Monday 16 January 2017

A year of ham and spam

Published 22/01/2011 | 05:00

Shaking it up: Conor Madden tackles the role of Hamlet in Aoife Spillane-Hinks's take on the iconic play
Shaking it up: Conor Madden tackles the role of Hamlet in Aoife Spillane-Hinks's take on the iconic play

Conservative British theatre critics don't usually do toilet humour. But the Telegraph's Charles Spencer made an exception when he challenged dissenters with the line, "I fart in your general direction".

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Spencer, though, wasn't so much indulging in a little dumbed-down vulgarity, as paying reverential homage to the show he was reviewing. That show was Spamalot, a musical "lovingly ripped off" from the 1975 cult film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Arriving at Dublin's Grand Canal Theatre in May, Spamalot comes garlanded with three Tony awards (including Best Musical) and rave reviews. It is likely to be one of the highlights of the year's theatre, and I hope to be joining in the homage (see www.grandcanaltheatre.ie for details).

There will be further Broadway frisson in February, when God of Carnage, by French playwright Yasmina Reza, opens at the Gate. Reza is best known for her 1994 play Art, which -- in Christopher Hampton's translation -- became an international hit.

God of Carnage has followed that path. The Broadway production marked James Gandolfini's first big theatre role after The Sopranos, and Roman Polanski is due to shoot the film version next year.

The Gate brings its own star power to bear on it: Ardal O'Hanlon, Owen Roe and Donna Dent are joined by no less than Maura Tierney, of ER fame (see www.gate-theatre.ie).

The Abbey's programme for the year, meanwhile, features an intriguing mix of the new and the venerable.

At the Peacock, one of the hits of last year's Fringe, As You Are Now So Once Were We, by Dublin-based Chilean writer-director José Miguel Jiménez, receives a welcome transfer later this month.

On the main stage, Paul Mercier presents two new plays -- The Passing and The East Pier -- in repertoire in March and April.

But perhaps most exciting, oddly, is the chance to see a century-old play by a writer now often considered dated. George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion -- best known as the play on which the musical My Fair Lady was based -- has never been staged at the Abbey. (Perhaps Irishman Shaw's comedy of class politics was considered simply too British?)

Après Match's Risteárd Cooper will star as Henry Higgins. It will be fascinating to see how this neglected classic stands the test of time (www.abbeytheatre.ie).

One could never call Hamlet a neglected classic, but 25-year-old director Aoife Spillane-Hinks seems likely to bring a fresh touch to it in her schools-oriented production for Second Age.

Spillane-Hinks is a Harvard graduate drawn to Ireland by her passion for Synge, and fast making a name for herself here. No better challenge for an aspiring auteur than the most famous play in the English language.

And no better actor of the moment than Conor Madden, who gave a tantalising glimpse of what he might do with the role in Pan Pan's The Rehearsal last year.

Hamlet opens at the Helix in Dublin in late February, before touring to Cork's Everyman Palace and Galway's Town Hall (www.secondage.com).

Touring has seen something of a renaissance recently, thanks to renewed focus on it by the Arts Council and to innovative collaborations by companies and venues. One of the most successful of these has been the Cavan company Livin Dred, based at the elegant Ramor Theatre in Virginia.

The Night Joe Dolan's Car Broke Down, by Livin Dred founder Pádraic McIntyre, was a hit for the company last year, and gets a second run out from February, with dates at the Ramor, the Town Hall in Galway, the Mullingar Arts Centre and subsequently at the Tivoli in Dublin in June.

Also making a welcome arrival in Dublin, at the Project Arts Centre in March, will be the debut production by the new Wexford company Mosshouse.

Formed by Wexford writer Billy Roche and his long-time collaborator, actor Gary Lydon, Mosshouse chose for its first outing, late last year, Roche's elegiac play about a travelling fair, Lay Me Down Softly.

After the Dublin dates, the company hopes to get support to take it on a national tour later in the year.

One of the great successes of the Irish arts scene in recent years has been the festival circuit: not only are the festivals thriving, but they are doing so on a diet of often edgy and interesting work, and building audiences for exciting international companies.

One of these is the all-male Shakespearian ensemble Propeller, who are, I believe, due to return to the Galway Arts Festival this summer (the programme hasn't been announced yet). Given the political machinations of the moment here, it seems likely that audiences will respond well to their version of Richard III, the tale of the plotting hunchback king.

"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer," he says. The line is bitterly ironic; we can but hope that, by the time the play arrives here, we might be able to endorse it without irony.

colinmurphy@independent.ie

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