Theatre in 2021: The play is still the thing

Hopes persist that live performance industry can rebuild itself again

As the curtain opened on 2021, theatres around Ireland remained dark. Many of them had not reopened since public health guidelines forced them to close in March 2020. Once again, streaming looked set to dominate the year, with big producers like The Gate, The Abbey Theatre, Druid Theatre and Landmark Productions starting to broadcast postponed productions from empty auditoriums, and streaming recorded versions of digital-friendly work on demand.

The play was still the thing – a new commission from Frank McGuinness at The Gate, a Mark O’Rowe revival and a classic Samuel Beckett drama from Landmark Live – but clever camera work ensured an intimacy with actors that is often not afforded in the theatre. Still, there was something incredibly poignant about the silences that held in empty auditoriums after punchlines were delivered, the glimpse of empty seats at the corner of the screen. Some of the work was so good the digital mediation seemed irrelevant – the premiere of Sonya Kelly’s Once Upon a Bridge for Druid, was a late winter highlight  – and the increased audience reach offered a silver lining to the creatives involved. However everyone, audiences and actors alike, were eager to meet in a shared space again.

With the arrival of spring, theatres took inspiration from the Greeks, migrating outdoors, where public health guidelines were more forgiving for the return of live performance. Bewley’s Cafe Theatre led the way, launching an entire season of walkabout lunchtime drama, and the regularity and consistency of their programme through the summer months seemed like a thrilling promise of a return to the before times.With Covid-19 restrictions maintaining an indoor audience limit of 50, however, the Abbey Theatre was one of the few venues able to afford to produce work under the socially distant limitations. They reopened in June with a new play by Una McKevitt. It was a welcome surprise to discover that an audience of only 10 per cent can still create enough frisson to add energy to live performance, at least from the audience’s point of view. Glass Mask Theatre, meanwhile, found a canny way to make restrictions work in their favour, opening a new writing venue with a dining option at the Bestseller Cafe on Dawson Street.

By the end of the summer, most theatres were open again, with stringent safety measures both front of house and backstage, but nervousness was evident onstage and off as shows were put together with a held-breath mentality, aware that shifting public health conditions might mean the early end of a run. As panto season kicked off in November, producers spoke about understudies – previously a rare indulgence – as an essential aspect of Covid-proofing shows. Understudies are an expensive impossibility for most independent non-commercial theatres, however, as evidenced with the postponement of Robbie O’Connor’s Glue, as part of the impressive Dublin Theatre Festival programme; it was postponed by a week due to Covid-19 within the creative team. If the past two years has taught us anything it is that sometimes the show just cannot go on.

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As 2021 comes to a close, theatres are scrabbling to manage the new restrictions announced last week, with 100 per cent capacity pulled back to 50 per cent with just days’ notice. Box offices around the country are calling ticket holders to reschedule tickets and offer refunds to audiences. It is a devastating blow  for an industry that has barely got back on its feet. The Gate Theatre has announced it will not be able to run a full-year’s programme in 2022; smaller regional venues are feeling even more vulnerable.

And yet, there has been some evidence that the pandemic pause has been good for art, if not for artists. With an extra 18 months in some cases to incubate and polish ideas, much of the work that came to the stage in 2021 was simply outstanding. Hopefully 2022 will offer a more stable base, a less pressurised production model, from which the live performance industry can rebuild itself again.

Best of 2021 Highlights

Elsewhere, Abbey Theatre, November 

This ambitious production from composer Michale Gallen and his Straymaker outfit used theatrical techniques and multidisciplinary aesthetics to produce an immersive study of the 1919 Soviet at Monaghan Asylum. Despite a historic setting, the contemporary political resonances were clear.

What sort of a society do we want to live in? asked the revolutionaries and inmates. What sort of a society do we want to live in? Gallen insisted we ask ourselves. All of this was anchored by Gallen’s chaotic score, which exploited the wide-ranging talents of his ensemble and chamber orchestra, with director Tom Creed ensuring we could still find meaning in the madness. Elsewhere was an extraordinary, shocking, funny and moving piece of contemporary theatre.

Volcano, Nun’s Island Theatre, August

This four-part dance piece from Luke Murphy, which was conceived as a series of standalone performances that could also be appreciated as part of a greater whole. Seated in a peep-show booth in an unrecognisably reconfigured Nun’s Island Theatre, individual audience members had an intimate view of daily life inside a living time capsule, where two men reenact a series of moments from their past and rituals determined by an unseen power, who is always watching.

Technical timing and physical precision were key to the stunning performances from Murphy and his fellow-dancer Will Thompson, which found disturbing but also consoling echoes with the themes of pandemic life.

Waiting for Poirot, Limerick People’s Park, August

This fun piece of promenade theatre from Mike Finn and The Belltable Arts Centre used the public amenity of the People’s Park to create a special piece of family entertainment that was deeply engaged with the community.

The farcical murder-mystery material of Finn’s play belied a deeper seriousness of purpose: to highlight the secrets of a local amenity and showcase the talents of a multitalented professional local cast of more than 20.

Masterclass, Project Arts Centre, September

In this sly brave performance, Brokentalkers were joined by feminist performance artists Adrienne Truscott for a fearless look at the controversial territory of gender politics; the historic legacy of the Great White Male Artist and the troubling nature of performative “allyship” in the contemporary moment.

Larger than life performances from Truscott and Feidlim Cannon set the parodic intentions clear in the 60-minute play’s first half, but by the end, as the performers turned upon each other, no one was laughing anymore.