Theatre in 2018: A year of novels and operas - but no big new national drama
For the first time in living memory there were actually a goodly number of plays written by women on the Irish stage, a clear pay-off from #WakingTheFeminists. A significant number of them dealt with rape or sexual abuse, including the adaptation of Louise O'Neill's novel Asking for It at Cork's Everyman and Dublin's Abbey Theatre, Deirdre Kinahan's new play Rathmines Road at the Peacock, the revival of Marina Carr's On Raftery's Hill at the Abbey, and the Brokentalkers/Mary Coughlan collaboration Woman Undone at the Project Arts Centre. If the women playwrights of Ireland had something to say in 2018, it seemed they wanted to make a loud protest against sexual assault.
It was also a year when the past was very immediately present. Annabelle Comyn's innovatively directed Look Back in Anger by John Osborne at The Gate brought the 1960s to life, while Deirdre Kinahan's adaptation of Canadian Michel Tremblay's play The Unmanageable Sisters proved a hit on the Abbey stage, complete with its 1970s costumes and debate. Roddy Doyle's adaptation for The Gate of his 28-year-old novel The Snapper was very 1980s. These works were not engaging with the contemporary world; rather they were determined to look back, not so much in anger, but in nostalgia.
A significant new kid on the block was the Irish National Opera. It gave us a delightful outing of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro as its inaugural production in Wexford and Dublin. There was also a super dance-inflected production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice in Galway, Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle in the Gaiety and Verdi's Aida in the Bord Gáis Theatre, with a gallery of Irish and international stars. Let there be no more complaining from the opera crowd that we don't have any home-grown full-scale opera.
A highlight of the year for me was Martin McDonagh's A Very Very Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre in London. This play divided critics, but McDonagh is one of the few writers who can open a new play in a 900-seater London venue.
Leaving aside the McDonagh play, the best new Irish drama last year was Furniture by Sonya Kelly presented by Druid at the Galway International Arts Festival; original, whip-smart, and containing some of the funniest commentary on aesthetics and romance since Oscar Wilde. Gina Moxley's post-dramatic mash-up, The Patient Gloria, at the Peacock was also highly memorable. John O'Donovan's rooftop set two-hander, If We Got Some More Cocaine, I Could Show You How I Love You, at the Project Arts Centre, demonstrated a fine theatrical skill.
Phillip McMahon, known for his engagement with cabaret, music and general hip experiment, went for a more traditional play with Come on Home at the Peacock. Was he just showing he could do it, write a Tom Murphy-esque drama? Or was this a fundamental departure in style, and hence a barometer indicating a swing towards the more traditional shape of a well-made play? Intriguing to see Murphy's influence in a much younger writer soon after the veteran playwright's death in May.
There were several adaptations of novels: Roddy Doyle's The Snapper packed out the Gate; Louise O'Neill's Asking for It was booked out months in advance. Enda Walsh's adaptation of Max Porter's hit experimental novella Grief is the Thing with Feathers found an eager audience in Galway and Dublin. It seems the wisdom of sticking a hit novel on stage, with an established pre-publicity factor, is providing comfort to producers everywhere.
So while the new work was entertaining, there was no big production of an original new play. It is questionable whether we can still have a big national play: the constituency is too divided. Critical support gets behind the experimental and innovative, work that may find a committed audience, though it be small. Are the theatres too stung by recent poor box-office from original plays? Or is the big national play no longer being written?