Stage Struck


There’s a risk of turning art into the window dressing of the recession

IT USED TO be that you went to the theatre to get somewhere else. The stage was a transportation device, more cost-efficient and environmentally sound than Ryanair. True, both can take you to Venice or Malta, but only one will leave you just outside the 16th century.

Now, that journey is reversing – with site-specific performance you go somewhere else to get to the theatre. A ghost estate, an empty apartment block, a hotel room, a Magdalene convent, a changing booth, a public toilet – why conspire to emulate these spaces when you can plant audiences and fictions directly inside and minimise the make-believe? Why stage Macbethand The Cherry Orchardin their stubborn entirety when you can prise out their secrets like pomegranate seeds and send them scattering through New York hotels or Brighton department stores for audiences to follow?

Festivals such as the Absolut Fringe and the Dublin Theatre Festival are reliable barometers of artistic interest. While plenty of shows this year happen in designated theatre spaces, a telling number only start there. Thisispopbaby, for instance, merely uses a theatre as a rendezvous point for Mark O’Halloran’s guesthouse-set play Trade at the Dublin Theatre Festival. It’s the same for Request Programme, Corcadorca’s festival-hopping production, which leads us to an apartment inhabited only by Eileen Walsh. In Cork the site delivered at least half the performance: visiting the almost deserted Elysian Tower gave you the same chill as wandering the decks of the Marie Celeste, if the ship had also been in Nama control.

The hermetic grip of fiction can overwhelm even architecture – it’s possible to believe, preposterously, that a 17-floor tower has been expressly built for a solo performance, or that Hammergrin’s recent Latch, played out in a ghost estate, could assign unfinished semi-detached houses to its spectators as easily as if they were handing out folding chairs.

The theatre is in the grip of a property obsession. Peter Brook maintained that all that was necessary to create theatre was The Empty Space, and now artists approach vacant buildings as though they were compelled to fill them. One panel discussion at the Dublin Theatre Festival, Access All Areas, asks how best site-specific companies can animate buildings “idle since the boom”, a position also intimated by the Department of Arts.

Some buildings deserve a new lease of life, and companies such as Anu are adept at translating potent locations into mesmerising performances. But not all buildings have character or even chill factor, and there’s a risk of turning art into the window dressing of the recession.

Ironically, there’s currently a surfeit of theatres with thinning programmes. What a strange paradox it would be, once the potential of bust banks and failed factories has been exhausted, if the next idle buildings to spark our imaginations are those empty theatres.