JOYCE MCMILLAN on the DUBLIN INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL for Scotsman magazine, 14.10.17.
IN THE MAIN auditorium of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, the audience is gathering around a space that seems to have shifted slightly on its axis. Where the stage usually sits, there are extra rows of seats facing towards us; and the stage itself has become an oval, chequered pub floor somewhere near the centre of the room, with a few audience members sitting on stage, at the pub tables and chairs.
This is the set for Graham McLaren’s production of Dermot Bolger’s stage adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, first produced at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in 2012, and now revived as the Abbey’s main contribution to the 2017 Dublin International Theatre Festival, this year celebrating its 60th birthday. And as McLaren’s first show created for the Abbey’s main stage since he and Neil Murray left the National Theatre of Scotland in 2016 to become joint artistic directors of Ireland’s revered national company, it sends out signals that are already becoming closely associated with the new regime; signals about inclusion, about a friendly, convivial and welcoming style of theatre rather than a formal one, and about an approach to the great canon of Irish writing which suggest that the great writers of the past will be honoured, in future, in a manner more robust and comradely, and less reverential.
The show itself is a vivid and sometimes slightly rambling affair, far less sombre and tightly-focussed than Andy Arnold’s 2012 production. If any two-hour stage version of Ulysses can only offer one or two facets of that huge, infinitely rich novel, then this one specialises in the bawdy, the rude, the humorous, and the straightforwardly emotional, wrapping Leopold Bloom’s day-long journey through early 20th century Dublin in layers of song, broad comedy, and puppetry, both poignant and satirical; and although Dublin’s response to the show has been genuinely mixed, this show sits firmly in the tradition of a nation that – unlike Scotland – naturally talks to itself through theatre, not least about about how bold, brilliant and taboo-busting this iconic Irish novel is, and always has been.
In that sense, it’s appropriate that the Abbey stage should be largely occupied, during this Dublin Festival, by the big brass bed on which Molly Bloom – perhaps the most gloriously and uninhibitedly sexual woman in all of literature – takes her ease and thinks her thoughts; for all around the Festival, this year, there are Irish companies arguing, dramatising, imagining and creating around the continuing struggle for sexual freedom. Out at the old Ringsend power station, Ireland’s female-led site-specific company Anu present a haunting, fragmented and powerfully inconclusive promenade show called The Sin Eaters, which arraigns the Irish state for the way in which it has historically pressurised women to take on, absorb, and endure the suffering caused by, the sins of the whole society.
The Corn Exchange’s Nora, at the Project Arts Centre, is an elegant and terrifying new version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House written by Belinda McKeown with Annie Ryan, and set in a near future when – with a nod to The Handmaid’s Tale – women are once again having to accept a world of patriarchal laws forbidding them from owning property, running businesses, or being legally equal with their husbands.
Two new shows from Landmark Productions ponder on the recurring story of women murdered by their jealous menfolk. Camille O’Sullivan acts and sings up a storm of emotion as the victim Marie in Conall Morrison’s beautiful Woyzeck In Winter, co-produced with the Galway Festival, which marries Buchner’s drama with music and words from Schubert’s Winterrreise; Sharon Carty sings the role of the murdered 21st century wife Amy in The Second Violinist, co-produced with Wide Open Opera, a strangely unsatisfying new opera-with-film by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh, partly set in the badlands of modern internet sex. And at the Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire, Sebastian Barry’s On Blueberry Hill offers an exquisite pair of entwined prison monologues about a cycle of violence that begins in the heart of a good man unable to accept his own homosexuality, and ends in a redemption as beautiful and moving as it is improbable.
What Dublin mainly offers this year, in other words, is a mighty feast of Irish theatre, with many of its greatest makers and creators in full flow, angry, engaged, passionate and lyrical. There is still international work to be seen in Dublin of course; some eight of the 20 shows for adult audiences on this year’s programme come from outside Ireland, and Scotland is the most prominent visiting country this year, with Lyceum shows The Suppliant Women and Wind Resistance opening and closing the Festival, and children’s show Poggle playing at the Arc.
Yet although White would like – after ten years of relative financial austerity, since the crash – to restore the Dublin Festival to the glory days when it could host huge main stage international productions by leading world directors, he is also conscious that the whole idea of internationalism in theatre is changing. “It really is a different atmosphere from the 1980’s or 1990’s,” says White. “So many of our companies – like Dead Centre, who are doing Hamnet this year, and who had such a huge international success with Lippy – now have very strong international links of their own, which have a huge impact on the aesthetics of their work.
“So in a sense, the whole idea of an international festival is evolving, along with everything else. Yes, I’d love to have the money to bring, say, a great big Ariane Mnouchkine show one day. For the moment, though, we’re working with what we have; and with most Festival shows either selling out or selling extremely well, we seem to be creating a celebration of theatre that works for our audience, and for the moment we’re in.”
The Dublin International Theatre Festival runs until tomorrow, 15 October, with Ulysses at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 28 October.