Sunday 24 September 2017

Theatre of dreams set to become reality

'We can expect to see a lot of younger faces among Gate audiences in the near future...'

New brooms Graham McLaren and Neil Murray at the Abbey. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
New brooms Graham McLaren and Neil Murray at the Abbey. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Selina Cartmell takes charge at the Gate

This year will see a kind of re-birth in Irish theatre. There will be new hands in charge at the Abbey, the national theatre, and new hands in charge after 30 or so years at the Gate, long recognised as our second theatre.

That lengthy tenure meant that the Gate created its own loyal following, mostly of people whose only theatrical venture it was and which has not renewed itself or been extended; committed theatregoers in a broader sense have had to look to the Abbey, which operates under all the limitations for a national theatre of providing a duty of care as a national institution.

Adventurous work, in other words, has been more or less limited to smaller stages, and has also been limited by budgets that are even more restrictive than those at the Abbey and the Gate.

The new Gate director is Selina Cartmell, an English freelance director and producer, who has shown an impressive ability to operate within the restrictions at an extraordinarily effective level. Her company Siren Productions has given Dublin numerous intelligent, stylish productions of both contemporary and classical work, and she has also directed at both the Abbey and the Gate.

So far, she has not announced her plans for her tenure at the Gate, which is programmed into the spring. But while she is most unlikely to go for shock value after the steadily predictable Gate diet for numerous past years, she will undoubtedly want to extend that theatre's audience by whetting appetites for progress and change. Expect to see a lot of younger faces in Gate audiences in the near future.

The Abbey's new brooms at initial glance look perhaps less sweeping. Graham McLaren and Neil Murray are of the same generation as outgoing director Fiach Mac Conghail, but are unfamiliar with the Irish scene, and as directors of the decade-old Scottish National Theatre (a child of devolutionary fervour in their country) they have no experience of running a building-based theatre, or of literary theatre. In addition, as producer-directors, they have never had to contend with the duty of re-staging a national archive, and being required by statute to nurture new talent, whether writing, directing or acting. They have announced their new programme called What Happens Next Is This… a teasing title, that could be seen merely as a gimmick. In fact, the two have gone for a programme which is either extremely shrewd, and designed to allow them to get a feel for the Irish scene without admitting to some ignorance, or a determination to answer the long-felt grievances of Irish companies which want a bite of the Abbey cherry.

It is anything but adventurous, but will give audiences a chance to see proven work which has in the past disappeared from view far too quickly, or has gone on to international acclaim after premiering on Irish stages other than the Abbey's.

Two Enda Walsh works are scheduled, both of them from Landmark Productions and the Galway Arts Festival. The first is last year's dynamic hit Arlington, which is already transferring to New York, directed by the author, and featuring Charlie Murphy and Hugh O'Conor. The same production team premiered Ballyturk the previous year, and this will get a new production on the Abbey stage, with Olwen Fouere taking over the role created by Stephen Rea, of a quirkily demonic Nemesis for two isolated young men played by Mikel Murfi and Tadhg Murphy.

The year 1904 will feature twice. It was the year the Abbey was founded, and in 2004, Corn Exchange staged Michael West's Dublin by Lamplight for the Dublin Theatre Festival. Part spoof, part tragedy, with thinly disguised portrayals of the founding fathers and mothers, and the inevitable propensity for violence involved in our version of patriotism, it could be said to be coming home as well as giving the Corn Exchange much-deserved broad recognition.

It was Glasgow's Tron Theatre which staged Dermot Bolger's dramatisation of the 1904 explosion that was Ulysses a couple of years ago (although it played a short Dublin run) but Graham McLaren will have his first outing as a director in Dublin with a new production of the piece.

Undoubtedly most interest will be stirred by Emma Donoghue's adaptation of her own Room, which will open in June with Lisa Dwan playing the lead. It will be a co-production with Theatre Royal Stratford East, and the National Theatre of Scotland. Dwan is currently appearing as Anna Karenina, and next year will revive her Beckett one-woman compilation No's Knife. So she looks set to be a regular at the "new" Abbey for the foreseeable future.

And Garry Hynes will return to the Abbey, this time with her own Druid company's production from last year of Waiting for Godot, which received good reviews in Galway, but not, I am afraid, from me. I found it far too chirpy and colourful.

Druid will also continue touring its 20th anniversary production of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane which has been successful in the US where the original production garnered numerous Tony Awards.

High hopes for Irish theatre in 2017 would not be amiss - let's hope they're fulfilled.

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