Finding renewed hope in theatrical endeavour


This year's awards celebrated the character of Irish theatre - brave, ambitious, aware of its inheritance but also innovative, writes PETER CRAWLEY

Anyone who cares about theatre, even at the height of its celebration, knows that it can’t be saved. It isn’t a concern for its survival – the art form will thrive for as long as people desire stories – but an understanding that a live performance can never be properly recorded, downloaded or replayed. You had to be there.

The beautiful, maddening ephemerality of performance gives awards a satisfying importance, not because they ever categorically decide the “Best Anything”, but because their consideration, reflection and discussion celebrate an endeavour that otherwise resides in the memories of audiences, the memento of reviews, the echo of applause.

A live experience is vivid and transient. A prize is something you can hold. No wonder they make The Irish TimesIrish Theatre Awards so weighty.

This year’s winner for Best Production may extract more benefit from the award than commemoration. Pan Pan Theatre Company’s The Rehearsal: Playing the Dane, which also earned Aedín Cosgrove the Best Set award for her magnificently stark design, will tour Ireland later this year. A show that didn’t so much stage Hamlet as becomehim, director Gavin Quinn’s production was as compelling, overthought, antic, indecisive and insightful as the Prince, finding room for academic analysis, an audience vote to elect its prince, a school production as “the play within the play”, and a real Great Dane panting onstage like a pun made flesh.

Its fellow nominees, Rough Magic’s Phaedra, Siren Productions’ Medeaand Anu Production’s World’s End Lane, would be no less honourable winners; all of them playing self-reflexive games with classic texts or local history to present them with the style and shock of the new. It is an achievement borne out in Selina Cartmell’s award for Best Director, whose compelling Medeafor Siren Productions combined lyricism, horror and resonance by weaving her furious heroine into a placeless, dreamlike “every home”.

But Pan Pan’s win puts a deserved emphasis on the character of Irish theatre in 2010: brave; ambitious; boldly innovative; with its makers positioned somewhere between respect for their theatrical inheritance and the iconoclasm of innovation.

“The next great drama will be the rebirth of a nation,” said Gerry Smyth, managing editor of The Irish Times, in an introduction that related theatre to the wider world. That, the awards recognised, is what theatre must do: when its eyes are on the present, even a classic can seem freshly radical.

You might think that Marty Rea’s Best Actor award for Second Age’s Hamletrepresented a safe choice by comparison. But the brilliance of Rea’s performance was to recognise Hamlet as a performance within a performance, a tormented avenger who plays a madman and disappears unsettlingly into the role. Rea never stood outside his part, like Pan Pan’s actors, but he let you see that the devices of metatheatre and the postdramatic are not new creations.

Olwen Fouéré, herself a former Hamlet, won Best Actress for Rough Magic and The Emergency Room’s co-production of Sodome, My Love, a show so immersed in staggering design that it was no surprise to see Denis Clohessy win the award for Best Sound (and some surprise that it did not net Best Design for John Comiskey).

Sinéad Wallace’s win for lighting Corn Exchange’s Happy Dayswith requisite blaze and inspired woozy pulses also acknowledged that, even in supposedly authoritarian texts, designers strike up a creative collaboration.

Something that rarely gets enough attention is the gravity of comedy. When Eleanor Methven scooped Best Supporting Actress for her magnificent Miss Prism in Rough Magic’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Vicar Street erupted. Methven may have deflected praise to Oscar Wilde, but there’s nothing in his text about the sublime way Methven’s Miss Prism inspected her handbag. Such inventions were hilarious, appropriate and all her own.

Laurence Kinlan, also a gifted comic performer, won Best Supporting Actor for his more tragic and hapless Mossy Lannigan in the Abbey’s Christ Deliver Us!,bringing concerns back to the conflict of adolescent sexuality and the scars of intolerance and abuse on our nation’s history.

Prizes for originality went to Carmel Winters, who was awarded Best New Play for the Abbey’s curious and troubling comedy B for Baby. But with the Judges’ Special Award reserved for Project Brand New, a different tenor of Irish theatre was justly celebrated, underlining support for new work and new methods – little of it text-based – which has quickly established PBN as an incubator of ideas and a stimulant for audiences.

“It is a hopeless endeavour to attract people to a theatre,” Smyth had said, quoting Dickens, “unless they can be first brought to believe that they will never get in.” It’s a neat paradox best understood by the box office. But whether productions sold out or struggled, Irish theatre was engaged in heady ideas of substance and form, past and present, that were always accessible.

It’s an honour to be nominated and it must be a joy to win, but for everybody who makes sense of the world through theatre, the bigger prize is to be able to take stock, to celebrate, and to continue to find hope in the endeavour.