Chance for theatre to take a Liberty


Liberty Hall, home of the Irish trade union movement, has branched out in an unexpected direction - with exciting results - by developing three performing arts spaces. But will its programme live up to the venue? Rosita Boland writes.

Liberty Hall is the home of Dublin's newest theatre and performance space. Liberty Hall? With all due respect to the stout trade union history of the building, the news does lend itself to such dreadful and unlikely-sounding puns as: Larkin' About in Liberty Hall.

Although the foundation stone was laid in 1962, Liberty Hall, with its distinctive fluted green roof, still holds the distinction of being Ireland's tallest building. With its noticeable architecture, riverside location, and views over the city, overseas visitors to Dublin probably assume that within that particular office block must work merchant bankers, stockbrokers, traders and their ilk, who blow cigar smoke out across the Liffey and where snipes of Bollinger are quaffed in a grand rooftop restaurant.

However, Irish people know Liberty Hall belongs to trade unions representing many workers in this country. Most of the building is occupied by the offices of the Services Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), whose two founding unions were the former Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) and the Federated Workers' Union of Ireland (FWUI). They amalgamated in 1990. SIPTU is by far the biggest trade union in the country, with 70,000 members in Dublin alone. Equity, which is affiliated to SIPTU, is also based in Liberty Hall. The only non-SIPTU union there is the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), with its 4,000 members.

The ITGWU was founded by Big Jim Larkin. During the 1916 Rising, under the leadership of James Connolly, then the acting general secretary of the ITGWU, many union members fought as part of the Irish Citizen Army. Larkin and Connolly are names which will always be synonymous with the trade union movement. Neither their names nor that of Liberty Hall itself are ones the Irish public have thus far associated with the notion of being entertained, yet the Connolly, the Liberty Hall, and the Larkin (due to be completed in spring 2003) are the names of Dublin's newest performing arts spaces.

"It's been three years in development," says Paddy Morris, who was appointed cultural administrator to the project in November last year. He is anxious to point out that there is now a new, self-contained entrance to Liberty Hall, from Eden Quay, which leads only to the performance spaces. Morris is standing in the Connolly, a long soundproofed room, previously used only for union meetings, with new wooden floors and views on to the Liffey. There is no fixed seating here, but the room will accommodate 80 people. "This is where we'll have poetry readings, recitals, traditional music, jazz," he says.

The new Cois Lífe bar, occupying a space which used to be offices and a corridor, links the Connolly and the Liberty Hall theatre. It's a remarkably handsome and airy bar, with a clear strong design. The bar counter is a striking polished stone, and the furniture is both elegant and comfortable. It's on a corner site and the south-facing floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the river: the Abbey would metaphorically kill for such a theatre bar. A reminder of where you are comes from Derek Spiers's blown-up black-and-white photograph of trade union members demonstrating outside the GPO at a 1979 Fair Tax Rally. "You're never alone in a SIPTU bar," Morris quips.

The adjoining Liberty Hall theatre was officially opened by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern on August 30th. The specially commissioned opening show, Larkin the Musical, has received lukewarm reviews - Evita it certainly is not - but the new theatre itself has been praised. "It was originally a 700-seater theatre and had been idle for three years," says Morris.

It has been fitted with new acoustic panels, which could help make it an attractive venue for concerts. U2 played there when starting off, and Paul Brady and Christy Moore also performed there in the 1970s.

"One of our ambitions is to encourage union members to go to the theatre. The consensus seems to be that the working-class don't go to the theatre," Morris explains.

Liberty Hall now seats 410 people - the loss of over half the seating area means that the stage is now significantly larger and there are entrances on both sides of the stage. Incredibly, until the redesign, the theatre had no stage-left entrance, which is a bit like a professional athlete competing with one leg strapped under him.

The third space is currently being redeveloped as a type of Black Box (adaptable performance area): the Larkin, which was previously used as the Social Hall. "I see that space as being used for rehearsals, or dance. It will take about 200 people," says Morris.

THE development of these three spaces has been funded to the tune of €3.5 million. The money came from the Millennium Committee, the then Department of Arts, Culture, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, and from SIPTU itself. Once Larkin comes down, two major Dublin Theatre Festival productions will run at Liberty Hall: Donal O'Kelly's new play, The Hand, and American, Heather Woodbury's acclaimed What Ever, an eight-part performance over four nights.

The festival box office is set up for the duration in the adjoining former Irish Trade Union Trust office on Eden Quay, and the festival club is in the Cois Lífe bar.

It's what happens after the theatre festival that will be revealing. SIPTU doesn't seem to realise it yet, but it hasn't just revamped its old theatre, it has created a fine addition to Dublin's performance space. Programming shows to match the standards of these spaces is the challenge Liberty Hall faces if it seriously means to put itself on the professional theatrical map. The Abbey must also be looking across the road and wondering if Liberty Hall might not provide it with a temporary home at some point in the future.

At present, the programming is best described as eclectic and vague. At the end of October, Pat McCabe's Frank Pig Says Hello is being staged by Co-Motion Productions, with David Gorry playing the lead. Aladdin the Pantomime, with Alan Hughes of TV3, will run over Christmas. In January, Bord Gáis employees are putting on an amateur production of Juno and the Paycock, while a theatrical adaptation of Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors will be staged in February.

"Publicity doesn't bother me, because we're booked until next August," Morris says, when asked about his plans for promoting the theatre or actively programming new shows. But can anyone working in theatre, really afford not to be bothered about the importance of publicity?

Liberty Hall, with its new theatre, reading/recital room, bar, and Black Box-in-progress is definitely an exciting addition to Dublin. The people who run it now have a responsibility to the public to ensure that the Liberty Hall complex will not be a wasted opportunity, and match the quality of the productions with the quality of the venue.

If nothing else, it would be depressing to know that millions of euro of State money had been invested in a theatre just so that Aladdin could now enter and exit the stage both right and left.