Sunday 23 October 2016

Theatre: White balances the mix for a good result

There is some excitement to be found ahead for the Dublin Theatre Festival

Emer O'Kelly

Published 17/08/2015 | 02:30

Adrian Dunbar, seen here as Brendan Behan in 'Brendan at Chelsea' at the Lyric in Belfast, will head the cast in Conor McPherson's latest play 'The Night Alive'.
Adrian Dunbar, seen here as Brendan Behan in 'Brendan at Chelsea' at the Lyric in Belfast, will head the cast in Conor McPherson's latest play 'The Night Alive'.

When he announced the programme for his fourth Dublin Theatre Festival as Artistic Director, Willie White affirmed his belief in the productions as addressing "some of the most important stories at play in Ireland right now." He also mentioned Dublin's bid to be European City of Culture in 2020, pointing out that a lot has changed in Ireland since we last held that title in 1991: "We are more confident, more global, and more diverse, but there is still a sense that the city is not everything it can be."

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The difficulty is that confidence and a global view can both contribute to a thinning out of the fabric of what we call "culture." And that dilution can mean a very bland, and paradoxically, very narrow view of art, limited to what is broadly called "relevance," in effect a reductive amalgam of political correctness, fashionably topical pre-occupations, and snapshot "art" with limited horizons, and very little imaginative force.

Yet White has so far avoided such pitfalls in his time with the Festival. By concentrating on the genuinely "brightest and best" (it would seem) without regard to spreading the festival too thinly, despite devastating funding constraints, he has so far offered programmes which stimulate and provoke, while also maintaining production values which the theatre-going public has a right to expect at an international festival.

This year cross-Border initiatives feature quite prominently. The Lyric in Belfast will co-produce with the Festival the Irish premiere of Conor McPherson's latest play The Night Alive, which received a New York Critics' Drama Circle Award and an Olivier in London on its original production in 2013. Adrian Dunbar will head the cast in the role created by Ciaran Hinds in a play which has undoubted echoes of Pinter menace.

And the Lyric will bring its own new production of Friel's much-loved Dancing at Lughnasa to the festival, directed by Dublin director Annabelle Comyn, who has featured in recent years at the Abbey to spectacular success. The cast will be headed by the towering presence of Declan Conlon, and will also feature the extraordinarily versatile talents of Mary Murray.

Music will feature in a new opera with libretto by Enda Walsh, and score by Donnacha Dennehy. Called The Last Hotel, it will star soprano Claudia Boyle, and is a co-production between Landmark and Wide Open Opera. It's also a brave breakthrough between art forms for the Festival. Rough Magic will stay in that stream with a new and quirky musical from the pen of Bill Whelan with libretto from Arthur Riordan. That will be The Train, a representation of the notorious/famous/infamous (whatever you're having yourself) contraceptive train to Belfast of the 1970s.

I am not sure of the wisdom of the Abbey choosing to present a new version by director Wayne Jordan of Sophocles' Oedipus. While Greek tragedy should always be in the repertoire of a national theatre, Jordan, while a talented director, has shown (in my opinion) a distinct unease in dealing with classics outside his immediate experience.

The Gate will mark the centenary of the birth of Arthur Miller with a new production of A View from the Bridge, directed by a returned Joe Dowling: the play and the director both hugely welcome. It will be a landmark for Dublin, Dowling having "specialised" in Miller's work to stunning effect while at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

There is much more of interest as well, from PanPan's Newcastlewest, through a new collaboration between actor Aonghus Og McAnally and writer Gavin Costick, called At the Ford, and a drama documentary from Fishamble called Bailed Out!, a follow-up to their eye-blinkingly relevant Guaranteed!, both from the pen of Colin Murphy.

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