Recent Irish theatre has lacked a master imagination: it’s too long since we have seen a new play to rival the best of John B Keane or Brian Friel or Tom Murphy.
Or so I wrote this time last year, reviewing the theatre of 2011. In 2012, Irish theatre found a master imagination again. And that was… Tom Murphy.
At the Abbey, Annabelle Comyn directed a fine production of The House, a study of class and corruption in the 1950s. For Druid, Gary Hynes directed a trilogy of Murphy’s earlier work, A Whistle in the Dark, Conversations on a Homecoming, and Famine.
We still have not unravelled the knots of corruption, ignorance and mé féinism that dragged the country into bankruptcy. Murphy’s plays, written years and decades before this crisis, provided a seething study of those traits in Irish life.
Famine traced the roots of this malaise to the violence wrought upon the people in the 1840s through poverty and hunger. But Murphy’s work also amounts to an indictment of the Irish republic: a state that failed its people. When future historians seek to understand the Ireland that led to the Ryan Commission, the Mahon Tribunal and the IMF bailout, Murphy will be a key source.
Like Murphy’s, the best new theatre this year was deeply political: it seethed with anger, even as it sought to leaven it, where possible, with comedy and optimism.
Abbey director Ernest Blythe famously rejected Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark in 1961. “I never saw such rubbish in my life,” he was reported to have said. What, then, would Blythe have made of Alice in Funderland, an Abbey musical about drugs, gays, drag queens and gruesome violence? The cliché “turning in his grave” is vastly inadequate.
Alice marked the Abbey debut for writer Philip McMahon, one of the leading young imaginations on the Irish stage. And it marked the coming of age of a new generation of theatre makers, the most exciting since Conor McPherson and his peers emerged in the mid 1990s. Much of this generation’s work has been done outside the main theatres, but Alice suggested that, at their best, the hipsters can play to the masses too.
Anu Productions also deserve that exposure: alas, it’s impossible to reach the masses four at a time. The third installment in their Monto cycle, The Boys from Foley Street, during the Dublin Theatre Festival, wasn’t so much a theatrical experience as a time-travelling one. In audience groups of four, divided into pairs, they took us back to the 1970s in the north inner city, a time of violence and poverty, but also of solidarity and resistance. It was intimate, unnerving and impeccably staged.
Paul Howard’s Anglo the Musical, at the Bord Gáis Theatre, was the opposite of intimate. It was at moments unnerving; unfortunately, it was far from impeccably staged (the fault of production failings rather than the direction). Anglo is a play about hubris, so it was fitting that it premiered at the massive Bord Gáis Energy Theatre after just one preview. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was written by Bono and the Edge, and still needed 182 previews on Broadway. Once had been a hit film, with songs by Glen Hansard, and still it took a two-month run off-Broadway to knock off its edges. Anglo’s creative team were let down by the production failings, but they deserve kudos: they created a credible, entertaining satire out of the preeminent story of our times. Repeat viewing, when it is revived at the Olympia in January, will reveal it to be smarter and funnier than the critics found it first time out.
The first person to tackle that story was, ahem, myself… in my blink-and-you’ll-miss-it playlet about the bank guarantee, as part of Fishamble’s Tiny Plays for Ireland. Far be it from me to suggest I might be biased, but Tiny Plays (which returns with new plays next year) was greater than the considerable sum of its parts: Jim Culleton took 25 disconnected short plays and crafted them into an entertaining and illuminating portrait of the nation.
Karl Shiels is another man wrestling with the state of the nation at his tiny Theatre Upstairs on Eden Quay, where Donal O’Kelly’s Aililiú Fionnuala was a highlight: its politics weren’t subtle but O’Kelly defied predictability with an artful juxtaposition of Celtic mythology with the Corrib gas controversy. At the Peacock, in Quietly, Owen McCafferty delved into Northern Irish politics with a moving exploration of two men’s attempt at reconciliation.
There was good new work aplenty at Dublin’s other little theatres, Bewley’s and the New Theatre, and the opening of the restored Smock Alley provided Dublin with a new historical and theatrical destination. Some of the most exciting work took place outside of theatres altogether: in the Absolut Fringe, in Dublin, Percolate took over the old Green Street courthouse for a gripping study of crime and punishment.
There was, as always, great acting: Andrew Bennett’s adrift old man in Pan Pan’s Everyone is King Lear; Mark O’Halloran’s lonely intellectual in the Corn Exchange production of Dubliners; Sarah Greene’s questing waif in Alice; Eileen Walsh, hilariously (and heart-breakingly) gawkish in Conversations on a Homecoming.
Behind the scenes, there was good news and bad. The Abbey’s purchase of neighbouring properties to secure its future on Abbey Street was a coup to celebrate. But the coup that took place on Culture Ireland was more worrying, as it was co-opted by the Department of the Arts in the interests of eliminating quangos.
As cuts mount, it will get more and more difficult to bring good theatre to diverse audiences. Keep fighting, theatre folk. Your country needs you.
First published in the Irish Independent.