Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Thursday 19 October 2017

Theatre: Finding hope in the middle of unrest

The Wake: Aisling O'Sullivan starred
The Wake: Aisling O'Sullivan starred
Justine Cooper in These Rooms
Let's dance: Swan Lake

Chris McCormack

Take Aoibheann Greenan's The Perfect Wagner Rite, easily the most rebellious thing at the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival. How better to reinvigorate a 19th-century German opera, near-impossible to produce, than warping it into a fetish pageant with psychedelic live music and flooring costumes? If you agree with critic Bernard Shaw (who also appears) that Wagner's opera is about the abuses of capitalism, then Greenan drew a thrilling line to an alienated sexual culture often looked on with suspicion. (If the Spirit of the Fringe commissioning award weren't dissolved, this would be an obvious winner).

Some of the best-earned laughs of 2016 belong to Margaret McAuliffe's charming monologue play The Humours of Bandon, also at the Fringe. McAuliffe (acting and dancing) portrayed several characters behind the scenes of an Irish-dancing championship for teenagers, leading to a sweet realisation about young people taking life too seriously. Expect it to be a touring hit over the next while.

Outside Dublin, the Lyric Theatre in Belfast industriously added to the Northern Irish canon by adapting plays from elsewhere. Lucy Caldwell's version of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, relocated to 1990s Belfast, bravely made the peace process elegiac as three sisters became tied to soldiers temporarily placed there during the Troubles. Director Selina Cartmell showed nerve - and it is hoped she'll continue to do so in her new role as artistic director of the Gate Theatre.

At the Gate, Sean O'Casey's tragicomedy Juno and the Paycock was given a stupendous revival. Most of the comedy was suspended in director Mark O'Rowe's solemn staging, adding to the fearful air of the Dublin tenements during the Civil War. Derbhle Crotty was formidable as Juno and Marty Rea found sad trauma in the usually-comic Joxer, in a production that centred on the poverty and alcoholism of the era, that damnable "state of chassis".

Speaking of O'Casey, who thought more work could be made of The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey Theatre (its third mounting there in seven years)? In an inspired move, director Sean Holmes's contemporary staging exchanged the tuberculosis-ridden Dublin tenements of 1916 for the depressing housing conditions of Irish citizens and asylum seekers in 2016. The most urgent work at the theatre in some time.

Nothing was more searching than Brokentalkers' dance-theatre play The Circus Animals' Desertion. Repeated viewings are likely required to fully work through this surreal response to the poet WB Yeats and his theories on time (and eugenics!). The result, vigorously directed by Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan, was a strange carousel of images disrupted by familiar atrocities.

In a year of worldly unrest, Brokentalkers spun the troubling signs of fascism to appear uncannily new, like a vision delivered from on high. The most enthusiastic ovations in 2016, meanwhile, seemed to be for Michael Keegan-Dolan's dance-theatre work Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, an interpretation of Tchaikovsky's ballet set in the Irish midlands. Resonant with the past decade of agonising church reports, Keegan-Dolan's dance showed us the horror of abuse victims transformed completely, but it also offered relief to the audience, no less a nation, in an ecstatic finale with feathers.

1916 was unavoidable, of course, but ANU dealt with the legacies of the Rising better than anyone. The company's promenade production Sunder took us through backrooms and alleys off Moore St (the last stand during the Rising) where we saw up-close both the idealism of the conflict (the 1916 rebels, slyly summoned as modern activists) and its utter destruction (a home destroyed, experienced through Owen Boss's miraculous design work).

Along with These Rooms, a thrilling co-production with dance company CoisCéim exploring an un-investigated massacre during the Rising, ANU courageously put devastated civilians at the centre of their commemorations.

Closer to the present, Tom Murphy's play The Wake, set during the height of the Celtic Tiger, was given a tremendous return at the Abbey. In this drama, a woman (Aisling O'Sullivan in a riveting performance) returns home from New York to discover her property-grabbing family refused to wake their dead grandmother. Director Annabelle Comyn made vivid a society gripped by material gain. Furthermore, Paul O'Mahony's ethereal stage design lent an eerie restlessness of burial rites, and human decency, left neglected.

I challenge you to find a more charming cast than that in The Seagull by The Corn Exchange, a performance to rival Fiona Bell's in the Gate's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or as moving a tribute to Roger Casement (there were a few) than Fearghus Ó Conchúir's dance Butterflies and Bones.

Most revelatory of all was Druid's absorbing production of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. The pitter-patter of two suffering tramps waiting for Godot (a no-show) felt philosophical in Marty Rea and Aaron Monaghan's spry performances, going through routines of abuse and reconciliation, rejection and anticipation. Surprises were found in every turn of director Garry Hynes's rigorous staging, in its flashes of comedy and the sad weakening of spirits at the tramps' breaking point. Even the materials of Francis O'Connor's modern stage design were unexpected.

The greatest twist, perhaps, in a production that's mournful and tragic, is that it's also crucially uplifting. That's fitting by the end of 2016, finding hope in the midst of unrest.

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