How to be Decadent in a time of hardship for Irish theatre

Andrew Flynn, Decadent Theatre Company’s director, has an unusual ability to combine artistic passion with the deal-clinching pitches of a travelling salesman

 

A few years ago, the director Andrew Flynn got into his car and hit the road. His Galway-based company had been staging productions at the Town Hall Theatre. They were seven years old and still nowhere on the map. “We were doing all this work, and then it was buried,” he recalls, in a riverside cafe opposite the Town Hall Theatre. “So I decided I’d try and convince the venues.”

The show he had to offer was no easy sell, a drama called Country Music by Simon Stephens, a fine writer with no particular following in Ireland. “A powerful little play,” says Flynn, a bearishly big man with the courtesy of a prince. He is animated in conversation, and tends to speak in quick, clipped sentences. “It’s a brilliant play. It wouldn’t be a crowd-puller. It’s nothing to do with country music.”

Whatever the venues needed to back the show, Flynn said he would supply. Worried about audiences? How about a matinee for schools? Nervous about their budget? Flynn asked for a modest fee and “sold them a show at a really low guarantee”. He booked a four-week tour, drove home and quietly began turning Decadent Theatre Company into one of the most indispensable companies in Ireland.

“It kind of gave me a foothold into venues. They saw the show and thought, okay, they’re not chancing their arm.”

This was in 2008, just as arts funding began to plummet, and the company received its first project grant for €40,000. Last year, with a proven touring record, high production values and reassuring audience appeal, the company received an award of €92,000 to tour a Martin McDonagh play. It was the largest project award granted that year.

 

Conflicting responses

To some, Decadent Theatre Company is the saviour of a nation worryingly oversupplied with performance venues and arts centres, mostly built during the Celtic Tiger years with European subsidy, that have now been starved of content. To others, Decadent’s success is a symptom of the conservatism that grips venues and the Arts Council in a prolonged time of crisis. One of the reasons for the company’s success is that it deals almost exclusively with non-original content and marquee names – McPherson, McDonagh, Billy Roche, the Love/Hate guy. Anxious venue managers look to their budget and their box office and preach the gospel of “bums on seats”. These days, bums need an awful lot of persuading.

Flynn has an unusual ability to combine artistic passion with the deal-clinching pitches of a travelling salesman. He is pragmatic about making theatre, and completely unaffected about its merits. In an email exchange from more than two years ago, involving his company’s plans to stage McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara, a cartoonishly bleak early work, I wrote back only half-facetiously, “Why, man? WHY??”

Actually, Decadent’s 2013 production spoke for itself. Rather than treat the play with the solemn scenography and naturalistic performance that Druid, McDonagh’s professional midwife, might have swaddled the work in, Decadent treated the play as a grim fairy tale, set in a surreal, slanted landscape created by the company’s ingenious set designer, Owen MacCarthaigh.

Flynn’s relationship with McDonagh goes back to the start of their respective careers. Flynn was born in Nenagh, Co Tipperary. He started a youth theatre group as an 18-year-old and began staging urban works by Dermot Bolger, discovering that he far preferred directing. As a student at University of Limerick, he met others interested in theatre, among them the actor and sound designer Carl Kennedy and the actor Niall Cleary, who later founded Decadent with him after graduating. (“If I’m honest,” he says of the name, “we came up with it fairly hammered in a pub.”)

At home in Nenagh, in a hall with 25 people, he saw Druid’s seminal production of Vincent Woods’s At the Black Pig’s Dyke, “and it just blew me away”. After hounding the company for work experience, he found himself sweeping floors and making tea during the days when founding member Garry Hynes returned to the company as artistic director. She had decided to stage a black comedy by an unknown London-Irish writer. It was called The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

It is hard to say why McDonagh – who has never allowed The Pillowman to be produced by an Irish company before – should have anointed Decadent. Of all his works it is the one he has guarded most zealously. The story of a writer held captive in a totalitarian state, whose gruesome fairy tales may have inspired a wave of copycat child murders, it seems to contain his alter-ego: a man who imagines violent horrors and who is much criticised and fiercely protective. It was first written in a manic burst in 1994 and went unstaged until 2003. It counts as his best play.

McDonagh and Flynn are close. McDonagh introduced Flynn to the woman he would later marry, Gráinne O’Byrne. On their wedding day, McDonagh gave them a gift: the first typed draft of The Pillowman with his handwritten notes.

McDonagh has been quite involved in this production. “Going in on day one and having him there meant a lot,” says Flynn. “You get the sense with Martin that he knew everything about the play.” McDonagh had advised on the casting. It was his idea, for instance, to cast David McSavage, the sardonic stand-up comedian, as Tupolski, the sardonic police officer, despite his lack of acting experience.

“He was definitely challenging in the room,” Flynn says of McSavage. (The director, the writer and the performer are all refreshingly frank.) “The other actors were very patient. Ultimately, he was desperate to get the integrity of it right. He has a dislike of theatre. He thinks it’s all very proclaimed. But you have to be bigger. And Martin’s work is heightened. It’s not naturalistic at all, really.”

The decision seemed again to be a balance between art and pragmatism. McSavage is a box-office name, but, like the play, he is also a purveyor of unpalatable ideas who is often criticised for going too far.

“It’s an Arts Council-funded show, and yet we’re dipping our toe into the commercial world,” says Flynn, as though trying to square a circle.

 

The company’s limitations

Still, Decadent cannot be all things to all people. Flynn knows the company’s limitations: with little new work, exclusively male writers and almost exclusively male casts, they do plenty to maintain audiences but little to challenge them. “You’re right; it is something we should be doing,” he says of new work, with genuine concern. “Because annual funding is more or less gone now, that’s where we have had to go. We have been going after certain titles. Whether or not that would change, I would hope so. But new writing is suffering now because the independent companies aren’t doing enough of it.” It isn’t Decadent’s problem, of course; it’s our problem.

Decadent have been chasing brand names long enough, and well enough, to have now become one. As with Druid, regional audiences recognise Decadent’s name and may be more inclined to take a punt on the ticket price. The company’s next work is a tour of Vernon God Little, Tanya Ronder’s adaptation of DBC Pierre’s acidly comic Bildungsroman. Venues have been slow to sign off on the tour, says Flynn, but he tells how he persuaded one sceptic by showing him a production of David Greig’s Midsummer he had imaginatively reconceived for Galway Youth Theatre.

“If they experience a thing, they’re willing to go for it more,” he says. The venue manager bought the tour dates immediately. Another satisfied customer.

 

The Pillowman continues at the Gaiety Theatre until Mar 14, touring to the Everyman, Cork, March 16th-21st; and Lyric Theatre, Belfast, March 24th-April 19th

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