Is it possible that Dublin as a capital is so vibrant that its theater can barely keep pace? That’s one immediate response to a long weekend spent immersed in the Dublin Theater Festival, during which time few shows began to match the energy more apparent than ever in the city itself.
That sense of occasion was no doubt enhanced during the week in which Ireland – in the person of Seamus Heaney – won yet another Nobel Prize for literature. But whether walking through Temple Bar, easily Europe’s closest approximation to New York’s SoHo, or listening to a chatty taxi driver’s tales of frequent Dublin visitor Julia Roberts, one could not help but remark that most of what was taking place outside the city’s theaters was of greater interest than the shows within. Or maybe it’s just that, increasingly, the best Irish theater gets exported to London and New York, meaning there’s little left to discover.
Whatever the reason, the greatest disappointment came from Dublin’s best-known theater, the Abbey, whose play “The Only True History of Lizzie Finn” was also the most eagerly awaited event of the fest’s 36th edition. The reason for the anticipation: the emergence as a major writer of 40-year-old Dubliner Sebastian Barry, whose Royal Court play “The Steward of Christendom” has afforded a great actor, Donal McCann, one of his best roles ever.
Written before “Steward” but premiered six months later, the play continues Barry’s ongoing exploration of drama as genealogical enquiry, this time focusing on his great-great-grandmother. Lizzie Finn is a music hall entertainer working the can-can circuit in 1890s England when she meets Robert Gibson, who, like Lizzie, hails from Kerry in Ireland. After a swift and underdramatized courtship, Robert whisks her home to Ireland, where Lizzie finds herself out of her element (and class) amid the pompous aristocrats – are stage aristocrats ever anything but? – who make up Robert’s social milieu.
It’s difficult to believe anyone would forsake a vocation they clearly enjoy without investigating rather more diligently the environs to which they are being moved. But that credibility lapse is the least of this enervating play’s problems. Far more damaging is the lack of any of the metaphoric resonance – or real poetry – that give “Steward” its charge. By play’s end, Barry seems to have written about Lizzie simply because she was there, as opposed to allowing her tale to deepen any consideration of homeland, marital affection or any of the other stories the play might have told.
Patrick Mason’s production, designed by his “Dancing at Lughnasa” colleague Joe Vanek, revels in the vignettes of life in the theater, only to lose its footing once Lizzie returns to Ireland. And while charismatic leads might enable the sentimental finish to fly, this production doesn’t have them: neither Lorcan Cranitch (Robert) nor Alison Deegan (Lizzie) persuades us why either would be swept away by the other, much less why their claims on an audience’s time are worth nearly three hours. (Deegan, it should be noted, is Barry’s wife; his mother, Joan O’Hara, also appears in the play – to marginally better results – playing Lizzie’s ever-so-crisp mother-in-law.)
Up the road at the Gate, crucial miscasting was similarly affecting a more demanding piece: “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” with a petulant William Oxborrow vocally and dramatically out of his league as Oscar Wilde’s doomed aesthete. The play itself proved amazingly timely, coinciding with a British telepic on ITV about the search for a gene that abolishes old age.
The adaptation by Gavin Kostick (“The Ash Fire”) took a more straightforward approach than Neil Bartlett’s canny, Chinese box-like deconstruction of the same piece last year at the Lyric Hammersmith in London. Presenting Dorian’s narcissistic decline as a near-monologue, Alan Stanford’s production was dominated by a huge, empty picture frame within which a dancer (Sinead O’Carroll as the “Reflection”) appeared at regular intervals to mime, and mirror, Dorian’s rot. Such embellishments were hardly necessary, but the main problem lay at the core. A different leading man – Jude Law, perhaps? – and all may yet be well.
Away from the main venues, the news on “the homegrown front was happier, even if my visit covered but a fraction of the 33 shows on offer in the two-week festival, Oct. 2-14, budgeted at £ 600,000 (about $1 million). By the end of the festival, 73,710 tickets had been sold for the various offerings, or 80.7% of capacity. And though Irish work was predominant – the Irish/non-Irish breakdown was 55%-45%, according to festival director Tony O Dalaigh, reversing the usual pattern of 60%-40% the other way – there was acclaim in t he local press for such visitors as Anne Bogart’s Marshall McLuhan-inspired “The Medium” and for France’s Footsbarn Travelling Theater’s “The Odyssey.” (Opening as of this writing: Cheek by Jowl’s “The Duchess of Malfi,” directed by Declan Donnellan, which reaches New York in December.)
A homecoming, of course, always makes news, and so it proved for Cork-born actress Fiona Shaw, who took time away from her two-play repertoire at London’s Royal National Theatre to bring to a disused garrison in Phoenix Park her performance of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” directed by Deborah Warner. At a length of 35 minutes, Shaw’s conspicuous tour de force won’t do anything to win over detractors of an actress who found a perfect vehicle for her swooping vocal theatrics in the 433 not-always-lucid lines of Eliot’s modernist poem.
The Andrews Lane Theater, a lively space located in the funkiest part of t he city, seemed to constitute a festival all its own. And while Barry McKinley’s hourlong “The Lithium Waltz” was a sub-Orton pastiche whose few laughs came at the end, writer-director John Crowley’s “Double Helix” at the same space confirmed his Bickerstaffe Theater Company as one of Ireland’s most fascinating. Like his previous show, “True Lines,” “Double Helix” juggled countries, characters and moods to arrive at what might best be described as an extended riff on “Six Degrees of Separation” whereby no gulf is too wide that it cannot be traversed, at least theatrically.
Eliciting crackerjack performances from a cast of five, Crowley is the younger brother of Tony-winning set designer Bob (“Carousel,” “Racing Demon”), but it seems unlikely he will need to be described as anyone’s relative for long.