Monthly Archives: August 2010

No Strings attched to Dublin’s cultural freebies

Forget shoe-string budgets! They were of a time when a discount here or a free event there were token gestures to attract a few souls to something that was often, lets face it, free for a ‘reason’. This reason being that ‘free’ sometimes meant ‘no good’. But now, shoe-string budgets for savvy savers are out and no-string budgets are in. If people and I include myself in this, are not able to shell out 30 euro on a theatre ticket, a minimum of 50 euro for a music gig at our ‘premier’ music venues or a month’s rent for a camping festival then no-string budgets are for you! And now there really are quality arts, music and cultural events for you to drop into and enjoy gratis.

The summer has seen regional and national festival after festival entertain the masses with exceptional success. From Galway to Kilkenny, Bundoran to Listowel and everywhere in between, Irish towns and cities have put on quite a show. As focus now switches back to the capital for the coming months, the pressure is on to deliver. The Absolut Fringe and Ulster Bank Theatre Festival are but two headiners to offer a wide variety of free and importantly, quality events.

The Fringe holds a particular place in the heart of so many theatre and performance goers. It has the essence of engagement and involvement in its soul and offers so much at no cost to the public. To see the full programme of ticketed and free events in the Fringe see here. One of the free highlights kicks off the Fringe itself with Macnas hitting Dublin for the first time in twelve years with what promises to be a spectacular event at Collins Barracks. Described as a ‘fantastical night-time reverie’, The Wild Hunt and the Sleepwalker – A Nocturnal Ballad’ will captivate audiences of all ages. 

The Liffey provides a floating stage as Irish contemporary artist Fergal McCarthy’s ‘Liffeytown’ mirrors the less than solid foundation of Ireland’s building boom. The Dead Zoo at Ireland’s Natural History Museum breaks from its home and roams in Merrion Square park. A great show for audiences of young and old, its large scale production should prove a winner.

On Dame Lane and Sycamore Street car lot (near the Gaiety School of Acting) keep an eye out for ‘Laneway’ and ‘The Bridal Solution’ respectively. These site specific works take the Fringe to its spiritual home of the Dublin’s streets and are just waiting for an audience to come and find them. Also waiting for you is, well, ‘Anybody Waitin’?’ Think life is passing you by as you constantly find yourself in a queue or waiting for someone or to get to some place. Ponydance company are waiting for you at 15 locations around Dublin to explore what it is exactly we are always waiting for, why we wait and what do we actually expect to get. Life is too short to let it pass you by so get out on the streets, get to the Fringe and experience it for Free!

The Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, often seen as the Fringe’s big brother or more serious uncle, also has much to offer those for whom the box-office is not their friend.  Numerous special events catch the eye for their content and production and not just their pocket-friendly price-tag. Check out the DTF programme in full here.

‘In Development’ includes a series of work-in-progress’ pieces from some of Ireland’s leading companies. Fishamble presents ‘Silent’ directed by Jim Culleton. Brokentalkers present ‘The Blue Boy’ directed by Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan. Richard Wakely presents ‘The Ministry of Deliverence’ written and directed by Conall Morrison (this should be particularly worth catching) and Corn Exchange present ‘Man of Valour’, developed by Michael West, Annie Ryan and Paul Reid.

If you fancy getting your voice and two-cents out there head along to the panel discussions being held at the Gaiety and Project Arts Centre.  Topics range from environmental and economic recovery, a New World Order in development and of real interest, the increasing emphasis on the role, presence and input of an audience into a production.

‘Drama in the Air’, ‘Yellow’, ‘The Wonderful World of Hugh Hughes’ respectively open up the New Theatre, St Mary’s Abbey (off Capal Street) and the Studio theatre in Smock Alley for extraordinary free works that include Thomas Kilroy, Olwen Foure, Deirdre Roycroft and a cast of many others.  Just think what you would normally pay to see and hear works by these greats?!

Forget what is or isn’t in your wallet. These are great opportunities to get out and about, get involved and to see great theatre, great works and all for free. Get out your map, your diary and pen and set course for as many of these events as you can.

O, and that’s before you even look at the programme for Culture Night, Heritage Week or Archives Awareness 2010! . . . . It’s going to be a busy few weeks!

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Posted by on August 26, 2010 in Culture, Theatre


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Staging Ireland’s Darkest Scenes

It is now over one year since the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland, under the direction of Justice Sean Ryan, delivered its report to the Irish state. Culturally and artistically, there has been an obvious dearth of reaction and interaction with the findings of the enquiry into child abuse in state care.  However, earlier this year the Abbey Theatre commissioned The Darkest Corner, a series to present and disseminate the words, testimony and to bear witness to the findings of what has become known as the ‘Ryan Report’. This series has long since concluded and the fallout from the National Theatre tackling these issues must be examined. What exactly did it achieve and what did it mean for this series to be on our national stage?

Combining docu-theatre, readings and discussions, the Darkest Corner at the Abbey takes its name from a statement issued by then Taoiseach Brian Cowen in describing where the enquiry and subsequent report now left Ireland, morally and socially – a dark corner indeed.

The Darkest Corner is, as Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre, Fiach McConghail described, “the duty and necessity of a national theatre. The months following the publication of the Ryan Report were filled with anger, frustration and a choking realisation that the Abbey simply must respond. Months of discussion between myself and Aideen Howard (Literary Director at the Abbey Theatre) and with artists such as Mannix Flynn, and journalist Mary Raftery strengthened the Abbey’s resolve to respond. It become not a matter of will the Abbey respond, but in what format and how?” McConghail states how one result of The Darkest Corner is the realisation that the Ryan Report is not the be all and end all. “The report is merely one aspect of a nation taking ownership for a shameful past. It is hard to avoid the fact that the Report is fundamentally flawed.”

An effective and vital component of the Darkest Corner was the inclusion of talks and lectures with the artists involved and this allowed a public forum to debate critical issues. Vibrant and emotional comments and feedback were inherent, particularly from Bruce Arnold, who discussed the Politics of Abuse. Arnold likened the industrial school system in Ireland to the Gulags of Russia and stated how after Independence in Ireland, post 1920’s, the U.K. and Ireland fatally diverged in its treatment of these schools. Arnold described reports such as the Kennedy report into the state of Irish residential schools in 1970 as a “whitewash and an amazing piece of chicanery by Church and State and blatantly denied all culpability for abuse of countless innocent children”

Mary Raftery, in devising No Escape, utilised a docu-theatre format in a chilling fashion in bearing witness and in presenting the Ryan Report itself. The Report may have contributed subsequent actions towards dismantling and removing of abusive senior clerics, it was unable however, to dent in any form the political establishment. The Darkest Corner acutely picks up on this through Bruce Arnold, through No Escape and also through Mannix Flynn.

It was interesting and representative of what The Darkest Corner could achieve that Flynn’s first appearance on the Abbey stage was as a speaker and not as a performer. Flynn spoke candidly and personally about Issues of Institutionalisation. He described how as a society Ireland has been institutionalised by blind obedience and fear of anything ‘other’, with all true emotion and sense of love condemned to the point that a child represents only pure sin. There is and was no questioning, only fear. Now, Flynn evangelised, is the time for recourse and redress. Cultural means is but one aspect of this address.

Flynn’s performance of James X focused on a further result of The Darkest Corner, that being class issues. This distinction emphasises that the Ryan report was met with a more concerted and middle class response that the Murphy report was. The Abbey itself could be seen as a venue traditionally associated with middle-class theatre goers. Paddy Doyle, author of The God Squad, makes the point that The Darkest Corner or any of its parts did not essentially need the Abbey to stage these works. He or any group would have read the Ryan Report on any street in Ireland, claimed Doyle.  Doyle who is confined to a wheelchair felt betrayed as the Peacock theatre at the Abbey is not wheelchair accessible, thus negating his presence from any performance of his own testimony.

Doyle, speaking as a person who has submitted private testimony to the Commission was outraged at his story and the testimony of so many others being portrayed on stage, regardless of the intended message of resolution. It raises the question, is Irish theatre able to take on these issues and is it fair to do so? Whatever the answer, the work must be profound, it must focus on healing and must be inclusive to all.

Cultural representation and reflection has obvious roles to play in assisting a people come to terms with absorbing and processing the immense trauma that abuse can inflict on a child. It is crucial that any cultural and artistic address is relevant, accurate and with the expressed wishes of those whose words matter most – the survivors of abuse. The journey for Ireland and its people to truly address this issue is arduously long and the Abbey, as Flynn said, is not a bad place to begin it. All are agreed that we have not even begun to process or comprehend what has happened to generations of Irish children. The Abbey may have failed with regard to disabled access but it did succeed in refusing to continue living in shadows and talking in whispers. A national theatre must beat at the same pulse of its people. It must be at the front line and it must get over the barricades in order to get there and must act as a conduit for change and reform.

For The Darkest Corner to be really judged, it is up to the audience, as citizens, to accept the testimony as truth, act towards justice and forcefully deconstruct the collective amnesia, all the while remembering Paddy Doyle’s words of: “Nothing about us, without us.


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The Story of Vincent River

Eleanor Methven and Kerr Logan

Vincent River has a story to tell. His life has a story and his death has a story. His brutal murder at the hands and weapons of a hate mob pass the story of Vincent into the hands of his mother Anita and his secret lover, Davey. Prime Cut productions at the Cube in Project Arts Centre present a scene where one’s true self and one’s self recognition is forever held to ransom by the judging eyes and ears of neighbours, of family and of fear.

Vincent is absent throughout the play but lives on through the stories of his life that are teased out via a cocktail of alcohol and drugs from the grieving Anita and Davey. We view the story as it unfolds in the dank and grimy East-end London flat recently inhabited by Anita (Eleanor Methven) the mother of Vincent River. The flat, with its exposed rafters and wooden-frame walls invoke a vision of a through-section cut into the domestic life and memories of Vincent, Anita and Davey (Kerr Logan). This access into the private domestic sphere allow the audience the feeling of being the society and neighbours constantly watching and gossiping on the hidden love affairs of Vincent.

Methven is incredibly natural in her portrayal of the heartbroken and withered mother, worn down by a life of menial factory work, no husband and the threats to her son owing to his ‘precarious’ lifestyle. In fact this lack of a male role model for Vincent is pondered by Anita for her son enjoying male relationships. “He would have felt safe maybe”. The naturalness of Methven is at times at odds with Logan’s character, Davey. His accent wanders from Hackney to Merseyside at inopportune moments and is distracting but his delivery of an anxious, confused and utterly lost teenager is compelling.

Sarah Jane Shiel’s astute lighting, especially on the exterior street provides the only indication of passing time as the street lights glow in the passing night, allied with Philip Stewart’s tingling soundtrack creates a tense and enclosed environment.

Sophie Motley’s direction is well driven and structured with perhaps just the middle section lacking the emotive power of the opening and concluding sections, which incidentally contain the most imagery of the last moments of Vincent’s life, ensuring it is the absent titular character that has the most powerful story to tell. The graphic portrayal of the murder of Vincent, in a toilet cubicle of a disused railway station emphasises the isolation and extreme lenghts these men were going to in order to hide their relationship. The homophobic mob, identified only by their malice; “the one who cut, the one who kicked, the one who punched”, end Vincent’s story before it truly began.

If author Philip Ridley and director Sophie Motley sought to solely examine hate crimes, one wonders is there perhaps more that could be teased out of this work, perhaps learning more about Vincent than just his death and awkward childhood. Prime Cut productions have made an at times gripping and engrossing production that tells Vincent’s story when as so often the case, the victims of street violence are silenced forever.

Vincent River is at Project Arts Centre until 21 August 2010.

Touring to: The Alley Theatre, Strabane, 26 August 2010.

The Market Place Theatre, Armagh, 27 August 2010.

The Playhouse Theatre, Derry, 28 August 2010.


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Behan’s “The Quare Fellow” at the New Theatre

The Quare Fellow, Image courtesy of the New Theatre

In a letter to Ernest Blythe, Director of the Abbey Theatre on 18 May 1946, Behan explains the theme of his new play, The Quare Fellow, “Two men are condemned to death and waiting for the rope – I would send it but better not scare the Department of Justice before we have anything done. There is nothing political in it of course”

The Quare Fellow opened at the Pike theatre on 19 November 1954. Blythe would not take Behan’s play, perhapsin fear of  provoking, as Behan warned, ‘The Department’. It turned out quite obviously that The Abbey’s rejection became the Pike Theatre’s gain. The Pike opened on 15 September 1953 and paved the way for Behan to be  recognised in an international capacity as playwright with the first staging of The Quare Fellow.

The Quare Fellow, provisionally called Casadh Sugain Eile or ‘The Twisting of Another Rope’  was intended to be a homage to Douglas Hyde and his Irish language play Casadh an tSugain or ‘The Twisting of the Rope’. Behan believed a play in recognition to Hyde’s work in title would stand a chance of getting in at the Abbey Theatre. That particular plan would not end in success.

Today the play finds itself in the New Theatre, which by all accounts is as near to the original Pike Theatre in size and fabric as one could imagine. The play is based on the last hanging permitted in Ireland in Mountjoy of prisonor Bernard Kirwan. The title character of Behan’s prison drama is never seen on stage but holds a deity-like presence over the other prisoners. The day in the life of the prisoners is distorted with the overhanging (no pun intended) death and the tense and overwrought expression of punishment through execution. The cast finds itself halved in numbers from the original twenty-eight, but the stage is far from empty and loses little of its intended image of cramped prison life.

Behan’s snappy, dark and at times often-humorous dialogue is handled and delivered well through a capable cast with fine performances turned in particularly from PJ Brady, Conor O’Riordan and the deadpan Luke Hayden whose warder Regan represents the humanist Christian element in the play. The Warder has overseen hanging after hanging and is stoical in his expressions and opinions on the sentence of death for a prisoner.

 Jer O’Leary’s rendition of the Auld Triangle tingles and amazes every audience member cramped into a full New Theatre. What should be revised for future production is the rather pointless interval that disrupts the flow of time, tension and intimacy leading up the eventual death of the Quare Fellow.

In 1954, the columnist for the Evening Press described viewing the first performance of The Quare Fellow, “When he (Behan) finds himself technically the Irish theatre will have another, and I believe, greater O’Casey”. The Irish Times wrote, “One of the positive qualities – and there are many – of Mr. Behan’s work is its power of provoking thought. Like a modern novel, it rounds off neither character nor situation but passes the buck, as it were, to the customer”.

Behan’s plays are O’Casey-esque in their sharp critique of idealism. The rejection by the Abbey was often been said to be for this very reason and also owing to its likeness to the modernist works of Beckett and Ionesco. The ‘idealism’ of serving in an Irish prison to that of a British prison where ‘hard time’ was as pleasurable as it sounded is also explored. Dunlavin, the elderly lag, experiences both in his time as a career prisoner:  “I smoked my way half-way through the book of Genesis and three inches of my mattress. When the Free State came in we were afraid of our life that they were going to change our mattresses for feather beds….but thanks be to God, the Free State didn’t change anythin’ more than the badges on the warders cap’.”

On the opening night of the play at the packed Pike theatre, Behan addressed the audience and said “I didn’t write this play, the lags wrote it”. The stage of the New Theatre mirrors in so many ways the original production in the intimate and miniscule Pike theatre. The stage though restricted in physical size is enlarged by Mark Wheatly’s inventive design which creates a space for the lags that seems to expand beyond the prison walls to the realms of their past experiences and imagination. This helped to bring out one of the play’s themes: The attempt by prisoners to create in words a sense of spaciousness and open possibility that is openly denied them in their daily routine.

As with all good theatre, which this undoubtedly is, its connection to the present time makes it all the more accessible and relevant as a production and to an audience. The last hanging in Ireland on 20 April 1954 added to the public reception of the play’s original production and its anti-hanging propaganda. Behan, who stated that this work was written for and by other inmates, created a damning critique of capital punishment and general observations on Irish prison sentences. This past week we witnessed one of the largest media frenzies regarding the release of a prisoner in Ireland. Larry Murphy served just ten and a half years of a fifteen year sentence for a brutal and horrific sexual assault. The case is but one example of many of late where the Irish prison and sentencing system failed in its duty to protect its citizens. In 1954, as the Pike stage belonged to Behan, Irish prisons were being critiqued and examined. The failure to prisoners, the failures to the public and the failures to the State were at critical levels then in 1954. Over a half century later, obvious failures still exist in our prison system. This is a powerful and evocative production of a highly charged and emotive piece that has for too long been absent from the Irish stage.

At the New Theatre until 4 September 2010.


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Audience Participation Essential?

“ ’That is not the West’ a man in the audience cries out, as though he were in the play, which, in a way he is; he will always be in it now, no matter where or in what circumstances it is ever performed again.”

The above line, taken from Joseph O’Connor’s recent novel Ghost Light captured what is inherent when discussing the trend in Irish theatre of reproducing our past and great plays and how revisionism and distance in time can reflect an audience and public reaction to a production that is not of its time.

The idea of theatre being a singular and live event is in itself the very appeal and draw for an audience. As an audience member what one witnesses is the creation on stage, before one’s eyes, of a story, a tale or some part of human experience. It dissects, elucidates and bears new insights into the fabric and nature of human interaction.  As a play runs from its first flash of idea, a surge from synapse to vision, from mind to page and eventually to stage, the play is immediately set into time and into existence, essentially for posterity.

What can be discerned is that a play can be reproduced and reset but finding and recreating the performance is something far more intrinsic and difficult. To reduce the elements that combine to create the ‘liveness’ of a play, and try to identify and recreate each minute detail would be akin to needing a large hadron collider more at home in CERN. As a theatre nation, we are more than just a bit comfortable with delving into the theatrical archives for inspiration and ideas for works to recreate in our theatres while also contemplating their original meaning and their translation to our time and place.

Boucicault, O’Casey, Keane, Yeats, Behan, Wilde: works by all these past masters have found great acclaim in major reproductions of late on the Irish stage. These writers have cemented their place on the high pedestal of Irish literature owing to the continuing relevance, their content and writing and in so small part to the fact their original productions caused riotous reactions, shock and scandal and endless reaction from audience, media , Church, State and public alike.  

In a review of the recent production of The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey Theatre it was said “If O’Casey took an unflinching look at the new Irish State, the nation didn’t always return his clear gaze. Countless revivals have come to romanticize the penury of tenement Dublin, emphasising salty good humour over harsher struggles and softening the play’s intellectual qualities with accretions of sentimentality.”Outside of its political resonance, the Plough’s debate of Socialist VS Nationalist and its flouting of Church and State ideals are indelibly connected to its performances in 1926, which were met with scandal for the presentation of a prostitute on the National stage and for bringing the tricolor into a public house. For an audience at this or any other play, the role they play is as part of the production and part of the production history. The theatrical space as a whole, the cast, crew and each audience member produce the elements of the final performance that is intrinsic to a singular production.

Recent productions have paid particular attention to the role of the audience. Productions by groups such as Pan Pan and The Company have recently reemphasized the inclusiveness of the theatrical experience, by increasing the theatrical space into digital realms and creating an audience that looked each other in the eye rather than the cast. In New York, Peter Stein’s 12-hour version of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons a production that attempts to intermingle spectators and banish isolation. Play goers travel to and from the performance aboard two ferryboats to Governor’s Island and the experience of twelve hours of theatre is surely enough to bring any group of individuals together into a united front.

At the Kilkenny Arts Festival, a piece of theatre by Belgian company Ontroerend Goed entitled The Smile Upon Your Face places the audience in hitherto unexplored realms, bound to a wheelchair, blindfolded and one-on-one with the actor. The singular audience member becomes part of the experience and makes every performance a unique event. The ‘audience’ focuses on experience through a sensory perception previously alien to them as theatre goers. If this work is reproduced in five, ten or twenty years, will it be still be as reactive to an audience and if one was to ‘take part’ a second time, would their experience be reactive to the current time and place in which it is staged? Essentially, can the previous role of the audience live on in future productions?

As Ghost Light elucidates a love story of Synge and his Miss Allgood, the love affair between the audience and the theatre also lives on and is as inherent as any text or stage direction:

“The audience; eating noisily, or drinking or conversing, the little ones wandering about, left to roam by their mothers, and a pedlar straggling in and out as though the show were a fair ground and he moseying the aisles with his ribbons. And by god, you earned their tolerance. If you didn’t, you’d regret it. The audience was always a part of the play. That’s one thing you learned good and hard.”

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Posted by on August 12, 2010 in Culture, Theatre


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