Review: The Merthyr Stigmatist

An image of Carys, a sixteen year old schoolgirl played by Bethan MCLean, and Sian her teacher played by Bethan Mary James standing face to face in confrontation.

Photo by Mark Douet

Sherman Theatre (Online)

28/05/21

“Do you have any idea what that’s been like, Miss? To see my hands every Friday and think, I must exist.”

In Merthyr Tydfil, on a Friday afternoon, a teenager is in detention. But unlike the myriad other teenagers in Friday detention in other schools in other towns, Carys is in detention because she appears to have stigmata, the wounds of Christ. As Carys and Siân, her frustrated, cynical teacher, argue over Carys’ decision to share a video about her stigmata online, The Merthyr Stigmatist paints a picture of a community seeking a moment of divinity.

Lisa Parry’s deft two-hander, directed by Emma Callander, conjures a vivid sense of the town on stage, despite the only connections to the world outside the classroom being a laptop on a desk and the haunting strains of a local choir singing their support of Carys from the schoolyard. In Bethan-Mary James’ taut Siân, we see a woman who tried to escape and distance herself from a town that she felt stifled and trapped in, while Bethan McLean’s recalcitrant Carys presents a young woman who wants to find her freedom through making herself and her town visible and unforgettable. In less than an hour of tense, revealing dialogue, Parry poses pertinent questions about how towns like Merthyr Tydfil are treated by governments, and about the too-easy assumption that a young person has to leave their town to make something of themselves. Carys’ pride and frustration in her town challenges us to consider what changes can be made, and Siân’s experience describes the danger of ignoring that challenge.

Elin Steele’s stark set design, and Andy Pike’s lighting design combine to create moments of the sublime in the plain setting of a secondary school. As shafts of warm light stream through the windows onto the laptop where Carys’ video is garnering viral attention, it is as though they are falling through the stained glass of a church window, illuminating Merthyr’s young Messiah, “Carys Christ.”

Whether Carys’ stigmata are real or not, they deliver a vivid moment of possibility for her and her town. As she cries “I’ve just caused what might soon possibly be a global situation because you’ve stopped thinking a person like me is worth hearing,” McClean declares the crux of the play. Carys and her community don’t need another martyr like the town’s namesake, and they don’t need to escape, they need to be listened to and heard.

In its sharp balance of humour, pathos and cutting insight, The Merthyr Stigmatist crafts a striking and affecting celebration of the power and resilience of community.

The Merthyr Stigmatist is available to watch as a streamed performance from The Sherman Theatre until the 12th of June.

The Theatre of The Everyday

Originally published on http://www.takeyourseats.ie

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 chat across 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.

A Year of the Ghost Light

Originally published on http://www.takeyourseats.ie

To The Theatre,

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.”

Until opening night,

S

Review: Faith Healer

Photo by Ave Calvar on Unsplash

Old Vic In Camera: Playback

22/01/21

Part of the joy, the singularity, of theatre is its liveness and its sense of presence. In a theatre auditorium, nothing competes for your attention, everything about the space is designed to focus your attention on the performance and allow you to leave the distractions of the world outside behind. Streamed and broadcast theatre doesn’t have that luxury. However, despite competition from guinea pigs zooming around their pen and chowing down on some particularly crunchy lettuce, the strains of piano practice drifting through from the other room, and the general debris of day-to-day life around me, I found myself transported from my sitting room by the Old Vic In Camera: Playback broadcast of Faith Healer.

Opening with Michael Sheen, as the “Fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer,” reciting a resonant roll call of the dying villages of Wales and Scotland, this production broadcast from an empty auditorium arrests the audience’s attention and draws them into the mythology of Friel’s haunting play.

And mythology it is, not of the valiant, ancient sort, but a mythology-by-necessity, as each character tells a mercurial, shifting story of touring parish halls of Wales and Scotland, offering hope of cures to others, but finding hurt themselves. Each omits, adds and alters the story; whether in deliberate acts of misdirection or genuine remembering and misremembering, we are never sure. Through this triptych of recollections, from Francis, Grace and Teddy, we build a picture of unhappy relationships, painful loss, equally painful love, and a trio grappling with faith and hope.

Under Matthew Warchus’ direction, Sheen deftly portrays the restlessness of Francis Hardy, the shifts in mood from a buoyant and charming performer, to the haunted uncertainty of a could-be-con-man, and Indira Varma’s Grace is a shaken, smarting character who feels achingly adrift. However, it is David Threlfall who steals the show as Hardy’s Cockney manager Teddy. His mastery of both comic and tragic timing is sublime, and the story comes vividly to life with a new spark as Threlfall flits between humorous tales of previous acts, including a difficult but brilliant bagpipe-playing whippet, and heart breaking moments of loss and love.

The design, with beautiful lighting by Tim Lutkin and Sarah Brown, and Rob Howell’s set design comprised of a small selection of objects, each of which serves a clear dramatic use, is inventive and makes use of the unusual setting of the empty auditorium. By setting the play with the broadcast audience situated upstage, looking out to the vacant seats behind the performers, this does not pretend to be a normal theatre experience. It is a, for the most part successful, experiment in lockdown theatre. At times, the camera is too present, with shaky close ups making you aware that you are watching a filmed version of a play and sitting in an awkward space between theatre and film. However, to capture even a portion of the magic of live theatre and broadcast that to people in lockdown across the world is a laudable feat.

Though faith is a troubling entity in Friel’s play, this production is a reassuring exercise of faith in trying times. Seizing a window of opportunity between lockdowns, the Old Vic has produced a work that reminds us of the ‘breathless charm’ of theatre, and provides sustenance while stages are dark.

Casting the New Year

Originally published on takeyourseats.ie.

via Pixabay

I can’t remember any new year as eagerly anticipated as 2021. After the trials of 2020, we have all needed the sense of renewal, resolution and hope that comes with the turn of the year. Though we are back into a level five lockdown and Covid-19 cases have risen alarmingly in recent weeks, news of vaccine programmes getting underway has provided the much needed light at the end of the tunnel. They say that it is always darkest before the dawn and, finally, it is beginning to feel like dawn might be on its way.

With that in mind, rather than the usual list of New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve looked to some classic characters from the stage to guide us through the next few months. As you return to your home working set up, bake your fourteenth banana bread, mask up to deliver vaccinations, or lie on the couch ensconced in lockdown boredom, bring the following into 2021 with you:

The patience of…Vladimir and Estragon, in Waiting for Godot

In lockdown no-one expects the silent, obliging patience of a character like Patient Griselda. Rather let’s look to the real active, impatient patience of Beckett’s iconic characters, Vladimir and Estragon, as they wait for the elusive Godot. Known to each other as Didi and Gogo, they sing, joke, ponder, argue and insult each other for entertainment as they wait by the tree. They are strikingly human characters, that could easily be compared to many of us in lockdown.

Estragon: What’ll we do, what’ll we do!

Vladimir: There’s nothing we can do.

Estragon: But I can’t go on like this!

Vladimir: Would you like a radish?.”

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, Act 2

The imagination of… Maria, in The Sound of Music

I’m sure plenty of us caught the film version of the musical over the Christmas break – it is the perfect lazy lockdown afternoon film. In fact, at the time of The Cold War the BBC even included The Sound of Music in their programme for emergency broadcasting in the event of nuclear attack.  After all, is there anything better to curl up and watch in times of crisis than Maria and the Von Trapps making clothes from curtains, putting on yodelling puppet shows and singing about their favourite things? We all need a bit of Maria’s resourceful, cheerful imagination in lockdown.

“When the dog bites, when the bee stings

When I’m feeling sad,

I simply remember my favourite things

And then I don’t feel so bad.”

My Favourite Things, Oscar Hammerstein II & Richard Rodgers

The optimism of… Arthur Kipps, in Half a Sixpence

Originally played by Tommy Steele and recently revived by Charlie Stemp in a new stage version of Half a Sixpence, the character of Arthur Kipps is a force of irrepressible optimism. Despite the rollercoaster of rising and falling fortunes that Kipps finds himself on, he always finds the positive in any situation.

“Still, half a sixpence

Is better than a half a penny

Is better than a half a farthing

Is better than none.”

Half A Sixpence, David Heneker

The tenacity of…Jean Valjean, in Les Misérables

A former convict, who was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, Jean Valjean strives to lead a life devoted to the good of others, despite the burden of a ‘yellow passport’ which marks him as a criminal and of Javert’s repeated attempts to arrest him throughout the musical. His determination to remain kind and caring despite his challenges is something we should all remember.


“There lived a man whose name was Jean Valjean

He stole some bread to save his sister’s son.

For nineteen winters served his time

In sweat he washed away his crime.”

Valjean’s Confession, Claude Michel Schönberg & Herbert Kretzmer

The good humour of…Matilde, in The Clean House

Though she is working as a housekeeper Matilde is an aspiring comedian, determined to find the perfect joke. Humour is in her blood, her parents were both comedians, and even in the most difficult moments she finds life and comfort in humour.  Remember to find the light and laughter, especially in tough times.

“A good joke cleans your insides out. If I don’t laugh for a week, I feel dirty”

Sarah Ruhl, The Clean House, 1:10

The kindness of….Miss Honey, in Matilda

Ok yes, she began in a book, but considering the fact that Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s award-winning musical adaptation of this Roald Dahl classic has found its way onto many of the lists of the best productions of the 21st century, I think Miss Honey deserves a place in our list. Everyone’s favourite fictional teacher, Miss Honey is kind and caring to everyone, despite being brought up by the villainous Miss Trunchbull. In the midst of this pandemic, we should follow Miss Honey’s example and spread kindness wherever we can.

“And what sort of teacher would I be

If I let this little girl fall through the cracks I can see,

This little girl needs somebody strong

To fight by her side.”

This Little Girl, Tim Minchin

As Shakespeare said, all the world’s a stage, so bring the best of these characters along as you tread the boards and play your role in 2021. Happy New Year!

The Twelve Theatrical Days of Christmas

Originally published on http://www.takeyourseats.ie on 05/12/2020.

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler from Pexels

We’re hitting the home stretch on 2020. Lockdown restrictions have eased this week, Covid-19 vaccines are in the final stages of approval, Christmas is around the corner and 2021 holds hope for a better year than this one.

However, at this time of year I find myself missing live theatre all the more. Normally I would be enjoying Christmas treats like ballets, pantomimes and Christmas carol concerts, but with the restrictions still in place for live performance in Ireland, that isn’t the case this year. I miss the hush between the house lights dimming and the first note of the overture, the feeling of laughing or crying together with a hundred other people, interval chatting, rounds of applause, curtain calls, an audience spilling out of the theatre and into the crisp December darkness, to walk home under twinkling Christmas lights, discussing what they’ve just seen. I miss it all.

Our theatres can’t open their auditorium doors to us this December, but we can still capture some of the joy of the theatre this festive season. I can never remember the right words for the song The Twelve Days of Christmas, so here is my version, The Twelve Theatrical Days of Christmas. Just don’t try to sing it out loud, it won’t scan.

The Twelve Theatrical Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas my columnist said to me, try a panto on your TV (or laptop).

For many of us, the panto is a Christmas staple. Since they can’t take to the stage, many pantomimes are going online, from the Adult Pan-demic-to on takeyourseats.ie, to Nanny Nelly’s Panto Tellyfrom the Cork Opera House, and Once Upon a Pantofrom the Olympia, there is plenty of pantomime fun to be streamed straight to your sitting room. Oh yes there is!

On the second day of Christmas my columnist said to me, read a play you love.

As the weather gets colder, curl up by the fire in your favourite chair, grab yourself a cup of cocoa and dive into your favourite play on the page instead of the stage.

On the third day of Christmas my columnist said to me, listen to a play.

Many theatre-makers are turning to radio and podcasts to share their work while live performance isn’t possible. Whether it’s listening to an adaptation of a classic on BorrowBox with your local library subscription, or a family audio adventure with Tailtiu Theatre’s new podcast, B.U.D.S – An Intergalactic Audio Adventure,” released by Droichead Arts Centre.

On the fourth day of Christmas my columnist said to me, try something different.

Moving online, short form work has been booming; perfect for trying out something new. Test the theatrical waters with the Abbey Theatre’s latest instalment in their Dear Irelandseries, or dip a toe into dance with SpringMoves Festival’s programme of short dance films.

 On the fifth day of Christmas my columnist said to me, the theatre phone rings.

Check out the Abbey Theatre’s newly announced project, Abbey Calling,where audience members can sign up to receive a phone-call performance of a poem, monologue or song and a chat with the artist who performed it.

On the sixth day of Christmas my columnist said to me, enjoy some festive singing.

You might not get to go to a Christmas carol concert this year, or enjoy a sing-along at the Christmas party, but grab your household and belt out a tune or two – you’ll feel all the more festive for it.

On the seventh day of Christmas my columnist said to me, grab a pen and get writing.

Blustery December evenings are the perfect time to settle down in a quiet spot, pick up a pen and give your own writing a go. Who knows, perhaps this time next year I’ll be recommending your play!

On the eighth day of Christmas my columnist said to me, discover the next generation.

The Lir Academy are bringing their student productions online, and Trinity College Dublin’s drama department is streaming work from their Debut Festival.

On the ninth day of Christmas my columnist said to me, think theatrical in your gifting.

Whether it’s a subscription to The Stage and other publications,the National Theatre’s new streaming service, or a stack of play-texts.

On the tenth day of Christmas my columnist said to me, tune into some literary readings.

Dublin Book Festival is well underway with a smorgasbord of literary delights to choose from, Five Lamps Festival has online offerings from poets and playwrights, and Fane Onlinehas added more events in its A Night in With… series, including delectable evenings with Yotam Ottolenghi and Nadiya Hussain.

On the eleventh day of Christmas my columnist said to me, I forgot it was such a long song…

*takes a deep breath*

On the twelfth day of Christmas my columnist said to me, support your local venues!

It’s been a tough year. Spread some Christmas cheer and generosity by supporting your local venue in any way you can so that 2021 can see a joyful return to stages across the country.

Review – The University of Wonder and Imagination

Two men standing beside a flight case marked Cahoots NI, surrounded by frames and lighting bars. The man in the foreground holds a sign saying "The University of Wonder and Imagination."
Cahoots Artistic Director Paul McEneaney with actor Hugh W Brown launching the new Cahoots show University of Wonder & Imagination. Photo by Francine Montgomery.

“Wonder can always exist if we use our imagination” 

Wise words from Professor Bamberg (Sean Kearns), and with this production Cahoots NI prove that they have imagination in spades. The University of Wonder and Imagination is not streamed theatre, or theatre transferred to Zoom, it is a new, pandemic-born creature – Zoom Theatre. The company is not making theatre despite having to use Zoom, it is making theatre for Zoom. With innovation aplenty, The University of Wonder and Imagination transports its audience from their homes into a wonderland of treats, tricks and fun.

Entering the “telecomology” device, the audience is brought to visit a handful of the Professors in the warren of the University. After a visit to the Professor of Probability (Lata Sharma), the audience chooses what professors to visit and are off into on an interactive journey of wonder and imagination. From “mathemagic” with Professor Carmo, played by magician Caolan McBride, to songs about space with Professor Lola Hurst (Philippa O’Hara), and painting marvels in the art department with Professor Hoffman (Hugh W. Brown), there is something to delight everyone.

The entire cast appears as comfortable on Zoom as they would be on stage; interacting with the audience members, navigating green-screen sets, and deftly handling transitions between virtual spaces. Though the audience are on their sofas at home, the cast draws them fully into the world of the show, using every virtual trick and tool available to them.

Director Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney has taken the limitations of pandemic theatre and turned them into possibilities, creating an innovative, exciting and engaging work for young audiences. The University of Wonder and Imagination certainly lives up to its name.

The University of Wonder and Imagination runs at the Belfast International Arts Festival from Thursday 22 October to Sunday 25 October and Thursday 29 October – Sunday 1 November. It is recommended for ages 7+.

To Those Who Have the Power to Make a Difference

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“Theatre is the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

 

To Those Who Have the Power to Make a Difference,

I am writing this to add my voice to the many currently asking the Government to take notice and provide concrete support to the theatre sector in this incredibly difficult time.

Every morning lately, I look through The Stage newspaper and listen to the radio, and every morning I hear and read the too familiar refrain of redundancy, mothballing and closure announcements from venues and theatre companies across the UK and, this morning, from The Stage itself. The theatre sector has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Like other sectors, we closed our doors a few months ago, not knowing when or how we would reopen, but unlike other sectors, there is still little certainty for us on the horizon.

Our industry has been brought to its knees.

We need more than a vague roadmap. We need dates, even provisional ones. We need clear health guidance. We desperately need a commitment to additional investment from Government to get back on our feet.

And we do need to get back on our feet. The UK needs the theatre industry to get back on its feet because, as the great playwright Thornton Wilder once said “theatre is the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” As we come together to find our way out of this pandemic, we need the community that theatre creates, we need the release that theatre provides, and we need the joy that theatre brings.

I could write about Shakespeare and  the grand history of theatre that we are continuing, but instead I want you to think about the technician who is looking towards September and wondering if she will be able to buy school supplies, the theatre manager who is lying awake at night wondering how to break it to her colleagues that she has to make them redundant, the newly graduated writer who doesn’t know if the industry he trained to work in will survive this, the little girl who watched the National Theatre Live production of Twelfth Night and is dreaming of building an incredible revolving set like that for her National Theatre one day. Will that little girl have a National Theatre to build her dream in when she grows up?

We have put years of our lives into bringing the magic of theatre alive for our audiences, often against the odds. We have kept going because we care and we keep going because we care. But now we need the Government to care and to help. Please be a voice for our industry in Government. We need you to. Please push for and provide the support that the theatre sector urgently needs to survive.

With hope,

Saoirse Anton

 

Fight Back 2020 Festival – Week 2

For thoughts from the first week of Fight Back 2020 Festival, click here.

Fight+Back+2020+Festival+Poster

I’m used to theatre festivals meaning a few weeks of running around, subsisting on sandwiches slightly squashed in pockets as I clock up the kilometres between venues, and taking up residence in corner seats of theatre or near-the-theatre cafés imbibing coffee and probably crisps as I type up my reviews in the brief gaps between shows. It has felt a little strange to travel no further than the distance between the back garden where I lazed in the sun watching the first two of this week’s performances, to the couch in the sitting room where I watched the second two performances after the breeze outside threatened to steal the pages I was writing on. However, though Fight Back 2020 Festival is not a normal theatre festival, it has still brought the work of some of Ireland’s talented writers and performers to the fore.

The second week of the festival opened with a delightful monologue written by Ultan Pringle. Toffee, performed by Clelia Murphy, tells the story of a Aisling, who is going on a first date with a woman at the National Gallery Café. While she waits for her date to arrive, she tells the audience about her experience of going to university in her mid-40s, after a divorce, and raising her two grown up children. There are no major twists or surprises in the 15-minute monologue, but none are needed. Exactly the sort of heart-warming story that is called for in these trying times, Toffee is as sweet as its title.

Day six of the festival brings another love story, but not such a straightforward one. A hilarious and slightly bizarre lockdown story, Ali Hardiman’s Hug takes the form of a lockdown diary inspired by Matt Damon’s video diaries in The Martian. As she grumbles about her neighbours, reminisces about her childhood friend Jack, and reveals the difficulties in her family. Bringing an interesting twist to escapism, Clíodhna, played by Madi O’Carroll, will certainly make you laugh but will also make you pause and think.

Ella Skolimowski’s monologue Pandemic Panic, tells the story of a very different reaction to the Covid-19 lockdown. Aneta Dina Kedar plays a very stressed character who is struggling to manage her OCD while in lockdown. Though the monologue is funny in moments, it is also a tense watch which clearly conveys the fear and panic that the character is feeling.

The final day of Week 2 brought a comic story of a time machine in a wardrobe. Written by David Halpin and performed by Jed Murray, Backwards and Forwards takes the form of a FaceTime call, in which the main character is excitedly discussing the dilemma of whether to go backwards or forwards in time with his newly constructed wardrobe time machine in order to save the world. Though it is light-hearted and funny on the surface, Backwards and Forwards, like many of the other monologues this week, also conveys the frustration and uncertainty of a character in lockdown.

Fight Back 2020 Festival continues until 24th April.

Fight Back Festival and Theatre in Lockdown

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I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt the pang of absence lately upon hanging up a phone call, FaceTime or Zoom chat. Though these technologies help us to stay in touch, and bridge the gap between one isolated household and another, they also highlight the distance that is separating us. The slightly pixelated images of friends on your screen, constrained by the reach of their webcam, as you have an online “pub” session during lockdown serves to remind us of the things that we are missing. A chat over zoom can’t really replace the feeling of walking into the pub and seeing your mates sitting at a table in the corner, a packet of crisps torn open in the middle of the table for sharing, someone already mid-scéal as you sit down and join them.

It has been uplifting to see the ingenuity, community spirit and enthusiasm that has been displayed by the theatre sector from the outset of this lockdown. The theatres closed, but people stepped quickly into the breach and began generously sharing work online. Amid this wave of creative generosity though, I can’t help but feel a cold current of absence running through it. When we move theatre online, we lose a lot of what makes theatre what it is. Like the Zoom “pub” gatherings, though a great deal of care and talent is evident in them, these online theatrical offerings remind us of the things that we love about theatre that are missing.

As I watched the first week’s plays in The New Theatre and takeyourseats.ie’s Fight Back 2020 Festival, this feeling of absence was brought into focus. The four works told engaging stories, written and performed by talented artists but throughout them all, the lack of so many vital elements of live theatre were brought into focus on camera.

The Festival opened on Tuesday 7th April with An Unmade Bed, written by Elizabeth Moynihan and performed by Laoisa Sexton. The story was one of a woman struggling in a relationship with a man addicted to recreational drugs. The setting of the piece during the Covid-19 lockdown heightened the sense of isolation and entrapment that the woman was feeling as she warred with her love for her partner and the knowledge that his addiction was wearing them both down. In terms of pacing and tone, the work would, like most of the other pieces in the festival, have benefitted from a directorial eye. Overall, the fifteen-minute work felt more like an eloquent short film than a play, with a voice-over narrating beautiful close up shots of Sexton’s character observing the world from her window, and slow fades and between shots of her in a tangle of white sheets as she considers her relationship. Billed as a short film, this piece would be more satisfying, as the cinematic nature of the performance and editing meant that An Unmade Bed did not come across as the theatrical play it was described as.

The second day of the Festival brought a similarly meditative piece, with Tara Maria Lovett’s The One Tree, performed by Pat Nolan. This short play is the most theatrical of the week, with Nolan’s grounded storytelling style holding the audience’s attention as he speaks to someone just beyond the camera. Filmed from a single angle, with static images marking scene changes, the simplicity of this work is its strength. Lovett’s magic-realist script and Nolan’s performance bring to life a bittersweet story of love and loss in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the input of designers and directors, the space to elaborate on the story, and freed from the restrictions of a tightly focused camera, The One Tree has all of the ingredients for a successful one man play.

Day three presented a double bill of Shard, written by Stewart Roche and performed by Neill Flemming, and The Pleasureometer, written by Jack Harte and performed by Gerard Lee. These two contrasting pieces were filmed in a similarly straightforward manner as The One Tree, and both similarly felt like scratch pieces for successful one-handers. Shard tells an increasingly unsettling story of a commune on an island off the coast of Cork. The plan to set up the commune seems suspect from the outset, but as older and more powerful forces than they could ever have expected come into play, the characters gradually realise that they are in far out of their depth. The piece could be a longer one, with the suspense of the story held for longer, and as with An Unmade Bed, the piece would have benefitted from directorial input in the staging and filming of the play. However, the story is engaging and original, and Flemming delivers a strong performance as a member of the commune recounting the story from quarantine in the near after being rescued from the island. Finally, The Pleasureometer provides some comic relief to close the week. As he laments the closure of the pub for the lockdown, Lee’s character meditates on the community that is formed around the pub, with the different characters that he sees only in that setting – the Teacher, the Cynic, the Young Lad, and Himself. Himself, the classic chancer that every community has. Telling the story of one particular day in which Himself brings along a new invention to test on his fellow pub-goers, Harte brings some comic lightness to the lockdown situation, and provides a laugh to end the first week of the Festival on.

When I set out to review work online, I had no idea of the quandary I was setting up for myself, the position I would be putting myself in as a theatre critic reviewing not-quite-theatre. Though the skill of their writers and performers is evident, all four of these works, and many of the other works that are being produced online in lockdown, are a reminder of the collective effort that goes into creating a production – the designers, the technicians, the directors, the dramaturgs,  the writers and the performers. No man can be an island in theatre. While we enjoy and support the work that is filling the gap left by the closure of venues, and make no mistake I have been enjoying it, we must also fix our minds on the eventual return to the stage for we can’t forget that theatre is in its very essence a live, collective art form in which social-distancing is not an option.  As the writer Griselda Gambaro once wrote, “A theatre piece of itself, demands a confrontation with the audience. It demands that you connect with people; it demands a collective and social effort with the company and later with the audience.”