Tag Archives: Smock Alley Theatre

John B’s classic revived at Smock Alley

The Highest House on the Mountain received its premiere in 1960 by Orion productions at the Dublin International Theatre Festival. It couldn’t be much further removed from the windswept and isolated rural setting of the play itself, but that fact serves to emphasise that John B. Keane’s work had nationwide appeal that preceded his native Kerry home. This appeal owed simply to the fact that Keane was as gifted and as pure a story-teller as was known in Ireland. Fifty years later, one of his greatly underappreciated works is being staged in Smock Alley theatre.

The play has Jim Ivers directing and in his own personal reflections on Keane’s works, he states that there was a sense of literary snobbery regarding Keane’s work in the 1950’s and 1960’s. “This is a crucial misunderstanding” forces Ivers. “Keane’s works were often deemed ‘unfashionable’ is an evolving Ireland that sought to look away from its past. But instead, Keane’s writing challenged and was centrally concerned with the clash between the forces of change and tradition, agriculture and industrialisation, the family unit and liberality versus sexual repression.”

Tavistock Arts assembled a young and extremely capable cast, including debutants such as Dave Curry and award winning Geoff O’Keefe (Michael McLiommoir Best Male Actor award for Billy Reddin International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival 2010.) O’Keefe turns in an excellent performance as Mikey, the widowed head of the household based in rural south-west Ireland. O’Keefe is spot-on with accent and mannerisms of his character and is hugely comical and also moving as a father who loses his wife and will also lose far more.

The Highest House… comments and delves into the framework of the family unit, including roles and hierarchy. Mikey and Sonny’s existence is suddenly altered by the return from England by Mikey’s son Patrick and his new wife, Julie, excellently played by Eimear Kenny. The play centres on the existence of family and personal secrets and the public and private edifice which family members portray. These hidden lives and false fronts vie with the true reality of the character’s personalities. Sonny retreats to a hermit like existence in face of the church and family and seeks solace in the unassuming and simple mountain folk. Mikey, following the death of his wife, humorously focuses his passions on other means of satisfaction, notably chops and black pudding.

Connie, Mikey’s rogue son enters the fray seeking to break the hatred of him by his father and in turn seek his share of the family farm. With Connie’s return comes also the outing of the deep and terrible secrets of each character’s past. Each has personal shame and Connie exploits these with threats and violence. As Patrick, Julie and Sonny all fall foul of their past, blame is apportioned to who brought this plague upon the household. Death proves to be the ultimate conclusion for many and cleanses all of their sins. Keane, however, also writes of forgiveness and the ability to overlook past flaws for the good of the soul and the god of the family.

The work is an interesting commentary on the mindset of the Irish community and its predetermination on land, land owing, wealth and family. The desire for wealth leads many to their moral and physical destruction and their eventual death. This of course has more than just simple relevance in today’s post-boom society. It strikes with more than just familiarity of the recent classic, The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant by Tom Murphy at the Abbey Theatre, which deals with a crumbling estate headed by an ailing matriarch undermined by a scheming and land-grabbing son.

 In the striking setting of the stone walled and galleried Boys School stage at Smock Alley, This is an opportunity to see a moving, humorous and at all times engaging story by one of Ireland’s master story tellers.

The Highest House on the Mountain runs at the Boys School in Smock Alley Theatre until 31 July 2010.


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New archival resource guide for Smock Alley Theatre

A new research guide has been published on-line detailing an extensive catalogue of archival and reference sources for the exceptional Smock Alley theatre in Dublin’s historic Templebar. The guide comes as a new website has been launched specifically for Smock Alley. Prior to this, Smock Alley was placed only within the Gaiety School of Acting’s website. The Gaiety School, under the direction of Patrick Sutton and management of Niamh Byrne retains ownership and management of the spaces and buildings of Smock Alley.

Opened in 1662 by the Scottish John Ogilvy, Smock Alley is one of the oldest theatres of it’s kind in Europe. It is celebrated as one of the great English language and post-Restoration theatres and flourished in the late 17th century. Within its management, designers and repertoire of actors it can boast Thomas Sheridan, Colley Cibber, Peg Woffington, Spranger Barry, Louis de Val, Charles Macklin, Richard Brinsley-Sheridan and many others.

Smock Alley grew and developed its own very rich reputation as a place of immense spectacles, colourful performances and rich history. The building, more recently known as SS Michael and John’s church, has been completely redeveloped and a full archaeological examination has unearthed original structures, walls and vaults. Smock Alley has now been restored to much of its former glory and mystic but even more exciting developments lie ahead. It is envisioned to reinstate the main auditorium to fit the design of the original Smock Alley theatre while also maintaining the black-box studio space and utilize the amazing spaces of the Boys and Girls School adjacent.

Smock Alley is running full time as one of the most exciting and challenging theatre spaces in Dublin. It is a cultural asset beyond measure in value and provides an experience for actor, director, designer and audience member that they will long struggle to forget. A recent production, Knives in Hens, by Landmark productions is one such production that will live long in the memory for those lucky enough to see this powerful and striking production. Smock Alley regularly stages works and participated in various festivals and city-wide cultural events.

Scene from “Knives in Hens” by Landmark productions at Smock Alley.

The guide to the archival sources for Smock Alley is an extremely beneficial tool to any researcher of Irish theatre or social and urban history of Dublin. The guide contains a detailed written history of Smock Alley, a listing and archive/library call numbers of plays and play texts that were produced by the numerous playwrights of Smock Alley, original posters from Smock Alley productions, newspapers which carried coverage and reports and general text and reference books on Smock Alley and on Irish and international theatre of the period. The guide can be downloaded in full from the Smock Alley website along with the full archaeological report and media and press coverage.


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Theatre at the Barricades

 “A national theatre’s place is the stage, not the barricades”, argues Mick Heaney in his article (Sunday Times, Culture, 14 Mar 2010) The barricades of which Heaney speaks are those which are currently heaving under the weight of angered and frustrated people who have felt the smothering hand of recession in Ireland the most.  The Irish air-waves and television screens are buzzing with outcry and disbelief directed at the constant surfacing of scandals to hit our banks, corporate boardrooms, clergy and churches. While many feel a saturation point has long been surpassed in relation to round-the-clock coverage to recession themed programming and chilling tales of abuse of power and innocence, a public without an expressed voice and opinion has little chance of beginning to rectify what has brought about these unprecedented times.

Since Fiach MacConaghail took over from Ben Barnes as Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre, he immediately sought to right what he and many others saw as the misdirection the Abbey had previously taken. Debts were rising and audiences flagging. MacConaghail believed that the national theatre should be pulsing at the same rate of the heart of the people. It is the people who make a country what it is. They are who live, study, work, rear families and, yes, also vote within a country. While there is scarcely an individual in Ireland who has not felt the pangs of economic readjustment, it is WE who elected and re-elected a government who rode the highest crest of an economic tidal wave but with seldom a thought to this wave turning into a thunderous tsunami and have it crash on our shores. Public opinion towards government during the Boom years was of indifference and of the laziest type of Laissez-Faire. Now, the national theatre has tried to reinvigorate public debate and opinion and the state of the nation and on our political, social and economic state.

The program of productions at the Abbey and indeed in Irish theatre for the last number of months have been dominated by political responsive works. Even earlier, in April 2009, Love and Money written by Dennis Kelly and produced at the Project Arts Centre foretold an eerily cautionary tale of consumerism based on a high credit-subsidised level that can and will lead to ruin of self, sanity and relationships. The work produced by Hatch theatre company received strong reviews, notably for the roles played by Kate Brennan and Barry Ward and acted as a warning light for what would arrive in the near future in our news headlines but also in our theatres.

Love and Money, image courtesy of Project Arts Centre

The stages of Irish theatres would soon be awash with political works and, counter to the argument made by Mick Heaney, most were extremely strong pieces of drama, extremely well written, produced and acted. Dublin-born playwright Conall Quinn has this year been awarded the Stewart Parker Trust Award, a prestigious recognition of new writing and writers. His play, The Death of Harry Leon performed in the fantastic Smock Alley theatre in January 2009 was a counter factual drama that portrayed an Ireland that had aligned itself with German Fascism in the 1930’s and 1940’s and also alluded to Irish political and military elements active at the time. Quinn asks tough questions about national identity, racial prejudice and distorted ideology that are as much present today as they are in the past. Fintan O’Toole described this work as “terrifically courageous. It does what political theatre should do, taking real risks in order to provoke new thoughts.” The Parker trust recognises Quinn as a writer of brave, thought rendering and powerful drama, which also happens to be political in its tone and resonance.

Conall Quinn at Smock Alley Theatre. Image Courtesy of Irish Times

Therein lies a critical distinction. The elements that make up a well written, well produced and well acted drama should not be diminished or treated as “other” simply because they are political in essence. Thought provoking work on the social, ethical, financial and legislative failures of our government and citizens should not be dismissed in favour of those which steer clear of civic significance. For too long a lack of public debate and discussion on the failures within Irish moral society and business have facilitated a culture of abuse on astounding levels. If theatre and the arts do not take up the mantle of removing the cloak cast upon many aspects of Irish society then there is a very real risk that actions can continue underneath it unabated. Business as usual.

On January 30th 1961, a new play The Evidence I Shall Give was premiered at the Abbey Theatre. Written by a district court Judge, Richard Johnson, the play dealt with, quiet openly, the abuse and fear that prevailed in Irish institutional schools and Magdalene Laundries. Frustrated by the restraint in the Irish Judicial system in dealing with cases of abuse on young people within these state sanctioned homes and the indifference that was also evident among Irish families and parishes, Johnson honed his craft as a writer and used the powerful ally of the stage to create a public awareness and view of self accountability in the face of these systemic and moral failings.

The play had an initial run of 42 performances, quite a substantial run for any work on the Abbey stage by a debutant playwright. More startling was that the play received another 42 performances from 10 July 1961, a further 6 shows on 6 July 1961 and yet another run of 21, 9 and 6 performances on 1 August, 18 September and 9 October 1961 respectively. This run totals 126 performances. This equates to The Evidence I Shall Give being on the Abbey Stage for roughly one third of the calendar year. This was at a time when the Second Vatican Council was still meeting in re-evaluating its Catholic doctrine and role of its Bishops. Johnson’s belief in the power of theatre and ability to create and provoke sincere debate and thought was not lost on this play, but perhaps lost to some degree by an audience who left the performance behind in the theatre and did not question within themselves the themes of abuse raised by the play.

 Following on from this play, which is being revived currently by a reading at the Abbey as part of its Darkest Corner series, Tom Murphy’s play the Sanctuary Lamp, premiered in 1975 caused ructions and was met by outcry in an Ireland that was still heavily subscribed to a burdening fear of the Mitre. The Project Arts Centre at this time also acted as an outcrop and forum for public discourse and discussion in an otherwise indifferent Irish society to tackling social failures that were hitherto unspeakable.

I can understand Mick Heany’s worry at the Abbey or any theatre becoming merely a soapbox and an outlay to vent frustrations at a weak and floundering government. This does not benefit theatre and should not be its goal. However, for any theatre, be it the national theatre or otherwise, it must first come to terms and recognise the true character of the nation and people it is based in and those whom it represents. This means a thorough and comprehensive overhaul of the states many failures and to once again produce an audience that cares about its theatre, an audience that is strongly willed enough to take stock of their individual failures and create a public forum through powerful drama that can leave an audience thinking and reassessing its beliefs as no other medium can do.

Fiach McConghail, Director of the Abbey Theatre. Image courtesy of University of Limerick


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Buried Treasure!……in Templebar.

Working in Dublin City Centre, I often find myself passing a dreary lunch hour (it is January after all and currently resembling a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) browsing around different book shops in town. While all the usual big names and established stores are fine, especially when I am armed with vouchers from Christmas!, It’s well worth checking out charity bookshops. A particular favourite is the Oxfam bookshop on Parliament Street, just off Templebar.

It really is well organised and well stocked and is mercifully all arranged which eliminates the rummaging through piles of rubbish which other stalls and shops have. I have found plenty of great reads for a couple of euro that otherwise I would be shelling out a hell of a lot more for. The real beauty of these shops is that not only are you doing your good deed for the day but also getting something back other that good karma!

Also, you just never know what you will find. In that shop on Parliament Street alone I have bought for just over 50 euro the Collected Works of Padraic Pearse  – Complete Political Speeches  and the Collected Plays, Poems and Stories. Even as a student I could never afford to buy these volumes, if I was lucky enough to even find them! A couple of editions are currently for sale online for about 200-250 euro

With the centenary anniversary of the Easter Rising fast approaching, these and all 1916 material will skyrocket in value. Just look at the items sold at the Adams’ Independence auctions in Dublin for the last few years. However, I can categorically state that the Pearse volumes are NOT FOR SALE!

Another lucky find was a late nineteenth century edition of the memoirs of Susanna Cibber, the daughter of the celebrated actor and director Colley Cibber, he being one of the famous names at Smock Alley theatre during the early eighteenth century. The price….2 euro!

It just shows, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure!

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Posted by on January 12, 2010 in Culture, History, Theatre


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