Tiny Plays for Ireland

 

Project Arts Centre, Dublin

As small as they are – an average three minutes of stage time – the plays commissioned from established writers and selected through an Irish Times competition for Fishamble’s enticing experiment form some considerable volume.

Among 25 “playlets”, each sliding into the other on Sabine Dargent’s cruciform gangway around which we sit, not everything is easily absorbed. Viewed together, though, a picture emerges in dot matrix or pixilation of the shape of new writing, new ways of watching and, to some degree, the nation.

That nation, you may have noticed, is still reeling from debt, financial mishandling and austerity measures, and the plays here variously choose to reflect, lampoon or divert our attentions from its disorder – there are about 11 pieces you could call political satires, which feels proportional.

Joseph O’Connor’s tone-setting introduction, Safety Announcement, actually takes all three approaches, when the performer Peter Daly is harassed for late mortgage payments, then rescued, stirringly, by the mock heroics of theatre: “I warn you,” he tells his bailiff, “these are trained actors.”

They really have to be. For Daly, Don Wycherley, Steve Blount, Mary Murray and Kate Stanley Brennan – all superb – negotiating this many styles and voices so seamlessly requires great skill. For the audience, moving from the gently comic character sketch of Ardal O’Hanlon’s White Food, to the brisk, impassioned drama of Rosaleen McDonagh’s Beat Him Like a Badger, or the wickedly clever barrister comedy of Rachel Fehily’s Don’t Take It Personally, the 90 minutes are never boring, but eventually fatiguing.

If polyphony is the point, common territory can be revealing. With few exceptions, monologues are so over, as though it is no longer a time to talk to ourselves. The trend instead is either for cup-of-tea naturalism, with Deirdre Kinahan, Michael West, Jesse Weaver and Evan Lee D’Alton revealing whole lives in understated glimpses, or for arch absurdity, such as the merrily suicidal couple in Darren Donohue’s recession-mocking Tuesday Evening (Following the News), Colin Murphy’s satirical bank bailout review Guaranteed Irish, or Michelle Read’s depiction of the rise and fall of the economy as a night of spectacularly awkward sex in The Nation’s Assets: “I think I’m overextended,” groans the superb Wycherley.

Writing for stage, more so than writing for a competition, recognises what can only be completed in performance, something that Niamh Creely’s Commiserations does beautifully, letting Brennan draw out its subtext in increasingly revealing gestures. Through it all, director Jim Culleton shifts gears and changes tack admirably, but his best manoeuvre is to thread Ciara Ní Chuirc’s neatly observed episode of urban young women adrift into Michael Cussen’s study of missed opportunities among rural farmers, with a juxtaposition that benefits both. Given the tough task of providing a conclusion, Dermot Bolger goes for a clunky theatrical-illusion-as- metaphor-for-society motif (“believe again in lies being fed to you by confidence-tricksters, leaders and playwrights”), as though all experience could be neatly parcelled within one unifying voice. The intriguing question posed by Fishamble’s multifaceted project, however, is whether it ever can be.

Runs until Mar 31