The­atre is a com­pet­i­tive sport, too, says Peter Craw­ley

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

‘F ASTER, HIGHER, Stronger”. So goes the motto of the Olympic Games. Those are good cri­te­ria for as­sess­ing the mer­its of com­pet­ing ath­letes but, as a few writ­ers have pointed out al­ready, it seems odd that they could ever be ap­plied to the arts.

Un­til 1948, though, the Olympics fea­tured a “Sport­ing Art” cat­e­gory, in­sti­gated by the mod­ern Games founder, Pierre de Cou­bertin (who also pro­vided the motto), for which Jack But­ler Yeats took the Sil­ver medal for Mixed Paint­ing and Oliver St John Gog­a­rty got the Bronze in Po­etry in 1924. The­atre didn’t fea­ture, sadly, so we’ll never know if Juno

and the Pay­cock might have been deemed a world cham­pion or merely a run­ner-up. That spares us the awk­ward thought that Sean O’Casey could have shaved a few tenths of a sec­ond off Joxer’s speech to set a new record. Yet it ap­peases a gen­teel be­lief that the­atre is more truly col­lab­o­ra­tive than com­pet­i­tive.

Ac­tu­ally, it can be ruth­less. In its scale, warmth and hu­mour, Danny Boyle’s open­ing cer­e­mony was in fact a dis­play of the­atri­cal ri­valry. Lon­don had sized up Bei­jing’s im­mense 2008 spec­ta­cle and out­classed it – not by be­ing faster, higher or stronger, but more hu­mane.

It was also slyly com­bat­ive. Ken­neth Branagh’s recital of Cal­iban’s speech, at the start of a highly se­lec­tive his­tory of Great Bri­tain, might have in­vited more un­com­fort­able ques­tions about the coun­try’s colo­nial ex­pan­sion than it could ad­dress, but you have to ad­mire a glob­ally tele­vised per­for­mance that un­fuss­ily in­cor­po­rated same-sex kisses in a mon­tage of ro­mance, or that staged a love let­ter to the Na­tional Health Ser­vice even as the gov­ern­ment was thin­ning its staff.

Would Boyle have been af­forded such lat­i­tude with­out the prece­dence and con­text of Bei­jing? Maybe, maybe not. But whether it’s a mat­ter of scale, val­ues or even mar­kets, some sport­ing com­pe­ti­tion can be a very good thing.

This is one rea­son to be pos­i­tive about an un­usual ri­valry that has de­vel­oped in the­atre. Take the case of James Joyce’s


Cur­rently there are four com­peti­tors on the track: Won­der­land Pro­duc­tions’ drama­tised walk­ing tour of the short story col­lec­tion; Bach­e­lors Walk’s one-man ver­sion, The

Dublin­ers Dilemma, which will re­turn af­ter re-tool­ing; the Corn Ex­change’s adaptation, which opens the Dublin The­atre Fes­ti­val (DTF) in Septem­ber; and the Abbey’s last pro­duc­tion of the year, Frank McGuin­ness’s adaptation of the story The Dead.

They’re not the only clashes, with two Maeve Bren­nan projects in the pipe­line (Land­mark’s pre­miere of Emma Donoghue’s

Talk of the Town at the DTF, and the Abbey’s over­lap­ping work-in­progress of Ea­mon Mor­ris­sey’s

Maeve’s House) as well as the Abbey and Druid’s over­lap­ping em­i­gra­tion-themed Tom Mur­phy projects, The House and DruidMur­phy.

These have been, and are likely to re­main, com­ple­men­tary and dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences, but there’s still a fris­son in such sched­ul­ing.

When theatres are al­ready vy­ing for au­di­ences, is this a sign of healthy com­pe­ti­tion or mar­ket sat­u­ra­tion? It’s im­por­tant, in that Olympian spirit, that the­atre keeps rais­ing its game, but for some com­pe­ti­tion has be­come more cruel, and the prize is sim­ply sur­vival. In that event, ev­ery­one ap­pre­ci­ates the chance to prove them­selves, but there’s not much com­fort af­ter bronze.

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