It felt like a big win for the entire theatre community at the 23rd Irish Times Theatre Awards ceremony on Sunday at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, in Dublin. Six months ago, venues, artists and producers across the country were still in lockdown, wondering when the live-performance sector might return to normality.
On paper, the artists shortlisted in the 15 categories, for productions staged in 2020-21, may have looked like competitors. Who was the better actor: Domhnall Gleeson playing a psychologically unstable patient in Enda Walsh’s Medicine or Matthew Malone playing an HIV-positive man in his dying days in Phillip McMahon’s Once Before I Go? But in the courtyard of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham the rivals came together as colleagues.
It seemed especially fitting, then, that the judges’ special award was presented to the National Campaign for the Arts for its “exceptional dedication to advocacy and political engagement on behalf of the arts, particularly during Covid”, an award that recognised the collective endeavour involved in keeping the lamps lit during a period when creating live performance was almost impossible.
In the end, neither Gleeson nor Malone was triumphant in the best-actor category, although Helen Atkinson, Teho Teardo and Seán Carpio won the best-soundscape award for their support of Gleeson, and Katie Davenport won best costume for dressing Malone, who was gloriously clad in celestial wings for his final scene in the Gate Theatre production. (Davenport’s costuming for Michael Gallen’s opera Elsewhere was also recognised in the award.) Instead the honour for best actor went to Stanley Townsend for his performance as Marcus Conway, the middle-aged protagonist of Solar Bones, adapted from the Mike McCormack novel by Michael West.
Solar Bones also saw Lynne Parker named best director; the Rough Magic Theatre production premiered at the Watergate Theatre as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August 2020, marking the reopening of theatres after the first lockdown; the play’s themes of isolation, grief and anxiety chimed uncannily with Covid times.
The best-actress award went to Bríd Ní Neachtain for Laethanta Sona, the first Irish-language production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which was performed in the extreme environment of Inis Oírr last August as part of Galway International Arts Festival. Buried up to her waist and then her neck in the inhospitable landscape, it was a performance of physical endurance and a psychological challenge.
A big winner tonight was a sleeper hit of Galway International Arts Festival: Volcano, created by Luke Murphy’s Attic Projects, won four of the seven categories in which it was nominated, including best movement for Murphy and best lighting design for Stephen Dodd (who was also commended for his work on the Abbey Theatre’s production of The Long Christmas Dinner). Alyson Cummins and Pai Rathaya won best set for their claustrophobic reconstruction of Nun’s Island Theatre, in which audience members sat alone in booths to watch Murphy and Will Thompson perform a disturbing but life-affirming postapocalyptic tale that unfolded in four instalments over four nights. With any luck, a bigger audience will get the opportunity to see the remarkable work—which took the best-production honour—in the future.
As theatre artists reminded us as they advocated for each other over the past two years, the essence of theatre is its liveness, its ephemerality, its unrepeatable nature. Perhaps the most felicitous honour, then, was the award of the special-tribute prize to the photographer Ros Kavanagh, who has played a key role in preserving the artistic process and output of hundreds of theatre artists over the past two decades, including much of the work being celebrated at the awards. Selina Cartmell, director of the Gate Theatre, called Kavanagh a key collaborator who has a rare ability to “make you understand your role as a director”; the choreographer David Bolger highlighted the beauty of an archive of images that “will last forever when the show is gone”.
The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards 2020/21: The winners
Stanley Townsend, Solar Bones (Kilkenny Arts Festival in partnership with Rough Magic in association with Watergate Theatre)
Bríd Ní Neachtain, Laethanta Sona, (Company SJ and Abbey Theatre in association with Dublin Theatre Festival and Galway International Arts Festival)
Bosco Hogan, One Good Turn (The Abbey Theatre) and The Enemy Within (An Grianán Theatre)
Bláithín Mac Gabhann, The Seagull After Chekhov (Druid) and Our New Girl (The Gate Theatre)
Lynne Parker, Solar Bones (Kilkenny Arts Festival in partnership with Rough Magic in association with Watergate Theatre)
Alyson Cummins and Pai Rathaya, Volcano (Luke Murphy’s Attic Projects)
Katie Davenport, Once Before I Go (The Gate Theatre) and Elsewhere (Straymaker and the Abbey Theatre in association with Miroirs Étendus and Once Off Productions)
Stephen Dodd, Volcano (Luke Murphy’s Attic Projects) and The Long Christmas Dinner (Abbey Theatre)
Helen Atkinson, Teho Teardo and Seán Carpio, Medicine (Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival)
Luke Murphy, Volcano (Luke Murphy’s Attic Projects)
Mojo Mickeybo (Bruiser Theatre Company)
Volcano (Luke Murphy’s Attic Projects)
Best new play
Mark O’Halloran, Conversations After Sex (thisispopbaby)
Best opera—overall theatrical experience
Hansel and Gretel (Irish National Opera, Theatre Lovett and Abbey Theatre)
Judges’ special award—for inventiveness, excellence and/or contribution to the industry during Covid
National Campaign for the Arts for its exceptional dedication to advocacy and political engagement on behalf of the arts, particularly during Covid
The Irish Times special tribute award
Ros Kavanagh, for using his artistic skill to create an invaluable visual record of the many artists and productions that make up the history of modern Irish theatre