Friday 28 July 2017

Stage: Gate chief's swansong reminds us of his best work

Last hurrah: Barry McGovern stars in Beckett's First Love during the festival
Last hurrah: Barry McGovern stars in Beckett's First Love during the festival

How best to end something as sprawling as Michael Colgan's artistic directorship at the Gate Theatre? After 33 years, the ­administration ends with a festival of works by three playwrights whose links to the theatre were galvanised under the current management: Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel and Harold Pinter.

Such a line-up reminds us of Colgan's best work, which continued the tradition of his predecessors in bringing the Gate in touch with international trends.

In 1969, Gate co-founder Micheál Mac Liammóir told the Boston Globe: "I don't understand the contemporary theatre. There is Brian Friel in Dublin, simple, direct. But the rest, Beckett, Pinter … I weary."

That was surprising coming from a producer who once daringly staged avant-gardes like Georg Kaiser, Elmer Rice and Karel Capek, but he admitted in the same interview: "I'm aware that your interest lags after you've reached 50."

It wasn't obvious for Mac Liammóir and his partner Hilton Edwards to draw a line from their experimental repertoire at the Gate during the interwar years to the absurd theatre of Beckett and Pinter, with its void and the purposelessness of life after World War II. Colgan, however, saw it as the Gate's natural evolution.

Appointed to the theatre in 1983 after an adventurous artistic directorship at the Dublin Theatre Festival, Colgan intended to bring the same radical energy to his new role.

"By 1988, I'd be doing plays in Serbo-Croatian," he recalled to the Irish Times in 2013, "but it didn't work out like that." Instead, the Gate produced well-sold but familiar comedies by Hugh Leonard, Alan Ayckbourn and Oscar Wilde.

When Colgan visited Samuel Beckett in Paris in 1985, his administration needed something to pin its artistic credentials to. He had come to discuss I'll Go On, a new adaptation of Beckett's novels starring Barry McGovern, but he left having made a promise to produce all the writer's plays. Colgan would keep his word.

In 1988, he helicoptered in German director Walter Asmus, Beckett's one-time assistant, to direct Waiting for Godot with an Irish cast. This was followed in 1991 by a mammoth Beckett Festival of 19 productions that subsequently toured to New York. In time for the new millennium, Colgan had allied the Gate with one of the most revolutionising playwrights of the 20th Century.

There were other successes in that first decade (a lauded 1986 production of Juno and the Paycock starring Donal McCann and Oscar Wilde's Salomé directed by Steven Berkoff in 1989) but the mounting of the Beckett Festival remains unique. Ambitiously, Colgan attempted another project of serious scale by engaging English playwright Harold Pinter, whose body of work was about to undergo a revival. The Gate's Pinter Festival in 1994 saw the playwright himself direct a production of Landscape, one of his more abstract works that revolves around a dysfunctional married couple. Also programmed was ­Moonlight, Pinter's absurd drama about a man on his deathbed, directed by British filmmaker Karel Reisz. Following much success, a second Pinter Festival was mounted in 1997 with Pinter and Reisz co-directing A Kind of Alaska (inspired by the neurologist Oliver Sacks) and his new work, Ashes to Ashes.

At that same time, it wouldn't have been surprising if Brian Friel fully migrated to the Abbey Theatre after its production of Dancing at Lughnasa swept the 1992 Tony Awards. But in 1994, the script for Molly Sweeney, a drama about a blind woman, reached Colgan instead of the national theatre. The technicalities involved in showing both a character's interior and exterior perspectives were judged as a better fit for the Gate, just like Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! had been 30 years before.

If Beckett and Pinter were the Gate's contemporary voices in the 1980s and 1990s, Colgan seemed to be lining up Friel to take the lead in the 2000s. This last phase in the playwright's career wore its obsession with Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov on its sleeve, with adaptations of a short story (The Yalta Game), a one-act play (The Bear) and a new piece imagining a meeting of characters from two separate dramas by the Russian playwright (Afterplay). Friel's portrayal of Czech composer Leos Janácek in his 2003 work Performances was more distinctive in form but his last original play, The Home Place in 2005, had the fingerprints of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard all over it.

It all means that Colgan has been lacking a contemporary voice for the Gate for the last 10 years. Producing work by the living or recently alive avant-garde playwrights (Beckett died two years before the Beckett Festival) is what has always given this theatre its electricity. The Gate's programming has been less of a draw of late than the reinvigorating efforts of visiting directors (some of whom are helping mount the current festival).

Whether or not the Beckett Friel Pinter Festival will land the same punch as earlier programmes of those authors' works is anyone's guess. But it will provide a hit of nostalgia before the change of management.

New artistic director Selina Cartmell will hopefully make links with contemporary theatre that for Colgan, like Mac Liammóir and Edwards before him, weren't obvious. Before that happens, this festival will remind us of what the Gate has been. It's about to start all over again.

Beckett Friel Pinter Festival runs at the Gate Theatre until March 26

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