Friday 24 January 2020

Theatre in 2019: A year of upheaval and high-profile productions

Aislín McGuckin excelled playing the title role of Hecuba in a Rough Magic production for the Dublin Theatre Festival
Aislín McGuckin excelled playing the title role of Hecuba in a Rough Magic production for the Dublin Theatre Festival
An immeesible 3D experience, The Big Chapel X was a real highlight at this year's Kilkenny Arts Festival
David Ireland caused a stir with his somewhat divisive show Ulster America, which tackled themes on the #MeToo movement

Katy Hayes

The theatrical year kicked off on a confrontational note: over 300 writers, actors, and directors published an open letter in January to Josepha Madigan, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, complaining about the direction being taken by the Abbey Theatre, and lamenting the lack of employment opportunities for Ireland based artists. The flak was flying for a while. A civil war erupted amongst thespians. Some felt the Abbey's new direction was a breath of fresh air, others felt the terms and conditions of the industry were being fatally undermined. The controversy trundled on throughout the year, with meetings and committee hearings. One outcome is certain: Irish artists are now much more in evidence on the Abbey stage.

A striking and positive feature of the past year has been the increased number of new plays that got high-profile productions on main stages and as centre pieces in festivals. The playwrights this year were in the mood to throw a few well aimed socio-political punches, a satisfying development in our often rather domestic and family-oriented national canon.

The best new play, in a highly competitive year, was The Alternative, by Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney presented by Fishamble, the New Play Company in the Dublin Theatre Festival. It was a head-on tackle of Brexit and the whole basis of both Irish and British nationalism. Playwright Lisa Tierney-Keogh made her Abbey main-stage debut with This Beautiful Village. It dealt with the impact some sexist graffiti has on a bunch of Dublin suburbanites. Tierney-Keogh speaks a zeitgeisty new language of woke-awareness and has her finger directly on the contemporary pulse. David Ireland's new play Ulster American, which came to the Abbey in a production from the Traverse in Edinburgh, was a pugnacious take-down of the hypocritical pieties surrounding responses to the #MeToo movement. This was a divisive show, provoking arguments and occasional walk-outs at its challenging jokes, and sparked plenty of critical jousting.

David Ireland caused a stir with his somewhat divisive show Ulster America, which tackled themes on the #MeToo movement

Another fascinating new play was Nancy Harris's The Beacon in a Gate/Druid co-production; it's a drama about the impact of ruthless artistic discipline on family life. Epiphany by Brian Watkins, Druid's offering for the Galway International Arts Festival, was an intriguing response to James Joyce's great short story, The Dead. Elizabeth Moynihan's Quicksand at The New Theatre was a memorable portrayal of the impact of a child with autism on a mother.

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There was a number of striking revivals of classics; the Marina Carr version of Euripides's Hecuba presented by Rough Magic as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival was one of the best, with its complex nitty gritty of sexual politics, and two top-notch performances from Aislín McGuckin and Brian Doherty. Colm Toibín's new adaptation of Sophocles's Antigone, Pale Sister, made for an interesting reorientation of that narrative, by focusing on the less heroic, by-standing sister - it felt like a millennialist call to arms. Lyric in Belfast gave us a glossy and glamorous production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, its rich design of set by Ciaran Bagnall and costume by Enda Kenny still vivid in the mind.

Both the Gate and the Abbey put revivals of 2018 shows, The Snapper and The Unmanageable Sisters, on their main stages for the summer season. A disappointing move. If the shows are money-makers, let them go off to the Gaiety or the Olympia to wash their own faces. The subsidised theatres should always be making new work to advance the industry's skills, push forward and innovate, innovate, innovate. The theatre industry, like the best artists, must be always restless and challenging itself. Complacency is always the enemy.

As part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival, The Big Chapel X, a staging of Tom Kilroy's Booker-nominated novel, was mounted in the town of Callan where the book is set. The adaptation tapped in to the energy of contemporary teenage dystopian fiction, dramatising a conflict between two opposing ideologies. There was something of the virtual reality video-game in 3D about the experience, as the audience followed the players around the town, one villain swooping along the streets on a LED-lit hover-board. It was a highlight of the Kilkenny festival and of the year.

Michael Keegan-Dolan's company Teach Damhsa, produced the delightful Mám, full of idiosyncratic spiky choreography, amped up with a rousing trad-inflected score; it was a hit of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Dublin Dance Festival presented Session, an innovative show featuring traditional Irish dancer Colin Dunne harmonising and contrasting with the free-form modern style of Flemish Moroccan choreographer/dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Both shows broke new ground and were technically stunning.

Waterford's Red Kettle Theatre Company had a quasi-revival of sorts, as former stalwarts gathered to present The Red Iron, a new play by Jim Nolan. This was a muscular, classic-style talky play, with a strong regional pull. It was a reminder of how enjoyable high-quality regional new-writing can be, where local people get to see a version of their own lives made heroic and anti-heroic on stage, and visitors get to peep through the theatrical keyhole. It booked out its Garter Lane run.

Irish National Opera entered its second year of operation with another full slate, ending the year with a crowd-pleasing lovely production of Rossini's Cinderella/LaCenerentola, featuring the golden-voiced Tara Erraught. Highlights of opera this year include the Tom Creed/Abbey Theatre co-production of The Hunger by composer Donnacha Dennehy. It's use of documentary-style talking heads on screens, and entwinement of contemporary opera singing by Katherine Manley and traditional sean-nós singing from Iarla Ó Lionáird, gave a formal hybridity to its simple but memorable narrative arc of hunger and song.

Pan Pan Theatre presented Samuel Beckett's Endgame at the Project Arts Centre in December, featuring Des Keogh and Rosaleen Linehan in the dustbins. It was an orthodox production, unusual for this company who generally present off-kilter deconstructions of classic works, but it delivered Beckett's touching experimental play with detailed finesse. "Finished, it's finished, it must be nearly finished," says Clov the servant, played with poignant put-upon weariness by Antony Morris. There was no curtain call. And with that, the theatrical year came to a close.

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