Art: Captivated by Irish confidence

Forget Riverdance: the Dublin Theatre Festival points the way forward for Ireland's stage.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MY FIRST visit to the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1989 coincided with the 50th anniversary of Finnegans Wake. Wretchedly, I endured lifeless adaptations of Joyce's work, and have been unable to read him since. This year, conversely, the potency of what was on stage drove me back to the written word, reading the texts until deep into the next morning, and yielding yet more evidence that the current export drive of Irish productions is marked by scripts of both dramatic and literary value.

At the Gate Theatre, the festival's first big offering was Uncle Vanya, adapted by Brian Friel, the movie of whose Dancing at Lughnasa had just opened in Ireland. If undercurrents of passion are so often stilted and ironised in English adaptations, Friel's flowing, often amusing dialogue prompted an immediate realisation that these characters, submerged within their impractical lives in a Russian wood, are, from the outset, profoundly self-aware.

Friel has written absolutely to the strength - the sense of humanity - of the mainly Irish cast, led by Niall Buggy, whose blinking, soft Vanya is devoid of the worldliness needed to escape his circumstances. Yet his Vanya seems driven to tell the truth, whether to TP McKenna's silver-tongued, puffed-up Professor, or to the beautiful Elena (Susannah Harker), before whom he consistently abases himself. This peaks when, a beat after she has reeled away from an electric clinch with Astrov (John Kavanagh), Vanya enters carrying flowers for her which wilt in the carnal heat generated by the illicit pair. Vanya deposits them on the table like a courier delivering a parcel, and, in an equivocal way that encapsulates the production, elicits an appalled laugh as he dithers, head down, unable even to look at the object of his affection.

It is in Sonya's great closing speech that Friel's adaptation rings with particularly Irish resonance. Donna Dent's fine Sonya desperately tries to assure her pathetic uncle that if they suffer and endure in the sight of God, they will be peaceful, fully peaceful, finally peaceful. But even as she utters the words the audience realises that she doesn't believe in them, save in the ritual of their repetition. In Dublin, where orthodox belief ebbs from the Catholic church Sunday after Sunday, the production finally came home.

The script, incidentally, is a must-read for Chekhov scholars. Even more so is Marina Carr's By The Bog of Cats. Her last play, Portia Coughlan, portended well, but I was unprepared for the sheer talent of her writing in a great play which, after the first night, I reread as a great work of poetry. It is superbly set (by Monica Frawley) on the main stage at the Abbey Theatre, in a peat bog gouged out on four levels from the frozen earth, glowering under an ominous sky. The main resident of the bog is Hester Swane, a tinker who was abandoned as a child by her mother, whose return she awaits 30 years on, and is about to be abandoned again by the father of her little girl.

Carr's brilliant conceit is that at dawn the Ghost Fancier (an Irish Grim Reaper) arrives to take Hester to the underworld, but is 12 hours premature, having comically mistaken dawn for dusk. Hester therefore has until dusk to change the future and elude him.

She spends the day trying to win back her soulmate, Carthage Kilbride. She fights against his future father-in-law, Xavier Cassidy, and his atrocious mother (Tom Hickey and Pauline Flanagan). Part of the greatness of Patrick Mason's production is that this hilarious hellish in-law double act walks the same bog as Olwen Fouere's desolate Hester.

Fouere's performance is monumental, akin to Fiona Shaw's Electra, but with Spike Milligan's timing. And Carr has brilliantly written in the Irish Midland dialect, combining the wit and allusion of Seamus Heaney with the Geordie, guttural kick of Jimmy Nail. The Ghost Fancier hasn't a chance of swiping By the Bog of Cats when it ends its run, and with the likes of Sir Richard Eyre sitting in the first night audience, the word should soon carry across both sides of the Atlantic.

Still to come in the festival is a more probable international transfer, Jim Nolan's The Salvage Shop, starring one of the great stalwarts of Irish theatre, Niall Toibin, who must now bear the cross "from Ballykissangel"; and, in the Abbey's small stage, The Peacock, Michael Harding's Amazing Grace, an uncompromising meditation on how the communities in the north can bury their hatchets.

Even Dubliners are weary of the new perception of them not as leprechauns but as Riverdancers. Yet the key to both those successes, unthinkable in 1989, is the new, boundless confidence of Dublin theatres.