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Old Stories, New Styles: Irish Theater in 2012

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 3, Autumn/Fómhar, 2013
pp. 87-99 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0033

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Theater in Ireland continued its long tradition of storytelling and remembering the past in 2012. It was a season dominated by two giants of the Irish canon: James Joyce and Tom Murphy. Adaptations of Joyce’s work were numerous and frequent, as companies large and small celebrated the end of copyright restrictions on the author’s work. Revivals of works from Murphy’s oeuvre, as well as those of internationally renowned writers, represented another large portion of the theatrical year. Notable original productions, such as Shaun Dunne’s Death of the Tradesmen or WillFredd Theatre’s Farm, told old stories in innovative ways, even though a larger number of these plays focused on the past and new ways of reconciling with it. Such writers as Emma Donoghue and Declan Hughes took audiences back in time with their plays, while such groups as Dublin-based Pan Pan Theatre Company and thisispopbaby thrust stories of the distant past into the present. Both companies exercised their experimental performance styles by repurposing canonical stories for contemporary audiences. From the traditional play to the post-dramatic, Irish theater looked backward in order to speak to audiences here and now in new ways. Irish theatrical projects in the past year took up themes of repressed identity, emigration, and the need to move forward; projects ranged from major touring productions about people leaving and returning home to low-budget shows in which on-stage figures encouraged the search for a place in the global landscape.

On the first day of 2012, the copyright on James Joyce’s writings expired, signaling the start of a year of adaptation and performance. The demise of this copyright granted freedom and access for scholars and artists to use the words as much or as little as they liked. Companies that had been itching to perform or adapt Joyce could finally do proper homage to the author who is, after all, one of Ireland’s best-known exports. Best among the adaptations was Corn Exchange’s version of Dubliners, one of the main offerings of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Corn Exchange needed to make their style accessible for the larger scale of the Gaiety Theatre (which seats close to 1,200); it is usually geared to smaller venues such as Dublin’s Project Arts Centre, which suits the Corn Exchanges’s commedia background and the company’s precision of facial expressions and physical gestures. Their Dubliners ran to almost three hours in performance, and that was with several of Joyce’s stories excised for length and lack of dramatic translatability. Director Annie Ryan and playwright Michael West adapted Joyce’s works and showed that any audience could enjoy the production, whether they were intimately familiar with or had no previous knowledge of the stories.

Under the bold physicality of Corn Exchange’s treatment, Joyce’s short stories pulsed with a dramatic energy that both captured the original source and allowed experimentation in the staging process. Corn Exchange left the text mostly intact. It was the style of delivery that provided the originality. During the performance, characters shifted between direct address to the audience and dialogue within the scene, intermingling narrative and action. The exaggerated physicality and commedia-style makeup heightened an emphasis on the comic elements. This style gave the production a somewhat jarring pace at times, but often allowed the performers latitude for playful invention. Several of the pieces—notably “An Encounter,” “Two Gallants,” “Counterparts,” and “A Mother”—provided plenty of the company’s customary physicality while also adhering to the stories. Of particular note were Mark O’Halloran’s pedophilic mannerisms leading to onstage masturbation in “An Encounter” and Stephen Jones and Nick Lee’s slapstick-style routines and repetitions in “The Boarding House,” which displayed the company’s ability to take a canonical text and hilariously tell its story in their own way.

The Abbey Theatre presented The Dead, adapted by Frank McGuinness, appropriately just in time for the Christmas season and beyond. The playwright’s adaptation resulted in a more focused version of the final tale in Dubliners than the twenty minutes allotted at the end of Corn Exchange’s production. Instead of re-using the Edwardian props...



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