‘God couldn’t have come up with a better pathogen to attack theatre’

Druid was on the up before coronavirus. Now it must reimagine how the show can go on

Garry Hynes: ‘You have to have one actor up close with another actor up close with an audience. And all of a sudden that is just blown away.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Garry Hynes: ‘You have to have one actor up close with another actor up close with an audience. And all of a sudden that is just blown away.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

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By the end of February, the Druid Theatre Company felt quietly and justifiably thrilled. Galway’s midwinter weather had been dismal, but a production of The Cherry Orchard was reaching the end of a successful run.

The adaptation by Tom Murphy of the Chekhov play had been one of the biggest undertakings in Druid’s 40-year history: a cast of 19 and an ambitious stage set in the Black Box theatre.

Druid broke new ground, too, by broadcasting the play via cinema screens across the State. It was No 2 at the Irish box office, and Druid had bookings for India, Brazil and Moscow. A US cinema release was due to follow.

“And a week later, the whole world had changed,” says Feargal Hynes, Druid’s executive director. Druid, like other theatre companies, remains closed for business.

“The thing I have reflected on over the last while is how slow you are to catch up on what this really means”

For all of the make-believe involved in theatre, the people involved in it are realists. Given the social and economic shocks caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the fate of theatre was never going to feature prominently.

However, as the nation prepares to take its first tentative steps towards reclaiming some semblance of normal life, companies such as Druid face the same improbable – even impossible – questions as everyone else.

“The thing I have reflected on over the last while is how slow you are to catch up on what this really means,” says Garry Hynes, Druid’s co-founder and artistic director.

Three months have passed since The Cherry Orchard set was dismantled in the Black Box, part of Galway’s Town Hall Theatre. Outside the weather is blissful. However, the big red door of Druid’s home on Flood Street is closed.

No one knows when the company will stage a play again. “I kind of think if God had been trying to design a pathogen to attack theatre, he couldn’t have come up with better than Covid,” says Garry.

“Because what we do in theatre is by definition infectious. You have to have one actor up close with another actor up close with an audience. And all of a sudden that is just blown away. We can’t even do the most basic thing.”

High-wire act

Halting The Cherry Orchard just when it was gathering momentum has been crushing: “This was one of the largest productions. We build our sets in Ballybane, make our costumes on Nun’s Island.

“The part that you don’t see in the production is so much bigger than what you do,” says Feargal, adding that the “difficult conversations that have been necessary in the “unwinding of all that” have been “incredibly challenging”.

Even in boom times, theatre is always a high-wire act. State and Arts Council grants help, along with ticket sales and corporate donors. But there is rarely enough to go round.

Reflecting at the end of a week when the ESRI forecast the deepest recession in the history of the State, Feargal says: “Our outlook is that we try to play the ball in front of our face.”

“We are trying to create something for the next six months and then move on. The financial challenges of being in the arts allow you to do no more than that. Theatre was already underfunded.

“So the devastation of this blow can’t be underestimated. Whatever the economic future is of the country for the next four or five years, we also have to repair our society. The arts are integral to that.”

Galway’s year as European Capital of Culture has long been dogged with bad luck, even before coronavirus. Besides touring The Cherry Orchard, Druid had also planned a series of one-act plays in the city and county.

Marie Mullen, a founder member of Druid, is scheduled to appear in those works. But last December she was also cast in The Music Man, a Broadway musical extravaganza with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster.

“In a way it is a great way to be with two jobs to look forward to – and yet neither might happen”

“We are supposed to start rehearsals in June in New York. And I was to be part of the first instalment of the Druid plays for the Year of Culture. Now it has been reimagined somewhat, mostly concentrating on Lady Gregory.

“I’m in the picture to do that but if America comes up, I have to go. If it doesn’t, I will be able to do this. So in a way it is a great way to be with two jobs to look forward to – and yet neither might happen,” she says.

Mullen is well established in her career. Uncertainty is part of the trade, but the surreal nature of the pandemic has created fresh worries, particularly for the generation trying to establish themselves in acting.

Resilient lot

Long before coronavirus, Mullen had been struck by the resilience and versatility of young actors: “There hasn’t been a lot of work in Ireland for the past few years.”

Actors are “rooted in the world” and do not have their “heads in the clouds”, says Mullen. “They have gone out and written things and put on things. It won’t make them rich but they have gone down avenues and are really impressive.”

That means constantly looking forward. Garry Hynes has already begun to turn her thoughts to the autumn season, revolving around the life and writings of Lady Augusta Gregory.

Limited capacity means staging shows in theatres – a financially dubious exercise at the best of times – is impossible. Outdoor settings look like the most realistic alternative.

“We always knew it was a perilous position but this has exposed just how perilous it is. And protecting that has to be central”

There is something appealing about the idea. “I do think it could be great,” says Mullen. “There are the practical things: will they be able to hear us and how will we project our voices? But it is exciting.”

The pandemic has changed many things. However, Garry feels the importance of the arts to Irish life has been illuminated by its total disappearance.

Irish theatre’s ecosystem is hardy but it is not imperishable: “We always knew it was a perilous position but this has exposed just how perilous it is. And protecting that has to be central.”

Safety for everyone has to be guaranteed: “But then we have a prime obligation to provide them with theatre. We simply want to get back to live performances as soon as possible.”

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