ONE OF the most acclaimed Irish plays of the last 20 years is Dublin By Lamplight, Corn Exchange’s exuberant and hilarious ‘alternative facts’ version of the founding of the Abbey Theatre.
Thirteen years after the play was first staged, it has now been revived and is coming to next month's Galway International Arts Festival as a headline attraction. With a cast of characters that includes fading stars, rebels, prostitutes, and romantics, the play abounds in anarchic theatrical shenanigans and glorious send-ups of Yeats, Wilde, O’Casey, the Fenians, and Joyce.
Ahead of its GIAF visit Dublin By Lamplight author Michael West spoke with me about the play and I began by asking if his initial impulse was to ‘have a dig’ at the Abbey? “It does look like a satire but it is also a love poem to the madness of setting up a theatre in the first place,” he replies. “It’s very much about a company of actors trying to make their own world and their own work. It was first performed during the centenary year of the Abbey and we were not unaware of that, and while others might think we were mocking them, for us it was as much about the greatness of making theatre in the first place.”
Dublin By Lamplight can be set alongside Denis Johnston’s The Old Lady Says No! and Stewart Parker’s Northern Star as a play that revels in making fun of Irish theatrical history, though West does not cite those as inspirations.
“We were working more off the amazing amount of material around the Abbey foundation event itself, all of that historical baggage was the primary source and then of course we started borrowing," says West. "The idea we had in a nutshell was that the foundation act was the National Theatre of Ireland told in the form of Ulysses; they both take place in a single day in 1904 and that seemed like a happy mixture of fantasy and fact.
"It gave us the creative licence that was one was an authentic historic period but had been done in fiction and the other was the foundation of the Abbey, but it is a myth-building exercise. It was conceived as a way of rewriting Irish history and in the hope of setting a path toward the future. They were both classical and fictional enterprises; that was the starting point. It is about the real great characters of the period who inspired us first.”
Amid its ebullient comedy, the play also hits darker notes. “It’s not just a satire about theatre, it is really a tragi-comedy,” West observes. “These people are passionate believers in what they are doing; they might be deluded to various degrees about their ability to pull it off or its significance for other people, or its meaning in the world of politics, but they are not cynical in any way. They are fighting for something they truly believe in. Even the most ridiculous figures in the Irish Literary Revival were sincere in their belief that this was an important enterprise. The story itself had to have a dark element to account for that, it was a struggle for independence and self-realisation and not everyone makes it.”
Earlier this year Corn Exchange presented its fantasia about the Abbey founding on the Abbey stage itself. How did West and the company enjoy that? “It was brilliant, it was a huge privilege and a buzz,” he enthuses. “One of the strange things we encountered in between the period of doing the play in 2004 and bringing it back is that we met people who said that they saw it in the original production in the Abbey; people do remember it as being in the Abbey and I’ve seen it written about as if it had been! It had somehow embedded itself there in people’s imagination and seemed like a good fit. So to finally do it there for real was good fun and the two new Abbey directors, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, are very excited about that idea.”
“It went down very well in the Abbey,” West continues. “The audiences really responded to the fun within the piece and the actors are so skilful, there are six actors playing 35 parts and they create this whole world that is really infectious and fun. It is first and foremost a love poem to theatre and the madness of telling stories in this form. I hope the audiences in Galway enjoy it; we’re very excited to be coming down with it.”
Dublin By Lamplight is a co-production by Corn Exchange and the Abbey Theatre. It runs at the Town Hall from July 25 to 30 at 8pm nightly, with 2.30pm matinees on July 27 and 29. For tickets seewww.giaf.ie and the festival box office, Galway Tourist Office, Forster Street (091 - 566577 ). #GIAF17