In the coming months, Dublin audiences will see the work of two emerging Irish directors whose names – Roísín McBrinn and Donnacadh O’Briain – are probably not as familiar as one might expect, given their level of experience and the number of impressive credits on their CVs. This is because both of them chose to build their early careers in London rather than Ireland; both have benefited tremendously from the many assistantship, bursary, and mentoring schemes available in the UK.
Coincidentally, McBrinn and O’Briain left Ireland in the same year – 2003; they each acknowledge that the developmental support for young directors and other theatre artists in Ireland has improved considerably since then. Both have interesting stories to tell about how young, ambitious artists can make their way in the competitive but opportunity-filled London theatre scene -- and about how being Irish may help or hinder such a path. I recently spoke to them separately, meeting O’Briain in the foyer of the National Theatre, London; and speaking to McBrinn on the phone from Dublin, where she is currently working.
O’Briain, who is 27, was an early bloomer: he started his own theatre company, Natural Shocks, while studying Drama at DIT Rathmines, and directed two well-received productions of Shakespeare at the Civic, Tallaght for Natural Shocks before he graduated. Two assistant-directing assignments at the Gate Theatre followed, but O’Briain quickly surmised that building a directing career in Ireland was going to move more slowly than he’d like:
“I had a meeting with [then-Abbey Theatre artistic director] Ben Barnes. He was very pleasant but it was clear he was not going to consider me as an assistant director anytime soon. I looked around at the other companies, but they all exist so their artistic directors can direct. I could have continued with my company -- but I wasn’t going to be directing at the Gate or the Abbey in the next ten years, and I realised I wasn’t interested in being there. It wasn’t enough.”
An MA programme in directing at the Central School of Speech and Drama brought O’Briain to London; he then made his way for several years as a freelance director, putting on work in the Edinburgh Fringe and London’s Arcola Theatre and Theatre 503. In 2005 he wrote to the Royal Shakespeare Company asking for assistant directing work; he reckons it was his experiences directing Shakespeare, and working at an established company like the Gate, that got him in the door. They brought him on as assistant director for The Canterbury Tales (a six hour-long production), and then onto something even more epic – assisting on the RSC’s now-famed Histories Cycle, eight of Shakespeare’s plays performed by a single ensemble, directed by the company’s artistic director Michael Boyd.
While the Histories experience – a two-and-a-half-year contract -- was clearly a hugely positive one for O’Briain, his time at the RSC also taught him to put his own ambitions in perspective:
“The literary manager of the RSC was always saying she’d give me a reading to direct, but then consistently I’d get nothing from them. I was frustrated about that, but my friend Adriano [Shaplin, the American playwright, who was under commission from the RSC at the time] said, ‘why should she care about your work? Why should you have the right to her attention?’ That was harsh -- but he’s right. It’s important to remember that it’s a big industry and knocking on someone’s door doesn’t mean that they should notice you. You make people notice by what you put on stage.”
After a three-month post-Histories holiday, O’Briain was pleasantly surprised to receive a phone call from Second Age in Dublin, inviting him to direct King Lear. The production, with Gerard Murphy in the title role, premiered at Wexford Opera House in January 2008 to mixed reviews and toured around Ireland.
The next project is bringing him back to Ireland yet again: Leo Butler’s haunting two-hander, The Early Bird, which O’Briain is producing under the aegis of the resurrected Natural Shocks company. His production premiered at London’s tiny Finborough Theatre in February of this year, and will play at Project Arts Centre in June. The play, about a married couple in the immediate aftermath of their young daughter’s disappearance, features real-life married couple Catherine Cusack and Alex Palmer. The production is notable for its very striking set design by takis, sensitively lit by Paul Keogan: the action takes place in a Perspex box, an idea suggested by a brief mention in the script and which serves as what O’Briain calls a “simple metaphor” for the characters’ sense of being trapped in their situation.
The fact that this is a relatively small-scale production (the budget for the London and Dublin runs together is £37,000 (€42,000)) was part of O’Briain’s agenda: “I wanted to do something where we really wouldn’t compromise at all. I wanted to allow myself to direct the show – not stage it, or problem-solve it, or just put it up with a bit of style and flair. I wanted to do it like artists, with freedom and integrity.” Reviews for the London run were highly positive, with Kate Bassett in the Independent on Sunday praising O’Briain’s production as “electrifying” and creating an “intense, interrogatory intimacy”.
This production activates what O’Briain says has “always been the plan” – to work in and between London and Dublin. This is equally the desire of Roísín McBrinn, whose production of Mary Raftery’s new documentary play, No Escape, opens at the Peacock Theatre this week. As she has built a directing career in the UK, McBrinn has also returned several times to Ireland to direct productions for b*spoke and Landmark, and readings and short pieces for the Abbey – this is her first full Abbey/Peacock production. No Escape is based on material from and around the Ryan Report on institutional child abuse, and is McBrinn’s first foray into directing a documentary play. Speaking at the beginning of the third week of rehearsals, McBrinn admits that the play “took me a while to crack. Obviously the material is very disturbing, and there is no traditional linear narrative – but Mary has a great sense of drama.”
McBrinn, who is 32, started her career by co-founding X-Bel-Air theatre company with Sarah Brennan when they graduated from Trinity College (McBrinn studied Drama and Spanish). Several Dublin productions and a national tour resulted, but McBrinn wanted a stronger foundation: “I’d received an Arts Council bursary to assistant direct with Fishamble, and that was great. I wanted to do more assisting, and work for a building-based theatre – to learn things that you couldn’t learn elsewhere. I felt the need for an apprenticeship.”
She found it in the form of the prestigious Resident Assistant Director Bursary at London’s Donmar Warehouse, for which she was chosen in 2003 and now calls "the best Master’s degree you could ever do”. In artistic director Michael Grandage’s first year in post, she assisted on six productions (including her personal highlight, Grandage’s staging of Caligula, starring Michael Sheen), and worked closely with the theatre’s casting and education departments.
After all the excitement of the Donmar, the first few months in the real world were a bit of a cold shower, says McBrinn: “I tried to get productions as a freelance director all over the UK, but there was no interest whatsoever. No one had seen my work.” An opportunity finally presented itself thanks to Dominic Dromgoole, then-artistic director of the Oxford Playhouse, who was looking for an Irish female director to assist Kathy Burke on a production of Behan’s The Quare Fellow. “Kath was the person who changed things for me, put them on the next level.”
After finishing the Behan play, McBrinn wanted to stage American writer Adam Rapp’s Gompers, but couldn’t find an interested theatre -- so “Kath produced it for me” at London’s Arcola, in 2004. “That made all difference because I was able to show people what I could do, and it was a good piece do choose because it captured a lot of what was happening in Hackney [where the Arcola is located] at the time – it was about urban regeneration and disenfranchisement.”
The production was well-received, and it also opened up a new way of making her own work for McBrinn. “It’s possible to self-produce on a show-by-show basis without setting up a permanant company in the UK, which was the way I wanted to go. There was so much new writing I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to narrow myself down to one artistic remit.”
McBrinn has since won two more prestigious awards and bursaries: first the Young Vic/Jerwood Young Directors award in 2004, which gave her five weeks’ rehearsal time in the National Theatre studio on a chosen play (References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot by José Rivera), which she then produced at the Arcola. And late last year, she was the first winner of the Quercus Award for Theatre Directors, a new initiative between the National Theatre Studio and the West Yorkshire Playhouse which leads to a full production at the latter institution. She’ll be directing Irish writer Ursula Rani Sarma’s new version of Lorca’s Yerma; McBrinn says that her particular interest these days is “writers who are Irish and female and under 35”, also mentioning Nancy Harris as someone who is “making waves in both places [London and Dublin].” McBrinn has also made inroads directing at established London theatres: in 2006 she directed The Field for the Tricycle in London.
Which brings us to the question of being Irish. Both directors say that their nationality has served them positively in their work in the UK, but that they don’t find it a dominant or determining feature of their professional lives. “Being Irish is useful over here in that you’re foreign, which makes you interesting, but you’re almost the same, so you can be accepted,” says O’Briain. “I’ve never felt terribly exotic or unique,” agrees McBrinn, “There are occasions, of course, when people suggest that I work with Irish writers in London because we share a sensibility, but I welcome that.’
Both McBrinn and O’Briain agree that things are better now for aspirant directors in Ireland than when they left: “Rough Magic’s SEEDS programme has contributed hugely to that – I wish it had existed for me,” says McBrinn. “There is an annual [assistant directing] job now at the Abbey, and Róise Goan has changed things for the better in terms of nurturing younger artists at the Fringe.”
O’Briain is reticent to give away too many details of what he hopes will be his next project beyond The Early Bird, revealing only that it would be “the Irish premiere of a non-Irish play”. McBrinn has her Leeds production of Yerma to look forward to, and beyond that, she hopes to keep on dividing her talents between both islands: “Working in Ireland, there is a sense of community,” she says. “We all basically come from the same place – it is glorious to start with that. I would love to keep working in both places.”
Karen Fricker lectures in contemporary theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London and is deputy London theatre critic for Variety (US).
No Escape, by Mary Raftery, opens at the Peacock, Dublin, on Wednesday 14 April, www.abbeytheatre.ie and The Early Bird by Leo Butler runs at Project, Dublin, from June 8-26.www.projectartscentre.ie