Monday 21 August 2017

Stage: Bold new programmes should embolden conservative audiences

Unlocking the Gate: New Gate Director Selina Cartmell (front centre) with some of the producers, actors and writers involved in the theatre’s new programme, unveiled last month
Unlocking the Gate: New Gate Director Selina Cartmell (front centre) with some of the producers, actors and writers involved in the theatre’s new programme, unveiled last month

Chris McCormack

Way back in 1897, a group of writers founded the Irish Literary Theatre, a company dedicated to producing new Celtic plays. "We are confident of the support of all Irish people," read their statement. Perhaps they should have done their market research.

Audiences are complex. It seemed the Irish Literary Theatre's brand of peasant plays weren't of wide appeal, and the company closed shop due to funding. Later, one of its producers, WB Yeats, described his ideal audience for the Abbey ­Theatre as "vigorous and simple men whose attention is not given to the art but to a shop, teaching in a National School, or dispensing medicine". ­Women and unskilled labourers, it seemed, ­weren't the target demographic.

How things have changed. In 2017, Irish theatre audiences can't help but be hopeful. The masterful performances this time are coming from producers whose coups de théâtre are transforming how productions are accessed.

The Everyman Palace in Cork, for instance, wasn't in need of a rebrand. Its attendances are soaring. But this year, marking its 120th anniversary, it dropped the opulent half of its name, suggesting a theatre with more democratic intentions: The Everyman.

Over the last few years, the Blue Raincoat company in Sligo has been attracting hundreds to their free outdoor productions of Yeats plays, and in the capital we've just had Dublin Dance Festival's Moveable Feasts, a series of picnic-friendly performances by community groups choreographed by professionals. That was unticketed. At the Abbey, early-bird seats are €10 and free previews have been announced. It is starting to feel like producers are throwing open their doors.

At the same time, we are starting to see much bolder programming decisions. The current Abbey season, the first by artistic directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, might infuriate traditionalists expecting Bernard Shaw, O'Casey or Shakespeare, but the artistic directors stated in an interview with Village Magazine that they're not expecting a deficit. It seems 45pc of attendance so far is made up of first-time visitors, a majority of them aged under 35. A new audience is coming in droves.

What's heartening about McLaren and Murray's programme is how it assumes a desire in Irish audiences for edgy, contemporary performance and international collaborations. The Abbey's first main stage productions of Enda Walsh's plays, for instance, came long after the playwright's work was seen in the West End and Broadway. And his dramas Arlington and Ballyturk, co-produced by Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival, were more thrillingly experimental than anything recently on that stage.

Most of the exciting energy at the Abbey has come from outside. Arch productions such as Corn Exchange's Dublin by Lamplight, an alternative telling of the Abbey's founding, and Rough Magic's The Train, a feminist musical, helped the long-established theatre appear anti-establishment. Still to come are a number of co-productions with UK theatres (including the adaptation of Emma O'Donoghue's Room), an auditorium-altering production of Ulysses, and a coveted revival of Teresa Deevy's drama, Katie Roche.

The Gate Theatre, meanwhile, seems to be striving to recapture some of the anarchic energy that was its appeal when it opened in 1930. New artistic director Selina Cartmell recently unveiled a programme that slyly combines that theatre's old-world glamour with contemporary vibrancy. But the battle is already uphill. A consultant's report recently revealed that the theatre recorded nearly €1m in losses over two years. Its production model, dependent on a loyal but conservative audience, was described as unsustainable.

That report found that American classics were most popular, and Cartmell has smartly chosen an adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age novel The Great Gatsby to kick off her season. Director Alexander Wright's production from England, featuring Irish actors and designers, will transform the Gate into Gatsby's mansion, with the auditorium transformed into a ballroom. Speciality cocktails will be on offer at the bar and theatre-goers are encouraged to wear 1920s dress and dancing shoes.

A cynic would think these immersive elements might frighten off the Gate's 'conservative' audience. But if they're the ones who've invested the most in the theatre over the years, isn't it possible they're the most eager to get in on the action? English drama Tribes might be more vulnerable, with new plays historically having had the poorest attendance at the Gate. But director Oonagh Murphy's production, which will change the setting from Hampstead in London to south Dublin, aims to be urgent.

Danish fairy tale The Red Shoes, made into a jolting piece of Expressionist cinema in the 1940s, will also be relocated to Dublin in a new adaptation by Nancy Harris that will be directed by Cartmell herself. In 2018, ambitious projects such as Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins and an adaptation of Roddy's Doyle's The Snapper will push the Gate even further.

We can only hope for good theatre (and equally good criticism - this column will look a little different next week). Bold programmes embolden audiences, and now producers want us to make the trip. So hop aboard. Catch you at the Gatsby ball.

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