In 2005, Irish theatre had one of its worst ever years. Symbolising a growing crisis in the production of new Irish writing, the Dublin Theatre Festival failed to produce a new Irish play for the first time ever; its only premiere was a dance piece called The Bull by Fabulous Beast.
This was also the year the Abbey Theatre almost went out of business. Following its disastrous centenary in 2004, the theatre faced renewed accusations of financial and artistic mismanagement, leading to calls for a government bailout and a major restructuring. It seemed astonishing that, at the height of an economic boom, we were facing serious debates about whether our national theatre was "too big to fail".
What we now know, of course, is that the problems in Irish theatre in 2005 would soon be followed by a much wider crisis: one that would transform almost every major Irish institution, starting with the banks three years later. That crisis has decimated the arts in this country. Irish theatre companies have closed; jobs have been lost; many of our actors and writers have left Ireland for London or LA.
After the crash, government ministers would repeatedly emphasise the importance of the arts to Ireland’s international reputation - while simultaneously imposing disproportionately severe cuts on the arts sector.
Yet Irish artists have responded not with despair but with determination. Since the end of the Celtic Tiger period, we have seen the emergence of exciting new forms of theatre-making, and a resurgence in Irish playwriting and design. The boundaries between playwrights, actors and audiences are more porous than ever before - and it’s no longer easy (or even useful) to define what exactly the “Irish play” might be nowadays.
I have edited a new anthology - called Contemporary Irish Plays - which aims to capture Irish theatre at this moment of transition, collecting four plays previously published by Methuen Drama, together with two plays by Louise Lowe and Rosemary Jenkinson that are appearing in print for the first time.
Perhaps the most obviously innovative of the six is Louise Lowe's Boys of Foley Street, staged by Anu Productions in 2012. At a time when many of our venues were badly struggling, Lowe and her company turned the streets of Dublin into one enormous performance space, presenting a horrifying yet celebratory account of the history of Foley Street since the 1970s.
Most Irish plays invite us to identify with their characters from the relatively safe distance of an auditorium, but Lowe instead demands that we immerse ourselves fully into her production. Foley Street can only be viewed by two audience-members at a time, and we don’t just watch the performance but are obliged to interact with the actors and the physical environment that they occupy.
In a country struggling to come to terms with issues of culpability, agency and responsibility, Boys of Foley Street thus forces the audience to think about their own decision-making - one of the many reasons why it felt so urgent and essential when it premiered.
Another play about responsibility is Ailís Ní Ríain’s haunting Desolate Heaven. Its central characters Orlaith and Sive are teenagers who have been forced to care for their parents: unable to cope with that burden any longer, the pair decide to run away. As they journey through Ireland, they encounter a series of women who have refused the gender-based roles assigned to them by their society.
Given that Orlaith and Sive are themselves in flight from roles imposed upon them by others, they find comfort and inspiration in the freedom of such women, each of whom is a “law unto herself”. Ní Ríain’s creation of these strange role models draws the audience in irresistibly, forcing us to reconsider the relationship between self-determination, gender and sexuality in Ireland today.
Other writers have turned to the past to find new ways of thinking about where we are now. Richard Dormer’s Drum Belly is a thriller set in New York in the late 1960s, depicting Irish-American gangsters. That direct link between Ireland and America is important: the play is set in 1969, a time celebrated in America for the moon-landing, but infamous in Ireland as marking the onset of the Troubles. By contrasting those two events, Dormer returns us to a time when Ireland was (as in the present) facing a moment of forced re-invention.
And by placing emigration at that centre of that re-definition, Dormer makes a familiar but important argument: we may think we can leave Ireland - or leave behind the past - but both will continue to exert a gravitational pull, tugging upon us like the moon drags upon the oceans.
Dormer is one of the many Irish actors who has recently turned to playwriting. Another major example of this trend is Pat Kinevane, whose plays Silent, Forgotten and Underneath were written to be performed by Kinevane himself - but which are also gaining attention for being wonderfully written in their own right.
The first in this trio (all of which have been produced by Fishamble) is Forgotten, which explores the lives of a quartet of elderly people, aged between 80 and 100. As his play shows, the elderly should not be “forgotten” - not just because they have value in their own right, but also because their past helps to explain our present. Forgotten thus asks us to think about our roots, about how we got to where we are - and about how we can choose different pathways into the future.
Another way of thinking about the future is evident in Rosemary Jenkinson’s hilarious satire Planet Belfast. Her heroine (called Alice) is a Green Party MLA who is attempting to conceive a child - so her desire to campaign for the future of the planet has both personal and political dimensions. Alice’s perspective is thus highly internationalised: she can see the links between the Irish Famine of the 1840s and the impact of genetically-modified crops in China today.
Yet she also understands the needs of her locality. The Troubles may seem relatively inconsequential when compared to the threat of global warming, yet the traumas inflicted upon people during that period remain palpable. Jenkinson allows readers to have great fun at the expense of what might be termed the Northern Ireland “trauma industry”, but her characters show that we can’t face present-day threats without first coming to terms with the legacies of the past.
This focus on our links to the past is also present in Michael West's Freefall, a moving and inventive play that he produced with Corn Exchange in 2010. As that company's director Annie Ryan explains, the collapse of the Irish economy, together with the revelations in the 2009 Ryan Report, had an appalling impact on our society.
“Ireland was overwhelmed with grief and remorse,” she wrote. “It broke. It fell to its knees. Amidst job losses, the unknown future, the change in status, in life-style, [these revelations were] a shocking reminder of everyone’s roots.” West and Ryan thus set about asking how Ireland might start to come to terms with that transformation.
Their solution was not to focus on a politician or a banker or a bishop - but instead to explore the final day in the life of an ordinary man. This unexceptional character has lost many things that he cares deeply about: his parents, his sister, and possibly his wife. His home is decaying, imperceptibly falling apart. He seems perplexed and bemused by his life.
Yet in his last moments, his final thoughts turn not to bitterness or recrimination - but to love. As he drifts away, we see a video of the man being asked by his son for advice about how to live well. The man replies that people worry too much about trying to change: “Take you,” he says to his son, “you’re perfect the way you are”. The simplicity of these words acts as a moving reminder that it is possible for us to leave something behind after we’re gone, something as uncomplicated as parental love - something that cannot be put in economic terms, but which we all acknowledge as having lasting worth.
The other plays in the anthology demand that we face the truth about our roots, but Freefall begins the process of understanding how we might forgive ourselves afterwards.
We do not have certainty about the future in Ireland - but perhaps that insecurity means we’re no longer complacent about the future either. The collapse of the Celtic Tiger has been met with a blurring of distinctions in our theatre: between devised and scripted work, between adaptations and originals, between the personal and the global, between Ireland and the rest of the world - between the actor, the director, the author and the audience - and between male and female, gay and straight, rich and poor.
Those changes may arise from unprecedentedly awful events. But they have inspired a series of exciting new plays that reveal to us something worth admiring: an Irish theatre that is courageous, curious and, above all, resilient.
Contemporary Irish Plays - A New Anthology, edited and introduced by Patrick Lonergan, is published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama (£17.99). Lonergan is Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at NUI Galway. His next book, Theatre and Social Media, will be published later this year.