Moving onto a new stage

 

Director Don Shipley's first Dublin Theatre Festival has a strong international flavour, writes Belinda McKeon.

His programme for this year's Dublin Theatre Festival combines star-gazers from Belgium with Shakespearians from Lithuania; body-shapers from Peru with cult icons from Russia; searing South African drama with the birthday party of Harold Pinter; life stories to the tune of Morrissey/Marr, Laurel and Hardy with scenes from the Saville Inquiry, and plenty more prestigious Irish and international work, but Don Shipley still gets a kick out of Dublin's small-town buzz. Since he moved here to succeed Fergus Linehan at the helm of Europe's longest-running theatre festival, now in its 48th year, the Canadian can't turn around without bumping into a member of the city's artistic community - and he likes it that way.

"It's been a good revelation," says Shipley. "I've noticed how it's really only one degree of separation in Dublin, as opposed to six in Toronto. I mean, I meet people who are immediately connected to someone else. It's a very rich arts community in that way. But it's very intense."

Shipley knows a thing or two about intensity, having led several high profile theatre companies and arts organisations in Canada. As manager of performing arts at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto from 1988-2001, he programmed two World Stage Festivals, and was in the same period also artistic director of the Du Maurier Concert Stage, the chief platform in North America for provocative and wide-ranging international work.

The contacts built up from these years, along with the experience gained by serving on theatre festival juries around the world, made him an ideal candidate for the Dublin job, and few eyebrows were raised when his appointment was announced last summer. But with the release of this year's programme, a judgement day of sorts has arrived, and Shipley knows it.

"One of the nice things about overlapping [ with the outgoing director] is having the luxury of time at least to say hi to people," he says. "But you always know it's the honeymoon period. You're allowed about nine months of that, I think. And then you have to start saying no - then the sands shift a bit. That comes with the territory."

A nine-month honeymoon period? Sounds more like a healthy gestation. And the offspring, announced in Dublin yesterday, looks promising. Shipley is justly proud of his programme; it's clear he has drawn wisely on his international contacts to put it together. That Lithuanian encounter with the bard, for example - a production of Romeo and Juliet set in a pizza parlour - was the selection of a jury on which he sat in Poland. It will run, along with an English The Winter's Tale and a new Irish Hamlet, to be directed by Conall Morrison, as part of a Shakespeare strand called Such Sweet Thunder, and Shipley is deeply excited by it.

"It just blows me away," he says. "I've seen a lot of Romeo and Juliet, because I grew up in Stratford in Canada, a festival town, but this one . . . this is just the most fertile imagination, I tell ya. I'd love to spend an hour in this guy's head."

The director to whom he refers, Oskaras Korsunovas, is one of Eastern Europe's most gifted young bloods, whose show is touring all over Europe, and Shipley pulled out all the stops to get it to the Gaiety for two nights.

A coup that proved easier than he had reckoned to carry off, meanwhile, was his securing of the Tricycle Theatre's production of Bloody Sunday for the Abbey stage. Edited from the findings of the Saville Enquiry into an acclaimed docudrama by Guardian journalist Richard Norton-Taylor, the uncompromising piece spoke to Shipley immediately.

"I'd heard about it, because it had been kicking around for a while, and I thought it should really have been done in Ireland," he explains.

"It was interesting to me that it was taken up by the Tricycle and done so well. And I knew that night. I knew right away that I wanted it. I went straight to [ the director] Nicholas Kent, and happily, I was met with as much enthusiasm on his side. Normally, you're not. Normally, you begin the act of cajoling, seducing, whatever you have to do, to get it. But, here, I was met warmly."

It's taking a chance, he admits, to put such provocative political drama on the Abbey stage - more accustomed, during recent festivals, to more conventional, albeit high-quality, naturalistic plays - but he feels strongly that its stage was the one for Bloody Sunday. "It could have been in a smaller space, but it would be a shame to bring a piece like that over here and not to put it front and centre. You do gamble that it will have resonances, but it should be on the national stage, I guess."

Before it hosts Bloody Sunday, the Abbey stage will open the festival with a production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, to be directed by Edward Hall, the son of Sir Peter. The Peacock Hamlet, meanwhile, is a co-production between the Abbey and the Lyric in Belfast, and since it is an entirely new project, and yet to go into rehearsal, Shipley knows little about it except for the calibre of its director and cast, as well as Morrison's determination to render it a radical reworking of the play.

"One of the nice things about having original work in the festival is that there is that element of risk," he says. "You've got your award-winning productions, your anchor productions, but part of the excitement is all the new stuff. And it could go north or south. But my own feeling is that if you've got really good people . . . then you've got a good hope of baking the cake."

The most eagerly-awaited Irish production on the programme is the new piece from choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, whose beautiful and defiant Giselle was the hit of the festival two years ago.

The Story of The Bull, like Giselle, is drawn from the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, and puts rural and urban Ireland on a powerful, and potentially violent, collision course, when a wealthy city couple come to covet the country's most valuable bull.

"This is our big one," says Shipley, with evident feeling, of Keegan-Dolan's latest work. "It's his, it's new, it's our major commission, in terms of Irish work, with the Barbican in London as co-producers and commissioning partners, and it's one that I'm looking forward to. Michael's star is rising pretty fast. I was surprised by the number of international producers here who already knew of his work. And Fergus [ Linehan] is bringing Giselle to the Sydney Festival next year, and The Bull will at least go to the Barbican, and hopefully it will have legs beyond . . . this is the kind of work I want to do more of, with other Irish companies."

Shipley is keen to capitalise on the relations he has built up with companies here. Native talent, he feels, is hearteningly strong, and the key to continually strengthening the festival, in turn, is to stay close to, and to nurture, that talent.

"What you don't want to do is to have your festival become a carbon copy of every other festival in Europe," he says. "You know - that you can pick up anyone's brochure and that it's the same-old-same-old. A festival is really measured by the strength of that indigenous work . . . if you can do it, and if you have the right kind of people doing it. But I think it's really worth that investment."

It's an investment he hopes to increase in the years to come - Shipley's contract runs until 2007 - but for this year, it manifests itself chiefly in the two Irish commissions. That's not to say that Irish companies don't have a presence beyond the main programme - a new part of the festival, the Theatre Olympics, provides a platform for Shipley's determination to work in new ways with companies here, featuring a fortnight of workshops, masterclasses, studio performances and projects - including an intriguing meeting of writers, directors and actors on a day-long train journey - that genuinely goes beyond the tokenistic. It's one of his particular contributions to the Dublin Festival, and it's one he intends to build upon.

Something the Dublin Theatre Festival can be sure of having all to itself is the 75th birthday of Harold Pinter. It will be marked at the Gate Theatre, which in recent years has become an Irish home to the celebrated playwright, with new productions of two of his plays, Old Times and Betrayal, and a weekend of readings, talks and general homage around the big day itself, October 10th. The names for that weekend haven't yet been announced, but they're likely to be big.

This mini festival, two highly innovative European shows - White Star from Belgium and White Cabin from Russia - and the Irish premiere of the Tony-winning American play I Am My Own Wife all offer testimony to the festival's ability to pick and choose from a rich international menu.

The existing reputation is aided, of course, by Shipley's own considerable clout, but he's not resting on his laurels where Dublin's relationship to international companies is concerned. He wants to do more. "I haven't done it this year, but I did it with my festival in Toronto," he says, seeming to wince with something like disappointment.

"I always felt ashamed that when you had all these international companies in town at one time that you couldn't do something with them together creatively. In Toronto, I asked all of the companies to take one of the seven deadly sins and to make a 10-minute performance out of that, and then we put on this production of all of them. The next year, each of them took the same scene from Measure For Measure, and it was fascinating to see the same scene done by different countries, and how wildly it could be interpreted. But it was really the camaraderie of the international community being together as much as it was about what was happening onstage, which was brilliant."

Such a project was impossible for this year's Dublin Theatre Festival because of scheduling, he says, but he's hopeful for 2006.

Coming from the 300-person administration of the Harbourfront Centre to the offices of the Dublin festival, run on a staff of four, was something of a learning curve, Shipley admits, but the rest of the year has gone relatively smoothly. The welcome has been warm, the Arts Council grant has been increased, and the demands of putting a début programme together have provided a good excuse to keep clear of the political drama which has surrounded the city's best-known theatre almost since the day that Shipley stepped off the plane.

One thing that continues to surprise and to bother him, however, is the shortage of venues for theatre in Dublin. "I'm sure you're used to this litany, but it was a shock to the system, not being able to bring a lot of things here because of the inadequacy of the venues. And the high rental. We spent a lot of money just renting facilities, and that was a shock. Finding theatres that were economically viable was a real challenge."

Ultimately, though, Shipley feels quite at home. "I think the way the arts community has allowed me to come in as an outsider has been the most positive thing," he says. "And I say that with all honesty, because I was worried about that. But I think those barriers are starting to break down internationally. Before, it was really imperative that countries only hire a nationalist to run their major cultural institutions. And now those barriers are coming down - Fergus going to Sydney, other people going elsewhere - and I hope that the communities can be enriched by having some outside influences. Those influences shouldn't be permanent, but it's really healthy for any arts organisation to mix and match, because you have a different perspective on it." Such as the Canadian perspective? He smiles. "I bring no baggage."

The Dublin Theatre Festival runs from Sept 30-Oct 15