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A year that wasn't in theatre

A brave effort... but it's not the stuff of Emer O'Kelly's dreams

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Stanley Townsend - superb in 'Solar Bones'

Stanley Townsend - superb in 'Solar Bones'

Willie White

Willie White

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Stanley Townsend - superb in 'Solar Bones'

Anywhere between a hundred and a hundred and thirty is the usual quota of plays for a critic's year: a wide choice of work to review. There are usually plays marked in my diary that are a total blank, and I have to go through my programmes to remind myself what they were about, who directed, and who acted in them.

Frequently, the companies formed especially to produce such plays are comprised of new drama school graduates desperate for unavailable employment. And despite their enthusiasm, it can often be clear that they are never going to make the grade in the bear-pit that is the world of theatre.

Others do have talent and promise, and they are prepared to work without pay. The Actors' Equity minimum wage is a fantasy dream.

But there is a kind of tragedy in noting that there could be no such hopeless ventures in the dreadful year of 2020. Not even the most steadfastly solid of our theatre artists, or indeed our acclaimed stars, were able to make a living in the plague year. And their audiences, the people for whom theatre forms a regular part of life, sat at home, occasionally opening laptops to watch valiant efforts and trying to convince themselves that this was terrific theatre.

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Willie White

Willie White

Willie White

It never was.

Theatre is a collaborative art: the audience is the fourth wall, and a necessary component to complete the "building", whether that building is a woodland promenade, a castle yard or a basement kitchen. And as anybody who cares about theatre or any other art form knows, it is not part of the social services which various pen-pushing administrators seem to think it is.

That said, courtesy of the determined Lynne Parker of Rough Magic, I sat in a theatre in August, shortly after the first easing of restrictions, when a socially distanced and closely monitored, tiny audience was permitted into Kilkenny's Watergate Theatre to watch the superb Stanley Townsend doing what he does best: tearing the hearts out of an audience in Mike McCormack's Solar Bones, adapted by Michael West, and directed by Parker. (It later became available online.)

The online achievement of the year went to the Abbey with its imaginative and employment-producing Dear Ireland series. It commissioned 50 short plays from 50 writers, most of them well-known, and streamed them over three nights, each played by a single, different actor. The broad theme was Covid, and while some of them were predictable, there were some extraordinary pieces among them, with more than a few extraordinary performances.

But our National Theatre, unfortunately, turned their dazzling effort into a well-flogged dead horse, by inviting the public to write letters to the theatre beginning "Dear Ireland", some of which were then streamed, read by actors. This was (and still is) veering towards the arts as social service genre.

The Abbey also put a new version of Lisa Tierney-Keogh's sharply contemporary This Beautiful Village online from August to November, directed by David Horan, and ended the year with the much-publicised outdoor spectacle in collaboration with the GAA, Fourteen Voices from the Bloodied Field, streamed from Croke Park the day before the hundredth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. (The 14 men pulled from their beds and shot on the orders of Michael Collins, which provoked the Croke Park outrage, were not dealt with.)

The Gate, to my mind, gave up the ghost, closing its doors in March and announcing it would not re-open until next year. That sits awkwardly with its mission statement to "fulfil our social and cultural purpose as an international home for Irish artists, and an Irish home for international artists". The reason given was that the theatre is 65pc dependent on box office, with its Arts Council funding only providing 25pc. But whatever the percentage, it's still almost €1m of taxpayers' money annually.

In contrast, the second lockdown was imposed as the Dublin Theatre Festival got under way. Artistic director Willie White managed to salvage three productions at two days' notice, moving them online - and in the case of The Great Hunger in the grounds of IMMA, re-configuring it entirely. And he didn't even complain.

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One of the productions was Fishamble's Embargo, with the company's valiant artistic director Jim Culleton announcing publicly on the fateful September 18, "we will reach our audiences one way or another".

It's the spirit that we can only hope will travel into a better 2021.


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