Talking Movies

February 25, 2016

Austerity and the Arts

The Journal has compiled a handy guide to various political pledges on arts funding. But take all with the caveat of Pat Rabbitte’s infamous slip on farcically utopian bait-and-switches, “Sure isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”

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Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture at the British Library last year excoriated politicians, especially the Tories, for wanting to bask in the reflected glamour of cultural icons, and boast about the money such activity makes for Britain, both in its own right and in attracting tourists via a sheen of national creativity, without ever wanting to invest in it. According to him these people believed artists magically appear, and start providing a return without requiring any initial capital outlay; an impressive economic conjuring trick to be sure. Whereas, he pointed out, Roxy Music would not have come about without a previous generation establishing a whole gamut of public investment in the future: the NHS, Arts Schools, libraries, galleries, museums, and the dole. According to the Social Democrats there has been a 55% cut in arts funding since 2008 in Ireland. Such cuts dramatically change the cultural current. Take Annabelle Comyn.

Annabelle Comyn was the founding artistic director of Hatch Theatre Company in 2004. She directed a number of contemporary British plays (by Martin Crimp, Dennis Kelly, David Greig, and Zinnie Harris) with regular collaborators including set designer Paul O’Mahony, sound designer Philip Stewart, and actor Peter Gaynor. Then in 2009 Hatch Theatre Company saw its grant slashed from €90,000 to €20,000. After that there was no funding for any projects submitted, and Comyn, who had also directed Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Caryl Churchill’s A Number for the Peacock in 2006 and 2007, took the hint. As she told the Irish Times in a 2014 interview “I remember thinking that the work I had done with Hatch – predominantly contemporary British plays – wouldn’t get funding.” So began two years in which one of Ireland’s best theatre directors didn’t work as a director.

And then Abbey artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail offered her the chance to direct Pygmalion at the Abbey’s main stage in 2011. So began a new phase of Comyn’s career. Her version of Shaw’s comedy emphasised that Henry Higgins really is stripping Eliza Doolittle not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims. The coldness of Charlie Murphy’s Eliza to Higgins in their final scenes captured the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on, and was an unexpected touch. 2012 saw her back on the Abbey main stage reviving Tom Murphy’s 2000 Abbey commission The House. This Chekhovian tale of social climbing and the frustrations of returned emigrants in the 1950s saw Comyn add new strings to her bow as she blocked 13 people for a chaotic drunken speech and fight. Comyn’s interpretation of Murphy’s melancholic character study with barbed commentary on societal failure saw her win Best Director at the Irish Times Theatre Awards. And yet…

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A director who specialised in premiering contemporary British plays is now (with the exception of 2012’s The Talk of the Town) exclusively reviving classic texts. A cultural current in Irish theatre has been diverted, and you can be sure that nobody returned to Dail Eireann after tomorrow will have as a priority allowing it to resume its original course. Does it matter? Well, John McGahern, the Irish novelist par excellence, would not have become the writer he was had he not been exposed to the works of Flaubert, Camus, and Hemingway. It matters if our theatrical landscape suddenly has a Berlin wall of austerity erected cutting off consistent interaction with new British writing. In the grand scheme of things cutting a €90,000 grant has had a larger effect than the latter-day Gladstone who made that retrenchment could ever have imagined.

To quote the two voices at the end of GK Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The other voice replied—

“The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost.”

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June 18, 2015

The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939

I was lucky enough last night to attend the launch in the Abbey theatre of Professor Anthony Roche’s latest book The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939.

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Professor Patrick Lonergan of NUIG, who edited the book for Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, gave a generous introductory speech; noting as an undergraduate in UCD in 1993 he had been struck by the way Roche presented his lectures as if he’d just rushed from a good play either in the Gate or in UCD Dramsoc’s LG theatre and was eager to tell his students about it so they could experience it too. Indeed Lonergan claimed that he remembered lectures Roche gave then more vividly than lectures he’d heard in the last month. Roche’s interest in, and support for, UCD Dramsoc was attested to by the presence of former students Caitriona Ennis, Caitriona Daly, and Eoghan Carrick, now rising stars of the Dublin theatre scene as the founding members of We Get High On This theatre company.

Fiach Mac Conghail, the artistic director of the Abbey, praised Roche for inscribing performance into the study of the Revival. Yeats may have prioritised a literary theatre, but he still needed actors to speak his words, and Mac Conghail noted that without the Fay brothers and the Allgood sisters the early Abbey would not have succeeded. He also noted that Roche had a telling eye for gossip in detailing the power struggles by which Yeats managed to subvert a democracy of actors and writers, and instead form a smaller unit; centred on himself; who decided what plays to perform and who to cast in them. Mac Conghail observed that questions of art and commerce as were laid bare in the book still beset the current Abbey board, and that the duality of the theatre was captured by the term ‘show-business’.

Mac Conghail also praised Roche for matching his prioritisation of the collaborative nature of the Abbey repertory players and the Abbey writer/directors with a reinstatement of the influence on the Abbey writers, particularly JM Synge and Sean O’Casey, of Henrik Ibsen; a reinstatement practised in the Abbey’s current season which deliberately followed a new version of Hedda Gabler with a revival of The Shadow of a Gunman. Mac Conghail also promised that Shaw would return to the Abbey at Christmas (Which Shaw? Wait and See), and praised the work done by Roche, as well as Frank McGuinness, in writing Shaw back into the narrative of the Revival; ‘The Absent Presence’ as Roche’s chapter dubs him. Roche launched the book officially by noting that Bloomsbury’s offer to write a book accessible to general audiences gave him a chance he’d been waiting for – to tell the long narrative of the theatrical Revival.

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Director Patrick Mason and Prof. Tony Roche

The Irish Dramatic Revival: 1899-1939 by Professor Anthony Roche is published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

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