It's fascinating how the same set of words can have so many different meanings. I'm sitting in on rehearsals for Rough Magic's forthcoming production of Much Ado About Nothing. Clare Barrett, Maeve Fitzgerald and Venetia Bowe are trying out a scene; drawing nuances of emphasis and feelings from Shakespeare's comedy of love and misunderstanding. When I arrived, Fitzgerald and Barrett were playing swingball on a set that may or may not feature in the final production.
“It helps us learn our lines,” says Barrett, possibly only half joking. Either way, it’s a good metaphor for the quick-witted banter that makes Shakespeare’s lighter writing so sparkling. In the sports hall that’s doubling up as a rehearsal room, sketches for costumes are tacked to the wall and there’s a chocolate cake, gently melting on a table. This latter isn’t a prop, it’s Fitzgerald’s birthday and there have been some tasty celebrations.
They settle down to work. "Let's not feel any obligation to make things easy for people," says director Ronan Phelan, as he nudges the action away from the possibly obvious, and into the rich humanity that is why Shakespeare's plays have endured. He's not talking about over-complicating, just digging a little deeper. For someone who had the playwright's infinite variety sucked out in school, it's a revelation.
Like Shakespeare, although not quite so long-lived, Rough Magic have also endured. Celebrating 35 years this year, and with two productions in preparation for the Kilkenny Arts Festival, as well as the premiere of Marina Carr's new work, Hecuba, there are few signs of a desire to rest on laurels, or otherwise take it easy. But what does it take to survive through a generation of upheaval, boom and recession? What has changed in the world of Irish theatre, and how do you stay fresh, and relevant, year after year?
The name, Rough Magic, was well chosen. Connecting to Shakespeare through Prospero’s famous line from The Tempest: “this rough magic I here abjure”; it also implies a willingness to get a little dirty with the magic of creating a play. Who else but Rough Magic would have put on a musical about 1971’s infamous train protest over contraceptives (The Train, 2015), or about theoretical physicist Erwin Schrödinger and Irish neutrality during the second World War (Improbable Frequency, 2004, both plays by Arthur Riordan)?
Ireland in 1984 was a very different place, as artistic director Lynne Parker reflects when I meet her at the Rough Magic HQ, up a steep flight of narrow stairs on Dublin's South Great George's Street. After a nose through the offices, rich with relics of previous productions, I settle down on a long sofa (a prop from Peer Gynt, 2011) to chat about the good times and bad. Small and focused, with grey green eyes and unruly curly dark hair, Parker describes the emotional stamina you need in theatre. "That's something you don't realise when you're starting out. If you're really, really determined and you don't admit of any other possibility, you'll make it work somehow. You can't be told not to do it."
Did anyone try to tell her not to do it? "My parents were a bit worried, of course," she says. "I was fortunate enough to have Stewart as an example of how you could be successful, but there was no guarantee." She's referring to her uncle, Stewart Parker, the acclaimed Belfast-born playwright. From Nightshade in 1987, the year before he died of cancer, through to a defining production of Pentecost and, most recently, Northern Star in 2016, Parker's plays have run through the Rough Magic programme.
So too has a heady mix of work including Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Parker's first love, Restoration drama. There have been 128 productions, including 36 world premieres, by co-founder Declan Hughes, as well as a long and illustrious list including Sonya Kelly, Gina Moxley, Pom Boyd, Hilary Fannin, and Riordan, who was also in at the beginning. The Seeds programme, which mentors new talent (see panel) is now in its 16th year. Phelan himself is a graduate of the programme.
“The early years went by in a kind of a frenzy,” remembers Riordan. “In our first 12 months we mounted 13 productions. Back then we rehearsed in a decrepit old building on Temple Lane with mostly broken windows and a view of the sky through the roof. This was when there was plenty of rehearsal and studio space cheaply available in Temple Bar, before it became a cultural quarter.
“We’d rehearse during the day, do a show at night, and when we weren’t doing that we were having meetings: meetings about our policy, our artistic vision, our next show, our collective political stance. Meetings about meetings. Looking back, it’s easy to laugh at these endless, earnest discussions, and we often did, even at the time, but it was also exhilarating. We were in our 20s, sounding each other out, calling each other out, getting to know each other, and getting to know ourselves.”
Shows from the early years include Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Myles na gCopaleen's Thirst, and Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Stanley Townsend, Helene Montague, Anne Byrne and Siobhán Bourke completed the company. Parker also remembers what she describes as "Wild West times". "Dublin in those days was so bohemian, kind of informal and fun. Maybe that's a rose-tinted perspective," she adds, recalling the very different social and political environment, as well as being held up at knife point while returning to the old Project building, late at night to collect bags.
“It was a different kind of creativity. It wasn’t completely treadmill, career driven. There was a greater sense of anarchy. And a political purpose in the work.” That political purpose has, she thinks, made a recent and welcome return after a period during which people were making work more focused on the self. “It really has reignited, re-engaged,” Parker says.
Dublin in the 1980s was in a deep recession, but it was also a city in which it was cheap to live and work. “It seems like recessions engender exciting young theatre companies,” says Riordan. “There was a proliferation of new companies in the mid-1980s, and there is again today.” The difference in today’s environment is that it is next to impossible to find affordable living space, or office space. Rough Magic’s own HQ is slated to become yet another superfluous hotel in the near future.
There have been numerous Irish and international awards and accolades, but also funding cuts and leaner times. Now Parker is looking ahead. There is a pile of scripts waiting for her to read, collaborations to put together, and ideas to germinate. How far ahead, I wonder, can she programme? “That’s a good question,” she says, with a wry smile. “Years, months, and sometimes weeks. You’re so at the mercy of the funding structure, but you have to behave as if you have an indefinite future. And you have to be ready to change that at a moment’s notice.”
That’s a tough call on any company, and funding has shifted both in scale, and policy over the years. A focus away from production companies and on to venues devastated some companies, and left others reeling. The venues themselves, struggling to pay core costs, have less to offer theatre companies to create productions. That proliferation of new companies, while welcome, further stretches resources, and yet stalwart companies with strong legacies also need enduring support, to continue to take risks, and experiment with new, and not always obviously successful or immediately lucrative projects.
The word a lot of people who know, or have worked with them, use to describe Rough Magic is “family”. There is a collective ethos, and yet talking to Parker, I can tell how years of experience have made her circumspect. Her deep love of theatre comes through, but the politics of dealing with funders, venues, and the personalities of the actors, writers, directors and designers have made her both wise and somewhat reticent. I can sense that she can be absolutely brilliant fun, but will also most frequently be guarded.
“We don’t live in a world of certainty,” she says. “Commercial productions can go as badly wrong as they can go wonderfully right. Everything is a risk. The one thing you can absolutely bank on is [Oscar] Wilde. People will always come to see Wilde, but you can’t limit yourself to that, you have to keep broadening your horizons, and that’s what subsidy’s for.”
“I think young theatre practitioners are better prepared and better trained today,” says Riordan. “There is a far better, larger network of well-equipped, well-run theatres around the country, but lack of funding means that large-scale, large-cast productions are outside the reach of most independent companies. This is a shame. One of the ways in which Rough Magic caused a stir in the early days was the sheer size and ambition of our shows.”
Is there such a thing as a typical Rough Magic play? Parker says it "boils down to the relationship with the audience, and the acting ensemble". Bourke, now co-director at the Irish Theatre Institute, also references the family aspect, the company having "at its heart, a hugely talented ensemble of actors". On a different note, theatre critic Peter Crawley, reviewing Peer Gynt (and indirectly the office sofa) in this newspaper in 2011, described the way the play comprised layers and layers, which had to be peeled away to come to understanding. "In its own wonderful, frustrating way," he wrote, "Rough Magic is just being itself." I'm reminded of Phelan's direction to his Much Ado cast. Why take the easy route, when you can dig deeper, take audiences beyond the words, and make real and lasting magic? Long may it continue.
Rough Magic’s Much Ado About Nothing and Cleft are at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, which runs from August 8th to 18th kilkennyarts.ie. Hecuba is at Project Arts Centre September 26th to October 6th projectartscentre.ie.
A book of the company’s New Irish Plays and Adaptations 2010-2018 is due for publication by Methuen next year, and the Rough Magic archive, donated to Trinity College Dublin, will open to the public later this year. roughmagic.ie
Rough Magic’s Seeds Programme has been mentoring new theatrical talent for 16 years. Alumni include
Lisa McGee, writer of Channel 4’s Derry Girls
Cian O’Brien, artistic director Project Arts Centre
Marty Moore, production manager, Royal Court Theatre, London
Sophie Motley, artistic director, Pentabus Theatre, Shropshire
Tom Creed, theatre and opera director, currently working on a production with Irish National Opera
Matt Torney, associate artistic director at the Studio Theatre, Washington
Alma Kelliher, sound designer (Riverrun with Olwen Fouéré, Riot with Thisispopbaby)
Stacey Gregg, playwright, winner of an Irish Times Irish Theatre Award, and Edinburgh Fringe First Award for Scorch
Matt Smyth, producer with ANU, Dead Centre and Collapsing Horse
Conor Hanratty, theatre and opera director, currently with the Atlanta Opera Studio