‘The voices in our own heads’ – 20 years of Corn Exchange

For its anniversary production, director Annie Ryan settled on a stark Ingmar Bergman drama that does nothing to change the impression of the company as being hard to pin down

On a rainy day in Dublin the other week, director Annie Ryan was battling traffic to get in for her final rehearsals of Through a Glass Darkly. With a couple of days still to go before opening, the director had two problems she had yet to solve, neither of them straightforward.

The first was how to make her audience engage with the show’s protagonist, Karin, whose mental breakdown and spiritual delusions would inevitably seem isolating. Neither Ingmar Bergman’s stately 1962 film, in which the suffocated Karin goes on a holiday with the men in her life – an aloof father, a cosseting husband, a cagey brother – nor Jenny Worton’s 2010 stage adaptation held an obvious answer. Ryan preferred to see Karin as a victim of oppression, a confined woman seeking her true voice. “But actually,” she added, “she’s completely crackers.”

The second question was whether or not people would recognise this new production as a work by the Corn Exchange, the company Ryan set up in 1995. It's a largely naturalistic piece that bears Bergman's debt to Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg, and Ryan considered it "very straight" but was drawn to its intense, transformational moments. "It doesn't look very much like a Corn Exchange show," she said. After 20 years in the business, that suggested the question: what is a Corn Exchange show? Or is a company explicitly involved in the act of transformation – through performance style or subject matter – entitled to its own shift in character?

From its earliest days, the company established a trademark physical style: a hyperkinetic interpretation of 14th-century Italian improv, guided by the jump-cutting framing of film techniques that Ryan – who is originally from Chicago – has sometimes called “renegade Commedia” or “the confused American cousin” of Commedia dell’arte.

That style has been consistent but not constant; it was used for frenetic adaptations such as Streetcar, Big Bad Woolf, Baby Jane, The Seagull and Lolita, and sometimes new plays by its most frequent collaborator, Michael West, such as Dublin by Lamplight, Everyday and the vigorous solo adventure, Man of Valour. But it has been dispensed with just as regularly for drama with calmer or darker folds: a 2003 production of María Irene Fornés's Mud won the Irish Times Irish Theatre Award for best production, West's 2009 play Freefall (which won best new play and best director) and Ryan's recent harrowing adaptation of Eimear McBride's novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.

With their 20th anniversary show, was Ryan tempted to be retrospective? "Oh yeah," she says. "I'm always looking to find the story of the company and the work we've made. Because the work has become so diverse. Man of Valour and A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing – my God, they're total opposites, so what's the common denominator? For me, it's something about how we talk to ourselves and the voices in our own heads. How we tell our own stories to ourselves and how those stories can really ruin us."

Dark territory

This has led Corn Exchange into ever darker and often riveting territory. Mud was a striking example; at once abstract, rooted and brutal, and effortlessly transplanted from an American to an Irish context. Ryan still remembers one response, though, from an industry figure, who admired the show but shrugged that "there's no context for it".

"That always stayed with me," she says. "There was no context to hold this piece." It was an interesting discovery, "to want to make work that couldn't really find its place." There may be something revealing, then, in Ryan's frequent decision to transplant a play from another culture to Ireland (setting Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in Munster, or performing Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms in strong Ulster dialect), or from one medium to another: turning McBride's novel into a nightmarish vision of religious oppression and sexual victimhood for the stage. The work often has the sharpening sensation of being brought to a familiar place made strange, somewhere that is neither here nor there.

It’s similar with the Bergman piece, which has been lightly altered, with its adaptor Jenny Worton’s consent, for a vaguely Irish context and a suitably dark horizon. “It’s stark stuff,” says Ryan, who was advised to explore Bergman’s work by her long-time collaborator Mark O’Halloran. “It’s looking at how this woman is unravelling through a kind of aspiration to find this creative expression in herself. But she’s never had the opportunity before, and it turns into full-on psychosis. I was interested in what it would it be like to do the stark northern European pieces, but in Ireland, where we kind of go sideways with everything. It’s a weird fit, actually.”

Waking the Feminists

We spoke just two days after the momentous public meeting of Waking the Feminists at the Abbey Theatre. Ryan's thoughts turn frequently to the challenges and criticisms it has dislodged in the wider industry and her own practice. Her own company, she recognises, has staged work by only two female writers, Mud and A Girl . . . After her work on the latter, she was hesitant to return to work "just coming from a male point of view".

In an early contribution to the discussions that ignited #WTF, Ryan wrote of the dangers of allowing self-doubt to leave the status quo unchecked, and reflected candidly on never having been invited to direct for the Abbey stage.

“I have had moments when I thought, oh, it’s because I’m a woman, it’s because I freak them out, I’m too demanding, I have strong opinions, I’m not from here, etc, etc . . . And, God knows, those might be the reasons. The trouble is if you internalise these notions and some part of you believes it, it can discourage you into silence and apathy.”

It isn't hard to find parallels in the stifling of Katrin in Through a Glass Darkly, a woman mollycoddled and distrusted to the point of incapacitation. "In a way the play is a more internal exploration of what it is to make things, to have a creative mind, and what it is in us that seeks that expression," says Ryan. "In this story, and it's written in 1960, it never occurs to the character that she should maybe be a writer, like the father, so there's something underneath the play about why isn't she standing her own ground. So when people treat her badly in the piece, she turns it on herself."

It gave the play a new sense of timeliness for Ryan. “The feeling of being excluded, if you begin to internalise it, you begin to believe: oh, maybe I am just crazy or not really good enough. The piece looks at this in a really weird way: what could happen to somebody who’s so squashed that her inner creativity is turned into this totally schizophrenic thing where she believes God is coming? It’s a big leap. But she’s created this other world where that better side of herself can live.”

The questions of the day, how to understand Katrin and how to recognise this story as a Corn Exchange production, already seem largely answered.

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