In April 1916, just before the Rising, one of the best Irish plays of the 20th century had its premiere. WB Yeats's At the Hawk's Well is a superb piece of theatrical writing and a profound reflection on the theatre itself. It has, through its obvious influence on Samuel Beckett, a radiant afterlife in contemporary culture. But it didn't open at Yeats's own theatre, the Abbey. It played in Lady Emerald Cunard's drawing room on Cavendish Square in London. The audience was small, rarefied and hand-picked: it included TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. Yeats had concluded that work like this was not for a mass audience. He had chosen intensity and intimacy over impact and scale.
This Yeatsian dilemma is especially sharp in Irish theatre just now. A paradox is at work, most notably in relation to perhaps the most interesting company in Ireland at the moment, Louise Lowe's Anu. Lowe and her collaborators have given us the continuing Monto cycle, including the searing and monumental Laundry. They haunted a house on Henrietta Street with a stunning evocation of life in tenement Dublin during the 1913 Lockout. And, over the course of Dublin Fringe Festival, they created the remarkable Thirteen sequence of site-specific performances around the city, reflecting on the themes and tensions that arise from commemoration of the Lockout.
This work is of extraordinary quality. It is theatrically adventurous in the way it shifts continually between in-your-face social realism and nonrealistic choreography, between moments that seem to blend entirely into the surrounding life of the city and those that stand starkly apart from it. It is performed with an almost manic conviction by a multiskilled and utterly committed ensemble. It is thoughtfully conceived and rigorously executed. It keeps a careful balance between the delivery of shocks and the shaping of a kind of poetry.
And it is deadly serious. Anu, for all its roots in Dublin's north inner city, has been a kind of alternative national theatre, exploring the legacy of coercive institutionalisation, sexual exploitation, poverty, social collapse and the heroin epidemic. The Thirteen project is by far the most interesting approach to the decade of commemorations that we've seen in any field so far.
So where’s the dilemma? It comes back, albeit in very different political and artistic circumstances, to Yeats’s choice between an intense intimacy on the one side and large-scale impact on the other. Except that the dilemma is even deeper. Lowe’s work is urgently and directly political in a way that Yeats’s was not. It evokes a notion of “reality” – contemporary lived experience – that Yeats could do without. It’s set not in the heroic age of Cúchulainn but in what we might call the continuous past – a history that is still playing itself out. It cries out for public engagement. Yet its aesthetic is all about the small scale, the personal, the close-up.
On a formal level, the Anu project is an attack on the very idea of “the audience”. It simply won’t settle for the notion of a theatre in which those of us who go to observe become an anonymous undifferentiated mass, sitting safely in the dark. There is no audience: there’s you. Most of the Monto-cycle sequences have played out before a single, isolated individual. And that individual does not feel safe: having all of this intensity beamed at yourself alone is deeply unnerving. You don’t disappear into the theatre but are exposed to the performance.
The price of this intensity is that not many people get to see the performances. The Monto shows at the last three Dublin Theatre Festivals have sold out almost immediately. The Henrietta Street performances over the summer booked out once word spread. The same happened with Thirteen. However often they perform, the insistence on intimacy and directness means that it's hard for a full run of one of these plays to match the box-office numbers of a single night for a successful play in one of the main theatres.
This is not a criticism. In the Thirteen shows, much of the power came from the sense of being caught in confined locations: the tenement room, a 1913 tram, a small hairdressing salon, a toilet in Liberty Hall. Claustrophobia is what increases the atmospheric pressure and makes the experience so literally inescapable. But there is a paradox: the best public theatre we have has a necessarily small public.
Yeats might have said so what? Great art, he would have reminded us, comes from the effort to inhabit paradoxes, to deal with contradictions. Lowe and her collaborators seem fully alive to the need, if not to resolve these tensions, then, at least, to continue to explore them. It matters for the future of Irish theatre that they get the support they need to do so.