The new theatre: magical, visible, hidden


CULTURE SHOCK:THE 2011 DUBLIN THEATRE FESTIVAL is, I believe, the most significant in 30 years. This is not to say (though the quality has been very high) that it is necessarily the best.

But it is a landmark, pointing to very profound changes in the nature of Irish theatre. Thirty years ago, the Dublin festival marked a big shift away from a purely literary drama and towards a more physical, visually rich kind of theatre. This year, it crystallises an equally tectonic shift: the crisis of the traditional Irish play and a set of reasonably coherent responses to that crisis.

The first part of this equation is obvious enough. Observers of my generation took it for granted that at the centre of any Dublin festival would be at least one big new Irish play. It might be wonderful or it might be bad, but it would certainly be the major topic of conversation. This expectation has been fading in recent years; this year, it finally evaporated. The whole notion that there is such a thing as the big new Irish play is very much open to doubt.

It is striking that two of the mainstream new Irish works in the festival, Colm Toibín’s Testament and Hugo Hamilton’s The Speckled People,came from novelists and had at least one foot in the world of literary prose.

Equally striking is that the one new play from an established mid-career Irish playwright, Marina Carr’s 16 Possible Glimpses, is confined to a small space (the Peacock) and is anything but a confident declaration of faith in the continuing relevance of the well-wrought play.

The basic idea of such a play is the primacy of the playwright’s individual imagination, a vision made manifest in words, which is then “served” by the actors and director. Carr’s 16 Possible Glimpses(which I found more engaging than many others seemed to do) is actually a self-conscious questioning of this whole idea. It very deliberately chooses as its subject the life of the great master of the well-wrought play, Anton Chekhov. And then it questions the relationship of that life to the imagination that sprang from it. It also physically deconstructs the Chekhovian play itself, using an episodic, cinematic structure and sandwiching the action between two layers of video imagery. The point is not so much that 16 Possible Glimpsesis no masterpiece as that it suggests the whole idea of the dramatic masterpiece has disappeared.

It is just as significant that by far the most confident and joyous mainstream Irish work in the festival is not a play at all. It is the thrilling collaboration between the choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan and the musician Liam Ó Maonlaí. Rian is not an entirely abstract spectacle, and it can be seen as a kind of exhalation, a letting go of post-Celtic Tiger rage. Its use of Irish traditional music is not nostalgic or sentimental. There is no retreat into an imagined preboom innocence but, rather, a more complex, subtle and challenging exploration of the idea of cultural globalisation. Older energies are conjured up and released into the contemporary world. The feel is not of a drama but of a ritual.

But what do you do if you can’t sing and dance? What’s left of a kind of theatre that wants to confront directly the darknesses of recent Irish history? What makes this festival so important is the way it has brought together a number of younger artists who are not just dancing on the grave of the well-wrought play but actively inventing new ways in which theatre can function in a public and highly political space. You don’t have to go along with the notion that literary drama is dead (and I don’t) to be excited by the evidence that a serious and consistent alternative is really finding its voice.

That response, within the festival, consists of five shows that use very different forms but overlap in so many ways that it is reasonable to identify them as a single movement: let’s call it magic hyper-realism. Two of the shows, significantly, are retreads from last year’s Dublin Fringe Festival: Heroinand World’s End Lane.The other three are Laundry, Tradeand The Blue Boy.

The first thing these shows have in common is that they abandon one or more of the basic elements of drama: a text, a theatre, an audience and a performer. The last of these four remains indispensable, but the other three have suddenly become optional. Only Mark O’Halloran’s Trade has a conventional play text, one that places a recognisable authorial voice at or near the centre. Only The Blue Boyand Heroinhappen in theatres and then both seek to subvert and unsettle the usual relationship between stage and audience. The other three are site-specific. And World’s End Laneand Laundryeven dispense with the audience, both by isolating each spectator and by blurring the lines between “spectator”, “witness” and “participant”.

To put it more positively, each of the shows has at least four of the following five elements: it focuses on the notion of dark, hidden stories; it uses documentary materials as well as imaginative ones; it depends on a very specific sense of place; it draws at least as much on the physical as on the verbal; and it has no interest in providing entertainment. The idea of a night out is under sustained assault.

This new mood is confrontational, even aggressive. The old theatre assumes that the audience wants to see what’s on offer. The new stuff assumes that it doesn’t. The governing idea is of making the unseen not just visible but unavoidable. Gone is suspension of disbelief: this work is all about forcing you to believe. The refrain of Heroin– “this didn’t happen” – sounds through all this work. The aim is to call into being a reality that has been repressed. Old-style realism isn’t enough – we’re in the realms of hyper-realism, of images that scream out that they are not mere images.

At the simplest level, Tradedepends entirely on its setting: a B&B in central Dublin. Put on the nearby Gate stage, it would be a well-constructed, minor, downbeat short play in which a middle-aged man talks to the rent boy he has hired. It would unfold at a comfortable distance. But with the audience squeezed into an actual bedroom, the encounter, played out by Philip Judge and Ciarán McCabe with a flawless conviction, is searingly raw.

At the other end of the scale, Brokentalkers’ The Blue Boyis much more abstract, depending far more on wordless movement by masked performers, on Séan Miller’s live score, and on a brilliantly intricate staging that achieves a compellingly ritualistic quality.

It deliberately distances the material it draws from the Ryan report and in particular from the history of Artane industrial school. But it also breaks that distance with co-director Gary Keegan’s direct addresses to the audience and with archive film footage. In the end, these disparate elements don’t quite fuse into a single substance, but the aim of memorably evoking a hidden reality is certainly achieved.

The most powerful shows, in their own terms, are those driven by two young woman. What’s most significant about them is that they don’t just evoke hidden realities but try to make their audiences experience them. Grace Dyas’s Heroinis an anti-play. Its dominant presence is an actor/director instructing another actor to assemble a “realistic” set for a crappy flat.

The style is relentlessly disruptive, all interruptions, discontinuities, half-heard dialogue, pointless repetitions. But its aim is in fact an extreme realism: to make the audience experience the disconnection, hopelessness, senselessness and alienation of the Rialto community whose story emerges between the cracks.

World’s End Laneand Laundry, directed by Louise Lowe, and forming the first two parts of an intended four-part exploration of the notorious Monto brothel district of north Dublin, go even farther in turning passive spectacle into lived experience. The first forces you into the world of Monto itself, making you feel intimidation, confusion, entrapment, powerlessness and shame. It is a strong but narrow piece of confrontational theatre.

Laundry, though, is a huge step up in achievement and takes site-specific, immersive theatre to a level it has never reached in Ireland. The setting, the Magdalene laundry on Sean McDermott Street, which closed, astonishingly, only in 1996, contributes hugely to the haunting effect. But the power of the site could have been double-edged: failure to match that power in performance would risk crassness. Lowe and her fiercely committed team are fully equal to the task, creating a superbly well-judged mixture of the almost unbearably real and the mesmerisingly poetic. The hyper-real insistence on conjuring a hidden history melds with the magic of illusion to create something genuinely extraordinary.

Whether that something can still be called “theatre” in the old sense is an open question, and it hangs over much of this work. But it’s a question that’s being asked with a passion, a seriousness and an imaginative power that show an urgent sense of purpose. And what makes this festival so significant is not that all of this work is entirely new. It’s that it is, as a whole, extremely good. If you’re looking for a new direction, that’s always a useful place to start.