Brian Singleton*

The past year in Irish theatre has been highly significant politically. 2016 marked the centennial anniversary of the failed Rebellion against colonial British rule that has troubled the Irish nation since independence. The Rising, as it is termed colloquially, falling short of a revolution, was poorly timed, organized, sustained and doomed to failure. Nevertheless, its aspiration for a society of equality in its official Proclamation of an independent republic has long since captured the imagination of Irish citizens. Nevertheless, the various iterations of the political state, in which citizens have lived since, have failed spectacularly to live up to those aspirations, characterized not least by the State’s 2010 EU-IMF bailout and subsequent cuts in public services, whole-scale unemployment and increased emigration. But, in the decade leading up to the 2016 centenary year, new voices and companies had emerged in Irish theatre that contested history and state remembering, as well as challenged Ireland’s willingness to endorse contemporary western neoliberal politics and economics. Those companies and their practitioners would set the agenda for remembering Ireland’s political past and its hoped-for future into 2017.

Emma O’Kane in ANU Productions and CoisCéim Dance Theatre’s production of These Rooms, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2016.
Photo by Patrick Redmond

While the independent theatre sector garnered the majority of the headlines for its innovative, popular and cultural triumphs of political critique, the two major and best-funded theatres in Ireland, Dublin’s the Abbey (national theatre) and the Gate, underwent significant changes in leadership and new directions in programming in 2016-17. These changes were symptomatic of a very fundamental shift in the Irish theatre sector, prompted by wide political movements for equality in gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race and class. Former Abbey Theatre director, Fiach MacConghail, had fallen victim to gender blindness in November 2015, when he announced the 2016 centenary programme “Waking the Nation” that almost exclusively programmed male writers. His social media defense sparked outrage in the sector and beyond, and led directly to the setting up of the #WakingTheFeminists campaign.[1]

Though MacConghail hosted the first public meeting of the campaign in the Abbey,[2] it marked the beginning of the end his almost twelve-year tenure at the helm of the national theatre, leaving before the end of 2016. Similarly, Michael Colgan, director of the Gate Theatre for an even longer period of thirty-three years, ended his controversial contract, with his very high publicly funded salary having been a source of recurrent journalistic interest.[3] The two major theatre-producing houses of Dublin, with new directors at the helm, began to reassess their respective remits, and to engage more widely and profoundly with the increasingly important independent theatre sector.

Tadgh Murphy and Mikel Murfi in Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival’s production of Ballyturk,
by Enda Walsh at Abbey Theatre 2017. Photo by Patrick Redmond

Former directors of the National Theatre of Scotland, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, launched their first programme at the helm of the Abbey Theatre, entitled “What happens next is this . . . ,” with a retrospective season. From February to May 2017, the Abbey hosted the greatest hits of the independent sector, productions that had gained critical success and international recognition in the past but not on the stages of the National Theatre.[4] These productions signaled a new direction for the Abbey, a move towards inclusion, collaboration and a greater geographical spread. Two plays by Enda Walsh (Arlington and Ballyturk), co-produced by Landmark Productions and the Galway International Arts Festival, heralded the new beginning and brought attention to the fact that a major writer of international standing, Enda Walsh, had never had a play produced by his own national theatre.

The season also included a revival of the much loved and praised Dublin by Lamplight, written by Michael West and directed by Annie Ryan, under the auspices of their company, The Corn Exchange. The play is a fictional account of the struggle to create a national theatre against a backdrop of nationalist insurrection and catholic morality, and is performed in the company’s signature style of improvisation and story theatre in a commedia style. Produced originally to coincide with the Abbey Theatre’s centenary in 2004, though notably never performed there until 2017, the play found new resonance, particularly in the subplot of costume assistant turned actor, Maggie, whose stage glory was ultimately marred by the disappearance of her insurgent boyfriend, leaving her pregnant in an Ireland without legal abortion provision and her presumed fate in one the notorious Magdalen laundries. The current Repeal the Eighth campaign to annul the 1983 amendment to the constitution that outlaws abortion provided a new wider political acuteness to this plotline, taking the play in a tragic turn in an otherwise anarchically hilarious spoof on theatre and nation.[5]

Caitríona Ennis (Maggie) in The Corn Exchange’s Dublin by Lamplight by Michael West in collaboration with the company,
at the Abbey Theatre, 2017. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Further productions reclaimed by the season included Rough Magic Theatre Company’s 2016 musical The Train, a fictionalized account of the forty-seven women of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement who took the train across the border from Dublin to Belfast in 1971 to purchase contraceptives in a direct challenge to the then restrictive laws of the Republic. The musical, written by Arthur Riordan and Bill Whelan, and directed by Lynne Parker, provided a historical resonance for the current WakingTheFeminists political interventions.

The season further extended its socio-political considerations with a trilogy of one-man plays by actor-author Pat Kinevane, in co-production with Fishamble: The New Play Company, featuring acutely political themes of homelessness (Silent), ageing (Forgotten) and bullying (Underneath), in the light of many scandals that had emerged in the media about the extent of homelessness, despite the reported economic recovery, as well as multiple reports of abuse in care homes driven by profit margins.

Pat Kinevane in Fishamble’s production of Forgotten by Pat Kinevane at Abbey Theatre, 2017. Photo by Patrick Redmond

Perhaps, one of the most significant co-productions of the Abbey’s 2017 season was with the Tony award-winning Druid theatre company from Galway, who brought their acclaimed 2016 production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to the main stage of the Abbey.[6] While the play and production had none of the socio-political relevance and resonance of co-productions previously mentioned, the significance of the Abbey partnering with Druid (the biggest and most internationally acclaimed companies in the independent sector) clearly signaled how the Abbey, Ireland’s national theatre, could not claim national significance on its own, and that artistic cultural success was not to be found in the capital city alone. Druid’s production of Beckett’s most iconic play was directed by Garry Hynes as physicalized storytelling, with constantly shifting imagery as in a live-art installation, aided by the intimacy of the choreography (by David Bolger) lending a humanity to the fraternity of humans in an otherwise brutalized world. It was described by Peter Crawley, chief critic of the Irish Times, as the best production of the play in twenty-five years.[7] It is little wonder the production will tour nationally and internationally in 2018.

Marty Rea as Vladimir and Aaron Monaghan as Estragon in Druid Theatre production’s Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
at Abbey Theatre, 2017. Photo by Patrick Redmond

The Gate Theatre’s first programme of 2017, under the directorship of newly appointed Selina Cartmell,[8] opened in July with The Great Gatsby, adapted from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and directed by Alexander Wright. The production turned the entire theatre, both inside and out, into Jay Gatsby’s jazz-age mansion, and audiences were invited, not to the play, but to his party, and encouraged to dress up in 1920s’ costume. The entire theatre building was stripped of its historical photographs and artifacts, and audiences entered an immersive experience in an auditorium converted into a ballroom that acted as a portal to the subplots in off-ballroom spaces. In some respects, it signaled to the much younger middle classes that this was their theatre now, as there were no seats to facilitate a past sedentary generation. And, as the production licensed drinking during the performance, audiences were sucked into the jazz-age excesses of the novel’s world in which they were immersed, ironically participating in a capitalism that the performance critiqued. While the Gate Theatre was renewing its middle class in audience terms, it was making a major political point in the very doing of it.[9]

Marty Rea and cast dancing in the Gatsby mansion in The Gate Theatre’s production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel,
The Great Gatsby, adapted and directed by Alexander Wright, 2017. Photo by Agata Stoinska

The representation of the state of the nation, past and present, throughout 2016 was championed theatrically by ANU Productions, led by director Louise Lowe and visual artist Owen Boss. The final (of three full-scale and five satellite) productions, These Rooms, played during and after the Dublin Theatre Festival.

A co-production with CoisCéim Dance Theatre, These Rooms[10] was set in Sean O’Casey’s birthplace, 84-86 Dorset Street in Dublin 1, not far from the now derelict site of the North King Street massacre of civilians by the British army during the Rising. Audiences time-travelled to the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising, to a pub where locals were waiting for a band from the North that would never appear, as the border had been closed to protect the state commemorations, while archival footage played on a television set of the state ceremony, an exclusively military and male event. Thus followed a breakdown of the performance, as audiences were invited to follow the women behind the scenes and back in time to hear and see how the events of 1916 affected them directly. The production combined “eye witness testimonies from 38 female voices with newly released findings of the government inquiry which followed and investigates questions of dignity and cultural trauma, belonging and dispossession.”[11] These testimonies of trauma from the past were performed in a series of art installations, in often unspoken movement sequences, as suppressed testimonies that sought expression through performance.

The production lived on into 2017 with a follow-up film installation, in response to both the theatre production and the issues of the past it represented. In a specially constructed structure inside the Temple Bar Gallery, three short films, under the collective title of Falling Out of Standing, by Owen Boss, David Bolger and Louise Lowe, aimed “to contextualize how the past is propelled into the present and the impact of time on conflicted histories through the form of film.”[12] A hundred years on, These Rooms and its film installation sequel, Falling Out of Standing, performed a “retrofuture” of our revolutionary past’s desires for social justice as yet to be realized.[13]

Justine Cooper in ANU Productions and CoisCéim Dance Theatre’s production of These Rooms as part of
Dublin Theatre Festival, 2016. Photo by Patrick Redmond

Such an indictment of the failure of successive governments post-independence to live up to the ideals of the Proclamation of the Republic also inspired one of the most popular theatrical performances of the past year, THISISPOPBABY’s RIOT, that won Best Production of the 2016 Dublin Fringe Festival, was revived in the popular music venue Vicar Street in July 2017, and will tour to Sydney and New York in early 2018.[14] Irish Times critic Peter Crawley rhetorically questioned the premise of the production: “Can a great night out also count as a political act?”[15] The answer by critics and spectators alike was “yes,” with multi-starred reviews and sell-out runs. The cabaret, directed by Phillip McMahon and Jennifer Jennings, featured lip-synching drag from Panti Bliss (whose performing career in clubs and theatres is matched by her political campaigning for social justice); the explosive performance poetry of Emmet Kirwan, who bounded on stage like a theatrical guerrilla, calling out the injustices that live on in the Irish state in the twenty-first century (while reminding the audience to check their privilege of being able to consume such culture in the first place); the highly erotic acrobatics of former GAA player Ronan Brady played against a Michael Harding monologue that deconstructed the masculinity on view; Dublin-based American singer-actress Megan Riordan, who camped up her own nation’s masculine sporting culture to the point of emasculating it; together with TV sensations, Lords of Strut and the Up and Over It duo, both highly skilled in their respective arts (acrobatics and Irish dancing), contesting received notions of Irishness and offering momentary glimpses through their skill of utopian alternatives to austerity, conservatism and repression.

The cast of THISISPOPBABY’s RIOT, created and directed by Jennifer Jennings and Phillip McMahon, first produced as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival 2016 and revived in Vicar Street Dublin in 2017. Photo by Conor Horgan and Niall Sweeney

Self-described as “both party and politic, a love letter of hope to the future, a clarion call on the state of the nation and a divine celebration and a blunt criticism of the world today,”[16] RIOT offered an alternative means to contest the past and imagine a future for Ireland in this decade of centenaries of nation building that spoke to many of the ideals of the 1916 revolutionaries, whose proclamations for justice are still a work in progress: our retrofuture.

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[1] For an analysis of the campaign, see Una Mullaly, “Waking the Feminists: The Year Women Awoke and Dared to Dream,” Irish Times, Oct. 29, 2016, (Accessed Sept. 18, 2017).
[2] November 12, 2015.
[3] See here (Accessed Sept. 12, 2017).
[4] For Neil Murray and Graham McLaren’s introduction their first programme at the Abbey Theatre in Totally Dublin, see here (Accessed Sept. 12, 2017).
[5] For Peter Crawley’s five-star review of the revival of Dublin by Lamplight, see here (Accessed Sept. 12, 2017).
[6] See here (Accessed Sept. 30, 2017).
[7] See here (Accessed Sept. 30, 2017).
[8] For a profile of Selina Cartmell, the new director of the Gate Theatre, see here (Accessed Sept. 12, 2017).
[9] For Peter’ Crawley’s review of The Great Gatsby in the Irish Times see here (Accessed Sept. 19, 2017).
[10] (Accessed Sept. 12, 2017).
[11] (Accessed Sept. 12, 2017).
[12] (Accessed Sept. 12, 2017).
[13] See Peter Crawley’s five-star review of the production of These Rooms in the Irish Times (Accessed Sept. 12, 2017).
[14] A THISISPOPBABY Production. Created and directed by Jennifer Jennings and Phillip McMahon. Composed by Alma Kelliher. With original text by Emmet Kirwan and Panti. Additional text by Michael Harding. Designed by Niall Sweeney. Costume design by James David Seaver. Lighting design by Mark Galione. Movement Direction by Suzanne Cleary and Peter Harding. Originally co-produced by Dublin Fringe Festival and supported by the Arts Council of Ireland. Photo by Conor Horgan and Niall Sweeney.
[15] See here (Accessed Sept. 12, 2017).
[16] (Accessed Sept. 12, 2017).

*Brian Singleton is Samuel Beckett Professor Drama and Theatre at Trinity College Dublin and Academic Director of The Lir-National Academy of Dramatic Art. He is former President of the International Federation for Theatre Research and former Editor of Theatre Research International (published by Cambridge University Press). From 2005-15, he co-edited (with Janelle Reinelt) the forty-volume book series “Studies in International Performance,” published by Palgrave Macmillan for which they won the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (USA) prize for Sustained Achievement in Editing (2012). He is currently co-editing a new series for Palgrave (with Elaine Aston) entitled “Contemporary Performance InterActions.” He has published widely on Irish theatre, though most of his publications focus on orientalism and interculturalism in performance, particularly in relation to issues of gender and race. His most recent monograph on Irish theatre is ANU Productions: the Monto Cycle (Palgrave Pivot, 2016) and his monograph Masculinities and the Contemporary Irish Theatre has been revised and updated for its paperback edition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Copyright © 2017 Brian Singleton
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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From Rising to Riot: Irish Theatre’s Retrofuture
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