Following a year of crisis, re-evaluation and new beginnings, the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards lay down a marker
The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards judges give their verdict on the best of the year
Since they began in 1997, The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards have celebrated the best achievements of the Irish stage each year. Throughout the calendar, three independent judges visit professional productions across the country, reflecting on the highest standards of production, performance, direction, new writing and design.
But the benefits of the awards have always been wider and more generous than deciding on a single winner. With an art form as ephemeral as theatre, one that leaves little residue once a performance has ended, the awards serve to lay down a marker. They take a step back from the flow of events, provide a clearer picture of the shape of a year. And, at the very least, give us another night to remember.
It has been a milestone year, 2017, in which the nation’s two major theatre institutions each welcomed new management. At the Abbey Theatre, joint artistic directors Neil Murray and Graham McLaren delivered their first programme, opening the National Theatre’s stages to visiting companies and major revivals, while mingling them with new work and significant tours.
At the Gate Theatre, where Selina Cartmell’s artistic directorate is only its third in 90 years, a range of enlivening new works sought out a path of “continuity and change”, but pointed firmly towards new directions for the theatre, artistically and politically.
This was also a year in which events behind the stage, from the continuing influence of Waking the Feminists in addressing institutional gender inequality, to the wide fallout from allegations of harassment and bullying behaviour by Michael Colgan when he was director of the Gate, have been felt keenly.
If that suggests a year of crisis, re-evaluation and new beginnings, this year’s nominations seem to reflect it. In the best production category is the Lyric Theatre and Prime Cut Productions’s co-production of Red, a sturdy two-hander about the mercurial artist Mark Rothko by John Logan, which nudged at the worth and purpose of art.
It is joined by Corcadorca’s off-site production of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, produced on a dramatically presented Spike Island, for a lyrical and chilling depiction of a world at war with itself.
Also nominated is Dead Centre and the Abbey’s co-production of Hamnet, cleverly conceived, technologically adventurous and featuring an extraordinary performance from a child actor that addressed Shakespeare, his most famous creation, and matters of life and death.
Then there is Woyzeck in Winter, a fusion of Georg Büchner’s famous fractured play and Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, which evoked a mind and society in violent disorder.
This year’s judges are: the theatre manager Ella Daly (who continued from last year); the academic and activist Catriona Crowe; and the RTÉ documentary researcher Paula Shields. For them, the varied range of work invited different ways of seeing theatre. That involved identifying composite elements within some very dissimilar work – the introduction of two new categories this year, best ensemble and best movement direction, further emphasises the importance of theatre in performance. Engaging with such a wide pool of work – more than 120 productions – has allowed them to look at the bigger picture.
“Really, it’s about looking at things in the context of everything else,” says Crowe. “It’s a different way to experience theatre.”
“You sign up for a helicopter view of the sector,” adds Shields, “because you’re seeing everything in the year. It’s like the maddest master’s degree in a way.”
That has made it daunting to arrive at a shortlist: when much work has been good, deciding what has been “outstanding” (as per the judges’ guidelines) has been the subject of, as they say diplomatically, “lively conversation”.
They are hesitant, however, to identify any overarching pattern to the year, no defining trends or preoccupations. “I thought last year, particularly after the Dublin Fringe Festival and the Dublin Theatre Festival, artist outlook was quite bleak,” says Daly. “The work reflected that: the question was, where do we go from here? Whereas this year, again at the Fringe, there was a sense that we’re in big trouble – but such big trouble we might as well just go with it. That made the work almost exuberant and free: We are f***ed. Let’s just sing.”
Daly means that literally. Much of the theatre in 2017 was surprisingly musical. Some of it, like the well-regarded, if not nominated, Fringe show Fierce Notions from Ill-Advised Theatre Company, was as close to a gig as a theatre performance. Enda Walsh and Donnacha Dennehy’s second opera collaboration, The Second Violinist, for Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera, was a particular standout for its conception and spectacular execution.
Woyzeck in Winter, from Landmark and Galway International Arts Festival, similarly impressed Crowe for its psychological and
It has been a milestone year, 2017, in which the nation’s two major theatre institutions each welcomed new management
The judges of The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards – Caitríona Crowe, Ella Daly and Paula Shields – at The Gate Theatre, Dublin.