Dublin Theatre Festival + Dublin Fringe Overview - Looking Ahead

As we leave festival season, Eoghan Funge thinks it's time to reflect and look at what has been put on, but also look ahead to what is next for arts communities across the nation.

Having had two very successful festivals in Dublin - The Fringe and Dublin Theatre Festival, I went out to audiences at various shows and asked them the question “what can we expect of Irish theatre now?” Below are responses - many requested to remain unnamed. 

While attending Dublin Fringe Festivals production of ‘Pig Brain’ I had a chance to talk with members of the audience. One woman, a student in Trinity College said: “I think it's really interesting to see how technology is being used more and more in theatre - it shows how much more it is a part of our life, and soon I think technology will become more and more of a focus.” Considering the audience size and age range of this production, it's unsurprising that the show went so well, the reflection of technology and influencers on the modern world seemed to have landed through dark humour. 

While at a production of ‘Sisters’ at the Mill Theatre one audience member, of slightly older age, said “It’s amazing to see new productions focus on more recent history. This period was the time that I was growing up, it's a time that marks huge change in Ireland. I feel it's easy for us to fall back to the rising and the famine - but in reality, this is our history.”  Sisters is a production based in 1970s Ireland, during a period of fighting for equal rights between women and men. It follows the lead character - Bernadette (Emma Stack) as she navigates life being an unmarried mother in Ireland, hiding her lack of a husband by claiming she's a widow. Her unapproving mother hides this truth from her husband, Bernadette’s Father, while Bernadette’s sisters are taught to drive for better. What follows is a production that brings in all corners of Dublin and Catholic Ireland - The ever looming influence and threat of the Catholic Church, the extremist liberal protestors coming from the North, bringing contraception across the borders to help fight for the further dissolution of the Irish Catholic Church and State. This show, as many attested, stands as a representation of what Irish theatre can be, experimental in style - as a musical it brought through several genres of music, drawing influence from classic 1970s disco to the slower tunes clearly inspired from Irish tradition. This is where Irish theatre can go. 

The Abbey Theatre brought back an Irish mainstay - Edna O’Brien (Country Girls) to present her newest work, Joyce's Women, to the stage. Joyce’s Women is a play that takes Joyce's life and puts it under the magnifying glass of the women in his life. It was met with massively mixed reviews. The Guardian gave the production 3 out of 5 stars, writing that “As a whole, the production falls short of its own admirably ambitious aims. In its parts, though, it offers breathtaking moments of vision and a bracing refusal to pin people to certainties.” 

The Irish Examiner, which also gave the production 3 out of 5 Stars, had similar critiques of the production, stating: “For much of the play, we are retreading the material of life that Joyce transmuted into art. To fix such details on stage, away from his imaginative rendering, is, perhaps unavoidably, to diminish them,”. In ways this begs the question as to where we are in the life-span of Irish Theatre. We are now at a stage where we are reimagining productions and concepts from another era. This is not the first, and certainly won't be the last time the Abbey Theatre stages a production with Joyce’s name, having run their production of Ulysses multiple times. What is this Irish obsession with reimagining? Why are we not reflecting, as with Tracy Ryan’s Sisters? 

The University Observer's own Art and Design Editor, Ellie Hanan Moran, spent some time at various Fringe and Theatre Festival shows and had this to say of Ireland's future in playwriting and staging: 

“I think as we move into a time of increased hostility towards queer people, where the alt-right seems to be gaining attention, Irish theatre will shift to recognise this.

In the past, a lot of Irish theatre pieces, especially in the Fringe Festival, received criticisms, accusing them of preaching to the converted. In the wake of a resounding Yes in the marriage equality referendum and increased acceptance and visibility of queer people, work presenting queer stories could enjoy being positive and celebratory. Public opinion was relatively accepting or at least tolerant. As such, work attempting to argue for the rights and safety of queer people felt less radical, challenging or controversial, especially for the kind of audiences the Fringe attracts. Now that queer people’s rights and safety are in significantly more danger, the Irish alt-right parroting the rhetoric we have seen lead to active removal of rights and reversal of progress in the UK and the US, and our rates of hate crimes increasing, I think pro-queer theatre will become notably more political and urgent in tone. Where queer theatre fighting against hatred and bigotry in the past was a march towards progress, it is faced now with the challenge of holding onto the progress already made, fighting against a violent reversal of all that has been worked and fought for. I think we can expect Irish theatre that reflects this fear and anger, the sense of urgency and importance in getting through to people, and many calls to action.”