Friday 22 March 2019

High and low balls across stage nets

Emer O'Kelly looks at the past year with a variety of productions treading the boards some good

The Red Shoes is a rare original commission at the Gate
The Red Shoes is a rare original commission at the Gate

Emer O'Kelly

The Gate Theatre had a seismic change in 2017, artistic director Michael Colgan retiring after 33 years at the helm. Many theatre goers had been inclined to accept his own view that longevity was proof of quality and standards. But in theatre, as in all the arts, progress is essential; so is insecurity, unfortunately. And stasis rather than stimulation was evident at the Gate for a number of years.

2017 lived down to the numbing stasis by beginning the year with a lacklustre and tatty production of the cabaret show Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Things did improve with a short farewell season of previous Pinter and Friel successes, variable in quality but nonetheless welcome (The Dumb Waiter, in particular, stands out in my mind).

Then Selina Cartmell arrived at the Gate, to join the comparatively new artistic directorship of Graham McLaren and Neil Murray at the Abbey, giving interesting external domination of Irish theatre from the UK. Cartmell, although resident here for a number of years, is English, while McLaren and Murray are Scots.

The latter's first complete year has been an interesting, if uneven, amalgam. Their decision to open the Abbey stage to revivals by independent companies of proven Irish successes ensured full houses for their short runs. And certainly productions such as Corn Exchange's Dublin by Lamplight and Landmark and GIAF's re-staging of Enda Walsh's Ballyturk well deserved their outings. Other co-productions were less successful, and seemed to show a curiously limited view of the vision and capabilities of a national theatre.

McLaren and Murray had arrived from the nascent Scottish National Theatre, itself a political spin-off from Scottish devolution. They had no experience of either literary or building-based theatre.

Murray said recently in an interview "I think we have been a great opportunity for artists", a rather self-congratulatory remark which may indicate a level of self-satisfaction which is a little alarming, and a worrying indicator of their interpretation of "national."

Co-production can be energising, and certainly a national theatre by definition must be international, but the positioning on the ladder is important.

And to stage the premiere of the agitprop historical docu-drama Jimmy's Hall in a community school in Carrick-on-Shannon and hail this as an exciting development seems a little over-inflated. It was the story of the only Irishman ever deported from his country, Jimmy Gralton, in 1933, ostensibly for the running of a godless dancehall, but effectively because he was a revolutionary socialist attempting to imbue the local community with similar ideas. It had an oddly dated air, like something that might have been staged in the 1970s by the political theatre 7:84 in Scotland.

And the co-production with Stratford East of a stage version of Emma Donoghue's novel and subsequent film Room also seemed to be ticking the politically required boxes of niche drama, with the young mother and son cast as black, while the tormentor rapist was white... and the woman's parents were played by white actors. Colour blindness is admirable, but still...

More seriously, it all seems to create a sense that the Abbey's directorate sees itself only at the second level internationally. Because if looking across the water for partnerships, it should be at the level of the Royal National and the RSC.

Equally, not all imports are necessarily deserving: undoubtedly the most disappointing production of the year (partly due to the hysterical promotion involved) was also on the Abbey stage. That was Lisa Dwan's re-staging of her Old Vic performance of Beckett's No's Knife (originally directed by Joe Murphy). Over-inflated and emotionally arid, it was salvaged only by Christopher Oram's superb set.

Selina Cartmell, on the other hand, seems not to have heard of kicking for touch. Her opening production was a graceful nod to the Gate's traditional audience (glamour, frocks, and to hell with substance). It more or less beat that audience at its own game and played to packed (frequently non-theatrical) audiences. But her second production was a much greater indicator of where she hopes to bring the theatre. Nina Raines' Tribes was a serious, thoughtful and stimulating play, issue-based (deafness) and with a hard contemporary edge.

That was followed by something almost unheard of at the Gate: an original commission. Currently still running, it came from not merely an Irish playwright, but a woman, and brought an Irish talent back home. Nancy Harris is based in London, and her take on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Red Shoes also supplied a kick to conventional views of the genre.

So there should be interesting times ahead in 2018, although financially straitened ones, with funding for all of the arts just (disgracefully) announced at €68m, with €7m of that going to the Abbey.

This is at a time of "national recovery" and of government statements and prating about the centrality of the arts to our national perspective. Ten years ago it was €82m, and even that was trailing behind almost every other European country.

Words are cheap, and of course, the word "arts" no longer features in the title of a government department.

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