‘We can’t keep funding productions and not the time for their development’
The ‘Irish Times’ IrishTheatre Awards judges have been impressed by the sector's strength in depth but concerned about the effect of funding cuts
Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards judges Ella Daly, Nicholas Grene and Anna Walsh on stage at the Abbey Theatre this week. Photograph: Alan Betson
It was a significant year, 2016, a period of commemoration when the Easter Rising seemed to rise and rise again. Incentivised by a splurge of State funding, yet undecided about the legacy of the rebellion for a battered nation, artists clamoured to respond. For the judges of the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, who attended northwards of 150 professional productions last year throughout the country, the calendar bulged with commemorations.
“I think we hit ‘peak Rising’ in about April,” says the returning judge Anna Walsh, director of Theatre Forum, more bemused than weary. This, you may remember, was a time when tanks rolled down O’Connell Street in a military parade, while an indecisive election had left the Republic without a Government. Against such tragicomic metaphors how could any theatre compete?
Responding to a most significant year won’t guarantee the most significant performances, however. The three judges – Walsh, the Trinity College Dublin professor emeritus Nicholas Grene, and Ella Daly, general manager of Dublin Youth Theatre – can now each claim a favourite Patrick Pearse. (There were so many portrayals of one figure in particular, across theatre and dance, that there could have been an additional category this year for best Roger Casement).
But in this year’s nominations it is the theatre that responded more obliquely, or not at all, that dominates the shortlist.
“I wonder if the work that we were seeing had sufficient distance, or investment, to properly reflect the nature of the year,” Walsh says.
Grene instead sees the Rising productions as more of a plumb line into the state of the artform: “I thought it was interesting how they illustrated the different styles and forms that are available now, in site-specific work, dance-theatre, or text-based work,” he says. “But there was a sense that every theatre company thought they had to try.”
Anu Productions, which staged a trilogy of works between Dublin and Manchester responding to the legacy of the Rising, is nominated under the judges’ special award, “because we thought that the range of work was a very imaginative engagement”.
Otherwise the judges responded more keenly to theatre with directly contemporary concerns. “For me what was most interesting in the 1916 work was when it addressed 2016,” Daly says. David Ireland’s unsettling comedy about contemporary loyalism, Cyprus Avenue, and Phillip McMahon and Raymond Scannell’s musical play about private histories and dispossession, Town Is Dead (both for the Abbey, and nominated across categories), make such connections. “It’s where the conversation was not so much about 1916 as about what has happened since. What were we promised, what did we get and what is our role in achieving that vision?”
That was the proposal of the Abbey’s centenary programme, Waking the Nation, before it was overshadowed late in 2015 by the criticism of its gender inequality that inspired Waking the Feminists.
With 16 nominations – far more than any other company – it seems to have been otherwise well met: the Abbey’s bracingly contemporary version of The Plough and the Stars is here rewarded with nominations for best supporting actress, best director and best production. Cyprus Avenue, which secures Stephen Rea a nomination for best actor, also features with Town Is Dead in the best-new-play category.
Tellingly, the definition of play has become more elastic this year. “We wanted to put down a marker specifically with nominating Shackleton, which does not have an author,” Grene says. (Blue Raincoat’s production, a wordless physical performance incorporating models, puppetry and projections, was developed by the company with the dramaturge Jocelyn Clarke. ) “It seems to us representative of some of the best new work which is created by an ensemble and in this case doesn’t have a script.”
Indeed, if the judges could introduce a new category it would be for best ensemble. Although Marty Rea and Rory Nolan are nominated for their roles in Druid’s phenomenal staging of Waiting for Godot, those performances, the judges recognise, are almost inextricable from those of their costars, Aaron Monaghan and Garrett Lombard.
Between Godot and The Beauty Queen of Leenane Druid features across the board, with Marie Mullen and Aisling O’Sullivan both up for best actress for their mother-and- daughter roles in the latter and Garry Hynes nominated for directing both, wildly dissimilar productions.
Just as the work of Anu or Shackleton highlights the capacities of Irish theatre far beyond text-centred work, the judges were encouraged by the sophistication of broader theatrical apparatus this year.
Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, a contemporary version of the ballet set in his tortured midlands, nominated for four awards, and the Abbey’s Town Is Dead, nominated for five, are interdisciplinary works leading the field.
“In so many ways the physical dance elements of so much of the work this year have been integral and well realised, perhaps more than ever before,” Walsh says.
Grene adds that Town Is Dead, billed as a play within music, effected something similar. “I thought that the total conception of that production, in terms of music and dance and script, lifted it completely.”
Seeing this much work will inevitably bring disappointments, too, but what most stung the judges was to find work of a grand scale, piled with talent and resources, suffer from ultimately poor execution, while promising work of more modest scale rarely progressed beyond short runs. (The Show in a Bag programme, a joint initiative of the Irish Theatre Institute, Fishamble and the Tiger Dublin Fringe, is nominated for propelling new work onwards.) “We saw an awful lot of very, very good theatre, just below the level of nomination,” Grene says. “It’s a measure of how good Irish theatre is in depth.”
Overall it is a shortlist dominated by the very well established: an unusually high proportion of nominees this year are previous winners. That’s a consequence, the judges suggest, of ad-hoc funding policies versus artistic longevity. Artists dependent on the vagaries of project funding – the only game in town for most – cannot plan as far in advance as regularly funded organisations, while ideas and collaborations take time to mature.
“We can’t just keep funding productions and not the time for their conception and development,” Daly says. “Excellent work and excellent collaborations don’t come out of short-term engagements.”
In other places, though, it seems you just can’t argue with talent. “I have to say that experience really does count,” Grene says. “The reason some of these names keep showing up is that they happen to be the best.”