Somebody please make a drama out of the crisis


IMAGINE SOMEONE from an alien culture where theatre is unknown. If you dropped her into Dublin during the first week of the theatre festival, what impression might she get of this strange art form?

That it is mostly a kind of secondary exercise, a way of exploring what has already been done in another art form, namely prose fiction. She would not think that it had very much to do with contemporary life in the city. She would not encounter very much in the way of traditional theatre, the written play in which audiences are taken on an emotional or intellectual journey through a crisis and towards some kind of resolution.

At the time of writing, I’ve seen half a dozen shows of varying quality in the festival. Of the six, just one is, in the traditional sense, a play. And none is a drama.

It’s been obvious for some time that there’s something of a crisis in the old form of the Irish drama; a carefully written text that is animated and embodied by a director and actors. So far this year’s festival gives no reason to think either that the crisis has been resolved or that the search for a new kind of theatre has concluded.

FIRST, THE CRISIS.If you want to see how and why there’s a problem with the old model of the well-crafted, beautifully dressed, author-driven play, there’s no need to look much farther than Declan Hughes’s The Last Summer at the Gate. It oozes a sense of stasis from every pore. Both in form and content, it is deja vu all over again. It is about lives that remain trapped in amber, frozen at a key moment in youth, circling round themselves in an inescapable spiral of futility. But it also suggests a theatrical imagination similarly stuck.

The Last Summer, give or take some references to the property boom and crash, could have been staged at a Dublin theatre festival 40 years ago. Or, to be precise, 38 years ago. The highlight of the 1974 festival was Hugh Leonard’s Summer. It has the same south Dublin; the same device of a group of aspirational middle-class friends encountered in two different summers: in Leonard’s they are six years apart; in Hughes’s they are 1977 and 2007. And it has the same themes of spoiled hopes, of lust and loss, of inevitably doomed attempts to set the clock back to a moment of pure possibility.

This is not to say that Hughes’s play is a mere version of Leonard’s. It works differently, with the two periods interwoven rather than presented in sequence. It is much more plot-driven, with more vivid on- or off-stage action: sex, drink and rock ’n’ roll. But it is also not as good: less funny, less movingly melancholic. It is much more awkward, not least in the way it places young and inexperienced actors in the company of accomplished veterans such as Cathy Belton and Declan Conlon. Where Leonard managed to explore the idea of being stuck in the past, Hughes seems simply to exemplify that condition.

It’s not hard to see why younger or more radical theatre artists would want to avoid this condition by fleeing traditional drama altogether: but to where? Mostly, in the first week of the festival, the destination is clear: to books rather than to contemporary life. Of my half-dozen shows, three are based on the work of long-dead prose writers (and this does not include the Abbey’s version of Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray) and one has a prose writer at its centre; Hughes’s pivotal character, Paul, has written a nonfiction book about the group.

THERE IS NOTHINGinnately wrong with the idea of exploring a prose text. And, indeed, the festival gives us a very strong example of how this process can achieve its own integrity. The American company Elevator Repair Service, already known here for Gatz, its superb version of The Great Gatsby, moves beyond the idea of adaptation to the attempt, in the words of the director, John Collins, to “uncover a play inside the novel”, in this case Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which it presents as The Select.

The big discovery of Gatz was that the way to do this is to create a theatrical universe parallel to the one the novel inhabits. Instead of dragging a prose text on to the stage and making it fit the conventions of the theatre, what the company does is to draw, very slowly, a Venn diagram in which the old text and the new play retain their independent existence but come to share an overlapping, highly charged space. In the case of The Select, this space is a bar that occupies the stage but is infiltrated by Hemingway’s characters. It’s a gradual, careful, moment-by-moment process that becomes utterly compelling.

It was perhaps a misfortune of programming that The Select happened to coincide with an example of what happens when you don’t go through this process of completely reinventing a prose text for the stage. Corn Exchange’s version of James Joyce’s Dubliners fails in exactly the way that The Select succeeds: it never creates an autonomous onstage world in which the action unfolds. Joe Vanek’s puzzling set embodies the essential problem: too monumental to release the imagination, too abstract to create a realistic space.

Dubliners hovers between possibilities without realising any of them. It is often reverentially literal, yet it is also deeply unfaithful to the spirit of the originals. Joyce’s stories are almost all about what is not happening and what is not said. They are immensely subtle and discreet. This version tries to make everything explicit, sacrificing all the power of the unseen, the murmured, the half-glimpsed. Thus, to take the worst example, the two boys on the mitch in An Encounter are approached by a sinister stranger who wants to talk about sex. He moves away. There is silence. One of the boys says “I say! Look what he’s doing!” The reader has to imagine the moment. Here, Mark O’Halloran’s stranger obviously masturbates and then wipes his hands on his jacket. The moment that in the story is sinister and shameful and silent has become lurid, grotesque and crude.

This wouldn’t matter so much if Corn Exchange had gone all the way with this and wholly appropriated Dubliners to its own commedia dell’arte style. But even while blasting away the subtleties of the stories, Annie Ryan’s production remains oddly in awe of them, so that many of the episodes remain little more than animated readings. What we get is neither the exuberance of the company nor the careful reticence of Joyce, but something that shifts uncomfortably between them. The great pity is that there is, in a superbly moving version of A Painful Case, an interplay between O’Halloran and Derbhle Crotty that catches Joyce’s tone of comic pity to perfection and that reveals the depth of the missed opportunity.

EMMA DONOGHUE’Sbeautifully crafted version of the life and work of the remarkable short-story writer Maeve Brennan, The Talk of the Town, is more successful, partly because it can move fluidly between Brennan’s career at the New Yorker and her fiction. The connections it makes between them are not subtle; the implication of the way the piece works is that the Dublin family imagined in her stories is simply and literally her own, that she was remembering rather than inventing.

This is undoubtedly simplistic but, in theatrical terms, it allows Annabelle Comyn’s elegant and eloquent production to move supply between memory and actuality, with Paul O’Mahony’s excellent set at once linking and marking off the two kinds of terrain. It also allows the luminous Catherine Walker to create a closely etched portrait of Brennan, spanning the contradictions of steeliness and fragility, ferocious self-belief and utter helplessness.

Yet, while the elegance and containment of The Talk of the Town create their own entrancement, they also obviate the possibility of drama.

Brennan’s life was pained, chaotic and ultimately tragic. But the conventions of the biopic impose themselves on the play; we get an upbeat ending rather than a personal or artistic resolution. And this serves as a reminder of the limitations of a theatre that is dependent on prose fiction.

SO WHERE DOEStheatre go if not backwards to classic fiction? The festival so far has two interesting possibilities, both searching for a way back to lived reality. One is contained in Brokentalkers’ narrow but impressively honest Have I No Mouth. It is more a therapy session than a play: literally so as Feidlim Cannon explores the painful death of his father in the company of his own mother Ann and their shared psychotherapist Erich Keller.

The feel of the piece is halfway between observational stand-up and healing ritual. It is sometimes cringeworthy in its psychological metaphors – blow up a balloon to let your unhappiness go – and sometimes profoundly engaging. There’s an unresolved tension between the demands of art and those of life. But at least Cannon is trying to explore those tensions courageously and without a safety net.

WHILE CANNON’S WORKis still uncertain about the difference between raw and naive, Louise Lowe’s extraordinary Monto Cycle about Dublin’s north inner city has reached a level where it is the rawest enactment of the dark side of Irish life and the most sophisticated theatre we have. It ignites aesthetics and politics, the historic and the contemporary, in a controlled explosion of cold rage. The third part of the four-part project, The Boys of Foley Street, returns, literally, to the territory of the first, the Lab, after last year’s searing excursion into the old Magdalene laundry on Sean McDermott Street.

That first part, World’s End Lane, was powerful in itself but largely confined to the somewhat sterile spaces of the building, in which the observer could feel essentially safe. The Boys takes us out into the adjoining streets, back lanes, yards and flats. It is Lowe’s inferno, a genuinely terrifying descent though the hell of heroin. Its mood is ugly, invasive, confrontational. Its intent is literal exposure – the viewer is exposed to the breakdown of a family and a community under the assault of the drug.

There is a complete, overwhelming realism, created by the astonishing commitment of the cast, but Lowe is also inventively adroit in the deployment both of abstract movement and of technology, from radio to film to mobile phones and cameras. There is some initial disappointment that The Boys of Foley Street seems to end rather abruptly, until you realise later that it will not end at all. Once it’s in your head, it will stay there.

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