Theatre 2016 — from stage to stage

And so the curtain falls on another lively year of Galwaytheatre in which both home-based and visiting companies provided much to savour and, as is the way of things, some misses as well as hits.

Druid gave us three shows; Waiting for Godot, Helen and Iand Beauty Queen of Leenane. Godot, directed by Garry Hynes, was my personal highlight of the Arts Festival’s theatre programme and one of the best productions of the whole year. Marty Rea as Estragon, and Aaron Monaghan as the perpetually perplexed Vladimir made a wonderful double act while Rory Nolan as the blustering Pozzo and Garret Lombard as the woebegone Lucky were also terrific.

Helen and I was an auspicious debut from gifted young Tuam playwright Meadhbh McHugh. Cathy Belton and Rebecca O’Mara excelled as Helen and Lynne, two middle-aged sisters re-uniting in the family home as their father is dying. As their verbal exchanges bristled with long-nursed resentments, further stirring the fractious pot were Lynne’s jocular husband Tony (Paul Hickey ) and Helen’s teenage daughter Evvy (Seána O’Hanlon ). Director Annabelle Comyn got great performances from all four actors as they wrung every inch of tension, suspense, emotion, and humour out of McHugh’s assured and absorbing script.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane saw Garry Hynes’ 20thanniversary revisiting of one of Druid’s most famous hits emphasise the play’s sadness over its comedy –though laughs there still were a-plenty. After her riveting Mommo in Druid’s 2014 Bailegangaire, Marie Mullen here assumed the matriarchal role in Martin McDonagh’s play. She brilliantly conveyed Mag’s sly gamut of tactics, ever poised in her rocking chair for a chance to gain advantage over daughter Maureen (Aisling O’Sullivan ), deploying passive/aggressive wheedling and cajoling with all the élan of a grandmaster if such things were Olympic sports. While it was a fine staging, to my own mind it didn’t quite match the brilliance level of the play’s feted first outing in 1996.

Moving onto Galway International Arts Festival, I had mixed feelings over its theatre shows. Enda Walsh’s Arlington(which he also directed ) had its admirers but for me it didn’t ‘connect’ to the same degree as previous plays like Ballyturk or Walworth Farce. Bleaker than those earlier works, Arlington was full of theatrical bravura, with great performances from Charlie Murphy and Hugh O’Connor plus a fierce dance passage from Oona Doherty. At times however it was hard to figure out just what was going on and the characters, amid its cannonade of sound and vision, seemed underdeveloped.

Song From Far Away from Toneelgroep Amsterdam, written by Simon Stephens and directed by Ivo Van Howe gave us Eelco Smits as a bereaved US-based financier back in Holland for his brother’s funeral. The play was a monologue, the fiction being that Smits character was composing letters to his dead sibling. While Stephens’ writing was poignant and perceptive, it felt more like reportage than drama and I couldn’t fathom why Smits needed to be starkers for half the performance!

Death at Intervals, adapted and directed by Kellie Hughes, had Olwen Fouere as Death in a red dress enacting a pas de deux with Raymond Scannell’s musician. Adapted from Jose Saramago’s novel, it played out the mutual attraction between Death and her human prey/admirer. The dialogue however was often flat, and the proceedings sombre and po-faced.

A lust for life drove Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour from the National Theatre of Scotland with its gang of randy teenage choirgirls on the skite in Edinburgh. Adapted by Lee Hall from Alan Warner’s novel, and directed by Vicky Featherstone, the play moved from raucous high-jinks to movingly show the girls’ personal vulnerabilities. It also had terrific harmony singing throughout

Invitation to a Journey, inspired by the story of Eileen Gray, was a collaboration between CoisCeim Dance, Fishamble Theatre Company, Crash Ensemble and GIAF. A wonderful fusion of dance, writing, acting, music and design it illuminated Gray’s eventful life and creative drive with verve and imagination.

One regretful aspect of this year’s GIAF theatre line-up was the absence of a show from Galway Youth Theatre/Galway Community Theatre. Over the past few years the Andrew Flynn-directed summer shows from this combined talent pool have consistently been among the best shows in the festival fortnight. Budgetary constraints stymied a 2016 production but it is to be hoped we can look forward to a show next year.

That said, 2016 was far from a write-off for GYT director Andrew Flynn who further consolidated the burgeoning national profile of his Decadent Theatre Company with solid, ticket-shifting, well-reviewed and touring productions of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, Conor McPherson’sThe Weir and Pat McCabe’s The Dead School

Outside of the Arts Festival, the most high-profile visiting show was the Abbey’s new staging of The Plough and the Stars. Directed by Sean Holmes, it visually spanned 1916 and the present; highlighting how the poverty of O’Casey’s Dublin has become a vivid presence in today’s capital.

This year’s Galway Theatre Festival spanned nine days and featured over thirty productions, many crossing stylistic boundaries. Mmm Theatre’s My Poet Dark and Slender, based on a story by Padraic O’Conaire, melded words, choreography, music (scored by Aindrias de Staic ), masks and lighting to great effect. John Rogers’ P.I.S.C.E.S. was a science-fiction show about alien contact which happened simultaneously onstage and online, its content varying from night to night depending on audience interaction and social media. Guerilla Aerial drew on dance, acrobatics, music and improv in Alice M, their exploration of 19th century playwright and activist, Alice Milligan. Sonar Theatre’s Ghosts, directed by Martin Kenny, drew its inspiration from Dante’s Divine Comedy and featured a cast of nine female performers. Fluid movement, dynamic combinations of figures, atmospheric music and lighting all combined in an absorbing production that whet one’s appetite for further work from this company.

Other local companies that excelled over the year were Fregoli with a revival of Jarlath Tivnan’s terrific Pleasure Ground and Maria Tivnan’s Mary Mary Mary, as well as a solid staging of US writer’s Stephen Belber’s Tape. Branar gave us the imaginative, beguiling 1916 drama Maloney’s Dream and Fíbín had Philip Doherty’s zesty staging of the old Irish saga Toraiocht.

One of the most enjoyable shows of 2016 was Justin McCarthy and Diarmuid de Faoite’s rollicking musical version of Playboy of the Western World. McCarthy re-minted the familiar Synge as irresistible songs, compellingly delivered by a fantastic Galway ensemble including Grace Kiely as Pegeen, Eoghan Burke/Fia Rua as a charismatic Christy and Helen Gregg as a superbly sassy Widow Quinn.

Not a bad ould year all in all!

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