Hugh Linehan: Covid shut down the world but couldn’t bring the curtain down on Irish theatre

The first in-person Irish Times Theatre Awards since 2019 will be a celebration of resilience

The Gaiety Theatre was abuzz on Tuesday night for the premiere of Gabriel Byrne’s one-man show Walking with Ghosts. The old Victorian auditorium was jammed and there was a sort of electricity in the air. Of course, much of this was down to Byrne’s own star power and charisma. But there was also a palpable sense that Tuesday represented a significant marker on the road to recovery for Irish theatre. After almost 23 months, it felt like a definitive reopening, unlike the false dawn last autumn during which full attendances were only permitted for a few short weeks before the reintroduction of capacity limits and the imposition of an 8pm curfew.

Depressing though those restrictions were, the fact that there wasn’t a total shutdown in December and January did allow theatres to plan shows for early 2022 in the hope that regulations might be loosened or even lifted by opening night. That optimism proved justified, and we’ll see further full-capacity opening nights in the next fortnight at the Abbey (Portia Coughlan) and the Gate (Endgame).

By the end of 2020, it was clear that the volume of work which had been produced prior to mid-March and in the gaps between shutdowns was insufficient to allow the three judges to make awards across all categories

As well as looking forward to a brighter future, it’s now possible look back on what was achieved over the course of the last two strange years, a period when, in the teeth of adversity, theatre-makers found ingenious and previously unthinkable ways of putting their work in front of audiences, helped by substantial additional support from the Department of Arts and the Arts Council.

Scuppered

One way in which Irish theatre marks the passing of each calendar year is through the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, which traditionally take place every spring to celebrate the best work of the previous year. The last in-person awards ceremony was held in the National Concert Hall in early 2019. Lockdown scuppered the next year’s event, so the awards were announced on irishtimes.com instead. By the end of 2020, it was clear that the volume of work which had been produced prior to mid-March and in the gaps between shutdowns was insufficient to allow the three judges to make awards across all categories.

Therefore the decision was made to roll the 2020 awards into 2021, and the judges – cultural consultant Lorelei Harris, theatre director and academic Tanya Dean and Prof Nicholas Grene – generously agreed to stay on for another 12 months. By the end of last year, they had attended more than 170 productions, and are now currently in the process of drawing up their shortlists. In their discussions, they’ll be taking account of a broader range of types of work than was ever the case pre-pandemic, with many outdoor and online productions mounted in response to the constraints imposed by Covid.

The judges are committed to – as much as is humanly possible – seeing every new professional theatre and opera production that takes place on the island of Ireland between now and December 31st

They will, however, confine their deliberations to live performances. This seems a wise decision. “Liveness” is an essential quality that distinguishes theatre from other forms of dramatic performance, whatever the platform or delivery system. (The broader question of where recorded performance fits in a taxonomy of forms and genres is probably for another day.)

In the flesh

So the good news is that the 2020/2021 Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards will take place in the flesh this year, with real people and real speeches and real hugs and kisses.

Meanwhile, the judges have already begun attending productions for this year’s awards. Grene and Harris are remaining on the panel, while Dean has stepped down, to be replaced by broadcaster and curator Gerry Godley. They are committed to – as much as is humanly possible – seeing every new professional theatre and opera production that takes place on the island of Ireland between now and December 31st.

This will be the 25th year of the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, which have survived through pandemics and financial crises, as well as profound changes in the newspaper business. They remain a symbol of the newspaper’s continuing commitment to covering, critiquing and celebrating the work of contemporary Irish artists. Irish theatre is not without its problems at the moment: there are rumblings of disquiet about recent events at both the Abbey and the Gate; the reforms demanded by Waking the Feminists remain largely unfulfilled; the disappearance of smaller venues shows no sign of being addressed; and the profession itself continues to be defined by precarity and penury. But there is still so much to celebrate.

Enquiries about the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards can be directed to theatreawards@irishtimes.com