Stage Struck: Nobody in subsidised theatre is reckless, but theatre is and should be a risky busines

The gap between commerical and subsidised theatre is shrinking. Can it be creative without a safety net?

Playing it predictable: Sive at the Abbey Theatre

Playing it predictable: Sive at the Abbey Theatre

Fri, Feb 21, 2014, 13:42

It says something about Irish theatre right now that its riskiest undertaking is, arguably, a Noël Coward play. Coward, with his “talent to amuse”, is no stranger to the Gate, but since 1985 the same gossamer-weight comedies have been in regular rotation, usually at the same time of year: “A little light summer fun for everyone,” as they were described.

You couldn’t call their current show, The Vortex , a winter warmer. Set among a poisonous social circle, it puts a drug-addicted son and a vainglorious mother on a path towards assured mutual destruction. At the Gate, Coward is as familiar and reassuring as a brand-name soft drink. The surprise of Annabelle Comyn’s excellent and freighted production is that he is also available in sour cherry.

By comparison, programming elsewhere is considerably more risk-averse. The Abbey’s new production is Sive by John B Keane, one of the most popular and frequently staged writers in Ireland. Druid recently concluded a national tour of The Colleen Bawn by Dion Boucicault, theatre’s epitome of a guilty pleasure by a man as celebrated for melodrama as for making theatre a mass entertainment.

It’s hardly coincidental that theatres should be watching their bottom line while subsidies to the arts are falling to frightening lows, accompanied by Minister Jimmy Deenihan’s mantra to boost philanthropy and corporate sponsorship. “Some people are good at asking for money,” he said in a sponsored Irish Times supplement last week. Some people worry about taking it.

How corporate input influences artistic outcome is not necessarily as blunt as “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. Subsidised companies, cautious about their financial health, may instead begin to think in commercial terms: Forget what’s new. What sells?

Nobody in subsidised theatre is reckless, but theatre is and should be a risky business. The profiteer wants to give audiences exactly what they want, but the artist gives audiences something they never knew they wanted.

Ironically, no one knows that better than the commercial world, which has routinely benefitted from subsidised risks: Jerry Springer: The Opera ran for years, but it started at the experimental Battersea Arts Centre. Matilda , the West End and Broadway success, would not exist if the Royal Shakespeare Company hadn’t originally taken a leap into the unknown with its composer and writer, as Dennis Kelly recently wrote.

Marie Jones’s world-conquering Stones in His Pockets (soon to return) likewise started out at Belfast’s Dubbeljoint, and one of the most successful Irish plays ever, Dancing at Lughnasa , began at the Abbey.

The subsidised theatre isn’t a feeder school for the commercial sector, nor is the West End the only valid reward for risk-takers, and their identities should remain distinct even if they become entwined. “Look at Andrew Lloyd Webber!” Margaret Thatcher once crowed over complaints about falling arts subsidy, as though entrepreneurship and roller-skating trains could compensate.

With the tightening purse strings of the State and the gravitational pull of huge commecial venues such as the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre (a model of sponsorship, box office and imported productions), a little of that logic is being repeated here.

Now, I love a singing cat as much as the next man, but theatre needs to be properly supported if we want it to be brave. Get rid of the safety nets, and you’ll never see another tightrope walker.

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