Thursday 26 April 2018

Is the stage now set for theatre to offer solace?

Fintan O'Toole has gathered an impressive team to explore the role art can play in Irish life, writes Darragh McManus

Art imitating life: Fintan O'Toole explores whether playwrights can capture the Ireland of 2011
Art imitating life: Fintan O'Toole explores whether playwrights can capture the Ireland of 2011

The whole question of art and society, it seems, gets pushed to one side during times of economic crisis. We can't afford culture, the argument goes, when that money needs to be spent on jobs and hospitals and education.

The counter-argument, though, insists that art is even more important when times are tough: it offers solace, helps us make sense of what's happening, and lets us see a higher, more rarefied plane of human existence, something soaring above the worries of economics and politics.

Fintan O'Toole: Power Plays, the latest in RTE's excellent Arts Lives documentary series, takes all these questions and gives them life on the theatre stage. The intellectual columnist and theatre critic joins forces with acclaimed stage director Garry Hynes, and actors Marie Mullen, Sean McGinley and Robert Sheehan, to ask: can playwrights properly capture the Ireland of 2011?

O'Toole believes that Irish theatre failed in its duties during the boom -- but can now redeem itself as we struggle through the bust. He has a point, it must be said: too often our plays ignored the wobbling edifice underneath the Celtic Tiger, looking the other way as it teetered and finally fell.

Irish theatre over the last decade and a half seemed intent on entertainment and nostalgia rather than positing the fundamental questions of art and society. And while there's obviously a place for fun and games on the stage, the role of art is just as much to make us uncomfortable as to pat ourselves on the back.

Anyway, we'll leave it to the man himself to make that case, which he does in tonight's programme. He also discusses the past and future with the above-mentioned dramatic talents, reveals how he first got turned on to theatre, and looks back on some of the most seminal moments on the Irish stage.

He has assembled a formidable team for the task. Roscommon native Garry Hynes is regarded as one of Ireland's finest theatre talents of the last half-century. A co-founder of the world-renowned Druid Theatre in Galway (along with Marie Mullen and the late Mick Lally), she famously brought Martin McDonagh to public attention in the late 1990s.

Hynes served as artistic director of the state theatre, the Abbey, from 1991 to 1994, and has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Court Theatre, among others. She has directed works by Conor McPherson, Sean O'Casey, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and John B Keane, and her epic 2006 production DruidSynge, which played in Ireland, Britain and America, was described by Charles Isherwood of The New York Times as "the highlight not just of my theatre-going year but of my theatre-going life". She was also the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing.

Her long-time collaborator Marie Mullen was one of the shining lights of DruidSynge, playing roles in five of the six plays. She too has won a Tony, in 1998, for McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and has appeared to in a myriad of other famous plays.

Mullen's husband Sean McGinley is one of the country's most recognisable acting faces. A veteran of stage and screen, he has over 30 movies under his belt, including The General. McGinley was recently seen on Irish TV in RTE's crime drama Single Handed. He's also appeared in Pure Mule and the Roddy-Doyle scripted Family for RTE, in Bleak House across the channel, and in the Canadian comedy-drama Republic of Doyle.

Finally, with his silver-screen good looks, fine acting talents and that indefinable X factor that makes the public take to someone, Robert Sheehan is a definitive rising star, not just in Ireland but across the world. He made his debut in the 2003 film Song for a Raggy Boy, and has since played a variety of roles on TV and in film.

He's been seen in The Clinic, The Tudors and Bittersweet on Irish television, and Rock Rivals in the UK. His biggest successes, though, have thus far been: Love/Hate, RTE's big-budget gangland drama of last autumn; Misfits, an entertaining superhero-story-with-a-twist on Channel 4, and the same station's absolutely outstanding trilogy of TV films, Red Riding, which aired in 2009.

So that's the supporting cast, but Fintan O'Toole will be taking centre-stage. His polemical articles often draw a connection between theatre and life: how they co-exist in a symbiotic relationship, each influencing the other and drawing on the other.

Power Plays should prove a fascinating exercise, therefore, as he and his comrades deconstruct the last decade in Irish society and theatre, and try to formulate a workable blueprint for the next decade.

Irish Independent

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