The best of Irish theatre: this year's nominees
Announcing 'The Irish Times' Irish Theatre Awards shortlists for 2012
‘It was an amazing year for opera,” Sinéad Mac Aodha says , as she and her fellow judges, Damian Downes and John Fairleigh, discuss the shortlist for the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards for 2012. The evidence is the unprecedented number of nominations this year for Irish opera companies across the categories. Not including the four nominations for best opera – “and it was a struggle to whittle them down”, Mac Aodha says – opera is strongly represented in the technical categories.
“People can forget that opera is essentially a theatrical medium,” Fairleigh says. “That was the reason it was first brought into the awards, and we saw such quality in every category – cutting-edge sets, brilliant direction – so of course we weren’t going to segregate it.”
The strength of the opera tradition in Ireland was one of the big surprises for the judges this year, especially in light of the ongoing controversy about the restructuring of funding mechanisms for the medium. “There may be less [opera],” Downes says, “but it is of a very high standard. From what we saw, it is not in crisis; it is thriving.”
If the shortlist for 2012 reflects anything, it is the vibrancy of theatre and opera throughout the country in a climate where arts funding is shrinking in all contexts. Fairleigh and Mac Aodha have both judged the awards before, when the arts were more generously funded, but, regardless of the recession, they agree there is probably more work to see now. “Sometimes it is of varying quality, much of the time it is on a smaller scale, but overall the volume of high-standard work is still probably the same, ” says Mac Aodha.
For Fairleigh, “it was particularly heartening to see the explosion of new work by young companies,” in the years since he last sat on the judging panel.
“What is clear is that there is a new confident generation who are aspiring not to join the mainstream but to forge their own path. These are making work about their own lives, and they are talking to each other, people who you might not see in a conventional theatre.”
The work did, however, suffer from a lack of technical expertise. In that context, “there was no sense of this work being funded, but you got the sense that the telling was its own reward.”
The strength of emerging talent, however, presented the judges with a problem: “how to compare something with a budget of €20,000 or €30,000 with something that is being produced with limited resources,” as Downes says. “We saw some great short pieces and a whole bunch of new work that was really polished and well attended, but these types of awards don’t really cater for them. It really highlighted for us the vibrancy away from the mainstream, and if we were to leave any legacy in our handover [to the new judges] it would be to lobby for the creation of a new category to acknowledge emerging work.”
In the bigger theatres the year was marked by several “faithful and invigorating productions of brilliant plays. It just goes to show how a modest approach to directing classic work can be so illuminating,” Fairleigh says.
Lack of new plays
They were disappointed, however, by the lack of new plays being produced by the major theatres. While acknowledging that “the notion of the play as central to the theatre has diminished in Ireland over the last few years”, Fairleigh maintains that a paucity of new work is coming through in the mainstream, despite heavy investment in development processes by the larger theatres and companies. “So little of that work actually gets to the stage. Instead you get new versions of Shakespeare or new translations of classic texts or adaptations of work by big names,” he says.
“It’s not a crisis, but it is definitely a cause for concern,” Mac Aodha says.