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  • Chris O'Rourke

The Year That Was 2023

Hilda Fay and Rory Nolan in Juno and the Paycock, part of Druid O'Casey. Image Ros Kavanagh

T’is coming up on the turn of another year. Time for arguing the best Bond (Connery), most overrated movie (ET), and the merits and demerits of Love Island (lobotomy by television). All serious fun till it all gets serious. So in the spirit of a seasonal family argument, let’s celebrate and rattle some chains in tones half joking and just a little in earnest. Mindful, as always, of all those productions I never got to see, here are some reflections on the highlights, and lowlights, of 2023.

How To Fall Flat On Your Face, written and performed by Katie Honan. Image Colin Shanahan

Something of a late bloomer, 2023 took a while to get going as post COVID audiences never quite materialised. Due, depending on your viewpoint, to an excess of caution, poor access to the city, or the increased cost of a night out making theatre prohibitive. To too many classics or not enough classics. Too little quality new work or too much new work of little quality. Accusations all levelled at The Abbey at one point or other as artistic director Caitríona MacLaughlin and executive director Mark O’Brien strove for balance, all the while classily negotiating the historical elephant in the room. Even so, a growing sense of The National Theatre becoming The National Arts Centre increased amidst a plethora of cultural one night stands and other loved up get togethers offset by what many felt as theatrical small change. If The Abbey was once seen as a theatrical Lamborghini, to many it came to resemble a crapped out camper-van. Whose programme was dominated by a slurry of classics about as exciting as chewing wet popcorn.

Bryan Burroughs in The Boy Who Talked to Dogs. Image uncredited

Ibsen (Ghosts), Molière (Tartuffe) and Behan (Tom Creed’s queering the eye of the straight guy with an all female/non binary cast for The Quare Fellow) proved dead men do tell tales. Old, white, dead men, that is. Live male writers, of any creed, colour or sexual persuasion, not so much. Damien Dempsey’s Songs From The Holywell, a light version of his transformative Vicar Street concerts, might have kicked The Abbey’s year off with gusto, but it didn’t set the writing world alight despite Conor McPherson’s involvement. Nor did Ronan Fitzgibbon’s Our Tethered Kin, even as it delivered a wonderfully heightened theatricality echoed in other productions throughout the year. Including Moonfish’s stunning The Crow’s Way at The Peacock, Bryan Burroughs being exceptional in The Boy Who Talked To Dogs adapted by Amy Conroy (Dublin Theatre Festival), and Brú Theatre’s Not A Word (Galway International Arts Festival) featuring a superlative Raymond Keane, one of the best productions of 2023.

Raymond Keane in Not A Word by Brú Theatre. Image by Jess Harkin

New writing again proved cause for concern as women took the lions share of The Abbey’s new writing slots, along with the finances and exposure that comes with them. Another of Marina Carr’s Greek remixes Girl on an Altar, Nancy Harris’s superb send up of the rom com Somewhere Out There You, Martyna Majok’s heavy handled Ironbound, Deirdre Kinahan’s nostalgic sugar rush An Old Song, Half Forgotten, (in which Brian Murray was simply extraordinary), a remount of the brilliant Lie Low by Ciara Elizabeth Smyth (in which Michael Patrick was also extraordinary), and Louise Lowe’s gobsmackingly brilliant HAMMAM all emphasised where, and with whom, The Abbey’s focus on new writing lay. Luke Casserly, buried alive up to his neck in Distillation, provided a resonant image of the sleight of hand that conflated the past and present with patriarchy to facilitate the future as firmly feminine. Male writers, like the national theatre, looking less like having a future so much as a past. The sins of the fathers to be further visited on sons who look entirely excluded from next year’s all female season at The Abbey, The Gregory Project.

Fun Home: The Musical at The Gate Theatre. Image Ros Kavanagh

While 2023 saw a significant increase in the Arts Council coffers, increases in cost of living, renting, and the increased cost of making theatre meant it flattered to deceive. Especially as some saw their funding reduced, the acclaimed Verdant Productions lost theirs entirely, and Glass Mask Theatre, a vigorous promoter of new writing, including Deirdre Kinahan’s darling Tempesta, received absolutely nothing. If Agility Awards sprinkled Arts Council fairy dust far and wide, they never seem to provide enough for most recipients to actually fly. A neat segue into the mid range, Christmas panto that was Roddy Doyle’s Peter Pan at The Gate, a venue whose own coffers swelled nicely this year as artistic director Roisín McBrinn and executive director Colm O’Callaghan settled in after a bumpy start. Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom might not have set the stage alight, but it helped audiences keep faith following a dreadfully poor Piaf. A head nod at the classics courtesy of an excellent production of Arthur Miller’s The Price, followed by Alison Bechdel’s marvellous modern classic, Fun Home:The Musical signalled a change in form, the latter one of 2023’s best productions. If, like The Abbey, a light comedy took centre stage during Dublin Theatre Festival, Erica Murray’s hilarious The Loved Ones proved a game of two halves. The first, some of the best comedy writing in years. The second a dropped ball fumbling into an own goal. But, oh, that first half.

HOTHOUSE by MALAPROP. Image by Pato Cassinoni

2023 saw festivals proving a mixed bag. Several remounts in Dublin Theatre Festival, a change of artistic director for Dublin Fringe Festival (David Francis Moore taking the reins from the excellent Ruth McGowan) and a lacklustre Dublin Dance Festival meant the three big Dublin festivals never quite ignited, despite some astonishing works. Including Pan Pan’s excellent The Sudden and MALAPROPS ingenuously brilliant HOTHOUSE adding to the list of outstanding productions. Yet, for many, the best festivals seemed to be happening outside the capital. Wexford Festival Opera hit its usually high standards with its Women & War programme and Galway International Arts Festival again laid claim to being the one to beat as the best arts festival in Ireland. GIAF’s Artistic Director Paul Fahy, one of theatre's unsung heroes, again ensuring GIAF was subsumed in excellence. Bedbound, Not A Word, the remounted Volcano, (Luke Murphy's masterpiece also featuring in Dublin Theatre Festival) were all overshadowed by Druid O’Casey, unquestionably the theatrical event of the year. Garry Hynes deserving every directing plaudit for its scale and scope alone. In which Hilda Fay gave such riveting performances you might well believe O’Casey had written the roles with her towering talent in mind.

Danielle Galligan in Somewhere Out There You by Nancy Harris. Image by Ros Kavanagh.

Yet it all raised a question or two. Are festivals creating a festival going audience rather than a theatre going audience? Are they undermining venues? Or are they theatre’s salvation? One things for sure, throw in Cork Midsummer and Belfast International Arts Festival and it reinforces the belief that the best things often happen outside Dublin. Take Belfast, where The Lyric’s Artistic Director Jimmy Fay once again guided The Lyric from strength to strength. The Agreement, by all accounts, simply stunning. Fay, not just a man with a plan, but an artistic director with vision. From his days with Bedrock, through the inaugural Dublin Fringe, to the manner in which The Lyric is recognised as one of the most impressive venues in the country, Fay has continually proved a force for good in Irish theatre. Much too young, well, not quite old enough for a life time achievement award, Fay is long overdue recognition for his Outstanding Contribution to Irish Theatre.

The Loved Ones by Erica Murray. Image Ros Kavanagh

Not that Dublin didn’t have its gems. Quite a few actually, including the daring and excellent The Dan Daw Show. Liam Wilson Smyth’s Magic Play was also a treat, as was the irresistibly charming Shauna Carrick Wants A Dog. Colette Cullen’s darling rom com, When Rachel Met Fiona, proved that little bit special, and Decadent Theatre's excellent production of Martin McDonagah’s Hangmen was superb. Standout performances saw Stephen Jones in Falling To Earth - My Summer With Bowie, and Katie Honan in her self penned How To Fall Flat On Your Face topping the list with Hilda Fay. Caitríona Ní Mhurchú also giving a crowning performance as Callas in Terrence McNally’s Masterclass. As did a mesmerising Jarlath Tivnan in Eva O’Connors Horse Play. Music, too, delivered some dazzling moments including West Side Story and a welter of magnificent productions by Irish National Opera including Der Rosenkavalier, Cosi Fan Tutti, Faust and La Boheme. The latter directed to perfection by Orpha Phelan.

INO’s La bohème. Photo Ros Kavanagh

So, what about 2024? Whisperings of discontent paint a concerned picture, particularly regarding the quality of, and opportunities for new writing. The Abbey’s lopsided programme raising some serious questions. Seven plays by six women writers, two by The Abbey’s associate artist Marina Carr, celebrating 120 of the National Theatre leaves no room for other voices, alive or dead. Including Lady Gregory herself. Or men. Long overdue, some will say. Yet the idea underlying the national theatre is that it's the national everybodies theatre. Whilst not prejudging any of the work, and while the Gregory Project is sure to speak to men, or even about them, it doesn’t speak for them and it certainly doesn’t allow them to speak. Indeed, nothing has looked more exclusionary since 2016 when the vitally important #wakingthefeminist set out to establish gender balance in theatre. Which now looks more like power swapping than power sharing. Less a case of real structural change so much as rearranging the furniture.

The Sudden by Pan Pan. Image Ros Kavanagh

Then there's the overkill of one person, ready made, self portrait plays. Or should I say play, as everyone seems to be writing the same one. You know the one. Quirky, down on their luck character having a mid life, sexual, existential, add your own crisis, monologues about living their second best life. Stuck in a holding pattern having lost their way, their heart, or their marbles for having failed to nail the contest, the opportunity, or the prettiest he/her/they in town. Throw in some quirky local characters, with maybe an 80s dance floor anthem, culminating in that breakthrough Rocky moment, and lo and behold all’s well that ends well as they move past the past, reclaim their mojo, and become a better Netflix version of their self aware selves. Which is fine as far as it goes. There are even some terrific versions, including Eugene O’Brien’s Falling To Earth - My Summer With Bowie and Katie Honan’s brilliant How To Fall Flat On Your Face. Yet in both these cases writing, direction, design and performance were top draw. Leaving the plethora of similar works looking like knock off tribute bands, or 70’s rockabilly acts trying to get in on the craze. Why are so many conforming to telling the same story in the same way? Are they all attending the same creative writing course, dramaturg, workshop? If so, catch any Pat Kinevane show, including this year’s King, which, under Jim Culleton’s direction highlights a thousand more imaginative ways to present a one person performance than ticking textual and theatrical tick boxes.

Stephanie Dufresne and Jack Mullarkey in Tempesta. Image by Barry Cronin

Fail. Fail better.  So it goes. But what if we’re failing worse? What if we're failing new, independent theatre makers with a lack of venues and rehearsal spaces? Who claim that where theatre was once about risk, now it’s about risk avoidance. The impulse to create strangled by the need not to offend. Requiring practitioners be properly qualified, attend a workshop on attending workshops, build a collaborative network of people they barely know, sit through yet another development workshop, get their financial funding ducks all in a row and then, maybe, finally begin to create some funding meaningful theatre. If inspiration hasn’t been drained dry by bureaucracy, banality and dashed hopes. Victims of a top heavy process which favours established companies in which the strongest don’t necessarily survive so much as the game players and name sayers who express endless admiration via rictus tweets. What of those who don’t want theatre that doesn’t offend but rather, like O’Casey, causes riots? In which collaboration isn’t just a dressed up name for what is often collusion and conformity?

Shauna Carrick in Shauna Carrick Wants A Dog. Image by Earl Echivarre

Such were some of the whisperings throughout 2023. Which paint a picture of theatre having lots of concerns as it enters 2024. Many asking for new conversations to begin. What have you got to loose if, as many think, you’re already loosing? Except you're not. ANU’s HAMMAM, unequivocally 2023’s outstanding production, proved a timely reminder of a truth self evident. That Irish theatre can create exceptional work of the highest standards, with tech of such excellence there's just not enough space to highlight all its achievements this year. Add rising talents like Jamie O’Neill (HAMMAM and The Saviour), director Annabelle Comyn (Girl on an Altar), musical theatre star Shauna Carrick (Shauna Carrick Wants A Dog), and writers like Erica Murray (The Loved Ones) and there's much cause for hope, even if certain issues do need addressing.

Jamie O’Neill in HAMMAM. Image: Pat Redmond.

So here’s raising a glass to all those brave enough to have made theatre in 2023. We thank you. Well, most of you. And here’s wishing you all an amazing 2024. Finally, a parting glass in honour of the legendary Tom Kilroy who recently passed away, and to all those we lost this year. May 2024 bring only health, wealth and happiness. And some cracking productions.



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