Dra­matic think­ing

Fol­low­ing a year of cri­sis, re-eval­u­a­tion and new begin­nings, the Ir­ish Times Ir­ish The­atre Awards lay down a marker

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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.”

Short­list

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

PHOTOGRAPH: DARA MAC DÓNAILL

The judges of The Ir­ish Times Ir­ish The­atre Awards – Caitríona Crowe, Ella Daly and Paula Shields – at The Gate The­atre, Dublin.

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