IT’S a glorious September Sunday afternoon in the old port of Dun Laoghaire; and in the street, crowds of Dubliners surge past, in search of a glimpse of the sea and a last ice-cream of summer, before the nights start drawing in.
Inside the Pavilion Theatre, though, the mood is both more subdued and more thoughtful, as the audience gathers for a matinee performance of a new play by Colin Murphy, presented by the acclaimed Irish company Fishamble. Delivered straight to the audience in 90 minutes without an interval, by five actors working script-in-hand, Bailed Out is a piece of semi-documentary drama – mainly verbatim, but with some imagined scenes – about the crisis that engulfed the Irish government in 2010, when the state, having promised to stand by its bankrupt banks, literally ran out of money.
The story could hardly be more topical, as it reflects on a proud and hard-won national sovereignty lost to the global financai markets and international institutions. And it’s reflected, to some extent, in the recent history of the Dublin Theatre Festival, Europe’s oldest single-art-form festival, which is set to celebrate its 60th birthday in 2017.
The festival’s director, Willie White, is pleased with the progress now being made by a festival that saw its overall budget collapse from €4million to €2million between 2008 and 2011. He is clear, though, about the fact that the pressures of the last decade have forced changes in the festival’s programming. The number of international shows has fallen – although this year’s programme includes the wonderful Belgian company STAN with their recent version of The Cherry Orchard, as well as work from Portugal, France, the UK, Denmark and the Natherlands; and the number of Irish productions included in the festival has risen from six a decade ago, to 18 this year.
Yet as I tour round the festival venues, there’s a sense of a festival now finding a strong equilibrium between small-scale and mainstage work, and between the need to attract and delight Dublin audiences, and to provide an international forum for theatre-makers. At the Abbey – where Neil Murray and Graham McLaren of the National Theatre of Scotland are set to take over as directors next year – there’s a warm, genteel buzz of excitement around Wayne Jordan’s stark and absorbing new modern-dress version of Oedipus, superbly performed by a 19-strong company of magnificent singer-actors. And in the tiny studio theatre at Smock Alley – as we gather to watch Pan Pan’s truly unnerving 85-minute family nightmare Newcastlewest – I spot several familiar theatre faces in the crowd, as the profession gathers to try to spot trends, and identify new talent.
According to Willie White, the Dublin Theatre Festival could never do as Edinburgh has just done, and try to create more excitement by making the Dublin Fringe – which currently takes place separately, earlier in September – run concurrently with he main festival; the competition for theatre space would simply be impossible, with both festivals presenting a large proportion of black-box studio work.
For those who are willing to respect its relatively stately rhythm, though, as it unfolds over two and a half weeks, the Dublin Festival offers a rich showcase of Irish and international work. Next week, the festival stages the premiere of Rough Magic’s The Train, another hugely topical show, about the social revolution that has swept Ireland since 1971, when contraception was still illegal in the Republic; next year, the festival is planning special shows to mark the centenary of the Easter 1916 Rising, both during the festival, and in Easter Week itself. And so long as the Dublin Theatre Festival remains so closely and creatively bound up with the drama of Ireland itself – its history, and its recent experience of change both exhilarating and traumatic – then it’s likely to remain an essential and fascinating feature of the international theatre landscape.