Entertaining, even enraging, but without art this can't be theatre


CULTURE SHOCK:AS WELL AS being an entertaining, enlightening and thought-provoking exploration of Ireland’s economic catastrophe, David McWilliams’s Outsidersusefully raises a rather basic question. What is – and is not – theatre?

  Outsiderscertainly has all the usual conventions and trappings, presented by the Abbey in a formalised space and mediated by a distinguished director (Conall Morrison) and designer (John Comiskey). It meets the simple definitions of theatre to which the avant garde returned in the 1960s: a space, a performer, an audience. But it doesn’t feel like a piece of theatre, and it forces you to ask why not.

There’s an obvious risk of pretension in even asking such a question. It is tempting to define theatre as anything that is presented in a theatre and then to move on. But of course lots of things that happen outside of theatres clearly are theatre – street and site-specific performances, for example. On the other hand, the line between documentary and theatre has been deliberately blurred in much recent work, not least in the Abbey’s own successful season reflecting on the Ryan report with plays like Gerard Mannix Flynn’s James X and Mary Raftery’s No Escape, both of which made very extensive use of factual material. One of the interesting things about Outsiders, indeed, is that it raises the question of how far this line can be blurred before theatricality becomes redundant and the power of fact takes over.

There are three closely related things that seem to me to be essential to theatre and that Outsidersdoes not have. If it had these things, moreover, it would be more than what it is: an engaging and at times properly enraging lecture.

The first of these is the most important. To be theatre, a work needs to be art. Which of course begs the question, what is art? The simple, one-word answer is “transformation”. Unlike journalism, a work of art does not record events or emotions. It transforms them. An artist takes his or her materials (whether they be a public event or a block of stone) and turns them into something else.

Another way of putting this is to say that a lecture or a journalistic article has the primary purpose of making the strange familiar. A work of art has precisely the opposite aim of making the familiar strange.

McWilliams’s piece is definitely of the first kind. It is primarily a work of elucidation, taking what are to most of us strange concepts (the inner workings of banks and financial markets) and making them comprehensible. At his best, McWilliams does this superbly.

There are moments, though, when McWilliams reaches towards something else: the transformative power of metaphor. By far the most brilliant moment of the show is the one in which he hits on and then plays with a simple personal memory. He remembers his granny’s “good room” – the one that all those who aspired to middle-class respectability kept in pristine condition in order to impress visitors. And then he transforms this memory into a wittily devastating explanation for the mindset of the Irish mandarins who go to any lengths (with our money) to keep our banks afloat so they will not let themselves down in front of our European neighbours. This is art: it turns one kind of knowledge (memory) into another (political analysis). And it’s not just more memorable than any number of damning statistics; it’s actually more enlightening.

The second thing that’s essential to theatre is that this idea of transformation is embodied in performance. Here, too, one of the inadvertent achievements of Outsidersis to remind us that professional actors can be actually rather good at what they do. McWilliams is charismatic, free flowing, unflaggingly engaging even in a show that’s about 20 minutes too long. But he’s not an actor, and when he tries to be – putting on accents or doing rough physical impressions of people or types – he succeeds only in reminding us of this reality. What would be amusing in a lecture hall or TV studio becomes gauche in the formal setting of a theatre.

An actor, for example, would know how to put on a working- class or rural accent without seeming quite so condescending.

The third element of theatre is shape. Even when it doesn’t have a linear narrative, a piece of theatre is self-consciously constructed around a series of moments whose power is cumulative and whose resonances gather towards the end. Outsiders, on the other hand, is discursive in form. And, as it happens, its impact tends to wane over time. McWilliams is precise and scathing on the causes of, and official responses to, the crisis. His solutions are vaguer and rely much more on messianic rhetoric.

His essential appeal is to some kind of fusion of art and market economics, which he calls “Joycean capitalism”. This is based, however, on the idea that James Joyce was an entrepreneur because of his role in establishing Dublin’s first cinema. Conveniently, McWilliams does not mention that the venture failed.

None of this is to suggest that Outsidersis not excellent in its own way or that the Abbey shouldn’t be contributing to public discourse by staging lectures. But it does remind us that journalism or polemic, however artfully presented, can never replace art itself, even when it comes to the reflection of current events.

Outsidersis at its best when it approaches the condition of art. It would be a more powerful if it actually were a piece of theatre, which is to say if it had more thoroughly transformed its materials into something stranger and more distanced. That, of course, would require a mind that was equally at home in the worlds of economics and theatre. That’s the kind of mind we probably don’t have, but if we are to get a genuinely theatrical response to the crisis, the Abbey needs to keep searching.