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Adaptations are fine, but is the new Irish play an endangered species?


Energy: Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre brought Tristan & Yseult to Galway

Energy: Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre brought Tristan & Yseult to Galway

Photo by Richard Termine

Energy: Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre brought Tristan & Yseult to Galway

The status of the playwright has become substantially downgraded in Irish theatre of late and the concept of a new play as a national event has all but disappeared. Like most gradual changes in modes of entertainment, it has many roots. A major problem has been the under functioning of the Peacock over the past couple of decades. It was the greatest weakness of Fiach Mac Conghail's tenure at the helm of the Abbey. There were well-publicised problems with funding the smaller space during this time, but an Abbey without this "engine room" is surely a National Theatre with a limb missing. The under-active Peacock severely interfered with the grooming of new talent, and was a major cause of the entrenchment of Irish theatre's gender imbalance during the past two decades.

New Abbey directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray were appointed to bring a fresh wind into the building. They have done this with their free previews and their hosting of, and co-producing with, the wider Irish theatre community. Their strengths include the ability to create site-specific and touring works, to inject vibrancy and energy into productions, and to bring a national theatre to the people. These were distinctive aspects of their previous institutional affiliation, the National Theatre of Scotland.

McLaren's directing style follows the current British vogue of creating spectacle productions, a style typified by star director Emma Rice's Tristan & Yseult for Kneehigh in Cornwall, a production which came here last year as part of the Galway International Arts Festival. The kind of show becomes a song-and-dance act, complete with some acrobatics or puppetry, and audience involvement. The ideas and visuals are often more important than the verbal script.

It is a highly enjoyable mode of theatrical production, with plenty of novelty. But novelty wears thin and the problem with importing this style of razzmatazz theatre into Ireland is that we do not have a large enough industry to accommodate it along with other more native literary forms. When you plant a rhododendron bush in a small garden, it is pretty and dramatic with its eye-catching blossoms - but it can overpower native shrubbery. In the UK they can absorb all sorts of trends, while maintaining diversity across forms; that is less certain here.

The new Abbey management has not appointed a literary director, though there are two people listed on the staff with responsibility for "new work". The language here is significant as changing language is a way of manipulating power structures. You are no longer a playwright writing a play, with the status that used to adhere to this job. You are a 'theatre-maker' creating new 'work', among other theatre-makers. In this unflagged war on the status of the playwright, writers are quietly fighting back by simply directing their own plays: Conor McPherson, Mark O'Rowe and Enda Walsh all now direct their own writing.

This collapse of faith in writing and in the idea of a new play has led us to a heap of 'new work' which is adapted from other forms. Recently and upcoming, we have had and will continue to have a host of novels, films and new versions of old plays. Upcoming shows in 2018 include Roddy Doyle's novel The Snapper at the Gate and Louise O'Neill's novel Asking For It at Cork's Everyman and the Abbey. The big new work on the Abbey mainstage, The Unmanageable Sisters by Deirdre Kinahan, is a version of a Canadian play by Michel Tremblay. All potentially interesting, and welcome in their variety. But is the original play getting choked out? There will be a début, Porcelain by Margaret Perry, in February, and a new play from Phillip McMahon, Come On Home, in July, both in the Peacock. So there are some original plays, but they are no longer front and centre in the programming.

The Abbey dominates this argument as it is the major recipient of Arts Council theatre funds, at €7m for 2018, and thus carries the greatest responsibility for legacy. Other important producers in the new-play game include Fishamble: The New Play Company, which on scant resources manages to create substantial energy around new writing. Landmark Productions, using a flexible project-oriented funding model, also make highly courageous forays into new writing, cleverly attracting star cast members - a vital element bringing the oxygen of publicity to new, untested writing. But if Irish theatre is going to become more dependent on the independent sector to take new writing seriously, the money will have to be more evenly spread around.

When Lady Gregory and WB Yeats founded the Irish Literary Theatre (the precursor to the Abbey) in 1899, their declared aim was to show that Ireland "was not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism". This was a barb at the lively, sentimental song-and-dance acts embodied by the likes of Dion Boucicault, and not dissimilar to the current vogue for spectacle theatre. But, if you wish to represent the "home of an ancient idealism", can this be done without specifically grooming and empowering writers?

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