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Dublin Theatre Festival: A minor triumph — but still a triumph


Willie White

Willie White

Willie White

Willie White was in Brazil when the full force of Covid-19 hit. As director of the Dublin Theatre Festival, he was in the final stages of setting his programme for 2020. Instead, he barely made it home before lockdown - and then set about "re-imagining" what had been a full festival programme of 30 major productions from home and abroad.

By the time the new Festival programme was published, it had come down to 11 productions - most of them online. It had been a massive task, and ironically, the first production listed in the programme was The Party to End All Parties, an ANU production inspired by the night in 1949 when Ireland declared itself a republic.

Then, with two weeks to go, Dublin moved to Level 3 restrictions. The Festival was facing wipeout. A press statement asked audiences to "bear with them" as they tried to salvage as many events as they could.

Anyone might have expected that the result would have been a weary acknowledgement of defeat, with the blow proving too heavy. But talking to White last Monday, there was still a wry chuckle in his voice, as he confirmed that further re-imagining had succeeded in salvaging a programme of four productions.

But there was possible good news, which emerged the following day.

As things stood, with Dublin back at Level 3, the Abbey, our national theatre, would not have a presence at the Festival, with its co-production with Landmark and Octopus Theatricals Theatre for One due in the Abbey lobby, cancelled, along with the ambitious co-production with IMMA of an outdoor promenade production of Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger in the grounds at the museum.

Since it had a cast of 16, with 10 musicians, it also had a significant employment element for the already savaged members of the profession. But after consultation with the authorities, the adaptation directed by Caitríona McLaughlin and Conall Morrison opened on Thursday, and will run until next Saturday, with four groups of 15 audience members each evening, and staggered starts, with the groups never meeting on site.

A minor triumph - but still a triumph. An international festival without the participation of the national theatre would have been unconscionable. The other survivors included Fishamble's production of Deirdre Kinahan's Embargo, an account of the 1920 railworkers' strike against transporting British troops and munitions during the War of Independence. Due to play to a limited live audience in Connolly Station and at the Pump House, it went online.

And the endlessly inventive Dead Centre (Bush Moukarzel), having risen to the Covid challenge with a digitally devised piece, To Be a Machine, went ahead with a fascinating interactive examination of trying to be (or not to be) a machine, courtesy of Jack Gleeson racing with technology in an attempt to defeat death: the ultimate in a kind of Nietzschean nihilism.

It was important, White says, not to give in and to maintain a presence. And as a major player in Irish theatre, he remains optimistic for the future of theatre, and the arts in general.

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He considers the subvention for the Festival (€90,000) generous, and believes that the Government, despite frequent accusations to the contrary, is committed to the protection and preservation of the arts in our society. Taoiseach Micheál Martin, he points out, referred to them three times in speeches during the previous week.

He also praises the Covid subvention for the arts of €20m with an additional €5m, and believes that the Arts Council under the directorship of Maureen Kennelly will use it well.

In addition, from within the sector, White says, there is the National Campaign for the Arts, which pre-dates Covid, but had already put in groundwork to develop secure structures and a sustainable plan for both their cultural importance, and the more basic realities of their economic value in our society.

White's view may not be fully shared by others in the sector (if the fraught struggle between theatre professionals and the Abbey Theatre over the past couple of years is anything to go by). But companies have already adapted, and will continue to do so.

There is devastation at the loss of the nourishment of live audiences, but the challenge of re-imagining a format for use on what is effectively the small screen is, in many cases, leading to new and arguably exciting approaches to theatre.

In one thing White is fully representative: people working in the arts are, by definition, inventive and adaptable - and the Dublin Theatre Festival, while in many ways merely a tattered remnant of the shining roll of cloth of last spring, is determined to repair itself. And auditoria won't be empty forever.

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