Theatre of and for the masses

Blending the best qualities of Irish and Polish theatre


Sometimes you need to get away from Irish theatre to get a clearer view of it.

It’s easy to become jealous at the Divine Comedy festival in Krakow, for instance, not so much for the quality of the shows but for its audience. Pushing through a scrum of 20-year-olds to get into The Bat, a contemporary adaptation of Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus set in a euthanasia clinic, is like finding yourself in an alternative reality; one where FOMO isn’t exclusively reserved for music gigs.

The Bat didn’t just sell out, it oversold. Tickets in Poland are cheap (about €5), and there are also “entrance only” tickets, with no guaranteed seats. Instead, you sit on a cushion, or on the stairs, or stand at the back. You’d go nuts, wouldn’t you, with your grand sense of entitlement and shoddy knee. Here, nobody seems to mind.

These are among the reasons why the age profile of Polish theatre patrons tends to skew much younger: students, hipsters, a panoply of the unfussy and immaculate. You don’t see such tribes much in Ireland, except at the Project or the Fringe. The lazy explanation is that they are otherwise engaged, Snapchatting selfies at each other or talking about the latest superhero sequel.

But could it be that Irish theatre just isn’t speaking their language? At Divine Comedy there were shows about Courtney Love and Nirvana; a riff on Twin Peaks, The Exorcist and The Shining; and a piece on Jim Morrison and death. A controversial production of Strindberg played in a palace of human skulls with booming use of Kanye West’s Yeezus record (“I AM A GOD!”).

That might sound nakedly populist (like, well, a columnist trying to stay current by referencing Snapchat). But, really, it’s just the natural result of giving opportunities to young theatre-makers to build metaphors out of the gems and junk of their experience.

In Ireland, by comparison, we revive Godot when it turns 60, the Lockout when it turns 100, Pride and Prejudice when it turns 200. Are we aiming to attract that elusive centenarian market?

Trust me, Polish theatre is not all great and, to be honest, most of it isn’t even good. Directors, who are recognised in the street as stars, are hopelessly overindulged, their egos stoked into Kanye West proportions. On the plus side, they can command big budgets, huge casts and deliver brilliantly crazy ideas. On the minus, you get pointlessly long running times, sprawling ideas with no rigour, and the impression that every work is another chapter in the director’s autobiography: a theatrical selfie.

If I could, I’d make both cultures take a good look at each other. Irish theatre is far more commercial and conservative than we like to admit, from neat marketable narratives to brisk running times and guaranteed seats. Those conditions could grant Polish theatre an urgent, necessary dose of cop on. In return, Polish theatre could ask Ireland to live in the now, to see One Direction as a serviceable metaphor for the EU bailout, or to introduce Skrillex to GB Shaw.

There’s a 1980s Polish power ballad that friends endearingly inflict on me called I Love You as I Love Ireland. All right then, Poland, your place or mine?

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