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  • Chris ORourke

The Year That Was 2017

Something Old Something New

Off stage, events during 2017 were unquestionably focused on out with the old and in with the new, making it something of a transitional year in many respects. A year that saw co-directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray kick off their ambitious, if somewhat contentious, new programme at The Abbey Theatre on a wave of well wishes and high hopes. Meanwhile, Kris Nelson stepped down as director of the Dublin Fringe Festival to the surprise of many. It was also the year that saw Selina Cartmell, after what felt like a minor case of forever, finally take up responsibilities as incumbent artistic director at The Gate. A joy no doubt, but with a few hidden thorns, with Cartmell also inheriting allegations of historic harassment made against her predecessor, highlighting the need for everyone to examine how people go about making theatre.

With regards to productions in 2017, it was often a case of out with the new and in with the old. A year that saw both The Abbey and The Gate, as well as many other companies, focusing heavily on revivals, re-imaginings, or on touring re-runs of well established shows from previous years. Several of the new kids on the block also got in on this back to the future act, with some productions proving worthy of their revival. Others, however, not so much. Similarly with the broad range of original new works that were produced in 2017. With the caveat that not every show can be covered by even the most courageously committed critic, 2017 delivered some extraordinary highlights, a fair few lowlights, and more than its fair share of productions that landed somewhere uneasily in between. Here are just some of the year’s highlights.

If the Abbey Theatre embraced its huddled masses of artists and audience by way of several revivals of much loved shows by some of Irelands biggest companies, as well as re-imaginings of a number of movies by way of screen to stage adaptations, it was a plan that paid off handsomely. For The Abbey at least. Revivals of Corn Exchange’s delightful Dublin by Lamplight, and the brilliant They Called Her Vivaldi by Theatre Lovett, saw either serve as ample justification for McLaren and Murray’s new inclusive approach. National Theatre of Scotland’s co-production of Let The Right One In might have felt like theatre by algorithm and a re-imagining driven by the focus group, with its West End and Broadway bells and whistles, but it was damn addictive entertainment. As was the ebullient Jimmy’s Hall. Indeed, joy seemed to abound this year at the Abbey, with Dermot Bolger’s bawdy and unstoppable Ulysses proving to be a sheer delight. As was the Lyric Theatre Belfast and The Abbey’s co-production of Owen McCafferty’s excellent Fire Below (A War of Words). For many, the extraordinarily brilliant Hamnet was the Abbey’s show of the year, co-produced with Dead Centre. Yet perhaps The Abbey’s greatest highlights were off stage. Opening Jimmy’s Hall in Leitrim, and the clever touring of Roddy Doyle’s delightful Two Pints, saw the public engaged in new ways, never more so than courtesy of The Abbey’s ingeniously clever Free Previews. Each a shrewd, simple, and successfully marketing strategy that saw audiences accessing theatre who might otherwise have been unable to afford it, or unable to attend, resulting in positive word-of-mouth for The Abbey’s open armed welcome.

A prolonged transition between artistic directors meant that the first part of The Gate’s year was dominated by a lengthy re-run of greatest hits and other bits, with the Beckett, Friel, Pinter Festival being particularly impressive, as was the eternally charming Private Lives. Yet most impressive of all, and unquestionably the star in The Gate’s 2017 crown, indeed possibly every crown in 2017, was the hugely ambitious The Great Gatsby. A striking production that raised as many hopes as it did questions, The Great Gatsby left you feeling excited for what the future might bring for The Gate now Cartmell had finally got going.

Revivals and re-runs also featured prominently in dance in 2017, with Irish Modern Dance Theatre’s exquisite King Lear undertaking a tour, featuring the legendary Valda Setterfield. Liz Roche Company’s extraordinarily brilliant 12 Minute Dances also made a welcome, if brief return at The Civic Theatre, Tallaght. While Junk Ensemble’s powerful Soldier Still deservedly takes the accolades for best dance performance of the year, Emma Martin’s Girl Song was an unsurpassed joy and one of the year’s most memorable dance highlights.

With several new companies threading the revival route in 2017, Rise Production’s take on Christian O’Reilly’s The Good Father, and Unravel Productions take on Eugene O’Brien’s Eden were particularly memorable. More experienced companies also rowed in, making for a welcome return of Brokentalkers Have I No Mouth, Rough Magic’s The Train, Emmet Kirwin’s Dublin Oldschool, and Druids interpretation of Waiting for Godot. Yet for sheer, unadulterated entertainment, few came close to Landmark Productions re-run of the infectious and intoxicating Once. Collapsing Horse and Project Arts Centre’s The Water Orchard was also a delight, delivering big on belly laughs, as did MALAPROP’s Everything Not Saved. Yet if you like your theatre with a little more bite, ANU’s extraordinary Hentown, which played at The Tenement Museum, was unforgettably brilliant, though it might have slipped beneath the radar for some given its unconventional venue.

When it came to design in 2017, many of the aforementioned, most notably Alexander Wrights immersive The Great Gatsby at The Gate, and Eoin Boss’s Hentown for ANU, dealt in the superlative. As did Looseysmokes Raven Eyed, which was a superlatively dark delight. Amanda Coogan’s Talk Real Fine, Just Like A Lady with Deaf Theatre Ireland also delivered a design tour de force. Jamie Vartan’s work on Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera’s The Second Violinist was another memorable design highlight, with the production itself being a serious contender for production of the year.

While many shows focused on size or scale, some of the most memorable productions resulted from solo, semi-solo, or duet performances. Take Off Your Cornflakes by Pat Nolan and Rose Henderson, as part of Fishamble’s Show in a Bag, was deeply moving. As was THEATREclubs searing I’m Not Here, which saw Doireann Coady set the Project Arts Centre alight with a gut wrenching performance. Ronan Dempsey with his extraordinarily powerful The Words Are There did the same at Theatre Upstairs, reminding us that spectacle can still take place even in the smallest and most intimate of productions. Indeed, both Coady and Dempsey have to be serious contenders for performers of the year.

With many of the aforementioned still running, or returning in 2018, alongside some fascinating programming from many of the big venues and companies, it’s worth keeping an eye out if you missed them first time round. Other highlights to look out for in the coming year include Druid’s Sive which is also set to return, as are Olivier Award winners Pat Kinevane and Jim Culleton with an eagerly anticipated new installment to the Kinevane quintet. With new Dublin Fringe Festival Director Ruth McGowan set to deliver her first festival this year, there really is a lot to be excited about in 2018.

As for the so-called “newer” kids on the block, there's certainly a lot of talent to watch out for in the coming twelve months. Margaret McAuliffe, whose delightful The Humours of Bandon, still on tour, revealed her as a serious talent for the future is certainly one to watch. As is writer Lee Coffey, whose Murder of Crows makes a welcome return in 2018 at The Project Arts Centre. Director Jeda de Brí, yet another serious talent with a potentially huge future, restates her case with revivals of TRYST and All Honey returning in 2018. While there were many strong performances in 2017, Ashleigh Dorrell in The Grimm Tale of Cinderella, Carolyn Bracken in Eden, Meg Healy in Sucking Dublin, and Rachel O’Byrne in The Good Father all delivered something that extra bit special. As did Liam Heslin in The Good Father, Graeme Coughlan in The Collector, and Finbarr Doyle and Fionn Foley in The Grimm Tale of Cinderella. Designer Naomi Faughnan, on the evidence of Hero and the wickedly delightful Murder of Crows during their runs at Theatre Upstairs, looks certain to be one of the outstanding designers of the future. Indeed, Theatre Upstairs, whose supports, and challenges, for designers, directors, actors, and writers, have delivered some extraordinary and exhilarating productions, will no doubt continue to do so in 2018 and should be eagerly watched. As should Reality: Checks Productions. Even if they often try to run before they can walk, this young, production company have big plans for the future across all strands of theatre, looking ambitious and hungry enough to fulfill them.

So a Happy New Year to one and all. Thanks and congratulations to all those companies, venues, and individuals, who strove, and continue to strive, to deliver the best performances possible. May 2018 prove to be your greatest, and safest, year yet. I'm off now to toast your inevitable success.

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