Sunday 25 February 2018

Theatre: Revolution and a brand new dawn at the Abbey

New take on Beckett: Lisa Dwan's No's Knife will come to the Abbey in the new year
New take on Beckett: Lisa Dwan's No's Knife will come to the Abbey in the new year

Chris McCormack

What do you expect to see at your national theatre? Last week, details emerged of the Abbey's 2017 season, the first under its new directors, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren. The ­immediate impression is that this programme is unlike any other in recent memory.

As we take a breather from the familiar stock - revivals of plays by Bernard Shaw, Seán O'Casey and Shakespeare - we might question what a national theatre is and where does it come from?

In the early days of the French Revolution, members of King Louis XIV's royal theatre company - the Comédie-Française - risked their lives (and their pay cheques) to break away and form a new troupe. Armed with plays slating the monarchy, they took to the stage and called themselves the Théâtre de la Nation. These players, of course, were arrested. But when the revolution ended, the French government offered them the Comédie-Française back and their current playhouse on Rue de Richelieu in Paris. After taking a combative role in state affairs, the Comédie, like the Royal Dramaten in Sweden and the Burgtheater in Austria, began to be considered a national theatre.

For emerging states in the 19th century, however, it's a chicken-or-egg question. Which came first: the nation or the national theatre? Playwright Friedrich Schiller, writing in divided Germany at the end of the 18th century, reckoned it was the latter: "If we had a national stage, we would also become a nation".

But in countries controlled by foreign powers, theatre found a powerful new purpose forging national character. Norway's national theatre, Den National Scene, was founded during the country's difficult union with Sweden, and the Finnish National Theatre came into being while Finland was part of the Russian Empire. Here at home, theatre critic Frank Fay used his column in the United Irishman newspaper to campaign for an Irish national theatre "to see life through Irish eyes".

That was a rare sight at the turn of the 20th century, when most professional productions were by English touring companies turning the country into a colonial cartoon. With the opening of the Abbey in 1904, the differences between both nations became more explicit. Its repertoire of plays was mostly set in rural scenes (far from polluted English cities) and populated by virtuous peasants and heroic figures from Irish mythology.

Nowadays, however, nationalism can be a dubious brief for a national theatre, especially amid a migrant crisis and an unstable European Union. In fact, their remit can seem impossible. National theatres are expected to stay true to traditions while simultaneously representing a contemporary society. They are often found in large, inflexible spaces, operating an expensive repertory and subject to forensic criticism because of the large amount of funding they consume.

Murray and McLaren come to their new roles with an advantage. Previously, they were associates with the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), which successfully operates without a playhouse. Instead, energy is put into projects mounted in places across the country.

The directors' first Abbey season confronts some of the popular challenges facing national theatres. They have long been thought, for instance, to assemble audiences as if they could be some microcosm of the nation. This, of course, is impossible, considering the diversity of a population and questions of accessibility such as ticket prices and the theatre's location.

So Murray and McLaren, wisely, are looking to the independent sector, particularly from the west of Ireland. By presenting Druid's refreshing production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and the surreal double-bill of Enda Walsh's Arlington and Ballyturk co-produced by Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival, they are making theatre at the Abbey suddenly seem like a national effort.

Elsewhere, a revival of The Corn Exchange's 2004 work Dublin by Lamplight, a re-imagining of how the Abbey was founded, offers something of a symbolic arrival for the new directors.

Three international co-productions, meanwhile, show that their focus is intriguingly outward. With London's Old Vic Theatre, the Abbey presents No's Knife, an adaptation of Beckett's short stories by Lisa Dwan. A new stage version of Emma Donoghue's bestselling novel Room receives a co-production with Theatre Royal Stratford and NTS. Finally, John Ajvide Lindqvist's indestructible vampire fantasy Let the Right One In will be staged next Christmas.

In fact, you have to go searching to find new work solely produced in-house. Roddy Doyle adapts his Two Pints routine from Facebook for a tour of pubs throughout the country. An adaptation of Paul Laverty's screenplay Jimmy's Hall about the activist Jimmy Gralton will be directed by McLaren, and will première in Gralton's home county of Leitrim.

McLaren's most ambitious start as director, however, is a staging of James Joyce's monstrous novel Ulysses, adapted by Dermot Bolger. But the greatest gem in this programme could well be the long-awaited revival of Teresa Deevy's 1936 play Katie Roche, an almost mythical portrayal of patriarchy written the same year as the Irish Constitution. This may well trigger a wider revival of the forgotten playwright.

Does any of this satisfy the near-impossible expectations set when the Théâtre de la Nation took to the stage in 1789? Suddenly adaptable, eagerly mobile, and impressively worldly - the Abbey certainly stands a chance.

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