It feels a little strange to be trying to write about theatre with everything that is going on in the world at the moment. As we read stories of lives being destroyed in Ukraine, I find myself wondering what I could write here that would justify being read amongst that news – writing recommendations of shows to go see feels somehow flippant. But maybe it is in these moments that we need things like theatre more than ever. In the face of the inhumanity of leaders like Putin, it becomes all the more important that the rest of us embrace and enact our own humanity, and gathering together to experience art collectively can play a part in that.
This coming together can be enacted both on and off stage in many ways. Offstage, we can take political and social responsibility and make a difference. This week, a huge number of European theatre networks, joining together venues, theatre companies and individuals, have pledged to support Ukrainian artists and to host events in support of the country. By choosing where we put our money, and how we utilise our spaces, we can help those who need it. Venue programmers can choose to support and platform Ukrainian artists, but audiences can do their bit too. Perhaps when you go to see a show this weekend, instead of buying an interval drink put that money towards aid to Ukraine, either through charities or by donating goods to any of the many local collection drives around the country.
On stage, we can platform unheard voices, we can question the status quo, and we can engage with people who have been otherwise kept on the margins. From Ancient Greek theatre platforming the political debates of the day, to Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre, to the work of organisations like The Freedom Theatre in Palestine today, art has always been utilised to effect political change. Where people gather and have the freedom to make their voices heard and hear their stories told, a positive change is always possible. Yes, practicalities of food, shelter, medical care and other needs must be met, but souls need to be nourished too. Reading the ongoing series of letters from political prisoners in Belarus that the Belarus Free Theatre publish, there is, of course, a lot of discussion of the practical and emotional hardships of life in imprisonment but almost every letter references art in some way too, whether it is lines quoted from a poem, opinions on music shared, or meditations on how painting and drawing has helped them to process their experiences. Even in such awful situations, the impulse is there to reach out to others and share art and its effects. That instinct is deep rooted in humanity.
Any way in which we can draw people together to share their time and experiences can have a positive effect, whether that is through a theatre workshop, a food drive at your local community hall, or laughing and crying collectively at a performance. So this month I am not recommending any particular shows, but instead I ask that you take the generosity at the heart of the arts and play your part in spreading care and support where it is needed. People need refuge and supplies, but they also need hope, and love and care – as the song goes, ‘hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses.’ Reach out to others with open arms and share what you have in whatever way you can.
Recently I was invited by Dirty Protest Theatre and Fishamble to be a part of a panel at their online event On The Horizon| Ar Y Gorwel| Ag Bun na Spéire. It was a brilliant afternoon of panel discussions and play readings looking at the connections between the arts industries in Ireland and Wales, and I was delighted to be involved. By the time I closed my laptop at the end of the day, my mind was buzzing with all of the thoughts and ideas that were shared, and I am excited to see the connections between the two countries continue to evolve.
I’m speaking as an artist and arts worker who is Irish and has worked in Wales for the past two years, both as a freelance writer and theatre critic, and as Touring and Projects Officer with National Dance Company Wales and Company Manager of Richard Chappell Dance. Shortly after I moved to Cardiff, back in 2019, I sat down to write out my thoughts on moving to a new country, and I thought I might start by revisiting that short piece, called The Little Things.
It’s the little things. The short hop across a skinny sea to a city similar yet made strange by small details.
The nocturnal noises, just alien enough to pierce your sleep and rouse you to a foggy consciousness, a sleep-muffled moment of – “where am I?”
It’s the little things. The wide-awake walk home until your autopilot comes up to date.
The turns of phrase that give double take as you take them in for the first time – hearing “cheers drive.” Sentiment no different, but not your bus-stop thanks.
It’s the little things. The accents among which you’re the novelty in a sea of the usual vowels made unfamiliar.
The question of what jam to buy – getting it wrong going for the cheapest “mixed fruit preserve” but eating it anyway.
(Because in small ways some things are just the same.)
It’s the little things. The shower dial turned to the right temperature for the first time without thinking.
The place recognised by surprise and remembered – map rendered unnecessary in your pocket.
It’s the little things. The words recognised on signs as you find yourself learning.
The faces you pass each morning on your walk to work – soon to be the usual strangers that you’ll know but won’t.
It’s the little things. Your name on letters to an address no longer house-share-advert abstract.
Small things, those details in change, as the strange begins to rearrange itself to something you newly know.
It’s the little things.
And the longer I live here, the more I realise that it is those little things that connect Ireland and Wales, those little things that made a new country a little bit familiar.
Over several years working in theatre in Ireland, I had found a community. I could barely walk past a theatre without ending up stopping for a chat to someone I knew, my laptop automatically connected to the wifi of pretty much every venue in Dublin, and a fair few others across the country too, and in the same way you know who’s getting married, graduating, being christened in your family, I knew all of the shows that were opening, rehearsals beginning, programmes launching across the country.
When I decided to move to Cardiff, I braced myself to start from scratch.
Only when I arrived, I realised I didn’t have to. Just as people in the Irish theatre industry opened their arms to 17-year old me when I turned up, began writing, knocking on doors and getting involved in everything I could, as soon as I said that I was moving to Wales, people over here opened their doors and put the kettle on. Within no time at all, I was finding myself in foyers at matinees surrounded by familiar faces and friendly conversations, and I realised that I had a web of connections and community not just in Cardiff, but across various parts of Wales.
It’s that community which is the lifeblood and heart of both Irish and Welsh arts. There are plenty of similarities between the two countries – both are bilingual, both have connections through Celtic histories, both countries are defined by lush landscapes and rich cultural heritages, and hey, we’re even connected through Ireland’s patron Saint, St Patrick, who came from Wales. But the defining similarity, which transcends and encompasses all of the others, is a sense of community. When it comes to the arts in both Wales and Ireland, that sense of community doesn’t just mean local communities, but a national community.
This can present its own challenges – if we don’t enact this sense of a close-knit industry conscientiously, we run the risk of closing doors to people, and making people feel that they are left on the outside. I’m sure we all know too well the dangers of settling too comfortably into the familiar, and always working with the same people, always programming the safe bets, always hiring the same faces. If we aren’t careful, the industry can become small and insular, lacking diversity of voices and perspectives. And the last thing the arts industry needs, is another means of gatekeeping.
When I started my career at 17, I was in a lucky position – I had been exposed to theatre from a young age, I had a knowledge of the industry, and I was studying drama in University. We need to make sure we are creating an open community that not only welcomes people in positions like mine, but that welcomes those who have never set foot in a theatre before. As bell hooks writes, “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.” In both Ireland and Wales we have the strong bedrock of a community, and we need to be vigilant and aware of what we build from that.
We need to make sure we are building communities that not only include people we are familiar with and who are familiar with the industry, but the neighbour around the corner who feels that dance “isn’t for her,” the teenager in school who can’t afford to risk studying drama in university because of high fees and low job certainty, or the recently arrived refugee who is in a direct provision centre and has their access to the arts limited by time, space and cost. As The Care Collective put it in The Care Manifesto, we need to foster an industry “in which we can support each other and generate networks of belonging,” with “conditions that enable us to act collaboratively to create communities that both support our abilities and nurture our interdependencies.” With advances like the Universal Basic Income pilots in both Wales and Ireland, the appointment of Andrew Ogun as Arts Council Wales first “Agent for Change,” movements like Waking the Feminists and We Shall Not Be Removed, and ongoing conversations about how we change practices for the better as we emerge from the pandemic, we are beginning to work towards those networks of belonging. But we need to push further, open ourselves up to new ways of working, and get busy making the many small changes that make big ambitions a reality.
Wielded with generosity, compassion and care, the deep-rooted sense of community in both the Irish and Welsh arts industry could bring with it a model for theatre of the future, a theatre that is open and accessible to all. If we use our connections to people and places wisely, listen intently to those who need to be heard, and make changes to our ways of working, hiring, collaborating and creating, if we make a difference through all the little things, then we stand to not only open the doors of our industry, but to tear down the dividing walls altogether.
Originally delivered as a live talk at Dirty Protest Theatre and Fishamble’s event On The Horizon, 17th June 2021.
While I once again find myself writing a lockdown column, this month there is a glimmer of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel with the most recent government announcement which suggests theatres may reopen in June. Though they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, is maith an t-anlann an t-ocras, good things come to those who wait…the waiting is still no fun. After months of darkened stages and empty auditorium seats, I know many of us are waiting with bated breath for the return of live theatre. Even with fantastic streamed plays, Zoom performances and other digital offerings, nothing quite matches the feeling of being present in a room with other people as a story unfurls on stage. But, as the famous line from As You Like It goes, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” So this month, I invite you to look to the stage around us and find the theatre in everyday life.
We may not be able to come and meet those dancing feet at 42nd Street, or watch dancers pas de chatacross a stage in the Dance of the Cygnets, but just step into your local supermarket and you will see a complicated new choreography that we have all learned over the past year – the Social Distancing Dance. You go to pick up a box of cornflakes, but as you do another shopper reaches for the box next to it; a quick chassé each and you have returned to your safe 2 metre distance, her by the Weetabix, you next to the Rice Krispies. Meanwhile, an unwitting corps de ballet of other shoppers steps cautiously in time with each other in their socially distanced queue at the checkouts.
Or if it’s music you’re missing, step outside your front door and hear the music that is being performed all around you. Following in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, and composers like John Cage, let the sounds around you become a performance. Imagine a dialogue between the ice-cream van’s jingle and the rattle of a train passing nearby, or between the car alarm that is wailing in the distance and the beep-beep-beep of the checkouts in a shop. Let the world’s overture entertain you as you wait for the curtain to rise in your favourite venue.
Finally, if you need some drama, look no further than the bird-feeder outside your back door. Watch the dynamic power-struggles unfold between a goldfinch and a starling over some sunflower hearts and peanuts. Act 1 opens as the goldfinch flies down and perches, ready for breakfast, but as the interloping starling swoops in, a drama to rival Ibsen or Sophocles begins. Or if you prefer a mystery like The Mousetrap, check out The Mystery of the Vanishing Parcel. You’ve been at home all day, the doorbell is working, and yet you spy the dreaded note below your letterbox – ‘We are sorry we missed you.’ You don’t know when it appeared, you never heard a thing, you can’t even remember what you ordered. As the curtain falls at the interval, the greatest mystery of our time leaves you wondering, where could the parcel be, and will it ever be seen again?
We have all been in lockdowns for longer than we care to remember; we have ordered all of the things we can order online, we have baked more banana bread than we could ever hope to eat, and we have re-watched our favourite sitcoms far too many times. But it won’t last forever – there is light at the end of the tunnel and that light will illuminate our stages again before too long. In the meantime, find the novelty in the normal, entertainment in the everyday, and let the curtain rise on the theatre of day-to-day life.
It has been a whole year since the safety curtain fell. Four seasons, twelve months, almost fifty-two weeks to the day. When any of us sat down in an auditorium seat last March, did we know that it would be the last time for over a year that we would sit shoulder to shoulder with a stranger, united in the collective experience of a play?
It has been a difficult year of abrupt stops, false starts, and yet more stops. I ache to be back in an auditorium, and auditoriums remain achingly empty. But despite the sometimes seemingly constant barrage of bad news over the past twelve months, that is not what this letter is about. No, I am writing to celebrate the tenacity, solidarity and creativity that the theatre industry has shown since stages went dark last March.
Because, though doors closed, offices were swapped for kitchen tables, lights were switched off in venues, and Zoom with a capital Z was shoehorned into our vernacular, the ghost light never went out. I wrote in this column last March that “companies, venues and individual artists have had steam coming out of their ears with the speed at which they have been thinking up new ways to bring the joy of theatre to everyone in their homes,” and they haven’t stopped. From ballet performed at home in bath-tubs, to live streams of brilliant plays, and outdoor performances on greens and balconies, to new works created for new online platforms, people’s creativity and resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles has been incredible.
Though normal life as we knew it ground to a halt in March 2020, my colleagues in the industry refused to let that put the chocks under their wheels. With supportive hands and generous hearts, the theatre industry has kept creating, kept connecting. And so, this is my standing ovation for you all. No, it’s not the curtain call, but over the past year you have all performed a stand-out, showstopper of a number that deserves a round of applause all of its own.
None of us could have imagined we would still be in the midst of this pandemic a year later, but the show will always go on. I finished my March 2020 column with these words, and they still stand today, “let the glow of the ghost light remind us that when this passes, our auditoriums will be filled with the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd once more.”
This Sunday, International Women’s Day, we celebrated all of the fantastic women who have shaped our history, made their mark on the present, and are crafting our future. For over a hundred years, International Women’s day has been a day for celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.
Throughout their history, Ireland’s theatres have been home to myriad phenomenal women, from Lady Gregory pouring her energy into establishing our National Theatre, to the incredible women who took to the stage of that same theatre in 2015 to call out the gender inequality that is rife in our in our industry. This International Women’s Day, I want to look both backwards and forwards, remembering some of my favourite shows on Irish stages created by women in the last few years, and looking forwards to some of the exciting work that is on the horizon.
So without further ado, let’s take a journey back to some of the treasures of the recent past.
Asking For It
One of the most talked about productions of 2018, Asking For It, based on Louise O’Neill’s lauded 2015 novel of the same name and brought to the stage by writer Meadbh McHugh and director Annabelle Comyn, was a powerful, incisive and urgent piece of theatre. From Cork, to Dublin, to Birmingham, Asking for It has brought a vital message about rape culture to our stages, and has done so in a sharply crafted, memorable production.
Owing to the Failure of
Moving to a production smaller in scale but equal in quality, we come to Owing to the Failure of, presented at The Workman’s Club in Dublin as part of Dublin Fringe Festival 2018. Written by Zoë Comyns and directed by Catríona McLaughlin, Owing to the Failure of was one of the best love stories I have seen on a stage in recent years.
Rosas Danst Rosas
There are not many shows that I would return to see two nights in a row, but Rosas Danst Rosas at Dublin Dance Festival 2019 was one of them. The power sustained by the four women on stage, through the intensity of Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s arresting choreography was a truly breathtaking thing to experience. A landmark piece of postmodern dance, the piece has not lost a joule of energy through its 37-year lifespan.
No list of brilliant women’s work on Irish stages would be complete without a mention for Marina Carr. Coming to the stage soon after the Waking the Feminists movement came to life, Carr’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel breathed new life into an old story, and tied the experiences of Tolstoy’s 19th century fictional women, to those of the women in the audience and on stage in 2016.
The Olive Tree
Written and performed by Katie O’Kelly, The Olive Tree is a magic realist adventure that delves deep into one of the most pertinent political issues of today. As a weary shop assistant peels a Boycott Israel sticker off of a bottle of olive oil, the tree on the label becomes real and takes her on a journey through the stories of Palestinian struggles past and present.
These are just a smattering of the excellence that has graced our stages from women’s pens and imaginations, but International Women’s Day is about looking forward, not just back. So let’s take a look at some of the exciting things that we have to look forward to on our stages.
The Red Book of Ossory
A deconstruction of several songs and poems written by 14th Century Kilkenny Bishop, Richard de Ledrede and included in the historic manuscript The Red Book of Ossory. With the famous witchcraft trial of Dame Alice Kylteler, for which de Ledrede was responsible, as a backdrop, The Red Book of Ossory at Project Arts Centre promises to be an enrapturing blend of the historical and contemporary created and performed by Anakronos, led by Catríona O’Leary.
This Beautiful Village
Returning to the Abbey Stage after a successful run last year and continuing onwards on a national tour, Lisa Tierney-Keogh’s This Beautiful Village is a piece that I am determined to catch in whatever corner of the country I can. Described by critic, Katy Hayes as ’utterly clued in to the zeitgeist,’ This Beautiful Village promises to sharply dissect privilege, power and prejudices.
Indeed, no list of brilliant women’s work on Irish stages would be complete without a second mention for Marina Carr. Coming to the Abbey Theatre during the 2020 edition of Dublin Theatre Festival, The Boy is a new cycle of plays written by Marina Carr and directed by Catríona McLaughlin. It is loosely based on the three Theban Plays, continuing Carr’s exploration of Ancient Greek theatre, and asks questions about responsibility and complicity in cycles of violence. The Boy looks set to be an ambitious durational theatrical work, and is one of the plays I am most excited to see this year.
Between this year’s International Women’s Day, and the next, seek out the work of brilliant women, and remember the final four points ofLian’s List, created by Lian Bell as part of the Waking the Feminists Campaign:
“67. Support women: celebrate their success, amplify
In his essay on Simon Streather’s exhibition, Night Paintings, Jean-Paul Martinon writes that the paintings are “embodiments to keep the possibility of the possible open, which is nothing else than keeping art and life moving a little further still.” Standing in the airy, open space of the Cello Factory, surrounded by Streather’s small but striking works in watercolour and ink, the sense of the possible is ever-present.
The paintings are spaced out across the gallery, mounted simply on white paper rather than framed. In this minimalist presentation, there are not works crammed in to fill every available wall, but rather the ones that have been chosen have been carefully placed and given their own space. Despite this sense of the deliberate in the exhibition overall, each painting presents a feeling of fluidity, like one might turn around and see an almost imperceptibly different painting to the one that was there moments previously. To my mind, these works are snapshots or embodiments of the varied states of a mind in the quiet of night. Distilling the ephemeral onto a small photograph-sized piece of paper, Streather presents internal moments captured, but not frozen. As Martinon writes, “these paintings are not just beautiful marks or stains on paper, they express, like all human beings, an allergy to rest, an aversion to dead-points and repetition.” One piece, with flecks of yellow catching the eye through its layers, feels as though something might happen at any moment as you look at it. Another, which I gravitated towards immediately and repeatedly, emits a sense of fleeting serenity in its minimalism. There is great variety in the paintings, and yet there is a strong undercurrent that draws them together.
Of course these readings are just the reactions these works evoked in me; everyone who I spoke to at the opening had experienced them slightly differently, which is the beauty of this exhibition. A conversation made up of exactly the same observations, and even the same words, will be very different depending on who it is with; similarly, these paintings, though they are static as any physical object, communicate something different to each pair of eyes that greets them.
In Night Paintings, Streather has created and brought together captivating manifestations of mutability which convey moments I would have thought too ephemeral to capture on paper.
Summertime is only 15 minutes long. Hardly long enough to get an insight into the nuances and changes in a relationship, you would think, but that is not the case. James Elliot’s layered script tells an intensely human story that reminds us how things can seem to turn on a word. Though, as we soon realise, it is never really just a word.
A live sound installation, Summertime is performed by Danielle Galligan and Finbar Doyle, whose lines are heard through headphones, though the performers are moving amongst the audience in the room. Initially the use of headphones felt like it might be a gimmick, but as the two characters voices come into your head in stereo, and the live performances blend with pre-recorded internal monologues, the depth of the idea becomes clear.
Stash is an artist who works in a bar, and Steve is her boyfriend. The story follows them as they drift apart, fighting but not fighting, each not sure how to communicate to the other. As the audience hears the unsaid that could solve the rift between the couple, we realise how painfully simply this not-quite-a-fight could have been avoided by simply talking openly.
Making clever use of sound and setting, Summertime is a beautiful reminder of the power of honesty and openness.
Something is not right at Little Monkey’s Daycare, and little Tommy, a four-and-a-half year old private investigator, is going to get to the bottom of it. This production from Newcastle University Theatre Society is a sort of backwards Bugsy Malone with the toddlers played by adults, to great comic effect. The writing and performances play to all of the classic tropes; as the characters chew on their candy cigarettes, nurse their Angel Delight hangovers and deal in curly straws, an hilarious twist on the classic gangster story is established. As Tommy and his sidekick Bobby investigate why their classmates are vanishing with a mystery illness, there are comic moments for both children and adults in the audience alike.
The production has an air of the rough and ready about it, but that often add to the humour in the piece rather than detracting from it. Similarly, the dubious, hammed-up New Yoihk accents provide many laughs, though lines are sometimes lost to them. Overall the performances are mixed, with some portraying the toddler gangsters adeptly, with sharp comic timing, and others over-acting theirs. The way in which the children are portrayed, combined with the references to old gangster films, raises the question of who the production is aimed at. Though it is billed as being suitable for all ages, and there are comic moments that would appeal to both adults and children, Big Trouble at Little Monkey’s Daycare seems more like a play about children for adults than a piece of theatre for children.
Big Trouble at Little Monkey’s Daycare is an unpolished but entertaining story of choc-ice crime and chickenpox.
The dissertation is done, the essays are written, and the post-university existential crisis has been neatly swept under the carpet. That can only mean one thing. Yes, Sitting on the Fourth Wall has awakened from its lengthy slumber, and I am returning to seeing a mildly ridiculous number of plays.
Where better to kick that into action, than at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe? I write this, sitting on my bed in the Network of Independent Critics flat, readying myself for a whirlwind week. So come and join me as I resurrect this blog with as many reviews of work for children and families (alongside a few grown-ups shows) as I can fit in for the next six days of Fringe madness.
Now, let’s see if I can remember what a review is.
You may have noticed that this blog has become quite quiet recently. As some of you might know, I’m finishing up university in the next couple of months, and as such I am wading through work on a dissertation and numerous other assignments. In order to give this work the attention it deserves, I will not be taking bookings to review work until after I have submitted my dissertation.
As much as I attempted to pretend that reviewing was definitely research for my dissertation, which is on the development of theatre criticism from print to online publication, it unfortunately doesn’t count. It kills me to turn down bookings for the fascinating work that is going on at the moment, but hopefully I’ll get something interesting written that I might share (a condensed version of) once I’m done.
Apologies to anyone whose press invites I have had to turn down. I look forward to returning to normal service once I have finished at the end of April!