Friday 23 March 2018

Theatre: How having the inside track ushered in an era of newfound intimacy

Mane event: The Lion King was a rip-roaring success: Photo: Dean Van Mee
Mane event: The Lion King was a rip-roaring success: Photo: Dean Van Mee

Colin Murphy

Micheál MacLiammóir wrote that a critic should be either a total outsider, and totally objective, or a consummate insider, with a true understanding of how the work was made. (Irish critics, he wrote, were neither one nor the other: they were compromised by the usual Irish mesh of social relationships and didn't have any real understanding of the work they were reviewing.) So I don't know whether my involvement should make me a better commentator on theatre, or should disqualify me from commenting in the first place. In any case, here are eight things I learned at the theatre this year, in part from the inside.

1. It's showBUSINESS, baby (not just SHOWbusiness)

Anu Productions took over a dilapidated old tenement on Henrietta Street for August to create Living the Lockout, an immersive piece of theatre that allowed us observe a family as they struggled through the winter of 1913. It was good art, great history and very smart business. It served the interests of its three sponsors well (a nod to Dublin City Council, ICTU and the Irish Heritage Council) and provided a substantial cultural experience for tourists.

Irish theatre has for too long been too shy of talking business. But tourists and marketing are not inimical to good art -- in fact, the rigours of having to entertain a mass audience can enhance that art. There's room for more such initiatives.

2. It's tough on tour

I spent November on tour with Fishamble's production of my play, Guaranteed!. The challenge on tour is this: how do you raise an audience for one-night only, when you've no advertising budget? And if audiences are small, how can you afford to tour? Fishamble's Show in a Bag series suggests one answer: develop small-scale touring shows that can be mounted by the actors themselves. This year's Swing, a beguiling tale of love across a dance class, starring Janet Moran and Steve Blount, looks set to be the latest success of the series.

The brilliance of the Show in a Bag concept is that it matches supply with demand: there's a plentiful supply of actors with stories to tell, and there's strong demand for original work that is both cheap and comes with the endorsement of success elsewhere.

3. We need to decentralise

Like politics and the church, professional theatre in Ireland has become too centralised. There is vitality in the amateur movement across the country, and yet just one group of professionals takes advantage of that: the writers (ask Martin McDonagh how much he made from amateur productions this year). Where professionals struggle to get houses, amateurs pack them. What can professionals learn from that? I'm not sure -- but is anyone even asking?

4. We need to talk

At Guaranteed!, we had post-show discussions most nights. At the Joinery, I helped put on a series of "one-night stands" where performers read from work in progress and opened it to discussion. (Sonya Kelly's Anywhere Else But Here, was stunning; it will be exciting to see it on stage.) Audiences are hungry not just to see work, but to respond to it. Drama has always functioned in part as a proxy for debate, or a catalyst for it: it makes sense to host that debate in the theatre. And not merely as a "post-show" discussion, but as an integral part of the evening.

5. Whose line is it anyway?

Both those events tapped a new vogue for staged readings. (The New Theatre and the Abbey have run series of readings.) There's an exhilarating rawness about watching an actor who is holding a script; a sense that the script could change and the audience is a part of that. I think we'll see more of it.

6. Theatre is politics (Politics is theatre)

Those events are likely to be political. During the boom, the theatre was often a stage of disaffection. Today's most exciting companies, such as Anu (whose Thirteen was a lynchpin of the Fringe) and THEATREclub (who has just returned with History), aren't content merely to portray disempowerment; they are actively using theatre as a tool for empowerment. Last year, Penguin took four of its authors, gave them a sexy title (Four Angry Men), and filled the country's largest theatre. That tells us there's an appetite for politics on stage -- and if we don't put it there, somebody else will.

7. It all comes back to Shakespeare

The master of putting politics on stage was Shakespeare, as Ouroboros reminded us with a rigorous Richard II this year, one of the best-spoken Shakespearean productions I've seen on the Irish stage. Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro told me he was looking to Ireland for a new understanding of Shakespeare's history plays; Ouroboros suggested that could be rewarding, and provocative.

8. A song is worth a thousand words

Camille O'Sullivan (with composer Feargal Murray) found a new understanding of a neglected poem of Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, by interpreting it through song. It was original and beautiful; an experience of searing intimacy.

And I found intimacy, too, at the heart of the vast corporate machine that surrounds The Lion King. I'd have enjoyed it on my own, but I brought my six-year-old daughter, and that transformed it. Theatre is something that is shared. The more exciting the theatre, the greater the thrill in sharing it. I left whooping, and we went home to look it up on YouTube. Now that's showbusiness.


Irish Independent

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