‘The Irish Times’ Irish Theatre Awards 2017: The view from the judges’ seats
After a year of crisis and new beginnings, the awards lay down a marker
'Irish Times' Irish Theatre Awards: judges Catriona Crowe, Ella Daly and Paula Shields. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Since they began, in 1997, the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards have celebrated the achievements of the Irish stage each year. Throughout the calendar, three independent judges visit professional productions across the country, reflecting on the highest standards of production, performance, direction and design.
But the benefits of the awards have always been wider and more generous than deciding on a single winner. With an art form as ephemeral as theatre, one that leaves little residue once a performance has ended, the awards lay down a marker. They take a step back from the flow of events, provide a clearer picture of the shape of a year and, at the very least, give us another night to remember.
In 2017 we saw a milestone year in which the nation’s two major theatre institutions each welcomed new management. At the Abbey Theatre, its joint artistic directors, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, delivered their first programme, opening the National Theatre’s stages to visiting companies and major revivals, while mingling them with new work and significant tours.
At the Gate Theatre, where Selina Cartmell’s artistic directorate is only its third in 90 years, a range of enlivening new works sought out a path of “continuity and change” but pointed firmly towards new directions for the theatre, artistically and politically.
You sign up for a helicopter view of the sector, because you’re seeing everything in the year. It’s like the maddest master’s degree
It was also a year in which events behind the stage, from the continuing influence of Waking the Feminists in addressing institutional gender inequality to the wide fallout from allegations of harassment and bullying behaviour by Michael Colgan when he was director of the Gate, have been felt keenly.
If that suggests a year of crisis, re-evaluation and new beginnings, this year’s nominations seem to reflect it. In the best-production category is the Lyric Theatre and Prime Cut Productions’ coproduction of Red, a sturdy two-hander about the mercurial artist Mark Rothko by John Logan, which nudged at the worth and purpose of art.
It is joined by Corcadorca’s off-site production of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, produced on a dramatically presented Spike Island, for a lyrical and chilling depiction of a world at war with itself.
Also nominated is Dead Centre and the Abbey’s coproduction of Hamnet, cleverly conceived, technologically adventurous and featuring an extraordinary performance from a child actor that addressed Shakespeare, his most famous creation, and matters of life and death.
Then there is Woyzeck in Winter, a fusion of Georg Büchner’s famous fractured play and Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, which evoked a mind and society in violent disorder.
This year’s judges are the theatre manager Ella Daly (who continued from last year), the academic and activist Catriona Crowe and the RTÉ documentary researcher Paula Shields. For them, the varied range of work invited different ways of seeing theatre. That involved identifying composite elements within some very dissimilar works; the introduction of two new categories this year, best ensemble and best movement direction, further emphasises the importance of theatre in performance. Engaging with such a wide pool of work – more than 120 productions – has allowed them to look at the bigger picture.
“Really, it’s about looking at things in the context of everything else,” says Crowe. “It’s a different way to experience theatre.”
“You sign up for a helicopter view of the sector,” adds Shields, “because you’re seeing everything in the year. It’s like the maddest master’s degree in a way.”
That has made it daunting to arrive at a shortlist. When much work has been good, deciding what has been outstanding, in line with the judges’ guidelines, has been the subject of, as they say diplomatically, lively conversation.
They are hesitant, however, to identify any overarching pattern to the year, no defining trends or preoccupations. “I thought last year, particularly after the Dublin Fringe Festival and the Dublin Theatre Festival, artist outlook was quite bleak,” says Daly. “The work reflected that: the question was, where do we go from here? Whereas this year, again at the Fringe, there was a sense that we’re in big trouble – but such big trouble we might as well just go with it. That made the work almost exuberant and free: We are f***ed. Let’s just sing.”
Daly means that literally. Much of the theatre was surprisingly musical. Some of it, like the well-regarded, if not nominated, Fringe show Fierce Notions, from Ill-Advised Theatre Company, was as close to a gig as to a theatre performance. Enda Walsh and Donnacha Dennehy’s second opera collaboration, The Second Violinist, for Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera, was a particular standout for its conception and spectacular execution.
In the many productions that involve deranged males murdering females, was it the stories that stood out or the way they were told?
Woyzeck in Winter, from Landmark and Galway International Arts Festival, similarly impressed Crowe for its psychological and musical mapping. “The idea of combining Büchner with Schubert in that way, the last works of two young men at the beginning of the 19th century, which was also a time of extreme change and uncertainty and human self-examination, is a little like what Ella was describing about where young people find themselves right now.”
The mention of The Second Violinist and Woyzeck in Winter, together with a nod to the ensemble of Druid’s production of Crestfall, by Mark O’Rowe, draws attention to some grimly familiar narratives made more conspicuous in the year of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment in the film industry and other spheres.
When all these productions involve deranged males murdering females, was it the stories that stood out or the way they were told?
“One can move reasonably and rationally from the narrative to the aesthetic of how they’re presented,” says Crowe. “The aesthetic element of this year’s theatre was very interesting.” Indeed, she describes Corcadorca’s Far Away as “spectacularly beautiful. I had no idea the play could be so affecting and frightening. This was a tour de force of words as well as an extraordinary visual piece.”
It is also nominated in best lighting, for Aedín Cosgrove and Paul Keogan’s work, and best soundscape, for Mel Mercier’s compositions. “There were moments when you glance off to the side and you see people in these derelict places trying to live: women and children,” adds Daly – which sounds like a performance that corresponds with the deep anxieties of society.
Corcadorca is also nominated for Enda Walsh’s new play The Same, performed by the sisters Catherine and Eileen Walsh (each nominated for best actress), and in the judges’ special award for “bringing theatre to interesting and often inaccessible locations” or, in short, doing what they do. “They created an entire world,” says Crowe. “The hardest thing to do.”
To some degree, though, that is what all of the theatre recognised in this year’s awards has achieved, whether in the radically reconfigured spaces of the Gate’s production of The Great Gatsby, the playful and rivetingly conceived limbo of Dead Centre and the Abbey’s Hamnet, the multimedia purgatory of Landmark and Wide Open Opera’s The Second Violinist or the vast shifting canvases of the Lyric and Prime Cut Productions’ Red.
At its best, every act of theatre creates an entire world.
The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards take place at the National Concert Hall, in Dublin, on Sunday, February 25th; tickets €20