From tur­bu­lence at the Abbey to in­creas­ing pres­sures on the Ir­ish the­atri­cal fringes, it was a dra­matic year

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - THEATRE 2019 - PETER CRAW­LEY

It was a dra­matic year for theatre, book­ended by two mo­ments of crisis. The first played out in the full glare of pub­lic at­ten­tion. The other, which is hap­pen­ing now, has been ob­served more qui­etly, if at all. Barely one week into 2019, Ir­ish theatre was once again a news story. On Jan­uary 7th, an open let­ter lam­bast­ing the Abbey’s pro­duc­tion model, for Abbey di­rec­tors Neil Mur­ray and Gra­ham McLaren’s per­ceived over­re­liance on stag­ing co-pro­duc­tions and in­suf­fi­cient em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties at the Na­tional Theatre, among other griev­ances, was signed by 312 theatre pro­fes­sion­als.

So be­gan a tur­bu­lent year for the Abbey, which dealt with the fall­out in media state­ments, a tense com­mit­tee hear­ing in the Oireach­tas, and a se­ries of meet­ings with in­dus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives, fi­nally yield­ing com­mit­ments and out­comes. By the time it an­nounced its pro­gramme for 2020 this month, with a bal­ance be­tween self-pro­duced and co-pro­duced work that did not ap­pear rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent, the out­cry had faded away, ei­ther be­cause com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween in­volved par­ties had be­come clearer, or be­cause such an ex­plo­sion of protest could only im­mo­late the build­ing or fiz­zle out.

Over­shad­owed by the furore at the time was the kind of co-pro­duc­tion in ques­tion, when Karl Shiels brought his dark double-bill The Ri­d­leys to the Pea­cock. This might have been a break­out mo­ment for Shiels’s Theatre Up­stairs, the ac­tor/ di­rec­tor’s tena­cious home for short-form new writ­ing, and a launch pad for new ca­reers. Sadly, it turned out to be the theatre’s swan­song: a cou­ple of months later, Theatre Up­stairs an­nounced its clo­sure af­ter nine years in busi­ness. In any cir­cum­stances, the end of a venue com­mit­ted ex­clu­sively to new work would feel un­nat­u­ral, like the loss of prom­ise. But that sen­sa­tion be­came un­bear­ably tragic in July when Shiels, a tire­less ad­vo­cate for new artists and en­er­gis­ing au­di­ences, died at the age of 47.

If any theatre made con­cern for gen­er­a­tional suc­ces­sion ex­plicit, it may have been the Gate, which hit a stride this year hav­ing sought to re­build trust among the com­mu­nity for past sins. In The Chil­dren, by Lucy Kirk­wood, di­rec­tor Oon­agh Mur­phy de­liv­ered a knock­out pro­duc­tion in which Marie Mullen, Seán McGin­ley and Ger Ryan played three scientists liv­ing through a nu­clear disas­ter for which they are re­spon­si­ble: “We left them with a s**tshow wait­ing to hap­pen,” Ryan’s char­ac­ter put it, in a play ir­ra­di­ated with timely ques­tions about the fu­ture we are build­ing.

Just as en­cour­ag­ing was Be­gin­ning, di­rec­tor Marc Atkin­son’s de­but at the same theatre, in which Eileen Walsh and Marty Rea gave heart­break­ing per­for­mances as two bruised souls at the end of a house party, try­ing to make a con­nec­tion in a dis­con­nected, dizzy­ing world.

A su­perb play by Dy­lan Coburn Gray, Ci­tysong at the Abbey, seemed to cel­e­brate that frac­ture, or at least at­tempted to map it, skip­ping sym­pa­thet­i­cally across three gen­er­a­tions of one Dublin fam­ily to cre­ate a vivid por­trait of the city. Gray fol­lowed it, soon af­ter, with Ask Too Much of Me, a multi-char­ac­ter piece for the Na­tional Youth Theatre, per­formed at the Pea­cock. This play was as per­sua­sive a doc­u­ment of a time, deftly ex­plor­ing the anx­i­eties and re­silience of a new gen­er­a­tion contending with is­sues of prop­erty, of faith, of the fu­ture. (How nice, also, to see Peat, Kate Hef­fer­nan’s play for young au­di­ences, in the Ark, al­low­ing younger gen­er­a­tions still to reckon with the past play­fully and po­tently.)


Druid com­mit­ted it­self to new writ­ing this year, stag­ing Brian Watkins’s sprawl­ing Joyce-in­spired play Epiphany, and later Nancy Har­ris’s su­pe­rior The Bea­con, a propul­sive fam­ily drama, med­i­ta­tion on art, and mur­der mys­tery.

At the grand old age of 35, Rough Magic found new en­ergy with Much Ado About Noth­ing. The play’s dis­turb­ing comedy was matched by di­rec­tor Ro­nan Phe­lan’s own en­liven­ing stage­craft and sly com­men­tary at the Kilkenny Arts Fes­ti­val. In Ma­rina Carr’s He­cuba, the com­pany’s con­tri­bu­tion to the Dublin Theatre Fes­ti­val, Lynne Parker’s un­set­tling treat­ment gave these an­cient char­ac­ters cap­ti­vat­ingly new ex­pres­sion, teas­ing out the hor­rors of war and de­sire. Here was another play, more to the point, that dealt with in­fan­ti­cide, the an­ni­hi­la­tion of the fu­ture. Next to The Bluffer’s Guide to Subur­bia, Raymond Scan­nell’s ex­em­plary piece of gig theatre for Cork Mid­sum­mer Fes­ti­val that of­fered a wry ac­count of a Gen Xer and fail­ing mu­si­cian who can’t get ahead, a trou­bling sta­sis was clearly on ev­ery­one’s mind.

That added some st­ing to THEATRE­club’s trou­bled pro­duc­tion at the Abbey, It Was Easy (In the End), a three-hour plus com­bi­na­tion of Ham­let and cap­i­tal­ist cri­tique. It hardly wanted for am­bi­tion, but strug­gled for co­her­ence as it re­minded us, in Slavoj Zizek’s words, that it was eas­ier to imag­ine the end of the world than the end of cap­i­tal­ism. With the de­par­ture of the com­pany’s founder, Grace Dyas, soon af­ter, it is now also easy to imag­ine the end of THEATRE­club, the epit­ome of Ir­ish theatre’s in­sur­gent youth­ful force.

There was cause for cheer from Anu, Bro­kentalk­ers and Dead Cen­tre, all of whom continue to put contempora­ry Ir­ish theatre on an in­ter­na­tional stage with rest­less cre­ativ­ity, mo­ral ur­gency and ad­mirably wide tour­ing routes. Dublin Fringe Fes­ti­val had an ex­cel­lent, en­gag­ing year, de­spite a wor­ry­ing con­trac­tion in avail­able cul­tural spa­ces in the cap­i­tal.

While Land­mark cre­ated its own mo­bile space in Theatre for One, at the Cork Mid­sum­mer Fes­ti­val, for riv­et­ingly in­ti­mate en­coun­ters with some big names, Fisham­ble’s con­versely huge project A Play

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