Despair at 'Dorian', feast on 'Famine'
CULTURE SHOCK:PERHAPS WE’VE been spoiled. For well over a century, it has seemed normal to look to the theatre as a space in which the country’s big, dark passions can be played out in public.
It was a space in which both the romantic dreams and the dirty realities of nationalism could be tested; in which postrevolutionary disillusionment could be turned into bitter humour; in which the pain of mass emigration could be probed; in which the clash between tradition and modernity could be dramatised and the illusions of modernity itself mocked. But maybe it was pure dumb luck – a succession of strange, fierce visionaries – that made all of this possible. And maybe that luck is running out.
The huge, angry, wildly imaginative and ferociously engaged presence of Tom Murphy looms over this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, serving both as a beacon and as a rebuke. The sheer power of DruidMurphy, Garry Hynes’s relentless excavation of three Murphy plays, Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark and Famine, threatens to overwhelm everything else, to make much of it seem small and unambitious. It is a great celebration of that old-fashioned thing the play, and a reminder of the capacity of drama to embody in ordinary characters a whole nation’s inner history. But even in that celebration there is a nagging question: will we see its like again?
DruidMurphy is built on three things that are rooted in the Irish theatre of a century ago. One is the now-unfashionable belief in the integrity of a written text, and thus of highly wrought verbal language, that was established here by Yeats and Synge. This is not a preciousness oblivious to the demands of real theatrical production; on the contrary, there is a very substantial – and, to me at least, somewhat regrettable – rewrite of the opening of A Whistle in the Dark in Druid’s cycle. But it is a notion that theatrical dialogue should hang halfway between poetry and music, that it should be shaped with a precision of both sound and sense.
The second is ensemble acting. Hynes’s company for this project has rightly been recognised internationally as one of the most extraordinary exemplars of ensemble playing seen anywhere in recent years. There’s a speed and clarity and intuitive intelligence to the playing that is as mesmerising to watch as Barcelona’s tiki-taka at its most fluent. And the third old-fashioned element is a sense that it all matters very much. The cycle is not political in the narrow sense, though there is much of politics in it. It is even bigger than that. It delves right down into the dark subsoil of the Irish psyche. It seeks nothing less than an explanation of why an entire culture is the way it is.
Perhaps it’s unfair to use DruidMurphy as a benchmark; it draws on decades of work by a great playwright and decades of engagement by Hynes with that work. But there is nonetheless a statement here. Irish theatre has been capable of creating drama that is, on the one hand, passionately engaged with the social and psychological life of the nation and, on the other, of a very high aesthetic order. This drama is one of the glories of modern Irish culture; we have done it as well as, and often better than, anyone else in the world. I’m not suggesting that this passion and ambition and brilliance can’t be manifested in other theatrical forms: Louise Lowe’s Monto Cycle has all the signs of a similar sense of purpose. But the literary play has one advantage that Lowe’s work does not. It can be seen by a lot of people; it can address a collective audience.