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Theatre: Where the magic happens

Broad vision can help stage emerge from shadow of big screen


Anne Clarke

Anne Clarke

Anne Clarke

Cinema is the most popular art form in Ireland, with a bigger share of audience attendance than any other form. Not surprising, given its worldwide domination. It is also an entirely different art form from theatre, and offers an experience that can be almost visceral in its immediacy.

Theatre's magic lies in the fact that it is self-renewing, each performance depending on audience reaction with the audience becoming that frequently quoted 'fourth wall'.

Of course technology plays its part, as in cinema. It always has, right from the days of flickering candles along the edge of the stage, through the uncertain and harsh 'limelight', right up to the almost magical effects of large-scale Broadway productions. And it becomes easy nowadays to forget that in comparison with theatre, cinema technology is 'dead': it is completed by the time it reaches the audience, while in theatre it is happening in real time. That challenge can make or break a performance, with something as seemingly minor as a missed lighting cue wrecking a mood or climax.

Sometimes it seems that sophisticated technology could be a threat to the essence of theatre, as more and more of its professionals look to the cinema with which they have grown up, not just for inspiration, but for source material.

We are seeing versions of films more and more often on our stages; possibly it's in the hope of attracting a wide audience, who will recognise a title from the cinema and decide to 'give it a try', perhaps for the first time. The downside is that they are more than likely to be disappointed if they are expecting the standards of big (or even small) cinematic budgets and the wide range of locales and settings.

Cinema audiences have not been schooled into the traditional 'willing suspension of disbelief'. So nobody wins.

Most actors and many directors see their futures in film in an ideal world, and certainly it's where the money lies.

But cross-fertilisation is possible, and enterprising production companies are prepared to keep theatre's flame burning. In Ireland, we're lucky to have at least two that can take their place (and frequently do) on the international stage. They are Fishamble, directed by Jim Culleton, and Landmark, directed by Anne Clarke. Both of them have effectively been doing the work of a national theatre for many years. (Druid and Garry Hynes are in a different category, seeing their role specifically rooted in rural tradition, which they uphold superbly well.)

But Clarke and Culleton have a contemporary focus with an outlook that keeps well away from navel-gazing. And both have no doubts about the future of Irish theatre, if their productions and ambition are anything to go by.

Culleton is particularly optimistic despite the devastation of Covid which saw his company reworking Deirdre Kinahan's Embargo twice, the second time at two days' notice. He believes that there will always be an audience for stand-alone live theatre, just as there will always be a cohort of enthusiastic actors ready to serve it. This comes from a man who saw his company's co-production of Sebastian Barry's meltingly perfect On Blueberry Hill closed a much-heralded West End run after only three nights when London's theatres went dark. Other Fishamble productions, including Pat Kinevane's dark and disturbing one-man plays, are still on slow-burners, ready to slot into touring venues whenever there's even a short let-up in restrictions. As the company website proclaims, it will be there for its audience.

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Landmark suffered the devastation of an ambitious Theatre Festival project wiped out: six eminent playwrights, including Enda Walsh (with whom Clarke has a long association), were to present one-character short plays, each to an audience of one, staged in a black box in the lobby of the Abbey Theatre.

But the company, which also has a long-standing co-operative record with the Galway International Festival, is already working on a major musical for next July: Pat McCabe's novel Breakfast on Pluto (in co-operation also with the Donmar Warehouse and the Birmingham Rep), adapted by Bob Kelly with music by Duke Special. Also in the pipeline is a co-operation with ANU, a trilogy called The Book of Names, the first of which will be Pumphouse, scheduled for March next year, documenting the dock-workers' cell-like structure of support for Michael Collins during the War of Independence.

(Landmark was also responsible two years ago for the technology-heavy Grief is the Thing with Feathers, the Max Porter novel adapted by Enda Walsh and co-produced with UK companies Complicité and Wayward as well as GIAF. But Jamie Vartan's extraordinary visuals were integral to the dazzling piece rather than being a choice merely spawned by cinema.)

If Anne Clarke and Jim Culleton are people to go by, the (frankly dreary) shrinking of our theatrical viewing to the size of a lap-top screen is a short-term necessity from which Irish theatre will soon recover.

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