Sunday 23 October 2016

Stage life through a lens...

Theatre: Five Decades in Focus: A Photographic History of Ireland's Stanislavski Theatre, Brian McAvera, Joe Devlin and Kate Horgan, Portobello Press, €44.25, pbk, 84 pages

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

Sabina Coyne (now the wife of President Higgins) and Johnny Murphy in Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler in the Focus Theatre in 1970. Photo by Fergus Bourke.
Sabina Coyne (now the wife of President Higgins) and Johnny Murphy in Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler in the Focus Theatre in 1970. Photo by Fergus Bourke.
Five Decades in Focus: a photographic history of Ireland's Stanislavski theatre

When the Focus Theatre went dark in 2013 after a gallant 50-year struggle against official indifference and lack of support, an important navigational light, which had pointed Irish theatre in new directions, was extinguished.

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Deirdre O'Connell and her husband Luke Kelly found the building in Pembroke Place and, with the help of friends, carried out renovations at a time when it was possible to be avant garde and capable without the need for inaccessible amounts of public funding. It provided access to the arts and reached out to people who might not be involved in, or those whose lives had not consciously been touched by, theatre.

Focus was non-commercial, never making money but producing work of the highest quality. Teaching was central, using Stanislavski's system, and challenging prevailing parochial preconceptions about theatre and acting. Deirdre sought to allow a more naturalistic acting style to flourish, followed by Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy's more experimental approach and Joe Devlin's non-naturalistic style.

The story of this gallant adventure has already been well told in three books from Brian McAvera, Stephen Burch, Joe Devlin and Graham Price. The current volume, presented by Kate Horgan and Joe Devlin, chronicles, in 110 striking images, the rich variety of plays offered by new and established writers, showing that the arts need not be exclusive or unaffordable and documenting the wealth of talent in all the theatrical disciplines involved in Focus over the last half-century.

McAvera's rather quirky commentary may be read as casting doubt on the possibility of capturing the story of a theatre in photographs, arguing that it is illusory to suppose that the theatrical experience, which depends on actors, movement, sets, lighting and interaction with an audience, can be captured in a split-second image.

While he clearly does have a point, most admirers of Focus will carry their own experience to the contemplation of the images and will be gratified to be reminded of the early work of Jim Sheridan and Joan Bergin and the emerging quality of actors like Gabriel Byrne, Sabina Coyne, Olwen Fouéré, Tom Hickey, Bosco Hogan and Gerard McSorley. The book does present a rich flow of images of an enterprise which was remarkably inventive, stylish and experimental, under the guiding genius of O'Connell, and with the ghosts of Strasberg and Stanislavski standing in the wings.

This is a book for aficionados, for those nostalgic for the glory days of the Focus who wish to celebrate excellence and to revisit old friends.

Five Decades in Focus is available from Hodges Figgis or online at

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