Wednesday 28 September 2016

10 lessons we learned from the stage this year

Maggie Armstrong

Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30

The Gleeson clan: From left, Domhnall, Brian and Brendan in The Walworth Farce by Enda Walsh
The Gleeson clan: From left, Domhnall, Brian and Brendan in The Walworth Farce by Enda Walsh

The ten things we learned from plays during 2015.

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1 True stories are the new scripts

It was a year when writers exploited the power of raw storytelling. Stages became platforms for social activism as people laid bare their personal experiences. The youthful THEATREclub broke gritty new ground, first with Heroin and then with The Game, which tells the stories of Irish sex workers. Gemma Collins and Lauren Larkin delivered true testament with skill.

Similarly, #Waking the Feminists gave a scattered community (among them struggling female directors, black actors, traveller playwrights) a rare chance to tell their stories.

This approach comes naturally to a generation raised on social media. In his anguished show Boy, tenor Sean Kennedy told a first-person tale of domestic abuse through speech and arias in an effective and beautiful musical production.

2 New blood beats perished playwrights

This year, plays by the living felt more relevant than those from the canon. Druid, Rough Magic, Pan Pan and Fishamble are showcasing exciting new voices. I learned more about the times we live in watching Dick Walsh's Newcastlewest, the story of a country girl with a disability and no ambitions, than I did from John B. Keane's yet-again revived The Field. Stacey Gregg's Shibboleth, David Ireland's Everything Between Us and Jimmy McAleavey's Monsters, Dinosaurs and Ghosts threw light on the post-Troubles generation in Belfast.

3 Yet the Bard endures

The Irish theatre's cornerstone event in 2015 was DruidShakespeare, a five-hour play cycle adapted from the history plays. A lavish and testing production, it was not for the faint-hearted. Yet it was cherished not only by critics but by the public and it packed out.

Other Shakespearean high points were Pan Pan's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Abbey and Wayne Jordan's high-voltage Romeo and Juliet at The Gate.

4 It's okay to lose the plot

As the form moves forward to braver, weirder places, discarding tradition, you find yourself doing a lot of puzzle-solving from your seat. This year's Dublin Theatre Festival sensation was Chekhov's First Play, a revival of an untitled teenage scrawl by Anton Chekhov. As the director wisecracked in our ears via headphones, as a wrecking ball demolished the set, as actors and audience members swapped places, the world was upturned and Chekhov lost me. But you didn't have to understand what was happening. It felt right.

5 History never forgets

The immersive theatre of ANU Productions outdid itself again with Pals: The Irish at Gallipoli, staged inside the Collins Barracks. Using precise replicas of 1914 uniforms, weapons and even metal hospital beds, ANU commemorated the Irishmen who were massacred at Gallipoli

6 Women take centre stage

This year produced some eye-popping monologues. Kate Stanley Brennan doubled up as mother and son in Witness, Carmel Winters' difficult play about sex abuse. Aoife Dufferin led us through the arcs of trauma in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and took that abroad. Sonya Kelly swept across Ireland and the UK with How to Keep an Alien.

7 Small is beautiful

Compact theatres came into their own for me this year. The Man in Two Pieces and From Eden were two examples of new writing to come alive in the 44-seat Theatre Upstairs, while Bewley's Cafe Theatre triumphed in a pop-up location while its building undergoes renovations, staging Down and Out in Paris and London by Phelim Drew and Being Norwegian with Karl Shiels.

8 Don't make eye contact with actors

At one Fringe show I met eyes with an actor who then thought it okay to throw a pair of freshly worn knickers in my face - a new low.

9 Stars walk among us

Herculeans of the stage this year include the Gleeson family in The Walworth Farce by the equally stellar Enda Walsh. Derbhle Crotty, Aisling O'Sullivan, Rory Nolan and Marty Rea gave everything; Marion O'Dwyer provoked hysterics in varied guises. What a pleasure it is that we can see them in the flesh.

10 Theatre people are mad

Birdman was one of the joyous theatrical moments of 2015. Michael Keaton's film gave a rare backstage tour of theatre shenanigans. All they say is true. Flying tempers, raging drunks, narcissistic actors seducing each other's wives, prompts asleep on the job. It makes you relieved to be on this side of the stage.

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