First Thought Talks at GIAF

I wish I could have spent more time in Galway during last month’s GIAF but all I managed was a couple of day trips. I saw Arlington (a love song), which was dark and twisty and very Enda Walsh, and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a high-energy belter of a show with a fantastic cast and great songs. I also went to one of the First Thought Talks in Aula Maxima: “All the World’s A Stage – Can Theatre Define a Nation“, a big topic which I thought was particularly relevant in our big centenary year. I liked that the people on the panel were from different nations – The Guardian‘s theatre critic Michael Billington, Neil Murray – a Welsh man who was Artistic Director of the Scottish National Theatre until he took up his new position at the Abbey this summer and Cathy Leeney, the token Irish woman, who teaches drama at UCD. The panel was chaired by Cathy Belton. It was a really interesting, wide-ranging discussion that touched on loads of topics and I think she did an excellent job facilitating that.

There were copies of Michael Billington’s book 101 Greatest Plays available to buy after the talk and they talked a little bit about the book, particularly about the plays that he had left out. He said that a lot of people were very upset with him for leaving out King Lear. He also left out Waiting for Godot, instead choosing to include Beckett’s All That Fall. He was however, very complementary about Druid’s production of Godot, crediting it with making him see the play in a new way. (Sidenote: I didn’t even try to get a ticket to Waiting for Godot. Partly because I feel like I only just saw in the Dublin Theatre Festival but also because of my embarrassing tendency to fall asleep during Beckett plays. I knew I wouldn’t be able to doze off undetected in the Mick Lally Theatre, it’s too small to the potential for embarrassing myself too high to risk! If there is another run I will try and get a ticket because I’ve heard such good things about this production that I feel confident that it will keep me awake!)

There was also some discussion on the plays Billington did include, particularly where they were from. As a proud Welshman, Neil Murray was disappointed that there were no Welsh plays in the book, though Ireland was reasonably well represented. Nobody mentioned of the number plays by women on the list but I did a bit of research afterwards and found that the 101 plays included only five by female playwrights, which is not a great ratio. There were more plays by Shakespeare on the list than by women. The five plays written by women were The Verge by Susan Glaspell, Machinal by Sophie Treadwell, Men Should Weep by Ena Lamont Stewart, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. Billington does write a little about the lack of women and how he made his choices here.

The discussion about how to represent the nation on stage began by asking how theatre in the UK can reflect the nation after the Brexit Referendum. Michael’s suggestion was that it should become more European; bringing European countries to British stages, saying to those companies and to the UK audiences – we are still part of Europe. There was also the flip-side of that, which was the Scottish National Theatre taking show into communities, 10 SNT shows premiering on the same night on 10 different stages in various locations around Scotland, and how this gave the communities and the audiences a more tangible sense of connection with their national theatre. I wonder if theatre is always outwards looking and aspirational, does it lose that connection?

I was eager to hear what one of the incoming directors would have to say about our National Theatre. Murray described the Abbey stage as being “highly charged” and that he was interested in seeing new companies bring work to that space. He also seemed interested in seeing lots more new work and new writing on the Abbey stage, which would be a break from tradition. This is a theatre that has staged three different productions of The Plough And The Stars in the last seven years. As Neil Murray said that’s “not a criticism, just a fact.”

WTFatAbbey

Once talk turned to the Abbey, the WakingTheFeminists movement was not far behind. There was praise for all the work they have done in drawing attention to the sexist bias that exists in theatre so we can start working to change it. Someone else pointed out the other types of diversity that disappeared through funding cuts in the last few years, namely theatre companies representing cultural minorities that lost their funding during the recession and now no longer exist. Pan Pan’s 2006 production of The Playboy of the Western World, in Mandarin with an all Chinese cast was mentioned as a show that brought a non-white, non-Irish audience to the Project. If theatre is attempting to define or even just reflect a nation, it should reflect all parts of that nation.

There was also some discussion about ways to get young people into the theatre. Partly by changing what is on the stage, but also by offering cheaper tickets or free tickets or pay what you can tickets. All of which I am very much in favour of! I particularly liked the suggestion of selling last minute tickets at a greatly reduced price. The Abbey do this for Cameo Club members – €10 Standby tickets, Monday – Friday only, 30 minutes prior to the start of any Abbey Theatre show. Sadly it’s not available to everyone because you must be a student or aged 26 or under to join the Cameo Club.

There are interesting times ahead for theatre in Dublin. The change of personnel at the Abbey and at The Gate will shake things up a bit. WakingTheFeminists is already shaking things up, read this article to see what they’ve done so far. There will be lots of interesting repercussions coming out of that movement and I’m looking forward to them. In terms of Brexit we don’t know what the repercussions of that will be. Right now, the main effect it’s had to bring a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds – will it be harder for Irish theatre makers to go to the UK, long-term or just to tour? I studied drama in the UK, will that become more difficult for Irish people to do? The only concrete change is that the pounds is currently really weak against the euro, which I’m sure Irish artists in Edinburgh this year are pleased about! I don’t think the rest of it will be so positive.

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