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The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion - pcraw­ley@irish­times.com

Do audiences want what they get, asks Peter Craw­ley

W ho bears re­spon­si­bil­ity for the fol­low­ing: the reap­pear­ance of the Wispa; an 11th-hour re­prieve for the spice burger; the re­sistible rise of Jed­ward; and three suc­ces­sive Fianna Fáil gov­ern­ments? Well, ap­par­ently we do. Each of th­ese phe­nom­ena has been propped up/sus­tained/ res­cued by that com­bi­na­tion of democ­racy and con­sumerism we call “pop­u­lar de­mand”. The pub­lic gets what the pub­lic wants – so the logic goes – and the pub­lic largely wants what they al­ready know.

Os­car Wilde, for one, had lit­tle faith in un­rea­son­able de­mands: “What­ever is pop­u­lar is wrong.” Per­haps he would have taken it as a stern re­buke, then, that Con­all Mor­ri­son’s highly pop­u­lar pro­duc­tion of The Im­por­tance of

Be­ing Earnest in 2005 was re­vived for a sec­ond chomp of the cherry in 2006. From fad­ing mu­sic groups to long-lost con­fec­tionar­ies, many things come back by pop­u­lar de­mand. Rarely, though, do they be­gin that way.

That’s cer­tainly the sense we’re get­ting from the cur­rent the­atre, where a litany of re­vivals, re­heated suc­cesses and reis­sued clas­sics are an­nounced as the gra­cious an­swers to adamant pub­lic re­quests. I’m un­aware of any let­ter-writ­ing cam­paign waged to re­turn Sam Shep­ard’s

Ages of the Moon to the Abbey, and if a pub­lic march on Par­nell Square shook plac­ards in­sist­ing that the Gate “Bring Back A Christ­mas Carol!”, I missed it. Christ­mas, as ev­ery gift-re­ceiver knows, is a time for re­cy­cling, and no­body will re­sent a sec­ond chance to see The San­ta­land Di­aries (back in Bew­ley’s . . . by pop­u­lar de­mand). But this the­atri­cal deja vu isn’t just about rewrap­ping sea­sonal favourites. With the re­cent re­turn of

Ter­mi­nus and Ages of the Moon, the cur­rent re­vival of The

Sea­farer, and Jan­uary’s forth­com­ing visit from Gúna Nua’s well-trav­elled Lit­tle Gem, the Abbey named a pro­gram­ming strand “By Pop­u­lar De­mand”. Next from the Gate, mean­while, is

Faith Healer, which played there a whole three months ago.

It isn’t hard to fathom the logic here. Brac­ing them­selves for the im­pact of fund­ing cuts and fight­ing for an in­creas­ingly cau­tious au­di­ence, the­atres be­come risk-averse. With some proven in­ter­est, ac­tors on standby, sets in stor­age and cos­tumes in moth­balls, it’s a much safer bet to re­mount a show than to try some­thing new.

It’s not a ground­less worry. Re­cently the Arts Coun­cil’s ad­vo­cated an “au­di­ence-led” pol­icy for tour­ing the­atre, talk­ing up the im­por­tance of brand-name com­pa­nies, recog­nis­able writ­ers and fa­mous ac­tors in or­der to avoid un­filled au­di­to­ri­ums. But brand-name com­pa­nies and fa­mous writ­ers had to start some­where.

Easy to in­voke but hard to cal­cu­late, the pop­u­lar de­mand of an imag­ined pub­lic doesn’t in­sist on some­thing ab­stract or es­sen­tial, like a the­atre that re­plen­ishes it­self. If this con­ser­va­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion of pop­u­lar de­mand goes un­con­tested, then new voices will go si­lent and more the­atres will con­geal into end­lessly re­heated crowd favourites.

When the lifeblood of the art form fi­nally ebbs away, they can pin the blame on pop­u­lar de­mand: Hey, you asked for it.

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