Sunday 19 November 2017

Their exits and their entrances: the new guard of Irish theatre

Stephen Brennan in The Man in Two Pieces
Stephen Brennan in The Man in Two Pieces

Maggie Armstrong

April is the cruellest month, wrote TS Eliot, and funnily enough, Ireland's new playwrights think so too. The earth is cruel but people are kind in two new plays in the capital this month, until 18 April - The Passengers (The New Theatre) and The Man in Two Pieces (Theatre Upstairs).

Remember the big snow of Christmas 2010? Polish Theatre Ireland's new and perhaps last play, The Passengers, is set in Dublin Airport that hoary season. Written by Rory O'Sullivan and Anna Wolf (with Fishamble's New Play Clinic), the passengers are Krzysztof, Anastazja and Grainne, living within "an ever-expanding modern existence wherein the compelling sense of self-loathing, guilt, hypocrisy and alienation pours forward".

That's cheerless. But the play is a triumph of virtual communication, made by a geographically scattered company. Polish Theatre Ireland formed six years ago but made this play from Berlin, London, Cumberland, Poland and Rome. "This show was borne out of this migration and this split, it's about transitions," says Anna Wolf, co-founder of Polish Theatre Ireland. "We wanted to catch those moments where we are in different spaces. We don't judge the quality of the communication. We all know that the quality on Skype is really bad. You can't really look in somebody's eyes, you can't touch somebody."

On stage, they mimic these circumstances, Skyping a friend and overhead announcements remind us just how like airports theatres can feel.

Anna Wolf grew up in Communist Poland in the 1980s in the city of Bydgoszcz. Bydgo-what? "It's a Ryanair destination," she reassures, her Polish accent lilting and sweet. She studied theatre at university in Poznan (forgotten Ireland's humiliating Euros defeat?) and wrote her thesis on the Irish playwright Marina Carr. "All Marina Carr's characters have an attachment to the ground, to place, but at the same time, they are wanderers."

Anna came here with the flocks of young Polish migrants in 2004 when Poland joined the EU. She was working in a bar in Kilkenny when she caught an Abbey tour of The Playboy of the Western World that wowed her. She set up the first Polish-Irish theatre company, performing edgy work in both languages. But the company looks to be splitting. "We don't want to finish, but probably this is going to be maybe our last project for now."

"The theatre industry in Ireland is in trouble, I'd say," Anna reflects. "All the low-budget productions, paradoxically, are the best productions, for example in Theatre Upstairs. They're short, snappy. Karl Shiels, he's just the big persona in Dublin theatre. The work he's doing in Theatre Upstairs is amazing. How he promotes talent."

Like that of debut playwright Gerard Adlum, who plays the boy in his own first play The Man in Two Pieces, with Stephen Brennan in Theatre Upstairs. Set during the Civil War, a vaudeville theatre troupe have halted in a small town. "It's possibly the most beautiful piece of writing we have had," says Karl Shiels. His cup runneth over with excitement. "It's slightly nostalgic, an intelligent, gorgeous piece of theatre. Fads can change, theatre can change, but people remain the same."

The actor from Dublin opened this boutique 44-seater some five years ago and its name says just what it is: the kids are putting on a play upstairs. It's above a family-run pub, Lanigan's on Eden Quay, right near The Abbey. "Lanigan's is the theatrical watering hole of Dublin", says Karl.

Theatre Upstairs stage only new writing; last year they had 23 world premieres. Twenty-three new plays! The problem with new plays is that scripts are shelved, says Karl, and offers this mini-rant: "There is not enough platform for new work. A playwright might put their play into a bigger house and might not see it for five years."

But is Irish theatre "in trouble"? "I totally disagree with that." Spring is here, he insists. "Theatre in Ireland keeps getting better every year. Look at the actors we have coming into Theatre Upstairs. Kate Gilmore, Rex Ryan, Ian Toner. Irish theatre is in a new rebirth."

Theatre Upstairs have new show times: Tuesday through to Saturday at 7.00pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 1.00pm.

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