Somebody please make a drama out of the crisis
IMAGINE SOMEONE from an alien culture where theatre is unknown. If you dropped her into Dublin during the first week of the theatre festival, what impression might she get of this strange art form?
That it is mostly a kind of secondary exercise, a way of exploring what has already been done in another art form, namely prose fiction. She would not think that it had very much to do with contemporary life in the city. She would not encounter very much in the way of traditional theatre, the written play in which audiences are taken on an emotional or intellectual journey through a crisis and towards some kind of resolution.
At the time of writing, I’ve seen half a dozen shows of varying quality in the festival. Of the six, just one is, in the traditional sense, a play. And none is a drama.
It’s been obvious for some time that there’s something of a crisis in the old form of the Irish drama; a carefully written text that is animated and embodied by a director and actors. So far this year’s festival gives no reason to think either that the crisis has been resolved or that the search for a new kind of theatre has concluded.
FIRST, THE CRISIS.If you want to see how and why there’s a problem with the old model of the well-crafted, beautifully dressed, author-driven play, there’s no need to look much farther than Declan Hughes’s The Last Summer at the Gate. It oozes a sense of stasis from every pore. Both in form and content, it is deja vu all over again. It is about lives that remain trapped in amber, frozen at a key moment in youth, circling round themselves in an inescapable spiral of futility. But it also suggests a theatrical imagination similarly stuck.
The Last Summer, give or take some references to the property boom and crash, could have been staged at a Dublin theatre festival 40 years ago. Or, to be precise, 38 years ago. The highlight of the 1974 festival was Hugh Leonard’s Summer. It has the same south Dublin; the same device of a group of aspirational middle-class friends encountered in two different summers: in Leonard’s they are six years apart; in Hughes’s they are 1977 and 2007. And it has the same themes of spoiled hopes, of lust and loss, of inevitably doomed attempts to set the clock back to a moment of pure possibility.
This is not to say that Hughes’s play is a mere version of Leonard’s. It works differently, with the two periods interwoven rather than presented in sequence. It is much more plot-driven, with more vivid on- or off-stage action: sex, drink and rock ’n’ roll. But it is also not as good: less funny, less movingly melancholic. It is much more awkward, not least in the way it places young and inexperienced actors in the company of accomplished veterans such as Cathy Belton and Declan Conlon. Where Leonard managed to explore the idea of being stuck in the past, Hughes seems simply to exemplify that condition.
It’s not hard to see why younger or more radical theatre artists would want to avoid this condition by fleeing traditional drama altogether: but to where? Mostly, in the first week of the festival, the destination is clear: to books rather than to contemporary life. Of my half-dozen shows, three are based on the work of long-dead prose writers (and this does not include the Abbey’s version of Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray) and one has a prose writer at its centre; Hughes’s pivotal character, Paul, has written a nonfiction book about the group.