Irish Theatre Awards: the show that shaped me
Peter Crawley asks nominees for this year’s ‘Irish Times’ Irish Theatre Awards about a key performance or piece of theatre that influenced their artistic outlook
We asked six of this year’s nominees for The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards to recall an influential piece of theatre or a performance from any point in their lives that have helped to shape their views of theatre and their place within it. Their responses have ranged from pivotal encounters in the classroom or beyond the school window, transformative images on the screen, riotous moments among a children’s audience for a revered classic, an immersive staging of history and of history being made.
Nominated for best actor for Punk Rock, staged by the Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Ciarán Hinds was the guest speaker at my A-level prizegiving at St Malachy’s College, Belfast. He spoke eloquently about what led him down the path of becoming an actor. He talked about how he left St Malachy’s and began to study law at Queen’s University Belfast; after half a year he dropped out to pursue a career as an actor. He mentioned how it was tough, exhausting, challenging, at times disappointing, and, for many, not worth it. In fact he managed to squeeze all the glamour out of the idea of being an actor completely.
I suppose the school would have gone mad had he persuaded us all to ignore academia and follow the arts. I could see a glimmer in his eye, a mischievousness that suggested he was having fun. I was drawn to it and the idea of pursing a career in acting. A few months later I got accepted into Queen’s to study law. Secretly , however, I had other plans. I spent the next year auditioning for drama schools and got into the Lir Academy, in Dublin.
What I take away from that night in St Malachy’s, and from Ciarán Hinds, is that if I really want to do this then I have to work and work and work harder, to be prepared to face challenges along the way and to enjoy a bumpy ride.
I also have to learn how to get that mischievous twinkle in my eye.
Nominated for best costume for An Ideal Husband, by Oscar Wilde, staged by the Gate Theatre
I have a very vivid memory, from the age of eight, of my aunt taking me to the cinema to see the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!
I was entranced by the choreographer Agnes de Mille’s dream sequence. The character Laurey, who we first see wearing a mauve-and-white gingham dress, is replaced by a ballet dancer – “Dream Laurey” – who wears a transformed version of her dress in chiffon; a floaty material, soft, transparent and dreamlike, unlike the mundane gingham. I thought this was incredibly clever and magical.
Later she enters a nightmarish western saloon where the dancers are dressed in iridescent peacock-feather greens and blues. It’s a threatening spectacle, and certainly not pretty. I became fascinated by these effects: the colour palette, the shift from beauty to menace, the power of transformation through clothing.
I still think about those dark shimmering colours, the spiky qualities we use for baddies, the floaty textures that signal softer humanity. One thing I figured out pretty early is that if you want to make your leading lady look really pretty, put her in the plainest dress. Everyone else is in a sea of feathers and frills and flounces; put your leading lady in the plainest black or white dress and she knocks everyone else off the stage.
When I first designed my collections in Paris I created show programmes from my notebooks. I used slightly theatrical drawings of my clothes in action. The actress Claudia Carroll had seen my show, taken the programme, and framed it on her wall, where the Gate’s then deputy director, Marie Rooney, later saw it. She put the idea of commissioning me for the stage into Michael Colgan’s head. They fulfilled my dream for me.
Nominated for best lighting for The Vortex, staged by the Gate Theatre, in Dublin, and Punk Rock, at the Lyric Theatre, in Belfast
Over the years there have been countless times when I have seen work so impressive, moving and accomplished that I have thought of giving it all up and becoming a plumber.
One of those moments was after seeing Ariane Mnouchkine’s 1789 for Théâtre du Soleil, at the Roundhouse in London. It was so immersive that you thought you were on the streets of Paris on the day the Bastille was stormed.
You saw events unfold all around you, the action constantly shifting, until you lost all sense of direction and became part of the mob.
When the storming was related to you in hushed voices by performers among the audience, culminating in a crescendo that burst into a funfair all around, the feeling of elation was total.
As Mark Long, one of the founder members of [the English experimental theatre company] the People Show, put it, theatre is the unifying art form. It is the magpie of all the arts. The visual arts, music, song, dance, circus, prose and poetry are all contributors.
Nominated for best production for Ballyturk, by Enda Walsh, staged by Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival
It was 1983, the opening night of The Gigli Concert at the Abbey Theatre. I had come to Dublin from Cork and was working in my first job, in the Dublin Theatre Festival. I was already smitten with the theatre and was beginning to hope there might be a way to make a career in it for someone who couldn’t act or write or direct.
Something magical happened in the Abbey that night. The electricity in the auditorium crackled, and the entire audience held its breath. Somewhere between Tom Murphy’s magnificent writing, Tom Hickey’s quicksilver, tortured JPW King, Kate Flynn’s glittering, hurt eyes and, above all, Godfrey Quigley’s lumbering, mute Irish Man, struggling to express what couldn’t be expressed, we realised we were experiencing an extraordinary moment in the theatre.
Many wonderful gifts come from working in the theatre. Gifts of generosity, of exceptional, almost foolhardy commitment, of extraordinary talent, of inspirational collaborators, of belief in the power of theatre to entertain, to move, to make you feel, to change the way you look at things.
Of all these gifts, I think there is no greater thrill than to be present at the birth of a great new play when it comes into the world. Sometimes I think I have spent all my professional life chasing that thrill. And, very occasionally, as with Ballyturk, I’ve been lucky enough to find it.
Nominated for best play for Petals, staged by Roadkill Productions and Theatre Upstairs, in Dublin
A year ago I saw Twelfth Night reimagined for an audience of six-year-olds at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, in London. At that point I had been studying drama for four years, and I liked to think I knew my Shakespearean quartos from my folios. I had my sniffiest theatre-graduate game face on.
We arrived to find ice cream being sold in buckets, wailing youths spilling in up to 20 minutes into the action, and constant yelling, laughing and questioning as put-upon actors rolled around in a makeshift boat, had buckets of water sloshed over them and listened to a minstrel sing the Bard’s observation that the rain it raineth every day. It was the most irreverent thing I’d ever seen, and I loved it.
I’d had four years of studying, reading and watching Shakespeare as though carefully excavating a fossil from a sacred tomb. This was something completely different. This was a story, just shy of 400 years old, with a pulse beating fast and relentless, much to the delight of every soul in the packed theatre. It hit me that the reason my heart took refuge in the theatre was the living, breathing nature of it all.
Films and books are artefacts. In their ultimate success they can be preserved exactly as they always have been. But a play’s greatest achievement is to live on in endless versions, carrying the potential to provide relevance and joy beyond the confines of today.
Nominated for best director for Pentecost, by Stewart Parker, staged by the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. The Lyric is also nominated for the Judges’ Special Award
When I was in secondary school, in the 1980s, each afternoon during religion class I could see our tall, skeletal technical-drawing teacher leave the school and walk towards the car park. He would get to his car, stretch out on the ground and carefully examine the undercarriage. Once he was completely satisfied, he would he get in, start the engine and drive off.
When the students finally learned the reason for his ritual our watching became tinged with morbid fascination: we were waiting for the bomb to go off. Our teacher was Dáithí Ó Conaill, a prominent member of the IRA (and rumoured advocate of the car bomb), who had fallen out with his former comrades. Ó Conaill seemed to be waiting for the inevitable consequences of his violent past.
Faraway, up north, Belfast had been tearing itself apart for 15 years. But the Troubles haunted this school at the foot of the Dublin mountains.
Ten years later, when I saw Lynne Parker’s production of her uncle Stewart Parker’s play Pentecost at Project in 1995, I felt something I rarely feel in theatre: the urge to enter the space, to engage in conversation with the characters, to find out more. The play and production offered a portal to view something tragic in our culture in a simple but fresh way. Set during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike in 1974, it traps four people in a room haunted by the former tenant. The play did what great scientists do, examining the ordinary with a microscope until it reveals its extraordinary DNA.
Rough Magic’s production of Pentecost seemed to contain the possibility of a solution to the complex web of our entire tragic nation – to become pragmatic and still allow the power of hope to dilute incessant hatred. That seems such a simple lesson, but the hate that existed in the 1970s and 1980s planted bombs, even in schools, with nothing but carnage as a reward.
This year’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards take place at the National Concert Hall, in Dublin, on Sunday, February 22nd. Tickets (€20) are on sale at nch.ie. The event will also feature on The Works, on RTÉ One, on February 27th at 8.30pm.