Irish Times Theatre Awards: Red gets to paint the town

What do you see? asked the big winner. We’re seeing double and elephants, came the answer

 Eleanor Methven, who won  the special tribute award for 2017, and Emma Jordan, winner of best director, at The Irish Times  theatre awards on  February 25th at the National Concert Hall. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Eleanor Methven, who won the special tribute award for 2017, and Emma Jordan, winner of best director, at The Irish Times theatre awards on February 25th at the National Concert Hall. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

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John Logan’s 2009 play Red starts with a simple question to which there is no obvious answer: “What do you see?”

The speaker is Mark Rothko, the famously mercurial abstract expressionist painter, as he examines a huge canvas; saturated with dark red paint like a gory crime scene. Currently lost for words, his new assistant searches for something intelligent and perceptive to say. “Red,” he finally offers.

Produced last spring by Belfast’s Prime Cut Productions and the Lyric Theatre, Red has now painted the town, taking home four major awards at The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, presented in association with TileStyle.

A sturdy drama in which Patrick O’Kane’s coiled, tormented Rothko and Thomas Finnegan as his hectored assistant Ken prepare canvasses together and argue no less energetically about the meaning and purpose of art, Red won best production, best director for Emma Jordan, best actor for O’Kane (also awarded for playing the frazzled lead in Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival’s Woyzeck in Winter) and, fittingly, best set design for Ciarán Bagnall’s evocation of his cavernous studio (who was also awarded for his work on the Gate’s labyrinthine The Great Gatsby).

Red, though, is as good a place as any to start for a reflection of Irish theatre in 2017. It was a year of crisis and re-evaluation, organisational change and renewal, in which artists often seemed to be asking deep questions of their practice and looking for something more.

Offstage, as the energies of Waking the Feminists met the revelations of #MeToo, bringing to light allegations of abuse of power and sexual harassment at the Gate theatre by Michael Colgan, one natural response was to feel betrayal and anger. “What do you see?” asks the artist. “Red,” comes the answer.

Independent report

That may have been intensified, one day before the awards, by a decision of the board of the Gate theatre. On legal advice, the theatre is withholding publication of an independent report by Gaye Cunningham into allegations of inappropriate behaviour and abuse of power at the Gate, citing a confidentiality agreement with 56 people who contributed their experiences. Given that trust in the board had made even contributing to the report a divisive issue, this decision hardly inspired confidence.

The awards are a celebration of the best of Irish theatre. The best of Irish theatre was not in a mood to celebrate.

This could have posed a particular challenge to Amy Conroy and Clare Barrett, the hosts of the awards at the National Concert Hall, who are required by tradition to make light of the previous year and whip a night of envelopes and speeches through its paces.

But Conroy and Barrett, the event’s first female co-hosts, made a wry and witty pairing, announcing a historic night “featuring not one, but two vaginas”, while taking to the stage holding a large inflatable elephant.

“I was just going to ignore it,” Conroy said of the elephant in the room, to knowing laughter among the audience, many of whom, inspired by the Time’s Up campaign, had worn black. “It seems to have worked really well for years.”

The new Gate theatre director Selina Cartmell, collecting the award for best costume design on behalf of Peter O’Brien for his jazz age finery in The Great Gatsby, was more forthright. “I will not waiver in our search for trust and transparency,” she said, thanking audiences for their support during a difficult year.

For The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, now celebrating its 21st edition, it seems to have been a year of accumulated achievements, split decisions and award sharing, as decided by the judging panel of Ella Daly, Caitríona Crowe and Paula Shields.

Harassment

“It was a year of change and challenge,” Daly said, while highlighting new approaches to staging work at the Gate and the Abbey, and reminding the audience of the many women who spoke out in the year of #MeToo “in the strongest possible terms against harassment and abuse”.

Change and challenge may have characterised the year, yet it didn’t seem coincidental that one big winner of the night was called The Same.

Playwright Enda Walsh’s name was heard often, even if he himself could not be present, winning best new play for The Same, a work staged by his original collaborators Corcadorca for their 25th anniversary in a decommissioned Cork prison, and then for best opera, as librettist, with composer Donnacha Dennehy for his frequent collaborators Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera’s co-production of a dark, ambitious and propulsive work The Second Violinist. Plus ça change.

Any Conway taking to the stage holding a large inflatable elephant. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Any Conway taking to the stage holding a large inflatable elephant. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

In the inaugural year for the best ensemble award, even new blood seemed to stem from older sources, where a double bill of Enda Walsh’s early plays Disco Pigs and Sucking Dublin provided new company Reality:Check with their first award.

The other new category, best movement direction, was awarded to Laura Murphy for her work on the Bram Stoker Festival’s Whitby.

Walsh’s play The Same provided sisters Catherine Walsh and Eileen Walsh with, for the first time, a shared award for best actress, both recognised for playing the same troubled woman 10 years apart.

“We can’t share anything,” Eileen mock complained from the podium. “Who’s your favourite?” 

Two roles

It was not a question the judges seemed willing to answer, acknowledging many of this year’s winners for multiple achievements instead. Rosaleen Linehan, recipient of the special tribute award for 2008, quipped of that trophy, “the sticker on the back said ‘goodbye’.”

Linehan took best supporting actress for two roles: as the otherworldly Hurdy Gurdy Man in Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival’s co-production of Woyzeck in Winter and for playing Mags in the Gate theatre production of The Red Shoes by Nancy Harris.

Marty Rea, another previous winner, won best supporting actor for roles in both Druid’s staging of King of the Castle and the Gate’s adventurous production of The Great Gatsby.

The transformation of the Gate theatre into the sprawling Gatsby mansion was also recognised in Ciarán Bagnall’s award for best set design. What do you see? asks Rothko in Red. One answer of the night became increasingly obvious. We’re seeing double.

If the theatre, an art form reliant on metaphor, is well practised at doing two things at the same time, Patrick O’Kane’s eloquent acceptance speech for his roles in Red and Woyzeck in Winter, addressed both the elephant in the room and its counterbalance – the support necessary to sustain a collaborative art.

The Same provided sisters Catherine Walsh and Eileen Walsh with a shared award for best actress, both recognised for playing the same troubled woman 10 years apart. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
The Same provided sisters Catherine Walsh and Eileen Walsh with a shared award for best actress, both recognised for playing the same troubled woman 10 years apart. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

“There is rightly a focus and an exposure of some of the darker aspects of our industry,” he said. “But it’s really great to stand here and celebrate the care given by both pieces of work to the people making it.”

Something of that spirit rang out too in Emma Jordan’s acceptance for best director for Red, alluding to a sense of isolation that can come with making work in a beleaguered Northern Ireland.

“To feel that you are part of the cultural conversation all around this island is really important,” the director said, and she had worn red for the occasion.

Galvanise and unite

It fell to Eleanor Methven, this year’s recipient of the special tribute award, to use both her professional example and her considered words to galvanise and unite. One of the five founders of Charabanc, the feminist theatre company born in 1980s Belfast, Methven’s coruscating career as an actor has long thrived on her ability to call out complacencies, unfairness and inequalities – that familiar herd of elephants – and to look for alternatives.

Speaking with customary humour and trenchant insights, Methven’s rousing conclusion was met with a standing ovation.

“Let’s move forward, by all means, this is a celebratory evening. But let’s not accomplish it by pouring old wine into new bottles. Smash them bottles. And don’t forget to drink responsibly.”

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