Nothing shakes you up like a near death experience. That may be an extreme characterisation of Irish theatre at the beginning of 2010 – but only just. When eleven companies lost funding in February, the outlook for productions, even survival, seemed bleak. In its wake, theatre gradually rallied, consistently articulating its value through Theatre Forum, the National Campaign for the Arts, and other channels. But on stage, its behaviour could seem surprising, its methods different. Some of it was encouraging, some mildly concerning, and much of it was out of character. You could call it a year of identity crisis.
If, two years ago, you were told that Rough Magic – a company more arch than proscenium arch – would bring Stockard Channing to the 1,000-plus seat Gaiety Theatre for an Oscar Wilde revival, you would have at least raised an eyebrow. If you had been told that Bedrock, a company known for rough sensibility and urban shocks, would be attached to a weightless Boucicault melodrama like The Colleen Bawn, you might have chanced a guffaw, and further wondered how it fulfilled the experimental leanings of one of its co-producers, Project Arts Centre.
What else wouldn’t you have seen coming? The Abbey hosting rock concerts, chat shows and late-night cabarets with a heavy emphasis on gay performance art? The Gate nurturing young talent and giving prominence to brand new directors? The physically nimble Corn Exchange burying its trademark physicality up to the waist, if not the neck, in a co-production of Beckett’s Happy Days?
In turbulent times you can assume the flexibility of a tree branch or the rigidity of a storm hatch and this year Irish theatre seemed to try a bit of both. When Rough Magic assumed commercial practices with The Importance of Being Earnest – a risky manoeuvre that few others could have afforded – it invested its resulting surplus into the more adventurous and challenging Phaedra later in the year. Beginning with Sodome, My Love, the company’s three productions bore little aesthetic relation to each other (although Lynne Parker’s direction was a constant) yet it was hard to quibble with Rough Magic’s logic. Better to have an elastic identity, than no identity at all.
The Arts Council did two things to help enshrine new practices that diluted company identities. The first was to publish a new theatre policy which identified six types of subsidy: core funding, project funding, shared administrative resources, touring, artists’ support and development initiatives. The result was to incentivise co-production and shared product. With Irish festivals increasingly pooling productions – Cork Midsummer’s well-travelled FML, or Galway Arts Festival’s share in Freefall are good examples – and the establishment of the Irish Festivals Co-Producing Network, exclusivity may become still rarer, and production runs longer. Doing more with less.
You might have preferred the cerebral playground of Druid’s Penelope, the satisfying rigour of the Gate’s Arcadia, or Pan Pan’s infuriatingly good The Rehearsal: Playing the Dane. But in terms of resource sharing, co-production and populist appeal, the epitome of Irish theatre in 2010 was The Colleen Bawn.
The second significant impact of the Arts Council was the return of Theatre Project Awards (for the foreseeable future, core funding is a closed and shrinking shop; something that existing companies can only lose). These awards prioritised new work and emerging practitioners, and among its fruits – The Company’s As You Are Now So Once Were We, Playgroup’s Berlin Love Tour, THEATREclub’s Heroin, Siren Productions’ Medea, Randolph SD’s Ellamenope Jones – were the most exciting, considered and successful shows of the year. That shouldn’t sound like a particular triumph of the Arts Council’s – it’s significant that even here the company structure brought the biggest benefits. By initiating a system that engendered huge competition for scant resources, however, the best ideas with the strongest evidence for their realisation stood out. Some of those projects had been gestating for years, and by the time they reached the stage it showed. The Theatre Project Awards became a Darwinian test, a survival of the smartest.
What about the biggest? In a year that saw its State funding drop again sharply, from €10m to €7.25m, and a prolonged restructuring process which closed its workshop and made one third of its workforce redundant, the Abbey Theatre was in receipt of more than 54% of the Arts Council’s entire grant to theatre. With those resources, the Abbey opened eleven new productions in 2010 between its two spaces while playing host to an unusually high number of other companies. James X, Freefall, Whole World Round, and THISISPOPBABY’s exhilarating cabaret club night WERK made the National Theatre’s identity seem as broad as it has ever been, and somehow in form and content more genuinely, chaotically representative of the polyphony of a nation.
By design, its large-scale productions upstairs tended to announce their relevancy with megaphone subtlety, while Director Fiach Mac Conghail left the Peacock dark for (accumulatively) almost seven months. There too identity seemed flexible: one of the Peacock’s most successful productions was Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, a co-production between Gúna Nua and the Civic. In a curious irony, that play had once been submitted to the Abbey’s Literary department, but discovered a swifter route to the National Theatre’s stage via two other companies.
In other productions the Abbey reflected a growing trend in mainstream and independent Irish theatre where the term “play” could no longer properly define performance identity. It was hard to disentangle the horror of genuine testimony from the shape and artifice of Mary Rafferty’s docudrama No Escape, directed by Róisín McBrinn, which gave a voice to the litany of child abuse detailed in the Ryan Report – something that, for all its social importance, the Report had been missing. David McWilliams’ more personalised economics lecture, Outsiders, which toured the country, could not be faulted for timeliness or impact. But its explication of financial crisis was more convincing than its instruction for recovery, and its manufactured uplift sounded more glib with the EU-IMF bailout to follow. In form, these were unusual projects for the Abbey to pursue (less so, perhaps, than its Yeats-inspired Waterboys concert). As talking points in a national conversation, though, the theatre was hitting the mark and if it couldn’t find an answer, it had the right question: how could theatre react fast enough, or make reasonable sense of a political and economic storm, when we were still in its eye?
With markets in turmoil and box offices fearful, The Gate put its faith in blue-chip stock: Christopher Hampton, Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller and Michael Gambon – a reassuring if risk-averse programme which gave way to real adventure later in the year. The Beckett Pinter Mamet festival was ambitious in scale, even if the plays selected were thematically tenuous and hardly ground-breaking, but by opening its stage to directors Aoife Spillane-Hinks, Wayne Jordan and Tom Creed the Gate got a much needed infusion of new blood. With Jordan directing two impressive mainstage productions for the Abbey and (like Róisín McBrinn) due to direct there again next year, the days of generational stalemate seemed finally to be relaxing in both theatres.
Druid’s industry and balance still seems inimitable. Its productions of Enda Walsh’s Penelope and O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie extended from local to national and international exposure with stunning efficiency. More encouragingly, this work had faith in its audience and vice versa – the material was unapologetically challenging and made no capitulation to star performances – the work was daring, dauntless and identifiably Druid. Pan Pan, meanwhile, made a virtue of conceptual overstretch with Gavin Quinn’s electrical storm of ideas around Hamlet in The Rehearsal: Playing the Dane. It was the strongest Irish work in a well-balanced Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, one that understood acutely and exhibited fluently the direction in which theatrical form was leaning. The play was no longer the thing. Script, performance, audience and context had all become a densely layered text. Pan Pan made it explicit and literal, but the ideology was not exclusive: the text, director, performer and watcher were all participants, and all onstage.
In temper and in tenor, the year belonged to younger companies who knew this, who were fluent in participation and self-reference, where writers, performers and designers were equals in the manufacture of meaning. Few creators could match The Company’s As You Are Now So Once Were We for the audacity of concept and skill of execution, Playgroup’s Berlin Love Tour for the remapping and memorialising of heartbreak, or Anu Productions’ World’s End Lane for a local history re-lived with brutal, heart-stopping immediacy. Looking back, those productions shared a certain swagger, and their success drew from the same well that supplied the Absolut Fringe with a vintage year, Druid with uncompromising success, and Pan Pan with dazzling nerve. At a time of escalating and faith-shaking crisis, they had something that had been in conspicuously short supply: confidence. While others worried, attempted new models, paired up uncertainly, or tried on borrowed clothes, the real successes of Irish theatre were those who believed in their work, those who moved forward, those who stayed true to themselves.
Peter Crawley is News Editor of Irish Theatre Magazine and Theatre Critic with the Irish Times.
Also in our end-of-year series, read Patrick Lonergan, A Dance Into the Unknown.