A stage we need to go through
THEATRE STUDIES: Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger EraBy Patrick Lonergan Palgrave, 248pp. £50
‘AT THE very best, the exclusive use of newspaper reviews as evidence of popular opinion should be rejected as methodologically unsound. But the box-office figures can obscure matters too. The fact that not many people went to a play doesn’t mean that the play had no impact on its society.”
Although this is not the central thesis in his new book, Patrick Lonergan has painted a picture of the complexity and contradictions that make reviewing and assessing theatre so beguiling. No artist, producer or theatre company sets out to fail or lose money or get bad reviews. The artist understands the eternal challenge of communicating with an audience or a citizen. However, there is no simple way of ascertaining whether this battle is successful or not. Box office receipts or a good review of a play don’t tell the whole story. There are other indicators of success and relevance which could take many years to establish. Lonergan mourns the lack of authority the critic has in this world. It helps if critics and academics understand the context in which the work is made, so that their reaction to a production can be viewed as considered and reasonable. Lonergan attempts to understand this process and to discover why directors and producers make certain programming decisions. He is bemused by productions that sell-out but have not received good reviews and tries to deconstruct the strategy of “theatre as an event” and “star-casting”. He is honest, courageous and a little confused as to what makes a production successful. Welcome to our world!
Lonergan discusses the need to provide a more sophisticated framework for the study of comparative theatre performance. Yet, this is not what he sets out as his objective in this book. Theatre and Globalizationis a collection of critical essays shoehorned into an overall theme that is almost impossible to sustain. In fact, he sets out too many objectives and I lost his train of thought as I went from one chapter to another.
Lonergan, who is a lecturer in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway, a theatre reviewer and academic director of the JM Synge Irish Drama Summer School, is strong and passionate when he is delving into the nuances of works such as Dancing at Lughnasaor Angels in America.
His observations on the performance histories of plays are illuminating, particularly when he compares Garry Hynes’s and Ben Barnes’s respective productions of Juno and the Paycock, by Sean O’Casey. It is unclear from his writing whether he attended all of these productions but his development of a history of comparative theatre performance is encouraging. The idea that a critic can inform his reader about a particular play by referencing elements from differing productions of the same play is attractive. Actors performing iconic Irish roles (Widow Quin, Joxer, Fluther) often reference their performance by how other actors might have (or not) performed that role in previous productions. Lonergan touches on this but I lost his argument when he reverted back to his overall goal for the book: “to analyse and clarify the relationship between social change arising from globalisation and the different modes of theatre production that have emerged as a result of those changes”.
I would encourage him to delve deeper into this area of comparative theatre performance to begin to understand how artistic decisions in the rehearsal room are arrived at. Sometimes these decisions are miracles but more often than not they are prosaic accidents of the creative process. Lonergan is concerned that reviewing and other forms of criticism will “necessarily become devalued as producers invest more time, money and energy into pre-publicity. It might be argued that attendance at a play should be the beginning of a process: we watch the work, leave the theatre and digest what we have seen”. The problem resides in some critics’ lack of understanding as to what occurs before you watch the play. The relationship between the theatre maker and the critic in Ireland is impoverished. Media outlets, such as The Irish Times, give scant critical coverage to theatre productions. A new Irish play and a production can be in gestation (or pre-production) for at least two years and yet this newspaper can only provide less than 500 words to analyse it critically.
Theatre criticism doesn’t compare favourably with the critical coverage of architecture, cinema, music and literature. This is one of the reasons why the relevance of the theatre critic to Irish theatre has been minimised. The days of an Irish Timesreview improving (or reducing) ticket sales at the Abbey Theatre are diminishing as the reader loses any sense of a continuous relationship with its theatre critics. The other daily newspapers don’t fare well either, with the possible exception of Metro. We have to look to an occasional Irish Timescolumn by Fintan O’Toole, some Irish Sunday papers, Irish Theatre magazine, the New York Times, radio or some British newspapers to get a considered review of major Irish plays and playwrights.
A healthy Irish theatre community is one in which the artist, the citizen and the critic are in a discourse over time. Lonergan is hinting that the latter leg of the three-legged stool needs to find a new critical language to re-engage with Irish theatre. In his book, he is grasping for a distinct critical voice but has chosen the arc of globalisation which hampers his own natural discursive style. His essay Queering the National Theatre: Patrick Mason at the Abbeyis an important contribution, as is his insightful essay on Martin McDonagh. His timely reminder of the challenge for the Abbey Theatre to continue to provide leadership within Irish society is relevant too:
“National theatres are uniquely positioned to address audiences that can be conceived of in civic rather than essentially national terms. Such theatres may present plays that are not about an abstract conception of a nation, but which instead address the concerns – or challenge the assumptions – of people who happen to be living in the same place at the same time.”
The structure of his book and his own self-imposed academic rules have impeded Lonergan’s natural style and it leaves me wanting to invite him to spend some time with us at the Abbey Theatre, to assist him in gaining a thorough understanding of what happens before the critic sits in his seat on opening night.
Fiach Mac Conghail is director of the Abbey Theatre and is currently producing The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrantby Tom Murphy. Only an Apple by Tom Mac Intyre, which he also produced, is now running in the Peacock Theatre. Both productions are world premieres. www.abbeytheatre.ie
Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger Eraby Patrick Lonergan won the 2008 Society for Theatre Research Book Prize in London earlier this year