Abbey Theatre reopens for a select few but ‘it feels like 80,000 at Croke Park’

Live audience returns for the first time in 15 months, to see new play by Úna McKevitt

On the sunny evening of the summer solstice, 50 people go into the darkness of the Abbey Theatre to watch One Good Turn, a new play written by Úna McKevitt, directed by Emma Jordan and starring, among others, Pom Boyd, Catherine Byrne and Bosco Hogan.

"It's the first time there's been an audience in the Abbey auditorium since March [2020]," says the Abbey's senior producer Craig Flaherty.

“The longest time in the Abbey’s history that we haven’t had an audience,” says Róisín McGann, the Abbey’s head of communications.

"It is bizarre," says the theatre's co-director Neil Murray. "It's 10 per cent of the house. On a normal night as director of the Abbey I'd be going, 'What have we done wrong?' Whereas tonight it feels like 80,000 at Croke Park. Fifty people is suddenly really meaningful... It's quite moving."

The staff of the Abbey, like many theatre practitioners, have adapted to lockdown restrictions with streamed shows and occasional lockdown-friendly live performances (though not on its main stage). This show is also being streamed.

“I know a lot of my friends and family are delighted they can sit on their couches and watch it,” says McKevitt. “But the [live] audience makes the stakes high. Without that, you’re working in a vacuum.”

Hi-vis vests

The audience have started to arrive and are being guided in by staff in hi-vis vests. Someone asks Phyl O’Farrell, her granddaughter Fay and her son Rian if they’re in the same “pod”.

“I like the word pod,” says Phyl.

Phyl and Fay would, in more normal times, go to lots of performances together.

“He’s more of a reprobate,” says Phyl of Rian, who insists that he is, in fact, very cultured.

Have they missed theatre?

“It’s a ritual,” says Phyl. “Meeting up, going to eat something beforehand... It’s normal. And that’s an emotional feeling. We took it for granted before.”

Tracy Geraghty and Annette Nugent say they have been unable to stop talking about this show since they booked the tickets. “I’ve been texting her about it all week,” says Nugent.

“For the last four days I’ve told everybody, ‘I’m going to the theatre on Monday,’” says Geraghty. Online performances, she says, though often impressive, “leave you feeling a bit empty”.

They think that while there has been lots of talk about the absence of live sporting events, there has not been as much discussion of the absence of live theatre. “I’ve felt completely bereft,” says Geraghty. “The shared live experience washes over you. The magic of great writing and acting and directing – you can’t find that in your front room when you’re looking at your laptop.”

‘Devastating’

“You’re in it, you’re in the story,” says Nugent. “The whole USP of theatre is the energy in the room and it’s been missing for a year and a half and that’s been devastating.”

Rebecca Mairs, literary manager of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, and Ste Murray, an actor and photographer, are here to support their theatre friends. In the normal course of events, Mairs helps writers develop their work and if she does her job well, she says, when the play is performed her work is invisible. She laughs. "[Recently] I don't even get to be invisible".

They both think that live streaming of theatrical shows is an innovation that’s here to stay. “The fact I can sit in Belfast and watch a show in London or New York or Toronto is great,” says Mairs.

“But there’s no applause,” says Murray. “No buzz in the room.”

Everyone heads into the auditorium. The staff of the Abbey feel variously humbled, excited and relieved to be back in the live theatre business.

Craig Flaherty reckons he’ll spend the whole play just staring at the audience.

"The audience gives it life," says production manager Sally Withnell. "When you take away the audience, we're just a bunch of artists painting in the dark."

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