2019 was a troubled year. A year of questionable lowlights and some terrific highlights, yielding four contenders tying for Production of the Year. A year that began with The Abbey in hot water and ends with them right back in it. Operating a partnership model that, many argue, leaves little room for new work to be developed, or employment opportunities, in a time of Government sanctioned scarcity. Add to that a shrinkage in the number of venues, the rising costs of productions, and slim pickings when it comes to funding, and many found themselves fighting for survival. Yet some didn’t survive 2019. Which also saw one of our most generous stars leave us far too soon.
Advocating even more free love in 2019, The Abbey opened its arms and doors wide, trading more of its prestigious exclusivity in favour of a new found inclusivity. Making friends and enemies, and friends who became enemies, as it sought to establish mutually beneficial partnerships to accompany its own original endeavours. Feeling, at times, like a venue for hire, both The Abbey and The Peacock perfectly reflected the current theatrical zeitgeist, delivering self serious, woke tacklings of political and social issues, as well as some clap-along, singalong productions full of nostalgic sentimentality. Indeed, it wasn’t unusual for one to blur into the other, often by way of sparkly musical numbers reminiscent of Glee. From the cheesy karaoke that was Last Orders at The Dockside, to the equally cheesy recycle that was The Unmanageable Sisters, nostalgic heartstrings were regularly yanked with a discomforting ferocity, as if trying to compensate for what often wasn’t there. Even the charming Drama at Inish couldn’t resist the musical big finish. Suggesting the feel good musical is indeed the theatrical art form of the moment. If so, Bord Gáis Energy Theatre were delivering musicals far, far better, as the superb Rocky Horror Picture Show and the delightful Kinky Boots made all too plain.
Perhaps it's a genre worth exploring more within an Irish context, given that the sentimental often fared far better than the overtly social, as it often does in times of crisis. And because it often made for better productions. Social commentary by the usually impressive THEATREclub saw them take over The Abbey with disastrous results in It was easy (in the end). Tracy Ryan's admirably ambitious, if ultimately disappointing Dublin Will Show You How, and Lisa Tierney-Keogh's deeply flawed This Beautiful Village, saw productions whose woke messages were served up in self righteous dollops that overwhelmed their respective vehicles. Yet The Abbey also enjoyed some notable successes, including the challenging and controversial Pasolini’s Saló Redubbed by Dylan Tighe, leaving audiences divided, but not unmoved, with its commentary on the Irish State. Dylan Coburn Gray’s hugely impressive Citysong and Margaret Perry’s delightful Collapsible were both joys, and David Ireland’s Ulster American delivered something of a treat. As did the sublime A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, Collapsing Horse’s farewell as they chose to close their doors on their own terms.
If the crisis arising from Abbey co-productions suggests collaboration isn’t all its cracked up to be, an early collaboration with the now defunct Theatre Upstairs suggested great things had this relationship been able to flourish. The Ridleys, a double header featuring Tonight With Donnie Stixx and Dark Vanilla Jungle by Philip Ridley, saw a hugely impressive Rex Ryan and Katie Honan give us much to get excited about. Alas, Theatre Upstairs also closed its doors. A travesty compounded by the tragic loss of Karl Shiels at the age of 47 which has left a hole in the heart of Irish theatre. Shiels, along with this partner Laura Honan, have made an unquantifiable contribution to Irish theatre over the years, making them richly deserving of Producers of The Year. Possibly even of the decade. Indeed, their exciting collaboration showed there’s something to be had from The Abbey’s partnering with smaller organisations in developing new work. Further exemplified by the impressive In Our Veins by Lee Coffey, another of Theatre Upstairs' alumni.
Up the road, the Gate was entertaining several partners with mixed success, as well as enjoying some hugely productive alone time. Relationships with Druid on Nancy Harris’s good but not great, The Beacon, and with Dead Centre on the gimmicky Beckett’s Room, left something to be desired. If partnerships with Colm Tobin’s disappointing Pale Sister, and Paul Muldoon’s by all accounts impressive Incantata look more like one night stands than meaningful relationships, one relationships that did flourish was with ANU, whose near flawless Faultline, directed by Louise Lowe and co-created with Lynnette Moran, was undoubtedly one of the Productions of the Year. The Gate can also lay claim to a second Production of the Year with its own, irresistible take on David Eldridges’ The Beginning, featuring two superb performances from Marty Rea and Eileen Walsh. Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children delivered yet another strong production. Recycling last year’s The Snapper contributed to The Roddy Doyle Summer, with The Abbey resurrecting Doyle’s Two Pints. Yet the Gate ended the year on a high with A Christmas Carol, which saw Jack Thorne’s psychological reimagining of Dickens’s classic being dressed up nicely by director Selina Cartmell for some wonderful seasonal cheer.
Alongside the big two, many were struggling, or falling by the wayside, in an attempt to find affordable venues and deliver affordable productions. A state which ironically saw The Project Arts Centre spending a lot of time dark, despite a dearth in venues. No doubt due to rising running costs, which must then be passed on to companies thereby risking venues becoming unaffordable, especially to companies starting out. The New Theatre also suffered from similar concerns, seemingly closed now on Monday nights. Leaving many companies to find local solutions to a national problem, with venues like Draiocht, The Civic Theatre, The Axis, The Dolmen, and The Viking trying to respond to the demand in Dublin. If one benefit is more high quality productions making their way into local communities, several venues are simply unable to handle works of scale.
None of which stopped The Corps Ensemble from setting up The Bohemian Theatre above McGeough’s Pub, Phibsboro. If the venue suffers significant restrictions, it still houses an enterprising young company eager to find ways of making theatre. And often damn good theatre at that, with Gary Duggan’s A Christmas Matter, part of The Corps Ensemble’s Christmas Craicers, an instant seasonal classic. Resilient and persevering, despite no funding or support, The Corps Ensemble are emblematic of many others, new and old, trying to make a go of it. Making them worthy recipients of Company of The Year. Yet how long they, and others, can sustain or develop without support or funding is a worrying question.
Throughout 2019, there were several other highlights to be enjoyed. Including Rory Gleeson’s Canadian/Irish folktale, Blood in the Dirt, featuring a mesmerising performance by Lorcan Cranitch. Rough Magic’s Hecuba, adapted by Marina Carr, had some powerful moments, as did Clare Monnelly’s impressive minefield. Alison Spittle’s Starlet was a little slice of joy, featuring a crowning performance from Roxanna Nic Liam. As was Sauce by Ciara Elizabeth Smyth which made for comedy gold, with Smyth pairing superbly with a divine Camille Lucy Ross. Elizabeth Moynihan’s impressive Quicksand featured another award worthy performance by Rex Ryan garnering him Performer of the Year. Prime Cut Productions double bill Everyday I Wake Up Hopeful by John Patrick Higgins, and East Belfast Boy by Fintan Brady, were both hugely impressive and featured strong performances. As did Dublin Theatre Festival and Lyric Theatre, Belfast's The Playboy of the Western World with its shifting of focus and sexual energies. Yet it was Fishamble’s The Alternative by Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney, marrying slapstick stylings with some astute political interrogations, which deserves Best New Play of 2019, capturing the absurdity and instability of the year that was.
If theatre was generally having a hard time, under artistic director Fergus Shiels, Irish National Opera went from strength to strength, delivering a worthy Madama Butterfly and a devastatingly brilliant Cinderella/La Cenerentola, another candidate for Production of the Year. Without doubt, it's sumptuous set by Nicky Shaw had to be the Design of the Year, with some perfectly paced and composed direction earning Orpha Phelan Director of the Year. Meanwhile dance, yet again, produced several of the most exciting and innovative works of 2019. Beginning with Teaċ Daṁsa’s simply out of this world, MÁM, the final candidate for Production of the Year. Francis Footwork by David Bolger and CoisCéim Dance Theatre was an excellently executed delight. As were an impressive Losing Your Body by Rachel Ní Bhraonáin, and INIT The Warm Up Project by an equally impressive Lucia Kickham. John Scott’s delightful Divine Madness did much to suggest there’s much more to come from this intriguing choreographer.
Whatever the conditions as 2019 comes to an close, in one respect at least, that of rising talent, there's much to be optimistic about. Even if the heart sinks knowing talent needs to be nurtured, which is difficult in the current climate. 48 by Gemma Kane spoke to a hugely promising young artist well worth keeping an eye on. As is Sarah Jane Scott, whose delicious Appropriate was an absolute gem. Patchwork by Louis Desilis revealed another serious talent ready to go places. As is a mesmerising Siobhán Callaghan, seen in Emma Donohue's Kissing the Witch and Liam William's Travesty. A dazzling Breffni Holohan, and master of pacing, director Matthew Ralli, both deserve to enjoy terrific success in 2020 on the evidence of Holohan’s impeccable performance in Collapsible and Ralli’s superb handling of Jane McCarthy’s mostly impressive The Harvest, another writer to watch. As is the hugely talented writer/performer Irene Kelliher, whose critically acclaimed Gone Full Havisham is set to hit Dublin in the New Year following hugely successful runs in Cork and The Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
If 2019 gave much to be grateful for, hope was often thin on the ground. For like health care and homelessness, the problems facing the arts seem less a crisis to be dealt with so much as a crisis that's being managed. As any first year, social care student will tell you, if you don’t take care of the basics, you don’t get to the really good stuff like self expression. Which puts the arts in a double bind. Forcing under supported artists, venues, and companies to resort to survival strategies. Developing a mentality of poverty as they try hang on, investing everything in their careers and praying that something will change. Enduring terms like ‘vocation,’ or ‘enjoying your work,’ as if these were adequate compensation for working exhausting, unsociable hours, often for near nothing. Providing you can secure work in the first place. This is not a sustainable way to live. Or to create art. Living hand to mouth, unable to afford a place to rest your head or show your work, relying on the kindness of strangers while being repeatedly forced to get comfortable with discomfort.
Fail to invest and you invest in failure. A Government failing in its duty of care to its artists by failing to properly invest results in enforced failures that take many forms. From companies and venues forced into closing, to individual artists having to give up or move abroad because it’s no longer sustainable making work here. Already, there have been too many glorious failures in 2019, casting a worrying shadow over its exhilarating successes. There are hard conversations ahead if 2020, and the ensuing decade, are to lead to better things.
Much is missing here, for it’s impossible to see every production. Especially the many outstanding productions from companies, festivals, and venues outside of Dublin. Acknowledging the immense debt of gratitude owed to the companies, venues, creatives, and artists who produced work in 2019, both in Dublin and beyond, here’s wishing you every success in 2020. Guided into the new year, and beyond, by Karl Shiels’ immortal;