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Dublin Theatre Festival — a snapshot of Ireland’s theatrical ecology

Dublin Theatre Festival — a snapshot of Ireland’s theatrical ecology

October 11
14:43 2017


“Anniversaries are a pain in the arse,” says Willie White, director of Dublin Theatre Festival, which this year turns 60. He is not being ungrateful — just acknowledging that, unlike the personal variety, in his line of work, “Nobody gives you any extra money because it’s your birthday.” This year’s festival — which continues for another week, although some of the shows I saw in my four-day stint are now over — works its usual discreet wonders of reflecting Dublin’s and Ireland’s overall theatrical ecology while opening it up where possible to new audiences. Irish theatre often takes a tack more redolent of some areas of continental Europe than of Britain, of actively exploring what it means to be a citizen of this particular country at this particular time.

The first piece of work I saw this year, The Sin Eaters by ANU, is a devised piece incorporating physical performances, installation and inventive use of its location, a disused scientific laboratory at Pigeon House in Ringsend. The eight female performers offer an assortment of bleak perspectives on the idea of women as principal bearers of the burdens of many aspects of Irish life (as, indeed, they were prescribed to be in the De Valera-drafted constitution of the republic). It shows more commitment than coherence, or even, perhaps, than intelligibility as far as non-Irish viewers are concerned.

★★☆☆☆

Enda Walsh and Donnacha Dennehy’s piece for Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera, The Second Violinist, is likewise all over the place, but more deliberately and entertainingly. On the face of it simply a work about a musician failing to keep his life together after his marriage breaks down, the piece’s words are communicated almost as much through voicemail and text messaging as in song; the protagonist is played simultaneously by a singer and an actor, and allusions to the music and narrative concerns of the 16th-17th-century Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo are laced through. London audiences can see this curious broth next autumn.

★★★☆☆

Aaron Monaghan in ‘The Second Violinist’ © Patrick Redmond

Sebastian Barry takes a more low-key approach in On Blueberry Hill, whose protagonists both come from near Dún Laoghaire, whose Pavilion Theatre hosted Fishamble’s production. They are cellmates in Mountjoy prison, linked by violent and conflicting personal histories, but who learn respect, regard and forgiveness for each other over a number of years. Barry is a writer of almost unparalleled eloquence, but that does not always translate into drama; of late his novels have been more admired than his plays. Here, one can luxuriate in the alternating monologues of Christy and PJ, and in the beautifully pitched performances of Niall Buggy and David Ganly, but ultimately the story amounts to little more than probably the most finely polished buddy movie imaginable.

★★★☆☆

‘On Blueberry Hill’ © Mattieu Chardon

Two men, one older, one younger, isolated together, united by an intimate past connection . . . No, I’ve actually moved on now to Rough Magic’s Melt (Smock Alley). Shane Mac an Bhaird’s central duo are ecologists in stormbound Antarctica, looking into (literally) a two-mile-deep borehole to a sub-glacial lake. However, when Owen Roe’s Boylan emerges from the shaft with what seems inexplicably to be a human baby, Mac an Bhaird starts blunderbussing: professional contention, family bereavement, SF or possible delusion and even a hinted spirit-of-Gaia dimension all rumble around, providing a clutch of chuckles but little sense. On Blueberry Hill was topped and tailed with the eponymous Fats Domino number; let’s at least be glad director Lynne Parker didn’t finish off Melt with “Ice Ice Baby”.

★★☆☆☆

Another Boylan strides through 1904 Dublin in Dermot Bolger’s revised version of his 1994 adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses on the Abbey’s main stage. Only the merest fraction of Joyce’s sprawling masterpiece can be captured in two and a half hours; Bolger inclines towards rollicking, which the Abbey’s newish director Graham McLaren realises with song, puppetry and a cast of eight weaving around some of the audience sitting at barroom tables on the stage. David Pearse pulls off the necessary trick in the central role of Leopold Bloom, that of being theatrically strong while dramatically modest. It’s all a lot of fun and perhaps allows McLaren to pursue a populist vision of the Abbey, but it doesn’t necessarily show you why you really ought to read the novel.

★★★☆☆

Dermot Bolger’s adaptation of ‘Ulysses’

Downstairs in the Abbey’s Peacock space, I saw probably my favourite show of the festival. Two years ago I raved about young company Dead Centre and their deconstruction of Ivanov, which they staged with the self-explanatory title Chekhov’s First Play. Now the company’s helmsmen Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd have created Hamnet, a remarkable piece about an 11-year-old boy, who, in searching for his father, also tries to understand family relationships, childhood and parenthood. The boy, Hamnet, is William Shakespeare’s son, keenly conscious of that one letter of difference; he appears solo on stage while simultaneously interacting on a video backdrop with a figment of his father (played by Moukarzel). The script ranges from Shakespeare to Johnny Cash via quantum tunnelling, and 11-year-old Ollie West (son of playwright Michael West) gives a performance the like of which I have never seen from a child stage actor. If he can bear to give up his school holidays, this production should be invited to the Unicorn or the Dorfman at the first opportunity school terms provide.

★★★★☆

My admiration for the Corn Exchange’s Nora (Project Arts Centre) was of a different kind. Belinda McKeon exceeded her original brief by writing not just an adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House but an original play inspired by it. The staid 19th-century social conventions which condemned Ibsen’s Nora Helmer are replaced by a near-future dystopia incorporating all kinds of reactionary oppressions: against women, against the poor, even against art itself, which strike “gallerists” and wheeler-dealers Nora and Turlough as they try to cosset their 15-year-old daughter Emmy. Annie Ryan and Venetia Bowe are excellent as mother and daughter, but for the most part I felt the production was stronger on ideas than execution . . . until, that is, the final 10-15 minutes, which pull a magnificent bait and switch.

★★★★☆

Annie Ryan in ‘Nora’ © Ros Kavanagh

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