The stage seems densely populated. So how come the dressing rooms are so empty?
Cast of dozens: Stephen Jones and Damian Kearney in Stones in His Pockets
If you look around Irish theatre right now, the stage seems to be teeming with characters, but backstage the dressing rooms are pretty much empty. This is down to a particular combination of theatrical form and economics – in other words, the arithmetic of multiple role-play. Two into one won’t go? Well, try 15 into two.
That’s the division of labour in Marie Jones’s 1996 play Stones in His Pockets, currently revived at the Gaiety, which is probably the industry standard in multiple role-play. Each night Stephen Jones and Damian Kearney begin as two small-fry film extras on an American movie shoot in Kerry, then rapidly build up a gallery of 13 more characters: the female movie star, the film director, the production team and assorted villagers, including two 12-year-old boys. They do this with few props or costume changes, while a row of footwear at the back of the stage reminds you of all the shoes they have to fill.
For many, those shoes will always belong to the show’s originators, Conleth Hill and Seán Campion, whose careers went stratospheric following the play’s international success. And you don’t need to look too far to see how many people have followed in their footsteps.
Take Donal O’Kelly’s Little Thing Big Thing, a play so contented with its political thriller plot formula that it might as well be a movie. In fact, the most theatrical quality of Fishamble’s fine production is that O’Kelly and Sorcha Fox similarly split its 19 roles between them, taking a crook called Larry and a nun called Martha as their base characters, then splintering into a myriad others.
The performance isn’t as dazzling as the slalom pole changes of Stones. Indeed, Little Thing relies much more on the brisk and imagistic motion of O’Kelly’s language to create scenes, shift perspectives and populate the stage. But, like Stones or Owen McCafferty’s 1998 play Mojo-Mickybo (17 characters between two actors), the delight of the production (which Sister Martha should appreciate) is closer to the religious miracle of the loaves and the fishes: despite obviously scant resources, there’s enough to sustain a multitude. That’s become the rationale of our theatre, forever forced to do more with less.
Is it coincidence that a show that opened this week, also strong on multiple roleplay, is called Fishes ? (Yes, probably.)There are similar politics in David Fennelly’s play, directed by John Morton at Bewley’s Café Theatre, which divides seven or so characters between two actors. Most are played by the gifted John Doran, who slips between an awkward dole officer, a mothered mammy, a simpering one night stand, a priapic Slovakian flatmate and even the protagonist’s inner demon.
What binds all these pullulating roles together? They’re all caricatures. Where we once applauded actors for fully inhabiting a single role, now we’re dazzled by a giddying relay race of impersonations, where a dozen or more “types” are picked up and discarded. It’s a display of the actor’s versatility, certainly, but it’s also a bit of a parlour trick, lending more readily to formula and comedy. (Even Hamlet, performed as a one-and two-man show, becomes more about technique than tragedy.)
Still, there may be something subtly pointed to about multiple role-play coming back into fashion, where all those empty shoes, roughly sketched characters and over-exerted performers remind us finally not of plenty, but of a much more conspicuous absence. The shows always look smaller when it’s time to bow, and even the miraculous mathematics of multiple role-play don’t disguise a thinning of substance.
Some things, it seems, are indivisible.