Dublin fests short on new work but tied up in ‘Knots’

Critic's Notebook

DUBLIN — You know it’s been a strange year for theater festivals in Ireland’s capital when the least notable thing about them was new Irish plays.

But a combination of circumstances — new directors of both the Dublin Theater Festival and Fringe Festival, an ongoing crisis at the Abbey Theater, the Gate Theater’s celebration of the works of Nobel laureate Harold Pinter — all meant new Irish scripts were never going to be front and center this year.

Another X factor was quality control: The festivals’ most hotly anticipated productions — Michael Keegan-Dolan’s “The Story of the Bull” and “Adrenalin,” from Semper Fi (Ireland)– were massive misfires, both undermined by weak scripts.

The Fringe’s “Knots,” however, was the outstanding production of both festivals. CoisCeim Dance Theater’s boldest experiment to date, it combines topnotch contemporary choreography with spoken text excerpted from the titular work by maverick Scottish psychoanalyst R.D. Laing.

Choreographed by Liam Steel, “Knots” used the convoluted linguistic structure of Laing’s writing to suggest the intense emotional and psychological entanglements that lie underneath romantic relationships. Six performers revealed equal skill as dancers and actors while playing various individuals seeking love and sex, coming together as couples, but never really escaping isolation.

Another quirky Fringe success was “El Conquistador!” a solo show inspired by Colombian telenovelas, in which a Bogota doorman’s attempts to cope with demanding residents becomes the stuff of soap opera. Produced by Lucidity Suitcase Intl., the show will play New York Theater Workshop in March.

Business at both fests was strong, with the Fringe (Sept. 12-Oct. 2) reporting a 52% increase in box office from last year, and a E41,000 ($49,000) B.O. take for the hip-hop dance-theater show “Rumble” alone. After a record year in 2004, attendance at the Dublin Theater fest (Sept. 30-Oct. 15) continues to rise steadily, with a 7.5% increase in box office and attendance of 35,000-plus.

Presumably because of recent financial and managerial problems, the Abbey did not produce mainstage work during the Dublin fest, but rather hosted two international shows: the Tricycle Theater’s “Bloody Sunday: Scenes From the Saville Inquiry,” and Edward Hall’s beautiful but emotionally remote all-male staging of “The Winter’s Tale.”

In the smaller Peacock Theater, the Abbey and Lyric Theater (Belfast) teamed to co-produce “Hamlet,” featuring a predominantly Northern Irish creative team. Very high-concept production re-imagined Hamlet as an angry contemporary artist, patrolling the stage with his camcorder and turning the tables on a society that has him under constant surveillance.

Leading man Patrick O’Kane’s extraordinary intensity and skill with text, and a well-conceived design by John Comiskey made this aspect of the production highly successful, but director Conall Morrison’s reading of the play failed to make sense of the script’s larger political themes.

Co-produced by Fabulous Beast Dance Theater, the Dublin fest and BITE: ’07, “The Story of the Bull” used Celtic myth as the jumping-off point for a critique of the greed and amorality of contemporary Ireland. Staged on an expanse of dirt and peopled with a sexy multinational cast, the show looked great, but Keegan-Dolan’s script was crude and overlong. Equally irony-challenged was crime caper gone wrong, “Adrenalin”; Paul Walker’s script and Karl Shiels’ direction never quite communicated whether they were celebrating or sending up Tarantino-esque violence.

The Gate’s celebration of Pinter’s 75th birthday — its fourth Pinter Festival in 11 years — received unexpected endorsement when Pinter’s Nobel Prize was announced midfestival.

Michael Caven’s production of “Old Times” and Robin Lefevre’s staging of “Betrayal” took respectful, straight-down-the-line approaches, with Nick Dunning’s blistering performance as the cuckolded husband Robert in “Betrayal” a standout. Minifest also included a weekend of readings featuring Michael Gambon, Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Penelope Wilton and the playwright himself, who called the celebration “one of the highest points of my life.”

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