What happens to perspective when theatre adopts a first-person narrative?

Consider Friel’s plays and you realise what happens on stage can be acutely subjective

Helen and |, by Meadhbh McHugh, which illustrates the role of subjectivity in theatre. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Art, they say, changes the way we see things. Leonardo Da Vinci lets you gaze on the last supper, each diner arranged for display like the top table of a wedding. Joyce provides a dazzling day in Dublin through the eyes of an unexceptional man you come to know intimately. Plath shares poetic visions of nightmares and crises. You can experience a multitude of lives through literature and films and video games, a kaleidoscope of different points of view.

The history of art is a history of perspective. In early Renaissance painting, figures suddenly attained depth, stepping out from the canvas in light and shade as if from smoke. This also prioritised the eyes of the beholder. "The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God," wrote John Berger.

Something similar happened with drama and literature. The characters of the bible are as flat as the icons of medieval art, but the characters of secular fiction evolved a consciousness, a psychological depth. The biblical David acts, but doesn't think, the critic James Wood pointed out, whereas a character like Macbeth soliloquises, worries, confides. You may not endorse the idea of murdering your way up the professional ladder, but he'll make sure you see the world from his point of view.

Still, our perception of theatre is mainly as an objective art form. When Mark Haddon was approached about turning his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time into a stage play, he was sceptical. The book is written in the first person by Christopher, an autistic amateur detective, and it was important to see the world as he sees it. Theatre, Haddon felt, was a "radically third-person" art form – on stage, characters don't see; they are seen.


That's not far from the fourth-wall thinking of the 19th Century. In a good play, everyone is right, according to the dramatist Christian Friedrich Hebbel – a useful guide for credible dramatic conflict, but one that considers the stage to be an objective viewing platform. Is it?

Think about the plays of Brian Friel, where a young man's inner self runs riot on the stage, or three characters recall the same fateful event in markedly different ways, or the past of five Glenties women is summoned by the mind of an onstage narrator, and you realise that what happens on stage can be biased, unreliable and acutely, fascinatingly subjective.

Some of that spirit has taken hold of this year's Dublin Theatre Festival, where new plays lean further towards subjective experience. Florian Zeller's The Father at the Gate Theatre conjures the mind of a man with dementia, which, in director Ethan McSweeny's artfully unsettling production, plays with the mechanics of conventional theatre to evoke an almost first-person experience. Owen Roe's frazzled protagonist Andre desperately improvises to keep control over his life, but as his confusion grows, so does ours. A character introduced as his daughter will reappear in the next scene played by another performer, becoming a stranger to him and us. Ten years seem to evaporate between otherwise fluid moments, as though brutally erased from memory. Nothing is stable and the result is that you cling to him: This is what it is like when your mind and memory are in cruel revolt.

Ending today in the Civic Theatre is Meadhbh McHugh's debut play for Druid, Helen and I, whose title alerts you to its subjective slant. The "I" here is Lynn, Helen's younger sister, as besotted and frustrated as the "and I"s who shared titles with "Withnail" or "The King": the I through which we see.

Like Haddon’s Christopher, or Zeller’s Father, Lynn has a unique perspective, her mental issues suggested through make-up (she uses an awful lot of it) memory (dominated by an aloof, idolised mother) and medication (she’s off it). McHugh doesn’t quite hand the play over to Lynn: it’s Cathy Belton’s Helen, hot-tempered and weighed down, who stays with you. But it uses a subjective lens to make all truths seem relative, and still arrives at something of which Hebbel would approve: on whether their mother was troubled and implacable, or inspiringly independent, for instance, they’re probably both right.

That chimes with an age that is suspicious of claims to objectivity and increasingly sensitive to privileged views: Well you would say that, wouldn't you? It may also be the consequence of a time where individualism and the vanity mirror of the internet has made us feel as important and godlike as the spectator of Renaissance paintings. One of the results of the one-on-one theatre productions that came to define the Dublin Theatre Festival in the past 10 years is that we became both the spectator and the protagonist. Reviews and academic critiques of Anu's immersive Monto Cycle abounded with the personal pronoun, like little Caesars ("I came . . . I saw . . . I conquered . . . ") It may be significant that Anu's new work, These Rooms, a co-production with CoisCeim, is for a group audience, responding to the aftermath of the Rising in the lives of civilians as a shared experience. And it was a slyly effective tactic of Brokentalkers' recent work, This Beach, to turn self-obsession against us. Nobody could relate to the cartoonish characters in that bitter satire about our response to the refugee crisis, but it finished with a direct address, in the second person, describing in scientific detail the felt experience of drowning. Its last words, probing at theatre, perspective and empathy, were its most haunting: "Can you imagine that?"