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  • Chris O'Rourke

The Year That Was 2022

Wake by THISISPOPBABY: Image Conor Horgan and Niall Sweeney.

As New Years Eve rounds the corner, the piled on pounds and a reflective whiskey help spark memories. 2022. Talk about staging a comeback. If 2022 were a movie, it was Rocky III. Suffering a merciless drubbing at the hands of Clubber Covid, 2022 saw theatre rise up off the floor swinging. COVID retreating from the ring like some 80s ninja. Changing tactics to strike from the shadows.

Gabriel Byrne in Walking With Ghosts directed by Lonny Price, presented by Landmark Productions and Lovano.

It was a tough year, on and off the stage. Leaving theatre as social or political commentary often being described as theatre as a pain in the hole. More than one artistic director admitting that their audience, having had enough of COVID, austerity, insane rents providing you could actually find somewhere to live, were actively asking to be entertained. Plays like Sonya Kelly’s brilliant The Last Return doing the clever thing, wrapping serious stuff in lashings of humour. Like in 2016, 2022 was dominated by shows marking centenaries. This time Irish Independence and its resulting Civil War, and the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Unlike 2016, women were very much to the forefront. #WakingThe Feminists, having kicked some doors in, ensured a surge in women writers, directors and performers in 2022. Sprouting rumours of a #MenWaking counter movement in certain circles. Which soon lost momentum due to an unfortunate typo.

Joanna O' Hare in Propaganda:A New Musical. Image by Chris Heaney

As Gabriel Byrne’s Walking With Ghosts and Gina Moxley’s The Patient Gloria were earning raves on Broadway, here, as venues reopened to full capacity, little seemed to have changed. In Dublin, Bewley’s Cafe Theatre continued to conquer lunchtime as Glass Mask Theatre found its dine-in stride. Meanwhile, The Project Arts Centre and The New Theatre still seemed vastly underused. At The Abbey, Executive Director Mark O’Brien and Artistic Director Caitríona McLaughlin steadied, if not a sinking ship then one taking on considerable volumes of water. If their predecessors shifted the ethos from Abbey Theatre to Abbey Arts Centre, with what was seen as a commensurate drop in quality, there was a sense of the new guard working within restrictive limitations all on account of those lingering money issues. Programming looking dominated by the traditional and safe (Translations, The Weir, A Whistle in the Dark, reviving last year’s Christmas show The Long Christmas Dinner, and a re-run of Solar Bones). Shows like An Octoroon and Abomination: A DUP Opera shaking things up a little.

Em Ormonde, Venetia Bowe, Clodagh O'Farrell and Manus Halligan in Lost Lear: Image uncredited

At The Gate Selina Cartmell eventually departed in some style, leaving behind an impressive legacy (Endgame, Constellations, Frankenstein:How To Make A Monster all in 2022) created on a budget a fraction of The Abbey’s. Many forgetting both venues don’t receive equal funding. New Artistic Director Róisín McBrinn and Executive Director Colm O’Callaghan finally getting started with Piaf, and with everyone wishing them every success. Testing the waters, Piaf played it safe, failing to excite about what could be expected. Touted words like 'music' and 'civic' sending art centre shivers down the spines of some. Here, as elsewhere, running costs, dice roll public transport and dwindling audience numbers saw some floating the idea of an American model: theatres going dark on Mondays and Tuesdays to save money and compress audiences. An approach, many Americans will tell you, that doesn’t always work.

Oliver Cromwell Is Really Very Sorry, Image by LUXXXER

Not that such issues seemed to matter as festivals celebrated like it was VE Day. The end of COVID restrictions seeing full houses, loud lobbies, and joyous applause. Suddenly it was tomorrow and the sun had indeed come out. Shows like the life-affirming Wake giving everyone permission to laugh, live and love again. THISISPOPBABY earning Company of the Year for 2022 given the joy, scale, and diversity of their work which perfectly captured the zeitgeist. Their mood infecting Dublin Theatre and Fringe Festivals, which were both terrific, even as many of the best productions were often premiering outside Dublin. Cork Midsomer and Galway International Arts Festival, Wexford Opera Festival, Kilkenny Arts Festival and Belfast International Arts Festival to name a few. The latter featuring Conor Mitchell’s stupendous Propaganda:A New Musical at The Lyric, Mitchell becoming a musical theatre force to be reckoned with. Yet while festivals were fun, there was a lull post season as audiences retreated. The year rounding off with the tragic death of the much loved Jo Egan sending the theatre world reeling. Recovery seemed to be tottering, the sunshine after the rain smothered by clouds. But sunshine there was, enough to suggest there might be brighter days ahead. The following just some of the best and brightest of 2022, ever mindful of all the productions I never got to see.

Rosa Bowden in Frigid. Image Joseph Murphy

When it comes to performance, women were pervasive and brilliant in 2022. Experienced artists like Denise Gough (Portia Coughlan), Sarah Morris (Constellations, A Whistle in the Dark) Anna Healy (Portia Coughlan, The Last Return) Janet Moran (Heaven), Lesley Conroy (The Twenty Club), Fiona Bell (The Last Return), Aoibhéann McCann (Three Monologues), Amelia Crowley (The Cavalcaders) and Jolly Abraham (in anything she turned her hand to) reminded everyone why they’re the standard bearers. Paving the way for the next generation who also gave a brilliant account of themselves. Venita Bowe in Lost Lear, and Genevieve Hulme Beaman in Joyce’s Women being simply sensational, turning in two of three outstanding performance by women this year. The third being a superlative Charlotte McCurry in Ciara Elizabeth Smyth’s Lie Low.

Genevieve Hulme Beaman inJoyce's Women by Edna O'Brien. Image: Ros Kavanagh

If men seemed to have a quieter time of it, quality was still very much in evidence. Brendan Coyle (The Weir), Marty Rea (The Weir), Andrew Bennett (Heaven), Stanley Townsend (Solar Bones), Tom Moran (Tom Moran is a Big Fat Filthy Liar), Gabriel Byrne (Walking With Ghosts), Robert Sheehan (Endgame), Michael James Ford (X'ntigone after Sophocles' Antigone) were each terrific. Yet Owen Roe in The Stewart of Christendom embodied the role as if he were born to play it. As did a blisteringly brilliant Peter Gowen in Country and Irish, both delivering standout performances. The third standout a magnificent Michael Glenn Murphy as Arthur Griffith in Staging The Treaty. Murphy the kind of actor you almost overlook because he makes everything look so effortless.

Owen Roe in The Steward of Christendom. Image by Agata Stoinska

Like many, I openly hold the following truths to be self evident. That ANU Productions is one of the most exciting companies bar none, and that Louise Lowe is a theatrical genius. Which is not to say either is bulletproof. But when they get it right, they are invigorating. Their thirteen-plus hours Staging The Treaty being a case in point, one of three outstanding productions. Like Druid Synge, its scale, scope and sheer ambition was monumental. Louise Lowe deserving Director of the Year for Staging The Treaty (script by Theo Dorgan compiled from original records) and The Stewart of Christendom. The award shared with Jim Culleton for Heaven which was inspired simplicity, and Caitríona McLaughlin for the impressive The Weir and Translations.

ANU Productions Staging The Treaty. Image Ros Kavanagh

As for the final two best productions, you could take your pick from Constellations (The Gate), An Octoroon (The Abbey), Accents (Emmet Kirwin), Wake (THISISPOPBABY), Propaganda:A New Musical (Lyric), The Last Return (Druid) and no one would likely complain. But recognising their spirit of innovation How to be a Dancer in Seventy-two Thousand Easy Lessons by Michael Keegan-Dolan has to be one of the final two, simply for being spellbindingly brilliant. The other, Oliver Cromwell is Really Very Sorry by Xnthony, a fantabulous, uplifting musical satire.

Blister by Síofra O Meara. Image by Donal Talbot

All of which are new works. New plays seeing many old hands reaffirming their reputation. Accents by Emmet Kirwin, Absent The Wrong by Dylan Coburn Gray, Bloody Yesterday by Deirdre Kinahan and Ciara Elizabeth Smith’s Lie Low were each impressive. Meanwhile, new and newish voices were also making themselves heard. Tom Moran with Tom Moran is a Big Fat Filthy Liar, The Twenty Club by Stuart Roche, Blister by Síofra O Meara, Rosa Bowden’s Frigid and Jennifer Laverty’s Standing In Lifts With Strangers each made impressive noises. But it was The Last Return by Sonya Kelly that got everyone's tongues wagging, being the Best New Play of 2022.

Niamh Swaleh in The Last Return by Sonya Kelly. Image by Ste Murray

Musically, Éadaoin O Donoghue and John O’Brien’s Morrígan was, by all accounts, an operatic delight. Irish National Opera facing some home grown competition, even as they turned out several stellar productions including William Tell, Tosca, and the vision that was Bajazet. Dance again offered some of the most visceral, intimate and immediate works, and often the most innovative. Party Scene (THISISPOPBABY), Yes and Yes by Liz Roche Company, and What We Hold by Jean Butler were each thrilling in their way. But Dance Production of the Year has to be CoisCéim’s multimedia, multi-sensory, dance theatre classic Go To Blazes, featuring the phenomenal Justine Cooper, who doesn’t put a foot, a finger, or even an eyebrow wrong. Across the board, tech was a whole other level in 2022, with lighting frequently standing out in several productions. But the outstanding team of Conan McIvor (video), Mary Tumelty (lighting), and Ian Vennard (sound) for the marvel that was Abomination: A DUP Opera and the miracle that was Propaganda:A New Musical, have to be Technical Team of the Year.

Justine Cooper and Jonathan Mitchell in Go To Blazes by David Bolger. Image Set Murray.

As 2022 packs its bags, its parting gift is several new artists to listen and look out for in 2023. Curiously, the list is not so much gender imbalanced as completely one sided. Whether that speaks to me or to the current state of affairs is for others to discuss. Whatever their findings, Mazana Ronaldson was stunning in 24/7 Bliss. Síofra O Meara (Blister), Rosa Bowden (Frigid) and Jennifer Laverty (Standing In Lifts With Strangers) each shone in roles they wrote and performed. Also shining was Eilish McLaughlin (Romeo and Juliet, The Cavalcaders), and Sinead Keegan (Bloody Yesterday), both promising great things to come. Looking like gender tokenism, Tom Moran signalled a major shift with the confessional Tom Moran is a Big Fat Filthy Liar, one of the best theatrical experiences of 2022, suggesting Moran is on his way to bigger things.

Brendan Coyle and Jolly Abraham in The Weir. Image Ros Kavanagh

While there was a lot to delight in 2022, it was a reminder that theatre making is not for the faint of heart, whatever your gender, race or ethnicity. Whether you’re young looking to find a foothold, or older and looking to keep going, its rewards are hard earned, requiring the tenacity of a three legged mountain goat attempting to climb Everest. With new spikes in COVID cases, 2023 might not deliver the Happy-Ever-After-COVID many hoped for. But there’s a very good chance the year will deliver a lot of fun. Good chance, too, that there’ll be some excellent productions, even if a few do prove to be a pain in the hole. So raising that whiskey, congratulations to all those deft exponents of the theatrical arts who made 2022 a memorable year. Here’s wishing all you wild and stout hearted souls every success in 2023. Slainte.


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