Sunday 23 September 2018

Questionable inheritances

While there have been a few gems in 2017 Irish ­theatreland, writes Chris McCormack, it has been a rough 12 months for some of the ­established players

Charlene McKenna who plays Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby at the Gate theatre. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Charlene McKenna who plays Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby at the Gate theatre. Photo: Gerry Mooney

At the beginning of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 film The Red Shoes, based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, a mob of students storm a theatre to see a new ballet. That should warm the heart of any critic. And while the young people queuing for the new free previews at the Abbey Theatre this year were patient by comparison, it still made for one of the greatest scenes at the national theatre this year.

But somewhat ironically, it was youthful cynicism, not optimism, which captured the overall tone of 2017. Dead Centre's new play, Hamnet, co-produced by the Abbey, found Shakespeare's 11-year-old son in limbo and searching for his famous father. Directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd's production was rivetingly suspicious of the dramatist, a man all-powerful and far-reaching. It resonated in a year when children's ears had to be shielded from US President Donald Trump.

Those questions of inheritance made for some of the year's best work. Emma O'Grady's What Good is Looking Well When You're Rotten on the Inside? was a beguiling memoir about her grandfather, a civil servant who wrote plays in secret. Malaprop's artfully splintered Dublin Fringe play about memory and myth, Everything Not Saved, uncovered the dancer Maria Rasputin, daughter of Grigori Rasputin, who had to stage her father's murder night after night. Decades of conflict and resolution were profoundly hidden within Owen McCafferty's play about post-conflict Northern Ireland, Fire Below (A War of Words), produced by the Lyric Theatre and the Abbey.

It was the decisions by long-time players that were often more difficult to understand. Conall Morrison's Woyzeck in Winter for Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival, folding together Georg Büchner's play and Franz Schubert's song cycle, was facile in the rare moments it was coherent. Druid revived Mark O'Rowe's Crestfall and Eugene McCabe's The King of the Castle, though few were in a hurry to revisit them. Rough Magic gave us Melt, Shane Mac an Bhaird's promising new play about exploration and male insecurity, a shotgun production that needed more development.

When a company as searching as Pan Pan couldn't find departure with The Good House of Happiness, a new version of Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan, you know it's been a rough year. What pushed the envelope instead was Fruits of Labour, Belgian artist Miet Warlop's spectacle at the Dublin Theatre Festival, a surreally musical work that miraculously gave shape to feelings of terror and loneliness in the modern word. Long may it inspire others.

As a theatre critic, you're bound to look in the wrong places some of the time. Corcadorca's production of Far Away by Caryl Churchill on Cork's Spike Island, Blue Raincoat's tackling of Samuel Beckett's short plays in an abandoned Sligo factory, and Bottom Dog's Limerick staging of Eric Bogosian's Drinking in America about masculinity and dependency were lauded, but sadly I missed them all.

Some satisfying moments I did see were ones where familiar artists broke new ground. The revelation in Junk Ensemble's Soldier Still, a thrilling dance collaboration with whistle-blower Tom Clonan, was seeing how movement could map the military's acts of violence. Caitríona Daly's Normal, an excellent new play about carers for people living with disability, was hard-fought to the end in the WeGetHighOnThis Collective's production. Andrew Synnott and Arthur O'Riordan's opera adaptation of Dubliners, directed thoughtfully by Annabelle Comyn for Opera Theatre Company and Wexford Festival Opera, was the closest I've been to James Joyce.

Of the number of productions preoccupied with acts of gender violence at the Galway International Arts Festival, Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh's The Second Violinist, an electrifying new opera for Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera, was the most nuanced. Set in the present but inspired by an Italian Renaissance composer who executed his wife, it followed a depressingly inward violinist (the fantastic Aaron Monaghan) through feelings of inadequacy and failure to a potentially horrific meeting in the woods. Think Little Red Riding Hood for the Tinder era.

Ultimately, nothing was quite as glorious as Alexander Wright's immersive theatre production of The Great Gatsby, a throwing open of the Gate Theatre by its new management. Even if you already knew the characters of F Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age novel to be morally bankrupt, you were still disarmed by their intimate requests of us to reserve judgment and keep secrets. When gathering the audience together for a reunion between old lovers - Charlene McKenna's jaded Daisy and Paul Mescall's tremendously hopeful Gatsby - it was intensely romantic.

In fact, the Gate seems the most seeking institution by the end of 2017, and possibly the most fighting. Gone are the staid costume dramas that previously dominated, replaced by a stylish contemporaneity that marked not only Gatsby but also Nina Raine's deaf drama Tribes - given an elegantly visual production by director Oonagh Murphy - and a dark spectacle based on Hans Christian Andersen for Christmas. Artistic director Selina Cartmell certainly seems determined to transform the theatre.

The Gate might yet rouse a mob to storm its doors for the latest play. The Red Shoes is currently playing, after all.

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