It is difficult for theatre lovers to contemplate the future. With the challenges to audience capacity posed by social distancing, the problems faced by producers in making detailed plans with the threat of a second wave of infection once winter hits, and the theatre box office having been silent for months, it is hard to be optimistic.
Joseph Haj, artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis (Irish director Joe Dowling's successor in the post, first held by Irishman Tyrone Guthrie) recently addressed the fears of the theatre community from his Covid-shuttered venue. Haj made reference to the enduring remains of the Theatre of Dionysus on the southern slopes of the Acropolis. This was where the plays of Aeschylus, of Euripides, of Sophocles et al were staged in the 5th century BC: "What we do on our stages today is exactly what was done 2,500 years ago." In this way, Haj signalled the enduring power of the theatrical form and encourages us to believe our current difficulties are just a temporary blip in the sprawling annals of time.
The dramatists of classical Greece have been providing comfort and inspiration to the Irish theatre since the Revival. William Butler Yeats wrote versions of Sophocles' King Oedipus (1926) and Oedipus at Colonus (1927) for the Abbey, presenting idiomatic versions that were easily intelligible to a general Irish audience. His was the first great harnessing of the epic ambitions of Greek theatre to the Irish national narrative.
Many others have followed. Northern Irish writers have used these Greek plays as a method of casting shade and light on the Troubles. Seamus Heaney created The Cure at Troy (1990), a version of Sophocles' Philoctetes that drew parallels between the Greek story and the traumatic contexts of Northern Ireland - hunger strikers and police widows are both referenced. Heaney's version of Antigone, The Burial at Thebes (2004), was produced in a post-conflict Ireland; its story, that of a woman (played by Ruth Negga in the Abbey production) wishing to bury her brother being thwarted by an implacable state, spoke clearly to the conflict-resolution process.
One of this year's major shows, The Boy by Marina Carr, a two-part riff on the Oedipus cycle, has been postponed until Dublin Theatre Festival 2021. Carr's imagination has been repeatedly fired by classical Greece. Her provocative version of Euripides' Hecuba, produced by Rough Magic, was a highlight of last autumn's Dublin Theatre Festival. Many of her other plays can be read as loose adaptations of Greek sources: By the Bog of Cats (1998) has a child-slaying mother like Medea; Ariel (2002) deals with a father killing his daughter, echoing the story of Agamemnon and Iphigenia. Carr underscores her ambitious contemporary family dramas with an epic Greek character.
Colm Tóibín's version of Sophocles' Antigone, Pale Sister, occupied the Gate stage last November, performed by Lisa Dwan, for whom it was written. It is a psychological study of a woman's jealousy of and admiration for her dominant sister. Carr's Hecuba also delves deeply into the anguished thought processes of her main character. These plays are deep psychological studies in the context of up-to-the-minute gender politics. The Gate also produced a version of Euripides' Medea just last February, by Australian writers Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks; this child-centred version has been a popular success around the world. That is three major Irish productions of Greek plays in the six months before the theatres closed.
Ireland and Greece occupy opposite sides of Europe. Our land is as rain-drenched as theirs is sun-kissed. Like the impressive archaeological remains on the southern slopes of the Acropolis, so too there are sturdy remains of the Greeks in all western drama, but the presence of these classics remains especially significant in Irish contemporary work. Well-built theatres, like skilfully constructed plays, have the capacity to last millennia.