International brigade: how to keep the show on the road
Every day we hear about Irish cultural expeditions overseas. The "46 countries across six continents" Riverdance has been to, or those reports of Irish fashion designers "flying the flag" of Irish fashion abroad (with clothes that are neither stocked in Ireland nor remotely affordable). Tales of Hozier making his way to number one, and Gleeson sons hitting the big time.
What we don't hear much about is Irish theatre abroad, but it's always chipping away behind the scenes. Without an international dimension, there probably wouldn't be any Irish theatre worth talking about. The Gate, The Abbey, The Everyman, and companies like Pan Pan, Druid and Fishamble go abroad to stay fresh, keep up to standards, make friends in high places, and survive materially (helped by Culture Ireland).
In The Gate, a company of 25 just returned from the Hong Kong Arts Festival, where Pride and Prejudice played to packed houses. "It was a complete sell-out," says The Gate's director, Michael Colgan. "I don't think Sean O'Casey would be a sell-out". Culture Ireland didn't support this particular production, perhaps because it wasn't Irish enough. But Colgan had had an idea that taking the quintessentially British Jane Austen story to a former British colony could work out nicely.
"I think there are a lot of people in Hong Kong who don't want to relinquish their Britishness," he says, deviously. "Somebody told me they were at the races and there were a lot of ladies with grey permed hair, twin sets and pearls, drinking g&t. They might like to see like the show."
You learn a lot about other cultures - and by dint of that, yourself - inside a theatre, says Colgan. In Dublin, Pride and Prejudice was a restrained, very pretty, Christmas show. In Hong Kong, it was biting social satire. "The Hong Kong audience seemed to connect with the idea of marrying for security first and love second," he says. "They found Mrs Bennet's obsession with how much her potential son-in-laws earned hilarious."
Last year they took two Beckett plays to the prestigious Recklinghausen festival in Germany. "The Germans just sit there at the end of the show. Nothing, no movement from them, and then at the end, clap, clap, clap. But it grows, and it grows to a crescendo."
The Gate's tours are reasonably glamorous, those of us who want to stew in jealousy can be assured. "We provide a certain level of comfort for our actors," says Colgan. "It makes me upset if somebody selling widgets goes to Hong Kong and is in a better hotel than we are, because our work is important. We would never go to anything less than a four-star hotel.
"There's always somebody who loses their purse, there's always somebody who gets lost, there's always somebody who gets a sore throat or has a tooth ache. It's never plain-sailing, you're really minding a lot of people."
Pan Pan, one of Ireland's really innovative companies, have been hitting the road since 1991, the year they were born. Why tour? "We're a small country, so we go abroad," says Pan Pan director Gavin Quinn. "The audience is culturally very different. You have to make work that's original, that moves the art form forward. That's what international festivals are interested in programming.
"And it feeds into the work, encountering different audiences. You keep the creative team together. It gives you confidence in your own work, which is very important in theatre."
Do they feel Irish abroad, or terribly cosmopolitan? "You are where you're from," says Quinn. "We are 99pc Irish. Irish actors, Irish designers. We are incredibly attuned to the idea that our work should begin and be made in Ireland but tour internationally."
In July Pan Pan will take Samuel Beckett's All that Fall to the Barbican Theatre in London for 40 shows. It's Beckett's first radio play, and Pan Pan puts the audience in a chamber of rocking chairs, listening to it as if at home. It premiered in The Project Arts Centre in 2011, and this writer feels proud, smug and boastful to think of Londoners enjoying it too, knowing it's Irish, and yet not Riverdance.