The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards always give rise to surprises – that, after all, is part of the fun. But it’s probably fair to say that this year’s shortlist is in some ways unprecedented, due to the surprisingly low number of nominations for the Abbey and the Gate.
This represents a big turnaround. In 2009, the Abbey received ten nominations and won three awards, while the Gate received five nominations and won one award. But in 2010, the Abbey has received only four nominations, three of which are for design. And the Gate has received no nominations at all.
Other established companies might also have been surprised. Druid’s Gigli Concert was nominated twice, but might justifiably have expected more – and Rough Magic’s highly admired Solemn Mass for a Full Moon in Summer did not feature at all.
I saw over seventy shows in Ireland last year, but still managed to miss many of the productions that have been nominated – so I don’t intend to questions the judges’ choices, or to suggest that any of the nominees that appear on the list shouldn’t be there. And I’m delighted to see so many first-time nominees getting deserved recognition, and also pleased for The Corn Exchange’s Freefall, which was the best thing I saw in 2009 (pictured right, with Andrew Bennet). What I’m really interested in here is asking whether the nominations reveal a genuine shift in the relative status of the established and emerging theatres in Ireland.
The three judges (Sara Keating, Ian Kilroy and Bernadette Madden) did offer some insights in an interview with Fiona McCann in The Irish Times. Of course, such interviews can only ever provide a limited sense of peoples’ opinions – and the judges will necessarily have to avoid explaining their choices in detail until the awards are announced on 28 February. But their remarks are still interesting.
Kilroy acknowledges that the nominations “contain… few nods to more established theatre stalwarts” – a characteristic that he sees as “democratic”. He suggests that the new “economic realities” were a problem for the bigger theatres. “Turning the Titanic takes a long time, and… smaller companies are quicker to react to new circumstances,” he argues.
Keating implies that the judges didn’t discriminate between new and established theatres: the nominations were “our reflection of what was most memorable and what was of the highest artistic standard, no matter what the resources”. Madden makes the same case. They had “no intention of making any political or ideological point” she says; the nominations are “what all three of us thought were the best”. So they seem keen to refute any suggestion that there was a deliberate bias against the Abbey or the Gate.
Even so, the comparison of the big theatres to the Titanic might have caused some disquiet in Dublin 1: that vessel, after all, is not famous because it was too big to turn around quickly. But is there reason to believe that the Abbey and Gate reacted too slowly to the recession?
Admittedly, watching Marina Carr’s Marble in February last year, I found myself thinking that the recession had made the play seem dated before it had even premiered. As Carr put it in an interview with Eileen Batterbsy, Marble is about a quartet of city dwellers who are suffering from having too much cash. “They have everything materially, yet have nothing; they want more yet are terrified,” she explains. Even two years ago, such a problem could have been resonant; two years from now, it might again make sense. But for an audience coming to terms with the possibility that the country might be about to go broke - for people facing the loss of their jobs or their homes - Carr’s play might have seemed frivolous or even insensitive, because of its timing.
Yet, other plays at the Abbey and the Gate seemed appropriate to our changing circumstances. While we watched Brian Cowen struggling with leadership, it was informative to see Tom Mac Intyre’s play about an inept Taoiseach, Only an Apple, at the Peacock. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Gate showed with bitter clarity what happens when the pursuit of profit takes precedence over community. And at a time of enormous insecurity, the apocalyptic mood of Conor McPherson’s The Birds seemed strangely apt.
Perhaps most powerfully, Tom Murphy’s Last Days of A Reluctant Tyrant at the Abbey took on our two biggest problems: the obsession with property, and the way in which the Catholic church carried out, and colluded in, the abuse of the most vulnerable. Its central character Arina had “sold her soul”, we’re told. “Property, land, money. That’s all she ever thought of”, says her son – placing Last Days in the context of the growing number of Irish productions that present the Celtic Tiger years in terms of a Faustian pact (The Seafarer, Druid’s The Gigli Concert, Terminus, Freefall, and others). I thought there was some marvellous acting in Conall Morrison’s production. Declan Conlon and Frank McCusker should certainly be forgiven if they feel disappointed not to have been nominated. So should Murphy himself: the play may have been flawed, but an imperfect Murphy play (aren’t all of his plays somewhat imperfect when first produced?) is still far better than a lot of other work.
Many of these Abbey and Gate productions received negative reviews, so I’m not necessarily saying that they should have been nominated over other productions, especially ones I haven’t even seen. But what really struck me about 2009 was that the big companies were, if anything, leading the way in responding to the problems we face as a country and as a culture. Indeed, we might ask whether we want our theatre companies (large and small) to be “relevant” – or if they should instead concentrate on being interesting. But in any case, it’s hard to see how the recession figures here. It certainly didn’t affect the big theatres’ production values, since it was in that area that the Abbey actually did well this year. So it will be interesting to see how the judges elaborate on this issue.
What, then, about the notion that it’s possible to treat all theatres equally? It makes sense that you might go to the Abbey with high hopes for a new play by one of the big Irish writers, and could then come away feeling frustrated if it fell short of expectations. And it also makes sense that, when you see a production that is staged in a fringe venue by three unknown actors who have no money but lots of enthusiasm, you might be inclined to be much more positive – and perhaps more excited. But is it really possible to measure the difference between a flawed play by a great writer and a promising play by someone who’s largely unknown? Can one be genuinely objective in such a situation, and is the comparison between such different kinds of work even fair?
What I’m wondering, then, is whether the nominations would have seemed less surprising if the bigger theatres had been judged on the basis that they might have done more with the funding and resources available to them. But I think they could justifiably wonder why they were omitted if their work was indeed judged on absolutely the same basis as everyone else’s. My point here is that someone who hadn’t read the judges’ comments might assume that the nominations this year were rewarding spirit and innovation. And the judges would have been perfectly entitled to adopt such an approach, had they done so.
Also surprising was the status of new writing in the nominations. I’ve written elsewhere myself that 2009 was a thoroughly disappointing year for new writing, and I agree with Ian Kilroy when he states that “for the solitary event of the writer sitting at his or her desk and producing a play text… it was a very bad year”. Sara Keating criticizes the editing of new work, which in her view was poor “despite all of the money invested in literary managers and dramaturgical work”.
It is notable that the companies nominated for best new script haven’t one literary manager between them (I’m referring to Bewley’s Café Theatre, Corn Exchange, and Ransom, while Manchán Magan produced his own script). So one assumes that Keating is talking about some or all of the Abbey’s new plays: Marble, Only an Apple, Ages of the Moon, Reluctant Tyrant, and Tales of Ballycumber. It’s possible that she might also be referring to Abbie Spallen’s Strandline from Fishamble, because none of the other companies with literary managers produced a new play this year.
It’s not clear, but what all of this seems to suggest is that, with all its funding – and with access to new scripts from writers with an international reach and reputation – the Abbey impressed the judges far less than companies with fewer resources and less experience. So the judges have delivered a very strong message about new writing to the Abbey, whether they meant to do so or not.
No doubt there will be even more to discuss once the awards themselves are announced. By that stage, we should be in a better position to answer the many questions that have arisen this year. Do the nominations really provide a sign that the balance in Irish theatre has shifted away from the “establishment”, and towards the newer companies? Do they really mean that the Abbey and Gate have had their worst year since these awards began over a decade ago? Has the output of these theatres really deteriorated substantially in the space of a year – or has everyone else’s suddenly became so much better? Should we react to these awards by celebrating the successes of the younger companies rather than debating the omission of the more established ones (even if those established companies get almost half of the theatre funding in Ireland)?
Or, is this year’s set of nominations just a blip, representing – as all awards inevitably do – the unique set of interests of their judges?