Tuesday 22 January 2019

Emer O'Kelly: Little original work on the stage in 2018

It was a year of 'mental health' and novel adaptations, writes Emer O'Kelly

Ian Toner starred in Double Cross
Ian Toner starred in Double Cross
Ruth Negga was Hamlet
Aaron Monaghan as Richard III

I attended well in excess of 100 productions in the theatrical year that's about to end. And, as usual, the standard varied greatly, from self-regarding pretension or cheapskate production values up to heroic levels of competence against huge odds.

There were an awful lot of pieces (one could hardly call them plays) about mental health/personal "celebration", most of which in my critical opinion, did not deserve stage space. But they are fashionable, as exemplified by pieces like Infinity, an examination of suicidal ideation, which won awards in the Dublin Fringe Festival. Given society's current pre-occupation with describing every minor bump in life's road as devastating to "mental health", it was well received. But it was only one of several through the year.

For a wry, sad, and funny take on suicide, on the other hand, it would be hard to beat Eoin Colfer's My Real Life, written originally for the Wexford Arts Centre, which was revived at the Viking Theatre in Dublin. It faced the issue without sentimentality and presented its devastated reality in a truly masterful performance from Don Wycherley as the MS sufferer determined to take control of his own destiny while he still can. It was a sobering joy to watch.

Death was also the topic of the staging of Paul Muldoon's epic poem Incantata, produced by the Galway Arts Festival and Jen Coppinger. An elegy for the poet's long-time lover, artist Mary Farl Powers who died of cancer in 1992, it featured a devastatingly intense performance from Stanley Townsend, approaching at times an insanity of regret and recollection. And it was chillingly visualised in a brutally real studio setting by the director Sam Yates.

Ruth Negga was Hamlet
Ruth Negga was Hamlet

At Cork Midsummer Festival, another of today's consuming topics came under scrutiny with a stage adaptation of Louise O'Neill's novel Asking For It. Again, the adaptation (by director Annabelle Comyn and Maedbh McHugh) dealt with the subject of rape searingly but realistically. The central character is a thoroughly unpleasant 18-year-old schoolgirl, manipulative and predatory, as well as brash and close to promiscuous. And in the play's scenario she is gang-raped, with the rape being posted online. The Landmark and Everyman production featured two fine performances - from Lauren Coe as the girl, and Frank McCusker as her shattered father.

Given the topicality of the subject, it was not surprising that the Abbey jumped at the chance of a transfer, and it played there to full houses in November. Although of course, it was not an in-house production for our national theatre - a topic of which more next week.

Galway Arts Festival and Landmark were also co-producers with a number of UK companies for Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, adapted and directed by Enda Walsh from Max Porter's novel. Its subtleties and depiction of mental anguish in an almost mundane situation (the death of a loved wife) was a perfect role for Cillian Murphy, and was extraordinarily brought to haunting life by Jamie Vartan's wickedly clever design.

Comedy was the big score on the theatrical side of the largely musical Kilkenny Arts Festival, with Rough Magic's gloriously outrageous take on A Midsummer Night's Dream in the yard of Kilkenny Castle, where director Lynn Parker cocked snooks at everything in sight with the support of a supremely talented and almost acrobatic cast.

The Dublin Theatre Festival had the transfer to the Abbey of Druid's raging and hugely impressive Richard III, with Aaron Monaghan and Jane Brennan, while star appeal was more than well rewarded with Brendan Coyle's gloriously understated performance at Smock Alley in Conor McPherson's wickedly funny vampire play St Nicholas.

The Gate kept a low (and profitable) profile for the year, presumably a deliberate ploy by director Selina Cartmell to establish the theatre's finances on a sound basis.

Aaron Monaghan as Richard III
Aaron Monaghan as Richard III

A long run of Roddy Doyle's hugely light-hearted and funny adaptation of his own novel The Snapper proved a box-office bonanza right through the summer; and the theatre has segued smoothly (following its Hamlet with Ruth Negga) into a revival of its "immersive" production of The Great Gatsby.

Delightful, charming, and elegantly spectacular, it's booked out well into the new year, and deserves its success, even though as yet another novel adaptation, it doesn't exactly provide too many of Scott Fitzgerald's original insights.

Two revivals at the Abbey were notable as serious pieces of theatre in the literary genre for which the theatre was founded. One was a compelling production of Marina Carr's On Raftery's Hill. A journey into sordid nightmare, it was intensely directed by Caitriona McLaughlin, with stunning performances from Lorcan Cranitch and Maeve Fitzgerald as a father and daughter living in self-imposed degradation and horror.

The other was another import: the Lyric production of Double Cross at the Peacock, Thomas Kilroy's almost glittering examination of the psychosis of nationalism and the Irish pre-occupation with a mythical sense of national consciousness against the backgrounds of two men who rejected Ireland (Brendan Bracken, Churchill's wartime Minister for Information, and William Joyce, Lord Haw Haw.) It was what theatre should be about, and all too often is not: intriguing, stimulating and entertaining.

It also was, of course, an original drama, unlike so many of the year's successes. Theatre seems increasingly to be looking to the novel for its inspiration, something which has produced good work, but is hardly sustainable indefinitely.

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