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Love/Hate is your best defence against decadence in the theatre

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From screen to stage Stuart Carolan's first play is receiving an overdue revival.

From screen to stage Stuart Carolan's first play is receiving an overdue revival.

From screen to stage Stuart Carolan's first play is receiving an overdue revival.

Since the arrival of television, Irish theatre has been in seemingly permanent decline. Every few years, there's a crisis at the Abbey, a crisis of touring, a crisis at the Arts Council.

The problem is global: theatre is a dying art form. TV and film beat it for action. Comedy beats it for intimacy. Social gaming beats it for participation. Or so the indictments go.

The solution? More public funding. Or better-targeted public funding. Or private funding. Or video trailers for plays. Or social media marketing. Or outreach programmes. Or... Who knows?

Recent Irish theatre suggests a counter-intuitive strategy: perhaps the saviour of the theatre might be the television. Video killed the radio star, but it may yet be the making of the theatre.

One million people watched the last episode of the last series of Love/Hate. As theatre director Andrew Flynn says, if you could get just 1pc of that to come to the theatre, you'd have a hit show.

Flynn is one of a number of smart producers tapping the Love/Hate vein. In October, he brings a revival of the first play by Love/Hate creator Stuart Carolan, Defender of the Faith, on tour.

In November, Love/Hate star Tom Vaughan-Lawlor reprises his award-winning performance in Mark O'Rowe's Howie the Rookie, which comes to the Olympia after a sell-out run at the Project last year. And currently running at the Gaiety in Dublin is Borstal Boy, starring Love/Hate's Fran, Peter Coonan, as the young Brendan Behan, alongside Gary Lydon.

None of these plays are mere celebrity casting. Love/Hate has real strength in depth: each of these productions could have been staged and critically acclaimed without the Love/Hate cachet. The only thing missing would be the audience.

Love/Hate should have a trickle-down effect too. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor has brought a whole new audience to Mark O'Rowe's work: some of that audience should follow O'Rowe to the Abbey, where his new play, Our Few and Evil Days, is now in preview.

Factor in the success of the brothers Martin and John Michael McDonagh as writer-directors, with their penchant for using Irish actors and telling Irish stories, and you have a huge boon for Irish theatre: tv and cinema actively creating popular brands around Irish actors and writers.

Irish theatre, heavily reliant on subsidy, can be slow to pick up on market signals. But it's tough on tour: those that make their living on tour, such as Flynn and his company, Decadent Theatre, have to be particularly sharp to those signals.

Flynn has known Martin McDonagh since McDonagh's debut with Druid Theatre Company in the mid 1990s, and he has staged a number of McDonagh productions over the years. But McDonagh's success as a filmmaker has transformed the prospects of those productions. Last year, Flynn toured McDonagh's A Skull in Connemara. "From the acclaimed writer and director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths," proclaimed the poster. "We got the older generation who knew his plays and a younger generation who didn't know the plays at all but knew the films," says Flynn.

The show did an eight-week national tour, then got an invite to do a week at the Gaiety, and Flynn built a second, 11-week tour around that. At the Gaiety alone, it sold over 5,000 tickets (the equivalent of a sold-out three-week run at the Project Arts Centre - which is the scale of venue Decadent would normally play in).

Flynn now has the rights for the first Irish production of McDonagh's The Pillowman, which will tour next year.

Defender of the Faith is a taut thriller about an IRA tout, inspired in part by Carolan's earlier journalistic work on the issue of IRA disappearances. (Carolan was previously a producer on Eamon Dunphy's influential radio show on Today FM.)

This was one of the best Irish stage debuts I've seen; it will be intriguing to see how it stands up, 10 years on.

Venues are reporting interest from school groups. "There are 20,000 students in Galway - the trick is to get to that market," says Flynn. This is the perfect marriage of art and commerce: Flynn is trading on the celebrity power of the screen to bring new audiences to first-class work on the stage.

And the exploitation isn't simply one way: Carolan and McDonagh discovered themselves as writers on the Irish stage; much of the key acting talent they have used was similarly trained on the boards. It's a virtuous circle, and it requires both subsidy and smart marketing. Channel them both well, and the Love/Hate effect could continue for some time.

Indo Review