Theatre is a competitive sport, too, says Peter Crawley
‘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.