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Lynne Parker: ‘Making Prospero a woman does change her role as a parent’

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Artistic director of Rough Magic Lynne Parker. Photo by Tom Griffin

Artistic director of Rough Magic Lynne Parker. Photo by Tom Griffin

Artistic director of Rough Magic Lynne Parker. Photo by Tom Griffin

“At this point, post-Covid, we are being told that people want escapism; they want all the things that were wanted after the Depression in America, the era of the great Hollywood musical. Bring us something that is life-affirming!” Lynne Parker is describing what she is hearing from venues concerning the current audience mood. “But the darkest of plays can actually fit that. What you have to do is surprise people,” she says.

Parker is the artistic director of Rough Magic, a company that started life as the enfant terrible of Irish theatre in the 1980s, formed by a talented gang of Trinity graduates. It has changed plenty, developed an effective training strand and maintained its presence at the creative forefront, regularly winning awards. Parker describes Rough Magic’s output as “very diverse, but we do have a common style based on wit and humour; no matter how dark, how profound the piece, there is an inherent comedy to the human condition. We are unashamedly a text-centred company.”

The company has done several Shakespeare plays during the Kilkenny Arts Festival in the past few years, so its new production of The Tempest is fairly on-brand. What has Shakespeare to say to an Irish audience today? “Shakespeare says to Ireland what he says to the world,” she says. “He has great insight into the human condition. This play has frequently been viewed as a study of colonialism.”

Rough Magic previously produced The Tempest in the 1980s and took the colonial approach. This time, they are looking at the play “from the point of view of ageing and letting go: coming to terms with your life and your career in the theatre — the whole process by which Prospero understands she has to regain certain things in order to give up other things”.

Parker uses the female pronoun to refer to Prospero, Shakespeare’s deposed ruler-turned-sorcerer, who is usually played by a man. Eleanor Methven plays the part here. “We’re not the first people to do this,” she says, mentioning Helen Mirren and others. “I wouldn’t do it with every play. We have in mind the kind of woman who was one of the early experimenters in natural science in the 18th century. The other reason is that Eleanor Methven is one of our great actresses and it’s appropriate to give her something that can really exercise her abilities.

“It does make the relationship with the daughter slightly different. We’ve taken out quite a bit of the stuff about chastity; to our ears, in any case, it has a rather deadening effect. The relationship between any mother and daughter, however affectionate, is based on a certain kind of power struggle. There is a resistance but also an admiration from Miranda for her mother’s intellectual reach. She’s been brought up on an island where you don’t have to be polite to people. You’re not sitting around in a court. You shoot from the hip. Miranda is her mother’s daughter.”

Parker welcomed the changes in Irish theatre following the #wakingthefeminists movement, which pushed for more equality in gender representation on Irish stages, though she says vigilance is still required. Rough Magic always had a better record on gender than most. “It’s all about excellence and there is no way you can achieve excellence if you are keeping half the voices of society out of the conversation.”

If Parker could work magic, Prospero-style, what strategic intervention does she think Irish theatre would most benefit from? “What we desperately need are more producers.” Rough Magic has groomed a number on its Seeds Programme, a training initiative for emerging theatre professionals. “‘Make it happen’ is what producers say to each other all the time,” she quips of producers’ particular brand of magic.

We are talking on Zoom during lunchtime as the show is in its last days of rehearsal and all the outdoor technical matters are being finalised. Their island setting is in the mid-Atlantic. “It might bear a resemblance to Skellig Michael, or to Iceland.” The actors will be amplified, their voices mixed in with the island noises and “the crackle of electricity you hear before a storm. The music and the sound will come from all around the island, from all the technological wizardry that Denis [Clohessy, sound designer] can come up with, and that is married to the wizardry and sorcery of Prospero.”

Kilkenny Arts Festival runs until August 14. Tickets for ‘The Tempest’ by Rough Magic are available for August 8-13. See kilkennyarts.ie for more details

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