In Dublin’s fair city, as I arrive for the 2013 Dublin Theatre Festival, the people are voting in a referendum that in many ways says it all about the current state of Ireland, post-boom, post-crash, post-Celtic-tiger.
The government is proposing to abolish the Seanad, the second chamber of the Irish parliament, on the grounds that the abolition will save more than 20 million euros a year, in tough financial times. The people, though, are telling the government to get lost, on the grounds that 20 million euros is a small price to pay for a chamber that might at least put a brake on the nation’s unloved class of professional politicians, from time to time.
Ireland in 2013, in other words, is short of money, a little short-tempered, and definitely out of love with its own political establishment; and the Dublin Theatre Festival – founded in 1957, Europe’s oldest dedicated theatre festival – is bound to reflect that mood. Working these days with a total budget of around 2 million euros – little more than half of the festival’s turnover in the heady years before the crash – the Dublin Festival in 2013 offers three main strands of work, ranging from large-scale classic revivals to a wide range of new Irish work, and small-scale international visiting productions.
So David Greig’s play The Events – a study of the aftermath of a mass shooting, seen at the Traverse in August, and featuring a different Dublin choir evey night – is one of the higher-profile international works on show, as is Camille O’Sullivan’s gorgeous solo version of The Rape Of Lucrece, first seen in last year’s Edinburgh International Festival. And the other two international shows on view, in the festival’s middle weekend, are powerful, small-scale studio productions, one anatomising the minds of the theatre censors in Portugal under the Salazar dictatorship of the 1960s, the other gently exploring, through text and a unique vocabulary of movement, tensions around life and death, war and peace, language and family, in contemporary Japan.
If the Dublin Festival was once 75 per cent international, though, today the balance leans slightly towards Irish work, ranging from a huge and exuberant new Gate Theatre production of Brecht’s Threepeny Opera, and a majestically well-written new Frank McGuinness play at the Abbey Theatre about a famous writer’s decline into dementia, to tiny masterpieces like Olwen Fouere’s electrifying solo show riverrun, a magnificent 70-minute avalanche of voice, movement and sound based on the final sequence of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.
And in the year when the Dublin Festival is partly sponsored by The Gathering, Ireland’s post-crash effort to reassert itself as a meeting-place for friends of Ireland across the world, there is also a steady buzz of debate and development work just beneath the surface, as theatre people from across the world gather in conference to watch a new generation of Irish work in development. If these are not easy times for Irish theatre, in other words, it’s clear that a theatre culture once famous mainly for producing great playwrights is emerging from a period of traumatic change with a much wider theatre vocabulary at its disposal, from dance and movement to sound and light, as well as text; and that a huge amount of work is taking place at the “seed-corn” level.
“I think the Irish theatre scene is more diverse than it’s ever been,” says the festival’s director, Willie White, himself once director of the city’s experimental Project Arts Centre, “and that’s a very healthy development. This is not Scotland,” he adds. “We don’t have a Traverse Theatre, or a Scottish Playwrights’ Studio, and we don’t yet have a similar group of young emerging playwrights. Yet between ourselves, and the Dublin Fringe which takes place every September, and all the theatre companies involved, we’re working hard to create a system, an ecology, that supports theatre artists all year round; and makes sure that whatever direction it takes, the next generation in Irish theatre can make itself heard.”