“That was us”: contemporary Irish theatre and performance

O'Gorman, Siobhán (2014) “That was us”: contemporary Irish theatre and performance. Modern Drama, 57 (4). pp. 551-553. ISSN 0026-7694


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The Dublin Theatre Festival (DTF) is an annual celebration of Irish and world theatre, usually taking place in the autumn. Since it was established in 1957, it has become one of Ireland’s most important cultural events. At the beginning of Willie White’s tenure as artistic director in 2011, DTF commissioned the essay collection that would become “That Was Us”: Contemporary Irish Theatre and Performance. Conscious of the variations in arts practice that followed Ireland’s economic downturn, White wanted to ensure that the changing character of Irish theatre would be documented and analysed. Editor Fintan Walsh, in his insightful introduction, situates contemporary Irish theatre practice connected to DTF in the climate of political, social, and economic upheaval in Ireland from 2007 to 2013 – the main timeframe of the book.

“That Was Us” is divided into five sections: (1) “Theatres of Testimony”; (2) “Auto/Biographical Performance”; (3) “Bodies out of Bounds”; (4) “Placing Performance”; and (5) “Touring Performances.” Each subdivision comprises two or three critical essays, followed by a practitioner’s reflections on her/his work. The book makes its most important intervention in its engagement with forms that “don’t depend upon written play texts or the production of illusion, but rather make performances about real people, places, and events” (5). Companies employing different combinations of co-created, improvised, physical, documentary, site-responsive, and participatory practices have recently risen to prominence in Ireland. The proliferation of practices that privilege performance making over pre-existing scripts (many of which have a longer – though relatively marginalized – history in Ireland) has made the issue of documenting performance all the more pressing.

Brokentalkers is one such path-breaking company whose work receives timely discussion in “That Was Us.” Under the artistic direction of Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan, Brokentalkers devises original performances with a range of collaborators, offering varying blends of music, song, dance, documentary theatre, and autobiographical performance. In doing so, the company tackles a range of challenging subjects, including the experience of grief shared by Cannon and his mother after a family tragedy, in Have I No Mouth (2012); abuse in Catholic care institutions, incorporating survivors’ testimonies, in The Blue Boy (2011); and the personal stories of older gay men, interviewed by singer/songwriter Seán Millar, in Silver Stars (2008). Charlotte McIvor’s rigorous analysis of Brokentalkers’ work appears in the first section of “That Was Us,” serving to hone and develop issues raised in Walsh’s introduction. She closely reads Have I No Mouth, The Blue Boy, and Silver Stars, to illuminate the relationship between “theatrical form and contemporary Irish social fragmentation” (37). Locating these important works within Carol Martin’s concept of the “theatre of the real,” McIvor powerfully concludes that such theatre “must constantly push at its own limits to reach further, to expand the collective that can be invited in and represented through Irish theatre, whether as performance collaborators, givers of testimony, or members of the audience” (55).

Brokentalkers reappears in the concluding chapters of the book. In the penultimate contribution, theatre critic Peter Crawley surveys a range of Irish works that have toured internationally, often with DTF as their point of departure. Crawley considers how various contextual factors and each production’s stylistic features might influence its international success. Discussing works by such companies as Rough Magic, Pan Pan, THEATREclub, and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, as well as Brokentalkers, Crawley raises questions about what defines a production as Irish, in the context of increasing cultural globalization. Brokentalkers’ co-director, Gary Keegan, meditates further on this issue in his thought-provoking reflection, which concludes the volume. Keegan maintains that, although Brokentalkers is “concerned with telling Irish stories,” various encounters with work from outside of Ireland have inspired the company “to tell these stories in a way that international audiences recognise” (232).

ANU Productions is another company that receives extended consideration in the volume. ANU has garnered national critical and scholarly acclaim in recent years for its immersive, site-specific work within the “Monto,” Dublin’s one-time red light district. Brian Singleton’s essay, contextualized with long international histories and recent theories of site-specific theatre, moves toward a strikingly personal record of how he...

Keywords:Theatre, performance, Devising, Contemporary Theatre-Making, Irish studies, bmjdoi
Subjects:W Creative Arts and Design > W460 Theatre Design
V Historical and Philosophical studies > V211 Irish History
W Creative Arts and Design > W430 Producing for Theatre
W Creative Arts and Design > W440 Theatre studies
W Creative Arts and Design > W420 Directing for Theatre
Divisions:College of Arts > School of Fine & Performing Arts > School of Fine & Performing Arts (Performing Arts)
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ID Code:24333
Deposited On:04 Oct 2016 11:00

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