What are the chances that two out of three plays should include choreographed umbrella sequences, quasi-Dionysian alcohol spewing, and the comparison of a little heartache to the bombing of Hiroshima? Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe the cast of Bang Shoot Blast and In Touch were sharing a rehearsal space. Whatever the reason, it seems as if a new generation of Irish theatre-makers is competing for the right images and metaphors to make sense of more familiar problems like broken hearts and poor finance. On the opening night of a mini-festival spread across five days, the line-up revealed a lot of drive and promise, if occasionally playing it too safe.
Organised by THEATREclub, The Theatre Machine Turns You On showcases ten new works, principally created and performed by young theatre graduates and emerging artists. Based in Project Cube, the programme is produced on a shoestring with plenty of nerve: “If there is no money for art it’s your problem too,” the producers remind us in the programme note. “Call your local TD.”
In Karl Watson’s Bang Shoot Blast, three boys and three girls chat among themselves, and the audience, to recall lost loves and immortalise them with glow-in-the-dark pens. The play takes its emotion rather seriously until a couple breaks away to enact scenes from romantic blockbusters such as Casablanca, Titanic and Juno. Projected onto a large screen, these make for light entertainment, although it’s hard to gauge if the tone is reverent or ironic. Have these characters really had such tormented love affairs in their short lives, or are their feelings mediated by the movies? When the audience is given party poppers to use on command, there is a sense that what’s really needed is not an amorous "walk on the beach at Booterstown" as one character suggests, but a good old-fashioned blowout.
The cast gives a spirited performance that is not lost on the spectators who are unusually keen to hop on stage and join in: although the actors speak of pain, the audience is more interested in fun. Despite an excess of lovers' speak, Watson’s chipper tone and loose form carries an easy charm that’s hard not to warm to.
Christopher Carroll’s and Roseanne Lynch’s In Touch is equally interested in affairs of the heart, compounded by financial strain. "Work Force Reduction" means that Carroll’s character risks losing his job, and relationships take the impact. When it opens, the performance promises to be movement-led, as the actors glide office partitions across the stage, weaving limbs in the process. This might have been an interesting route to follow, but words take over, and an excess of narrative hooked on topical issues obscures gesture. Catharsis comes through chugging beer, which is solely reserved for the performers. While Carroll and Lynch devised the piece together, some outside direction might have helped them shape the dialogue and navigate the vast space more effectively.
Based on interviews with real people, Asylum Speakers is a much more pointed and polished production. Working with a form of documentary theatre, the group recounts scripted stories of political instability, physical torture and soul-destroying bureaucracy experienced by asylum seekers in Ireland. At various stages, key testimonial words are written on cards that hang overheard. The actors provide understated performances, animated by some subtle movement routines. The material feels very familiar but, as we are repeatedly reminded, the problems are ongoing.
While the festival is an exciting initiative in principle, the first evening felt strangely conservative. Perhaps it has something to do with the kind of work we expect from certain artists or collectives. It might be unfair, but with so many young people at hand, I couldn’t help but hope that something bold, ridiculous, disgusting, hilarious, obscure, gorgeous or utterly shameless would be on show. This might happen yet, given that there are seven shows left, but the reflection is as much about new work in general as it is about the evening in question. When the world is a mess, it’s hard to digest issue-led theatre about the here and now, as we can’t all be victims at the same time. If new artists are politely replaying inherited ideas and genres instead of chewing them up and spitting them out, then the Theatre Machine is at risk of recycling old hat rather than inventing new material.
Fintan Walsh is a Research Fellow in Trinity College Dublin.