• Chris O'Rourke

The Year That Was 2021



Kate Stanley Brennan in Conversations After Sex. Image Ste Murray


2021. It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. So say the philosophically inclined. Those in the arts, however, might be more inclined to describe it as a thundering fuck up of a year. If man plans and God laughs, 2021 saw Her doubled up in stitches. Compromises, cancellations, curfews, closures; heartaches came by the truckload all on account of the C word. That unwanted guest overstaying their unwelcome who doesn't look like leaving anytime soon. The galvanising "onward" starting to sound like "dear God, give us a break."

Derbhle Crotty in To the Lighthouse. Image Darragh Kane


As despondent artists and desperate box office reorganised the reorganising they'd just reorganised yesterday, a skill for processing refunds was in high demand in the absence of political leadership. The Government sinking to the occasion. Issuing restrictions showing about as much acumen as Ralph Wiggum’s homework. Resulting in costly pyrrhic victories, or worse, premature closures. No theatre after 8.00 pm! As someone who sees more shows than a spotlight, I never feel safer than when in a theatre, where conscientious standards of safety are second to none

Aidan Gillen in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. Image: Ros Kavanagh


2021 was another year when you were damned if you do and damned if you don't. Though most risked doing rather than never to have done it at all. It was also the year that saw a changing of the guard at The Abbey as Caitríona McLaughlin (Artistic Director) and Mark O'Brien (Executive Director) took over the reins. The affable O'Brien seen around town supporting more shows than a critic without a sex life. Or a naturally prolific critic who cares passionately about supporting the arts. As O'Brien clearly does. Along with McLaughlin, whose iGirl by Marina Carr saw her directing a mesmeric Olwen Fouéré at The Abbey in a standout production. Fouéré turning in a tour-de-force performance, one of three by women that had that extra something.

Olwen Fouéré in Marina Carr’s iGirl, directed by Caitríona McLaughlin. Image: Ros Kavanagh


2021 was a year for making painful decisions, made worse for being the year when it was so good being back enjoying live theatre. Indoors, in courtyards, in fields and ports, live brought with it a welcome decline in the online. Making for happy days for a few happy days. Even people you usually avoid in the foyer were a delight to see. If excitement sometimes flattered to deceive, making some shows feel better than they were, it spoke to the deep need for live theatre. Made under adverse, absurd and unstable conditions. So, mindful of all the performances I never got to attend, like Tom Kilroy's universally acclaimed adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull, presented by Druid, here are just some of the highlights of 2021. You might want to pull up a chair.

Junk Ensemble's The Misunderstanding of Myrrha. Image by Fionn McCann


2021 was a year when you couldn't throw a stone without hitting a woman giving an outstanding performance. Not that you should ever throw stones at women, or anyone for that matter. Niamh Cusack (Faith Healer), Clelia Murphy (Summerhill), Clare Barrett and Aoife Duffin (Medicine), Karen Ardrff and Denise McCormack (Rearing is Sparing), Bláithín Macgabhann and Maeve O'Mahony (Where Sat The Lovers), Marie Mullen (The Saviour), Rebecca O'Mara (All the Angels), Úna Kavanagh (The Book of Names); each were on top of their game. It was a good year, too, for playwright Marina Carr, her adaptation of To The Lighthouse (online) and her original work, iGirl, being both terrific, each with an outstanding female lead. Derbhle Crotty knocking it out of the park in To The Lighthouse. Who, alongside the aforementioned Fouéré, is deserving beatification into the canon of Irish theatrical legends. As may Kate Stanley Brennan, stunning in Mark O'Halloran's Conversations After Sex, the Best New Play of 2021, giving a brilliant and brave performance as a heartbroken, heartbreaking woman trying to reconnect through a series of hook ups. Brennan, Crotty and Fouéré jointly delivering the three Best Female Performances

Maeve O'Mahony in Where Sat The Lovers by Dylan Coburn Gray and MALAPROP. Image Ste Murray


Not that men proved slouches when it came to great performances, with three again being that cut above the rest. Aonghus Óg McAnally (Fight Night), Aaron Monaghan and Rory Nolan (Three Short Comedies), Brian Doherty (All the Angels), Matthew Malone (Once Before I Go), and Matthew Williamson, alongside Michael Glenn Murphy and the predominately male cast of ANU's The Book of Names (which also featured a divine Una Kavanagh) were all mesmerising, The Book of Names making for the Best Ensemble of 2021. Fionn Ó Loingsigh (Conversations After Sex) was gob-smackingly good playing multiple roles. Scott Graham (Stronger), Mikel Murfi (In Middletown) and Rex Ryan (Summerhill) were also on fire. Aidan Gillen in Faith Healer, similarly so, giving a wonderfully understated performance when it could have been tempting to go big. Similarly, an affecting Stephen Rea in The Visiting Hour (online). Joining Gillen and Rea in a trinity of Best Male Performances was Domhnall Gleeson in Medicine, delivering an absorbing performance as a man trapped in a hospital room. Or worse, Enda Walsh's head

Domhnall Gleeson in Medicine by Enda Walsh. Photo by Jess Shurte


Dance and opera were also strong this year. The unassuming Fergus Shiel, looking like everyone’s favourite Dad, reversing the trend by guiding Irish National Opera to busier heights during COVID at the risk of over-extending. Twenty Shots of Opera (online) proved wonderful, and the storm that was Elektra lived up to the hype, as did The Lighthouse. In dance, Canadian outfit Kidd Pivot's amazing Revisor lit up Dublin Dance Festival's Summer Edition (with Compagnie Maguy Marin's May B doing likewise later in the year) but Junk Ensemble's The Misunderstanding of Myrrha warmed the winter instalment, one of two standout Dance Productions this year. Croí Glan's hugely affecting In Place being the other, featuring Linda Fearon who goes where few have gone before. John Scott's Dancer From The Dance Festival (online), with its short choreographic calling cards, proved to be a revelation. As did Sibéal Davitt in her superb Minseach, which was an utter joy.

Linda Fearon and Leighton Morrison in In Place. Image by Luca Truffarelli.


Online and onscreen proved to be a mix bag. If INO's Alice's Adventures Under Ground was the live spectacle we all needed but never got, featuring a towering Claudia Boyle, it was diluted significantly by its translation to the screen. Meanwhile, Liz Roche's Dēmos offered the best of both worlds, first online, and then live, translating well to the screen. As did Dancer from the Dance and 20 Shots of Opera. The Actor as Creator was another screen victory of sorts. Featuring outstanding short movies by Kate Gilmore, Una Kavanagh, and Leslie Conroy amongst others, most seeming impossible to locate now outside of festivals. Pan Pan's Mespil in the Dark, leaning more towards the cinematic than theatrical, was also hugely impressive, with a standout short featuring a brilliant Ned Dennehy.

Giselle Allen and Márie Flavin in Elektra. Image Ste Murray.


Directors Garry Hynes (Three Short Comedies), Caitríona McLaughlin (iGirl), Lynne Parker (All the Angels), Tom Creed (Conversations After Sex) and Annabelle Comyn (To The Lighthouse) all delivered terrific productions. As did ANU's Louise Lowe, who's The Book of Names was one of three productions of the year. When everyone went distant, Lowe brought us safely closer, unafraid to give no easy answer to the issues surrounding the Treaty, feeling like the middle instalment of Lord of The Rings with you jumping in then bailing out midstream. Claire O'Reilly mastering the round in Where Sat The Lovers by Dylan Coburn Gray and MALAPROP, sees her take Best Director 2021 which, along with Medicine by Enda Walsh, played with notions of theatricality and story telling. Both Medicine and Where Sat The Lovers earning the final two Best Production slots. Even if Technical Production of the Year was Druid's Three Short Comedies, which gave a masterclass in precision, alternating between three separate sets built between each performance.

Stephen Rea and Judith Roddy in The Visiting Hour by Frank McGuinness. Image Ros Kavanagh


If there are no guarantees what, if anything, to look out for in 2022, we can still ask who to look out for should conditions improve. Beginning with The Gate. A case of out with the new and in with the unknown, the Gate's outgoing Artistic Director, Selina Cartmell, leaves the post in March, her successor yet to be announced. Cartmell has her admirers and detractors, but no-one can deny she attempted some brave new things and never really caught a break. We wish her every success in whatever comes next. As we do her successor. Glass Mask Theatre, both company and venue, highlight Rex and Migle Ryan's triumph of hope over experience, finding its feet with Stephen Jones' hilarious thriller Summerhill. Yet the venue might benefit from experimenting with relaxed performances. Trying to cut a quiche when the actor's mid monologue still sounds like hammering a gong off the table. Still, this 'against all odds' company, fuelled by a love of theatre and supporting new works, surrounding itself with an ensemble of like-minded artists, has to be Best Company of 2021.

Rex Ryan and Clelia Murphy in Stephen Jones's Summerhill. Image uncredited


Juliette Crosbie might not be new to the scene, but strong performances in Rough Magic's musical Tonic and MALAPROP’s Where Sat The Lovers, ensure her original work, Loudmouth, currently in development, whets the anticipatory appetite. Crosbie, a singer and performer who lights up a stage like a classic chanteuse, casts an irresistible spell whether singing or performing. As does soprano Megan O'Neill, the delightful cherry on the delicious cake that was Rough Magic's All the Angels. The young opera singer showing huge promise on which she is already delivering. Similarly INO's new Resident Conductor, Elaine Kelly. For many, a conductor is little more than a human metronome. Yet the best, like Kelly, are directors. Sheet music their scripts, brought to life in live performance. Kelly weaving wild, unholy energies with The Lighthouse into something powerful and sacred. Choreographer Simone O'Toole's electrifying short The Becoming (Dancer from the Dance Festival) left you wanting more. Matthew Williamson, an ANU regular with a signature dance style, also proved jaw dropping to watch. Scott Graham (Stronger), and Evanne Kilgallon (Summerhill), two relative newbies, made strong impressions suggesting watch this space.

Matthew Williamson in ANU's The Book of Names. Photo credit Pablo Cassinoni


2021 was the year we were reminded live performance matters. Accompanying five year old Indie Costello to her first show, Louise Lowe's charming Mabel's Magnificent Flying Machine at The Gate, was to witness Eliot's 'visible reminder of Invisible light.' Indie's uninhibited joy making visible the invisible joy that fuels theatre, and why live performances are so important. Even if she did tell her stage teacher she'd been to a show with a theatre "cricket." In twenty years, Indie Costello is unlikely to remember what she did yesterday. But she will always remember the day she first saw an energetic Catríona Ennis as Mabel. And who knows where that might lead.

Indie Costello at the opening night of Mabel's Magical Flying Machine. Image by Mark Stedman.


If 2021 saw a lot more pain go around, there was also a lot more kindness and joy being shared. Squeals of delight in the foyer, or in the rehearsal room, even as some told heartbreaking tales of lost opportunities with dignified resignation. The world played hard this year. Art fought back, forced to do it the hard way. Thank God it did. There's a communion that takes place between artist and audience in live theatre which online approximates but never imitates. We need it more than ever.

Rory Nolan and Aaron Monaghan in A Pound on Demand: Three Short Comedies by Sean O'Casey. Image by Ste Murray.


Theatre people, which includes dance and opera, are a tribe. Talented. Generous. Egotistical and insecure. Seeing beyond the normal of seeing. Setting heartbeats pulsing and, sometimes, setting souls on fire. Yes, I'm waxing lyrical, and no, I haven't been drinking. And yes, there were shows in 2021 that could put you to sleep. Yet throughout 2021 I have been continuously moved by the bravery I've witnessed. Work made under impossible conditions in an atmosphere of frightening insecurity, taking hits with dignity then getting back up. Here's hoping 2022 sees a lot less whitewater rafting through the terror that's been COVID.


Till then, here's raising a glass in hope and thanks, wishing everyone a Happy, Prosperous and Creative New Year.


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