Saturday 18 November 2017

Only a baker's dozen to recall

Theatre Review of the Year

HIGH POINT: Paul Marron and Margarita Grillis in ‘The Great Couch Rebellion’
HIGH POINT: Paul Marron and Margarita Grillis in ‘The Great Couch Rebellion’
HIGH POINT: Conor Maguie in De Profundis

Emer O'Kelly

I saw 93 theatre productions in the past year. The most disturbing factor is that on going through my diary where the name and location of each is noted, I have no memory, good, bad or indifferent of about 30 of them: what they were about, or who was in them. Theatre should not be like that: it does not have to be weighty or particularly significant, it does not have to be controversial; but it should make some kind of impact.

There are several other productions in my diary which did make an impact: an entirely negative one and I can recall the mixture of irritation and disappointment combined with sympathy for a cheated audience that they engendered, as I left the theatre feeling that nobody should be expected to hand out hard-earned cash for such insultingly bad, self-regarding, self-indulgent work.

One of the problems is the reduction of funding for companies, particularly outside Dublin. Five or six years ago, it was possible for smaller companies to mount at least one production annually of an acceptably professional standard. But with the reduction in arts funding, many such companies have gone to the wall.

The major companies, too, have suffered funding cuts, and all but three (the Abbey, the Gate, and Druid) are effectively unsure from one individual project to the next whether or not any funding will be available. And even when a production is deliberately and unashamedly commercial, with no aim other than to make money, the theatre-going public in Ireland is simply not large enough to support a live, nightly self-renewing art form without subsidy from the State or from commercial or benevolent handouts.

All of these factors have reduced the overall theatre pot enormously, and have ensured that young actors and those outside the mainstream of recognised talent and competence are looking at a bleak landscape in which they are unlikely to get employment even in the short term. With fewer productions of high or even acceptable, standard, they have no opportunity to hone their skills by learning from more experienced people as they go through the rehearsal process.

They could, of course, watch them from the auditorium, but it is my experience of drama students that they do not go to the theatre, because they claim "none of it is any good" and/or "tickets are too expensive" although they can spend more than twice as much as the price of a couple of theatre tickets in the pub on a Friday night.

Such young-ish practitioners are being thrown entirely on their own resources, which could be no bad thing if they rise to the challenge.

Unfortunately, the only two ways forward for them seem to be either to form tiny one-off collectives and fringe companies which stage their own work or the work of their friends; or indulge in "long held dreams" -- which could more accurately be described as vanity projects for themselves.

The result is often lamentable, as lack of proper apprenticeship training, combined with what frequently looks like incompetent schooling in stagecraft, added to non-existent production budgets, leads to work that tends to be embarrassingly bad, often pretentious and over-reachingly depressing.

I saw 33 productions in those two categories -- from the one-off collective and fringe companies -- during the year just past. I re-read my reviews to remind myself of them and as they drifted back into my head, in many cases I found myself surprised at the restraint of the language I had used, when the words that flashed through my head in the immediate aftermath included "abysmal, disgraceful, insulting, tatty, immature, idiotic, talentless".

Only 13 of them should have seen the light of day. That's in an opinion formed from inveterate theatre-going at all levels since I was a teenager.

That 13 include Rise Productions' Games People Play by Gavin Kostick, which featured in the Dublin Fringe Festival and was a sharp, contemporary joy; and Floating Island's After Sarah Miles by Michael Hilliard Mulcahy, which had the additional advantage of being a vehicle for Don Wycherley.

The WillFredd production of Follow by Shane O'Reilly and Jack Cawley, a piece exploring the difficulties for deaf people in a hearing world, managed to be an excellent piece of drama first: the social impact followed, which is the way such work should approach its subject, but seldom does.

Conor Maguire played an only slighted edited version at lunchtime, at Theatre Upstairs at Lanigan's, of Wilde's De Profundis as a one-man show and gave it the restrained thunder of power it deserved.

Bewley's lunchtime theatre, also in Dublin, revived their 2008 production of Roman Fever, the Edith Wharton story adapted by Hugh Leonard, with the same joyous, nasty zest as before.

Andy Hinds provided a very much darker piece of dramatic reflection with his own Morning and Afternoon -- two one-man plays concerning the very different lives of two working class Derry brothers.

And noticeably for a company which is both fringe in its nature and based outside Dublin, Philip Doherty's Gonzo Theatre provided two worthwhile productions during the year, of his own The Great Couch Rebellion and, at the Fringe Festival, The Birthday Man.

At the modest level of minor productions, usually in fringe theatres, these pieces, along with the very recent No Smoke Without Fire by Paddy Murray and featuring his daughter, the remarkably talented Mary Murray in six roles, gave us theatre of a high, sometimes excellent, standard.

But as a percentage of what's going on, it's not high enough. Particularly when the rest is so bad that one suspects that it's only the lack of an interval which prevents people cutting their losses and leaving halfway through.

Next week: the year in the major theatres

Irish Independent

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