In Praise of Anu

I didn’t mention Louise Lowe or Anu Productions in my last post on female theatre makers and that felt like an omission. I certainly count Louise Lowe among the female theatre-makers making strong, relevant work over the last number of years, but I hadn’t seen enough of Thirteen to write about it.

Suasion. Photography by Patrick Redmond
Suasion. Photography by Patrick Redmond

I only saw a couple of the Thirteen pieces but I enjoyed them very much. I had heard great things about it from many people so in the final week I was delighted when I finally got a chance to go down to the basement of Liberty Hall to see Suasion. It was set during the Lockout and we saw real people like PT Daly, Jim Larkin, Rosie Hackett and Helena Moloney brought to life at a trade union meeting in 1913. I got a strong sense of the various battles, big and small, that were being fought during that period. I loved that we were in the real place where those things took place and that the actors spoke directly to us.

That short, 45-minute piece of theatre really reminded me how strong Anu’s work is. I was hugely impressed by Boys of Foley Street and Laundry in the last couple of years and impressed in the literal sense of the word in that they left their impression on me; I am slightly changed from having seen that work. After I missed Living the Lockout on Henrietta Street, I was determined to see as much of Thirteen as I could, but then I got busy and suddenly I was working on two shows and time became less and less available. I’m glad I saw Suasion and I also managed to see Backwash and Soup, which were equally impressive.

Fintan O’Toole wrote an article just after the Fringe, praising the work that Anu Productions are doing. In “It’s Ireland’s best public theatre, and it means our support”, he doesn’t specify what sort of support, but does mention how quickly performances sell-out – they are clearly not in need of an audience. I presume he means support from the government and other bodies who are in a position to support the arts both financially and in kind by providing space, etc. Thirteen was supported by the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon, Dublin City Council, The LAB and the Irish Congress Trade Unions, DCTV and Fishamble; The New Play Company’s New Play Clinic. The tickets for Thirteen were free, which I’m sure was a conscience decision – why make a piece of theatre about the poorest people in the city and then restrict those who can see it with ticket cost? I think it would have been nice to allow the audience to support the company financially by passing the hat at the end of each performance. This voluntary contribution could have fit in nicely in some pieces – a bucket labelled “Support for the Strikers” perhaps? So often at the end of Anu productions there is no space for applause. This would allow the audience to show their appreciation and help the company to continue to make ground-breaking work.

As well as making imaginative and visceral theatre, the work the Anu makes is unapologetically political. It’s interesting that a major protest brought the city to a stand-still during the Fringe. I wonder if there was any connection to the Thirteen performances, which all evoked the spirit of the Lockout. I also thought it was maybe slightly short-sighted of the government to spend a lot of money celebrating the 1913 Lockout, then later in the year cutting benefits to the elderly, the under-26s, expectant mothers and those requiring help from the State because disability or long term illness. Are they not worried that they might be encouraging revolution?

Another possible way of supporting Anu’s work would be to answer their call to arms; to rise up and demand justice against greedy bankers, to revolt against corrupt systems that make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Russell Brand’s interview on Newsnight last week sparked a lot of discussion about revolution. Is it possible for people power to change the world? I think the history of the Lock-Out shows that it is, though it is a long, slow battle. But it is possible in the 21st century? Are we just too apathetic now? Has capitalism and consumerism dulled our senses? Are we all just comfortable enough not to make a fuss? Will Anu Productions succeed in shaking us out of apathy? They are certainly doing their best and we should support them in that goal.

A very female Fringe

Half-way through the Dublin Fringe Festival, having already seen six shows (Break, WAGE, Way Back Home, Pondling, You Remember The Stories You Wish Were True and Exit Strategy) I realised that I had yet to see a production that was written or devised by a man. This is partly my own prejudice – though I wasn’t actively avoiding shows by men, I am often more interested in seeing shows by women – but it’s also a credit to the Fringe that there were so many excellent productions by female theatre-makers to choose from. And they really were excellent shows – Way Back Home won the Spirit of the Fringe Award and I’m interested in seeing what Louise White does next. Pondling won the Best Female Performer Award for Genevieve Humle-Beaman and was also nominated for the Fishamble Award for Best New Writing.

Pondling by Genevieve Humle-Beaman
Pondling by Genevieve Humle-Beaman

At the Fringe Awards, the judges said that Best Female Performer was the most difficult categories to decide on because there was such a host of talent on display. I certainly saw some wonderful performances in lots of very different plays but I think the winner was a worthy one. In Pondling, which she wrote and performed, Genevieve Humle-Beaman created a character that was both terrifying and heart-breaking.

Female performers also did very well in Edinburgh this year – particularly when it came to the Foster’s Edinburgh comedy award; Bridget Christie won the overall prize and Adrienne Truscott won the panel prize. Both of their shows had a very strong feminist position. Christie’s show A Bic For Her was described as an hour of feminist comedy…as full of imaginative jokes as it is of righteous anger. Truscott’s show Asking for it took on rape culture and the rape joke. She performed the show naked from the waist down with video installations projected on to her lower body. These triumphs are particularly note-worthy as stand-up comedy is such a male-dominated medium.

Bryony Kimmings and her niece Taylor in Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model
Bryony Kimmings and her niece Taylor in Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model

On the theatre side of the Edinburgh Fringe, Bryony Kimmings’ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model went down very well, winning a Fringe First Award, a Fringe Review Outstanding Theatre Award and the Arches Brick Award. It is currently running at the Soho Theatre in London. The show was devised by Kimmings and her nine-year-old niece Taylor, as a response to, and fight against, the sexualisation of young girls. Together they created Catherine Bennett, a pop-star who is also an expert on dinosaurs and loves riding her bike. She also has her own songs, complete with music videos and Facebook page. Lynn Gardner described the show as “a call to arms against those who profit from selling thongs to children.”

In the Dublin Fringe Festival, I only saw a couple of shows that were overtly feminist. One of which, WAGE by Fitzgerald and Stapleton, offered discounted tickets for female audience members in recognition of the 13.9% gender pay gap in Ireland. It was a dance piece performed by two naked female performers, who were very comfortable and non-sexual about their nakedness. Even the masturbation sequence was laugh-out-loud funny rather than sexy. I’m not entirely sure what it was about but it was fun and silly and joyful in its incomprehensiveness. I was baffled but I’d had a good time. There was a slightly jarring section at the end when the dancers, now fully clothed, were joined on stage by Justine Reilly, a former prostitute who spoke about her own experiences. There was no room left for audience interpretation here – it was very didactic and a bit preach-y. Suddenly the piece went from incomprehensible fun to unambiguous lecturing and this took away from what had gone before.

While WAGE was alternatively incomprehensible and blatantly obvious, I still felt like it was doing something different in an enjoyable way. DOLLS on the other hand, had nothing new to say. I left the Sunday night performance feeling slightly angry because my time had been wasted. It didn’t say anything new about the female condition and there were sections of the piece that I found boring. With its heavy reliance on lip-synching, DOLLS made its performers nothing more than ciphers to be imprinted on. Perhaps that was the point since the piece was about woman as objects but it failed to move beyond that and just showed me something I already knew, over and over again. I seem to be in the minority though as a lot of people seemed to really enjoy the piece. It won the inaugural First Fortnight award which means you can see it in January and make up your own mine.

I would like to see more feminist theatre, made by men and women. I’m a native optimist who believes that art can change the world (or at least change a few minds), and while women are still being treating as being worth less than men, whether it’s how much they are paid or how much they are listened to, then we need to keep shouting about it. But it helps to build a strong platform to shout from and the Dublin Fringe Festival does contribute to that. It seems like it has always been very female, certainly in the last five years under Roise Goan’s directorship, and that’s a very good thing. I would like to think that hearing women’s voices and women’s stories onstage moves us a step closer to smashing the patriarchy and making a fairer society for all.