Just for a moment, I’ve gone global.
On the way to the International Research Drama Conference in Limerick, I popped into the Abbey to see what was happening there. The Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre in Dublin set up by W.B.Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904, has a clear rationale- to actively engage with and reflect Irish society, to place the writer and the theatre artist at the centre of all works.
I love that concept. I know the debate here in Australia in regards to a national theatre has gone on for decades. Apparently we don’t need it and more importantly, where would we house it? When I see what the Abbey has achieved, it makes me think the debate needs to rage again… Has it really come down to the meagre offerings of an annual David Williamson play at the Ensemble theatre or for Simon Stone to now be the chief writer and director of appropriated works? We have so much Australian talent amongst our writers that struggle for a platform for development and expression. It’s time to rethink what we do in a country that is four times the population of Ireland.
The Abbey Theatre is also one of the friendliest environments you’ll ever visit in regards to a theatre experience. How’s this for an experience. I arrived just before the show opened (I got held up by a schools carnival parade of the national hurling competition- I kid you not) to buy a ticket with my friend at a premiere of a show. They couldn’t seat us together so they gave me a free ticket to make up for it. I found myself sitting next to the Head of Public Affairs and Development, Myra. We start chatting about the play we are about to watch. I’ve read it, she has not. We discuss the act of interpretation. At interval I sit at a table next to other audience members, strangers to me, who kindly offer me chocolate (I never say no) and we chat about the show. Just before the second half starts, Myra and I chat again about the show and then at the end, she invites me to the premiere party, introduces me to the General Manager, the Education Officer, and the Head of Communications and quickly they are offering me two free tickets to see the Tom Murphy play the following night (Ireland’s Tom Murphy, not to be confused with Australia’s Tommy Murphy).
And here’s the thing, I’m just a random theatregoer who seems to know a thing or two about theatre and they genuinely care about what their audience think. This is not an environment where your thoughts are belittled or your status be considered more important than your conversation. I mean...imagine it…they talk to audience members like they matter. Well Sydney could teach them a thing or two. We’ve been so full of our self-importance for so long we’re in danger of disappearing up our own proverbial. Shake off your snobbery Sydney and start to get dirty by mixing with the people. Sydney, I love you but you just have to stop believing your own PR.
The first show I saw was Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’. Those familiar with the play know that is English and not Irish, full of English mythology intertwined with the violence of wasted chances and youth, lost aspirations, memories of grandeur and the banished and forgotten social classes.
‘Jerusalem’ is set on St George’s Day, the morning of the local fair. Johnny Rooster, the play’s antihero (like Mac the Knife from Brecht’s ‘Threepenny’ if you will) has been served an eviction notice to clear out from his illegally parked caravan in the woods and the drug dealing guardian of the youth of the town as well as absent father now must deal with the imminent arrival of tractors to destroy his home, the men of the town who wish to do him harm, his patchy memory induced by big bender nights, his thieving crew and a son who wants to go to the fair.
‘Jerusalem’ was performed in their small theatre, The Peacock, by the Silken Thomas Players, an amateur group who won the national amateur theatre festival and part of their prize is the chance to perform on the Abbey stage. Can you believe it? It reminds me in a small part of the days when Belvoir downstairs did not have to be tied to the Belvoir Company but independent work could showcase there. Here’s my challenge to someone out there in theatre world- why not have a competition that allowed amateur independent work to perform and the winner gets a spot in Wharf 2 at STC for a 3 night run? I’d be interested to see it. Wouldn’t you?
One of the many things you’ll fall in love with in Ireland (please note, it is not the weather) is the culture of expression through the Arts. This is further enhanced in the National Youth Theatre program. Performing is not specifically aspirational- it is for the love of it and a binding ritual of community and neighbour. It’s truly a wonderful thing.
I did see this on its opening night and the nerves where clearly effecting the cast, particularly the lead Liam Quinlivan as Johnny Rooster. But by the second half, he and the rest of the cast were settled and hitting the notes of the show. A special mention to Colin Malone as Ginger, who from the very start shone in talent and energy. Director Sean Judge is to be commended for creating an honest and skilled interpretation of text, performance and utilising Jonathan Judge and Brenda O’Toole’s set in creating the world of the play.
The following night we saw Tom Murphy’s ‘The House’. Originally staged in 2000 it was having another run on the Abbey’s mainstage. Tom Murphy is a national icon and yet I don’t think his work is performed much outside of Ireland. However, his writing has heavily influenced many of Ireland’s contemporary writers that we are familiar with, such as McDonagh, McPherson, O’Rowe, Walsh. He’s a writer of the slow denouement, taking his time to unpack characters, narrative before building to the hopes and dreams and pushing them over the embankment. He’s not fancy but he is poetic. Structurally the writing feels deliberate in its inclusion of the Irish folk songs, the settings, the differences in class and gender. His plays feel like historical examinations of those that stay in Ireland and those that are the diaspora. This means that at times his plays feel like they are taking a long time to go somewhere and an edit or two wouldn’t go astray but with the outstanding acting of ‘The House’ on display, you’re happy to persevere and be rewarded.
What I find most interesting about Murphy’s work is this notion of the emigrant or diaspora, especially as Ireland’s population probably shows the least amount of growth (like Greece) over the last century- in fact it’s fallen, even with a high birth rate. Many of the population do emigrate (I blame the weather). So it begs the question, when you return to visit, is the country and its customs alien to you now or is it like coming home? How do you fit in? How do you leave again? How are you treated upon your return, especially if there’s ill feeling towards your departure in the first place? What's it like to enjoy familar voices but feel like the words they say are strange to you? All of this was found in the layers of ‘The House’.
Cast were impressive. Eleanor Methven’s mother was superb, Karl Shiel’s Goldfish, Declan Conlon’s Christy- a great ensemble cast and completely invested in their performances.
One of my favourite moments of the play was when Declan Conlon’s character Christy (remember him from ‘Terminus’ last year?) started singing a traditional Irish love song (in the pub of course) to Marie (Cathy Belton) and the audience started singing along. I honestly felt like I was sitting in the audience of 'The Sound of Music' in that end scene when the Von Trapp family are singing Edel Weiss and the audience sing with them. Don’t get much of that back home I can tell you.
The production was lovely- slow but lovely. But the pace is imbued in the writing and director Annabelle Comyn has kept the integrity of the writing in her staging of the show. Beautiful acting abound and a superb versatile set, designed by Paul O’Mohony that created a myriad of locations that placed us all in the 1950’s- a decade desperately clinging on to the past with a faction fighting for change and progress and all at odds with each other.
‘The House’ reminded me, like ‘Jerusalem’ how our mythology, customs, speech, language and culture are embodied in our arts, especially our writing and how we need to engage with these narratives in our own country. I know I bang on about this like an old, tired drum but if there is a limited investment in our writing community, the legacy of our theatre will feel very thin over time. I know we have embraced this post-dramatic form and it has many wonderful things to recommend it when done thoughtfully but don’t throw the writer out with the glass box.
One of the things that watching the theatre of Ireland made me conscious of is that the work starts there with the writing. The author is king and from there they appoint a creative team appropriate to bring those words to life. They don’t have to impose vision or techniques to reinvent the words or text. It has its own importance and has been drafted and worked till it is ready for staging.
Here in Sydney we are all too aware that the director is king. The words are a platform for the director to stamp/impose their vision all over it and that necessitates often the re-writing of the work, the abandoning of anything old world and often the set is thrown out in the mix too. I know my critics will brand me as a traditionalist here but I will say this: I’m ok with whatever you want to do but when the director is so present in the work, it can be like deja vu every time I see his or her work. I’ve seen 5 shows presented by Belvoir theatre this year and 3 of them have been directed by Simon Stone and he is evident in every moment of them. You’d never think of staging 3 plays by the same author in a season (overkill) but if you are going to make the director king, it’s the same thing.
So let me finish by beating that drum one more time. Australia- invest in your writers and maybe even a National Theatre Company to do this. Productions are transient, beautiful images of life, here for a season and then only recalled in a deadened one-dimensional video recording or in our memories. Writing lives on to be reimagined again and again (or re-written by the next wave of directors) and unconsciously fuses politics, culture, language, customs and beliefs of our national agenda. And that is something far more interesting to pass onto each theatrical generation than an explosion of blood and flour on stage- don’t you think?