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The joker will come into their own when this is over

When the Puritans left the stage, there was a period of theatrical effervescence - and when Covid-19s departs, we can expect a golden era of comedy, writes Katy Hayes

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Social comedy: This Beautiful Village won best new play last year at the Irish Theatre Awards. Photo by Pat Redmond

Social comedy: This Beautiful Village won best new play last year at the Irish Theatre Awards. Photo by Pat Redmond

Social comedy: This Beautiful Village won best new play last year at the Irish Theatre Awards. Photo by Pat Redmond

My poor wristwatch sits forlorn in its nook on the kitchen shelf. I only wear it when going out to the theatre or cinema, so I can keep an eye on the time without rousing my phone. It has gathered six weeks of dust. It is longing for an outing. The absence of theatre in my life is beginning to be painful. I watch various plays online, and that is okay; but I ardently desire to be back in a crowded auditorium. I will never complain about the sweet-paper rustlers again, or the smell of a sweaty patron beside me on a hot July night.

In 1642, the Puritan-dominated English parliament ordered the closure of the London theatres, seeing them as a seat of vice and corruption, and as haunts of "lascivious Mirth and Levity". Actors were subjected to persecution. A single offence merited a whipping, a subsequent infringement had the actor declared a rogue and vagabond. It would be 18 dark years before the restoration of Charles II to the English throne and the ensuing period of theatrical effervescence, a style of work that became known as Restoration Comedy. After the long theatrical drought, the theatre developed a mode almost totally dedicated to having a laugh, with plenty of topical satire. The first professional female actors emerged, as did the first professional female playwright, Aphra Behn.

So what will arise from the darkness caused by Covid-19? My money is on the comedy writers emerging into a golden period. We'll all have had enough doom and gloom and be looking for fun. And there are a number of up-and-coming comedy writing talents poised to take advantage of this: Sonya Kelly's breakthrough play Furniture for Druid Theatre Company opened in Galway's tiny Mick Lally Theatre in 2018; it subsequently packed out a national tour on the strength of word-of-mouth. Kelly's style of aphoristic comedy has a Wildean feel and is a thorough crowd-pleaser, as well as having impressive intellectual agility. Last year saw Lisa Tierney-Keogh's social comedy This Beautiful Village debut on the Abbey main stage; it went on to win Best New Play in the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, and is scheduled for a national tour this June/July, lockdown permitting. Tierney-Keogh's mode is urban social comedy - influenced heavily by contemporary social satirists, writers like Yasmina Reza and Bernard Farrell. David Ireland's Ulster American last year continued his development of a Northern Irish Protestant humour, with his signature pitch-black mordancy and gleeful provocativeness. The writing team of Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney gave us The Alternative during last year's Dublin Theatre Festival, a hugely funny political satire on Brexit Britain and the state of Irish national identity - brought to the stage by Fishamble: the New Play Company.