Thrills and spills of the NAMA drama
The era of Nama is a perilous one for small theatres. But perils can be thrilling. At 6.30pm one evening last week, I ventured down to the basement of what used to be Bewley's (and has more recently been Café des Irlandais) on George's Street in Dublin, to the aptly named Matchbox Theatre.
There was a free beer with the €10 ticket, and a 20pc discount on a meal afterwards. The no-frills theatre was simple and intimate. The play was Port Authority by Conor McPherson, one of his weaker scripts, but given a robust performance by a new company, Back of the Hand.
It wasn't great theatre, but it was exciting on a number of fronts: the smart collaboration between the theatre and restaurant; the innovative approach to show times (6.30pm, and Sunday shows); and the low-budget, small-space dynamic that gives great freedom to young companies. This week, the theatre closed. Café des Irlandais shut its doors, and the Matchbox had to follow suit. It's looking for a new home -- leaving it in a similar position to the Theatre Upstairs, which lost its space above the Plough pub last year.
Around the same time the Matchbox was being told to pack up their props, Vanessa Fielding was sitting with Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan, pleading for another chance to keep her theatre open.
Fielding set up the breathtaking theatre and arts space in Smithfield, The Complex. On the barren square, Fielding has built a radical theatre space from scratch over the past two years.
The Complex is sited in one of the main retail spaces. Fielding got permission to use it for a one-off show a couple of years ago and, when that went well, and there was no commercial interest in the space, the developer (Chris Kelly, son of Paddy Kelly) allowed her to run an ad-hoc venue there, for free.
Fielding had 45 cent in the bank, left over from that first production. There was no electricity, no toilets, no lighting, no seats, and no funding. She set about fundraising, and hired out the venue for launches, exhibitions and shows.
Two years on, The Complex has a reputation as an inventive arts space and Fielding has just opened Iron, by Scots playwright Rona Munro. She has two full-time staff and another seven employed full-time via CE schemes. The venue brings up to 800 people of a weekend into Smithfield, providing cultural activity in an area intended by planners to be a cultural hub.
Even as Fielding was building her theatre, though, she lost her landlord: the Kellys went into Nama and, last week, Nama's receiver wrote to The Complex serving it a seven-day eviction notice. Since Fielding raised this with the minister, she has been told that Nama won't evict them . . . yet. She is offering to pay a "cultural rate" of rent, she says ( €2,000 per month), and points out that Smithfield needs The Complex to meet commitments for cultural space under the development plan.
Nama is obliged to pursue maximum profit on behalf of its owners -- us. But there are other values at work here -- community, entertainment, art, values that Nama is not qualified to quantify. Smithfield is a landmark site in Dublin. It recently lost its cinema (the Lighthouse) and looks likely to lose its centuries-old horse fair.
Across the country, arts centres are struggling to keep their doors open and unfunded theatres are easily made homeless. Yet there is huge energy among young artists, who are choosing to stay in Ireland rather than joining the status quo and leaving. They need places like The Complex. And we need them, too.
Iron runs till May 28. See www.thecomplex.ie.