Friday 24 January 2020

2019: the year of Carr and Harris


Marty Rea, Rae Gray, Ian-Lloyd Anderson, and Jane Brennan in the Druid and Gate co-production of The Beacon by Nancy Harris
Marty Rea, Rae Gray, Ian-Lloyd Anderson, and Jane Brennan in the Druid and Gate co-production of The Beacon by Nancy Harris

'Hecuba' and 'The Beacon' stood out in a mixed year, says Emer O'Kelly

Looking back on the past year in the world of Irish theatre two things stand out: there were fewer productions than usual (I saw 64, down from 100-plus in other years.) And that is a reflection of budgetary restrictions, with many of the smaller companies, particularly outside Dublin, going out of business for lack of support in terms of funding (and of course, audiences).

And of course, there was the usual, mercifully small complement of work that stood out for all the wrong reasons, of which more later.

Things didn't get into the swing until March, when the Gate mounted a worthy production of Lucy Kirkwood's The Children, a reflection of life in the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe, with all the tensions of guilt and the struggle for survival. It certainly packed a punch against the Abbey's confused and messy adaptation of Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls, despite its being adapted by the author.

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April saw Barry McGovern, directed by Tom Creed, in the former's adaptation of Beckett's Watt. A quiet treat. And over in Sligo, Blue Raincoat offered another quiet treat in Tintown, a one-man play by Bob Kelly and performed by the author under Niall Henry's direction, a narrative and commentary on the Curragh Camp and its detainees before and during the Second World War.

Cork Midsummer Festival in June had a minor triumph with Enda Walsh's The Small Things, re-staged at the old Cork Waterworks by Corcadorca. Also apocalyptic in tone, with the emphasis on the suppression of free speech, there were splendid performances by Peter Gowan and Pauline McLynn.

Galway Arts Festival offered a mixed bag. A mischievous take on Joyce's masterpiece The Dead was delivered for Druid with wry irony by Brian Watkins's Epiphany, directed by Garry Hynes, with superb ensemble playing.

The same, sadly can not be said for Redemption Falls, described by Moonfish Theatre as a free adaptation of Joseph O'Connor's novel. What I saw was a folk music concert with disastrous acting which was an insult to O'Connor's intricately complex and lyrical work.

In August, the Kilkenny Arts Festival delivered a superb cross-form piece with Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, a version of the Faust legend. It was played by the Fews Ensemble, with Ciaran Hinds delivering the libretto with magnetic force. And then came a clutch of work that made the Dublin Theatre Festival the best in years: beginning with Marina Carr's stunning Hecuba, directed by Lynne Parker, starring Aislin McGuckin and Brian Doherty.

It was probably the best work of the year, although it was pretty well matched by Nancy Harris's The Beacon, a psychological thriller of family life in the shadow of death that delivered mood-perfect performances, with Jane Brennan and Marty Rea superlative as an emotionally warring mother and son. And it was impeccably projected by Francis O'Connor's set.

And then there was Fishamble's black comedy The Alternative, a double-edged piece by Michael Patrick and Oisin Kearney that took a string of side-swipes at our post-independence history. Directed by Jim Culleton, it confirmed that Fishamble and Anne Clarke's Landmark, with Rough Magic back in the race and Druid coming up behind, are between them doing the job of the National Theatre of Ireland in the vacuum that currently exists. (Unfortunately, Lyric's festival production of The Playboy of the Western World, set in a Belfast bar in 2019, was pretty awful.)

The vacuum was made disastrously clear by the Abbey's Festival offering of Last Orders at the Dockside, a ghastly work made far worse by direction by Graham McLaren, who was also responsible for The Country Girls.

But the year finished on a high note with Landmark's Blood in the Dirt, by Rory Gleeson, a one-man study of land despair written for Lorcan Cranitch, who was mesmerising under Caitriona McLaughlin's direction.

Opera has been raising the stakes for the past couple of years, with special mention for INO with their production of Least Like the Other in Galway, a new work by Brian Irvine, and the recent glorious production of La Cenerentola, starring the matchless Tara Erraught, with utterly enchanting and mischievous direction and setting by director Orpha Phelan and designer Nicky Shaw.

And that's not forgetting Wexford Festival Opera, which despite perennial budgetary difficulties has won an award as the best small opera festival in the world… something almost totally ignored in its home country.

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