempt to set the tone for everything that follows (the best example I can think of here is Garry Hynes’s 1991 Plough at the Abbey). I find it interesting that Fay chose not to begin his inaugural season with his own production of Pentecost (that’s coming next, and that too is a major statement of intent on his part), but with a play that – in his words – “aims to appeal to a younger audience not just in years but also in outlook”.

Punk Rock definitely is a young person’s play, in the way that Reservoir Dogs and Betty Blue are young persons’ films – or Never Mind is a young person’s album. What matters in those works is not the care of the composition (and if you don’t think Smells Like Teen Spirit is carefully composed, you aren’t listening to it properly). What matters, rather, is the intensity and authenticity of the emotion that is both evoked and portrayed. Illustrating this point, in his programme note for the show David Roy quotes Kurt Cobain’s observation about punk:

Punk rock should mean freedom – liking and accepting anything that you like. Playing whatever you want, as sloppy as you want. As long as it’s good and has passion.

This play is not sloppy, and nor is the production. But it does have passion – as I left the theatre, what impressed me most was that no-one was talking about what they thought but how they felt. There is much to think about too, but that will come later… I find it  exciting that Fay chose to begin his tenure with a new(ish) play and young actors. It’s a brave choice and it deserves to pay off.

Another reason to find this production exciting is that at last we’re getting to see some new international work in Ireland. I have been saying for quite a while now (such as in this blog post from last year) that we in Ireland are badly missing out by failing to engage with what is happening in English and Scottish theatre right now: something that the rest of the world is excited by, and which is having a major impact on the careers of many of our best writers and actors.

Simon Stephens is one of England’s most interesting dramatists (he also has roots in Belfast, though I believe I am right in saying that this was not a factor in the Lyric’s decision to produce the play). By staging his work the Lyric is not just bringing good drama to its audience – it is also giving actors, designers, directors and other ‘creatives’ (I hate that word) the chance to do work that pushes their craft in new ways. It’s not an accident that one of the best productions in Ireland last year was the Gate’s Streetcar Named Desire: we need productions of great plays if we are to develop theatre-making across the full range of arts it encompasses.

Such productions are important for a few reasons. There’s been some debate in Ireland recently about the future of the Abbey (sigh), with the suggestion being made that it should focus exclusively on Irish plays. And in comments on previous blog posts here, some theatre-makers have stated that they think there is no funding available in Ireland for productions by writers such as David Greig or other exciting British and American dramatists.

I don’t know if the Abbey will follow the advice about sticking to new Irish writing, and I don’t know if it’s actually formal funding policy that new Irish writing should be prioritised in the Republic generally. But history shows that the best way to promote the development of new Irish writing is by staging the best international work. If we didn’t have the Dublin Drama League doing writers like Pirandello in the early 1920s, we would not have had the Gate in the late 1920s. We would not have had Druid without Garry Hynes’s exposure to American theatre. We would not have had Rough Magic without their early productions of British dramatists. And perhaps it’s also true to say that we would not have seen the explosion of devised practice in Dublin during the last ten years without visits to Ireland by Victoria and Ontroerend Goed, Rimini Protokol, Forced Entertainment, DV8, and so on.

In short, the one way to kill off Irish writing altogether is to insist that the Abbey focus exclusively on Irish plays (consider this: the last person to implement such a policy was Ernest Blythe). And that goes for Irish theatre more generally: many Irish playwrights report that part of their development involves rejecting Irish models for international ones – and then finding their way back to Ireland circuitously (for instance, Tom Murphy found his way to Synge via Lorca, just as many younger writers find their way to Beckett via Mamet and Pinter).

History suggests, in other words, that if young people are writing plays in Belfast two or three years from now, they are more likely to do so under the influence of Punk Rock than of Pentecost – or even the new plays in the Lyric’s programme from Marie Jones and Owen McCafferty. Irish drama will always illustrate the truth of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World: that to discover your own creativity you have to kill your Da – even if you later end up embracing him. Punk rock has a similar kind of message: the most normal thing in the world is for young people to reject anything they consider to be normal.

I’ve seen better productions this year (the flawless Beckett Trilogy from Lisa Dwan stands out), and I’ve seen better plays (specifically, Ballyturk). But I haven’t been quite as excited upon leaving a theatre as I was after Punk Rock. Something important is happening in Belfast, and it deserves support: there were only about 40 people in the auditorium this afternoon (though it’s very early in the play’s run, so I assume this will pick up). Plays like this won’t keep appearing unless people actually go. So I recommend it, not only for people who enjoy good Irish theatre, but also to people who want to support Irish theatre.

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Irish Musical Theatre – A New Development That Has Always Been With Us

A few weeks ago, I did a brief interview with Eithne Shortall of The Sunday Times about the Irish musical. In her feature, she writes about Once and The Commitments, and wonders if these two productions suggest that we’ll see more  Irish musicals during the years ahead.

I think she’s right. I can see evidence of this growth at NUI Galway, where incoming Drama students are passionate about musical theatre, making GUMS (the university musical society) one of the university’s most vibrant student groups. And many students come to study theatre not because they have appeared in work by Synge or O’Casey or Friel, but because they were in a school production of South Pacific or Grease or West Side Story. We’re introducing classes in musical theatre from next year in an attempt both to meet that interest and to stimulate more of this kind of work.

Of course, the Irish musical has been around for a while. We saw it work brilliantly almost a decade ago (can it really be that long?) when Rough Magic premiered Bell Helicopter and Arthur Riordan’s Improbable Frequency, a musical about Ireland during the Second World War – which included such hilarious songs as “Be Careful Not to Patronise the Irish”. And we saw it on the main stage of the Abbey only last year with Wayne Jordan’s production of Alice in Funderland by Raymond Scannell and Phillip McMahon. Each of those productions was greeted with a lot of commentary, both formal and informal, suggesting that perhaps – at last – we in Ireland might be on the verge of developing a tradition of musical theatre.

I wonder, though, if it’s quite that simple. Music and musicality have always been important if not essential for Irish plays. One of the best examples of the importance of music can be found in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock – which features a long scene in which the characters sing songs and play music on a gramophone.  It’s not a coincidence that Captain Boyle, who spends the play’s first act trying to deceive his wife, will in this scene choose to sing ‘Oh Me Darlin’ Juno, I Will Be True to Thee’ —a song intended to emphasize his honesty, which therefore reveals his duplicitous and hypocritical nature.  Another example is Mrs Madigan’s choice of the song ‘If I were a Blackbird’ to sing in the play’s second act:

   If I were a blackbird I’d whistle and sing;

I’d follow the ship that my true love was in;

An’ on the top riggin’, I’d there build me a nest,

An’ at night I would sleep on me Whillie’s white breast!

This seems quite an innocent choice, but given that her audience includes Captain Boyle—a former sailor who is supposed to have inherited a large amount of money—her choice of a love song with a maritime setting reveals a great deal about her motives.

Arguably, the play’s turning point occurs in that same scene, when we hear Juno and Mary singing ‘Home to Our Mountains’ from Verdi’s Il Travotore.  O’Casey does not transcribe the words of this piece; he does not change them to reflect the accent or social status of the singers, but states that they must sing the song well.  By showing that the two characters can express themselves perfectly well in this artform, O’Casey hints that they are capable of transcending their circumstances—and indeed makes the case that they must do so.

And then the scene concludes with the song “If You’re Irish, Come Into the Parlour” playing on the gramophone while a funeral dirge is underway – a brilliant contrast of kitsch Irishness with the solemnity of the funeral ritual.

Juno is not a musical – but its use of music is far more than incidental or contextual: it reveals character, develops the themes, shapes the audience’s responses, and offers us new ways of seeing such issues as nationalism, religion, gender, and the relationship between Irish and international culture. And it seems to me that a lot of Irish plays use music in a similar way: they are not quite musical theatre, but they are much more than “music in theatre”.

Tom Murphy has a very similar scene to O’Casey’s in his under-rated 1998 play The Wake, which again sees a family gathering for a sing-song.  And there’s  a brilliant scene in his The Gigli Concert in which the Irishman acts out the story of Gigli’s youth while Toseli’s Serenade plays in the background. In Garry Hynes’s last production of the play (which I reviewed on irish Theatre Magazine), Denis Conway matched the movements to the music so carefully that it was almost as if he was dancing at times.  And the use of song in Conversations on a Homecoming offers rare moments of beauty in a play that is otherwise quite fearlessly ugly.

In the blog, I’ve also written a few times about the use of music in contemporary plays. This pattern worries me slightly, since it reminds me of something I occasionally see in the work of inexperienced directors and writers – which is that when you can’t work out how to convey an important mood or emotion to the audience through acting, staging, or writing, you let a piece of music do the work for you (and too often it’s the same music: Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Massive Attack).

Yet when done well, music can transform a play. As I’ve recently discussed, Frank McGuinness uses a song from the Mikado beautifully in The Hanging Gardens. Similarly, Conor McPherson’s use of music is almost always successful: I’m thinking of the use of Neil Young as a kind of ironic counterpoint to the action in Shining City or of John Martyn’s Sweet Little Mystery to bring us blinking back into the sunlight in The Seafarer.  And then there’s Enda Walsh, whose use of Doris Day in Misterman and more kitsch Irish ballads in Walworth Farce add to the sinister and unsettling quality of both plays. And who can forget the contrast between the intensely verbal sisters in New Electric Ballroom and Mikel Murfi’s amazingly sung “Wondrous Place” in the same play?

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Enda Walsh, incidentally, is the only Irish dramatist I know of who has won a Grammy – since his song “Abandoned in Bandon” appears on the soundtrack to Once – the Musical.

And there are many other examples we could think of. Billy Roche’s The Cavalcaders is arguably as much a musical as The Commitments is (in both cases, song is used as part of the action – songs are only sung when they would be sung in the ‘real world’). Something similar could be said of Christina Reid’s The Belle of the Belfast City. And think of how important music is for Brian Friel – Cole Porter and traditional music in Lughnasa, Chopin in Aristocrats, Thomas Moore in The Home Place, and so on. Likewise, Elaine Murphy’s use of music in Shush seems influenced by Lughnasa – a play which, I think, must also have had an impact on Marie Jones’s restaging of the Blind Fiddler back in 2003.

I’m also conscious of how deeply invested in music so many Irish dramatists are. For example, Stewart Parker was, among many other things, a brilliant rock journalist – and it shows in his drama.

We can also see the importance of music in some of the recent adaptations that have appeared at the Abbey. As I suggested in that discussion with Eithne Shorthall, Frank McGuinness’s The Dead – which again made use of the songs of Thomas Moore – was almost like a hybrid: not quite a musical but not quite a play either. And it seems that the Abbey’s forthcoming production of The Risen People – opening next week – will be making extensive use of music too.

Quite often, establishing an Irish musical tradition is seen as being like beating the All Blacks: something we really should have done a long time ago, but will, we hope, get round to doing sometime in the near future. But could it be that the reason we don’t have a tradition of musical theatre here is because, in some ways, it’s always been so firmly embedded in our theatrical culture anyway?

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?