Opening the Gate: is Irish theatre still talking to itself?

The Irish Theatrical Diaspora Conference at the Gate heard illuminating talks about Edwards and Mac Liammóir, Beckett and Friel

From left, Hilton Edwards and Micheál Mac Liammóir, the Gate’s founding co-directors and partners, provided the event’s first focus

From left, Hilton Edwards and Micheál Mac Liammóir, the Gate’s founding co-directors and partners, provided the event’s first focus

 

The relationship between theatre and academia is somewhere between an intimate appreciation and an endearingly awkward encounter. One is attractive and mysterious, full of meanings, rich histories and teasing signals. The other is a fervent admirer who would reveal to it (and anyone interested) its inner secrets, wider significance and, occasionally, mnemonic imperatives towards self-fragilising interaction within the matrixial border space. It’s a classic romance: beauty and the geek.

Much of this was evident at the 12th Annual Irish Theatrical Diaspora Conference, which was this year themed around Dublin’s Gate Theatre, and presented by NUI Galway Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance; the Irish Theatrical Diaspora Project; and the Gate – in the Gate Theatre itself.

This has become an increasingly familiar arrangement: the Abbey has held two symposiums in the past two years and has plans for a third. Bringing a conference into the ornate auditorium of the Gate, with all its swirling history, and placing the speakers on the set of Romeo and Juliet allowed for an illuminating two-day history, contextualisation and interpretation of the Gate, while also turning academic criticism into a performance. (It also featured two specially staged performances.)

Richard Pine, of the Durrell School of Corfu, began the conference with its most racily titled paper, Micheal Mac Liammóir, the Exotic-Erotic, and the Gate Theatre’s place in Irish Theatre Studies, then knowledgeably fielded questions. Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, the Gate’s founding co-directors and partners, provided the event’s first focus. Thomas Madden gave an elaborate history of Mac Liammóir, essentially the invention of Alfred Willmore, whose life was a perpetual performance. A fascinating paper by NUI Galway’s Des Lally on Paul Smith’s thinly veiled and acidulous portrait of Mac Liammóir and Edwards in his 1963 satirical novel Stravaganza! suggested that some people would never forgive him for it.

It was a revealing and tragic angle, with Smith, a representative of a newer gay culture in Ireland, mocking an older one. It also suggested, in Nally’s comic and poignant details, the high maintenance and unending toll of Mac Liammóir’s theatrical transformation.

Another vast terrain for discussion was supplied by Beckett, or, as Trish McTighe referred to it, “the Gate’s Beckett Country”. Here was an absorbing attempt to reconcile “how Ireland is absent, how it disappears from Beckett’s work” with the repatriation efforts of scholars, cultural tourism, the Gate’s influential festivals, canny marketing strategies and the “the greening of Beckett”.

 

Tensions repackaging Beckett

David Clare spoke about the Gate’s Beckett Festivals, a repackaging of Beckett that found tensions between his local and global affiliations.

He quoted Friel’s ambivalence to such international reach: “We are talking to ourselves as we must and if we are overheard in America, or England, so much the better.” But Beckett in production became for the Gate a chief export – to London, New York and beyond – and such festivals remain so. It’s practically a business model, one Clare described as “eventing”, and quoted Michael Colgan, the Gate’s artistic director and his former employer, whose ambition has always been to “pack the theatre with the least possible bad taste”.

It was heartening to hear Colgan himself use the phrase in a typically enthralling interview with Vincent Woods (although he said “best possible taste”). Beyond his anecdotes about Edwards and Mac Liammóir, Pinter and Beckett, or observations about the industry and extensive details of his forthcoming programme (“Don’t print that,” he said to nobody in particular), Colgan spoke about something academia rarely fully gets to grips with: “Why you do one show or another.”

Wilde had “saved my skin several times” he said. The current Romeo and Juliet, which he highly praised, was so poorly attended “we’ll be paying for it for two years”. And while he appreciated “megatrends” in contemporary Irish theatre towards ephemeral, site-specific work, they concerned him: “They don’t have longevity.”

 

International alertness

When Emilie Pine concluded her persuasive argument about theatre as an inherently “transcultural form”, tracing the shared influence and international alertness of Brian Friel, Tom Murphy and Arnold Wesker, it seemed to refine Friel’s remark – that they spoke not only between themselves, but overheard voices from beyond their borders. But her request to see Wesker’s socialist works of Sheelagh Delaney’s feminist plays of the 1950s staged seemed unlikely to influence the Gate’s programming any time soon. What’s good for the lectern isn’t great for the box office.

Indeed, Anthony Roche’s paper on Friel’s Lovers: Winners and Losers showed how art is influenced by industry, Friel’s two component plays influenced as much by his agent, Spencer Curtis Brown, as his director, Hilton Edwards. If Friel’s formative years with the Gate, which produced Philadelphia Here I Come!, ushered him towards playwriting over novel-writing, it suggested a willingness to being transformed and to work in an art form of continuous transformation.

That, during Christopher Fitz-Simon’s enjoyable reminiscence on the Gate, seemed to be the essence of the theatre’s role, which altered the lives of its founders and artists, helped shape the country and change the culture. Michael Colgan, not often given to sentimentality, spoke of his one wish to have shown Edwards and Mac Liammóir, his only predecessors, around the new building. If the conference was anything to go by, involved with the Gate’s legacy and continuity, they’d have liked what he’s done with the place.

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